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At the head of the room, a thick door on old hinges groaned as a tired miser, yawning open to spill the shadow of a man across its threshold. Such a man stepped through, laden with a basket, blankets, and a bucket that swung near full with water. He approached the bed and its cargo and set all these things down in turn, and he held a careful breath as he hefted and removed a certain pail to a corner of the room. He returned bedside and stole the woman’s wet sheets, noticed again the hard-drawn map of war on the woman’s skin as he replaced the bedding with layers warm and dry.
“You are not so vast, absent the armor, Aesa,” the man murmured as he sunk a cloth into the bucket he’d brought. He carried the cloth to the woman’s tortured features, and with careful diligence, he cleansed her face, her neck.
Steady, slow breaths escaped her in turn as he worked about the bed. Her body leaned and lifted as best as she could to help along the process. Her gut wrenched with each attempt at aid and it was all she could do to contain the pitiful groans. Settled however, she began to relax into the refreshed nest, her eyes blearily blinking toward the roof as she recognized that this was perhaps real and he was truly next to her.
“The plates and padding do most of the heavy lifting; a frail waif makes for an appealing target afterall.” A toothy smile flickered toward him at that moment, exhausted but not unbroken. She twitched a bit as the cloth padded her marred visage, though she allowed her azure and crimson eyes a moment to rest on his features: clear and bold, unlike what she remembered. “Thank you.” Softly spoken, apologetic even.
“What man would command you to be rid of your vice, then be well of your own device?” The poet’s hands captured the woman’s face and cradled it still as he washed the thin skin just beneath the woman’s eyes. “There’s no sense in doing a thing alone when there’s one willing and well able.”
He clutched the cloth into a ragged ball and set it aside, then bent and plucked something from the basket he’d brought: a mug yet steaming. He held it aloft for the woman’s gaze. “Broth,” he murmured, the man’s lips and tongue announcing the sustenance with breathy reverence. “You do have to eat.”
“You know I am slow to let anyone help me.” A slow but deliberate response. Her legs bent and slowly eased her back up against the headboard. She gave herself a moment to catch her breath, to ease her nausea and the aches. Her eyes fluttered down to the broth, already accusing it of treachery. She lifted her hands toward it; each rattled like leaves in the fall. “Felt steadier drunk and bloody.” She growled and let her hands drop, frustrated.
“Why do you care? A lost Uthgardt without allegiance drunk of her own failings. One would think you had better things to do, better people to keep company.” Even as she retained a smile plain upon her features, her eyes betrayed thoughts of a more melancholy corner of her mind.
The blond man brought the cup to the woman’s lips, gold-flecked gaze peering over its rim to address the woman’s own bloodshot blue. “I have only my promises; all else flees. Don’t wonder that I keep them. Drink.”
Her brows knit and her mouth opened as though she were preparing to retort, though she resigned to instead sip from the presented cup. Her eyelids fell once more, and she slurped from his hand. Perhaps it was better not to fight, to enjoy his company instead.
The man held the cup aloft until the broth was gone, and he set it down at the bedside. He returned to the woman and slipped one hand between her head and the board bracing it, the other around her lower back. He carried her back into prostrate repose and straightened the linens over her languid form, sat alongside her at the edge of the bed and laid his bare hand upon her head, above her eyes. His fingers weaved into the black disarray of the woman’s hair as his gentle timbre began the incantation of a lullaby.
“Breathe, breathe, sleep tight
The day has gone with its ordeals
And there is nothing else to feel
But peace, peace, goodnight
Stray heart, stray heart, don’t fight
Be still, be still, I’ll make you steady
And I promise tomorrow you’ll be ready
To find your footing and be bright.”
She grunted in protest as he eased her back down to her pillow, and her eyes found themselves gazing once more at that sickening swirl on the ceiling. Peeling to the side, they sought a much more comfortable vision on the dark knight at her bedside. His hand pressed upon her head gave some measure of relief to the pounding in her skull, easing her body at least in part. Deep, steady breaths followed as she kept her focus and found herself audience to her own show and his splendid voice.
“Hush, hush, you’ll be all right
There’s nothing here to make you doubt
We’ve left concern well without
And nothing’s left but moon and light
So breathe, breathe, sleep tight
You cannot fall; I have your hand
I’ll be stood here til you can stand
Peace, peace, goodnight.”
She didn’t want to go, but she was, her body finally giving her the peace she needed for rest. The tune eased her muscles, and her limbs limply embraced the mattress. Even as her consciousness slipped, she knew when she awakened she would be alone again. It didn’t matter to her tired body; she faded from sensibility. Dreams rode forth, and the Uthgardt fell alone once more into the confines of her own mind.
<Collaboration with RedLancer>
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She set the book in her lap and ran her fingers along the back of her forearms in turn, slow motions over one another. She paced her lungs, slow and cautious as she eased the remembrance from her arms then her mind, expelling the closing ache with a final breath. The digits of her right hand wrapped in and through shallow crevices in her arm, each its own vivid memory. She let her head come to rest against the wooden brace behind her, a tangled mess of hair padding the else wise poignant motion.A wave of sharp instruments burst forth from the weave as light bloomed out from the dark woman; a beautiful lotus of light bending and coalescing toward her at blinding speed, arms raised Aesa roared and powered through. The searing light carved upon chain and plate, piercing through as though it were not there at all. Her flesh split under the barrage, she needn't even look to know the wounds it was inflicting. Her eyes spied the crimson cloth of what had been her crumpled upon the soil, she would need to make due without holy intervention.
Her attention refocused, forward. The dark foe already extended a callous hand toward her; setting another violent bolt of energy upon the charging Uthgardt. Aesa extended her left palm and caught the torrent, more pain wracked down her fingers and to her shoulder. Her foes eyes were caught wide as Aesa gripped the blade of her longsword in both hands and pounded the woman's shield aside, arcane illusions failed and she caught a blow upon the darkling's crown. There was motion, a fleeting page torn from the dark elf's reserve. A curse called out from corrupt immortal to human woman and in that next instant she stood alone.
The carriage lurched to a halt, her trinkets were gathered into a bag and she slowly eased herself from the back, lifting a grateful hand to the driver even as he urged his equine beasts ahead. She lifted her cowl overhead and examined her surroundings, the mighty stone bridge rested over a rippling river. The rain continued to fill shallow holes and what few tracks there were from wagons that yet dared venture so near to the Demon's nest. It was an unimportant, forgotten corner of the coast, where only the most austere remained watchful or desperate settled.Bone and flesh encased in a dome of steel violently crashed against jagged stone, liquid copper pooled in her mouth and sputtered out over the rim of her lips. Vision blurred as she stared out at the gaping maw of her assailant. Grey-green skin wrapped over lumpy mold with sharp abscessed teeth whipping cords of saliva over and into the gaps of her helmet. The creature's roar barely registered over the ringing in her ears. Her blade lifted in her yet free hand and hacked down into the arm pinning her to the wall, she was answered with vertigo as the world shifted and spun out of control. It came to an end with another lurch and surge of pain, her hands swept the mossy floor beneath and she immediately made to rise. Clamoring over the ringing and the pounding of her heart in her ears came heavy footsteps, her sword raised before she found her footing and she was greeted by a shower of sickly, caustic blood and a flicker of flame on steel that emerged and vanished from the troll's neck.
The beast before her swayed and fell to the side even as her feet finally found purchase and her knees locked to lift her body from the floor. Over the slumped body came a dark knight, speaking words she could not explicitly make out yet managed to understand none-the-less.
"I'm fine." She lied; igniting the alchemical flame upon her sword again. An affirming nod was given, whether he believed her or not was irrelevant so long as she would not admit her burdens. They moved onward, the silhouettes of his dancing form and her plodding gait highlighted about their blazing weapons against the bleakness of the cavern and the encroaching monsters within.
Her eyes watched shades dance in her minds eye over patches of grass along the roadside; an aging warrior bestowing her experience upon a cowering student. His body became more sturdy and his motions more controlled; while her composure softened and her heart warmed. She would remember him fondly, and carry his memory forward in the same way she carried everything else. She walked then to a secret place, and set into the soil a trinket of his memory. She knelt before an invisible monument for her and he, his unmarked and empty grave.
In that quiet place she wept honestly and sincerely, shedding her guilt so that she might take up his drive.
She could be better, she had to be.
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There was green and vibrant forest all around her, the wind buffeting and rustling leaves above while robin's chirped and tested the soft ground beneath each thicket below. Her space was a patch of soil between the timber and brush, wide enough for her to span four paces in any direction without her toe stubbing root or her hair catching the nails of grabby saplings. She stood without armor, a simple vest keeping her chest bound and long leggings keeping her nethers warm. One hand shivered free at her side while the other gripped the base of her sword, an ancient looking antique with the biting amber of rust stretching forth from the hilt. Moss and roots made up the sword's handle, perhaps sustained by the blade's inherent magic while vines curled up the blade toward its tip. Blue eyes gazed out across a brook to a not-so-distant waterfall, crashing turmoil and chaos leading out into an open well of steady water. After taking in the scene; its beauty being the sort poets and bards might sing of, she let her eyes drift closed; focusing.
"He would laugh at you." Came a familiar, taunting voice.
Her eyes flicked open and she peered through her surroundings, but found herself alone with the chirping birds and rustling leaves. A new creature had made it's way into the trees above, a great bird with feathers of shimmering ebony preened itself proudly; paying her no mind. She expelled another breath and set her mind again, looking down to the trembling free hand.
"As most should laugh at your rue. The proud Uthgardt reduced to a would-be dame, not even enough pride in your belly to wear your fathers name." The voice taunted again. Aesa looked up to the Raven accusingly, and it but stared back at her.
"You're not real." She answered after a moment, pulling her attention back toward the waterfall.
"Your anger is not real; you cannot touch or taste a fit, and yet here you submit. How many have died for this whit? Hypocrite."
She gave no answer, but she could feel the edge of her blade biting into her palm.
"Aesa, wrought with only body in mind. N'ere a thought of beauty divine. For no man would care for what you entice, when there is naught but blood and vice."
She wobbled on the spot then, throat parched and her mouth dry. She untied her oldest companion from her waist and suckled down the waiting water within, even as that melodious laughter mocked her. It sated nothing for her thirst, still she was parched and dizzy. Swallowing hard while that raucous laughter continued, booming in her mind. Brows knit tightly upon her head, she turned stubbornly from the clearing, starting her way back to the road with hand pressed tightly to her temple. The laughter dulled as she stumbled, into distant sullen echoes, when she finally found the road she had thought she heard crying.
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Aesa traversed the sodden road with a weary smile resting across her lips, the songs of the forest filled her ears and she found herself strangely delighted. How many times had she passed through these woods, and how seldom had she taken note of it's songs. She took pause, a boot resting dispassionately in a puddle, while the other displaced ripples of soggy soil. Her lashes drew closed over her eyes, a hand coming to rest on the image of a unicorn etched onto a bracer, she took a moment here to just listen, to reflect.
"Outta the way!" A loud voice jarred the Uthgardt from her mind, she stepped from the road with muck sucking at her boots; a feeble objection. Clopping along the road a wagon rolled passed, its owner eyeing Aesa in the moment and carried on without praise or insult. Her ears were filled again with the sounds of the forest and her eyes traced the canopy lazily.A betrayer struggled across the frozen wastes, walking into a howling gale while icy lances pricked against her neck and arms. Dark feathers rained down from her head, entangled with her hair or hooked with silvery clips. Over her forearm rested an armlet of gold, braced against her skin with hide and feathers sealing away the metal's biting chill. Her arms and face were unblemished by the tired scars of war and conflict, painted instead with artful patterns and swipes honoring spirits and totem both.
She peered out across the dusky tundra, her chest heaving with each shallow breath... behind her she couldn't see the now distant fires of what had been her tribe; disappeared into the mountain pass. A mistake had been made, but now pride spurned her on. "Wander now, Aesa. Flee from your people, doomed now to solitude fatal."
The familiar cackling voice mocked astride, and when she looked; there stood a Raven, black as night perched upon the reaching arm of buried timber. "You pushed me to stand for what I wanted!" The girl growled back. The crow took wing, and flew clear from view before the same voice sounded from behind her.
"And now you die for your hubris, a proud stand all but useless." More cruel cackling, and as the young woman turned, she saw only a long black feather, resting between the prints marking her path. She leaned down to pluck it from the snow, looking upon it a moment before she released it; turning forward to her path, she marched on.
Her frame turned and pushed its way off the road, wet fingers from brush dragging across her leggings and tunic, hooking and clawing her back to the road. 'Did I do right by leaving?' She thought as she powered through, the ignorant savage pulling her weight without much care for the brush or what tread underfoot.
The forest opened up some ways from the road and she fell to rest at the base of a plump oak, her gear scattering out among the roots. Eyes closed, she listened anew, through the rustling leafs and the crying birds she sought something deeper, a whisper through the forest.
'What do they say about me?' Asked a man in her mind.
'They work to trick and deceive, it is best to ignore them entirely.' Came her answer.
The tree's rustled, birds sang and through it something called her attention. Aesa's eyes flicked open to glance after it, and spied instead of a body or spirit; a path.Each step seemed to drag deeper then the last, an elk's pelt and its dried blood clung to her back now as she sojourned through the snow. Still the gale howled and buffeted her body, in spite of her best efforts and what she'd been taught; she was liken to perish all the same. The biting cold nipped and pelted her skin with icy snow, she was tightly huddled in over herself now, seeking out a cave in the mountains, somewhere she might be able to warm herself.
Another beacon lit ahead of her, lights dancing and what sounded like screeching she couldn't recognize. There was shouting, her steps faltered and she tumbled back into the snow, falling prone without the strength to lift herself back up. Broad and stout men were upon her quickly, one carried an odd device; like a plank of wood arranged into a cross which he waved at her. Another one of these bearded men pushed the device aside, and leaned down over her. His face was masked under a thick beard; matching the snow with it's puffy pallidity. He wore thick padded armor with rings of chain mesh over-top. At his hip was an axe whose head was larger then hers.
They spoke in a strange tongue, unlike anything she had ever heard among themselves, arguing and shouting against one another. She was starting to realize how terrified she was, tears froze over her cheeks as they tried to tumble down. She shook some of her feather-dazzled hair forward to hide her features, hide that weakness from them.
Instead, a thick hand caught under her shoulder and lifted her from the snow; carrying her back into an armored wagon, then burying her under quilted blankets within. There was comfort, warmth... she was in danger, but she was so tired. Her eyes slowly fell closed, letting her slip into her dreams.
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Paths crossed within the wooded overgrowth, and so to did she carry on through the trees, set upon this new path. Twigs and branches clawed at her naked arms, digging against the skin and muscles beneath viciously. Eyes cast off her wooded path into the brush at either of her sides. She could see not far off city walls, strange that they would be so close to the woodlands. Did she take a wrong turn? Strong steps came to a halt and she examined her surroundings more thoroughly. Shades stood not far from the path, watching her... welcoming and friendly, and yet still distant and unfamiliar."She is one of mine." Spoke the Raven to the Lion, his tone mirthful and cruel, bemused at an ongoing disagreement.
"You think of her as a Raven?" Replied the great feline, her fur white as fresh fallen snow.
"Born among ours, and forever so she will align." Crooned the Raven in turn.
"You are true in part, still I would test this."
"What does that mean?" She asked to the shades. There was a shift among their number, shuffling this way and that among the distant brush, before they disappeared. Brows knit in frustration, though she doesn't give chase; instead turning to the sun high above, spied through the trees. Direction shifted north and to her a new path seemed to unfurl, and so did she walk.
Her legs carried her along this new path, the walls behind faded and slowly to did the trees surrounding her wither. Time passed unerringly as skeletal branches were replaced by wisps of biting cold. Tufts of snow brushed past her cheeks and the scars along her arms seemed to sting more deeply then they ever had before. Tired and worn legs lifted her above a crest, and as though a grand reveal, she peered down into an icy valley; thousands of torches resting in the bowl with huddled shapes moving this way and that.
She carried forward, marching on down the slope toward the waiting tribesmen. Each step saw more snow kicking forward from her boots, her arms burned; icy flakes of snow cutting along her skin. A hand reached to a familiar strap tied over her shoulder, and gripped it tight, the bone of her gauntlets having since frosted over. With her approach however, more took pause, many brought weapons to bear and were ready to slay the woman... until she steps close enough to recognize faces."You see that her heart swells, she feels relief." A proud craw, feathers fluffing at the sight as the pair followed at a distance, observing.
"I am not convinced." Growled the noble heart in turn.
Her eyes caught to one more familiar then she'd known in all her days since. He was tall, broad with scars marring his face as readily as hers was. He wore thick furs and a cloak lined with black feathers, tattered and new. In one great hand he held a battleaxe, though his stature was as tall and proud as any knight. His chin raised, the great raven regarded her with his chin raised, though after a moment a smile spread across his face and he marched forward to meet her.
"Snow Bird." He greeted, throwing his arms wide and catches her in his arms, uprooting her from the ground like a weed in a great embrace. And so to did she return his affections, a wisp of a word escaping her as she felt overwhelmed with joy.
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"Come, Snow Bird... and learn what it is to be a warrior of the Black Raven." A large hand extended toward her, and hers in turn reached forth to grasp his. She felt pride, honor even marching once more into battle, but this time to not be alone, isolated. She marched among their number, one among many, familiar faces that had seemed to have not aged a day since she left.
The throng of raiders descended a cliff side; rebounding along ropes along the icy ridge. As she approached and looked down over the ledge, she saw the tinkling lights of an encampment already with sentries shouting alarms while armed soldiers made their way forward to the advancing Uthgardt. Her fingers tightened around the rope as she made the final approach, then she hopped down the ledge, fingers tightening around the rope to ease her descent.
Her boots hit the snow beneath and she immediately advanced alongside the others. There was a fear in the air around her, an uncertainty she hadn't felt in years. It was enough to make her pause her advance, the question built in her for a fleeting instant before a sword descended toward her, and hers rose to meet the would-be assailant. A sharp parry, and her muscles heaved to push him aside as quickly as he'd come. A sharp follow through and a line of blood split the snow as her sword whipped in then out again. What was happening began to unravel before her eyes, and she spied ahead and realized what was happening as the warriors of the Black Raven descended upon not warriors ready to meet them, but travelers and innocents pleading for their lives, with only some having the strength to even attempt to repel their number.
Feet carried the woman to the next innocent, whose spear already raised between her and another charging warrior. She would turn however as she broke his path, and turned toward her own. Confusion washed upon his features as she did, and an open palm slapped into his chin, and sent him crashing down into the snow. More warriors turned toward her, and more still were sent careening to the ground. Her sword arm felt weak as she looked across the clamoring barbarians, already regaining their feet."So you see, her soul still craven. She is as she was, a Raven." Delighted, the black bird preened his feathers.
To the feline however, she peered closer. Eyes predatory, intent to see through to the finish.
There was a pit in her stomach, like she were tearing her own guts from her body; overwhelmed with emotion and despair. Their expressions had changed from shock to fury, she heard the word echoing within her mind; betrayer. Her sword arm still refused to lift against her own, so she loosened her fingers and allowed the blade to drop down beneath the snow.
More came, and she felt her muscles seizing, there was pain everywhere. She thrashed as she was dragged to her knees, then set into the soil. Screams echoed out behind her as thick hands forced her arms apart. Her own mouth opened but nothing came forward. A great man approached; grey hairs setting upon his shoulders; his expression one of great disappointment. "Why turn against what you are?" He asked, his voice tepid, disappointed.
Her eyes looked out across the tribes, everything hurt... the shades of distant bodies; arms clawing up to the sky in search of freedom from this nightmare. This wasn't her.
"Take up your sword." He said then, cooly.
But she couldn't, her breaths ragged, angry... the snow and the mountains had faded, the carnage and travelers, the Uthgardt were all gone. It was but her and her father. This wasn't her.
"Give me death." Finally she spoke words of her own; defiance. Her head hung low, the world darkened and she awaited the death knell. Distant, a shriek of anger from a creature that had followed her for so long.
But none came.
Music, cheering and shouting. Blurred as though shouted through water at first, as did her vision swim as her eyes drew open. A man came into focus, seated across the room from her, reading. Her stirrings drew his attention however, and the man set his leatherbound tome before approaching her bedside. An attempt at reproach was made as he looked her up and down, though a smile of relief broke through his mock castigation nonetheless. " ... are you feeling better, friend?"
Brows knit, a hand pressed against her forehead a moment then she looked to the door, only slightly ajar and thought she spied a swaying tail disappear just out of sight.
"Hungry." She replied curtly.