Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 5)

The quiet gave him time to consider. The world whispered around him, air heavy with the summer insects chirping and crooning to one another, before it disappeared into a dull hum. He could hear the sound of the wood in their fire, breaking and splitting as the heat popped the dried bark, and he could hear Naz writing, and those two sounds put the rest of the world far away.

Varlaine wondered what she wrote about so often. He’d caught her scrawling notes in the book nearly every night on their journey, sometimes briefly and others for an hour or longer. Eryn’s curiosity over it disappeared quickly, but it gave him something to think about while he studied over the magic tome he had smuggled from the castle. On one occasion, he thought he heard a quiet hum while she took the evening watch, but the woman certainly did not seem the musical type. So, he had blamed the noise on the wind.

Now, he was uncertain. A scar inside her throat, not out? How could one achieve that? His first guess was outlandish: perhaps she had been a singer, once, and she’d sang too much, too strongly, and ruined her voice. It was hard to picture her as such, in all her armor and attitude, so he waved that possibility away. Whatever it was that had happened to her, she didn’t want to discuss it openly. That raised even more questions, but none of them slipped a sliver of doubt in her intent, at least not for him. Perplexed at why he trusted her so strongly, and wrestling with the conflicting thoughts of whether to try to know her better or leave the mercenary well enough alone, he wished for nothing more than something to distract him from his conundrum.

“Trouble,” Naz said, plainly, pulling him abruptly from the reflection. When he looked away from the sky and towards her, she was already rising to her feet and reaching behind her, to draw up her sword from its sheath. Varlaine shifted to see what she was referring to. At the edge of the clearing they had set up in, through the treeline, he could see Eryn, running as fast as her legs could carry her out of the forest and towards them.

Quickly, he scrambled for his spell tome, hands quickly flitting through his pack while Eryn closed the distance. By the time he found it, Naz was standing with her sword at her side, casting her eyes around and trying to evaluate what had put the griffon rider into a panic. She did not have to wait long, however, because the cyan-haired girl arrived by the fireside quickly enough, panting.

“What’s going on?” Naz asked, guarded but direct with her tone.

Eryn gasped in air, pain evident on her face. Her lungs looked to have caught fire by the way she winced when she took in a ragged breath, bent double and clutching her knees. But she managed to lift an arm and point backwards, towards the way she came. “Someone… in the forest… chasing me…”

Naz frowned and moved past the teenager, facing the woods head on. She walked with purpose, each step carrying her forward in exactly the same distance, until she stationed between the threat and the two youths behind her.

“Varlaine, don’t use your magic unless you absolutely must. Hold it as a surprise.” She shot backwards. He nodded his head in agreement, and the winded Eryn hunted around for her axe. She found it, and the trio faced the treeline to see what emerged together, braced for a fight.

Then, a figure broke through. He wore plain looking clothes, a leather plate over his chest, and had shaggy, sandy hair. He looked for all the world like a bumbling fool when he caught sight of Naz and the others, and Varlaine had to take a moment to process why the man looked so familiar, having not seen him for a week.

Nicomenda lifted his hands up in surrender, blanching as Naz didn’t lower her guard, and kept them up as he approached the group.

(Part 6 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 4)

Varlaine let that comment sit for a moment, unsure of what to say. She started to look away from him and towards the fire once more, so he piped up to keep her attention, shifting his legs to sit up straighter. “I appreciate your help more than I can express, Naz.” He said. “When we get to Skyvlan, I’ll ask the lord there to compensate you more properly for your efforts.”

“If we get to Skyvlan without issues, you can consider pay. Don’t spend money you don’t have.” Naz replied. Her voice cracked near the end of her sentence and she frowned, reaching for the leather-wrapped canteen she’d drank from before and taking another hefty swig from it. She had a habit of doing so, ‘Laine had noticed.

“Are you alright?” He asked. “If you’re ill, I’ve read on a few treatments. Your throat sounds… very sore.”

Putting the drink back down, she shook her head slowly. “I’m not sick. It’s… hmm.” Naz stopped to think, for a moment. Opting not to interrupt, Varlaine tilted his head, straight silvery hair shifting as he did. “It’s a scar. Permanent.”

He pursed his lips in response, tightening them into a thin line, as he looked her over once more. Scars were something he was sure the woman had plenty of; he could see several where he sat. One curved across her cheek, from near her left ear until nearly the cleft of her chin. Two more raked down the chin itself, and now that he was staring more intently, he thought perhaps the trio held joint significance. They followed the same curvature, swooping down across her visage. Her bangs, as well: on her right side they hung down, nearly in her eye, the longest hairs tickling against her cheeks. The left, however, she kept tucked neatly behind her ear, leaving the dark lines without cover to hide behind. Surely, she had them etched across her body like paint on a canvas, or perhaps more accurately charcoal on paper.

Her brow quirked when he failed to respond in any reasonable time, and then she cleared her throat. “Is there something wrong with my face?” Naz asked, crossing one of her arms over her chest. With her armor put away for the night, she was dressed in a plain, earthen brown button-down top, the clothing she wore beneath her gear, and he was suddenly aware of how much more vulnerable she looked that way.

When he realized she was addressing him, his eyes stopped searching her and instead found her own. “N-no, I’m sorry.” He relented, trying to still his suddenly quickened heart. It took him several moments to find his normal pace again, staggering into a headshake. “I just… didn’t see a scar on your neck, is all.”

She sized him up with scrutiny, then, and he averted his eyes; it was only fair. Then both of her hands rose to her chest, and she undid the top button of her shirt, lifting her chin to show him the whole of her neck—not a single mark or mar. He supposed that was for the better; in her line of work, a neck injury probably wasn’t something that she would walk away from. After making sure he’d seen, she redid the button and placed her hands in her lap.

“It’s inside,” She said, and he tilted his head in confusion. “The scar. It’s in my throat.” When she clarified, he nodded in appreciation. While he at least understood a little better what was wrong with her voice, it only raised more questions.

“If you don’t mind me asking… how did that happen?” He’d never heard of a scar on the inside of someone’s throat. It looked to cause her enough pain that she didn’t talk more than she needed to, and when she did, it was as efficient as she could make it.

At his question, though, Naz frowned. “Another time, perhaps.” She dismissed. “It’s a long story and the road has exhausted me.” Sensing that she did not want the issue pressed, he bowed his head deeply, and let a silence fall between them. The quiet lasted longer than their talk, but he felt informed by it just as much as the conversation, as if she had trusted him with some precious secret. When she accepted his silence as consent to busy herself, she pulled the leather-bound book and robust jar of ink from her bag, setting the two out in front of her.

He watched her open the front cover, removing a quill pen, and then saw her pry the lid from her ink. By the time she’d started to write, he had shifted, to lay out in the grass on his back. His hands tucked behind his head and he looked up at the clouds shifting over their heads, peaceful and colorful with their setting sun, and listened. Listened to the fire crackle, and the soft scratch of her ink in the journal.

(Part 5 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 3)

When Varlaine sat down, he allowed a few moments of silence to pass unquestioned. The sky was taking on a smooth, velvet-orange hue, which turned his head towards the treeline where Eryn had disappeared. While he was worried about her, Naz deserved something more for an apology, with her arm still exposed and her attention still turned towards it.

“I am sorry, N… ma’am.” He cut himself off before uttering her name, and she snorted through her nose in response. “Royalty bears the responsibility of their people. It wasn’t acceptable for her to lose her temper like that. When she returns, I’ll speak with her about it.”

“I wouldn’t,” Naz responded. She shrugged her right shoulder, still stretching and rubbing at her left wrist, and then finally looked up at him. “She’s tired, and hungry. I would have been, too, at her age. She’ll even out when we get to Skyvlan.”  As she spoke, her voice cracked and she turned her eyes away once more. She rest her elbow on her knee, and her chin in her hand. Nearly out of sight, her thumb rubbed against the front of her throat. “You do not need to call me ma’am. I’m not above you.”

He nodded his head slowly in response, leaning back against his palms. The road had been mostly uneventful: no danger, just a slogging and endless pace. Eryn, typically in flight, likely had it the worst; while he could garner scattered conversations with Naz on the road, she had to get lonely up in the sky. While he mused on that, another thought crossed his mind.

“Naz…” The prince started. She turned her head to face him once more, acknowledging him with just that, and he felt his resolve start to slip through his fingers like sand from one of his family’s ocean retreats.

“…yes?” When he didn’t continue, she prompted him. Sharp, gray eyes met his, auburn brows raised in question.

“We have talked on the road, you know… about the country, about politics.” Varlaine tried to direct his thoughts, offering preface before raising his question. Judging by her look, she seemed to see through it well enough. “But, if it isn’t too much, I might like to know more about… well, you.”

Naz didn’t respond immediately to his question. She lifted her head from her hand, and let the arm lay out over her lap while she considered her answer, before finally shrugging. “I don’t know there is much to tell that would interest you.” She coughed. Turning her gaze away from him, she reached to a bag further from the fire, and rummaged within.

“Still, I would like to get to know you better.” When she wasn’t watching, he felt his resolve swell, determination stoking in the pit of his chest. Naz was strong, and intimidating, but not scary. “So far all I know is that you were born in Lor’tsun, and that you are a mercenary. That… isn’t a lot to go on between friends, is it?”

“Friends?” She turned back to him, this time with a canteen in hand. Watching him, she opened the stopper and drank from it deeply, swallowing and then wiping her lips with two fingers. When she spoke again, her voice was clearer, and he could detect wariness under the rough, scratchy tone. “I do not know what more you could want.”

“I am curious as to why you decided to escort us—Eryn and I—southward.” Varlaine continued. “Especially now that things are looking more dangerous. We have at least one Alra after us, and, for all we know, the rest of my brother’s men. Aren’t you… discouraged?”

Naz laughed, once. It was a simple, almost musical sound, and it was almost perfect, save for a small crack near its tail. “First, tell me.” She prompted, sitting up straighter and crossing her legs. He responded in kind, noting her posture change. “If you found a dirty, scared child alone on the road, what would you do?”

Perplexed, ‘Laine shifted. He had to think about it for a moment. What would he do? “I’d… try to take them to their parents.”

“And what if their parents were gone? Perhaps dead, or otherwise missing?”

The question spurred further thought, and he narrowed his brow to consider it. “I would take them somewhere safe. A town, or a relative, to a guard station.”

“Even now? When you have enough on your mind to… ‘discourage’ you?” Her jaw set in a line, and she leaned forward, closer to the fire.

“My struggles shouldn’t stop me from trying to assist others with theirs. I don’t think I could stomach… leaving a child alone to the world.”

Naz nodded, slow and careful, but said nothing. She did watch him, though, and then what he had said sank in. His cheeks were warmed by more than the fire, and he cast his look away from her, feeling quite the fool.

“You think me the child.” He stated. She lifted her head, and he could see the faint traces of a smile on her lips. “That’s… mmh.”

Naz shook her head, slowly. “To me, it isn’t about your age. If I left you there, you would have died.” She answered. “You needed my help. I’m giving it.”

“Strange for a sellsword, helping anyone who needs it. That seems more work for a guard or a knight.” He commented, still avoiding her eye. Writing off his age had staved off the worst of his embarrassment, but it didn’t make him feel any less powerless.

She snorted, a breath escaping her nostrils, before leaning back against the bag she’d dragged closer. “I knew what your answer was when I asked,” Naz said. “You would help the child. I could tell that much when I met you. That is enough reason to lend my sword.”

(Part 4 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 2)

Varlaine bowed his head deeply in appreciation, but out of the corner of his eye he could see that Eryn had crossed her arms in frustration. When Naz caught sight of her foot tapping, the mercenary furrowed her brow and let her smile slip away so she could turn and face her with a more neutral expression.

“…Your turn,” Naz said, after a moment of evaluating Eryn’s posture. Varlaine could see it, too: Frustration, unbridled and harsh, boiled under Eryn’s skin. True, they’d not had an easy time since leaving the small, smoldering village of Dalren. Naz drove the trio hard, with little time to chatter on the road and breaks spent either training or preparing for their meeting with the noble at Fort Skyvlan. He understood why; the wolf Alra that had nearly run him down still frightened him. If his brother, the standing king, had hunters like him on their tail, he feared even slight delays could get them caught.

By the time he pulled himself from those thoughts, Naz had taken her sword up and held it in front of her with one hand, the other resting on her hip. That was a stance he was more familiar with. While it was slightly off, and she turned her attacking arm more to face Eryn while her defensive hand was behind her, it was much closer to the style Revengardian knights were trained in. Her experience, and the flexibility of her swordsmanship, interested him. She must have been very well traveled.

“I’m waiting for you,” Eryn spoke out. Her tone was sharp, and she held her branch in both hands, out to her side like she carried her axe. Naz gave her a brief nod of acknowledgement, and then took two steps to close the gap. Two quick, simple steps, and then the mercenary delivered an overhead swing that was too short to connect, too far. Varlaine could see it missing before it did, and so could Eryn. Instead of moving back or trying to block it, the rider pulled her own weapon back farther, body twisting, building up.

Naz stopped the swing halfway to thrust the weapon forward, like a rapier. Her style change caught Varlaine off-guard, but Eryn was already prepared for it, a glare on the blue-haired girl’s face. She whipped her branch horizontally, the air singing as it sliced through, before there was a loud thwack of wood on wood as she struck hard against Naz’s.

If Varlaine had surprised her, Eryn’s strike inspired nothing short of shock. One handed, Naz’s fingers abandoned the weapon, hand recoiling as if bitten. It flung several feet away, landing in the grass near their campfire, but Eryn wasn’t satisfied with just disarming her opponent. Following the momentum through, she turned on her heel and swung the stick with her, spinning a full circle and bringing it around once more. Lacking any better option, Naz used her left forearm to block the strike, and the wood smashed into the back of her wrist hard enough to splinter.

Still clutching the remnants of her switch, Eryn nearly doubled over to pant as she caught her breath. Her brows were still knitted in a firm glare, lips tightened down on whatever she wanted to say, especially when she met Naz’s eye—and caught a stony gray stare back in return. The older woman opened her mouth to speak.

“What was—“

“I’m going for a walk.” Eryn cut her off abruptly, tossing the remnants of her stick aside. She turned around, hands shoving into the pockets of her cloth pants, and started to walk away. Varlaine blinked in shock at what had transpired, while Naz stared after the rider for a long, awkward moment. Then she shook her head silently, braid swaying behind her, and turned her attention to the arm that had been struck.

“I’m… I’m sorry for her behavior.” ‘Laine ducked his head. It was his guard who had lost her temper, after all, who was now trekking further and further away from the pair and closer to the ring of trees that surrounded their campsite.

Naz took a moment to roll her sleeve back and investigate her arm before she responded. “Everyone is tense,” She excused in her usual, scratchy tone, coughing and turning her arm over, flexing fingers. Even from his distance, the prince could see the sizeable red mark on the tanner woman’s forearm. It was going to bruise, painfully. “Training is finished for the night.”

He nodded, slowly, and watched as she rubbed two fingertips tenderly against the mark. With nothing between them, she moved towards the fireside, using her uninjured hand to hold the ground. Carefully, with a quiet grunt of exertion, she lowered herself to sit beside it. When she was settled, he played with the branch still in his hand, before setting it down neatly in the grass to go and sit on the other end of the fire.

(Part 3 is up, and can be found here!)