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A Stranger Comes to Clearwater

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The early morning mists had risen from around the lake, and the sun was shining on the low foothills, casting sparkles on the rich turquoise lake and lifting the sloping terraces of snow vines drom their folds of darkness. In the fields he had ridden past, smallfolk had been working - the harvest promised to be a rich one again, although some of the older folk he had spoken with in taverns had sjaken their head and prphesied that a summer of such abundance meant a precious cruel winter to follow.

But now the days were long and light enough, even in the north, so that the precious rare snow vines bore their grapes in abundance, and the smallfolk children in the villages he rode through were apple cheeked - even if their eyes were wide with fear at the sight of the strange fierce warrior ...

It was as her came to the edge of the llast village that he saw her - the lady dressed in pale grey, pacing pensively over the meadow, away from the lake and towards a little wood. Not young ... a woman full grown by some years. But not old either - and her face was sweet, pensive, and quite, quite lovely.

After a long voyage by water, the pleasant ride overland had been a welcome change. Niko feared that he would never get his sea legs, and so was well pleased to be back on solid land. And what a land it was. So long away from the Seven Kingdoms, he had become used to the dust and sand that was everywhere, and the harsh sun that had tanned and toughened his skin. The feel of the cooler air on his skin, and the abundant greenery made him meander more than he was wont to do. But as much as it felt good to be back, he was also constantly reminded of the changes, and how little he fit in now. From the bells he wore that tinkled even now, to the sweat stained black leathers that tightly fit his muscular frame- he was different, and he would know that even without the way the people looked upon him.

He had been ill-prepared for many of the changes in geography, and as such found himself not quite sure of his direction, so he angled his horse to bring him closer to the lady, admiring her as he did so. "Hail and well met," he said when he was close enough. "Might I trouble you for some directions?"

For a long moment she did not acknowledge him, but stood, quite still, her eyes seemingly fixed on a point beyond his shoulder. Then suddenly she looked him fully in the face and smiled sadly.

"I can direct you into the dragon's fire," she said. "Or into the wall of ice ... to be buried there along with all who don't prove true ... "

Suddenly she clasped her arms tight about herself and began to weep. "Why do they bind me here? Why did they take me away?"

For a long moment Niko sat there, stunned at her response. His first instinct was to ride on - this one seemed to have more than a touch of madness.

But he saw her sorrow, and more than that recognized its truth, if not its cause, akin to his own.

Patting his horse to calm him, Niko dismounted keeping hold of the reins. He moved slowly towards the woman, one hand outstretched. "I don't think you will find those answers here," he said slowly. "Where are you from? I passed a village a little ways back. Did you wander from there?"

"Village?" she echoed, her head a little on one side. "No ... they daren't risk keeping me in a village. For if they did, I might climb upon the rooftops and fly ... fly!"

As she spoke, she was beginning to move, turning around, lifting her skirts as she danced ... glided ... across the smooth grass of the meadow.

Niko shook his head. He didn't have time for this. But even as he thought to turn to flee, his eyes were drawn again to her, and he again to try to help. Turning his palm upwards, extending his hand more, he said, "Then fly." He gestured, towards himself. "Fly with me."

She took a step closer, then another. With her head titlted on one side still, she seemed a little wary bird, poised for flight. Her hand lifted, as though to take his ...

Then suddenly she snatched it back and shook her head.

"No," she said firmly. "I know you ... I know what you want ... to betray me ... to capture ... like all the rest!"

And suddenly she turned and was running away from him through the grass - he thought he heard her clear laughter.

Niko slapped his forehead with his outstretched hand, then ran it through his hair, bells tinkling as he thought. ~Why am I even doing this? For some long-dead dream?~ He looked up towards the woman's path, then towards his horse, patting the beast's neck. "Maybe she belongs here, eh?" He pulled out some a carrot from one of his pouches, feeding it to his horse. "What do you say? Should we leave her?" The horse whinnied as he mounted.

He'd fully intended to take the road. To leave this whole sorry affair behind him. ~She's not my responsibility,~ he thought. ~If she's not supposed to be here, surely someone is looking for her.~

He shook himself out of his reverie, and found that his mind had betrayed him, and he was firmly set following her. Sighing, he said to himself, "Let us finish this, then." Increasing the horse's gait to a safe trot, he searched for the mysterious woman, even as he cursed himself for a fool for doing so.

She seemed to have outwitted him at first - but then he saw traces of where her feet had passed across the wet grass, and in to a little wood. He could almost fancy that he saw the flash of her white dress between the trees.

Muttering darkly of beautiful nuisances and the besotted fools that followed them, he angled his horse into the woods, following her trail. He picked up the pace a bit, but still kept it to a level where the horse was in no danger from the path he took between the trees.

She did not seem to have a particular path in mind as she wove a circuitous route through the trees - and she seemed quite unaware of him. Once or twice he came close enough to realise that she was singing in a high, unearthly voice.

Zeroing in on her voice, Niko slowed his mount as he followed her, attempting to cut her off. More than once, the stinging branches caught him, and threatened his resolve to follow. But he had started down this path, and meant to see an end to it.

They were climbing slightly, and the trees were beginning to thin out ... between them he could glimpse the surprisingly rich blue-green waters of the lake. It seemed that they were coming to a slight promontory that overlooked the water.

And still she wove her way between the trees, singing that high, wordless song ...

At that realization, chills ran down Niko's spine. Would she hurt herself? What had he gotten himself into?

Spurring his horse and ignoring the slapping branches, Niko picked up his pace as he chased after her.

Some sound seemed to alert her to his forgotten presence. She gave a gasp and then looked over her shoulder. Her eyes widened with fear, and then she lifted her skirts and fled, a mad dash through the fringes of the forest, where it would be dangerous for Nikko to ride at full speed ...

Niko slowed as much as he could, but made sure that he was moving at enough of a clip to still cut the woman off. Though not used to riding through woods, he was fairly sure that he could still move fast enough horsed to catch up with her and not risk his mount. Of coruse if this proved to be incorrect, he was well prepared to continue the pursuit on foot at the first hint of danger to the horse.

She was coming to a slight promontry now, where the trees thinned, and Niko realised that it jutted out into the lake. She looked over her shoulder, white with fear - and then ran on.

On horseback he might just come abreast with her, but he might have a better chance of grabbing her if he was on foot.

Niko had seen horsemen perform some amazing feats, but never had he tried any before. Even though his comrades had said that he was as skilled as they, he had never seen the need, notwithstanding their jeers. But where ridicule failed, the urgency of the situation succeeded. Disturbed the woman may have been, but it was his attempt to help that had driven her to this, and he didn't know if she could survive a fall from this height.

Taking his left foot from the stirrup, he swung himself quickly across his horse. Then, just as he had enough momentum, he pulled his right foot from the other stirrup, making sure that he cleared it with ample room- it wouldn't do to get tangled in them.

He never realized how much this sort of trickery exerted the body- he was breathing heavily once he finally was able to get himself stabilised. He knew he would only get one chance at this, and hoped for his sake and hers that he was as good as his comrades had indicated. As he began to come abreast of the woman, he released his grip on the horse, attempting to tackle her and halt her flight.

It was working ... he was sure it would work ... his balance lethally exact.

And then, almost at the last minute ...

Aerin continued her chase, wishing indeed for a bow, or a horn she could use to call for help with. By now they were too far from help to be heard.

No, she would have to deal with this herself.

She slowed for a moment, looking for a fist sized rock or a large stick she could use as a weapon. The man was on a horse. It should be easy to spook it for a moment and get it to bolt. Enough time for her to get the Lady into the woods.

There were no rocks around. But there were plenty of large sticks that could be hurled like spears ...

Out of the corner of his eye, Niko became aware of someone else in the woods ...

Niko knew he had a choice. Let the lady go over the precipice. Or leave himself unguarded against whomever was approaching. And he only had a split second to decide. Between himself, and someone he didn't know.

~How do I get myself into these situations,~ he thought to himself. His decision made, his last thought as he prepared to launch himself from the horse was, ~At least things can not get any worse.~

Aerin grabbed a stick as she moved toward the lady and her pursuer.

Then several things happened at once.

A hound at the edge of the wood gave a great belling cry.

Aerin, startled, let fly with the stick.

The stick flew forward and, with great accuracy, struck the flank of the horse.

Startled, the horse leapt forward, sending Niko, already unbalanced and ready to leap, flying from his saddle towards the lady.

A man less skilled with horses might just have fallen. He might even had crashed into the lady with sufficient force to hurt her badly.

But Niko caught and held her like a soft-skinned fruit fallen into his hands ...

However, that was not enough to prevent her cry and her wild leap forwards - over the edge of the promontory.

As he fell, Niko realised that distance was deceptive - they were less high than had appeared from the wood. But still, it was a drop of some fifteen feet, and sent them plummeting, with the lady wrapped in his arms, into the icy waters of the lake.

His hand on the top of the lady's head, cradling her, he attempted to straighten their fall into a dive. Though fifteen feet was not nearly as long a drop as he feared, it was far enough to cause them to drown if they landed incorrectly. Several thoughts raced through his mind as he did this. Some to do with concern for the drop. Many to do with how much he hated water. More to do with concern for his horse. But the thought that occupied his mind most was how stupid he was to be doing all of this for the sake of a woman he little knew.

As they plunged into the lake, his thoughts changed, as he realized it was even colder than he feared. He kept hold of the lady, placing his left arm around her chest as he struggled towards the surface with his right, longing for air. Though he was fortunate enough to eschew metal armor, the leather was still slowing him, as his lungs hurt- the impact had driven most of his air from him. He could indeed see the light growing closer, but it seemed so far away.

Finally, he broke the surface, carrying the lady with him. Almost exhausted at the effort, he lay back, keeping afloat as best he could while looking around to orient himself, hoping against hope that they were close to shore, for he didn't know how much more he had in him.

She seemed limp in his arms, almost lifeless. They were some twenty yards from the promontory, not far - but it would be almost impossible to climb up the muddy height here. There was a low bank that would make a landing place some hundred yards to the right ... but could he swim so far, with the unconscious woman in his arms?

There was no sign of anyone on the bank or the promontory.

Niko knew he couldn't make it to the bank; he was already tired, just from the energy he had expended, and he and the water had never been friends. Perhaps if he were to make it to the promontory, it would be shallow enough to allow him to make it to another spot to make it ashore.

At least he hoped so.

Gathering his strength, he began to swim.

As he drew closer to the bank, with the lady still unresisting in his arms, he saw people beginning to arrive there, as well as a large elderly hound, peering down at him.

Niko took long, measured strokes, his lean body stretched out in almost a sidestroke as he struggled with his burden. The sun beat down, highlighting his golden-blonde hair that framed his youthful face. Though he carried himself as a man grown, it was obvious he was still in his teens. His long hours in the sun had left him quite tanned, with corded muscles that worked to carry he and the lady to shore. It was also obvious that he was beginning to falter, as his methodical strokes slowed more and more as he approached the shore.

Seeing the crowd, Niko was torn. He knew that someone had startled the horse. And from their quick appearance, it had most likely been one of the people that looked down from above. But he didn't know what options he had once he reached the bank. He was at the end of his endurance, and merely making it to the bank was a struggle. Should he call out for help? Or would that be met with a lethal response? Was it happenstance that they came along just now? Or was it purposeful? And if it was on purpose, was their intent malicious or benign?

In the end, he knew that his only choices were to leave the lady to her fate, or get help. He was too tired to get her to shore alone. Since he was not going to leave her after all he had gone through to get this far, that left only one choice.

"Helloooo up there!" he yelled. "Could I trouble you for some help? The lady is in a bad way, and I could use some assistance getting her to safety!"

Continued in A Clash At Clearwater

Categories: WinterChillsGameLogs, Clearwater

Page last modified on February 15, 2006, at 12:08 AM