In the late morning hours the sun shone bright and glorious on Trelling’s Rest. The overcast clouds of yesterday’s snowfall had fled in the face of a clear and temperate day, the sort of mild and cheerful day DarkFyre Dale rarely saw this deep into winter. The snow underfoot gleamed pristine white under the sunshine, a blanket of innocence and purity cast over the countryside, a beautiful thing to behold.
The Bear’s Maw was Trelling’s Rest’s main gate and the site of the majority of traffic in and out of the city. The thick oak and iron gates were thrown wide today to admit travelers, merchants, tradesmen, crafters, Nobles, herdsmen, and paupers of all kinds. The crowd gathered at the gate was vast on this clear and pleasant day, a sea of humanity, Human and DemiHuman alike. All sorts of folks and classes mingling in a great press of raised voices, stinking bodies, and impatience to be on their way.
Of the three city gates, the guards were heaviest at the Maw. Even still, they struggled to maintain any remote semblance of order, and only succeeded if by ‘order’ you meant anything short of outright pandemonium. They kept the crowd moving out the way when a cart laden with goods made its way up to the gate, and swatted the peasants aside when a Noble came riding up the muddied road.
Rael gazed up at the ramparts of the towering stone walls flanking either side of the Maw, studying the guards stationed and patrolling upon them from beneath the hood of his cloak. There didn’t seem to be any more men on watch than would be expected, but that was plenty still. The risk of increased security was worth it. At the Maw, the crowd was so great that it became much easier to blend in with the multitude of folk coming into the city for a vast array of reasons. Their presence wouldn’t be noted as strongly as it would at the less crowded and secure gates. With luck, if the gates were being watched by unfriendly eyes, the crowd would help them slip by unnoticed.
A herd of pigs nearly ran Silmaria over. The pig herder tending his squealing charges waved a gnarled walking staff in her direction, as if she were about to snatch one of the piglets up. Rael gripped her upper arm and steered her in front of him and out of the pigs tromping path. The press of people around them was claustrophobic and chaotic. Rael kept his hand on Silmaria’s shoulder. He could feel her tension through that touch, though she did well at appearing to be impatiently bored and unconcerned.
They moved in closer to the guards stationed in front of the gate, moving with the flow of people surging forward and shuffling back like the current of a vast, living tide. There was a group of street performers from the south clustered to their left, brown skinned Human’s mostly, with a tall elf and a dwarf, both of them as swarthy as their Human friend’s, all of them speaking in a rapid, undulating tongue he didn’t recognize.
A grimy-faced street urchin crashed into him from behind, stumbling against his big frame and falling into the muddy snow. The child picked himself up, made a show of wiping off the newest smears of mud collected on his knees, and then ran shrieking and laughing into the crowd. Rael had shifted and moved as the child flopped against him, and the would-be pickpocket ran off empty handed.
Rael’s reminded himself to let his posture sag and keep his eyes to the ground before them. Inside he was full of apprehension and highly strung nerves. It took an effort of will not to constantly look around and scan his surroundings for any sign of watching eyes. Appearing casual was extremely difficult; though everything appeared normal now, he was ready for things to turn ugly at any moment.
Silmaria stumbled a bit as her foot caught in a muddy pothole. She cursed under her breath as she yanked her foot free. Her slipper, already in bad shape as it was, was now pretty thoroughly ruined.
“Are you sure you can do this?” Rael asked her not for the first time, pitching his voice just loud enough so she could hear over the din of the crowd.
“I’m sure,” she replied irritably. “Why do you keep questioning this? It’s your plan, after all.”
It was his plan. It was the best one he could devise, given the circumstances.
Rael’s idea called for them to be a shabby, run down pair, peasants and beggars like any other who came and went from the city. It wasn’t a hard disguise to pull off; they were both covered in dirt and grime from a night and day trekking through the Turan Wood and the Greensward, and their clothing was travel worn and looking the worse for wear.
Silmaria’s dress was especially convincing. They’d had to hack her skirts short so she could better keep pace with him, and her legs were exposed to her knees, her butchered skirts swirling in tatters around her thighs. The pelt of her lower legs was a vivid orange with the striking black slashes of her striping along the outside of her calves. She’d scrubbed the bloodstains from the front of her dress as best she could in the stream they’d followed, but it wouldn’t fully come out, so she’d smeared some dirt and mud into the stained spots to make it look like she was caked in filth instead of a man’s life blood. Her hair was a wild tangle of snagged and knotted curls that hid most of her face. What could be seen was a mess of matted fur and dirt.
For his part, Rael had to hide his clothes a bit more carefully; though his clothes were the same simple, practical garb he always wore, anyone looking closely enough would still be able to tell the quality and cut of his clothes were far above anything a peasant would wear. He hid this as well as he could by further tearing and fraying at his clothes, making them appear more worn and aged than they were, and caking dirt and mud into the fabric. Over this he pulled his old traveling cloak, which was suitably beaten and worn out that, with a few minor rips and tears added, made for a convincing beggar’s garb.
“It’s no good,” Silmaria had told him. She’d regarded him critically at dawn that morning while they prepared to enter the city. She’d said little the past day, and most of their communication had been about matters of survival and their plan of action as they continued to flee toward the Capitol.
Neither spoke of that night in the forest.
“Why not?” Rael asked as he carefully examined his battered and ragged clothing. He seemed a fit enough pauper, he thought. Even his hair and beard looked suitably scraggly and unkempt, and he’d rubbed enough mud into both to hide the distinct burnished copper tint.
“You look the part just fine. But there’s no hiding those,” she motioned meaningfully toward his eyes. “They’re a dead giveaway. I’ve never seen eyes like yours, never even heard of them. I know I’m not much of a world traveler, but something tells me no one else has, either.”
She was right of course. Anyone who took one look at his eyes would mark him as unique and memorable. If their hunters questioned anyone who took note of him, or worse, if they had agents among the guards…
With these fears in mind, Rael had mulled it over at length and finally devised a plan he thought was viable. His hood was dragged low over his head, and he’d tied a strip of cloth cut from his cloak over his eyes. He could see out the bottom just enough to keep some perspective of his surroundings, but for anyone looking at him, it appeared his eyes were obscured.
He came up behind Silmaria, one hand on her shoulder to give the impression she was leading him. With his vision so severely limited, she very nearly was. Rael was still nervous about putting Silmaria so prominently in potential harm’s way, even capable as she was. He was hopeful none of his hunters was aware of her presence, but he couldn’t be certain. He was gambling both of their safety on the odds that she’d escaped notice enough that they weren’t searching for her as well. It was a fool’s bet, but what choice did he really have?
Rael did not like uncertainty or chance, but he knew the precariousness of their situation. He had to get inside the city to seek help, and answers. He no longer trusted to the pull of his name, nor the strength of his sword arm to keep him safe. There was no way of knowing just how extensive the assassin’s network was, nor to what lengths they would go to put him in the ground. Until he found a way to take the fight to them, he would take every precaution a hunted man could.
“We’re next,” Silmaria said over her shoulder as they shuffled forward toward one of several pairs of guards overseeing the people heading in and out of Trelling’s Rest. The pig herder from earlier was in front of them, arguing with the guards about his charges and whether or not they were controlled and tended adequately enough to be allowed on the city streets. The herder seemed to be taking it as a personal affront that the guards didn’t believe he had his swine’s in hand. The guards seemed to take his personal affront as a personal affront.
“Remember,” Rael advised her, leaning in under pretense of resting his weight on her shoulder so that he could speak into her ear, “We’re beggars. As far as the guards are concerned, we have no rights.”
In perfect case in point, the guards appeared to tire of the pig herder’s arguments. One of the men took a short, solid cudgel from where it hung from his belt, and delivered a swift, stout clubbing to the man’s head. The argumentative man fell into the muddy snow, out cold, and his pigs nosed at his clothes for some hint of something to eat. One of the vendors behind them in line gave a short bark of laughter.
“I see what you mean,” Silmaria muttered. The guards dragged the man off to the side. Most of his pigs followed and nosed through the mud around his limp body, while some of them wandered into the crowd, never to be seen alive again.
“Who are ya and what’s yer business?” the guard with the cudgel asked them as he checked his bludgeon for blood, quite bored.
“Come for work if it please ye, sir,” Silmaria answered in her best lowborn tones. Rael gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze, trying to lend her any strength he could.
“Ain’t no work in there that ain’t out here,” the guard replied dismissively.
“If it please ye, sir, there’re more customers for work like mine in the city. A handful o’ farmers ain’t bringin’ me ‘nough coin to keep me fed, and the livestock ain’t buyin’ what I’m sellin’.”
The guard looked at her more closely now, his dark eyes appraising her. “Well, come on, let’s have a look, then.”
“Sir?” Silmaria asked uncertainly.
“What, ya think I’m gonna let just any country whore in? And a Gnari, on top of all else? Yer already dirty as the guttersnipe’s inside. If I’m gonna let ya whore in our streets, ya better have somethin’ worth offerin’! So let’s see, then!”
By then the guard’s partner had stepped over and was watching with an amused expression on his face. Rael had to will himself not to dig his fingers into Silmaria’s shoulder. It was all he could do not to lay both men out for their insolence.
Silmaria, however, seemed to have none of his problem. Without a word, she quickly and efficiently unlaced the top of her bodice and pulled it down, spilling her ample, firm tits into the open air. Her nipples were instantly stiff from the cool air. The guards laughed and grinned like boys as they ogled the Gnari’s lush breasts. The one with the cudgel reached out and tweaked her nipple, giving the thick nub a wicked little pinch.
She let him toy with her nipple for a moment, ignoring the tingle it sent racing through her nerve endings. She hardly cared at this point about her own exposure and humiliation; the only pair of eyes that she cared one way or another about seeing her nudity were behind her and covered with a blindfold. Finally, she ended the guard’s enthusiastic pinching by giving his hand a firm slap. He pulled his hand away in surprise.
“Now, sir, if ye’re wanting more than a sample, ye’ll have to give me my coin. Whore’s are hungry too, ye know. And I been in line an awful long time.”
The guard stared at her, and for a moment, Silmaria wondered if she’d gone too far.
Then the man laughed uproariously, and nodded to her in approval. “Smart lass! I may have to be comin’ for some servicin’ someday! Go on in.”
“Thank ye kindly, sir,” Silmaria replied with a saucy grin as she tucked her breasts back into her dress and laced up the front of her bodice. I’ll consider givin’ ye a discount. A small discount, mind.”
The guardsman laughed again and motioned her through the Maw. Silmaria felt a rush of relief.
Which was promptly stamped out as the other guardsman stuck his hand out to block her progress.
“Hold on, then. Who’s this with you?”
Damn, Silmaria cursed inwardly. Her heart beat wildly and for a bare moment she stood there, her clever smile frozen on her face.
Rael could sense Silmaria’s panic like a palpable thing, and he knew in a moment, the guards would too. He squeezed her shoulder, hard, trying to shock her out of her moment. She could do this, he knew she could, if she’d just say something before the men saw the crack in her confident, bold demeanor.
“This is my Uncle,” Silmaria replied. Rael blessed her silently; she went on without a hitch or hesitation in her voice. “He was a soldier in the war, with my Da. Blind now. Uncle lost his eyes, and Da lost his life.”
Keeping his head bowed toward the ground, standing sightless and meek while the guards hovering nearby sized him up, was one of the hardest things Rael had done in some time.
“Better hope yer goods get the both of ya plenty o’ coin,” the guard with the cudgel said at last. “Cripples don’t last long in this city.”
“My goods’ll do well enough,” Silmaria replied. The guards stepped aside, and they walked through the Bear’s Maw and into Trelling’s Rest.
Some time had passed since Silmaria’s last visit to the DarkFyre Capital, but little had changed. It was still a cold, hard city with cold, hard people. The buildings were clustered around small, narrow streets, squat, wide stone edifices that crowded together like people huddled for warmth. Though there were some buildings made for elegance an aesthetic appeal, most of them housed the Nobles who dwelled in the Palace district. The rest of the city was built for function and practicality. Hearty walls of roughhewn stone held up study wood roofs, made strong and sloped sharply to withstand the weight of accumulating snow and send as much of it as possible sliding off to the roads below.
They walked about a block away from the Bear’s Maw before Rael finally straightened and pulled his hood up enough to look around. Silmaria took a deep, shaky breath, her heart pounding frantically as she finally let her nerves show. Rael looked down at her closely.
She ran her dirty fingers through her equally dirty hair, trying to undo a few of the snags there. After she regained her composure, she nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. What now?”
“Now we make our way toward the waterfront district,” Rael told her, and they cut down an alley away from the main streets. They made their way down the many interlocking, narrow back streets and pathways between the buildings.
“Why the waterfront?” Silmaria asked.
“Because the docks and waterfront areas are the least commonly patrolled by the guards, the easiest place for us to blend in disguised as we are, and the people there are the least likely to ask the wrong kind of questions.”
They stepped past, around, and in some cases, over several people resting in the back streets, huddled in piles of rags and refuse. Here and there a small area had been cleared in the muck and snow for a fire to be lit, and the poor folk of the city huddled around these fires for warmth.
“There’s so many people here,” Silmaria murmured to Rael. “Are the poor sections of the city always so crowded?”
“It’s worse in the winter,” he told her quietly. “Serfs and other poor commoners from the countryside flood the towns and cities of the Dale during the winter. It’s warmer here and less exposed than the countryside, even if they live in the gutters. It’s easier to find work and food, too.”
“They’re starving,” she observed, looking at the sunk and hollow-eyed faces staring listlessly at them.
Rael grabbed her hand and pulled her forward, and they moved through the alleys more quickly. “We will be, too, if we aren’t lucky and careful.”
A few more turns down the maze of backstreets and they came out into a small but busy market square.
The merchants were taking advantage of the fair weather and the square was packed with stalls of all kinds. Being close to the harbor, fish stalls were the predominant vendors with their assortment of freshwater fish from Lake Glasswater, but there were many other wares to be seen. Fruits and vegetables imported from the milder Southern climes and tailors selling clothes of varying qualities, from the simple rough spun tunics and breeches of peasant folk, to finer, luxurious cut doublets and dresses of silk and cashmere and lace.
There was a SkyRacer man, a rare sight indeed, whose grand, majestic wings were artistically dyed, his feathers an alternating pattern of white and indigo and pale greens that matched his clothes. He was selling various baubles and jewels and ornate jewelry. Silmaria was pretty sure he’d do better business set closer to the Palace district, but he seemed content with the small bit of traffic his stall received.
Rael led them slowly through the crowd in the square until he found a shop that struck his fancy. He instructed Silmaria not to wander from his sight, and began conducting business with a short, burly Dwarven smith running the small weapons shop and smithy in one of the larger stalls ringing the market square.
Silmaria looked around, listless and tired and longing for home. She’d accepted that it was gone, or come as close to acceptance as was possible, but still she missed it nonetheless. She hadn’t thought about her lost home much since that night in the forest, nor her friends. It was easier that way, simpler just to be and not think on it. Too much thinking sent a lance of pain through her heart, and she truly couldn’t afford that now.
Her attention was caught by a nearby stall where an older man with the clear coloring and features of a Daleman was selling strips of freshly roasted meat, probably beef or pork or one of the mountain yaks common to the region. The meat was heavily spiced and steaming, dripping with grease and smelled so good that Silmaria had to swallow the saliva pooling in her mouth. Her stomach was growling so loud she wondered that the entire market couldn’t hear.
Just as Silmaria was about to go see if the man would accept indentured servitude in exchange for a section of meat, Rael returned with a small purse of coin jangling in his hand.
“Where’d those come from?” Silmaria asked with raised brows.
“I sold the crossbow. It was a very unusual model. I’d never seen that design before. It was light and the hand crank worked almost effortlessly, and whatever spring mechanism was used put a lot of power behind the shot. It was probably worth even more than I got, but this was probably our best bet for getting some extra coin without drawing too much attention.”
Silmaria’s stomach growled again; she could still smell the cooking meat. “In that case, can we get some of that?” She asked, pointing to the vendor.
Rael chuckled softly and gave a thin smile. “I’m hungry, too. But no. We need to get out of the streets and hidden away. We’ll find an inn on the docks and hide out. They’ll have plenty of food there.”
Silmaria gave one last wistful, disappointed look toward the sizzling meats, but swallowed her protests and followed as Rael led them out of the square and down the streets leading west toward the waterfront district.
“How do you know your way around here so well?” Silmaria asked him as she became ever more lost in the twists and turns and intersecting backstreets and side alleys they took.
“I spent most of my childhood in Trelling’s Rest, remember?” he answered. The streets all had a downgrade now as the land sloped downward toward the Lake, the buildings standing in rowed tiers as they got closer to the docks.
“You were a squire in the Knighthood. I didn’t think they let you run free in the city.”
“They didn’t,” Rael said, and Silmaria was surprised to see the Nobleman actually smirking. “I wasn’t always very good at doing what I was told.”
“That’s a surprise,” she returned as she stepped gingerly over a ragged old man sprawled out across the alley they were cutting through.
Rael waited at the alley mouth for her to catch up, then they continued down one of the more heavily trafficked roads. They could see the blue expanse of the lake here, its waters as crystalline and clear as its namesake, its surface dotted liberally with small fishing boats.
“Why’s that?” He asked.
Silmaria shrugged under her torn, unkempt cloak. “I don’t know. You just seemed such a serious boy. I never once saw you smile. I can’t picture you running off on your own, wandering all around the city with the Knight Brothers chasing you down to drag you back to task. You didn’t seem like the sort.”
Rael shook his head and smiled lightly at her words. “Even serious boys need a bit of adventure once in awhile.”
They arrived at the Lake docks. The docks were a busy, bustling place, full of fishermen and workers and boat crafters and traders and the closest thing the North had to sailors. The largest boats at the piers were small two mast vessels that were just large enough to carry a respectable haul of netted fish. The men at the docks were a noise some, cheerful lot that shouted greetings and laughed freely. The docks smelled of fish and sweat and the cool crisp freshness of Lake Glasswater.
The inn Rael selected, on the other hand, kept all the smells of fish and sweat from the docks, and traded the freshness of Glasswater for stale beer.
The Siren of The Lake was a dilapidated little hole-in-the-wall. If it had ever seen better days, it was probably before Silmaria was even born. It was a two story, wide building with a big common room clustered with tables and chairs, a stone hearth in the far wall, and a few windows that would have commanded a nice view of the waters if they weren’t tightly shuttered. The common room was stuffy and dark, with the only light for the big room coming from the hearth and a few lanterns hanging from hooks on the walls.
The innkeep was standing behind the long, weathered bar running the length of the right side of the common room. He was a lanky, lean Elven man who somehow, despite being an Elf, managed to look old. He wore a rough spun tunic in shades of brown and mustard, and his flaxen hair hung across his brow where it escaped the tail it was tied back in. It was strange to see an Elf with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and the creases at the corners of his mouth were from the constant frowns of the long-suffering.
When his wife came out from the kitchens, it became apparent what had aged the poor man who should have been ageless. A great rotund Human woman, she had streaks of gray in her short brunet locks, sharp hazel eyes, and a wide mouth that seemed to be perpetually in motion. Rael and Silmaria hadn’t been in the room but a few moments, letting their eyes adjust to the dim light, and already the henpecked Innkeep had been berated by his dear loving wife for half a dozen things big and small. The small cluster of regular customers, deep in their cups even in the early afternoon, were apparently so used to the woman’s griping and berating that they paid no attention whatsoever.
For his part, the Innkeep didn’t bat an eye as she laid into him, replying with a simple ‘Yes, dear,” once the woman had finally said her rather large fill and gone stomping off to the kitchen once more.
Rael cleared his throat. Twice. The Elven man looked up at last, blinked at him, then frowned and held his hands up in a dismissive manner.
“Sorry, we don’t have no work, and we don’t have no handouts. Out with you, no begging in here, I have respectable patrons trying to enjoy their afternoon in peace!”
Rael pulled the pouch of coins from his belt and tossed it onto the lacquered, much scratched bar. The Elf looked down at the pouch dubiously, then back up to Rael.
“No begging here,” Rael said firmly. “You can take my coin and render services, or I can take my coin elsewhere. Choice is yours.”
“Take the bleedin’ coin!” The Innkeep’s wife screeched from the kitchen. Silmaria flinched and shook her head slowly. How in the world had the woman heard their conversation from all the way back there? She decided then and there she was going to stay as far away from the woman as possible.
Rael, having arrived at the same conclusion, arched a dusty brow. “Well?”
“Of course, Sir, my mistake, my mistake,” the Innkeep nodded and offered an uncomfortable smile. “What do you and the Missus be needin’?”
“I’m not his…” Silmaria began to say, then bit her words short as Rael helpfully stepped on her foot.
“A room. The cleanest bed you have. We’ll also be needing three servings of whatever is hot and fresh, and a tub brought up to our room for bathing.”
The Innkeep scratched at his long, slim nose. “The tub’ll be extra. We only have one and it’s usually reserved for nobles. It’s gonna cost quite a bit for me to lend it to common folk.”
Rael gave him a hard look and motioned around the room with one hand. “Do you see any Nobles here clamoring to use it before us?”
“Might be one comes in while you and the Missus are using it. What then?”
“Let’s be plain, goodman,” Rael said, leaning forward and bracing his hands on the bar, causing the Innkeep to step back a pace as he realized anew just how big his new patron was.
“We both know you haven’t had a Noble set foot through those doors all winter. Hell, probably the entire year. And it’s like to be just as long from now before one finally does. So why not just give me a reasonable price for use of your tub, and then your tub will help you collect some coin instead of just collecting dust.”
“Take the man’s bleeding coin!” The Elf’s wife screamed once more from the kitchen.
Rael stood there, waiting, and after just a moment of embarrassed hesitation, the Innkeep bobbed a nod and the two men got down to bargaining a fair prices.
A deep groan of satisfied appreciation pulled itself from Silmaria’s throat as she sank into the steaming hot water in the surprisingly spacious brass tub. The water was just shy of scalding, but she didn’t even care. It felt too blissfully wonderful, even mildly uncomfortable as it was, to finally wash away the grime and filth that had accumulated on her body during their desperate flight. She sank lower into the water, submerged up to her neck, letting herself go limp and relaxed and simply drift for a moment in the delicious warmth.
“Whatever you paid for this, it was worth it,” she said as she shut her eyes.
Rael sat on the edge of the bed, his broad back turned to her, stripped to the waist to try not to dirty the bed covers too badly. He was eating the last of his meal of roast mutton chop and potato soup, and very pointedly staring at the wall. Right now, Silmaria could have cared less if he’d blatantly ogled her from the side of the tub. She was in hot, fresh, clean water, and she had a sliver of soap that didn’t look like it had been much used by anyone else, and she could feel the dirt coming off her already.
“It wasn’t too much, really. I think the man was so worried that his wife would take it out of his hide if he didn’t take my coin instead of waiting for some non-existent Noble to walk through the door, he wasn’t much worried about cheating me anymore.”
“She seemed the type to do just that,” Silmaria smiled, and then gave an uncharacteristic giggle. “If only he realized he really did rent his tub out to a Noble.”
“If he realized he’d done that, I would be paying three times what I’m paying for it now, and we don’t have that kind of coin to throw around.”
“Yes, yes,” Silmaria sighed. Damn the man for ruining her happy moment with reminders of their present situation. “How much do we have left, anyway?”
“Enough,” Rael shrugged. “We can stay in this inn for the better part of a week and still have enough left over to buy supplies. Food. Clean clothes.”
“Are we going to be staying here for a week, then?” Silmaria asked as she straightened a bit. She glanced over at him, her eyes studying the corded knots of muscle in his back, shifting under the grime and dirt still covering his fair skin. His hair fell down his back, the bright, burnished copper barely hidden by the dirt and mud they’d rubbed into it. It was tangled and snarled, nothing like the usual glinting, beautiful locks he kept so neatly bound in a warrior’s braid.
She swallowed softly, quickly grabbed up her soap, and began to scrub the filth from her short, smooth pelt.
“I don’t know,” Rael admitted. “I’m not sure what comes next. Most of my thoughts were wrapped up in getting someplace safe.”
“This is someplace safe?” she scoffed.
“It’s someplace unexpected. Someplace they wouldn’t think to look. That makes it safe. For now.”
“It’s not going to stay safe forever,” she observed.
“No, it’s not,” he sighed, and shook his head. “But it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be safe until I find us someplace better. Someplace we will have allies, and power.”
“Any ideas on that, then?”
Rael sucked briefly on the bone left from his mutton chop. “I don’t have many options. I’m going to have to pay a visit to my Commander. Knight Commander Dern of House Mireon.”
“House Mireon… I know that name,” Silmaria mused as she soaped her breasts and then ran her soapy hands along her flat stomach.
“You should. Our houses are linked. My Cousin, Iri, was married to Commander Dern’s brother, Jessop Mireon, years ago before my Uncle Ferin died of the Gray Plague.”
“That’s right! I remember now. I met Iri once. She was so quiet and soft. She wore a cream colored dress with lilac lacing and a little choker of pearls. She seemed a Lady born, even as a girl.”
“Yes. She was all that. And she had a hell of a right hook, too,” Rael smirked.
“No!” Silmaria gasped, and then laughed.
“Seriously. Bloodied my nose more than once when we were barely knee high.”
“Oh, that’s rich,” Silmaria grinned to herself and stuck a long, shapely leg up to brace her foot on the edge of the tub and scrub the dirt from her firm calves. “So if you’ve family ties to your Commander, why didn’t you go to him with all this to begin with?”
Rael rubbed slowly at his scraggly beard. “It’s complicated. The short end of it is…Commander Dern doesn’t care for me.”
Silmaria stared at the man’s back hard enough to bore holes into it. “He doesn’t care for you?”
“He doesn’t care for me,” Rael repeated.
“Seriously? What are you two, ten?”
“You’d think,” Rael grumbled. “Commander Dern believes that joining House Mireon with House IronWing was a bad move, politically. He’s of the opinion that House IronWing isn’t high enough in the Court standings to be worth marrying his brother and the second in line to inherit to Iri, who isn’t even in line of succession. He’s been holding to that grudge as long as I can remember. He was loath to grant me a Captain’s station, and only did so because I worked too hard and accomplished too much for him to find a justifiable reason to deny me.
“Dern has never done anything directly malicious against me,” Rael explained, “But I know quite well that he has no love for me. So I am very reluctant to go to him for any kind of aid. I only do so now because I’ve no real choice. He may be the only person who can protect us and keep us safe while I search for answers.”
“Great. So our best hope at this point is a Nobleman with too many swords at his command and too long a stick up his ass,” Silmaria sighed.
Rael gave a sudden burst of laughter. Silmaria, caught off guard, stared at him and had to struggle to keep a foolish smile from her face, and then wondered why she was bothering at all since he wasn’t even looking at her.
“That about sums the situation up, yes,” he nodded. Then he stood and stretched, groaning softly as his back popped. He pulled his dirty tunic back on and then wrapped his much battered cloak around his shoulders.
“Where are you going?” she asked. She scooted to the edge of the tub and propped her arms across the rim, her breasts pressed to the warm side. “It’s okay, you can look.”
Rael turned just enough to glimpse her as he stood by the door. “We need supplies. Dried food and travel rations, just in case we end up having to bolt unexpectedly. Clean clothes and blankets. Anything we may end up wanting if we have to take to the streets for awhile.”
Silmaria tilted her head slightly as she watched him. “You’re not expecting this to go well, are you?”
“I’m trying not to expect anything, while expecting everything,” he returned.
She nodded slowly, caught a wiff of her hair, and swore as soon as he left she was going to scrub it until it smelled fresh as a rose or it all fell out. “That makes sense.”
“Stay in here while I’m gone. Bolt the door and don’t answer to anyone. Even if they sound like me. If it’s me, I’ll knock three times, and when you ask who it is, I’ll answer, ‘Rael, Son of Edwin’.”
Silmaria swallowed softly and then nodded. “Okay. But I’m getting hungry again.”
“I won’t be long,” Rael assured her. “I’ll bring some more food from the common room when I return.”
“Okay. How come you got two portions, anyway?” She asked, and tried her best to feign petulance.
Rael, evidently, was not buying it. “Because I’m bigger.”
He grinned, pulled his hood up, and slipped from the room.
Thank you all who bore with me through the shock of the previous chapter. I know it was hard going for some of you. It’ll be worth reading through, promise ;)
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<a href="https://www.lushstories.com/stories/novels/darkfyre-chapter-eleven.aspx">DarkFyre Chapter Eleven</a>