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(Continued from The Journey Continues)

(after a guard has just been shot by an arrow)

"Attack!" Niko yelled, though he was sure it was unneeded at this point. Sorry he was without his shield, Niko drew his blades with the speed of a striking mongoose, zigzagging towards the bushes to get around them, towards the bowman.

He saw others running too - among them, Derron - who was heading towards his horse.

(After the Septa has just been shot by an arrow)

Derron's eyes went wide as he began to look in the direction the arrow came from. "Get back inside! NOW!" With that he began running towards where his horse stood, with his weapons strapped on. But if it looked too far, he was prepared to use the large hammer tucked into his belt. The first bandit that came too close would regret it. And if Lantern appeared to be helping the bandits, he would pay.

Lantern, however, was by Derron's horse.

"Give me a weapon!" he panted. "I can fight too!"

Derron decided to risk it. "Take the sword," he said as he grabbed his shield. He barely stopped moving, and didn't strap it on, instead holding the straps clenched in his massive left hand while his right drew the hammer from his waist. He kept moving towards one of the archer's positions, hoping that if any arrows came his way, the shield would stop those heading for his vitals, while he could stagger on if hit somewhere uncovered. Once in the brush, the archer's range would no longer be an advantage, and few archers wore the type of armor that would help them against a hammer. They might have mail, but plate was better against the weapon he now wielded.

Lantern was at his side, holding the sword a little awkwardly, it was true, but game enough for the attack. Niko was ahead of them and seemingly attracting more than his fair share of arrows ... but one archer at least was aiming at them.

Aerin gasped as the arrow shot past her face. It only took a few seconds for Niko's training to kick in. She dropped, rolled into a depression in the ground and with her back on the ground she squirmed around and worked her knife from its boot sheath.

It was in her hand ... but Shade was suddenlty with her, growling at her in warning as he crouched defensively - her guardian. Buit he was watching the bushes - the source of the arrows - with unblinking eyes.

The arrows were coming too fast to be any one archer - more likely four or five. And as Niko approached, he became uncomfortably aware that at least two were concentrating on him as the most obvious warrior.

Knowing that to get pinned down would be folly, Niko ran with all of the speed that he could muster, his corded muscles working in his legs to propel him towards his goal. He knew that for all of his vaunted speed, he couldn't outrace an arrow, so would have to outthink the archers.

His movements became more deliberate in his avoidance as he observed the speed of the archers' rate of fire and the lay of the land. At the last moment, he ducked behind sparse cover he could find, feeling more than seeing the arrows of the first volley headed towards him as they passed too close for comfort. Almost instantly he was up again, running, trying to cover ground, aware that he was drawing more attention as he did so. His feet barely touched the ground as he raced towards the archers, the bushes coming into sharp focus as he concentrated his attention on any movement coming from them. The bushes rustled, and he jumped sideways, one arrow quivering in the tree he had jumped behind even as another thunked into the ground beside him. Apparently a third archer had joined in to take down the approaching warrior, for he felt a burning in his bicep from a third arrow that had creased him unknowingly. With a last surge, he parted the bushes, taking instant stock of what he saw around him, using the bushes to his advantage now as he prepared for the bloody work to come...

The archers were close but, seeing him - they broke and ran, not even stopping to pull their blades from their belts.

Niko didn't hesitate. Continuing his forward momentum, he took a backhanded strike at the first archer's back, his blade flicking in and out of the man's back. The corpse had not even struck the ground as he turned towards the next, spinning in a tight low circle, his offhand blade flashing out with an economic stroke as he took the man across the back of his hamstring, watching with satisfaction as the man joined his fellow on the ground, screaming in agony. By this time, the third was too far away for Niko to overtake, so Niko scooped up the second archer's bow, trying to orient in time to take the fleeing figure down...

But they were well into the bushes now, and it was easy enough for the man to dodge out of sight, the crashing of undergrowth making his hidden progress.

Derron was thundering up from behind Niko, not slowing down. He wanted at least one more, preferably alive. If the archers looked to be getting away, though he was sure Niko could run one down, he was prepared to throw his hammer at one figure's back.

Lantern was on his heels.

Lantern stopped - he raised his borrowed sword again, clearly planning to bring it crashing down on the man Niko had wounded.

Derron snapped at Lantern, "No! Hold!" His left hand, still holding the shield was held up, and Derron was ready to block Lantern's strike if he attempted it. In the back of his mind he was worried the minstrel was killing his companions to prevent them from spilling information.

Aerin had her dagger out and Shade at her side. She rolled over, aimed, watched for an arrow to come out, and then raised up and threw her dagger at the place the arrow came out of the nearest bush.

She saw the bushes quiver violently and heard a scream ...

Derron and Lantern, approaching from a slightly different angle, saw the bushes quiver and heard the scream too, but were conscious that the arrows had stopped. Then they were through the bushes, and saw a man rolling on the ground, a discarded bow beside him and dagger in his side. Without hesitation, Lanten stepped up and drove his sword through the man's throat, his face grim. Blood fountained up, raining down on the man's face - but he was already dead.

Derron didn't pause either as he began moving towards the other archers. He simply barked, "Come on," to Lantern.

Niko was so busy trying to find the third archer, or any other opponents, that he would have missed Lantern's attempt to kill the opponent that he had so carefully taken alive- if not for Derron. At his voice, Niko wheeled, his eye still sighted down the arrow. Once he saw what was going on, his brow furrowed in thought. Why would the minstrel be so quick to kill an obviously neutralized opponent?

Questions or not, Niko was prepared to take the man in the arm if his sword started to descend towards the unarmed man.

Lantern was aware of the shield if not the arrow. His sword wavered - and then lowered not to strike. He glowered at Derron

"Why ... why stop me? Do you wish this trash to live so much?" he gasped.

Derron was scowling and about to simply remark that he wanted to question this one. But then he could just hear Aerin's bloody cat. Only it wasn't growling ferociously as he would have expected if it were fighting or hurt. Suddenly it became clear to him. Derron said, "They ran too easily. Normally bandits would have been prepared for fighting in close. These men are the diversion." He turned to Niko. "Back, quick now, lad."

Niko heard Shade at about the same time Derron did, but the steward was quicker to put words to what was happening. But once prompted, Niko didn't need to be told twice. Dropping the bow, he took off like a shot in the direction that the 'cat's cries came from. Both blades were again out, glinting in the sunlight as he raced across the ground towards his student.

Facing Lantern again he said, "Prod this one back with the sword. We'll make him talk if we're too late." With that he lumbered off after Niko, his long legs eating up the ground.

The first thing they saw, just before a stand of bushes, was Shade, writhing and snarling as he struggled in a net that had clearly been thrown over with some dexterity, for the half-grown Shadowcat was entirely enveloped in the mesh. There was no sign of Aerin.

Niko knew that he had a choice. If Aerin was around and he stopped to help Shade, he might be wasting precious time. Of course, if Aerin wasn't around, Shade could probably find her. But there was the point of fact that Shade would probably not know friend from foe currently.

Then he heard Derron behind him. "Steward! Release Shade, and I will continue to look for Aerin! If they took the time to secure the 'cat so and not kill it, they were in a hurry."

With that, he arrested his sprint, circling the 'cat instead, not envying Derron his task.

For a moment, Derron was tempted to see if he could instead find Lancer and something of Aerin's. The old hound might not be as fast as the cat, but whoever was carrying Aerin was being slowed down by the burden. Then he heard the scream.

"SHADE!! NIKO!!!" Aerin yelled as loudly as she could.

That made up his mind for him. As he pulled up to a stop by the thrashing shadowcat he dropped the shield and hammer and quickly slipped on his heavy leather gauntlets that he used when handling molten metal. He crouched down and drew a small knife from his belt and started to slice open the net by the tail first, trying to calm the cat to any degree possible.

"Easy, Shade," he almost crooned. "It's just me. I'lll have you out in a flash. Good cat." He figured the moment the cat could get free it would be gone after Aerin and Niko. He'd follow along, maybe bringing reinforcements. He wanted to survey the camp to see who was available and useful, and check on Lancer of course, but taking his eyes from a thrashing shadowcat seemed a bad idea. He focused on the net, grabbing several strands at once and using his strength to help saw through quickly.

Shade, maddened with the restraint, was in no mood whatsoever to be a good cat. He threshed wildly under the cords, growling and spitting, and saw Derron only as someone who had come to add to his torment. His writhing kept the cords loose and hard to cut until one of the guards, braver than the rest, grabbed the opposite side of the net and held it down firmly, constraining Shade and tightening the cords so that Derron could cut more easily.

Shade, under firm constraint, was forced to be still, but the gleam of his golden eye promised singular vengeance shortly.

Finally the cords parted - all that remained was to pull the cords off before Shade could tangle himself again.

Derron, still grateful for the heavy gauntlets, pulled the cords free and immediuatley went still as the cat broke free and took off in the direction Niko had gone. If he had flinched, the cat might have taken it as a threat, and neither Derron nor Shade could afford any further delay. As the cat disappeared into the brush, a blur of muscle and fur, Derron once more got to his feet and nodded to the guard who had helped him. "Thanks, lad. The mistrel is coming behind me with a prisoner. Help him out, then keep everyone safe here. You're in charge until we get back with the girl."

He grabbed the shield, still leaving it unstrapped, and once more took off after the others. If Niko and Shade could slow down the opposition, he might be able to reinforce them.

Shade was away - but the bushes slowed him a little, and he moved with caution, despite his determination to find Aerin - clearly he didn't want to be captured again. It made him an excellent tracker for Derron to follow.

Derron followed the cat, doing his best to be stealthy. Then again, if their quarry was involved in a fight, they cuold move with greatre speed. But Derron was no tracker. He hunted rarely, and usually with his aging hound. He wished he had the dog with him now.

(Derron rejoins the others, below)


Niko, by now, had broken through the bushes. Ahead he could see more bushes waving wildly - doubtless marking Aerin's progress - or rather that of her captors.

Seeing that they couldn't be that far ahead, Niko broke into a full sprint. He ignored the whipping of the branches and brush as he ran through the forest, focussed totally on his goal, running with all of the speed he was capable to overtake them.

He burst through the last of the bunches and saw a group of men. Two were already mounted; three more were struggled to load a sack onto another horse - but the content of the sack - which Niko could clearly distingush as Aerin by her protruding legs - was fighting furiously not to be taken.

(merges with Aerin, below) ---

Aerin wasn't chasing the others. She didn't have her bow, and she needed to get her knife back.

Slowly she rose up, then moved around the bush she'd thrown her knife into, giving herself enough room to dodge or dive in case the one she'd managed to hit was still alive.

The man was lying still on the ground, her knife in his back. Blood was welling up from the angry wound.

But, as she moved forward in bushes, she heard a sudden rustle of the bushes; she felt a hand clamp over her mouth, while another - belonging to someone else, it seemed, grabbed her by the waist to jerk her backward into the bushes.

She heard behind her a growl, and then a sudden squeal from Shade.

Aerin attempted to elbow the one who'd grabbed waist while trying to bite the hand that was covering her mouth. There was no chance she was going to be taken without a struggle. And she could fight nearly as fiercely as Shade when cornered.

A grunt told her that she'd been successful with her elbow, and the hand around her waist loosened for a moment. But the hand covering her mouth was covered in leather, she realised, as soon as she began to bite, and although her teeth were slowly riipping through, it would take some time to make much impression on the flesh contained therein.

"Little vixen!" panted a harsh voice, close to her ear, as her captor made another grab for her waist. "They should've warned she'd fight!"

"What do they know? They were wrong about the wolf, weren't they?" responded a voice on the other side of her.

"Enough!" said a third voice, and suddenly Aerin's world went dark as something was roughly drawn down over her head and shoulders.

"Now," said the third voice, "Will you stop fighting? Or must we kill your cat?"

Aerin froze involuntarily at the idea Shade was in danger. "Shade!" she yelled from within the sack over her head, hoping to hear the something of her shadowcat.

All she could hear from behind her were growls and yowls. Something, it seemed, was preventing Shade from coming to her side ...

Then she felt herself lifted, and then they were running through the bushes - she could feel the twigs whipping on the outside of the sack that covered her top half.

"You try anything and the cat's dead!" the man carrying her growled.

Behind them, Shade's yowls were fading with distance; clearly, he too was still a prisoner.

Because if they were going to kill Shade they would have already done so. And he was still alive.

"SHADE!! NIKO!!!" Aerin yelled as loudly as she could. She lashed out with her feet and started to struggle, trying to force them to drop her.

They hung on grimly, but her struggles certainly slowed thei progress considerably, even though a second man grabbed and restrained her legs (although not before he'd managed some powerful kicks).

"Knock her on the napper," advised another voice from a distance.

"Too dangerous," said the first man. "They'll pay less for her dead than alive."

They were still trying to move forward - ahead Aerin heard horses whinnying nervously.

(Niko and Aerin)

Aerin continued to struggle, but said nothing more, saving her breath for fighting. Her hands tried to escape the bag and grab hold of one of the men carrying her, hopefully to be able to grab clothing to slow them. Or a knife to cut them with.

She couldn't feel anything like that, but their increasingly rough handing suggested that they were panicked (as well as possibly injured).

Seeing the situation, Niko didn't stop- he knew he couldn't afford to. Barrelling into the clearing, he ignored the men on horseback, concentrating instead on Aerin's captors. Catching them before they were fully aware that he was upon them, his attack was a brutal, ugly affair as he swept at the legs of the first one on his side with one of his blades, immediately following through to the second with the other as if it were a scythe.

The first man screamed and fell, but the second leapt back one leg bleeding from a gash, grabbing Aerin, still trapped in the sack, and held her before him like a shield. Admittedly, a frantically wriggling, kicking shield, but still ..

--- (Derron again)

Derron followed the cat, doing his best to be stealthy. Then again, if their quarry was involved in a fight, they cuold move with greatre speed. But Derron was no tracker. He hunted rarely, and usually with his aging hound. He wished he had the dog with him now.

The cat burst out of the bushes and sprang foprward with a growl, even as one of the horseman kicked his terrified horse forward, intent on riding Shade down ...

Hard on Shade's heels came Derron ...

As Derron came near he could hear the screams of pain and grunts of fighting, as well as some random comments by some of the bandits. Then as Shade burst into the clearing, more confused shouts. This was perfect cover for Derron. All the men who were closer to him had their backs to him. As his hammer was in his right hand and shield in his left, he was intent on first slamming the hammer into the back of the first man to his right, then again the man on his left. He figured Shade and Niko had enough to contend with without more men closing in, or himself getting in their way.

The first man collapsed with barely time to give a grunt of pain. The second gave a yell, which distracted the horserider, who looked up, pulling on the reins. That was his fatal mistake - at least as far as the horse was concerned, for Shade, almost in passing, delivered a slash that laid its jugular open. The blood spurted - all over the second man Derron had hit. Convinced this was from his own injuries in some way, he let out a yell and took to his heels.

The ride sprang down from his collapsing horse - the second rider had already wheeled and was galloping away, leaving the man who held Aerin and one other to look after themselves.

Shade crouched low in the grass, tail lashing, sizing up his prey.

Derron faced the man who had just dismounted, confident Niko and Shade could deal with the man holding Aerin. He scowled and said, "Surrender and you'll live to see the Wall, lad. Otherwise you'll die here." He had a feeling the man was now standing in a pool of horse's blood. Derron hoped the man would slip if he made any sudden moves.

The man bared his teeth and swung at him with his longsword. No Knioght, this, a sellsword at best, with all the low tricks of the breed.

But also standing a little unsteadily on the blood-slicked grass, as Derron had hoped. His first blow nearly swept him off his feet - he recovered and glowered at Derron, menacing him with the sword.

Derron, rose to his full height and came forward, his shield held in punch-fashion, at full extension. His hammer had little range, even with his long arms, clearly less than the sword. So as he moved in and raised his hammer as if to strike, he suddenly surged forward and slammed his shield at the man. His hope was the bandit had been planning on parrying the hammer, but now would either take the shield full in the face, or block it, leaving himself open to the hammer. Regardless, Derron would not hesitate to strike. He had always hated mixing it up like this. He tended to do better in a shield wal where his size was more of an advantage. Doubtless the man was better with a blade than he, so he had to rely on his age and experience.

The man tried to block it - but he was fighting gravity too. His feet skidded from under him and he went down with a terrific yell.

Shade, his mouth full of entrails, looked up with some remote interest.

Derron moved quickly and dropped all his weight on one knee into the man's midsection, knocking the wind out of him, and effectively pinning him. The shield ground against the forearm holding the sword. Derron practically growled as he said, "Drop it, or I'll feed you to the cat, too." He was leaning heavily on the shield, and if the man struggled he would get a hammer upside his head.

The man, wisely deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, lay still, although his face was white with fear as he watched Shade who, content with a job well done, was moving to investigate what had happened to Aerin.

(Derron rejoins group below) ---

Aerin, feeling her center of gravity shift and one of the men let her go struggled even more wildly in order to break free.

Niko held for a brief moment, watching the pair. "Aerin," he said calmly. "Remember your teachings." He held out his sword. "Be still."

Without waiting for her response, he spoke to the man, his voice now cold and hard. "You have one chance to save yourself. Put her down, or never see home again."

Given that Aerin heard Niko's voice, but still couldn't see anything, threw her weight forward and down as if she was trying to duck and roll. And hoped to pull the man holding her off balance and forward also.

She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. As she fell forward, he toppled with her, giving a yell of alarm as he realised he was exposed. But he crashed into Aerin, and she heard an audible popping sound from her left shoulder - and quite suddenly felt sick with the pain of it.

Involuntarily Aerin cried out when her shoulder dislocated. Instinctively she tried to roll off of it, to minimize the pain.

But she was trapped beneath the weight of the fallen man.

Colourful language spilled from Niko's lips as he sprang forward to take advantage of the opening- something about 'illusions of being in charge', but nowhere near as nicely phrased- his background in the legions showed in times like this.

He planned to merely roll the man off of Aerin as he took stock of his surroundings- he didn't trust Lantern to keep the other man alive, no matter what the Steward had said, and this scenario didn't play out as he thought it should- so if noone else was a threat, he planned to attempt to keep this one alive. But if he was needed elsewhere, this one's life was forfeit, as his blade was ready to either threaten- or kill.

As soon as he rolled him off, however, there was a growl from beside him - and the man screamed in terror.

Shade had no plans to save alive for questioning human dolts who threw nets over self-respecting shadowcats while bearing one's food provider off in a sack. As far as Shade was concerned, there was only one fate such perfidy could meet - and the hapless man was now meeting it.

His screams did not last long.

Niko entertained some fleeting idea that perhaps he might stop the 'cat, but quickly disabused himself of that notion. In any matter after the first moment or so, there was little left that would be worth saving.

(all together)

Niko, seeing that Derron had the situation well in hand, only said, "We should probably keep that one alive- this one is..." He shrugged.

Crouching, Niko removed the bag from Aerin's head, which he cuffed lightly almost as soon as it was visible. "Silly girl. Do you not know what 'be still' means? Has nothing this one said to you had any effect?" He was perturbed, but she could see that there was also a mixture of worry and relief on his face. Then, without awaiting an answer he moved to help her to her feet. "Are you damaged?"

Aerin didn't reach to take his hand to stand up. Instead her face was scrunched up in pain. And not helped by the cuff to the head.

"My shoulder's torn," she said tersely. She carefully rolled away from Shade and his meal, and onto her good side. And keeping her bad arm very still.

Back down on one knee, Niko asked, "Can you move it? You will need to get up so we can get you back to the Septa."

"I think we need to reset it," she forced herself to say.

Now the other guards were arriving - ready to take charge of the prisoner and aid in any way necessary.

Their late arrival was explained by the fact that the raiders had set a small fire at the far side of the camp - and they had hurried to put it out.

"The Septa looks mortal bad, Steward Thorne," said one of them dolefully.

Niko looked up sharply. "The ... Septa? What happened?"

Aerin twisted her head to look up at the guard Niko was talking to, her expression panicked.

Derron said, "No time for words here. Tell us as we head back." He glanced down at his prisoner. "All right you, on your feet." He turned to the arriving guards. "Bind his hands well, behind his back. Gather up their weapons and gear and bring it back. I've a feeling we'll need whatever we can salvage from this lot. Niko, help Aerin up and stay by her side." As they started back Derron said to the prisoner, "We've already grabbed one of the archers. If your story doesn't match his, you're both dead men. Tell me all about who hired you, to do what and why."

Niko gently helped Aerin to her feet, his face an expressionless mask as he did so. Once he had her up, they followed Derron, listening intently to his interrogation.

"I ain't saying nuffink," said the man, and he did manage to maitain his silence the rest of the walk back - perhaps because Shade was nowhere near him - the feline having decided that he needed to guard Aerin jealousy.

Aerin was comforted by Shade's presence. And a small amount by Niko's support. But all her energy was focused to getting her injured self back to the camp.

She forced herself to move as fast as she could back through the brush. Refusing to mutter the slightest whimper or noise of pain as she made her way back.

The first thing they saw in the camp was the Septa lying stretched out by the fire, her head propped up on Ranulf's lap. The boy appeared to be giving her something to drink. The ride side of her gown appeared to be ripped and - moreover - bloodstained.

Derron scanned the camp for Lantern and his prisoner but stopped. He turned to the guards and said, "Keep him over there, not talking to anyone. If he tries anything, just kill him. We don't need more baggage." With that he moved with the others towards Ranulf and the Septa. He crouched down and gave her a small smile. Trying to sound reproachful he said, "Of course the best healer we have is the worst off. Just our luck. Can you tell us what to do?"

The Septa smiled up at him. "Just do your best, Derron Thorne, and that will be good enough, I wager."

Aerin stumbled and dropped to her knees in front of the Septa, gasping in pain as her knees hit the ground and sent a shock though her shoulder.

"Ranulf," she said, biting back tears. "Pull back her gown so I can see what the wound looks like," she forced herself to say through the pain.

"No," said the Septa sharply. "Ranulf has seen to my wound well enough for the moment ... but you're hurt, Aerin! Does anyone have the trick of fixing bones here? This must be done at once!"

She half pulled herself up, looking around almost in panic.

Derron visibly winced. When he had been younger, and thought being a warrior a great romantic adventure, he had been training with the former Captain of Clearwater. To make a long story short, he had ended up with his shoulder out of its socket. The Captain, who had died well before the War for the Throne, had said, "This'll hurt, but hopefully you learned the lesson about exposing your arm." He had ordered other men to hold Derron on the ground, then basically stepped on his shoulder while pulling the arm. It had been a powerful agony for a few moments, but it had worked.

Derron said, "I can try. But I hope you know an easier remedy than I experienced."

"What remedy?" Aerin asked as she gave the Steward a half suspicious, half worried look.

"What was your remedy?" asked Ranulf - his eyes wide.

They spoke in chorus.

Before Derron could answer, one of the guards came yo to him quickly.

"Steward - might I have a word with you - and with Niko? Privately."

Niko looked askance at Derron for a moment, before following the guard. After they were alone, Niko deferred to the steward- after all, the guard asked for him first.

In the mean-time, the Septa was explaining to Aerin. "It needs to be jerked back into place. It will hurt, yes, but once it is down it will simply ache for a day or two and then be as right as rain, I promise!"

Ranulf was looking green.

Aerin nodded, wincing. "I thought as much," she said, her good arm reaching around to support her injured one. "Niko or the Steward will have to do it. Don't worry," she said to Ranulf, giving him a small smile through her pain. "You won't have to."

"No," said the Septa reassuringly. The Steward will do it - or one of the guyards, if any have experience. You won't be strong enough, Ranulf."

Then she leaned back against the cart. Her face was a little grey.

Aerin looked up in worry. She was hurt, but the Septa needed another Septa, and soon. She silently cursed her injury.

(merges below)

Niko looked askance at Derron for a moment, before following the guard. After they were alone, Niko deferred to the steward- after all, the guard asked for him first.

Derron followed then looked at the guard and simply asked, "Is it the minstrel?"

The guard nodded sombrely. "He's run, Steward - but he left the other behind him. Didn't hurt him none, leastways, no worse than he was hurt already." He avoided looking at Niko. "He's bleeding bad, but he'll live if we can find a healer."

Derron cursed softly.

"So- he was the forward scout? To see our strength?" Niko raised an eyebrow, turning to look at the steward again. "So not bandits. They were specifically targeting Aerin- for what?"

Derron shrugged. "No idea, but it doesn't matter much, does it? Maybe our prisoners can give us some information. But once we get settled here, Niko, if you wish to attempt to track them all and learn more, that will help. Just don't engage more than one. If the Septa can travel, we'll move out soon. First things first, though. Let's get Aerin's arm back where it belongs. Then I'll see if the wounded one will talk in exchange for being saved. If not, we'll let him bleed out. I reckon the nearest healer's in Marshend, but with the Septa hurt, I don't know how fast we can move."

Niko nodded. "I will take a couple of men- it makes sense to at least secure the area; we do not want any more surprises," he said, turning to leave. Finding Tyek and Eron was not easy in the tangled mess the camp had become. Though the archers' arrows were apparently shot at random to cover their true motive, they could not have caused any more mayhem if they had been choosing their shots deliberately.

(Niko's events continue in Tracking the Attackers)

Derron came back from where had spoken with Niko. He crouched down and said, "Now, about that shoulder, young lady. I won't lie. It's going to hurt. I've never done it before, but had it done to me many years ago. So, we'll have the Septa tell me how to set up, then I'll do it. Fair enough?"

Aerin gave Derron a long look.

And then looked to Shade. "Don't kill him. He's trying to help me," she ordered the shadowcat, even as she struggled to get out of her coat with one good arm.

"Shall I take him away with me?" asked Ranulf, by now so pale that the freckles on his face stood out clearly. "He might come," he added optimistically, "if you tell him to."

Aerin cringed. Mostly because she'd never told Shade to go anywhere with anyone else.

And she wasn't sure she trusted Shade to not eat Ranulf.

Then again... he had just eaten...

"Shade? Go with Ranulf and get my dagger," she told them. "It's ok. Really," she tried to say with some confidence.

The Septa, meanwhile, began to explain the proceedure to Derron in a low voice, so as not to alarm Aerin further.

Derron told Aerin to lie flat on her back, with her sore arm out to the side. As she was a young woman instead of a burly soldier, he would not use his full weight to begin with. He knelt next to her and gently rested his knee on the shoulder and lifted her arm, his massive hand gripping her smaller, but well-calloused one. "Now, first I'm to put my weight on it to hold you in place. Then I'll move your arm and shove the thing back into place. Okay?"

Aerin was obviously unnerved, and already in pain, nodded. "Brave lass. Now, if it doesn't work the first time, I'll have to use more weight and try again. So let's hope I get it right the first time. Ready?" As she nodded he suddenly put most of his weight on her, moved his left hand to her shoulder so her could guide things and shifted the arm around using his right. He had hoped that by not waiting for her to tense up it would be easier.

Aerin was thinking it would be like some of her more painful training with Niko. The training sections where she fell, over and over and over again. Or learning to take hard hits and not stop.

This, Aerin discovered, was an entirely new level of pain.

She gave a strangled cry as the Steward yanked on her arm.

Across the meadow, Shade's head lifted ...

But Derron had heard a little click! as he felt the bone shift.

"That's it," said the Septa. "Aerin - you can cry all you want presently. But you have to stop Shade killing the Steward now."

And indeed Shade was facing them, crouching low, his tail lashing dangerously.

Derron stayed crouched down and tilted his head to the side, in approximation of baring his throat to an animal seeking dominance. His hands were now spread out to his sides, and while his eyes could see the cat's legs and body, he kept from looking at its own eyes. Then something moved at the corner of his vision. He glanced to his left and saw Lancer, scrouching ever so slightly in the door of the wagon. His lips were up, exposing his long teeth in a silent growl, and his hackles were up. But obedient dog that he was, he wouldn't attack unless Derron ordered him to, or Derron were actually attacked. To forestall any problems, Derron said softly, "Lancer, no. Down, boy." The dog didn't move. Derron risked speaking more sharply.

"Lancer, no! Down!" The old hound whined and sort-of danced in place, then lay on his belly. Bot his legs were curled, so he was ready to get up quickly. Derron worried for the dog. He still might have some weight over Shade, but Shade was much younger, faster, and probably more vicious. He decided if it came to it, he'd tackle whichever animal ran closest to him.

Aerin held her aching shoulder as she forced herself to sit up. "Shade, I'm ok," she said. "Don't kill Derron. And don't kill Lancer. Fish... Derron will get you fish, ok?"

Shade's tail flicked back and forward. Clearly, he was still inclined to charge. But rthe mention of fish ...

He straightened from his crouch and sauntered across to Aerin, clearly wanting to check that she was all right. But something in his strut said very plainly, "I could have taken them. If I'd wanted to."

"You'll need to put that arm in a sling," said the Septa. She seemed to be speaking with some difficulty.

Aerin gave the Septa a sharp look, even as her one good hand reached to Shade's neck to stroke it. She looked at the wound at the side of the Septa.

"Is it your lung? It's your lung, isn't it?" she demanded.

Without waiting for an answer she looked up at Derron. "We need to get her into the wagon and press on to Marshend," she announced with the certainty of a 15 year old. "I'll ride with her. And Ranulf.... Ranulf?" She looked around for the boy, fairly sure Shade hadn't had time for a light snack.

Derron relaxed and turned to the Septa, "And you need to to rest. We'll try to move you soon." But he suspected that would be a dangerous thing to do. "Unless you think it would be safer to bring help here for you."

"What?" said Ranulf, who had followed Shade back towards them.

The Septa managed a smile for him and Aerin both.

Derron, hearing no argument from the Septa stood and waved a couple of the few remaining guards over. "Load her in gently, lads. For each cry of pain from her, you're to be docked a silver stag in pay." It was obvious his remark about money was a joke, but they could tell he was serious about being careful. He then headed over to the men with the prisoner. He stood and looked at the man as he sat on the ground.

He was silent for a short time, then sighed. "I really don't have the time or inclination for doing this proper. So here are your choices. Tell me everything about why you were hired and I'll set you free unharmed, with your knife and some food. Tell me nothing, I'll use my hammer to break your sword hand and leave you with no food, just a knife for your off-hand. Which will it be?"

"We were hired to find a wench," said the man. "Dunno who hired us - my job's to follow orders and take my pay. A wench, it was that we was looking for, with a fierce animal. Said it was a wolf, but when we heard about the girl here with her big cat, we reckoned they'd got it wrong. So we sent the minstrel is as bait ... we had his lad, so we knew he'd do what we wanted."

Derron pursed his lips but nodded. "Which one is your leader? What's he look like? And tell me how the minstrel."

The man looked over his shoulder - and shuddered. "The cat ... ate him. The minstrel - he tried to cheat us at cards. So we took his boy prisoner - he stuck close to us after that."

Derron, hands on his hips, nodded again. "Fair enough. When we leave, I'll give you some food, and your knife. Until then, relax." He turned on his heel and moved to help break camp. His own stomach was growling so he looked over by the fire. That's when he spotted Binnder. Binnder was an older soldier, short and very stout. Most newcomers ribbed him about his shape and lack of speed. But those who knew him understood he was as solid a defender as ever there was. He might not be fleet of foot, but that same short, round shape made him tough to move. And the mace he swung carried a nasty blow in it. On top of that, he was the guard scrounger. Ser Tomas had even taken to using his name as a verb, as in "We need to Binnder up some supplies."

Part of the reason for his belly was sheer pragmatism. He needed a lot of food to keep going. Derron reckoned that he saw Binnder more in the kitchen than in the training yard or on the walls, and more often wielding a fork or turkey leg than his mace. But he made himself invaluable to all the kitchen staff, especially the women. He might have a face that was best described as looking as if it had been set afire then beaten out with a wet chain, but he had a certain sweetness the women of the kitchen could not deny. He often could be found carrying large sacks of potatoes or onions, or casks of ale, for Cook and her staff.

When the Septa had taken the arrow, he had moved to guard her. Derron had noted that while freeing Shade, Binnder was on the ground near the Septa, not moving. He had assumed the man had been killed. But the massive dent in his helm told the tale. He had been knocked out. Derron knew it must have been a wicked strike, for not only was Binnder's head solid, Derron himself had forged that helm. Best of all, the resourceful man had saved most of the Septa's labours from overcooking. Only some of the food was burned. Derron had to restrain himself from marching over and digging in. Instead he told the men working, "Let's hurry it along. Once we're done, we'll finish breaking our fast. Good work, Binnder. Trust in you to save the food."

The doughty, doughy-looking warrior grinned and winked. "Aye. I could nae let the woman's efforts go to naught."

(Events merged from Tracking the Attackers)

Aerin, by the wagons, could see Niko and his party riding back, even as she helped (or hindered?) the placing of the Septa in the wagon.

"They moved with all of the speed I could expect towards Marshend," Niko said without preamble. "But they broke into two groups about half-way." He looked back towards the Septa's wagon. "How is she? How far do you think we can make it today? I am thinking that we will go back out in the morning- we should be able to make it to Marshend and back from whereever we make camp- get her help that much sooner- and scout out what happened to the two that headed that way."

Derron frowned and looked in their direction of travel. "I'd like to move quickly, but the Septa's condition might slow us. We'll go as fast as we dare. You and your men rest your animals while we all eat something. Then we'll move out. Once we see how we fare, we'll decide about sending a party ahead to find help."

"As you wish," Niko said. Then after a pause, "How is she? Really?" He sighed. "I noticed that she would not let anyone examine her. Is it that bad?"

Derron simply shrugged. "I've seen men survive worse, but I've also seen them succumb to less. Right now, it's up to her. If she truly wishes to survive, she'll give us the best advice she can, and hang on."

Derron sat down on the ground with his food. He looked up to see Lancer sitting patiently, looking expectant. Derron grimaced. "And where were you during all the excitement? We could have used any help, you know." Lancer's long tongue flicked out along his greying muzzle. "We had to rely on the cat!" Derron almost snapped. That tone got a reaction. Lancer lay full down on his belly, his ears flat down, and looked up at his master, doing his best to look contrite. That look always got to Derron. His frown turned into a soft grin. He muttered, "Silly dog," and gave a small bite to his companion. As Lancer wolfed it down, Derron shook his head and said, "I suppose you'll be wanting to ride in the wagon again." Lancer's eyes seemed to light up, his ears perked, and the tip of his tongue hung out. Derron sighed. "All right. Keep her spirits up."

It was well into the morning before they were ready to move. Aerin and Ranulf were to riude in the wagon with the Septa and see to her needs - Derron would lead the party still, but Niko was in charge of scouting and making sure that they were not followed, nor observed by hostile eyes.

Scouting was more an artform than many realized. In setting up outriders, one had to balance the need for intelligence with the distance at which the riders rode, and balance their numbers with the possibility of their being seen. Niko was well aware that it was not an area that he was skilled in, employing Tyek, Eron, Grahem, and even Donald's son in his planning.

Three trailed the group in rearguard, equidistant from each other, but within hailing distance of the back of the convoy. They stayed in constant communication- at least in theory. After a couple of hours, they began to grow bored with checking in. It's not that the men didn't do their job; it was more that the adrenaline of the fight wearing off dulled their edge. The three mirroring their efforts in the front- Niko, Tyek, and Eron- were a bit more alert, especially since they had to watch out for the distant outriders- Donald's son and one other that had been a tracker before settling down in Clearwater. It wasn't perfect, but Niko knew that it had to do under the circumstances.

Derron rode just ahead of the wagon. Binnder was just behind it, and was constantly moving from its rear left to rear right. Derron had told the wagon driver to move at whatever pace they could without the Septa wincing too much, or crying out. He had even pulled Aerin aside and said, "I'm relying on you to tell me if it's too fast for Septa. She'll try to bear any pain to see you and the lad safe in Marshend. But you know her best. If it's too much, let us know to slow down. But if she's able to handle it, we'll make good time."

Aerin nodded knowingly, though she winced slightly at the pain the motion caused her. "I will. But I think if we go too slow," she said in a whisper, "it will not matter if she can handle it or not."

"Can we send someone ahead for the Septa in Marshend?" she asked Derron. "Maybe she could meet us part way?" she asked hopefully.

Derron shook his head. "We've lost a few men as it is, and I'd rather not get even more spread out than we will be. When we find a good place to camp, we might be able to send someone ahead."

They would not be stopping for a proper afternoon meal. They would slow to a walk, and dismount from all the horses, but stopping only long enough to rest and get moving again. If they could move well enough, they'd have a better chance of finding a good place to set camp for the evening. They might even get close enough to send Niko and one or two others into town to fetch help if they could find it.

Aerin managed to slice off bits of cold meat and bread with Ranulf's help, and hand them off to the men during the midday. But all her spare time was spend by the Septa. Making sure the bandage was changed when needed. Helping get a poltice made to put on the wound.

But mainly watching the Septa in case her condition worsened.

The journey progressed slowly. The scouts fpound nothing to disturb them, but they dared not relax their watchfulness. By mid-afternoon, not only the Septa but also Aerin were showing the strain of their injuries. They were in the low foothills that represented the last barrier before the slopes led down to Marshedn and the bottom edge of the Long Lake - and a dell seemed a good place to pause, a low bowl in the hills - sheltered and defensible.

Derron signaled for them to dismount and make camp. "Niko! Rest your animals, then if we think there's enough light, you can ride fast for Marshend with one other." He knew Niko would set a proper watch before any further decisions were made. "Binnder, you spend enough time in the kitchen Cook says you know your way around. You're to make supper as best you can. If she's up to it, Septa may advise you." Derron then moved to help set up stakes for a cooking fire.

The Septa seemed more inclined to take advantage of the cessation of motion to sleep for a little.

Ranulf sat beside her, huddled small. He had not left her side the whole day - nor had he spoken to Aerin, beyond dull acknoweledgements of any questions she had asked.

Aerin too was exhausted. The combination of the pain and the movement over the course of the day had worn her out. By the time they has stopped she was ready to collapse.

She wanted to curl up next to the Septa. But Ranulf was there...

Too tired to think about it Aerin curled up next to Ranulf, her back against his as she kept her weight off her sore arm.

And left room for Shade to curl up next to her of course.

It was the smell of meat that aroused them: Shade first, stirring against Aerin's side - and then Ranulf. The boy climbed from the wagon and trotted towards the bushes, in full view of Derron and Niko - although his errand was obvious after so many hours in the wagon.

Shade sprang down and padded over to inspect the cooking arrangements. He had, however, eaten earlier, so his interest was perfunctory.

Derron kept an eye on the bushes where the boy went. If he wasn't back soon, he and Lancer would look for him. For the moment, the food Binnder had prepared had most of his attention.

But Ranulf came back almost at once, dragging his feet as he did so. He didn't look up as he approached the camp; his demmeanour reminded Derron of a brutalised dog who cowered from humankind.

Derron thought about offering the boy some encouragement or words of wisdom. But that had never been his strong suit. Instead he simply said, "Ranulf, come get something to eat. You can take some back to Septa and Aerin when you've eaten."

As Derron talked to Ranulf, Niko approached on horseback. "Steward Thorne," he began. "I am sorry to interrupt, but we must be off if we are to have any chance of securing help."

"I am taking Tyek and Eron with me; as we are going directly to the village, we will not be needing a scout. We will do all we can to return with help tonight- but with how late it is, if we do not return this eve, we will be back at first light." As he talked to the steward, he looked curiously at Ranulf at times, but did not remark on it while the boy was there.

"I have left Grahem in charge of watches again- he does a better job at organizing than I ever could," Niko added. "Is there anything else you require before we leave?"

Derron shook his head and said, "No. Ride hard. We're already short a few men, so I don't like losing you three for any longer than necessary."

Niko nodded, and turned his horse to leave. On the way back through the small camp, he stopped to check on Aerin and the Septa, but merely looked in to make sure they were fine, continuing on without saying anything.

"Ready," Tyek asked, Eron by his side crouched over the head of his steed.

"I think that does it. I will take point, one of you on either side," he said, moving at a walk further out of the camp. "Stay together, and stay alert- we will be riding fast, but it is getting towards evening, and we do not want to be caught unawares."

With that, he spurred his horse and took off, riding towards Marshend.

(Split into On the Way to Marshend: Riding Hard and On the Way to Marshend: At the Camp)

WinterChills WinterChillsGameLogs Clearwater

Page last modified on October 02, 2006, at 02:23 AM