1X1 Cohesion and Chaos

Discussion in 'THE ASCENDER CHRONICLES' started by Effervescent, Aug 25, 2017.

  1. Ysella Ronasin

    "So that's it then? Because my family had people working for us... I deserve this? Inhumane and tyrannical? Try being a little less ironic, while leading me to uncertain fate, chained about like a dog, would you? I'm not attempting to appeal to any sense of compassion, because I don't imagine you actually possess any. You are despicable, I stand by it. You an abhorrent, self center bastard. And that is what I'm appealing to."

    Looking ahead, she pulled her cloak around her, and while her words carried a static sense of anger and obstinence, there was a heavy weight of fear in her eyes. Desperation... that's what he had called it, and as much as she hated admitting he was right, that's entirely what it was. People were not inherently good, that much she could agree to, but they were inherently selfish, and if she had any chance at all of rescuing herself, it seemed to lie in giving him something of more value than the bounty on her head.

    "So I will ask again... And please, this time, spare me the high-horse lecture on my failing to make nice with my captor. If I thought you wanted false compliments, I would have started there. I want to know what you really want? Money? Jewels... You name it, and I will see to it that you get it... provided you stop immediately and release me."

  2. "You're very linear," he pointed out. The pace never ceased, and the trek continued on. And as a silence grew it almost looked as if the mercenary was not going to talk any further. His gaze kept to the road unphased and almost seemingly uninterested.

    "I'm taking you to the border," he finally said. "You need to come to terms with that. Whatever you think of me is what it is. Regardless, I am taking you to the border. You are headed to the Twisted Woods. And there's nothing you can do to change that. Nothing. You need to come to terms with that."

    He glanced over to her briefly to note her expression, hoping the realization was sinking in to some degree and she would relinquish her fight. "You assume a lot, which I suppose you have to in your line of work. But have you ever considered you were wrong in something? Do you think your initial thought is always right? I fancy you ignorant. Does that make you ignorant? Of course, you will say no. Most people don't realize their own flaws just as they don't realize the flaws of the world. Now, I'm not excusing myself or denying I'm dispicable or hypocritical and so on. I know what I'm doing. I know that collar is irritating and will bruise your skin and hurt your bone. I know you have nothing to offer that will stop it from happening. You can argue that is an assumption, but see, you assume so much about me it's clear you'll have nothing to barter with."

  3. Ysella Ronasin

    Her expression fell as her eyes shifted again, a sharp inhalation shuddering on a break of that emotional barrier. Coming to term with the inevitable was always difficult, but never more so than when one was facing their own mortality. She didn't want to die, and whatever he said, she had no assumptions that there was any other fate for her but death. Even if it wasn't immediate, it would come.

    The tears stung, and she squeezed her eyes shut against them, shaking her head, "...I never said goodbye. It's odd... the things you think of, when you're going to die. I was so excited to be chosen for this mission. I never stopped to say goodbye. You think you'll see them, your family. You think... you think nothing could possibly go wrong." Breathing out a scoff, she opened her eyes again, "The best part is, they'll probably be disappointed that I didn't do my job."

    Looking over at him, she reached up to dry her eyes, studying his profile with a lifted brow, "...Why do you care what I think about you? What difference would it make if I was understanding, or compliant? You said I was wrong about something. What was it? Doesn't make sense to keep it to yourself, if I'll never see you again, after all this. So what was it?"

  4. A smile broke from his stony expression, genuine but not malicious. It was something Ysella said that amused him in a different way. "Nothing specific," he answered. "I was just being general."

    Looking back over to her, he eyed her with more of a scrutiny, as if to read her story upon her as clear as letters on a page. "We're all given a life we didn't rightly choose. Well, for a start. Everything after we learn things is our choice. Everything the two of us did led to this moment. But you're not dead yet. And you don't know if you're going to die. I don't even know if you're going to die. Haven't given me a reason yet, anyway."

    They traveled through the windy plains as the biting chill still reminded Spring was not yet here. The sun peaked and then began its descent before the mercenary began to find a place to settle for the night. It was a patch of woods comprised mostly of pine providing enough of a wall against the wind yet a good visual of their surroundings. The man dismounted from the horse, the chain pulling at Ysella somewhat until he came around to face her.

    "We need firewood," he said. "You're going to either follow along or help me gather. But we'll both die if we don't get a fire going before nightfall. Are you going to give me any troubles?"

  5. Ysella Ronasin

    She fell silent, either out of resignation, or because for the first time in a long time, he had given her something to think about. She hated him for it, perhaps more than she hated him for his treatment of her in the first place. That he could propel her to consider anything... It wasn't right that her captor ought to instill in her anything more than utter outrage, yet the words resonated, and would not leave her be. Everything she did led her to this moment... Then perhaps she could still escape her fate.

    When they finally stopped, she winced as he dismounted, and putting a hand to the collar, she touched the space between the metal and her neck with delicacy. The skin felt raw, and there was no doubt some bruising. It wouldn't get better before it got worse, but she hadn't given up hope entirely that she could convince him that it wasn't necessary... and when he did give in and release her, she would get away. Whatever it took...

    As he approached, she dropped her hands to her side, determined that he would not see the pain she was in, and swallowing she shook her head at his question, "...I won't try to kick you in the face again, if that's what you're asking." Though the thought of gathering wood hardly appealed to her. She had never had to before... and she was an Ambassador for the queen, in her very best dress, after all, "...What... what do I need to do?" She asked, with an unmistakable tone of someone who very rarely was subjected to menial tasks.

  6. There was an unmistakeable bruise forming across his nose and cheek from Ysella's deed. The man stared down at her sternly, gauging if she was making a false promise. The chain was still gripped firmly in his hand as he pulled her to follow him through their immediate surroundings, picking up a stick the length of his forearm and showing it to the woman. "Look for sticks like this," he instructed, and then handed it over to her. "It should feel like that. Breakable, but with some give. Go ahead and break it in half. We want that kind of wood. You can get thinner sticks if you'd like. You don't need to worry about anything thicker."

    He continued to guide her through the woods occasionally pointing out sticks for her to grab as he picked up his own of varying lengths and widths. When they had enough, they would head back to the horse and set the pile down only to repeat the process again eventually gathering enough wood to stoke a modest fire for the night.

    "Let me know if you start to sweat," he said as he began to dig out a hole and set wood upon it. "That collar can also kill you if it gets cold enough. I suggest taking some fabric off of your dress there to stuff in between. It'll be tight but at least you won't freeze to death. But they say it's likely a peaceful way to die. Like going to sleep."

  7. Ysella Ronasin

    She certainly would have liked to kick the man again, more than anything in the world, she wanted to smash her foot into his face, but it had caused her considerably more damage last time than it had him, and she wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't kill her, after all, if she tried anything like that a second time.

    But as they started off into the woods to gather sticks, the urge seemed to only increase. They were dirty and left smudges up and down her arms, and by the time they had gathered enough, she had broken three nails trying to break them, and scraped her palms. And it was the distinct impression that her captor was enjoying himself that made it all considerably worse.

    Brushing her hands off on her skirts, she looked up at him, at his suggestion and frowned, horrified, "This is my best dress! I would sooner..." But she trailed off as she considered what she had been about to say. Freezing to death might have been a better way to die than being handed over to agents of Shadow, but it was still unappealing. Narrowing her eyes, she bent and tore a scrap from where she had separated the hem, folding it around her neck like a scarf, then tucking it into the gap between her neck and the collar.

    "...You could just take it off, you know." She remarked, coolly, " Since you're so concerned. It's not as if I'll get very far running, as it is..."

  8. The embers smoked and crackled to life as the man nodded his head thoughtfully. He added another stick to the fire as the heat steadily grew in a small radius. Looking up at Ysella with a skeptical look, he lofted a brow at her suggestion, a small laugh huffing from his lungs as he rose to a stand.

    "We'll never have that kind of trust," he said plainly. "We can't. What this is, what's happening between us means we can't. I know your word is worth shit because you're a desperate woman thinking she is going to die in a week or so. And you've got a lot of opinions about me. Do you really find me that much of an idiot or do you think I carry some sort of compassion towards your situation?"

    Near the fire he began situating larger branches against a tree for a lean to. He didn't bother to ask her for help, perhaps in guessing she did not know how. But his hand still gripped the end of the chain connected to her iron collar as he one-armed the task.

    "I've got cured meats for the night," he continued. "If you want something more we'll have to go hunting in the morning. I've got water and some U'gul if you're inclined to the warmth of alcohol."

  9. Ysella Ronasin

    That desperate frustration built deeper within her at his words. The way that he said them, and perhaps more so, her own inability to argue them driving her to a place of near hopelessness. She was a woman accustomed to getting what she wanted, and when that task seemed so impossible... it wasn't a feeling she cared for.

    Sinking down with a huff, she tucked her fingers beneath the collar, grimacing as she felt along the sore spots. She watched him work, watched the end of the change where he gripped it. Idly, she considered giving it a tug, seeing how lax he really was, but she knew that inevitably, she would regret the decision...

    He continued, and she frowned delicately. A part of her, that stubborn part that had gotten her into trouble all too often before, considered declining the offer entirely, but she wasn't dead yet, and as long as there was any chance as all she might escape, she needed to do what she could to preserve her strength.

    "Water is fine. I've had U'gul before. It's atrocious. What are you building?"

  10. The arrows in his quiver clattered as he unclasped and removed it from his side, resting it against a tree before slipping his hand behind his cloak to produce his canteen. The man tossed it in Ysella's direction without a word in warning and seamlessly continued with his work on the lean-to. There wasn't much keeping the sticks together other than the force between two trees and the earth he used to keep them in place.

    "It's a shelter," he finally explained. "Something temporary for the night so we don't freeze to death. This temperature might be tolerable during the day, but at night it can feel like Winter with the wind."

    His gloved hand pat the lean-to appreciatively. "This will block that out. You will want it. Trust me on that. It'll catch some of the heat from the fire as well once I'm done with it. I guess you mountain dwellers don't deal so much in fire, hmm? It'll suck the breath out of a closed room."

  11. Ysella Ronasin

    As she caught the canteen, she considered momentarily the weight of it, the strap... Considered what sort of weapon it might be utilized as. He was strong, and no doubt faster than he looked, but if she could get behind him... If she could...

    Her fingers brushed her neck and frowning, she put the canteen to her lips to drink. She had already learned the hard way he would not be overmatched physically. She would need to use other skills to get out of the predicament.

    "It's warm enough without... So too, I imagine, was the inn I was meant to be staying at tonight." Making a face, she took another sip, before tossing the canteen back.

    "How did you learn to do that? Or is it just something your sort knows naturally? And where will your little... hovel be?"

  12. The shelter was finished as Ysella's posed the amusing string of questions, his eyes looking around their location as he rounded the tree. A wolf, seemingly alone, watched the two at a distance. His gaze lingered on the beast for a moment and he pushed his cloak away from his sword to sit next to the fire.

    "I learned it from the same woman who taught me how to hunt," he answered, and took the canteen in hand. In taking a sip, he looked over at her with a faint grin that pushed up his cheeks. "I know you're not going to like it much, but we're sharing the hovel."

    He pointed back to the singular lean-to with the same hand that held the canteen. It was a rather small looking shelter, and while it looked sturdy it did not afford much room for movement or comfort between the two. It would be a tight fit, and one typically reserved for more familiar company.

    "Don't like it, then you can freeze to death. This isn't about anything but survival. I'm not looking for a romp, but I can understand you would be uncomfortable still."

  13. Ysella Ronasin

    "The... the woman?" Sitting a little straighter, Ysella stared for a moment. It wasn't as though it was anything strange for a woman to possess knowledge... But in such primitive tasks? Idly, she wondered if this was a mother figure... Or perhaps something else entirely. He didn't seem the sentimental type, but stranger things could be possible, she supposed.

    He came closer, and her posture stiffened as her eyes fell, with reservation, to the exposed weapon. It was an anxiety forgot swiftly with his next words, however, fear bleeding into outrage, "You're joking!" She half-yelped, before he went on, her cheeks paling in the firelight, "...You're not joking."

    Her eyes shifted to the hovel, and she breathed in, swallowing hard as her fingers glanced across the collar. Whatever he said, if he'd wanted to, he could very easily take advantage of her, and for the first time since exiting the cabin of the carriage earlier that day, Ysella wasn't half as afraid of death as she was living...

    She shifted, and her vision drifted, catching the movement at a distance. The wolf he had spied moments before. With a gasp, she edged instinctively closer, fear of her abductor momentarily outweighed by fear of the unknown, "That beast... What is it? Is it dangerous??"

    #33 Elle Joyner, Sep 12, 2017
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2017
  14. The wolf had its gaze fixed on the two, body still for a moment in study. Its ears twitched, and it looked over to its right before turning away to walk back into the bushes. The man glanced back to the wolf as it left their sight, watching it disappear yet knowing it was not gone.

    "You mountain dwellers need to get out more," he said, an amused smirk perching on his lips. She was closer to him now; close out of instinct for survival derived from her fear. Despite not knowing what it was she saw, she still picked up on the danger. Perhaps she would not be the baggage he had anticipated. Most of Bastillos' nobility were often spoken about humorously. The noble people of Bastillos who only see the surface to look at the flowers and glow their skin. Most of his people looked at them as weak and ill fit for the world. Were it not for the vast army the kingdom held, they would not be much of a threat for the taking. And perhaps that's why now they were being tested.

    "It's called a wolf," he explained. "Have you read about them at all? They'll feed on the likes of us if they feel they can take us. That was either a scout or a loner. Let's hope it was the loner."

  15. Ysella Ronasin

    Her eyes still fixed on the spot where the beast had been, Ysella swallowed, knotting her hands together with an anxious tension. She had no delusions about her upbringing - most of the nobles who dwelt within Bastillos were, at best, sheltered creatures with little to no notions of the outside world, but they were happy that way. There was no reason to seek out trouble when they had none to contend with of their own.

    As a diplomat, she knew a little more about the dangers, at least where man was concerned, but the beasts of the wild could not be reasoned with, with words and gifts... They were wild and therefore, were of little use to her, strategically or otherwise, and so she had not bothered to study them. It occurred to her, that perhaps this had been foolhearty, but she had never anticipated being kidnapped and forced into the wild, herself.

    Looking to her captor, she frowned, "I had no need to read about them. I don't suspect they were meant to be in attendance at the council meeting." Her voice carried a slightly shrewd tone to it, but there was still a considerable quiver to the current, and after a few seconds, her eyes snapped back to the watch the path.

    "...Wh..." Clearing her throat, she straightened, as she tried to bring some resolve to her features, again, "What happens if it wasn't a loner?"

  16. His quiver, secured around his upper thigh, held a decent amount of arrows that clattered as he sat and removed the piece. It had a side pouch he dug into, retrieving a folded cloth with jerky contained within. The cloth was incredibly simple and bland by comparison to Bastillosi standards. It was blue and dingy and looked to have been torn off from a larger piece as frayed ends flittered about its peremeter.

    "Wolves are more than likely part of a bigger group," he explained as he took a piece of jerky. He held it out for her to take a piece should she like. "The group is called a pack, and a pack of wolves is more difficult to deal with. They're smarter than you'd think, which is what makes them so dangerous."

    He set his quiver to the side and put another few sticks into the fire to keep the flames at a good heat. "I think they understand what a weapon is," he added. "They seem to back off if they know you're armed. At least, that's been a running theory of mine. Show them you can fight back with greater force. They should probably teach anyone who travels outside the mountains about these things, you know. Do you have any regrets?"

  17. Ysella Ronasin

    "People, I find, are inherently more dangerous than animals, and seeing how that's usually the sort I deal with in my profession, I wasn't much inclined to study anything else. And we don't exactly get a great deal of wildlife beneath the ground, so there's not much point in teaching about it, down there."

    Frowning gingerly, she took a piece of the jerky, studying it for a moment. It wasn't what she was accustomed to, but she had little doubt if she refused it, he wouldn't care not to let her starve, and she hadn't eaten since earlier that day, her stomach ultimately winning over whatever reservations she might have had about the unusual meal. Taking a bite, she mulled it over for a moment, before deciding it was passable and swallowing.

    Looking over to him again, a brow quirked at his question and for a second, a brief, fleeting moment, the corner of her lip twitched up in a bemused smirk, "...Regrets? Being kidnapped comes to mind. It wasn't exactly part of the itinerary. I don't suppose it's much use asking for a weapon? If that thing comes back with... with it's pack?"

  18. A smile faintly flickered on the edge of his lips at her answered, a huff of a laugh escaping him as he stoked the fire with a stick. "I'll keep you from the wolves," he assured. "No need to arm yourself. Especially after sharing such a regret."

    He bit into a piece of jerky and looked over at her with a small smirk. The dark curls of his hair rested in a dirty mess on his head, and his facial scruff looked like he hadn't shaved or even attempted to make himself presentable in days. "You know, we have a custom here," the man continued as he chewed on the jerky with his mouth open. "The Grey Hinterlands, at least, still respect everyone's story. Even the bounties. We have this place we call The Cave where we go to leave memorials of those who have passed. Hundreds of years of this tradition where we allow people to be remembered by everyone. It's on our way if you'd like to see it."

    The smirk on his face widened to a grin as he bit into another piece of jerky. "A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have to be invited there by someone like me. I've got a piece I need to drop off at some point anyway. I'm not one to like to keep trinkets on my person like some of the others."

  19. Ysella Ronasin

    There was a moment... Just a moment where indignation and fury mingled, twisting his offer into something insulting. A memorial was something treasured. Something sacred, and in that flickering moment, she wondered how someone in his position could place such worth in anything.

    But then, like a spark, fanned quickly to flame, she recalled what he had said... How little she really understood about the world from a personal level... For all she knew, it was their most sacred rite. And to show it to her... Even if it was just a means of showing off, it had to mean something...

    That, and the longet their journey, the better chance she had of escaping.

    Nodding slowly, she glanced over to him, "I would like that, yes." Pausing, she studied him for a moment, seemed to consider something, before looking back to the fire, "I wonder how they will remember me, when I've passed on."

    Swallowing, shaking her head, she sat back again, "Have you a proper name? If we're to be traveling a great distance, it won't do to call you any of the things I've fashioned in my mind."

  20. “Ilai,” he answered, though gave no surname. It was an indication of his heritage marking him as a man of the Grey Hinterlands. Their culture held surnames as more of a sacred exchange meant only for those cared about. Even in business they referred to each other by their profession or by their first names. To know a Lander’s surname was to know the Lander intimately. It was a mark of friendship or familial relation.

    “And what would you have called me otherwise?” he asked curiously, a smirk still perched in amusement on his lips. “I can only imagine the possibilities.”

    Looking away, her gaze on the flames, Ysella’s lip twitched upwards, ever so slightly, almost unconsciously, as she steepled her hands in her lap, “...Hm. Wolf, perhaps? It seems appropriate, after all.”

    The smile faded, and she straightened, looking to him again, quizzically, “I suppose you know my name. I’m a little curious what else you know. I don’t imagine it’s much. You don’t strike me as the sort who enjoys getting to know those he’s condemning to death.”

    “None of us enjoy it, really,” he said, shaking his head slightly in the thought. “Well, those of us in our right minds. It would be easier to block everything out and just ignore you. But that's why we talk to you, I suppose. Maintains a sense of humanity. To some degree. Make no mistake, we aren't friends, and you will continue to hate me and I will continue to carry out the job. And likely at some point you'll retaliate and I may have to kill you sooner than later.”

    He shrugged, and it seemed as though he experienced a trend with some of his bounties. There was a distance in his eyes as he stared into the fire that only faded as he moved to stoke the fire. “It's good money, you know,” he said as he raised the chain up into view. “Every life has a worth. I know you're a diplomat and you've got a high price on your head.”

    “Is that supposed to bring me comfort? To know I’ve got value?” With a scoff, she shook her head and turned away, “I don’t care if the money is good. What you do… It’s wrong. And someday, you’ll atone for it. Maybe not while I’m alive, but someday. Don’t mistake conversation for a show of humanity… I think Wolf was a far more appropriate name, now that I think about it.”

    With a breath, she reached up, tugging at the metal collar, “We’d better sleep, I suppose. You’ll want to be done with me as quickly as possible. More lucrative if your turn-around is swift, right?”

    He huffed a laugh at her reaction, head shaking again as he took a swig of U’gul and winced at the bitter taste. “I'll not be sleeping just yet,” he said, “but you can have a go.”

    “I’ll stay awake as well, if it’s all the same.” Frowning softly, she dropped her hands back to her lap, “I’ve a sister. Odessa. She’s nineteen, head full of clouds. I suppose in a way, we all are, underground… Dreaming about the world above. What it’s like… what the people are like. She’s got all these fanciful notions of traveling… Finding herself in other cultures, in other people. It’s sad to think how disappointed she would be with reality.”

    Looking to him again, pointedly, Ysella caught his gaze, “You may not enjoy it, Ilai… but you can be very certain I’m going to tell you every aspect of my life that I can, until it’s over. Because I want you to remember me. I won’t be another sum of gold you collect, so you can be on your way. You will feel it this time.”

    He watched her, all manner of joking aside to bring about a more serious demeanor. His smile had faded, and he took a swig from the bottle of U’gul once again. “Go on, then,” he prompted. “Tell me about your sister. Or any other siblings.”

    “It’s just the two of us. My parents were focused people… they never wanted a big family. I had thought differently for a time. But as it was, I took to the political life. I thought there would be time… I guess I was wrong. Odessa will change the world, though. I know it. She’s got a heart too big for the rest of us. I can’t imagine why, but she looks up to me.” Frowning, her gaze shifted, meeting the fire, “It won’t sit well with her… my being gone.”

    Pulling her cloak tighter around her frame, she glanced up to him again, “Do you have a family, Ilai?”

    “I do not,” he answered, and set the bottle down next to him. The temperature was dropping as the sun set lower in the sky casting an array of colors among the clouds. “What were you sent out to do? With such a large buyout you must be important. Jerky?” He held the bag of jerky back out to Ysella for her to take another piece should she choose.

    Taking another piece, Ysella held it in her hands for a moment, considering whether or not to continue. Still… there was little point in keeping it close to her chest when there was little chance she’d get to carry out her mission.

    “I was headed to Nabannon… to discuss terms of peace. Rotheel to Uthred. There… there’s been threats made. Threats of war. A war that Bastillos cannot win in its current state. We may very well have been the last efforts to stop it.”

    A knowing look raised his brows, head nodding thoughtfully as his lips flickered downward almost in unspoken pride. “Ah, I heard of the coming war,” he said. “The Grey Hinterlands and Leddimark aren’t too interested in the dispute it seems. We had some folk flee through here from Bastillos thinking they could sneak into the Allied Kingdoms through the Twisted Woods. You think Bastillos would redefine their terms of trade to better suit the orcish clans? Nabannon especially has a large orc populace and restricting their trade means restricting Nabannon’s trade by association.”

    “I don’t suppose it matters much. They’ll see mine and Rotheel’s abductions as an act of aggression. I wouldn’t doubt for one moment that’s entirely why there was a bounty put on us in the first place. Bastillos will never side with the orcs, now. Not if they think their diplomats were taken under hostile circumstances. And you played right into it…” Shaking her head, she brushed her fingers across the collar at her throat, frowning, “You think they’ll escape it? The Hinterlands or Leddimark? You think they’ll be able to avoid the war? It will spread like wildfire… and it will destroy everything in its path.”

    He ripped off a piece of jerky and chewed thoughtfully for a moment, mulling over the prospects of war and the casualties therein. “Maybe that’s why people are fleeing to the Allied Kingdoms,” Ilai said. “The Twisted Woods and the mountains are enough of a barrier to keep that wildfire from spreading too far. The orcs are in good standing with the Allied Kingdoms, so they’d likely push the front more towards the Glassy Sea. The Hinterlands and Leddimark have a good chance at keeping out of it all. We’re hardly important as it is. Just free folk living their lives from the land.”

    “Do you know what the most valuable commodity is, in war times, Ilai? Men. Soldiers. The advantage of a battle almost always goes to those with more forces. And those men need to come from somewhere. And even if there's no draft, even if your people managed to escape it, the armies aren’t likely to stay away forever. They'll need weapons and tools and food… where do you imagine they’ll get those supplies from? The materials?”

    “It’d be a desperate day if the West came looking for Hinterland aid,” he huffed with a chuckle, and leaned forward to set another log on the fire. It’s weight caused embers to fly up into the smoke like shards of light that fizzled out into the growing dark. “And the orcs back the East. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dradmida or Krei pulled out of their support. Why wage war against the Orc again? The only good is to ally with them. Don’t you feel like your queen is a bit unfair to them? I heard they’re only allowed in ports if they keep to their ships. Smuggling accusations, was it? I think that’s what I heard anyway. Smuggling and black market allegations.”

    Frowning, Ysella glanced over at him, “They’re very serious allegations, and given what Bastillos has already been through, we can’t afford to look past something that could be detrimental to our own people. But whether or not she was fair matters little. We were attempting to stop a war from happening and now with no ambassadors to speak for Bastillos, there’s little hope to stave it off.”

    Ilai turned his head towards the fire, dark eyes staring into the only color in the growing pallor of the Winter’s coming night. It was the only warmth around them, and behind where the cold brushed the crown of his head and bristled the thick black curls, a wolf howled within the woods. He turned his ear to it, gauging the distance though giving away no indication of its severity.

    “Attempting to stop a war that could have been avoided entirely had your Queen thought about it a little,” he added. Despite his stance in the subject, there was an air of indifference, or perhaps distance in the matter overall as if it were just a discussion and nothing more. “Maybe you can convince your paying captor to help you save Edros after I’ve been paid.”

    “She's a child!” Ysella responded, with perhaps more inflection than she meant, “One who inherited an impossible situation. What more can be expected… and at least she is trying.”

    Frowning, she turned in the direction of the howling, swallowing, “And don't be stupid… you know as well as I do, Ilai, they'll kill me. If they wanted to stop a war they wouldn't have put a bounty on my head to begin with. Probably kill you, too… to keep their money.”

    “If it’s what I’m suspecting, you might be right,” he said with a thoughtful nod. “Us Landers are used to the possibility of being crossed or denied our pay. To which we fight for it to take it. If you’re lucky and whoever it is tries to deny my pay, we may both come out a winner. That is, if they don’t practice Shadow. But I’m guessing they do. I’ve got a few cards to play in that game.”

    “You've…” Shifting, her gaze twisted by confusion… by concern, Ysella looked over to him, “What do you mean cards to play??”

    “Cards,” he repeated, and then mimed the action of dealing from a deck of invisible cards. “Have you not played a game of cards?”

    Making a face, Ysella shook her head, “Of course I know what cards are… I was asking what you meant. You said you've got cards to play… if they practice Shadow. What did you mean?”

    He chuckled at the question and the expression on her features. “It means I may stand a chance countering a Shadow Caster,” he explained. “Cards to play. Counters to casters. I’m a cunning hunter with a good shot and a long and heavy sword.”

    “Cunning. That's one word for it.” A small frown formed as she looked back to the fire, “I don't see what good it does me, still… if they betray you. You're no more trustworthy.”

    He gave a shrug. “You would be free to carry on,” said Ilai. “I would get my pay, and you would no longer have a bounty to contend with. I don’t plan on dying. That’s a scenario where we would both win. Go dream on that and get some rest.”

    “You and I may have very different ideas about victory, Ilai…” With a shake of her head, she looked to the hovel he'd put together. She had not forgotten what he had said about keeping warm, and swallowing, she rose, knotting her hands together, “I realize you've said you have no ill intentions… but just in case they should arise, I'm told there is a special darkness after death for men who take advantage of unwitting women. Goodnight, Ilai.”

    He waited for a time before retiring himself within the cool, quiet hours of the night. The still and silent night was his comfort and peaceful communion with the world. When the wind blew through the barren trees, he listened to the fluted tune that brushed through the bark. When the fire popped and sparked embers that lifted into the night, he watched the orange sprite dance through the smoke. His lungs breathed in the biting air embracing the the cold like a brother and accepting Winter for what it was and would be.

    The chain he held in his gloved hand was barely noticed until it chimed against stone or stick. Frost was collecting on the links between him and his captive where the heat could not deter the cold. It was an unfortunate thing for the diplomat, but one he couldn’t bother himself for caring. She was just as selfish as he, much how many bounties displayed when their lives were on the line. The bigger picture rarely mattered to a Lander. To them, if someone really wanted something done, nothing would get in the way.

    Stoking the fire and insuring the heat collected in the shanty for the night, Ilai gingerly laid beside Ysella, arms wrapped around his own midsection as he situated himself close enough to share warmth beneath his cloak. Between each other and the fire, they would find enough warmth for a few hours’ rest.

    It was an instinctive feeling that bolted Ilai from his sleep. Light sleeping was common practice among the Landers, particularly with those in unsavory practices. From what he could see, there was nothing in the dark, not even the fire now that it had dimmed to smoke and embers. That did not mean they were in the clear, and just as Ilai began to cautiously exit the lean to, he heard the deep rumble of a wolf’s growl.

    Ilai halted his movements and looked to the ground where his sword and bow laid and began to calculate his moves against the predictions of the wolf. Was it just the one? He scanned their immediate surroundings as best he could and caught glimmers of watchful eyes and movements of silhouettes. This was no lone wolf.

    “Ysella,” he whispered. “Don’t make any sudden movements. Not yet. See if you can bring your hand ‘round to my sword just at your back. When I say, hold it by the hilt out towards me as quick as you can. Are you good with a bow?”

    Ysella was not a deep sleeper by any stretch, and in the cold, tucked up beside a man who, to all appearances was a cold blooded murderer, sleep came in tumultuous waves. To her credit, she managed not to panic entirely then, when his voice reached her ear, her eyes snapping open as panic filled her.

    She needn’t be asked twice. For all she hated the man, she had no desire to die, and no means of protecting herself against a pack of wolves. So carefully, she shifted and did as she was instructed, her fingers curling around the hilt of the sword.

    It occurred to her then, in those few seconds, how easy it would’ve been… To twist the blade round and bring it to his neck. To plunge it into his chest or belly. To end her captivity with a violent thrust. But to what end, really? If she killed him, there were still the beasts, and she would be no match against them.

    Looking to him, she shook her head and whispered back, trepidation lacing her words with a quiver, “I’ve never used a weapon.”

    It was not an unexpected statement, but one he had hoped would not be. “Stay in the lean to, then,” he whispered back, and slowly leaned forward. The nearest wolf growled more fervently at his action, a foot pressing forward in threat that gave him pause. “Keep yourself away from them. I’m not going to hold onto the chain for this. If you run, you die, understand? One… two… GO!”

    As Ilai called out for Ysella to act and hand over his sword, the wolves launched at the pair with hungry, gnashing teeth. The lean to was not built for impact, and so she would find herself with little time before the beasts converged and collapsed the structure.

    Swiftly, Ysella flipped the blade in her grasp to hold the hilt out to Illai. There wasn’t much time to react elsewise, and even if there had been, fear rooted her, kept her mind trapped in place as much as her feet. The other beasts closed in and lunged, and as the structure crumpled beneath their weight, Ysella toppled back, tripping over her feet. Wood and leaves rained down, tangled her legs and something snagged the chain, driving her forward at an awkward angle. She caught herself, scraping her hands and cried out, reaching swiftly, grasping one of the broken branches. Bucking back as far as the trapped chain would allow, she swung, hard at the first of the wolves to emerge from the fallen lean to, “Ilai!”

    The initial plan worked swiftly as Ilai grabbed the hilt of his sword and removed the blade from the scabbard in a sweep. Steel sung through the air in calculative dance as the wolves charged for the two marked as prey. The first two to charge toward Ilai were afflicted with the initial swoop, and it seemed as though the pack’s plan was to split them up for the easier prey.

    Ilai’s first thought was nothing noble in the slightest. The money lost should Ysella die was of his utmost concern. Her helplessness linked to her trapped chain gave him no sense of humanity other than his own greed, her life more an object than to be considered a being of his own ilk. The wolves came between them, their numbers growing from four to eight to twelve in the blink of an eye.

    There was a link in the chain that had snagged on a root, lodging itself snuggly from the weight of her fall. As the two fought against the encroaching pack, Ilai steadily positioned himself towards the chain, but as he reached down for it, the wolves converged. He swung his sword across what he could, clamoring for the upper hand while teeth shredded through fabric and flesh. In the chaos, he managed to free the link from its hold, relinquishing Ysella from her possible similar fate. She still had her own portion of the pack to deal with as they charged.

    She could feel the slack as soon as the chain was freed from it’s trapping and as she tumbled back, kicking her feet loose as well, she swung the branch harder at her own gathering throng. It did little to deter the wolves, the creatures hell bent on ravaging their prey, but unhindered now, Ysella’s mind formed more coherently a plan. Swinging upright to her feet, ignoring the snapping jaws that brushed her legs, the swipe of sharp claws that grazed along her calf, she leapt over the fallen structure, whipping up another branch from the debris. The fire still crackled, hot and fierce and raking the head of the branch through the flames, she swung it back towards the animals.
    One she caught hard across the jaw and with a yelp, the creature bounced back, and those within its vicinity shrunk away as well. Fire, it seemed, made their quarry slightly less tempting. Swinging again, she called to Ilai, “Your bow! It’s to your left!”

    Their efforts pushed back the brunt of the pack as orange streaked through the night and cold steel turned warm with blood. Ilai managed to scramble his way to freedom, and to his bow, using his momentum to reach for an arrow and knock it in time to release it squarely within a wolf’s skull. The pack retreated in fear and understanding. They would no longer be prey that night.

    It was still in the darker hour of twilight just before dawn lined the horizon in its golden band. Winter had always carried a quiet in the night, and it made the pounding of his heart striking in his ears. For a moment he laid on the ground, eyes cast up at the clear sky as vapors from his labored breaths plumed like fog from his lips to dissipate in the dark.

    “You ever look at the stars and wonder what’s up there making that light?” he asked, and then turned his head to try and see how Ysella faired.

    Long after they had disappeared into the night, Ysella clutched the burning branch, as if afraid the wolves might change their minds. Only when he spoke did she look to Ilai, and her breath escaped in a vapor as the branch dropped into the fire. Slowly, her eyes trailed up to the dappled sky, “When I was a child… I imagined they were holes in the sky, and beyond them was a brilliant world of light.”

    But she didn't think that way anymore...

    “Are you hurt?” She moved, not at all oblivious to the throbbing pain in her leg, sinking down beside the bounty hunter with an edge of uncertainty. It wasn't as though she was genuinely concerned for him… She had, after all, entertained the thought of ending him herself, but it was a distraction… one she desperately needed.

    There were smatterings of blood across his dark leathers and fur linings. His cloak still rested where they had once slept, now in a heap under the wooden rubble remains of his lean to. It left the man exposed to the elements more than would be comfortable, as well as displaying the rips and tears in his pants and shirt from the fight between the thicker gear. Ilai took a moment to think on it, unsure in the cold and the adrenaline that he was at all injured.

    “I met a Maldviri once,” he continued, choosing to ignore her question until he knew the answer himself. “The desert people. They have this legend about a well of stars. Or maybe it’s The Well of Stars. They believe when you die you become part of it all. That your soul after good deeds and morality transcends to become the stars. The Well of Stars is like this map of the afterlife that surrounds us or something. I kind of like their version of life after death.”

    He could feel the dull ache of his efforts against the wolves in his muscles and bones, and he grunted in his efforts to rise to a sit and collect his weapons. “Not that I believe I would become a star,” he added with a small chuckle. “As I’m sure you can gather, I’ve not been an example for good and moral. But it’s still nice to think about souls becoming stars. When the moon hides its face we can still find our way with the stars. Unbiased. Damn souls.”

    He felt a hitch in his back as he stood, much like a muscle that was pushed a bit past its limits. “Are you hurt?” he asked, rolling his shoulder over in assessment before stooping down to retrieve his cloak and the end of her chain.

    Her eyes watched as he plucked up the chain. Still a captive, of course. She hadn't expected that much to change, but somehow, it was still a touch disappointing, “One of them scratched my leg, but I don't think it's bad.”

    “Let me see it,” he commanded, his head nodding over to her as he looked her over. Far too well dressed for the woods.

    Her expression weary, Ysella nevertheless lifted the hem of her dress to her knee, hissing as the cold air struck the scratched along her calve. Four striated gashes ran in a sweeping arch from below her kneecap to above her ankle, deep, though not so that it would prove life threatening. She had hardly noticed in the midst of their struggle, but the throbbing pain resonated now, in full.

    His inspection was at a polite distance, eyes narrowing in thought as he assessed the wounds. “Can you walk on it?” he asked. “If you’ll allow me, I can bandage it up. As you can see, however, I’ve no horse for you to ride. So I’ll need to know if you can make the journey at any length.”

    “It'll hold.” She remarked, with almost a defensive air. He'd already warned her he wouldn't keep her alive if she proved to be a difficulty, and in truth it hurt, but not enough to affect her pace, “A bandage should do fine.”

    He held out the cloak for her to take and used his foot to drag his pack to her side. “Put this ‘round you,” he said. “And keep your skirts up so I don’t have to push around it.”

    Ilai kept a distant air as he removed a fresh roll of bandages from the small pack he had removed from his belt. He was careful, purposeful in his actions as he wrapped the wound on Ysella’s leg. Blood took to the fibers from the angry red lines denoting their deepness in the give as he secured the bandage slightly tight.

    “Let’s move out, then,” he said, and began to collect his belongings.

    She watched him while he worked, flinching only slightly, focusing as little as possible on the pain. It was an unusual position, feeling indebted to a man who, for all he'd done to help her, was still effectively sending her to her death. Unusual and frustrating.

    “Thank you.” She murmured, “For… for the bandage. And for…” Protecting his merchandise? “Well. You know.”

    Rising, she lowered her skirts again, her eyes following him, a brow lifting, “You're bleeding, Ilai.”

    It was a sensation he noticed growing along his shoulder and down his arm, yet he tried his best to play it off and ignore it. The last thing he needed was to be weakened by wolves in front of his captive so soon into the journey. But his injury felt worse than he wanted to admit and he knew he would need to be covert in finding aid.

    “It’s wolf’s blood,” he said dismissively. “We’ll wash when we find a place suitable. Put the cloak on and let’s go.” His hand raised the chain, and he nodded towards the break in the trees that would lead to another field.

    A brow lifted, and for a moment Ysella looked as though she might say something else, but shaking her head, she shrugged and instead, followed after him. She prided herself, perhaps a bit too much sometimes, on being a rather intelligent woman, and it was plain enough to see that he was injured, but if the man wanted to die what was it to her? She’d get away, at least, and wouldn’t need to do her conscience harm in the meantime.

    As she pressed her foot into the ground, she was surprised to find it hurt less than she’d expected. His bandaging, at least, would hold out, even if were more than likely to scar.

    For a time, she traveled in silence, pulling her own cloak tighter around her to keep out the chill. Eventually, her eyes drifted over to him, and despite what she told herself, concern leaked into her voice, “...You holding up?”

    His mind had been focused, intent on calculating distances to available locations where he had allies while gauging his stamina and blood loss. It wasn’t a terrible amount, but the blood began to dry as the sun rose sucking torn fibers to the gashes. The movement of his left arm was restricted in favor of his injuries sustained from the rendering teeth of a wolf. It felt like fire in his skin where only the cold air gave reprieve.

    Ilai held the chain in his right hand as it seemed the side less likely to agitate. His shoulder wasn’t the only injury, but it seemed the worst of it. The pack that had converged on him were relentless in their fight where even his hand carried the bite marks of an angry maw.

    “Yes,” he said, and huffed a laugh as he motioned out to the rolling hills and barren trees. There was not a sight of another living thing as far as they could see. “Would it be nice if I died? Out here in the Hinterlands, you might get lucky. Does Bastillos have issues with giant spiders encroaching on your caves? Rather pesky buggers.”

    Frowning, Ysella stopped, her eyes narrowing, “Do you honestly think I would ask if I were hoping for that, Illai? Tell me… How do you think I would last out here, on my own? If you die, so I do I and while my conscience would not mourn you for too long, I don’t intend to give up that easily. Now… Stop being stupid and rest a moment. I’m not a physician, but I know a thing or two about how to dress a wound, and we’ll both fair better if you aren’t bleeding to death along the way.”

    He didn’t stop, however, and yanked the chain as it ran taught. “You’re getting worked up over nothing,” he said with another wisp of a laugh. “You know what we could use? Or I could, anyway. There’s a den down the ways a bit that might have some better food than I could trap. Do you like orcish cuisine?”

    Stumbling forward a bit, Ysella eyes scrunched into a glare, and as she straightened, whatever concern there was had all but faded, “You’re an idiot if you think that’s nothing.” But it was all she would say on the matter. He could die, for all she cared. She would find a way to survive on her own… Somehow.

    “...Aren’t they cannibals?” She asked, a brow lifting somewhat in alarm.

    “They’ve eaten each other,” he answered with a nod. “And they’ve eaten humans, too. But only when they had no other choice. A survival thing. And never their family or tribes or anything.”

    Ilai looked back at Ysella with amusement curling his lips to a smirk. “They won’t serve that in a den. No famine in the area that I know of. At least, not yet. Trade does effect that somewhat, you know.”

    Looking away, she continued to frown, “Well then, I guess it’s an unfortunate thing I won’t be able to make my meeting and repair the trade issues, isn’t it? Let’s go. If you pass out from blood loss, I’m not dragging you along… I hope you know that.”

    He laughed again and turned his attention back to the path he set. There were no roads or walkways worn in sight, but he knew where they were headed based on where the sunlight peeked through the clouds and cast muted shadows on the brown grasslands. While he said nothing more on the matter, there was a tinge of concern for his own well being as he was not entirely certain how badly he needed aid, only just that he needed it.

    Hours passed in their journey off the beaten paths, further into woodland with trees of grey bark, densely gathered along the rolling, uneven earth. Ilai could feel himself struggling, his continuation of the facade only exacerbating his fatigue. But they were close to the den, and his pace quickened as they descended down a hill and around a bend to the entrance of a cave marked off by wooden planks set up as a door.

    It would have been a welcoming sight, but the door had been knocked off its hinges. The interior was still aglow inside the cavern, and conversations could be heard echoing from within.

    “Keep walking,” Ilai advised.

    “Keep…” Lip twitching downward, Ysella gestured towards the fallen door, “Have you gone addled? Generally speaking, one does not break in somewhere they are welcome. Or are you trying to get yourself killed?”

    Ilai motioned beyond the cave and further around the bend. “Keep your voice down,” he whispered.

    “Lucky stars,” a voice chimed in. A tall man with a deep voice meandered into the open before Ilai, sword out from its scabbard as he looked keenly between the Lander and the Diplomat. “Another bounty, looks it. Hey, pretty lady, where’s this guy taking you?”

    Straightening, Ysella stepped back as the man appeared, her eyes flickering between him and his sword, before moving to Ilai. There was something to be said for known danger, versus the unknown, yet if there was any chance at all…

    “The Twisted Woods. Intends to hand me over to Shadow Casters.”

    The man was a head taller than Ilai, and broader both in bulk and in muscle. He knew in his current state he was no match for the man and had to think through his situation more in line with his captive’s line of work: diplomacy. Keeping himself between the man and Ysella, he garnered the man’s attention.

    “We can split the earnings,” he said. “She’s a handful. I wouldn’t mind the help.”

    The stranger rumbled a laugh and nodded towards the cave entrance. “You’ll be headed in there,” he said.

    A sigh escaped Ilai as he knew where this was headed. He wasn’t about to give up his bounty to some figurehead of a gang, yet he had little strength left in him to fight. Diplomacy might not be the best thing he could figure, and so he needed to think cleverly.

    With a nod of his head, he turned back around, sparing a glance over to Ysella as he passed by her. “Come on,” he urged as he walked towards the cave’s entrance. The thug walked behind them a few paces back.

    “Can you run on that leg?” he whispered to her.

    A brow lifting, Ysella glanced over to Ilai. It wasn’t the question she had expected, really, and for what it was worth, she had assumed, apparently incorrectly, that he’d fully intended to go through with his suggestion to the newcomer. She had no real delusions that he was at all interested in protecting her, so much as he was in protecting his bounty (all of it), but she wasn’t going to argue the despicable nature of his plot when things could, and probably would be, considerably worse if they stayed.

    Slowly, inconspicuously as possible, she nodded.

    They were battered from the previous night’s events and worn from hours of travel. There was no guarantee they could outrun anyone, much less the man that escorted them towards the den. “When I say go, you run,” he whispered again almost at an inaudible level. “Run until you can’t breathe. Ready? Go!

    It might’ve been easier if she hadn’t been chained around the neck, but she wasn’t about to argue that fact. Not when escape was much more important. He called out to go and Ysella did. She ran. Despite the pain in her leg, the pain in her neck, she ran and she didn’t look back, not for anything, not until her lungs truly did burn, making even a simple inhale nearly impossible.

    Their escape gave the thug pause enough to give them a good head start. The rush back up the hill was strain enough on Ilai to age him ten years, and he felt like he would fall over at any moment. No doubt they were being pursued, for he could hear shouts from the man behind them. He didn’t dare take the time to look.

    It wasn’t long before he couldn’t pick his feet up high enough, and fell face first into the dirt in defeat. There was more than just the burly man running up the hill after them now. His hand quickly released Ysella’s chain to reach for his bow, sitting up to knock the arrow in place.

    “Keep running!” he called out to her.

    And she should have. She should have kept running, and never looked back, not once. And in truth, she thought about it, even made it a few steps before the weight of what she was doing became too heavy. He was a scoundrel… A man who killed for profit, whether or not his bounty was deserving of such a fate. And he had been cold and cruel and given her little reason not to leave him behind to die.

    Yet she had known from the moment that he’d fallen that while he might be all these things, she was not… It was the same thing which had driven her to try and look after his wounds, and it was going to get her killed.

    With a growl of frustration, she turned back against and moving to his side, shook her head, “I’m not leaving you. They’re still a ways off. Get up… I can help you.”

    Pain shot through his arm as he attempted to draw back the string, unable to even bend the bow in the slightest before it fell from his grasp. The sword was his only option, and they were closing too much distance in the time Ysella lingered. He pushed himself up in frustration and pushed her away from him.

    “Key is in the quiver,” he said to her. “Take it and fuck off!”

    “Stop telling me what to do!” Ysella growled back, and reaching out, she plucked up the bow from where it had fallen. She had no real knowledge of firing one, beyond what she had seen and those few lessons she had taken at her father’s insistence, but there was a certain mastery to her stubborn nature, and desperation and adrenaline were two of life’s most efficient teachers.

    Plucking an arrow from his quiver, she notched it against the wood and yanking back, turned to the men, rushing up the hill. A downward slope made for a much easier target, but she was no skilled marksman, and not even instinct could make one of her. Pulling back, regardless of these thoughts, she released and let the arrow fly.

    Somewhere in the arrow’s trajectory, it occurred to her that if it did indeed strike true, she would have taken a life. Murdered a man. The horror of that thought brought her heart to her stomach, but there was little time to dwell. Reaching into the quiver again, she grabbed a second arrow, and though her shoulder ached already from drawing a bow much too large and taut for her frame, she yanked back and released it down the hill.

    The arrow lodged itself within one of the men’s shoulders sending him backwards down the hill. They wouldn’t give her time to knock another arrow, and the rest closed the distance with swords drawn and pointed at their throats.

    “You,” the thug from earlier said addressing Ysella. “You gonna cause us trouble?”

    She was by no means a fighter, but she was certainly well aware of when she was defeated. Dropping the bow, shaking her head, she looked to the taller man, her hands raised in front of her, “No… No trouble.”

    Two of the men grabbed Ysella by her arms and began dragging her down the hill while another rushed down to check on their fallen comrade. It seemed while she got in a good shot, the man was not dead, a groan of pain escaping him as he yanked out the arrow. It didn’t look like they were bringing Ilai just yet, if at all, as the remainder of those that chased them gathered around the hunter and began to talk.

    There was a short distance between the entrance of the cave and the den. It was a rather large cavern for the Grey Hinterlands, but nothing by comparison to Bastillos in the slightest. Wooden shanties were built in tiers along the far wall for business and privacy, and there was a bridge over a freshwater pond that led to a cooking fire. It was there a man sat, gaze intent on the contents within a pot.

    “What have we here?” he asked, stroking his beard as he looked up at Ysella. He did a double take of her, brows furrowing as his fingers reached into a jacket pocket for a pair of spectacles that looked far too dainty for the gruff man’s features.

    “Another bounty?” he asked. One of the men nodded, and the bearded man huffed a laugh. “Bless our lucky stars. You’re in luck, little lady. What’s your name?”

    She didn't fight as she was lead along, and in part it was simply because she lacked the energy to. She had gone from being captive to one man, to several… And these all unknown entities. There were bad days… And then there were those days that seemed simply impossible to endure.

    It was only when the bearded man addressed her that Ysella seemed to grasp how different the situation might have been from what she'd calculated. Brow lifting, she stared down the man for a moment before answering.

    “Doesn't seem terribly lucky on my end…”

    “You get to live,” he said matter-of-factly, hands outward for emphasis as he stood and approached her. His glasses were tucked back away into his pocket. “And you want to live, am I right?”

    “Yes…” she breathed, nodding, “Yes, I do.”

    A smile spread across his face, wrinkling the dirtied skin and revealing a set of graying teeth. “That’s good to hear,” he said, and meandered back to the cooking fire. “Are you willing to do anything to stay alive?”

    Blinking, she hesitated, her expression falling to a wary frown, “Wh… what do you mean?”

    “It’s a simple question,” he said as he sat on the stool next to the fire. “How badly do you want to stay alive?”

    “If it's a simple question, why won't you answer me? No one asks a question like that in a simple situation… Sir.? She added, swallowing hard, “I want to live. Of course I do… but I won't hurt anyone to save myself.”

    The man’s head nodded in thought, fingers scratching just below the line of his beard as he reflected momentarily on her words. “You a virgin?”

    Her breath caught and for a moment her jaw clenched tighter, before she nodded, voice losing it's grit, “Yes.”

    A final nod rose and fell, and the man swiped his hand through the air. “Go fetch the key to the lady’s collar,” he said to the man on her right. He promptly released Ysella’s arm and headed out of the cavern.

    “I’m Regan,” the bearded man said, and motioned her over to sit with him by the fire. “And what’s your name, hmm?”

    “My name is Ysella…” Apprehensively, she sank down, knotting her hands together in her lap, “Why did you ask that question?”

    “I like to get to know people,” he answered, and stirred the contents in the pot once again. It carried the sweet aroma of chocolate. “Now, Ysella, I noticed how you’re ringing those dainty little hands of yours. I’m guessing you’re a little nervous and got some questions of your own? Would you like some hot chocolate?”

    “That isn't the sort of question one is generally asked when getting to know someone else. You asked for a reason, and I want to know what that reason is.” Laying her hands flat, wiping sweat from her palms onto her skirt, she shook her head, “And no thank you.”

    “Ah,” his head nodded, and he picked up a tin cup. “Buran, you want some?” As Regan held up the cup, the other lackey nodded, and the man happily ladled the hot chocolate for his comrade. “Buran knows how to enjoy himself.”

    “I sure do, sir,” Buran said as he took the cup in hand, holding it out in thanks before turning away from the cooking fire. Regan’s attention turned back to Ysella, and he smiled.

    “I’m trying to figure out how best to use you, Ysella,” he said. “Make you sellable. Otherwise my guess is you’d rather die, and I’ll just save myself the hassle. Now, you’ve got a decent shot with a bow, but you don’t want to kill anyone to keep your life. Sex is another option. Especially with a pretty face like yours.”