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LotE: Echoes of Byrn

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Roland watched Lily excuse herself with a concerned expression. When she was out of sight, he let out a sigh and turned toward the farmer and his wife.

"My sister has a frail constitution. I'm sure your food had nothing to do with it, worry not. The stress and anxiety of this war have not been helpful for her, and that attack by those brigands surely only worsened matters."

He took a long quaff from the cup in front of him before continuing.

"I've been escorting her to our uncle, a skilled healer who lives far from the frontlines. With any luck, she will get through this war just fine."

He paused, letting out a slight smile.

"But enough concern over my sister. Tell me, I've heard rumors on the roads about the goings-on in Monzia, but I have not heard anything substantial on the fate of the Exarch, God bless his reign..."

After a while longer spent talking, Roland excused himself and retired to the room that had been laid out for him and Lily. She seemed to be well asleep when he entered, and he was careful to be quiet as he prepared to sleep. When he had climbed into bed and closed his eyes, he was out like a light. The Byrnian scout was a deep sleeper- somewhat detrimental on more harrowing missions, though the Ebon Knight was sure to provide an elixir to keep him attentive and alert when he was sent out on missions with such potential danger- but the major point to take away was that some effort would have to be put in were someone wanting to wake him up...

Edited by EpicRome23

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In this way hearsay traveled from one end of the world to the other, borne upon the fleeting wings of chance encounters. Good news, bad news, so long as it’s rumour it flies all the same: the farmer was only too happy to relate the survival of the Exarch, and his renewed fervor in pursuing a dream of justice, a pursuit unto death as it were. And damned if he hadn’t the support of his god-fearing, king-beloved people. Even now he was caterwauling through Glia, and though the word had been mum they all knew that Dodon would be the destination eventually; for in Dodon all things would be decided. Neither Dodon nor Glia would stand with Byrn.

Roland would find all of this interesting, and unbeknownst to both him and her, so would Lily have. Did she think of that man, still? Did she worry whether he lived? And would the world, by the light of this news, seem to dispel its mean, common darknesses, its hanger-on desperate promises of – what was that thing she was so afraid of – a fate inexorable?

She came awake; it was dark. Roland lay slumped in a heap on his own bed, just a scant few feet beside hers, and she looked at that body of his for a long time. The peaking crescent moon threw its bastard light through the window, landing in slats upon his chin, neck, chest, leaving his face in shadow. That told a story, it did. Marks indicated slight scars, scratches endured across a childhood of rough-and-tumble, an adulthood of hunting. Years spent in the rough – with his brother as partner, or in a platoon they called family? – terrified eyes peering down the sights of a crossbow as beasts crawled across the Mercurial lowlands, until they finally lost that fear, replaced by that confident, caution-in-the-wind smirk that the man wore so often. A familiar, don’t-give-a-damn smile that she’d seen plenty before. It made her think of that dark archer who’d ambushed them outside of Isore. All hard men who never needed to have killed to be good at it; it had been taught to them by the land.

Nobody ever understood by reading, but she had read enough to understand that they didn’t make them like that in the Valley, or Isore, or Glia, or anywhere but that barbaric country of Byrn.

He snored, mumbled something into his pillow. When he slept, he looked young. He must have only been a few years her senior.

Lily got up. She went to the kitchen, poured herself a measure of water, stood outside the homestead. They were north now, north of Isore by at least one or two hundred miles, made apparent in the air: Isore had been cool, but this was cold. Chill enough to brace her nerves, underscoring the distinction between within and without. She felt like an oyster clasped closed, instinctually protecting some pearl allegedly worth protecting, from the intrusion of cold, alien waters.

Two hundred miles! When she’d never left the Valley ever before in her life, and now she’d gone there and back again, and once more – not for the last time – she was out into the world that she owed nothing, and as she was quickly coming to understand, felt the same about her. She had been used to sleeping in the rough all her life, but everything else about this rough was different. She hated all of it.

Vagrancy was a game and nobody starved or froze to death in the pleasant nights of the valley. Urchins entertained themselves well enough. All of those things, petty miseries to what Isore was, now, because men were willing to kill each other for reasons unstated.

Reasons unstated! Roland hadn’t said a goddamned thing to her. Went along as if it was the most natural state of events in the world that a hundred thousand people were dead, and now she had to come along to help these killers.

Lily’s hands trembled as she remembered herself, asked herself those questions again.

Did she make a mistake? What was it?

It must have been a mistake coming all this way. The farmer and the housewife, stretched so thin already in relative poverty, thankful only that they had not died and blessing freely to all travelers that were escaping the fate of the same. Opening their doors to displaced fathers without sons, mothers without daughters, who ran through the plains like trickles of tears out of the eye of the tragedy at Isore. And here she was, in Roland’s fine company, shut-mouth absolutely without words as he smooth-talked his way into their house by fiction. Cold killer through and through.

The more she thought of it the more she felt that it wasn’t her fault. It was not her mistake. It was his, and all those in Byrn. The end of the world was around the corner and these people turned on themselves, they took advantage of the world and trampled over each other in hopes of being on top. Was now not the time to unite? To love one another and hold each other until the end?

All business to Roland, it was. Ordinary hypocrisies and offenses against one another...and he had even laughed his way through dinner. Pleasant food, pleasant drink, pleasant company, pretending that he was some friend to these people, that their generosity was a gift. By god, it was, but they had no idea how foul of a gift. Roland must not have been evil but he had such a selfishness, an absence of good in him, that he might as well resemble the dark in the absence of light.

She touched her heart, found herself out of the breath. Lily went into the kitchen, left the mug drying on a sill, and paused. She made eyes at the rack of knives leaning against one wall.

Blood pounded in her ears. The more she turned the thought in her head, the hotter she felt, until it was almost burning and her heart ran races telling her, all in a frenzy, that it was a good idea. But no – better angels kept her back, willingly, and it would be so easy to listen.

But she could make a difference.

God, how many had he killed? Even if he hadn’t, how many would he?

By fire, even. He had been willing. By fire!

The throat was a mercy in comparison.

If it suited Byrn, he would burn this farm to ashes. No qualms looking some family in the face, knowing that all their poor misery was the soldier’s own doing, and receiving charity when it suited him.

Her nails dug pits into her palms, so tightly did she grasp the paring knife. Hardly even a dagger, but sharp – oh, plenty sharp. She imagined grasping his head, thrusting the knife into his eyeballs, over and again.

Her stomach turned. Her heart churned. Great heaving breaths. She wasn’t going to do it – surely she wasn’t.

But god, it would serve him right.

She came into the room. Roland grunted, still exposing his neck to the moon. About as pale white as it got, white as frost. Blood roses on white frost. Did she see a painting like that once?

She raised her arm, held it there. She trembled like a loose wagon-wheel. Relaxed, tensed. She took in all of this, deep, sat on the edge of her bed looking over Roland’s body.

It was as if her entire body was a heart, winding up like a spring every breath, waiting to expend all this energy. One stroke, if necessary; but if she had the choice, so many more. Between the ribs, into the lungs, eyes nose mouth across the stomach. Every time the pressure got to be too much her eyes went dark, and those wounds were the things she saw. Just imagine it! Wouldn’t it be a good thing?

Wouldn’t that serve them right? Wouldn’t good triumph once more?

Yes, yes, yes. Yes.

She put the knife against his throat. Her hand was deadly steady. And if she pulled now?

She started to cry.

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Non-canon blooper:

Roland awoke to find a knife against his throat, wielded by Lily's hand. The expression that crossed his face was one of mixed disbelief and disgust.

"... And what do you have there? A knife? What are you going to do, kill me? Stupid bitch."

How easy would it be for Lily if Roland were to stay deeply asleep? One pull, and it would all be over. The triumph of good, and no sound to awaken their gracious hosts. Ample time to clean up the scene and leave no trace behind. Simple, quick. The dispensation of justice, and Roland's fate easily explained away with a simple cover story.

But it would be folly, Lily, to think that such things were ever so easy. Fate's board was grand and had more pieces than the mind could ever comprehend. And Fate would not stand to lose even one single piece before it had done all it needed to. Like when Severus saved Madon from Innes' arrow, intent on taking his life... intervention was swift, sudden, and precise.

Roland's eyes opened. Was it instinct, the honed senses of years of conflict rousing him from the depths of slumber at the touch of steel against his throat? Or did he simply have the need to get up and relieve himself, and had conveniently awoken at this precise moment? None could have answered that question. But what was certain was the sight that the Byrnian scout awoke to. Lily held a knife against his throat. Crying, tears starting to stream down from her eyes. The bleariness of sleep was swiftly dispelled. Roland was at a disadvantage here, all told. There was little room for action, a split-second of surprise to act in if she hadn't noticed him awaken, at best. ... ....... No. He didn't want to hurt her. He began to speak, quietly. If he felt fear in this moment, it did not leak into his tone.

"... So, Lily. Is this what it comes to? And here I had thought you and I were beginning to become friends. ... I must have been wrong. But tell me, then, what have I done, that brought you to decide that I must die? Was it the lie that I told to the kind people who gave us shelter and food here? Would you have rathered that I outright told them of my true allegiance and hope in the mercy of those my countrymen have grievously wounded? Do you wish that we had hurt or killed them, taken the food we needed by force?"

He paused for a moment, taking a breath. His expression was penitent now. Was he trying to talk Lily out of her current course of action, or confessing to that which he had done with death's scythe looming over? Or both?

"Or was it back further? Me asking you to drop that firepot on the Glian patrol? Death by fire... there are not many deaths that are equivalent or worse. Drowning, perhaps. But here is the thing, Lily. Something I should have conveyed to you earlier, perhaps even when we first met. I don't like killing. Maybe I've become desensitized to it over time, but the first man I killed... by God, I cried, I vomited, I was wracked with guilt for weeks. This is why I'm a scout, and not on the frontlines of the vanguard. I meet with less combat. The necessity to kill is less. And I don't believe in this war, Lily. I believe in the Ebon Knight, but I do not believe in the reasoning of our leaders in starting this conflict. I would like to believe in my nation, but why would I when this will just bring suffering into the world? Death, destruction... so many kids made into orphans. My brother and I were practically orphans ourselves, although our parents yet lived still. Why, then, having experienced that myself, would I wish to bring such a fate on others? A child shouldn't have to grow up before their time, Lily."

He smiled wistfully for a moment.

"Were it in my power, I'd bring a swift end to this war. But as it stands... there is one thing that defines my actions, my motivation. Everything I do, Lily, I do to ensure my survival. Spinning webs of lies, delivering painful deaths... how could I ever better the world if I am not alive to do so? I don't believe you've ever faced down the beasts of the Mercurial Coast, have you, Lily? If you had, you would understand that it is kill or be killed. Kill them first before they can kill you. Perhaps this philosophy is what has guided my actions all along."

He closed his eyes, his expression becoming composed.

"In the end, yours is the hand that holds the knife. Your lot is to decide what to do with it. If you still think that I deserve to die, than by all means, go for it. It'd be easy enough for you to disappear, or explain away my absence. But before you pull it across... there is something I should tell you. You missed the conversation after you had went off to bed. The Exarch? He lives, still. He was last known to be in Glia, rallying support there. And in time, the inevitable course of this war will bring him to Dodon. He knows not of greater truths, only that he will defeat Byrn and have justice for the fall of Isore. Perhaps it will comfort you, somehow, to know that he's still out there, working toward what he perceives as his ideal of good. Now... do as you will."

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The truth was that there was no good truth. No convenient excuses, in the end. Life is only pretty when smoothed by the passage of time; in the moment of, awkward jitters between the frames predominate.

Roland’s waking came not as a shock but a relief to her, because that meant that she would not kill him. It meant that he could stop her, that with a flick of his finger or a bat of his eyelid, the brute could knock her over, away, across the room, make victim of her like he’d made victim of just about anyone else –

and then he didn’t.

“Lily –“ Roland started, putting his hands up against the backboard, then wavered. Composing himself, he started more calmly. “I thought you and I were beginning to become friends.” Roland regarded the knife at his throat warily. He gave a wan smile. “I must have been wrong.”

It took everything she had not to laugh through the tears. Can’t be done, can’t wake up the world over a silly tantrum over a man’s life. The door was still shut at the corner of her eye. She had even forgotten that she’d locked it. As if the very act of locking, closing, was worth a damn. Nobody’s listening in, nobody’s trying to escape, that’s all posture and pretend so that she could believe that she was alone with him, and so that she could believe that two people alone can reveal their truehearts to one another, whatever that meant. Was there anything true about what she felt?

What did she want? Not to die, but not apologies, either, not the sort that he started stammering out so perceptively. It positively reeked of anticlimax. Everything that she had worked herself up for, and whatever that everything was it could not have been this.

Her thoughts all came in a jumble, but this raw anger, too, was all posture and pretend, a closed door with a sliver of light coming out beneath, and shadows dancing all over that sliver. She was angry, but why?

“F-friends is a fine jest,” she said. “We have nothing between us. I’m a p-prize and you’re a hunter. Isn’t that right? You can quit your twopence act. You don’t have to pretend to care for anything at all. You can just keep on going through this world taking whatever you want.”

Came the dawn. Thus enlightened, Roland shifted in place, and Lily jerked, pressed the knife harder into his neck. The man froze. Droplets of blood eked out round the edge.

If she weren’t careful, he’d die by accident, and then nobody would be happy. Nobody in the entire damn world. Lily would reflect later that life isn’t a zero-sum game after all. There are some scenarios when everyone loses.

Roland breathed shallowly, swallowed. His face morphed into something resembling intense, sad patience. “I do not wish to lie. But what choice did we have, Lily? Would you rather we had hurt them, or killed them, taken the food we needed by force?”

“You think I’m a stupid little girl, as if I knew nothing of consequences or choices. You can stand to eat their bread knowing that you might as well have gored his brother, and that you might anyway? You can stand to look these people in the face when a hundred thousand of Isore’s sons and daughters are dead?”

“I don’t like killing, Lily,” he said quietly. “The first man I killed…” He started. Excuses, excuses. “By God...and I don’t believe in this war, either. War makes orphans, and a child shouldn’t have to grow up before their time, Lily.”

“You don’t have to convince me of anything. I won’t believe it, anyway. Those are all pretty, washed excuses. I could ask you what you know of my horror, but you’ll tell me you’ve been through it twenty-fold, because you’re a soldier and I’m a stupid little girl. The only logical conclusion is that people like you are born with some absolutely fucked defect, because if you’ve known it twenty times as much as I have then how could you see it through again?”

All this, and he hardly flinched. On the contrary, he was deathly calm, which could have brought her to more tears if she were not tired of crying at that moment.

“This is for survival, Lily…it is kill, or be killed. Kill them first before they can kill you.” He closed his eyes. “What of you? Yours is the hand that holds the knife. If you believe I should die, then go for it. It’d be easy enough for you to disappear, or explain away my – “

“Don’t you kid me. You know that I won’t make it to the Ebon Knight without you. And that killing you means an end to my own journey. I need you to fight the more important war, and you are fully aware of this. But unlike you, when I do things I must, I hate it. I hate everything that must be done. And I’m no killer.”

She threw across him, where it nicked the wall before dropping onto the floor.

“I hate you, and I hate men like you. I’ll live to see your ilk learn that surrender does not mean forgiveness.” Lily rolled over.

After a little bit, Roland called out to her back. “You know your friend, that Exarch? He lives, still.”

As if clockwork, Lily rolled over again. Roland was dabbing at his neck with a moistened cloth, wincing. Charcoal flecks of blood came away onto the linen beneath the moonlight.

“This is what you missed at dinner. He was in Glia a little while back, rallying support there. And in time, he will go to Dodon.” Roland sighed. “He’s looking for justice for the fall of Isore, and he will bring retribution upon Byrn, if he has his way.”

Her face was blank, inscrutable. Eyes puffed up red, Roland couldn’t tell exactly what emotions swam inside that gale-wind mess. Still, he ventured forth.

“I thought perhaps it might comfort you to know that your friend is still out there, working toward what he perceives as his ideal of good.”

“Why?” was all she asked, and when Roland hadn’t an answer, she turned away from him once more.

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He wanted to say something further. But he thought better of it. As she had said, she wouldn't have believed it anyway. Perhaps he would be all too glad to hand her off to the Ebon Knight, in the end. Biting back the words at the tip of his tongue, Roland drifted back into the waiting embrace of sleep as best he could.

The next morning, Roland waved at the farmer and his wife who stood on the porch, as he stood partially down the walkway leading away from the house. He had managed to conceal most of the cut that Lily had left, and waved off what was still visible as a blow from the brigands that had beset him, one he must have not noticed while they made their escape. Now, himself and Lily were refreshed (theoretically), with bundles of food generously provided by their hosts wrapped up and put into their bags. They were ready to take to the road ahead once more. And so, they turned away from the house and began their trek anew. Roland swore to himself that he wouldn't breathe a word of this place to his fellows in Byrn. He owed the family that much, at least, whatever Lily may have thought of him.

Speaking of Lily, Roland gave her the cold shoulder now. Sullen silence enveloped the two like an exceptionally clingy cloud, a stark contrast to the amicable chatter the Byrnian scout had met the girl with before, on the journey here. She had wounded him, perhaps. Or perhaps he had decided that trying to get her to open up was as effective as trying to kick down a castle wall; that was to say, impossible without the influence of the divine and a task best given up on lest it bring one more forlornness and despair.

Occasionally, the scout felt the urge to break the silence. But he swallowed back his words each and every time. If the silence was to be broken, it would be by her. If she was content with the silence, so be it. If it drove her madder and madder until she could no longer hold back, then that was just as well. In either case, the ball was in her court now. And if she simply let the ball be, then far be it from Roland to impose on her. He would do just as well to step away and leave her be, and he fully intended to do so if she did not indicate that she desired as much in any capacity.

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They went hard for twelve hours. The farmstead led them to Portici, and Portici to Travale – all small nowhere towns, happy to entertain and happier to see them go – and then the vast forest gave way to the familiar rolling plains which one thought of when one thought of Isore, although that was another several days’ journey yet. At last, Foria rose on the eastern horizon, illuminated on its face by the fingers of longing sunbeams.

Lily was nearly dead on her legs when they came into the city, but Roland wouldn’t find her complaining to him. Little would she expect compassion from a man like him; even if they both knew, or suspected, that he would have showed it to her at her word. Men like him! It infuriated her to be under the protection of such a vile man. Twice they had come across brigand-ish men and twice Roland had held out an arm, a simple motion which signified a devotion to his promise, and went forth along to have negotiations with the bloodstains on his sword prominent. False, of course. Roland caught a squirrel just to smeared its blood down the length of the thing early in the morning.

Roland wasn’t in much better shape. Fatigue, both physical as mental. Something roiled in his stomach, and he wondered whether or not eating those squirrels were alright after all. It would’ve been terrible to have them go to waste. On top of which, he maybe blinked twice the whole way they came, and his sword hand ached from gripping it the whole day. Too many precautions had to be taken for the day. Foria made him nervous. The town lay just on the other side of the line in the sand, where the Ebon Knight’s rowdier lieutenants had overreached and cut themselves on Glia’s border guards. Any moment, he was expecting a bolt of pegasus knights from the blue. Ambush watches, cavalry screens, marauding knights-errant on patrol...Foria would be the beginning of the downhill ride, but all that meant was that the approach to Foria was the crest of it.

But they had not met trouble. Of course. Lines in the sand, neglected, blur into nothingness over the course of time. The Princess’s Tower and the Ebon Knight had viciously quarreled this border into being but the politics of farmers and townsmen wiped away the chalk-weak lines with their inevitable real motion, like the movement of so many ants.

So upon their arrival, they both breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and Lily was willing to lift the veil, if only briefly. “What now?”

Roland sheathed his sword, rubbed his eyes. “You tell me.”

Things unsaid.

In the tavern they found a table close to a corner, unassuming and in shadow. Roland picked it out of habit. Newcomers attracted enough unnecessary attention, and they needed as little of it as they could afford. Roland muttered something about relieving himself and he was gone. Lily hardly heard him. Her head started nodding. She blinked hard, and put her head down just a moment and –

“Hello there, little miss.”

She jerked her head upwards, pulled her face into a semblance of attentiveness to see a man standing over Roland’s seat, hands grasping the back. His eyes darted over her like that of a bird, brilliant and keen, and his features rather sharp to carry the impression through. Handsome, in other words. That got the girl up to wakefulness quickly. “H-hi.”

“I’m sorry, this is all very sudden – I just saw you from across the way and – do you mind if I buy you a drink and a meal?” He had a winning smile. Lily suddenly felt awfully self-conscious. She reached a hand up to brush her bangs from her eyes. Then she wondered where Roland was, and if he’d return.

Then; to hell with Roland.

“C-certainly, sir.”

The man beamed and sat in the chair, raising his hand for the barmaid. “Not many girls as pretty as you come through town,” he said. He was a little on the older side of young, but plenty spry. Maybe a little older than Madon, but his features were only complemented by age. His dress was fine, almost metropolitan. Out of place in this small town. He must have come from one of the larger cities nearby. She blinked when he asked her a question. “Where are you from?”

Lily realized she’d spent a little too long looking the man up and down. She blushed. “The V-Valley.”

“That’s a mighty long way to come,” the man said. He sounded awed. “I’ve heard stories of the place. I’m sure it must be fascinating.”

“What about yourself?” She was stammering. Dimly, she felt as if she should say as little as possible.

“I’m from Isore, actually,” the man said. His jaw clenched, and the corners of his eyes dipped. “Just hardly got out of there recently...”

Lily, without thinking, reached out and grasped the man’s hand.

“I was there too,” she said, then smiled at him. “I’m sorry – I’m also a little bit of a refugee. I shouldn’t have asked – this is no good talk.”

“No, you’re right,” the man said. He dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. Lily tried again. “Oh, what’s your name?”

“Oh, don’t take me for the kind of gentleman who lavishes a girl with gifts just because she’s pretty. Let’s trade, won’t we?”

Against her better nature, she giggled. “I’m Lily.”

“Lily, eh? That’s a fine pretty name. I’m Xander.” The barmaid set down a plate of appetizers between them. “And hungry, to boot.”

Lily had nothing to say but to agree.

After they’d made it about halfway into the entree, Xander got a serious look on his face. Lily felt a chill run through her, suddenly. He put down his fork. “But Lily, I have to know. What are your plans after this?”

She swallowed, the food turning cold in her mouth. “This?”

“You know – and I’m sorry if you haven’t heard, but the Valley’s gone too. Where are you going to go?”

“I – I don’t know,” she lied. “I haven’t thought much about it. What about you?”

“Glia’s just a short hop up north. Me and my brother and older sister, we’ve got an uncle who’ll show us some kindness in Dulcia, just outside Soleium.” Xander leaned in, voice dropping kindly. “Listen, I think I’d really be remiss if I didn’t say that you could come with us, at least part of the way – at least, let me take you over the border. It’s not safe for a girl on her own round these parts, and I think I’d really appreciate the company.”

“I –“ What now? She chewed very slowly, shut her eyes closed. Suppose she just said no? But some part of her did not wish to offend the man. “I can’t. I’m sorry – I think I’m headed to Conau. Yes. Conau. I’ve got relatives there.”

Xander looked crestfallen, but only for a moment. “Well, I can’t say that I’m not worried on your behalf, but if a girl like you’s made it this far, she must be made of some tough stuff.”

Lily breathed a sigh of relief.

Xander touched her hand, smiling again. No more tension. “Well, how about a dance while we’ve got the good fortune to meet tonight?”

Lily, of course, loved dancing. And how long had it been since she had the chance?

She was already out of her seat, grasping Xander’s hand, when she caught Roland out of the corner of her eye. He was sickly pale and stumbling back through the back door of the tavern. She felt a twinge of guilt, almost – before a barmaid dashed over to support him with a tankard of water. Then Lily felt nothing. Everything was taken care of in this world; Roland, Xander, and they had made it to Foria, which Roland said would be the end of all their troubles.

She and Xander twirled to the music, and she felt all of it – all of it, just dislodge from her and disappear into the whirling current of happenstance.

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Roland had gotten a good enough picture of the situation from his chosen vantage point, and so he made his way out of the tavern. Playing up being sick, an act that... wasn't entirely an act. Those squirrels really hadn't settled well. Yeah, roughing it off the land had never turned out to be ideal, at least he could stick to proper food once he and Lily reached the safehouse. His thoughts raced as he stumbled his way out the back door. He... left a decent mess back there, though if the tavern was unused to that they couldn't have been operating very long.

A Glian spy? Here? And where there's smoke, there's fire... probably not working alone, then. Damn.

He murmured to himself, his thoughts racing too fast to be coherent now.

"Are they onto us? Or are they squeezing information out of every newcomer who comes through this town?"

Then, the barmaid came up beside him with a tankard of water. He gratefully took it and drank, being careful to not down it all at once. As he sat up against the outside wall of the tavern, the barmaid watched him with a bit of concern, waiting to see if he needed anything else. As he began finishing off the tankard, he subtly scanned the area around the tavern. There were some people that stood apart from the rest- seemingly blending in to the normal hustle and bustle, but each one of them... he could tell that each one was keeping a watch on the exits of the tavern. And the one focused on the back entrance, well, he could only hope he passed for some poor bastard who had ate and drank more than he could handle. The situation now more clear to the hand-picked scout of the Ebon Knight, he emptied the tankard and slowly stood up, obviously struggling somewhat to stand upright and using the wall for support. He began to make his way back into the tavern.

"Aight, think the 'ole stomach's settled now. Just need to get inside and sit back down for a while, that'll do it."

The barmaid followed Roland back inside. Before she could go off to go help other customers, Roland stumbled into her, slipping a small bag of coins into her pocket that clinked dully, and swiftly whispering into her ear.

"The blue-haired girl on the dance floor. Spill a drink on her, make it look like an accident. Bring her to the third side room from the left."

With that, the barmaid pushed Roland away and he stumbled off towards one of the darker corner tables. The plan was in action, now it was time for some prep work for the next stages...

Had Xander and Lily lost track of time, there on the dance floor? If not the former, than certainly the latter had. So it was an indeterminate amount when the barmaid approached the tables nearest the dance floor, tray of drinks raised in hand- and a relaxed patron stretched languidly, a leg outstretched into the path of the barmaid. A chain of events would unfold from this point. But only a very attentive eye could have noticed the momentary flicker of her gaze, how she noticed the outstretched leg and took no effort to avoid it. Nevertheless... she stumbled forward, losing footing and control. Xander spun Lily gracefully outwards, his outstretched hand locked with hers- putting her straight into the path of the tray of the drinks, the liquid sloshing all over her. Perhaps Xander might have caught some of the splash, but the vast majority would drench Lily.

The barmaid gasped and approached Lily, more or less ignoring Xander as she fussed and apologized profusely for her slip-up. She began to lead Lily away from the main part of the tavern and towards the side rooms, promising she'd back quickly with clean cloths, and a change of clothes if Lily so wished. In the sideroom she had been led to, Lily would stand dripping wet with spilled ale and the like, likely rather miserable as well with the sudden and harsh pull back into reality. However, she wasn't alone too long, as Roland stepped out of the shadows of the room toward her, speaking quietly.

"Wow, did she get you with a whole tray's worth of drink? Excessive, but I suppose anything less might have looked suspect. Anyways, you are most likely not in the mood for levity, so to the point. That man you were talking to and dancing with? Glian spy. The explanation to how I know would take some time, suffice to say that my work as a scout means quickly identifying those in the Glian spy network is paramount. What's more, he's got friends lurking outside. Watching most, if not all of the entrances to this tavern. I don't know if they're onto us specifically, but I doubt every newcomer here gets such a warm welcome."

He drew a knife from his belt and held it out toward Lily, handle facing her. An oddly trusting gesture, considering their 'argument' some nights before.

"Take this, and conceal it. If the spy network is onto us, your 'new friend' will likely want to bring you to their masters. He'll probably be prepared for some kind of attack from me if he follows you in here. But you... heh, I doubt he even thinks you'd have it in you."

Edited by EpicRome23

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The man sat down across from her, as jovial as he was dripping, and started stripping off his doublet. Paper kept her eyes on her book, took a bite out of her pastry, and pretended boredom. The man would talk whenever he felt like it, whether or not she asked. And somehow, she hated the thought of giving him attention.

The man who’d called himself Xander finished wringing the beer out onto the ground and gave the jacket a sniff. “Like horse piss,” he quipped, wrinkling his nose. “To be honest, getting those spilled was a right charitable act. Me and Lily did the locals a real favor.”

“That so,” Paper remarked. “Had fun out there?”

He grinned, touched his face where Lily had rested her head during the slow bits. “I’d say so, yeah.”

She picked up a charcoal, scribbled a note in the margins of her journal. “Horse piss in Foria – Prin greatly enjoyed.”

“Noxious little lady, aren’t you? She was a charming girl, just the right combination of pretty and naive. Doesn’t smile hardly nearly enough. If I’d gotten the whole night to work some magic –“ Prin broke off with a laugh when Paper scowled. “I’m joking, I’m joking.”

“I’ll have your cock hanging from a clothesline, Prin, if you don’t keep it where it belongs.”

Their conversation was low, held in the smooth tones of Brevalian; the tongue of a small city-state in the obscure West Marches of Glia. Isorians had never been there, Byrnians had never heard of it. They were both rusty but it sufficed for easy talking. Locals gave them uneasy looks. They had to be wary of foreigners these days, and even though Glia was an ally the presence of Glians was a litmus for conflict. Languages reminded them of the war on the horizon. And, to tell true, nobody trusted Glians anyway.

So did Prin and Paper reciprocate. Foria, on the far side of the border, did not crawl with Byrnians, but that did not mean that it could not. The Knight had been pushing for consolidation of his new territory in order to stage his campaigns, and the gears that once drove Isore had begun to grind back into motion. It was better, after all, to survive than to starve. Loyalty to the Exarch did not nourish the stomach. The couriers and traders were blood in the veins of the country again, but now carrying marks of Byrn. Isorian civilians were now, as a matter of practicality, the enemy.

So it should not be surprising that a Scout who’d fled the Valley would trace, with his wyvern-path and his continuous sightings, a straight line to the Fortress City that would take him through Foria. Ordinarily, no cause for special consideration, although all wyverns identified were to be traced as a matter of course.

What was more interesting was that this Scout had made it into the Valley, and left alive in spite of the Wizards’ numerous magical tripwires. Every agent of Glia knew that the Wizards brooked no intruder. More than a feww Glian agents had been half-fried trying to listen in on the Library, and that had been when the Valley was still attached to the ground.

So, the Wizards had caught the Scout and saw fit to release him. Oddly generous, but moreover, he had brought extra cargo with him – a young girl who’d done nothing but slow his escape.

The two Glians had lain in wait for two days now, with about three of their fellows rounding out their platoon outside.

Prin plucked the pastry from her hand and popped the rest into his mouth. “What’s that you’re fiddling with?”

The likeness of a girl – the girl – stared out at him from the rough parchment, sketched in rough lines of charcoal to proportion. Sharp angles and exaggerated shadows only served to illuminate the fineries of her appearance. Above had been signed the name: LILY. The facsimile was laughing.

“You’ll make me swoon,” Prin stated. He handed it back. “And the man?”

Paper made a sour face. Prin clicked his tongue. “Ah, shame.”

“Don’t start,” she snapped. “If you’d been less ostentatious about things, maybe the Byrnian fellow wouldn’t’ve fucked off the minute he saw you getting handsy with the girl.”

He put his hands up. “How was I to know he was to be so jealous?”

“He’s a Scout, Prin. God knows he probably knew who you were before he smelled you.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Prin demanded. “Hey, what do I smell like?” He made a show of sniffing himself, then cracked a smile. “Horse piss! No, that’s the beer.”

Paper rolled her eyes.

“One of these days, you’ll regret that flippancy.”

“These days or those days, my life is full of regrets. But not this one. Voila. It pays to befriend the locals, Paper.”

The barmaid was staring at him from across the tavern, hovering near the kitchen. He cued her. She came over with a tray of fresh food. She bowed deeply to Prin: “I’m so sorry, sir. If there’s anything at all you need...”

“Enough of that,” he said in smooth Isorian. “Do you have something for me, lass?”

The maid eyed Paper.

“No worries,” Prin said. “She’s a friend of mine.”

“Well.” The maid hesitated, then reached into her pocket and produced what was once a necklace. Now just a stone on a snapped leather cord: a dragon’s claw. She pressed it into Prin’s hands. “This was the only thing of hers I could find in her pockets.”

“That’ll do,” Prin said. “Thank you.”

“Another thing,” the maid started. Words welled up out of her like tears. The girl was terrified. Caught up in plots between the sorts of people that’ll kill you as soon as look at you, or so the stories told. “The man, he told me–“

“I know, you’re forgiven. Keep the tip, you just did as he asked. And you won’t be hurt, I promise. As long as my friend Elise is here to watch your back.” Paper scowled again, but gave the maid her best cared-for face. The maid seemed reassured. Really, a woman made all the difference. “Though, do tell. Which room did you take them to?”

After the maid left, Prin opened up his fist. The gem glittered in the darkness.

“Roughshod trinket, but it’ll have to do,” he said. “Wonder if it’s sentimental for her. Hopefully worth enough for her to come and chat a little.”

“You know that the Byrnian won’t let that happen willingly.”

“No, it won’t, but I’d rather this not come to violence. If he puts down his arms willingly, that’d be best.”

“Hell. Don’t get your neck cut.”

Just after she’d been left in the room the maid gave her a change of clothes. Lily gladly slipped into the dry linen tunic and dress, stripping off her clothes with speed equivalent to her dripping misery. Never mind Roland being there – though why? He tapped his feet impatiently and waited for the maid to clear out with her clothes before he started talking.

Glian spies? Here? That man, Xander?

What did Glia want with her?

Wasn’t Glia where Madon was?

Glia, the Northern Empire, source of a million questions that she had thought of before and forgotten. The place where she had meant to go, before the Wizards had found her again. She cupped her head, tried to give her thoughts form, bind them into coherency. What was important now?

They must have watched the Valley day and night. Of course they had. Wasn’t the Valley Isore’s ally? And Byrn’s enemy, or pretending to be? Then it must have been Glia’s ally as well. Or perhaps it was that patrol that had given them chase. Whatever the case, why had they followed this particular wyvern?

“The dragonstone,” she mouthed. Her neck nearly snapped with how fast she whipped her head around.

“It was in my pocket –“ she opened the door. Her clothes lay strung up just outside, facing the brazier lighting the hallway. She ran through the pockets of her dress, then slumped. Roland had a dark look on his face, brought her back into the room and locked it.

“It’s not there. They must have –“

Roland peered out the window, frowned. “Hang on. They haven’t cleared out.”

“They have the stone. This is…”

“If they were here for the stone, then they would’ve made their escape already.” He shook his head. “The Ebon Knight knows of the power of the Emblem because he talked to a prophet. And your friend, the Exarch, he hardly knew anything about it until you told him, isn’t that right? It’d be an astronomical chance that that information about the Emblem made its way through the Glian spies already, and reached this spy specifically out here in the middle of nowhere. Are you sure they have it?”

Lily closed her eyes. She tried to hear the faint warm call of the things which felt like bits and pieces of her own heart and future when she’d held them in her hand.

“It’s there. It’s in the bar. It’s...close.” She opened her eyes. “It’s very close.”

Just then, a knock at the door. A man’s voice called out.

“Hello there. Lily? I think I’ve got something of yours, do you mind coming out to get it?”

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Roland turned a wary eye toward the door, and spoke quietly, so that his voice wouldn't carry to whoever was outside the room.

"Thank God for the little things, Lily. They certainly don't know what they have if they're bringing it this close, as opposed to sending it off then baiting you out with a duplicate."

He then paused and went over to his bags, carefully sorting through before producing a vial of some clear liquid, and a crystal of dark grey, almost black even. He looked over his shoulder at Lily as he uncorked the vial and dropped the crystal into the liquid. It fizzled as it dissolved into the liquid and Roland spoke.

"I have a plan, and hopefully these Glians won't be wise to it. But I'm going to need you to go out and speak to them. If you can somehow convince them to let us go on our way with the stone back in your hands, that would be excellent. But I suspect they'll want to take us back deeper into Glian territory, whether some outpost or town or all the way to the grand capital itself. In any case, very inconvenient for us; and I can tell you now that a good deal of trouble is going to crop up if we're so heavily delayed in seeing the Ebon Knight. That's assuming those Glians let us go at all, even."

He suppressed a wave of nausea as he downed the fizzing potion in his hand. He waved Lily forward, mouthing the words 'remember the knife'. Lily unlocked the door and stepped out into the hallway- the door left open behind her, with the Byrnian scout of the line of sight of whomever was in the hallway. Did Lily hold any trepidation as she exited? Roland couldn't tell. Xander, or more propely, Prin, swiftly engaged her in conversation, though perhaps it was more of a negotiation considering what was at stake. For his part, Roland waited for a time- then with the potion's effects most certainly having taken effect, he carefully made his way toward the doorway. He peeked slowly into the hallway. "Xander" spoke with Lily, and the scout listened in for a few moments.

"... now, Lily, I do apologize for harping on this. But you and your, ah, 'brother' should truly reconsider continuing on alone, especially in the direction you claim to be heading..."

Roland repressed the urge to let out a snort, as his gaze focused further down the hallway. A woman, who he could tell wasn't just some local lurking around. Presumably the accomplice of the man Lily spoke to. Roland hugged close to the wall as he moved to maneuver behind her- he didn't want some trick of the light or air betraying him, though the potion's effects would presumably keep him out of sight and mind unless he deliberately made lots of noise. His trusted shortsword was in hand- his secondary armament, used mostly in those times like now when he was not upon Dymbuss' back. He had given his tertiary weapon to Lily, the knife- just as good for gutting a man as it was for cutting food. Some part of Roland held the hope she wouldn't have to use it, but... the rest of him knew that these Glian spies would not make their lives so easy. It was just their nature. And if they had spotted his departure from The Valley, then certainly they would not him and Lily go without learning more about that. The Ebon Knight's command, at least, had heard of the frustration of Glian agents attempting to infiltrate The Valley and eavesdrop on the Wizards.


Then, the words that would send the lined-up dominoes of the coming moments falling were uttered from Prin's mouth.

"... I'm going to insist that the both of you come with us. To Glia proper. We promise not to hurt you, but there are questions we have for you that we cannot afford to ask somewhere so public as here."

Roland watched Lily as he spoke these words. The implications of what he was saying were not lost on her, especially if she remembered Roland's previous words. She wasn't able to secure their escape with words. To accompany this man, this spy, would entail being sidetracked from reaching the Ebon Knight, for a long while if not permanently. Dragged into the clutches of those who knew only of the war with Byrn, not of those who knew of the greater scope such as the Wizards and the Knight. To surrender here was to, possibly, delay if not outright hinder the plans to save the world from calamity. Only one thing for it, then.

-The knife Lily was given was drawn and plunged into Prin's gut. From his position, before Paper would be able to muster much reaction or search for where he might be, Roland slammed the pommel of his shortsword into the back of her head, sending her crumpling to the ground unconscious. He could have slashed her down, but surely, she would be unconscious long enough for them to make their escape from Foria. And even if not, she would be no more trouble once they had made their way into the extent of the Ebon Knight's grasp. Roland gestured for Lily to follow as he rushed back into the room they had been using, slamming the door and locking it tightly shut. He looked at her for a moment.

"Won't be long before the alarm is raised. Grab only the most essential of your stuff, we can replace pretty much everything but the stone once we reach the safehouse, and we can't afford to be overburdened. Funnily enough, this window will bring us on the street that will be the quickest route to the stable... we'll steal a horse and be on our way."

After grabbing from his own portion of the bags what he deemed most necessary, the Byrnian scout held true to his word, charging out the window of their room with a shattering of wood and glass.

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Lily hated war. She had her reasons, and she didn’t know if those reasons were the right ones or wrong ones, or if reasons could be wrong or right. It seemed a silly thing to say. Who loved war?

But right now, she decided that nothing would ever be right ever again, and it was because of man’s capacity to oppose one another.

Things had started to brighten. Things had not been normal and would never be normal again, whatever that meant, because they were at war and because after this war came the end, but at least things could be okay. She had firmly believed that one day she could crawl into bed and pretend nothing ever happened, and she would like it. When they had made it to Foria, and Roland sighed in relief and said to her: “We’re in Byrnian territory now,” tiredly, but triumphant, as if this was the beginning of their downhill, she had been overjoyed even through their silence. It made her want to hug her savior, however repulsive or heartless he could be, because he’d done it. Roland had brought them to a place of peace. She could stop with the sleepless nights, the roughing it beneath a sky where every shadow was the shadow of an enemy. She could eat, drink, and dance and it would be okay for a single day.

The man had a gentle manner to him. Soothing, even. “Listen, Lily. I’m not going to hurt you. I swear upon the Princess that I won’t hurt your companion, either. But there are questions…you understand.” He tried his best to be reasonable. “We’re at war, Lily.”

She didn’t need to want to believe anything. The man was kind, it seemed. Noble, even. Not patronizing, even now as he negotiated with a girl ten years his younger who knew nothing of the world. He saw her as she was and reached out in that way.

“I c-can’t. I’m sorry, but I mustn’t. I have an important mission – I need to do this. Please,” she said. “You can’t take us back.”

Now he was the enemy. Now, even as he wanted nothing but good for her, it was nothing but ill will and malice. This was the aberration, where although everything had the veneer of being ordinary and warm, the world was entirely the wrong color. Nothing was correct now; nothing was sacred, or holy, and whether people loved one another, whether they were good or evil, did not factor into what happened. War had done this. War had made it so that even trust was no longer good enough for two people to come to an understanding.

Here, in this place where everything was supposed to be okay, she was facing the end.

Prin put a hand on her shoulder, so gently that even a grazing deer would not have been startled. “I’m sorry, Lily, but I have to do my job.”

Tears came to her eyes.

He came into the room, intent on negotiating the Scout down to his life.

Roland was gone.

There was neither shock nor surprise in his demeanor; Prin looked the room up and down once, noticed the latch on the window still firm. “Paper! He’s camouflaged!”

His fingers danced and he whispered something under his breath. Electricity began to arc between his fingertips. The man turned on her, eyes flashing past her. He raised his fist, pointed it at the wall.

Lily panicked.

It wasn’t panic that did it – she had known from the beginning that there was nothing else she could do.

The man gasped. The pommel of Roland’s dagger emerged from his ribs. Blood wicked into the channel and dripped off the tip protruding from his back.

“Shit,” the man murmured, and toppled onto his knees.

Lily grabbed the necklace from his fist and ran.

Prin’s words had hardly reached her ears when Paper toppled the table and threw herself to the ground. Roland’s strike cleaved nothing but air and stray papers. The man, tired and with no adrenaline left in him, just advanced on her. It didn’t faze him: the Glian was off her balance and on the ground now. Nothing she could do. He sheathed his shortsword and a single strike to her temple was enough to knock the woman out cold. The tavern erupted into chaos. But just as quickly as he’d appeared Roland seemed to vanish from awareness, and talk was of why she’d collapsed. Nothing to get worked up over. Then he saw it.

Smoke seeped out from her clutched fist. Someone pried it open; it was an amulet. Having no sorcerous talent himself, he recognized the purpose of the spell immediately. He looked out the windows to the tavern. Commotion started outside, cries of fear. The same figures he’d noticed before started advancing towards the tavern, swords unsheathed. A few more than he’d remembered seeing. All of them holding smoking amulets in their fists. A signal mechanism.


Roland ran.

They tripped into each other at the door to the kitchen. Lily was nearly in tears. She had the dragonstone clutched in her hand. No knife on her.

“They’re coming,” Roland said.

“What?” She wiped her face with her sleeve. Nothing. She was still wearing the plain linens that the barmaid had given her. Her clothes, still wet, hung on a line above the fireplace where people had been drinking.

There was shouting from the dining room now. Glians started forcing their way in, parting the crowds. Some shouted for order.

Roland ignored her question. He pulled her into the hallway, then checked the window to the street outside. No sign of soldiers anywhere. His gaze zeroed in on the stables across the street.

“That’s game,” he told her, smashed the window open, scooped her up with a single, fluid motion – and for a brief moment, he thanked every god he knew that the girl was as small and frail as she was – and jumped into the street.

Whatever metric Roland used to judge that they’d made it far enough, Lily couldn’t tell. The moon was brightening the horizon and there was no sign of dawn, and nary a shadow as far as the eye could see on the swept plains, save for a small stand of trees off the road. The scout brought their duo of horses into the trees wordlessly, and when they stopped he fell off his horse and slammed into a pile of leaves. Lily still had the grace to get off the right way. She lay down beside him on the bed of leaves. She couldn’t tell if he’d passed out or not. The day had not been kind to him. She felt a twinge within the empty sadness that lay upon her like a cloak. It was all her. He'd gone to such lengths for her.

For her, all these sufferings were ordinary to him now.

They were lucky. It was a warm night tonight, and the breeze was cool on their skin. Lily held the dragonstone to her chest. It was hot, burning like a beating heart.

The stars took on depth. It made her think of infinite things. She got tired of crying lately, so she didn’t. But she still didn’t know.

“How do you do it,” she whispered. “How can you live like this?”

She closed her eyes. Nobody was chasing them now. Nothing but silence and wind as their companion for a hundred miles. She could sleep. She could be at ease…

Was this okay?

Edited by saga juliet

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"... things aren't usually nearly as, hmm, exciting as this trip has been. Then again, I don't typically have missions that end up as far behind enemy lines as we were, or even have someone else along."

Roland chuckled quietly for a moment as he pulled what he had grabbed of his bags toward him.

"You didn't wake me up, by the way. I just had something nagging on my mind, wanted to check it before I actually fell asleep."

Searching through the bags, a frown was visible on the face of the Byrnian scout.

"Got a good portion of the food, should be enough to get us to the safehouse... but... what's missing... oh. Oh, oh no. I really hope that doesn't come back to bite the Ebon Knight in the arse."

Roland didn't divulge what he was speaking of as he let out a deep, weary sigh, then laid back down and swiftly went to sleep.

The next morning, preparations were swift, and soon enough, the two were atop their horses, bags secured as they made their way on the last leg of the journey toward the safehouse. Roland carefully scanned the surroundings as they rode, commenting on it after awhile. He didn't know if Lily was curious about his vigilance whatsoever, now that they were back in 'friendly' territory- but it wouldn't hurt to let her know, now would it?

"Shouldn't be any Glians bold enough to patrol out this far. With the fall of the Isore, however... bandits and highwaymen have taken in droves to the Isorian countryside. The Ebon Knight's patrols take them down when they have the chance to... but everything east of Monzia and Cortia has been more or less abandoned by the army of Isore. Only so much our command can do with those that scoff at the law when they have such numbers. But... we probably won't run into any. They have a preference for the southeast lands, very few patrols head that direction and they basically can do as they please there."

For his part, the Byrnian scout was eager to get to the safehouse. There, he could finally and truthfully say they were safe, that they were fully back in friendly territory. Plus, Rolliam would be with them, then- and two fighters were most assuredly greater than one, for whatever bandits would be so foolish as to block their path. It would be more or less a straight shot to the old capital of Isore from the safehouse. It had been a while since Roland had seen the Ebon Knight, and he was eager to report on this venture.

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An arrow tip was thrown on the table, with a loud knock coming from its impact with wood. A few heads turned, curious, but they went back to their business, noticing one of the scouts. He was tinkering with the arrows, trying to make specific heads that would suit his missions. The man was bored from tying, loosening up and fixing the customized projectiles over and over again. It's not as if he'd do this to all his arrows, but he had a far greater quantity of arrows which were all the same, boring sight when picking up one from the quiver. 

Rolliam was doing this for more than a few weeks, every since he was relocated here, in order to secure the highways from any further incidents and threats, clearing the way for his brother to come back with whatever he was tasked to bring. Dragonstone was it, right? Yeah, right. Roland would surely be able to steal that, considering how much him and I used to steal before they were recruited by Ebon Knight. Hell, it feels like days since then. But... Roland's wyvern came back recently. It has been a good amount of days since then and there's no sign of his brother. What could have happened to him? Roland's as slippery as a fish, but this is extremely concerning. Did he cross any borders and got himself into trouble? Was he caught by any other patrols? Partisans took him as prisoner?

Hell if he knows. Every morning, noon and evening Rolliam would sit in one of the highest trees near the safehouse to seek the lands. The landscape, as beautiful as it is, with the sun bathing him in its holy light, wind blessing him with its gentle touches against his pale skin, his heart was being filled with dread and fear. Fear, the strongest at the moment, that he won't see him back...

But a few days later, when he was up on the highest tree, camouflaged, while the sun would rise, he saw a duo. A duo of horses, with a person each. He recognized his brother straight away, with a smile on his face, but it faded once he looked over at the other person, riding the horse. A woman with him, here? The duo was approaching the surroundings of the safehouse at such a fast rate and Roland would let a stranger come with him? Nothing at this moment is part of the plan and Rolliam was getting suspicious. He let them walk, as he stayed hidden in the tree, hoping Roland wouldn't notice him hiding there. After all, their childhood game was Hide and Seek. Both of them were good enough at it to notice eachother hiding in trees, in high foliage or even camouflaged. How? None of them know. Maybe talent?

It didn't matter now. The duo would approach a bigger than average Isorian village, where the people looked all lively, doing their daily things, never noticing the others. They were all busy helping themselves in times like these, when Isore would fall to its knees due to the attack of Byrn, which hurt hard enough to destroy most of the remaining remnants of Isore's infrastructure. Roland was approaching a house, with a hand rummaging through his bag, looking for what would seem to be a key, an old, black key which seemed like it would open another old door... With the lady behind, Roland got off the horse and went downstairs, right outside to this house to what would seem to be its basement. With a swift move, he inserted the key and a click was heard, the door was opened. Rolliam wiggled his nose and followed the two, as they entered the basement. He followed them, entered and locked the door behind, giving both of them a good look, as they were looking around at the house. Roland was checking his bag once more, trying to find the thing he was missing after putting the key inside. Rolliam opened his mouth, "Welcome back, brother. Got what you were assigned to find?" He looked at the lady for a slight of a second then back at him, with his head tilted in curiosity and suspicion. 

Rolliam is a young lad with white, spiky hair which would occasionaly cover his brown-blue eyes. He was dressed in coloured leather armour, fitting the lands they were in: Green, with brown and specks of in between, blending in with the nature. He has a brave bow on his back, made from dark wood with several green tints on it, for further blending in with the enviroment, including his quiver. His face was a bit dirty from one of his recent missions, where he painted himself in all sorts of colours to take down a few bad guys. He seems like he wasn't really paying any attention to this, his mind seemed to be in a whole other world, coming back only to focus on his brother and the lady. Otherwise, his face is not really so dirty as one would expect from a scout. Not like he'd care, anyways. He preferred being stealthy over looking nice any day, but he'd forget the line between a task and free time.

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The odd caravan ambled north through the creeping forests and plains of the border. Five grounded pegasi, flapping restlessly every so often like fish out of water, the last two dragging two wagons. The riders wiped sweat from their brows, chatted aimlessly about anything interesting along the way, of which this county of Isore was in sore lack. An attentive listener might even have picked up a few imperial secrets, though they’d be hard-pressed to pick them out from the rest of the bullshit stories and exaggerated lies the Glians were entertaining themselves with. The road to Glia was long without wings.

The day was bright and cloudless. The sun burned from on high, and a gentle wind swept the plain. It was a day for flying.

Paper guided her horse round the back of the caravan, sketchbook and notes beneath her arm. Prin looked up at her from his bed of bloody straw. A bandage wrapped round his stomach. Paper jumped from atop her pegasus into the wagon. “Comfortable?”

Prin shrugged, wincing. He was going to make it through alive, so the pain was a better diversion than boredom. “Stimulating the mind?” He slipped her bundle of papers out from beneath her arm, admired the parchment atop. Round, shaded lumps careened across the paper – the artist’s impression of the vast nothing of Isore.

“I’d rather have been stabbed,” she said dryly.

He cursed her. “What a debacle.” They’d gotten thrown out of Foria after the commotion. Isorians stopped caring about sides by now. The real enemy was anyone who brought trouble. At least they’d gotten out with their lives, though their coffers were considerably emptier paying for damages. Prin winced, pressed the bandage. “Blasted cheeky girl.”

“More than a pretty face,” Paper said.

“A feisty one,” Prin said. If he weren’t at risk of spilling his guts he might’ve laughed. “Reminds me of you.”

“I’ll stab you, too.”

He flipped the pages until the facsmile of Lily showed. “There she is.”

“Our enigma girl.”

“She was pretty set on getting to Byrn, you know. Didn’t seem like she was too keen on the country, though, specially since she’s a desert gal through and through.” Prin said.

Paper nodded. Prin figured honest people out the best of all of them, because he was an honest one when none of them were. In her eyes, he made for a strange spy. “But she gut you anyway.”

“She didn’t want to,” he protested. “She did. But I’m betting that there’s something important there. The Valley sends the Byrnians and envoy and it’s a girl like that. Girl who’s new entirely to war. Makes a man think. What were the Wizards trying to work?”

“Keep reading,” Paper said at last. “It gets better.”

Prin did. When he flipped the page, sheaths of papers fell out. All scribbled in Byrnian. He went ice cold.

When he was done, he said, “Well, that makes the Isorian front a done deal. More than it already was, anyhow. So what’s the rest of this about, then?” he said.

Paper took her book back. “The Knight thinks that the Wizards had a particular superweapon that he wanted for himself. But the Wizards don’t fry his scout. They send an envoy back with the man.”

“Means they don’t mind the Knight playing grabass.”

“Exactly. But they don’t give him the thing he’s looking for, or they don’t give it to him outright. They send a girl instead.”

“So why the girl? Maybe they don’t trust the Knight entirely.” Paper played patient with him, but Prin could tell she’d already figured something. She had a dark look on her face. “What is it?”

“Why not one of their own if they were so worried? I think the girl’s important to this whole exchange, and I think the Wizards are eager enough about it. Here are more notes. The Knight was searching for something in Isore, and now he’s found it since the Wizards have it. You’ll kick yourself for this, but I think that necklace the girl’s wearing was it. The Crown Jewel of Isore.”

“Bad luck,” Prin smiled weakly.

“The Wizards have a second one, too. They sent the girl with half of it and they keep the other half. But there is cooperation going on between these two.” The woman slapped the paper. “This is just cause.”

A period of silence fell between the two. “So that’s it, then?”

“When the Princesses catch word of this they’ll blow the Valley wide open. It’s the only course of action available. The Wizards won’t be able to answer for this in a satisfactory manner.”

“No,” Prin said at last. “I don’t think that’d be good, at all.”

“Neither do I,” Paper agreed. “But the ladies of the Strategoi would jump at the chance to raze that place.”

Glian command – the Strategoi of the Grey Knights – was known to have a habit of salting the earth. The Princess of White reined them in often enough, but not when it came to the Valley.

“But the Wizards mustn’t go unpunished,” Prin observed. “Otherwise they pose a threat still.”

“The weapon that the girl was carrying is a lost cause. She’s long gone. But there’s still the second one in the Valley. If we bring that one to Glia, they’ll be defanged.” Paper sorted the notes into piles. “Nobody’s read these notes but us. Next town, make a fuss and I’ll put you in a hospital. We’ll keep some of the papers with us. The rest can go to Glia. And you and me, we’ll do a little reconnaissance, see if we can’t do what the Knight wanted done in the first place.”

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The house was short and neat, set with stone-dark bricks, upon which moss crept from beneath the shaded eaves. An old, sturdy structure on an old, sturdy street full of them, close to the center of town and languid like everything around it. When Lily started towards the front door Roland pulled her back, led her down a staircase around the side.

“The front’s trapped,” he said, and she sighed.

Producing a key from beneath a false brick, he let her in first, then followed her, keeping the door open. Moments later, a third man came in. He asked them a question that she willingly did not hear. The two men started talking. Roland had told her enough about the brother that she knew he had been following them from the moment they had come within a mile of the town. She had no more surprises left in her to show.

Lily went further into the hall, peered through the rooms. The house was well-kept. Rolliam had been living there for several weeks, since Roland had been sent on his ill-fated mission, and although he was a man the younger scout had kept the floor swept and the corners free of cobwebs. It seemed to her to be isolated entirely from the external world; not only the room, but the entire house, and perhaps even this entire town. There had been war and chaos, and then there was this. In the kitchen there was a pail of water that had been drawn from the well in the back of the house. Upon seeing this – upon noticing how still it was, devoid in the absence of change – and seeing her own reflection, she realized that she felt coated. By what? Poor thoughts, the ordinary paranoia of being pursued, all the grit of the un-pristine.

“I would like to take a bath,” she announced to the pair, and folded her hands expectantly in her lap.

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"Welcome back, brother. Got what you were assigned to find?"

Roland looked up from searching through his bag at Rolliam's words- as if the act of searching would cause the lost reports to re-appear. But now was not the time to dwell on such things, for there were matters of the present that needed more urgent attention. The Byrnian scout gave his brother a wry grin before responding.

"I got that, or half at least. And more than I bargained for in the process, as well."

He flicked a meaningful gaze over toward Lily for a moment.

"... The Wizards sent her off with me. Don't know if they're trying to earn goodwill with the Knight somehow, or just saddling us with a problem they can no longer be bothered with. Either way, she's carrying the stone. So, be nice to her, even if she probably won't show any appreciation for it-"

It was at this point that Lily announced her desire to take a bath. Roland quickly gave Rolliam a sidelong glance. His expression said everything. Did he even need out to state his expectation out loud? He had traveled all this way, tired and hungry alike- would it not be fair, then, for Rolliam to draw up the water for the bath, deal with Lily for a time so that Roland did not have to? A reasonable expectation, of course it would be fair. Roland suppressed a laugh, then collapsed into a nearby chair and unfolded a cloth-wrapped package on the table, revealing the cold yet still delicious-looking food that had been bundled within.

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