Recent Changes - Search:

After the Struggle: Keary and Catriona


Keary and Catriona, for the first time in the confusion, found themselves a little apart together and able to exchange a few words.

After the securely tied and hooded Thelbane was relieved of his weapons and other items of interest, Catriona instructed Keir to keep guard on the Mummer. Anytime the man twitched, the direwolf let out a low growl, which escalated if the man was foolish enough to continue. She then stepped a short distance away, where she could still see Thelbane easily, but she would be able to speak in a low voice without his overhearing every word.

She started to look over the objects she had recovered from Thelbane while she spoke with Keary. The man had definitely kept his fair share of weapons, both concealed and otherwise. A few of the sharpened edges glistened with a substance she did not care to test. Except, perhaps, on Thelbane himself.

"What a bloody mess," Catriona muttered. "All of this." She nodded towards Thelbane. "How long should we let him stew before we start dragging him into the Fens?"

"Not long," Keary replied. He shot a glance back at the house. "Away from here, at least, if not to mess with him." The glance moved to Catriona. "The Bloody Mummers are after you? They're the answer to my problems?" He paused. "Your past is your own- I've not asked you before. These ties I've made here, well, it's not the first time I've had to cut them. But someday, I'd like to know the why of it."

"So would I," Catriona replied, a wry expression on her face. "I'm not sure which anthill I pissed on, but some Southron seems to have directed every louse-for hire south of the Neck to come find me." She shook her head gently from side to side with a look of disbelief. "From what last night's brigand shared under duress, there was even some meeting of the sellswords about me." Her snort of derision shared her thoughts on that matter.

Keary smiled slightly in response. "Couldn't have been that good of a meeting, if they're hunting women with shadowcats, too."

She kicked the ground, sending a stone tumbling. She watched it come to a stop before she continued in the same low tone. "I'd prefer to get Thelbane further away from here, too. Plus, the longer I'm here, the more danger to Mariam and to these folks from Clearwater." She casually rested her left hand on her sword hilt, and her right hand atop her the other scabbard. "Too bad that box is so heavy." When she noticed Keary's glance in her direction, she drummed her fingers once on the hiltless scabbard.

Keary inclined his head in response, and continued in a hushed voice. "What are we going to do about that? Both things, actually. I'm going to be leaving soon... I think the Giants of Pentos are going to have a new troubador for a little while."

Catriona nodded. "My path leads away from here, although I don't know where." A small laugh escaped her as she gestured with one hand towards the impromptu Clearwater encampment. "I thought Mariam's was too crowded last night."

She glanced over to where Thelbane lay. "Maybe if the Giants come this way, you can fetch the box then. Its only value is for the living." Again she tapped her hiltless scabbard once.

She then nodded towards the trussed man, who was being greeted by another low growl from Keir. "We should get him into the fens. And deal with him, one way or another, there. If the Steward won't put up a fuss."

Keary shook his head, gave the hiltless scabbard an almost wistful look, and said, "Agreed. Just a moment. Mist... stay here."

Casting about, he eventually located a small burlap sack, something that would hold about ten pounds of potatoes. That went over Thelbane's head when he returned. "Good night," he said softly, as darkness descended on their prisoner.

Thelbane's bound legs kicked once, as though in involuntary response, and then were still.

While Keary took care of Thelbane, Catriona went to find the Steward. She found him talking to a rather distraught-looking Mariam. She gave them both a nod, then waited a moment until it was an appropriate moment to speak. "Steward Thorne, Keary and I are taking Thelbane off Mariam's land to execute his sentence. As we are within Clearwater confines here, we will abide by your wishes regarding his treatment prior to his death."

She fished into her belt pouch, and handed a small cloth bundle to Mariam. "This belongs to Callon. Please see that it gets returned safely."

Derron said, "He took his chances chasing a bounty. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. So long as you will deal with him quick and clean, go right ahead." He knew he might be exceeding his authority, but since he doubted he would ever see the body, he didn't think this would haunt him too badly.

Catriona nodded. "As you wish, Steward." She then turned and went to rejoin Keary.

After Catriona spoke with the Steward and Mariam, she quickly returned to where Keary waited with Thelbane. What she had left unsaid with the Steward was that as far as she was concerned, while Mariam's currently belonged to Clearwater...the Ghost Fens belonged to no man.

"Ready when you are," she said quietly. "The Steward won't interfere." She motioned to her injured leg. "I'll lead, but you should probably bring him." She took a moment to ready an arrow to her bow.

Catriona let out a whistle. "Keir, with me." Once she had the direwolf's attention, she made a small circling motion with her hand to indicate that the wolf should patrol around them as they moved towards the Fens.

"Make the tracks obvious," Keary said. "We need to go about half a mile- it's a long way, but I know a place where pursuit will run into some sinks. Almost like quicksand. Perhaps we can see how long our friend here can stay afloat, too."

Catriona moved off in the direction Keary indicated, taking no effort to disguise their passage...yet.

For Thelbane, it was a long, arduous trip. The bag was stifling and dark. He was pulled, carried, dragged, occasionally feeling the hot breath of one of the direwolves on his skin. The smell of the fens was rank and rotten. He was alternately stung and bitten by a variety of insects. Finally, a tip, a loss of balance, and a splash; his body was suddenly floating in a warm soup of marshy vegetation, and the hood was pulled away from his head.

"That's better," Keary said. "I'd say you should go under shortly. Sorry about not untying you. Maybe you have a little longer if you stop struggling. Now it's just you, and us, and the wolves. Scream, if you want- you won't be the first man to drown while screaming in here." He didn't say how he knew.

"Or... perhaps we can have a little chat."

Catriona stood nearby, a bored expression on her face as she stifled a yawn. Her attention appeared focused on watching the way from which they had come, although she had a clear view of Thelbane out of the corner of her eye if she wished.

Thelbane spat a curse, but lay still. The fight, it appeared, had gone out of him.

Keary hunkered down. "Why do you think I've been pushing for a quick end?" he asked. "To be honest, I can almost see things your way. All you've done to me is cost me a lot of money. Big prize, eh? Find the woman with the wolf. Big reward. Simple. Who wouldn't go for something like that? What I want to know is why." He shifted his legs. "And how to get recompense for my losses."

He glanced back at Catriona, then to Thelbane. "My friend, she thinks I'm wasting my time with you. But, then, it's more personal for her. I think differently."

Catriona flashed Keir a subtle hand signal, and the direwolf disappeared into the sedge. She appeared indifferent to Keary's conversation with Thelbane while she moved to a position that gave her better cover should someone be tracking them. However, her choice of location also just happened to be a little closer to where Thelbane lay floating in the bog.

There was a long silence and then Thelbane spoke.

"If you want answers, get me out of this filthy bog. I'll tell you when I'm upright again."

Catriona shifted slightly so that Keary could see she had an arrow nocked to her bowstring. She could cover both the approach from Mariam's as well as Thelbane, should he attempt to pull any tricks if Keary chose to fish him out of the bog.

Keary's expression became pained. "I would, you understand, but that's another little area of contention. Weak back, you know, from pulling dead bodies out of burned-out inns. A major source of my pauperism, by the way. Perhaps if there was a clue..."

"Look," said Thelbane. "Despite the fact that my life might hange on a few lies here, I'm going to be truthful. I've burnt out a few inns in my time - all right. More than a few. But I've been restrained this trip - and I've never been to Marshened - if that was where your inn was, and you're not cherishing a longterm grudge for something I did five years ago.

"Like I say - I've never been to Marshend - and if you want proof ... then why else would I have hired a weaselling snake like Hextall and his bog-ridden doxy to guide me if I didn't need them to show me the way? I was commissioned to look for ... an object. A map. And those who held it had direwolves. One of them was a woman."

He sighed. "Something tells me I've found her."

Catriona's eyes flickered to meet Keary's for a moment, her right eyebrow elevated just slightly. The rest of her stance did not change.

"A map," Keary said tonelessly, then suddenly chuckled. "A map."

He reached out and pulled Thelbane to the edge of the water. "That's as far as I can go, for the moment. Now your friends will come looking for you, we all know that. What we need to decide is what they find." He paused. "I hope you choose wisely. Who commissioned you?"

"The message came from the Vale," said Thelbane. "But it didn't start there. The man who missioned me was carrying lion-gold."

For the first time since Thelbane had been tossed into the bog Catriona spoke. "You expect us to believe that sellswords from high and low are swarming north in search of a woman with a direwolf who has a MAP?" she sneered. "And that the Lions of Lannister are backing this hare-brained hunt?" She clenched her jaw shut, then inhaled deeply, her nostrils flaring. "A map. He wants us to believe that the bloody Southrons have lost their way and are ruining lives in the North for a bloody MAP."

Her eyes met those of Keary. "I say we kill him now." Her bowstring was taut, the arrow aimed at Thelbane.

Keary smiled, for Thelbane's benefit. "But our friend here still knows a few things, doesn't he? Like, how I will get recompense for the trouble his friends have caused."

"Trouble?" Thelbane spat. "Trouble? I meet a party of travellers, offer to help them cross a stream - and then they turn on me and mine and slaughter my men. And now you're demanding compensation?"

Catriona's jaw clenched, and in answer to Thelbane's retort her fingers released her arrow, which flew towards the man's left shoulder. She was already drawing a second arrow as she spoke. "The fresh blood will draw the eels, Thelbane. Distant waters are already churning as they catch the scent." From somewhere off in the bog there was a distant splash.

She continued, "You can either die slowly as they feast upon your living flesh, or you can die swiftly. Tell us all of what you know about the hunters and the prize, and you'll get mercy. Your fate belongs to you, Thelbane."

Keary looked as if he were going to say something at that last, but closed his mouth with a click. He glanced back and forth between Catriona and Thelbane.

"Recompense ... information ... and I end up dead at the end of it whatever happens," said Thelbane. "Very well. I'll take my chance with the eels."

And suddenly he jack-knifed in the water, disappearing from view.

"He's still tied," Keary said, and started to hop from spot to spot in the most likely path. "Unless he hid a knife from you. He's got to come up. Damn!"

As Thelbane vanished under the water, Catriona took a reflexive step backwards from the edge of the bog to keep herself a little further from a watery lunge. "Even without a knife, his ropes are probably water-logged enough that he can work free," she murmured. "Probably why he was getting so cocky." She gave two sharp whistles to alert Keir to the hunt, and kept her arrow readied as she scanned for signs of Thelbane's emergence from the waters.

There was none - although there were currents and eddies in the water, and several lines of bubbles rising slowly. Keir came running to the tussock where Catriona and Keary were crouched - then whined in sudden alarm.

Catriona immediately glanced around to see where Keir's attention was directed.

"Back," Keary said. He turned his head. "Or let me help you get back, Catriona. You can't move fast if the eels..."

As she continued to look for the source of the imminent threat Keir had noticed, Catriona moved even further from the water's edge than her earlier reflexive step backwards had taken her after Thelbane's disappearance. She whistled for Keir to keep pace with her as she thrust her bow back over her shoulder and drew her longsword instead, figuring it would be better for skewering whoever or whatever lunged out of the water, across the bog, from under the earth, or down from the sky at them.

Keary had his sword out too, suddenly, his eyes fixed on the marshy water.

The water bubbled again - more fiercely this time.

Then suddenly, shockingly, an eel head, huge and deadly, surfaced above the water into the air. It shot up above three feet and its mouth opened, revealing the monstrous double roiw of teeth in its maw. But it was not open to attack ...

It was screaming - a high, unearthly shirieking sound that tore through their ears.

Then they saw the cause - a long slash in its side, cutting through skin and muscle, pouring blood.

A second head rose, clamping down on the body of the first eel. Then a third, sliding sinuously around the third, its mouth too open, and this time to strike the wounded one.

Screaming still, the eel was dragged down into the thrashing churning waters which were becoming pink with its blood.

Catriona forced her eyes away from where the waters churned with eel, and looked up and down the waterway for signs of anything moving away from the bloody scene. "Thelbane's made a point," she said in a dry voice, a grimace twisting her face, "...and he's escaping while the eels turn on one another."

She caught sight of a steady stream of bubbles that appeared to be heading away from the eel frenzy. "There." She pointed towards it and started moving along drier land in pursuit. "Keir, guard me."

Keir whimpered. He was clearly very reluctant to get so close to the eels.

The line of water bubbles seemed to be making steadily towards a reed bed on the opposite bank.

"Come on, Mist," Keary called, and headed down a parallel path. "Damned if he didn't," he continued to Catriona. "If he didn't give me such cause to hate his guts, I'd almost admire him."

As Catriona saw the bubbles veering toward the opposite shore, she thrust her longsword back into its scabbard, then nocked an arrow back to her bowstring once more. "And if he got away from that eel frenzy with nary a scratch on him, he has the luck of the evil to boot," she muttered in response to Keary. "Otherwise, before too long I hope the eel poison saps his strength and gives him worse nightmares than mine were."

She positioned herself on dry land in a thatch of sedge across from the reed bed the bubbles sought, and gave Keir a hand signal to guard at her side, a good distance away from the churning eels that the direwolf wished to avoid. From there, she looked for signs of Thelbane's emergence. If the man pulled himself out of the water, or showed enough flesh for a target, she intended to shoot first, and ask questions later.

Even as she was watching the bubbles, Keir let out a sudden warning bark. There were dark figures to one side of the marsh - far beyond where Thelbane could have reached - and their posture made it clear that they were holding bows ready to fire. To fire at Catriona, and Keary. Indeed, an arrow hissed past her head.

But this was no sellsword arrow. It was a wilding's.

"Down, Mist!" Keary hissed, dropping to a crouch; still, he was on his feet, and preparing himself to spring backward if the eels came closer.

"Hold your arrows!" he yelled at the figures. "What's wrong with you!?"

As the arrow flew by her head, Catriona instinctively flattened herself, forcing Keir to crouch down beside her. With one hand she reached back to pluck the arrow from the tuft of grass into which it had sunk. She twirled the shaft in one hand, studying the fletching as she considered the impact of the new arrivals on the on the gameboard of the Ghost Fens.

Catriona sighed softly to herself as she decided something, then her voice rang out in an unusual language. The only word that Keary could clearly identify was Catriona's own name. The hunter then paused to hawk up a nasty bit of phlegm from her chest and spat before she continued in another short burst of what seemed to be the same tongue.

There was a long pause - and then a voice shouted something back in the same strange language ...

Catriona flashed a hand motion at Keary to catch his attention, and then gave him a smile and a nod. She motioned for him to creep a little closer to her, then called out a response in the strange language. Her eyes scanned the nearby waters and marsh as she answered, searching and hunting.

When Keary was close enough for her to address him in a low tone, she said to him softly in the Common Tongue. "Be ready for friendly," with a point at the Wildling arrow, "fire. The marshes are full of quarry." She flashed five fingers twice at Keary, then nodded towards the more solid ground that lay between the waterway before them and where the Wildlings lurked. "Don't let our eel slip away." She motioned towards the bed of reeds from which bubbles, hopefully Thelbane's, trickled.

She then rose up to a crouch, nocking an arrow to her bow, and looked out over the marsh for signs of those who lurked in the crossfire zone.

There was certainly movement in the reeds - and shouts now too, suggesting there were a number of men engaged in combat. A few broke through to the water line, blades in hand - their dress suggesting sellswords from some unknown company.

"Damn," Keary said, realizing that his shout had done far more harm than good. "Mist..." he hesitated, then shook his head; he had no desire to send the direwolf out where she could be shot. "Stay," he said. "Guard her." And with that, he started to creep out to where he thought Thelbane would go, sword at the ready.

Catriona loosed her arrow at the nearest of the sellswords, reaching back to retrieve a second arrow from her quiver as soon as the first left her bow. Her next arrow targeted another sellsword at the water's edge. As that arrow flew towards its target, she gave Keir a sharp command to stay at her side and guard her. In this melee it was going to be confusing enough for Catriona to distinguish between friend and foe, and she would be better able to guide Keir if the direwolf remained close to her.

The sellswords, faced with danger in front and behind, began to scatter to left and to right. From the lefthand side there suddenly came a yell.

It seemed that Thelbane had met one of the sellswords, or one of the sellswords had met him. But the reeds shielded what the outcome of that encounter might be.

Catriona swore under her breath at the infernal foliage of the fens, blocking her view yet again. As she sought signs of Thelbane or any of the sellswords crossing the waterway, she spotted some drier tufts of grass, and a memory flickered into view. She called out a short phrase in the gutteral language, then added in a voice loud enough to carry to Keary, "Heat!"

The hunter thrust two arrows tip first into the ground before her, then reached behind her to cut loose a dry thatch of reed tops. Those soon decorated her arrow shafts. A quick strike of the flint and tinder turned the arrows alight. Moving quickly to avoid scorching her fingers, she launched the first flaming arrow across the waterway towards the dry patch of grasses to the left of where the yell had come, then send the second scurrying to another dry thatch beyond to the right of that area. She only hoped that her efforts today would scorch the fens as rapidly and completely as her efforts against the killing cold the prior day. Her attempted fire zones were an effort to leave Thelbane and the sellswords with no place to turn except towards the wildlings, or back across the waterway towards the eels, her and Keary.

Keary stopped, realizing that getting there was going to be a long, drawn out process, sheathed his sword, and began to string his bow.

The reeds began to burn ...

And there were confused shouts ...

One man suddenly broke from the reeds, his arms held across his face, and staggered into the water ...

Catriona was nocking another arrow to her bowstring when the man broke into the water. Sellsword, not wildling, she thought to herself as she noted his weapons and style of dress. And he didn't resemble her target of choice, either. Perhaps Thelbane was waiting see someone else test the waters for eels before he made his move to escape.

From the distance between the far shore and this one, she would have ample time to decide what to do with this sellsword if he managed to lurch across the water unscathed. "Steady, Keir," she murmured. "Guard." She kept her arrow at the ready, but searched to see if her flames were flushing more succulent game from the reeds.

Keary, having strung his own bow, stuck an arrow point-down in the muck and nocked a second, looking for any targets to get too close to them. He looked familiar with a bow, but certainly not happy...

The fire was raging more fiercely now. Over the noise of it, a cry came to them - someone calling in the same tongue Catriona had heard earlier.

There was still no sign nor sound of Thelbane, only the sellsword floating face down in the water ...

And just to be safe, Keary launched an arrow into the back of the floating body. Then, he picked up the second and nocked it.

After hearing the call, Catriona continued to look for signs of movement, either on land or unusual eddies or bubbles in the water. Her arrow stayed nocked and at the ready.

"Don't move," said a voice quietly. "I could kill any of you - or all of you - if you make the slightest movement."

The voice came from behind them - and it did not sound like Thelbane. No, it sounded cultured, with a faint Southron accent.

Keary was too far away for her to see without moving in some way. But Keir was still within view. And before her was the water, the reflections of the flames flickering along the far shore. She looked to see if reflected in the water she could see any sign of who lurked somewhere behind her and Keary.

Her back to the voice, Catriona then glanced out of the corner of her eye towards Keir, trying to gauge how the direwolf had reacted to the presence of whoever it was. She had given the wolf the command to guard her previously, and countermanding that order required movement of either her lips or her hands. And if she was going to speak, she'd rather draw attention to herself than to Keir or Keary.

"Death greets us all, some sooner than others," Catriona replied. "And even a breath requires motion. What do you want?"

"You'll want an army at your back, to threaten me in my home so," Keary said, his bow still in his hands, his voice low and dangerous.

"Your home?" said the voice. "Do you hold the King's title to the Ghost Fens, that you set the fire amongst them so freely? And you should hold your dire wolves in check, for my commands apply equally to them.

"Now - tell me what you're doing here."

Keary shook his head. "It won't burn long. Not here."

Catriona growled something to Keir, then lowered her bow to her side.

"Keeping bandit scum from escaping and attacking," she turned, slowly and deliberately, towards the voice, "innocent villagers." She tossed her head and glowered defiantly at the speaker. "No thanks to you."

"What do you want?" Keary added, from his position.

"Firstly to know what you're doing here," said the man. "And secondly - if I'm right in my suspicions as to who you are - to propose an alliance.

"You may turn around now, very carefully."

The speaker was standing behind them, a bow in his hand, aimed and ready for either of them. He wore a long, pale green-grey cloak, clasped at the throat by a strange pin - hard to make out at this distance. His head and most of his face was covered by a cloak, but what could be seen of his face suggested that his skin was almost unnaturally pale - and his eyes seemed unnaturally dark.

Keary turned, and his eyes narrowed immediately on seeing the stranger. "Keary," he said, "and Mist," pointing at his direwolf. "The marsh is my home."

Catriona studied what she could see of the speaker, keeping her own bow where it hung at her side. A chill crept up her spine despite the waves of heat that drifted from the flames across the waterway. She forced herself to quench the unease as she answered the stranger. "I am Catriona, hunter of the North. Everywhere and nowhere is my home." She inclined her head towards the black direwolf, who crouched on tense haunches at her side. "This is Keir."

"Who are you?" She met what she could of the speaker's dark stare, swallowing hard once before she added bluntly, "And *what* are you?" She reached out one hand to rest on Keir's head, a gesture to calm both woman and beast.

"I am mortal, even as you are," said the stranger. "My race is not entirely yours though ... " and he added a few words in the same tongue Catriona had called across the marsh.

Catriona's eyes widened, and she murmured a single word to Keir. She dropped down to one knee, her head bowed, as Keir dropped to lay down beside her with a whine of supplication. Her voice rang out softly in a short burst of the strange tongue.

The stranger continued, "You might say I am the Ghost of the Fens, its hidden Guardian. I am aware of what passes here - although none see me, unless I choose. Your friends over the water are retreating now in the face of the flames - your enemy is either scorched earth, or eel fodder of a sly pike that will not be caught with your bait. Perhaps we should go to my own home within the reeds."

It did not sound like an invitation; more a calm assumption that this would be what they did.

Of course, he still had the bow.

"Your will is mine. Keir and I are yours to command," Catriona replied, her eyes still averted downward. Beneath her bent knee, the wetness of the marsh was starting to seep into her trouser leg. Yet she ignored the slight discomfort and stayed still, awaiting further word from the stranger.

He spoke briefly - and then smiled; a narrow, almost secretive smile.

Catriona looked up as the stranger spoke. For a moment, the wistful smile she returned to the stranger flashed forth in her face a glimpse of the young innocent girl she had once been years ago. Her features hardened with the experience of her age as she slowly stood up, Keir rising beside her.

Keary had quite the opposite reaction, if his distrustful look and suprised glance at Catriona said anything.

"Then you know who I am, well enough," he said. "And I've never heard of you."

"Oh, I think you have," said the stranger. "The fens are named after me, you see. I am the ghost who uses the marshlights to send unwary travellers astray, who feeds the eels on fresh blood - I am sorry about your leg, Lady - I trust it is healing now?"

"Aye," Catriona replied softly, one hand brushing across her bandaged leg as she replied. "Thanks to the aid of a skilled healer who dwells on the edge of your fens." She paused, then added with a tone of regret for things lost, "The land I scorched to stop those sellswords helped keep her and hers safe."

A direct look at them both now.

"I even set direwolves to guard treasures."

Catriona gave Keary a sidelong look. "If he wanted us dead, none of us would be alive to argue right now. There is more to the world than what we can see with two eyes."

She might have caught it, might not, but Keary rolled his eyes the same way he had in the past when gods were mentioned.

She met the stranger's gaze then. "Our further discussions should transpire somewhere you deem safer than here. I will come with you, but Keary is his own man, with a life to live among his people. If he prefers to leave, I ask that we escort him in safety to the fen's edge before I follow you."

"Oh, no," Keary said, not even bothering to half-aim his bow any more. "I wouldn't want to miss -this-. But somebody needs to let our new friends know that our quarry is loose again. Not to mention let the Giants know that I haven't been eaten by something bigger here in the marsh."

In response the Guardian suddenly whistled - a few liquid notes. But it was the melody that Catriona had found Davin playing in the Fens the day before.

"I should call to them," said the stranger to Catriona. "Unless you wish me to."

Catriona's eyebrows wiggled up in recognition of the tune, then she shot a slightly perplexed look at the stranger. "By all means, but, er, I think they're too far away for me to call them in the ways I know how." She paused, then added with a shuffle of her feet. "Can you really contact them from here? And, maybe, teach me how to call them from *this* far away?"

He smiled. "They have people closer than you think." He pointed over to a tussock some way to the right - and Catriona realised that it was large enough to shelter one man. He was not visible - the fact that the Guardian saw him suggested that he had seen the man when he concealed himself (i.e. no magical ability here!)

A sheepish smile accompanied the faint blush that flushed Catriona's cheeks. "Er, yes," she muttered before elevating her voice so that it would carry clearly enough to reach the concealed man. "You, there, behind the tussock."

She waited for just a moment to see if the the man would reveal himself, then continued. "Please let the little big man know that the marshes haven't swallowed Keary or myself. And please warn the steward of the prisoner's escape." She kept her comments simple.

Then the Guardian gestured towards a small path through the reeds. "Come. The wolves can go with us. I miss their presence."

"With me, Keir," Catriona said as she stepped towards the path the Guardian indicated.

Keary, still with a sour expression, whistled to Mist and jerked his head in the direction of the (new?) path. "Come on, Mist," he said.

The Guardian led them along the path for some way, moving deeper into the Fens and closer to the mysterious heart where, a year before, Keary and Catriona had journeyed and fouynd the direwolves. But they moved beyond this - and to a small inlet into the marsh where there was a flat-bottomed boat. The stranger sprang in to it nimbly, and then held out his hand to Catriona, for her to follow. The direwolves were sniffing at the craft a little suspiciously. Mist gave a sudden whine, as though she caught a familiar scent - and looked up at Keary.

And Keary saw it in the base of the boat then - a red spotted kerchief that had been Charity's prized possession.

He gave an inarticulate cry- and reached into the boat to pick up the scrap of cloth. He stared at it a long moment, and then clenched his fists hard around it before looking up to the stranger.

"This needs an explanation," Keary said, his voice over-controlled.

Catriona paused in mid-transfer, one hand in the stranger's, with one foot on land and the other in the boat. She glanced from the Guardian, to Keary, to the kerchief, and then back again.

"Come," said the Guardian. "I promise you will see your friend at the journey's end - and safe too, which is more than can be said for many of those who have crossed the Ghost Fens."

His out-stretched hand remained steady.

"There will be two of you and two direwolves," he said. "If you wish to kill me when you get there, it should be easy enough to accomplish."

Catriona continued her clamber into the boat, steadying herself with the Guardian's hand against the rocking of the flat-bottom craft. She released the stranger's hand as soon as she managed to get herself safely seated, then glanced back to see what Keary was going. With a short sharp whistle, she called Keir into the boat and offered the direwolf a reassuring hand.

Keary's smile was brittle. "Somehow, I doubt that," he said, but he climbed aboard and helped Mist to do the same.

(Continued in The Guardian's Lair - Keary, Catriona)

Page last modified on January 01, 2007, at 05:51 PM