On the Way to Marshend: At the Camp
(Split from Attack at the Camp)
After Niko had ridden off, Binnder came up to Derron.
"Dinner's ready , if you want it. If not, I daresay the dog and that overgrown feline will be glad to eat it all."
"They're still asleep," piped up Ranulf. "The Septa and Aerin. I ... I didn't want to wake them."
Derron thought a moment then said, "No. I know little of healing, but usually rest is always for the best. We'll let them sleep for now. If we have to move fast, they're already in the wagon. Make sure the men save some of the food for them. I'll come get some in a moment." Derron padded softly over to the wagon and whistled softly. No response. He whistled again, and this time Lancer poked his head out. Derron motioned for the dog to follow him, which he did. After a big stretch and yawn.
Once away, Derron said, "Lancer, I know you're a bit old for this. Scout." Lancer's ears dropped. He recalled the command. "Scout!" Derron repeated forcefully. The hound obediently rose to his feet and trotted into the bursh. He'd circle around the camp a short distance out then come back. He'd come back sooner if anything surprised him. Derron did not expect any trouble, but he would need Lancer to do it again during the night, and wanted the hound to remember how to do it.
The dog might not have been up to learning new tricks, but he remembered the old ones well enough.
At this point, Derron became aware of Aerin.
After Niko was gone Aerin checked on the Septa, then moved groggily to the wagon end. She sat down on the edge of the wagon, her feet dangling off as she watched the camp prepare for night.
She saw Derron send Lancer away to scout. Shade had hunkered down by the fire to keep a watchful eye on the cooking.
Derron walked towards Aerin and said, "Now that you're up, would you care for some dinner? Binnder's done his best, but I make no promises."
Aerin nodded slowly. "Have we stopped for the night?" she asked. "The Septa doesn't look well at all," she said quietly, her expression worried.
Derron sighed softly. "I know. But if we try moving at night, we'll be even slower than we were during daylight. And everyone's tired. Best to try getting a little rest. Niko and the others might bring help back tonight, after all. If not, we'll meet them in the morning. I promise we'll leave right after daybreak." He sat back and regarded the girl. "So, something to eat? Or will you just rest? How's the shoulder, by the by?"
"I could eat a little," she confirmed.
"Who were those men anyway?" She looked up at Derron. "Did they all get away?"
Derron shook his head. "No, they didn't. A few did, but a fair number of them certainly will never bother you again. As to who they are, I think they're sellswords, hunting for someone. Someone they mistook you for. They claim they were trying to catch a young woman with a dangerous animal. Supposed to be for some reward. Now, if whoever posted the reward was after you, it would be easy to let people know exactly who you were, and where to find you. If they didn't, then when the hunters learned who you are, and who your father is, they'd demand more money for the prize. So I hate to say it, but all that killing was most likely over a case of mistaken identity."
Aerin frowned, trying to digest what Derron had told her. She hadn't spent much time trying to figure it out, what with her own kidnapping, her shoulder and then the Septa being wounded.
"Then ... then this wasn't my fault?" asked Ranulf - who had crept closer while they had been speaking.
Derron looked up, startled. The boy was quiet, that was for sure. Once he saw who it was he relaxed a bit. "No, lad. Not your fault at all. It was their fault. They decided to attack, and most paid the price. If you want to do something, you always have to be ready to pay the price." Derron almost bit his lip as the words left his mouth. But once he said them, he decided there was nothing to be done about it. If the boy wanted to think him patronizing, Derron had no problem with that. But maybe, just maybe, he would see the lesson for what it was.
Aerin looked at Ranulf with confusion.
He killed his own mother. He planned it. Yet he was worried he had somehow caused the attack in the camp to happen. The equation of conflicting motives tangled in Aerin's mind as she tried to figure them out.
"They were surprised at Shade," she suddenly announced. "They thought he'd be a wolf, not a shadowcat," she told the two of them as she looked over at her companion feline.
Derron nodded. "Indeed they were. And that's another part of the reason I think they were after someone else. Though a woman who travels with a wolf is, well," and he began to grin, "about as tall a tale as a girl with a shadowcat!"
"But Aerin has a shadowcat!" protested Ranulf, too young to appreciate the joke. "So perhaps there really is a woman with a wolf out there."
He moved closer to Aerin and Derron as he spoke, clearly deciding they could keep any wolves at bay.
Derron looked thoughtful. "So she does, lad. So there may indeed be something to it. And maybe we'll meet this wolf mistress yet. But not tonight, I'd wager. Now let's have some of Binnder's stew. It won't be as good as Septa's but it shouold fill the belly and be warm. Come along." He stood up and waited to see if they would follow.
Ranulf rose up eagerly - derron's more kindly words seemed to have revived his crushed spirits a little. But the boy looked round at Aerin, as though wondering if she needed help and, if so, whether she would accept it from him.
Aerin managed to slide off the edge of the wagon back without jossling her shoulder too much. Carefully she started to slowly walk over to the cookfire, letting Ranulf join her if he wanted to.
"You should stay close. Maybe near Shade," she told Ranulf. "I think whoever those men were, they were desperate. Desperate men are the most dangerous. That's what Niko taught me," she told the young boy.
Derron spotted Lancer, back from his round. He was sitting by the stew pot, looking up with mournful eyes at Binnder. Fortunately Binnder was immune to the sad eyes treatment. The stout man saw Derron and the youngsters coming towards him and began to dish up three helpings of stew. Derron took his bowl with a nod of thanks. At his first mouthful though, his smile faded a touch. Binnder shrugged and said, "Best I can do." Derron shrugged as well and ate it down.
Binnder set a bowl aside, and then said, as they finished their own food, "Will you take something to the Septa, or shall I?"
Derron picked it up, then looked at Aerin and Ranulf. "I'll do it. Unless either or both of you wish to do so." Both seemed very protective of the Septa.
"I'll come," said Ranulf at once, scrambling to his feet.
Aerin looked at the wagon back, knowing she would need help getting back up on it, much less with a bowl of soup. And she couldn't support the Septa's head and feed her at the same time.
"Go ahead," she grumbled, not wanting to sit and watch because she wasn't able to help.
As she sat by the fire, she noticed that Shade was pacing to and fro, restlessly. It wasn't as though he was worried about an attack ... but something had set his tail to lashing to and fro.
Aerin thought about pointing out Shade's behavior to Binnder. But Shade wasn't growling. And the others were afraid of him anyway. After all he had disemboweled someone this morning.
Suddenly he turned and looked at her as though inviting her to join him.
Aerin tilted her head, then awkwardly climbed to her feet and started to follow Shade. As if she were just going out for a moment.
Shade seemed pleased by this. He led her through the bushes (which still bore the grisly signs of the earlier attack, and to a small dip in the ground, screened by more bushes. There was a hastily dowsed fire here, and some other abandoned kit - this must have been the place where the robbers had rested before the attack. Shade moved too and fro, sniffing the discarded gear with interest - which rapidly changed to boredom.
One thing that Aerin noticed straight away was some short lengths of discarded rope, which looked as though they had been cut through.
Aerin felt a shiver down her spine as she realized where Shade had brought her. If the attackers' camp was here, then either they came from the direction of Marshend.
Or were heading to Marshend.
Either way this was trouble for their little group.
Shade looked at her expectantly.
Aerin kneeled down awkwardly and picked up some of the rope with her good hand. She looked at it, not exactly sure what to make of it. But it did seem to be important.
She stuffed the rope into a pocket, then looked around for anything else the briggands might have left. Like... something that might tell her who they were.
There was the detritus of a hastily abandoned camp, but no sign of any personal belongings.
And as she stood there, she heard a voice. Shade lifted his head ... then lowered it again to lick his paws.
"You call yourself a dog? Afraid of a cat?" A pause. "Okay, stay." Another pause. "Yes, you're a good dog."
And then Derron appeared, walking carefully through the bushes.
It might be, of course, that after the attack, he was young enough to be afraid to be left alone in the darkness. But somehow, it seemed more a genuine desire to be with the Septa - perhaps to make up in some small measure for what had happened.
"Steward," he asked, as they were approaching the wagon, "what will happen to me?"
Derron was silent for a moment as they walked, then finally said, "That I do not know." He stopped walking and thought. "I guess if things go according to plan, you'll grow up in Marshend, studying with the Septa and so on. After a few years of that, well, plans change all the time."
Ranulf swallowed. "You mean ... if I work and study hard, and I'm very good all the time, my father will take me back to Clearwater?" There was a note of hope in his voice.
Derron looked away, hoping the boy could not see his face clearly in the dark. He sighed and said, "I won't lie to you, Ranulf. He might not. He plans or finding a new wife and trying to have more children. If he is successful, he might send you to the Wall." Before the boy could react Derron pressed on. "But time changes many things, including a man's heart. He might soften, or if you prove to be a good student, he might decide he needs your counsel. If he has no other children, he'll need you as his heir. Ser Tomas puts it well when he says nothing ever goes according to plan. Neither your father's, nor yours, nor mine. All I can advise is to make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in." He felt he was offering little hope, but he felt it to be honest advice.
"I see," said Ranulf. His voice in the darkness sounded no more than a thread - but when he spoke again, there was more strength in it. "Then I must work hard, and prove a good student, and perhaps he will forgive me. One day." He was silent for a while till they were nearly at the wagon, and then he said, "Will he send Niko to the Wall with me?"
Derron said, "I doubt it. He would probably have Niko escort you to the Wall, but then Niko wold either return to Clearwater or go his own way." Derron thought and said, "If you invite him to join you, he might join you. Though since he spent so long in the deserts, I doubt living on the ice would appeal to him." Derron knocked softly on the wagon door and said, "Septa? Ranulf's brought you some dinner."
The Septa greeted them feebly, but she seemed glad to see them nonetheless, and consented to eat a little stew. She looked from Ranulf to Derron - and something she saw seemed to please her, for she smiled at the Steward.
But she quickly finished eating and declared her intention of sleeping; Ranulf announced that he would sleep beside her.
The Septa greeted them feebly, but she seemed glad to see them nonetheless, and consented to eat a little stew. She looked from Ranulf to Derron - and something she saw seemed to please her, for she smiled at the Steward.
But she quickly finished eating and declared her intention of sleeping; Ranulf announced that he would sleep beside her.
Derron nodded and said, "Get some rest. You'll both be needing it no doubt." He collected the bowls and returned to the fire. He sat down heavily and leaned back against a stump. Lancer flopped his head into Derron's lap. Derron smiled and scratched him behind the ears. "Thank you, boy." In a little while he'd send Lancer on another patrol, but later.
Ranulf and the Septa were settled and accounted for - but Aerin and her Shadowcat now seemed to have disappeared.
Derron shook his head and muttered a curse under his breath. He got to his feet, annoying Lancer who'd been enjoying his scratch. Derron looked to where he had last seen Aerin and put his fists on his hips. He turned and leaned into the wagon and grabbed Aerin's cloak, which had been left off as it kept getting tangled in her sling. He crouched down and held it to Lancer's nose. "Lancer, find her. Find Aerin." The dog remained on the ground and looked up at him, looking forlorn. Derron's tone hardened. "Find her! Now! Come on, boy!" Once more the aging hound stirred and rose to his feet. Lancer took another sniff of the cloak and turned and trotted off towards the bushes, Derron right behind.
Lancer led steadily to a clump of bushes that seemed to be shielding a dip in the ground, and then promptly sat on his haunches, looking up at Derron piteously as though to ask, "Do you really want me to go *there*?"
It was Lancer's usual expression when asked to go closer to Shade than he wanted.
Derron shook his head. "You call yourself a dog? Afraid of a cat?" His light tone made the dog smile and wag his tail. Derron said, "Okay, stay," and beckoned the dog. Lancer stetched and walked back, pausing at Derron's side long enough for the smith to pat his head. "Yes, you're a good dog." Lancer then sat down and waited. Derron walked through the bushes, taking care to make sure he made enough noise not to surprise Aerin. Or Shade.
Derron saw Aerin and felt relief. He asked quietly, "Everything all right, lass?"
Aerin shook her head in the affirmative. But then pointed around with her good hand. "Look. The bandits probably camped here," she announced. "That means they either came from Marshend, or were heading there," she told the Steward in a worried tone.
"Is Niko going to be back soon?" she asked, concerned.
Derron surveyed the camp and nodded. At her question he shrugged. "I certainly hope so. But we should all stay together until he does. Okay?"
Shade stretched out a paw and examined his claws thoughtfully.
Aerin looked at Shade, then gave Derron a shrug. "I have Shade. And Shade isn't going to get caught again, right Shade?" she asked her Shadowcat.
Shade arose, stretched, walked over towards Derron and then - in a slightly alarmiung way, began to weave himself in and out of Derron's legs, glancing, from time to time, at Aerin.
The implication seemed to be that he trusted Derron, and Aerin should too.
Derron smiled at the animal and said, "Now if you and Lancer could just get along." He looked up at Aerin and said, "Now let's go back and keep an eye on Ranulf and the Septa. They're relying on us, eh?"
"Lantern will be furious you smell like Shade now," Aerin pointed out as she started back toward the camp.
Derron smiled as he fell in beside her. "You mean Lancer? Ah, well, even when he's furious now, he's not as energetic as he once was. He might scowl, but he won't bite." He paused then added, "You're lucky to have as faithful a friend in Shade as I have in Lancer."
As Lancer fell into step with them, Shade ignored him magnificently. Lancer came close enough to sniff Derron's legs - and looked up at his master, hurt by his betrayal. Derron's legs smelt of Sahdowcat.
Derron snickered and said, "If you'd been willing to come with me, it wouldn't have happened. Silly dog."
"See," Aerin said as she walked next to her shadowcat. "Betrayed."
"Derron? I found these back there." She pulled the bits of cut rope from her pocket to show him. "I think they're important."
Derron looked them over. "Knots, but the ropes cut. Could be someone needed to get something or someone free in a hurry. If we catch any of the bandits we'll ask them."
Aerin snorted lightly. "That's if Shade doesn't disembowel them first," she said flippantly.
"But the camp there means they might not be far off, right?" she asked more seriously.
Derron had been hoping she would not reach that conclusion. He nodded thoughtfully and replied, "Aye, they might be close. Another reason we should remain with the others. But I think they're fewer in numbers than they used to be. Hopefully the pasting we gave them will give then pause, should they think of coming after us once more."
Both the animals, however, seemed relaxed, as though there was no danger to threaten them.
Other than pointedly ignoring one another, the attitude the animals displayed reassured Derron. He helped push aside a few branches for Aerin until they were back at the camp. "Have you eaten, lass?"
Aerin nodded. "Some. I'm not too hungry tonight," she answered, her good arm supporting her sore one as the traversed the rough ground.
"Do you think the Septa will make it?" she asked suddenly.
Derron nodded and smiled. "Aye, she's a tough old bird. And she cares enough for both you and the boy that she'll do her best to stay with us."
"I hope so," Aerin said out loud.
But part of her mind was thinking of what would happen if she did die?
Niko would be responsible for Ranulf then, since the boy couldn't go home.
And her plan of going east toward the coast seemed less easy now there was someone hunting women and their companions.
Not to mention her shoulder.
She had a lot of thinking to do.
So it was with a somewhat distracted expression Aerin walked back into camp with Derron.
As night fell and the watches were set, it was a different environment from the camp of just two day previous. Though the evening was just as serene, and the environment just as peaceful, everyone had knowledge that danger wasn't just a distant possibility. Even for their numbers and preparation, violence had visited them, and death claimed more than a few of their number, with possibly one more life to take.
A somber dinner was had, and though Binnder had done his best, he was no cook, and the lack thereof only underscored the possibility of losing the Septa. As it drew closer to bedtime, the still night was broken with the sounds of horses galloping at a fast pace through the woods. The echoes made it difficult, but not impossible to discern that they came from the direction of Marshend, and would be upon the camp soon.
Aerin had been asleep in the wagon, propped up into a half sitting position near the Septa. But at the sound of the hooves off in the distance she startled awake.
"Ranulf!" she hissed. "Awake!" She reached for her own dagger, just in case.
"Whhhrrrr," said Ranulf sleepily, and poked his head out of the wagon, blinking.
Derron and all the guardsmen drew their weapons. Derron had been offered a sword taken from the dead sellswords, but he had refused. All the salvaged equipment was technically the property of Lord Draupaud as spoils of battle, but tradition held that they would be sold to help pay family of the dead for their loss. His hammer was in his right hand, and the shield was in his left.
"Most of you move between the fire and those horses so your eyes adjust to the dark before they arrive. Binnder, you and one other get behind us on the other side of the fire and watch our backs in case this is a distraction." He himself moved past the fire, ready to face the horsemen. He was betting it would be Niko, since he believed the leader of the bandits was dead and their sense of tactics probably diminished. He noticed one of the guardsmen had drawn a bow from those taken, and set an arrow to its string. He smiled grimly, hoping it was an unnecessary precaution.
Lancer came to his feet - but his tail was already wagging. Shhade licked a bored paw.
As the horsemen came into the firelight, they could see it was indeed the party sent to Marshend. They slowed as they came into sight and saw the turnout for their return. For his part, Niko immediately dismounted near Derron, to give him an update even as he retrieved the pack that the Septa from Marshend had given him.
"We were successful- indeed more than we dared hope," Niko began without preamble. "Binnder! Put some water on the fire," he shouted even as they drew near the Septa's tent.
"There was a Septa in one of the outlying villages- we would have ridden right past to Marshend if not for the fact that the same bandits attacked them. We were alerted, and went to help to find that they had already been taken care of. The Septa there gave us something to ease the pain, and speed us along our way to her- with this, I hope to make it there tomorrow."
"Warm the poultice and infuse herbs in boiling water," he said to himself, looking at the pack. "For a precaution, I would like the the Septa to take stock of what was sent. But I do not expect anything to be out of the ordinary."
"Aerin!" Niko exclaimed as he saw her. "I did not get a chance to see you before I left- how is your shoulder? And could you rouse the Septa for me?"
Ranulf shrank back within the wagon.
"Sore," Aerin answered from the back of the wagon. "But not broken."
She moved around Ranulf to the Septa's side. "Septa?" she said softly, reaching and gently the woman's shoulder. "Niko's back. He has medicine," she told her.
The Septa opened her eyes, and managed a smile at Aerin. "Good," she said, and then no more, seemingly finding words a struggle.
"Have her look at these, if she is able," Niko said to Aerin. "I'm sure that they are fine, but I would rather have her look at them rather than chance it. Then help Binnder- he will do most of the work, but you just make sure it is done right," he said seriously. "This is a poultice. It needs to be warmed," he said, holding it up. "And these herbs need to be infused in boiling water."
He looked at her reassuringly, continuing, "They will help her finish the trip to Marshend, where we can get her some real help from the Septa that made them."
Aerin nodded worriedly as she took the pack o fherbs from Niko. She held them in her slinged arm as she opened the pack with her good hand. Took a sniff herself to see what was in it.
Derron had listened as Niko reported, then spoke briefly to Aerin. "Good news on all fronts. Bandits finished, medicine retrieved and a warm reception on the morrow. Such good fortune almost dares the fates to throw more obstacles at us. If we had enough men I'd double the watch." His frown turned into a brief grin. "Still, we should not have much trouble heading for town tomorrow. Good work, lad. Now tend your horses and have some food, such as it is."
Niko gave him a tight smile. He was glad to have been of help, but dismayed at the deterioration of the Septa. "My thanks," he said. As he was leaving, he turned back towards Aerin. "You have what you need to do, correct?"
Aerin looked up from the Septa out the back of the wagon. "I think so... Septa? Are these herbs good?" she asked, gently holding the packet up to the Septa for her to look and smell.
The Septa half sat up, and nodded her acceptance of the herbs. "That's ... a good choice," she told Aerin. "Together they will help me sleep."
Derron turned to the guards and gave orders. "If I catch any of you lot alseep on your watch, you'll not wake. As soon as it's light enough to see around this camp, such as it is, we start breaking it down and loading up. Once it's light enough to move, we head for Marshend, and this Septa Niko found. Those of you on watch, to your posts. The rest of you get some sleep now. You may not have much chance for more until tomorrow night." He looked over to where Binnder was cleaning out a pot for the herbs and water to be heated and called out, "Binnder, I'll take your shift. You remain close to the Septa, ready to dose her with more medicine if she calls for it. She is the responsibility of you, Aerin and Ranulf." Derron knew that meant he'd take first watch, as Binnder hated shifts in the middle of the night, but he doubted any of the others would argue with him. Derron headed to his corner of the camp and found a good rock on which to sit. Lancer trotted up and sat beside him, peering out into the darkness.
Aerin, with Ranulf's help, applied the herbal poultice to the Septa's wound and carefully bound it into place with a loose tie.
As she and Ranulf worked Aerin couldn't get the thought out of her mind that she might actually get what she wanted from this trip, for all the wrong reasons.
She slept fitfully, though Shade pressed against her side seemed to sleep quite well. At least his warmth was a comfort to her.
Several times during the night she checked on the Septa, making sure she didn't want for water, or that her bandages needed changing. And Ranulf, though he needed the Septa more than anything else.
It was almost with relief morning came. Her shoulder hurt worse this day than last night. That meant it was healing. Or trying to heal. Some comfort Aerin thought bitterly.
Still Aerin did what she could to help pack the wagon up to travel. For they would be traveling fast today. And hopefully be at Marshend before nightfall.
The Septa seemed weaker, but - as far as Aerin could tell - her fever was reduced. Ranulf consented to leave her and help pack at the camp, realising that this would be the swiftest way of ensuring the Septa was helped.
Derron was already stirring. He was moving about, helping with the chores needed to get them all moving, but he was not shouting orders. He wanted to let those still able to sleep to enjoy it as much as possible. Fortunately they had been planning on moving early and had not made the camp such that it would take a long time to break down and pack up. By the time the light was good enough to see a hundred yards, they would be ready to go.
As they set out, the guard and scouts were placed as before, but morale was a bit higher with the realization that they would be off of this damnable road soon enough. For his part, Niko was just as vigilant as before- if not even moreso. It was always when everything seemed to be going right that everything went wrong...
The first part of the journey, as the sun came up, p[assed pleasantly enough. They were taking things at an easy past, for greater speed disturbed the Septa. Even so, they should reach the Marshend Septa's cottage by noon, easily.
There was just a little stream to ford first, about mid-morning. It was nor wide - Niko and the guards had splsahed through easily enough the night before. But one of the banks had collapsed a little awkwardly for manuvering the wagon.
Derron frowned, but only for a moment or two. "Right. Binnder, bring your horse up with mine. We'll tie our mounts behind the wagon and make sure it goes down the bank smoothly." He grabbed some ropes and began fashioning crude harnesses so the animals could be used to slow the wagon from behind as its horses, and gravity, took it into the creek. This should prevent too much jostling or, gods forbid, an overturn.
Aerin poked her head out of the wagon, then carefully slid off the back.
"Should we pull the Septa out and carry her across?" she asked Derron as she looked at the water. "Just in case there's a problem with the wagon and you have to force it?"
"Is she awake?" Niko asked. "Depending on how weak she is, that is probably a good idea."
"She seems stronger today. I think we can move her if we're very gentle," Aerin told Niko. "And probably better for her than if the wagon is jostled."
Aerin with some difficulty climbed back into the wagon and moved to the Septa's side. "Septa? We need to move you so we can get the wagon across a stream," she told her foster mother. "Are you in much pain? Is that all right?"
"Less pain today," the Septa managed to say. She smiled as well. "I shall be quite well if you help me across."
In the meantime, as Aerin climbed back in the wagon Niko detailed 3 guards to help him round up suitable poles and blankets to make a stretcher. Though in the end, they just used spears draped with normal blankets, it was a sturdy contraption that they arrived outside the wagon with. "What does she say? Is she ready?"
Even as he was asking, one of the guards he had set to watch the back of their party came riding up.
"Niko ... there's someone behind us on the road. It looks like a merchant ... and a bodyguard."
Laying the makeshift stretcher down, Niko called to Derron. "Steward Thorne! We have visitors!" After that, he took Tyek and Eron, and took the guard with them to make sure the approaching party was not trouble. "Keep an eye out," he said to the others, "and when the Septa is ready, be prepared to move her- but do not do so until we return- just in case."
Derron looked up from where he had just finished tying his and Binnder's horses to the back of the wagon. He cursed softly then said, "Well, let's get a move on. They have the Septa out." He turned to Niko. "Get the Septa and children across now!" He then turned to the man driving the wagon. "Forward slowly. We'll help hold it in place if it starts to turn."
Returning to the group, Niko saw that they had already moved the Septa and the children across, and were in the midst of making them a reasonably comfortable, safe place, out of the way of the exertions. The wagon seemed to have only moved a short way- though the stream was not that wide, it seemed that it would take forever to ford it this way.
Niko's horse splashed in the water as he urged it forward to where Derron was. "Steward Thorne- a merchant and his retinue await our fording. He has offered to allow his horses to help our wagon ford, if we will do the same for him," Niko reported. "Then he suggested that we can proceed the rest of the way to Marshend together- strength in numbers. I see nothing wrong with this plan, but I did not know what you would think."
He fell silent, studying the Steward's expression. "What should I tell them?"
Derron looked up, some annoyance showing on his normally stoic features. "Tell them that once we've gotten our wagon down this bank we should be able to finish the crossing in no time. While we reload our wagon we can see if they need our help. But as we need to get where we're going as quickly as possible, we can't afford to wait." He paused before adding, "I'm in little mood to be trusting anyone, especially someone appearing in such a timely fashion."
Aerin as she was overseeing the moving of the Septa gave them a worried look. The news that there were others here, now, when they couldn't move was troubling at best.
She looked for Shade and Ranulf, wanting the first to guard the second while the strangers were nearby.
Shade was some way out from the camp, watching the strangers.
Suddenly, as though catching a rogue scent, he started to growl.
Derron was too busy overseeing the handling of the wagon to notice Shade, or even hear his growl. If the cat let out a snarl, he might hear it over the water and ruckus, but it was no sure thing. He seemed very focused on getting the wagon down quickly but safely. Deep down he wanted to get them all away from this stream. He was very glad the others behind them also had a wagon, but if they were raiders, they could very easily decide to abandon it until they had finished an attack. Getting closer to Marshend seemd the safest course of action.
"Shade!" Aerin hissed. She started to move out toward the cat, trying to get his attention without making too much noise.
The cat was growling again. It wasn't the growl he might give a threat. It was more the growl of displeasure at scenting someone he disliked ...
Aerin moved to Shade's side, looking up to see what or who the Shadowcat was reacting to. And her eyes widened slightly as she recognized Hex.
"Shade! Come on!" she hissed at her companion. "Ignore him. We have get back to the others!" She began to move toward their party collecting at the far side of the stream, watching to see if Shade would follow.
The wagon was now clear of the water, and dripping. Ranulf's colour was a little better - despite all that had happened, he was boy enough to enjoy this little adventure. The Septa, secure on her stretcher, seemed to have taken no harm from the crossing.
And the other party now was approaching.
Derron barked orders to the men with him. "Get her aboard!" he said indicating the Septa. "Ranulf, you're with her as well." As he bent to unharness his and Binnder's horse from the rear of the wagon he shouted across the creek, "Niko, round up the others, especially Aerin, and let's go!"
Aerin was with Shade, who was still watching the approaching wagon with an expression that suggested that if revenge was a dish best enjoyed cold, this was being served to him at a nicely chilled temperature.
He showed no inclination to continue on his way.
"Shade!" Aerin whispered. She was facing the Shadowcat, still keeping the strangers and the merchant in sight.
"Come on Shade!" she pleaded. "There are too many of them. And it's not safe here. We're too far from the others. Please Shade. I need you to come with me back to the Septa!" she begged softly as she slowed backed toward the water.
Shade threw her a look of lofty disdain - and then continued to watch the approaching wagon - rather in the manner of one sayong, "I could have them, I could."
"Where's Aerin?" asked the Septa as she was being loaded back into the wagon.
"I'll go and see!" offered Ranulf.
Crossing the stream, Niko noticed only noticed Aerin when he was almost ashore. He also noted that the wagon was growing closer to her than he was comfortable with, given recent events. Though this merchant might well check out, he didn't wish to take any chances.
Turning his mount back towards the stream, he cut across directly for the girl, eyeing the approaching riders the whole time.
"Shade!!" Aerin hissed as the others grew closer. "It's not safe! It's... Fish! Fish, Shade!" she called to her companion as she continued to slowly back up. "We need to get you some Fish! Now!"
Shade turned and looked at her with some interest. But she was clearly fishless. His tail lashed at such perfidy.
The coach was drawing close enough now for Aerin to recognise clearly the figure of Hex, who had his bow on his knee. A man behind him in the carriage had drawn a short sword, while a woman with dark brown curling hair and bright green eyes, like a creature out of stories, was driving the wagon forward towards them.
Niko merely nodded, once, curtly, and turned his horse to proceed back onto the shore. Tyek and Eron in tow, he left them with the fourth guard once they had reached him, and proceeded again to the merchant's wagon.
"My thanks to you for your patience," he said, once he had again arrived. "It appears that they have already started the crossing, and are in a somewhat critical stage," he began. "Further interruption at this time would be more of an annoyance than anything," Niko added, remembering Derron's expression. "We are almost past the stream, so it should only be a few moments longer," he finished.
He nodded once, and added, somewhat chagrined, "Sorry for any delay."
"Not to worry, delays are common enough on these roads," Hex replied, snapping the reins to urge the wagon forward. "We can use the time to scout the crossing and get the wagon positioned."
After retreating to confer with the other guards, Niko and companions rode, two to a side, on either side of the road ahead of the merchant. It might seem that they were giving them an escort to the stream. A more suspicious person might think that it was more to guarantee good behaviour from the merchant and his escort as they approached the group.
And they came, slowly but surely to the stream. Hex became aware of a female figure looking at him - someone he might recognise because there was something all to familiar about the bristling shadowcat at her side, directing an all-too-hostile glower at him.
Niko was relieved to see that the wagon had already crossed, and the Septa was being loaded back into the wagon, and that they would be able to move along.
Waving his understanding, to the Steward, he said, "Tyek- take the others to carry out his orders." Then turning more fully towards the wagon. "Thanks to you for your forebearance," he said, nodding towards the merchant and his band, not turning to cross until the others had gathered the remnants of his own group across the stream.
While Hex waited for the other group to cross, he called out to Niko. "Your steward brings a heavy guard for a trip from Clearwater to Marshend, Just Niko. Should I caution the men to be wary of more than the usual bandits?"
Niko started to answer, then paused. The others crossed in the meantime, and as for Niko himself, he was at the water's edge by the time he answered, loud enough to be heard across the river. "Now, why would this one necessarily know about a trip from Clearwater to Marshend, sir merchant- as he never said anything about the manor." He nodded once. "Just so. So, you, perhaps, should tell me?"
Hex looked over to Gwendla and back to the solitary rider, as if confused. "This one being Niko?" He questioned. "I mean no offense, I learned your language later in life. I didn't see you last time I was in Clearwater, so perhaps you are new there or only retained for this one trip?"
Niko frowned, but continued to listen rather than answering.
"In truth, I thought I had left a better impression with your Steward and his lady daughter than their rapid departure and your watchful presence implies." Hex continued. "Can you tell me, ser, if they've made arrangements with another wine merchant? It would save me a trip to Clearwater and I'll need to find another customer for their wares."
"This one... I... do lapse at times. My apologies," Niko began, bowing his head slightly by way of underscoring his words. "I do not know about wine merchants, but perhaps they do not recognize you, being far away. If I could take your question with a name, it might spark a memory," he finished, waiting for a response.
"Any lapse is mine alone, young ser." Hex replied. "Please pass my request on at your convenience to Steward Thorne. And please add that Alexander Hextall hopes the shadow cat has proven to be as sound a companion to Lady Aerin as one had wished."
Hex paused and then added. "And my apologies to .... Lancer, was it? ... that I brought the thing along with me in the first place."
As the man began to speak, Niko relaxed a bit, and his horse ceased it's shifting towards the stream. At the mention of Lancer, Niko allowed himself a small smile, due in no small part to remembrances of the hapless dog's place with Shade.
"I will indeed do so, Sir. And thank you again for your forebearance as we traversed the stream. Perhaps our paths will cross again some day," he finished, inclining his head slightly. "Good day to you, and fare well," he added as he finally crossed the stream to where his companions had started their journey onward.
"I expect they should cross again in the turning of two glasses," Hex said to Gwendla. Turning to Thelbane, he said. "You've been unusually restrained, Darcy. I trust once we've forded the stream you'll be back to threatening me."
"I think I have a better use for my time," said Thelbane, who was watching with narrowed eyes as Niko rode away. "What do you know about Clearwater and the shadowcat? The fact they are on the road at all at such a time is starting to make me wonder ... "
"Clearwater is a manor house and keep not terribly far from here, close enough that it is not especially remarkable the steward may travel on business to Marshend. The cat I brought along on one of my sales trips north, hoping to sell to a furrier." Hex replied.
"When the steward's daughter took a fancy to it, I gave it to her hoping to negotiate better terms for future sales." Hex continued casually, hoping to defer Thelbane's interest in Aerin. "If all we need is a girl with a pet animal, I expect we can find some tavernkeeper's daughter with a tame mouse in Marshend."
Thelbane laughed. "I think our patron will look for a more menacing beast than that, otherwise we could have sent them your crannog and a frog." He looked ahead. "The beast seems anxxious to see you - perhaps we should speed up a little ... "
"I'm not that anxious to meet an anxious shadowcat," Hex answered. "And neither are the horses, I'll wager. If you cross ahead, check the stream bed as we don't want the wagon to bog down in their tracks if the ground is soft. I'll need your men to keep the horses steady and mind the wagon doesn't tip."
Hex casually passed the reins to Gwendla, saying quietly. "Keep us moving, not too fast." Shrugging his shoulders to shift the quiver on his back, Hex dropped a hand to the bow resting beside him.
And now Hex was close enough to call out to Aerin - and, indeed, Shade, while the young Dothraki boy was cantering back from the ford to join them.
Derron finished untethering the horses from the wagon and saw that Aerin was still on the far side. His first instinct was to mount up and ride back to get her. But then he would be away from Ranulf and the wounded Septa. He mounted up and raised his voice as he did when he was particularly vexed with an apprentice.
"Aerin! The cat will catch up! Do you wish to delay us from reaching our destination even more?" Before she could react he added, "Niko, if you have to throw her over your saddle, do so!" But he kept his horse faced back across the stream. If trouble erupted he would ride straight into it.
And indeed, as he approached the girl, it was apparent by the way he was riding, he was prepared to do just that.
While Aerin was torn as to how to get Shade to leave with her, she was not torn about what would happen if Niko tried to force her to join the others.
Shade would probably attempt to dissembowel him. Probably.
Or at least his horse.
And there was the trader who'd brought Shade to Clearwater.
Definite desire to dissembowel there.
And her shoulder still ached something fierce. And if Niko tried to haul her up it would not help.
And it didn't help that there were outriders around them. Who knew if they were in league with the others who attacked them yesterday. And some of them had bows.
She waved Niko off. "Stay with the Septa!" she called to him.
And did something she'd rarely every had to do since Shade had been a kit, wont to claw up father's boots.
She mrached back over to him and with her good arm reached down and grabbed the scruff of his neck.
"Shade! Come!" she ordered in the same tone she used to use when they were exiled out of their rooms at the castle because of some mischief.
Shade gave a startled yowl and struggled wildly. He was no longer the temptestuous kitten - he was a hlf-grown shadowcat and this was a tremendous affront to his dignity. But Aerin was able to haull him back several paces.
Unfortunately, with her efforts concentrated on Shade, and still off-balanced by his injured shoulder, she did not realise just how close to the high bank of the stream, nor how slippery the grass at the top had become from all the passage it had seen ...
Niko and Hex were close enough to see the building disaster - and so too was Derron from the opposite bank ...
"Aerin!" Niko yelled, spurring his horse to greater speeds. He didn't know what he would do when he reached her- Shade was all fur and claws presently, and Niko didn't know how he would avoid being mauled. But he couldn't just let her fall. "'Ware your back, girl!" he yelled, prepared to hopefully tackle her to the ground if necessary...
Derron also spurred his horse forward, shouting over his shoulder, "Binnder, they'd best be ready in two shakes!" He trotted forward rather than galloped, since he would not get there in time regardless, but he could be there quickly enough to help after the fact. He could also watch the approaching wagon.
Hex hesitated for a split second seeing the response of Niko and Aerin's father, but the stood and leapt down from the carriage. "Make your best speed," he said to Gwendla before running towards the girl and shadowcat, bow in hand.
Upon seeing the figure running with a bow, Derron kicked his horse to a gallop.
The wagon was careering forward too, driven onward by Gwendla, the escort spurring forward too. Seeing what looked like another attack, the Clearwater guards grabbed their weapons and raced after their steward on foot.
Seeing the bow, the shadowcat began to struggle harder in Aerin's grasp, yowling in fury
(At this point, Torvald walked slowly across the keyboard to add that the sound was: "wewewewewewewewewe3errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrw")
Niko was closing in fast ... in another moment he would be within tackling range ...
Aerin wondered why the men were insisting on making the situation worse!
Did it not occur to them that rushing her and Shade would only panic him worse than he already was? Making her job that much harder.
And yes, she was aware that the out riders might be behind her. That was the point of getting herself and Shade out of here. That and the bowmen getting closer.
But the nature of the situation corrected her perceptions. When her foot when through the grass because of the soft mud below and her foot slipped out a few inches.
She glanced back. Oh. The stream. Right.
If she let go of Shade, he would run off.
If she waited for Niko and the others to get to her, Shade would scratch her to bits, then break free and run off.
So... with a massive effort she lifted the thrashing shadowcat and pulled him over sore shoulder. And it hurt like the dragon's fire. Or at least what she thought the dragon's fire might ever feel like.
And holding him to her, Shade facing over her shoulder, she turned and allowed herself to half step, half fall toward the water. Feeling reasonably sure it wasn't more than knee deep. And rather confident in her ability to balance things. Provided Shade didn't struggle too much. Or claw her too badly. But she knew Shade's claws. And would rather get them than have him fall into the stream.
Now if the others would just act sensibly!
Perhaps Aerin wasn't expecting the steepness of the fall. Shade certainly wasn't, for he let out a large yowl of alarm and scarbbled frantically to free himself.
Aerin tried to halt her slide into the water, to try to control Shade.
Thought about the increased likelihood of falling in.
Thought about the riders descending on her from all directions.
Considered the fact that if Shade went after someone he would get shot.
Thought about her bad shoulder.
Thought about Shade's fear of water...
And realized that by now Shade had probably completely forgotten about Hex in his terror of getting dunked.
This was probably a good thing.
So Aerin half tossed Shade onto the bank above the water as best she could. He certainly wasn't going to attack anyone in the next few moments unless they attacked her.
And then tried to not fall in herself.
(Continued in On the Way to Marshend: CrossingtheStream)