Vanya and the Green Knight

Knight of the Sheafollow
Yelti was in her garden beyond the small copse of oaks that separated the second cottage that his mother used as a guest house for any long-term visitors. Who those would be, he wasn’t certain. No one really ever stayed longer then three days. Hospitality seemed more inconvenient to him then anything else; just when you were getting used to someone being around and they were finally getting friendly and talking with you they were packed off and on the road. Usually he never saw them again, unless they were related. He wasn’t certain about relatives. So far they proved the more invasive of the kinds of visitors that came calling. If they were men, it was worse. Male cousins, uncles, or whatever were always pulling him outside to some contest of skill, wrestling, lifting heavy things, racing, or commenting proud as crowing cocks how tall he was getting. ‘Growing hale and fine limbed as a silver birch!’ As if their loins had anything to do with the matter.

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Laerwyn picked up his pace to crest the few hills and around the brush. A crow moved over for him to lean on the rock wall and he examined his sister’s handiwork with the milkthistle. “You’re taking a lot out of the garden. Will the plants be okay?”

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“You will plant more.”
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“Why me?”
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“Because Ysolte, Ianthe and I have more important business then planting the garden. You know how. “
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“I was going to Holdwyf’s tower today. He should be back and he said he’d have a present for me.” The old knight was kind with his library and tower, and Laerwyn was loath to go more then a few days without spending some hours in the warm study. Usually with the same old tome filled by monks to the brim with drawings of animals and their lore: Craetyrs and Legynds, Observashyns of the Argent Order as recorded by Brothers Fynholm, Maerdwyr and supplemented by the Skalds of Thinerigh.
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“Are you only going for a present?” She looked up through a screen of dirty blonde.
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“That isn’t what I meant. “
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“Only say what you mean.”
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He blinked, straightening from the wall as she went back to gathering herbs from the garden patch. Had one of their potions gone amiss? It was still early in the day for her to be ill-tempered.
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Yelti paused again and wiped her bags out of her eyes, “Look, I just don’t feel like answering idle questions right now. I’m busy, Laer. Why don’t you start off for Holdwyf’s. Try to be home by sunset, Mother wants you to be here to help with the ritual.”
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“There’s no ritual on this calendar night?”
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“There is now.”
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It was evident that he should just show up and learn when it was told him, not before. He shifted into a kite and sped off the wall to the more welcoming skies. His sister only scowled more and yelled after, “Before sunset!”
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It had already been half a year since his first brand and start into training, and he’d thought that his sisters were all over the fact that he could already transform. Mother said it may be a couple of years until they were able. So far it was the only glowing thing in his schooling, and tarnished at that with being made a pack mule for all their errands that required any speed. He hadn’t been allowed to go to town without one of them as escort before, and now they sent him all the time to run errands of purchase or sale, dropping off parcels or letters like he was the personal messenger to three queens. Transforming into a carrier pigeon would only make it worse. At least the sky was a welcome quiet. Surrounded by the rush of wind there was no sound, unless it was the drum of his heart during a dive.
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The closer he came to the great keep, the more black alder and birch spotted the ground as outrunners and then in long rows of marching soldiers who overlooked boxwood battlements. He banked when the scent of a pipe wafted up to meet him. The old knight was in the upper east tower, his smoking room. The sounds of the servants in the courtyard echoed around, moving boxes and heavy things. Laerwyn landed and shifted again, bunched precariously on the thin ledge of the window and knocked.
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“You will fall keeping that flesh on that platform. “
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“My balance is not so bad off.” The window opened and Holdwyf embraced him in against the smooth leather of his doublet. The room smelled sweet like burning fruits and sugar and thick brandy, and the scent was stronger on the old man’s shirt. “You sound to have been home a short while, but you’re already smoking?”
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“I started once Dunny turned the lane. “
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Laerwyn did not step back far when he was released, and took the rough hands in his own, “It’s been nearly three weeks you’ve been away. Was the Castle Seat well? Was it wonderful?”
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“Haste! Haste!” Holdwyf pulled his hands back and held them up in entreaty, “Let a man finish one relaxation before he turns to another.”
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They rejoined to the seats near the deep hearth, but Laerwyn chose the floor beside it and stretched full out on his back. His chest and arms were cold, and the fireside was warm and made him feel like liquid fire. He had been invited to come in Holdwyf’s absence, but it wasn’t the same. He had borrowed his favorite books the first day instead, and then waited.
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“You’ve been caged at home this whole time. Dunny and his old maid say you haven’t been by. I left them word, you know.”
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Laerwyn smiled. Their thoughts ran alike; Holdwyf would have noticed the staleness of the library first of all things since the servants only went in to dust every other week. “I’ve been to town and back enough.”
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“It doesn’t count. You hardly speak to anyone in town.”
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“I’m not supposed to. “
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“You’re not supposed to cause trouble, is what Cymyr has said.”
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“Words cause trouble enough with those who don’t know you.”
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“And when have you had trouble?” The knight was tapping out his bowl on the granite dish beside. “You have some mischief in you, but not trouble. Where did you learn such a lesson?”
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Laer rolled on his side and looked up at the gentlemen. The wool of his house slippers was huge in his forevision, melding into a cloud over which the spectacles and silver halo hovered. “I have nothing to say to anyone, anyway.”
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Holdwyf allowed him the dodge, since it was true enough. Matters of baking bread and cart wheels, and the rumor mill of Sheafollow was intriguing enough for minds with simple aims and hearts that did not soar. “You have not eaten enough.”
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Laewyn sat up, gaping, “Eh?!”
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The old knight was already rising, walking on his clouds to the bell rope that hung from the side of the chimney. The boy rarely ate enough for his potential size. It was likely the fault of upbringing, druids were neither rich nor poor, and Cymyr’s house had many daughters already. They did not eat more then was necessary for survival either, which in the boy’s case meant he may not reach the height and girth that his frame promised. He had mentioned it to Cymyr in passing at the last market, after sending the children off with gifts of five copper a piece to spend for their pleasure. She had seemed dour and offended as he expected. He last option was feeding him extra meals whenever he came to visit, which was thankfully often, except for this trip away. “When did you eat breakfast?”
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“At dawn, but it’s still two hours before midmeal, sir. Please, you needn’t feed me!”
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“As long as you are a guest in my house, I will see to your comforts.”
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Laerwyn gaped still, throat working around words that were dying and staying silent there.
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“Speak! “ Holdwyf looked over with warmth but sternness.
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“I-“a stutter more from alarm then otherwise, but started he accepted that he couldn’t stop. The boy just accepted so many things. “I thought I was a friend in this house, not a guest.”
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“One can be both, if necessity needs calling on one to serve the other!” Holdwyf chuckled. “How else could I throw my weight around and enforce the edict? Come, I have not breakfasted, and single plates make for meager joys. I know you are hungry. It is a long flight here.”
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It was a lie, but unworthy of debate, and the boy didn’t know it anyway. Maatan knew her master’s mind, shared it, and would not betray him. The old maid answered the bell in the moments it took to work up the tower stair, puffing and apple cheeked and merry. “ ‘ut kin ah gitya?”
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“Food, Maatan! Enough for two hungry men.”
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She waved her hand at his grin, ignoring his manner but not the order. “Eggs, hens, chutney and cheeses. Toasts, too. “
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“Hens? I don’t see how eggs and hens are necessary, “ Laerwyn was up and brushing his backside.
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“You need meat and energy, Laertes. Besides, they are the small ones I raise in the yard.”
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“They should be kept for better occasion.”
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“My first visit after so long is occasion enough. I have missed you and so have my hens. Let them do their job, and Maatan hers, and I mine. You did Maatan at least disfavour in not showing up. She loves to cook buns and sweets for you. Their son is long gone from the nest and I have none to entertain her. You’re like a grandson to her.”
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Laerwyn flushed and came close to stride aside the knight, hearing the unsaid praise. And like a son to you.
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His heart fluttered in his throat with tethers to his chest like a caged butterfly. His own father did not live in the house of Cymyr. Instead, he came as a guest to visit them and talk with them about their lives. It was always estranged, however warm his claps to the back tried to be. A woodsman was fine enough for breeding, but his distinct lack of reverence for nature made him little needed in the den of a druidess. Laerwyn was not certain even if it was love or convenience that had brought his parents together to sire so many children. Cymyr must have had choices, with her strength and skill, raven hair and grey eyes. She should have chosen Holdwyf. Even some years her senior, Holdwyf was a more then worthy man.
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The informal sitting room, rather then the dining hall, was set with board and steaming chicory. Two tatter-plushed, oak chairs sat at the head and right, and a card deck was laid beside. “Do you fancy a game? I imagine it will be half an hour’s pace before the plates are set. Unless our unstarved-guest has enough energy to prove himself with sword?”
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Cards were strategy enough, and the deck was hand wrought with delicate illuminations of knights and ladies. So soon on meeting, Laerwyn preferred to sit near then stand against, “I yield to the mastery of the house.”
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Holdwyf’s deck was a marvel to the small world that made up the Righ. The cards were round, comprising 9 suits that each had 13 cards. Each was crafted from paper that had been coated in clear lacquers and leafing, then fitted at the edges with decorative frames. Rings, Scepters, Jewels, and Leaves were ruled by Queens, Youths, Knights and Squires. Swords, Cups, Coins, and Beasts were ruled by Kings, Maidens, Knights and their serving Squires. The last suit, which Holdwyf named, “Celestials”, was governed by the faces of the River, Maiden, Youth and a Guardian Knight. This last suit, covered in stars and constellations, painted with deep skies of lapis and pieces of precious stone cut thin as fish scales, was the enigma of the deck. Oftentimes they sorted it out and set it aside before play. It sat by today, already sorted out for them by Maatan’s hand.
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The King’s own deck was only 4 suits, and made with long rectangles of painted paper only. There was talk at the market from time to time of who had won what bets on games played in the Great Hall, or what had been promised of pillows and kisses. Wagers were a favorite, leaving outcomes half to fate and half to skill, and all was a thrill of possibility. Ysolte had her own deck as well, 4 suited, which she had won at a party in Sir Brego’s house at the Mid-winter Nocturne two years before. The King’s man had wagered the deck, a pretty expense, against his sister’s first kiss.
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The old knight always showed a preference to keeping the suit of leaves in his control, and disliked the cups. In his own field, Laerwyn fought for control of the Beasts and swords, which proved an easy combination. Swords were fast and strong, and Beasts were varied and mobile. Their game of kings and queens remained slow paced this time, though, which served the strengths of Leaves and rings to build into an impenetrable defense. The final blow was spared falling, as plates were placed on the line of no-man’s country between the warfare.
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“A truce?”
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“I will not complain.”
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Maatan pushed the cards to the far edge out of her way without asking leave, “More plates comin’.”
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“Have you played with your sister while I was away?”
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“No, the games with her deck are different. She plays with Ianthe and Yelti. It would be more peril then I would like to be their fourth. Mother should take that place, and maybe the winner would be different once in a while.”
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Their plates of eggs and toast arrived, and Dunny carried a pitcher and goblets.
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“Wine so early?” The scent of grapes was rich, some harvest barrel tapped from southern lands, no doubt. Holdwyf had come back with much.
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“It is watered, “ there was a grin beneath the silver whiskers. “But bodies want luxury after long travels.”
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“Old ones at least.” He wasn’t able to dodge the cuff, but laughed despite the sting. “I should have taken the challenge of swords. I probably could have won.”
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“I am relaxing, I did not say I was sore. Or tired.”
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“After a late morning of wine and pipe you would be.”
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“But the wine is after the challenge would have been.” Holdwyf, bounced the tip of his table dagger like a teacher’s stick of truancy at him. “Swords it is, next time you come. And I will teach you to better mind your elders.”
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h3. Later…
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“Maataaaaan, it was delicious, “ Holdwyf managed the first words after the joint wolfing. Likely the result of years of skill with pans and obscene amounts of butter, but the old maid was the best cook he knew and a carefully guarded treasure of the keep. [[:vahnarh righ]] visited as often as he could find excuse to hunt the far hills of the hither estate, but it wasn’t for the abundance or challenge of the game. “You’ve outdone yourself again.”
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“S’not, s’jus flatt’ry and wind in mah skirts yer blow’n” But she flustered the same while she gathered her plates.
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“A man could be full to bursting and ‘yes’ to a piece of her pies.” Dunny poured them both another draft of wine, the firsts having remained mostly untouched until the conclusion. Laerwyn felt a little dizzy from downing his so fast. It didn’t taste that watered.
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“A third for the boy, he’s got one to grow on and no pipe before. “
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“But-!”
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“I won’t hear it, “ Holdwyf laughed.
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Obliged, Laerwyn breathed long and slow before draining the cup again to make room for the third. He hardly had chance to taste it going down, a waste for fineness. It burned at the back of his tongue, but felt dry at the front, and did little for quenching thirst. His vision blurred a second when he dropped his glass to the table again and Dunny poured blurred, warm, afternoon-light through deep purple falls. A few drops splashed on the table and he traced his pointer from one mini-lake to the next to make lochs. It stained the white a blush. Laerwyn imagined the wine was stained beneath the surface of his cheeks. The room felt hot and turned on its own like a lazy-servant. Wine was so much heavier on his brain than ale or beer. His sisters preferred it, and could drink bottles on their own. The dizziness would only get worse when he stood, after drinking two cups so fast.

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End of Grimghast Righ

Innis woke blind, something hot and rough lathing his cheek. He didn’t move till in curled wet and loud into his ear. “Tha’s enoof” he meant to say but a gurgle came out. He sat up, not liking how his skin was taut, like he had been badly sewn. The tongue crossed his eye and cleared enough blood that Innis realized it had been stuck shut, not put out. It was dark out, night again. His wolf’s mostly brown face had a white patch between his eyes that blurred there like a bit of mist caught in moonlight until he managed to focus and see fur and wide worried eyes. It whined and cleared his other eye for him.

The plain was covered in bodies. If one woke up in the Underworld it would look like that. Nothing else was moving. His sword was lodged through a man that lay over him, pinning his legs. By the length of blade coming from the man’s back, it had been to the hilt.

He must have been the last.

“Iniiiis” a distant, hoarse voice.
His neck pricked…he wasn’t in the land of the dead was he? No, why would a pure and simple creature like a wolf follow him there. He looked that way but it was too dark to see far. The voice again-it was Maeglin.

The wolf put his ear forward and back. The other was missing.

“Can ye” he tried to speak again, swallowing dry blood “go get ’im?” It only warked, like one of those crows in that happy place. But the wolf understood. Thank the goddess for the intuition of beasts.

But he was alone in the field of the dead then, under a black sky, with the wind rushing towards the mountains like a gasp unending. I must have killed every one He didn’t remember and black and gold in the flickering badly edited reel that played as the last day – Maeglin’s troops had steered wide of him. He was the monster unleashed. That stopper in his soul that could be tugged free and all the light rushed into it. Or all the black rushed out. Had he really escaped the emptiness in Garin’s eyes? Could it come here too? He didn’t want to be alone. Why had he told Laerwyn to stay away…

The wolf was like a gull heralding land to a lost fisherman. White and alone, but he knew salvation followed.

Maeglin was running, leaping bodies. “Innis you’re alive!”
He took him in arms without caring how filthy he was. “I thought we wouldn’t find you.”

Gar was there. Innis looked at him over Maeglin’s shoulder. Like the wolf, Gar understood what he wanted to ask. “Three days. This is the fourth night.”

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A Few Days

Only the necessity of giving speeches, accepting weregild, attending the funeral for the fallen kept Maeglin by being at his bedside. Innis suspected the young king was skipping meals to come see him, from the way servants kept putting food conspicuously nearby when he was there. He wondered if the young king’s intensity was guilt over asking him to go to battle – or hunger that put food out of mind. “I weren’t badly hurt, majesty.” Maeglin was changing the cold cloths on his fevered stomach wound for the fourth time in the hour.
“You were near death yesterday.” Maeglin said quiet and firm. “Your leg was mostly off. Your stomach is infected. You were cut from shoulder to hip in the back. I counted the sword wounds. 15.”
“That musta been after yer healers drugged me to sleep.” So Maeglin had been checking after their work, looking under the sheets? Well Meaglin could see him naked if he really wanted to. His flesh couldn’t be much to look at until he healed. All red and purpled and gaping. The funny thing was, he did expect to be healed more than he was. It might be he was used to Morrigan, and their priests could have chop sueyed warriors back out in the field quick as you can lay-on-hands if they needed to. Maybe Maeglin’s priests didn’t have that kind of brass. Innis didn’t expect to be priority, he wasn’t even from their Riocht. There were plenty of other wounded for those priests to be saving spells for. It did seem like they had been saving the spells didn’t it. But Maeglin had called all the healers there to his bedside, frantic, when he had first come back from the battlefield, and cursed at them to do something. The king seemed to think he was top priority, nursing him personally. So why not give him the full healing? “Well I will be set to rights in a few days anyway.”
“A few days,” Maeglin agreed, sounding worried. “And then what?”
Ah, so that was it.

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Of Petty Wars and Winning

People were flooding in from Runefeld. Narsilon, his mage, had urged him to turn them away. How could Blackpoole feed two Righs? But Gar said that if he took them in, Runefeld would be his without contest. Its fields were not always so barren, and its warriors were famed. Better to suffer hunger this winter with them, than to let a new Righ take Grimghast’s place, and the survivors nurse their wounds and their grievances.

Grimghast’s body had been found the morning after they had brought Innis back to the Hall, the day of the gathering of the dead. The once Righ had been near where they found Innis, the arms cut off in one stroke, and the head in another. Decisive blows. No one wondered whose sword had made them. Grimghast’s warriors, those who still lived, had come to offer themselves to him. He gave them gold torcs and goblets with an open hand, as generous as Hrothgar in tales. But it was Innis that they asked about. Who was the man who fought alone? Who was he dyed the color of blood, even to the roots of his hair? Maeglin didn’t blame them for where their hearts lay. His went that way too.

While he sat on his throne and accepted the upheld swords, while he stood in the council room with Gar and Narsilon weighing the census against bushels and herds, while he walked the houses of healing till the stench of wounds and poultices was thick on his clothes…his mind was in the longhouse where Innis slept. He had wanted to post guards, but Gar said it would only attract attention. Keeping out curious warriors wasn’t really why he had wanted to post them, only a pretense, but he couldn’t tell Gar that. He was certain every time he went back that the bed would be empty, inexplicably.

Innis was tall, misleadingly awkward when he moved. Gregarious, rough, common mannered. On the one hand he was the perfect copper coin of Armagh’s mint, one hearty warrior of a thousand. He was earthy as the green grass. There was nothing frail about him. What was it then, that marked him as otherworldly? What was it that made it seem like he could step sideways through a veil of shadow and be gone? Could it be that he was half elven? Maeglin had met elves, had watched them step out of mist and leaves, suddenly at his elbow. They hadn’t made him feel the way Innis did now. If anything, he acted too human to be half elven. Not a hint of snobbery, no thorny uncertainties about his bastard heritage, and he seemed to prefer the company of a drunk crowd to solitary gardens. Why then? Where was he looking, when his eyes lost focus? His face was young, smooth and cheerful as the rolling foothills in spring. But if you caught him not looking right at you, he looked older, features carved out and shaded in contrast like the mountains when the sun was low. What distant sorrow drew those long shadows? Was it only that he was cursed with the blood rage, marked by some fickle deity?

Gar said this obsession was the fault of a keen mind, adding that he was prone to discontent. Was curiosity and restlessness all this was? Who wouldn’t be curious about a half eleven warrior grown who couldn’t ride a horse? Who said bizarre things and laughed sadly to himself.

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The Beginning
Berries and Mittens

The story begins on a crisp autumn day. Early snow has fallen, and Annechka gives Konstantine a new pair of rabbit-fur-lined wool gloves with mitten overs. She asks if, in his checking of the traps that day, he would look for some late berries. She wants to make some more jams for the winter. Despite this being a scene one might have seen in any previous year of Konstantine’s life, though the gloves have gotten bigger with time, this year is poignant. It is a year since Konstantine began his apprenticeship as a ranger, and even his brother Anstice must admit he is a man grown. People begin to ask him when he will marry.

And all the autumn has been strange. Animals usually only seen in the far north have come south. And strangers also, bedraggled mad beggars with stories of a Green Knight who brings death and plague. Clearly a sickness or some other misfortune has struck one of the northern volosts, and it has addled the wits of the survivors. There have been encounters with orcs, rare but not unheard of around Severskii. One might think this would alarm a mother sending her son into the woods, but the woods are always dark in Vlahiskoi, and to worry of their danger is like to worry of the river’s wetness or the stove fire’s heat.

Deep in the forest Konstantine finds a clearing bordered in a great hedge of ancient raspberry bushes, the most hidden berries in the warren of trunks not yet plucked by sparrows and ermine. He spends the evening there picking them and decides to stay the night, since the thorny hedge is a natural protection from predators. As the moon rises, he sees a huge white wolf, larger than any he has seen, at the far edge of the clearing. She limps and sniffs the air, coming to the edge of where he hides and whining. Nothing in her manner is aggressive, so he goes out to meet her. The wolf leads him to a fallen girl, bloodied and gut wounded, half frozen in the snow. When he approaches her, she only says, “You’re alive. Thank the moist mother earth.” She is strange, dark skinned and white haired with pointed ears. He fears she may be a vampire, but checking her gums for paleness of bloodloss as a ruse, he sees her teeth are only as pointed as his.

He wraps her in his cloak and begins to carry her home. But before he has gone far, an orc comes loping over the hill behind, and then more. He sprints for his life, and even as he does, a slender chestnut-and-flaxen-haired mancomes running towards him, bow drawn, shooting at the orcs behind. He says he will hold them off, and to keep going. The wolf too turns to fight.

By the time Konstantine reaches the edges of town, the man and wolf catch up. And the man offers to take the girl and wolf and see to their wounds. This day Konstantine meets his first direwolf and his first drow, discovers that his master Riduk is not the only ranger in Severskii’s woods, and there on Sevastyn’s hearth sees a naked woman for the first time. His adventures have begun.

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One. Week.

Riduk watched the two of them by the fire. Konstantine sat rigid, contorted with emotions, taffy twisted this way and that until it was brittle. Emotions he could only guess at, but looking close and guessing was the same thing as knowing to a tracker. There was relief, to be alive and safe – moreso to see him alive and safe. Fear of the Castle – moreso of his dissaproval. Did Konstantine think he would turn him out with the scent of a stranger on him, like a mother bird whose chick had been handled? There was elation, and that was harder to track. It might be on Sevastyn’s account, from the way Sevastyn sat close and protective and wouldn’t meet his eyes. They had done something, his boys. One week. One week he left them, and they found each other. Was this how cityfolk felt when they must travel on some business and left their sons charge of the house? The two seemed to be waiting for a scolding.

But musk didn’t explain the fey light in Konstantine’s eyes. The glittering in that dark purple had more to do with firebird feathers than the mundane flames reflected there now. What had he seen? Sevastyn was a strange boy, had a touch of the other side to him, but it was smoke and evening shadows, not unicorn light. Again, it was a guess but a good one, the same river of light that led his eyes up that particular snowy slope as he looked out the window, that showed two figures in its stream as they crested the ridge, that light might have touched on them. The dark boy with the bloody eyes said the moon was a god.

Riduk felt the weather changing, an ache in his joints. It had set him wandering farther and farther, looking for whatever was coming. Maybe he had wandered too far and missed something important. The forest was full of questions – that faint rot on the wind, all the tracks heading south and east, always south and east, the moon so large and close it felt like it might crash down. The boys would have felt those questions too, and maybe the answers brought them together. That was no excuse though. Whatever they had shared, Sevastyn knew better.

The woodcutters called him “the wolf” which they meant as an insult. They thought of all wolves as wargs, insatiable evil and cunning. They hated the forest and were blind at night, so they only saw the specters their minds cast on the dark behind the first line of trees. The name suited more than they knew. He was so like a shy, wild thing.

Then there was Konstantine, who walked softly with his eyes open. Who took day and night for what they were. Who loved the forest. Konstantine who still wondered at fairytales when other boys his age were more interested in village girls. He had watched the boy stoop over cloven tracks and touch the torn bark of trees, in case this time it hadn’t only been a buck who left them and the message carved might be more than velvet itching off a rack of new antlers.

Imagine that boy meeting the prince of the forest. Half a wild animal, half a fairytale, and wounded. It would be foolish to expect anything but fascination, as expecting a salmon not to swim for its stream. If only Sevastyn really were a wolf or a fairytale creature, something wholly of the forest.

With his legs tucked up like that, and his bangs hiding the creases beside his eyes he could be the same boy who had crept to his fire not so long ago. (Fourteen years…had it been that long? A lifetime for a newlywed soldier. A day in the life of an elf or a tree.) Sevastyn had been as shy and curious of him as a beast would have been of the fire. It had taken most of the night, sitting and ignoring him, for him to clear the ring of light and come sit down. It must be how the long ago fathers of dogs had come to pass – some lonely wolf following a hunter, just out of sight, laying at the edge of his fire, just out of reach, and the two slowly becoming used to each other. If only Sevastyn’s lonliness were so easily assuaged. It had been a shock to realize what the boy really wanted. When he felt that thin body…always too thin…creep under his blanket and press to him as for warmth. But he knew Sevastyn never got cold. The courage it must have taken. Was it cruel that he had not moved, had not spoken when trembling lips brushed his jaw? But that was the answer wasn’t it, simply put. He couldn’t respond to that need, couldn’t accept that submission, because they were both men.

Sevastyn was a man. He was a prince, tied always to the city and the castle at its heart, however much he hated that. It was an easy mistake to think of him as part of the Forest. Konstantine knew the Forest. He knew that no wolf was more dangerous than a lone, hungry, scarred one, many times trapped and wounded. He was so patient, so gentle he might even be able to tame Sevastyn to his hand. But no ranger had any business messing with the castle. The Knyazes walked forests darker than they did. The thorns were daggers from behind. The fruit was often poisoned. In fairytales it was always the woodsman who saved the princess. How he saw it, whether the evil queen killed the woodsman for his troubles or the princess showered him in gold and brought him to court, the woodsman lost his life.

The clothes Konstantine wore and that medal on his breast frightened Riduk. Konstantine would rush to save someone’s life without any thought of reward or consequence. It can’t have been Sevastyn’s. No one would give him a medal for that. What had happened? He must have fled the city to still be wearing anything that ridiculous. None of the supplies with them were Konstantine’s things. Well, Konstantine would tell him in his own time.

It hurt to be proud, when he knew he might lose him. Might have already lost him. Whatever Konstantine had done, however foolish, it had been noble. He had some of his knight father in him. He wouldn’t let fear of strangeness cloud Sevastyn’s beauty or be able to look away from his pain. He wouldn’t see trouble and not run to help. He would have drawn his bow till the last arrow flew. He couldn’t be angry with Konstantine for that.

Sevastyn though. He knew better. He knew the risks any lover of his would face, and had he laid them out? Had he told Konstantine that men he had never met would hate him if they knew, that his own family might turn him out, or that the Knyagina would want to see him suffer? Sevastyn had always hidden himself totally, avoided Konstantine specifically, Riduk had thought as a token of good faith.

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Frost and Francois

“Good gods they’re filthy.” Frost greeted him, looking over the tops of the brass framed trifocals Francois had made for him, with a jewelers lense and colored glass filters not in current use fanned out to the side. “What did you do, hire yourself out as a bloody chimney sweep?” It was a usual greeting. Frost thought of his wings as borrowed property and lamented his care of them. He would probably take them back if he could find a way.

“Mon Dieu, the doctor is picking up slang,” Francois said with a smile. He thought the Albion accent suited Frost. He had never sworn much before, Francois assumed because he wanted to set himself apart from the STRIKE dialect. If only Ethan were alive he would be proud of him now, not that he would understand a word he was saying.

Francois carried his old accent and epithets into the new tongue. It had always been about remembering what was lost. Once that had been his grandmother at the stove in their blue and yellow kitchen, and that bottle of cooking wine that never got any emptier,. Now he thought of Alain sprawled naked, sunk deep into that dog-reeking leather couch, those opal eyes and grease smudges on his cheeks, “Talk to me. Say anything.”

His accent didn’t get him into any trouble. People assumed it was the language of his marvelous winged race, and scholars reported it a living example of ancient Hebridean. That he and Frost could both keep mum and straight faced when people discussed it was their favorite shared joke. Maybe their only…

Frost took him by his wrist and dragged him to a metal swivel stool. He had a kit, a small badger brush, oil, a chamois. Francois took a deep breath as he started cleaning. “They really don’t get so dirty. The dust, it was much worse.” The dust used to eat at the feathers, worked its way down to the skin and gave him rashes. This was just coal soot and machine grease. The badger brush and deft hands tickled and warmed him, took his breath away, like good brandy rolling on the tongue. With anyone else it would be embarrassing, but something about Dr. Frost drove any feel of sexuality out of the act.

“I was looking at chimneys, at the new mill. You think we could set up some kind of chemical filtration system in them? As it is those short stacks are spewing coal dust all over the city. The old textiles plant is downwind, and has sealed all the windows and doors to keep the soot out. Imagine working that place with no open windows or fresh air in this heat. They’ve got kids in there…”

“You went inside a steel mill. Do you know what will happen to you if a spark, an ember, a splash of molten anything touches these?” It was more scripted speech between them, but the Dr.‘s focus wasn’t in it. He was actually thinking about the question.

“We’ve come on these people in the first throes of their industrial development. Processes start out crude, filthy. We can’t hurry them along to nuclear energy.”

“Doesn’t it feel like we brought it with us, seeing black cloud towers up into their living blue sky?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve been careful.” Dr. Frost’s lab with all of his advanced experiments were deep underground. He kept them utterly secret, or tried to. “Still, we might be able to rig a smoke scrubber and desulfurization chamber for them.” In Chronos their arts had nothing in common. But in this world Dr. Frost was brought nearer to sciences he understood. They made a fair team, with Frost’s alchemy and his engineering. Dr. Frost in turn seemed happy to have anyone who understood the physics and chemistry he was talking about at all, even an old hoverbike mechanic.

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Vision - Fall of the Unicorn

It was a normal enough nightmare at first, running around stomping and hitting skeletons with his sword, shattering them easily, but there always being more. The further he went they would stop being skeletons and became bodies, fallen soldiers of Severskii. Soldiers of mist came walking out of the forest, spears and swords out, indistinct swirling shapes. They reached down and touched the hands of corpses who reached up to them in supplication. The corpses rose, turning to mist themselves. This procession was coming, moving body by body towards him. Strangers and faces he knew, rendered in swirling white, walking inexorably forward.

He tripped on an arm, then looked down to see Laurente’s corpse. And mist soldiers coming for him.

Warning bells rose in mind- get Laurente’s body away from them, do not to let him be defiled.
His brother was laid half under his horse, Goga all clawed from undead and horse teeth open in a scream. Laurente’s leg was broken, and arrows pinioned him made of bone. Konstantine screamed Laurente’s name, hauling at his body and the horse to get him free.

Laurente’s face turned to look up at him “How can I kneel? My leg..konstantine.”

“You kneel to the knyaz and the wet earth only, brother, not to the enemy.”

The mist knights were coming faster, raising weapons, seeming to see that he was interfering.

::::Why would you even think that? What is wrong with your dead brain? How are you speaking? You cannot speak, you are dead and full of arrows. ::::

He ran at a sprint, lungs burning as he remembered from when he was wounded, Laurente’s heavy dead body in his arms, in his armor. Mental epitaphs against platemail echoed through his thoughts. They drove him over the road, to the river, and along it, the smaller dirt road that follows it.

The sky was black, even though he could see. Not even stars. As he ran the moon rising in the south, at the end of the road to Minsk. It wasn’t rising as a crescent but full. It felt torn -the slowness of its rising and knowing that the mist soldiers were, in dream fashion, always just behind him at the edge of vision.

Hoof beats coming and a hunting horn blow, far on the road from Minsk, and then closer, closer.
He woke at one of its calls.

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Accounting to Knyaz Aleksey

“Start with when you were captured and woke. Tell ”/campaigns/konstantine/characters/knyaz-aleksei" class=“wiki-content-link”>me again, all that the knights said, every detail of their appearance."
“Truly the beginning is after I left the Knyaz and Vyacheslav in the care of Ranger Riduk.”
“May I start there?”
“You may”

“I had taken the first of the refugees to the waypoints, the farmer and boy and three girls, and had made way back to the battle site near the bridge. Tracking can be felt, like a scent on the air or a brush of wind across the cheek…and I was being followed. I doubled back and took cover to try to catch my pursuer. It came up on all fours like a beast, but as a man imitating a beast. I knocked an arrow and the ears of his hood, a likeness to a hunting cat, moved for him as though they were of living mien. He wore a cape of many ‘leaves’ of flesh, that I did not realize until much later. He drew his weapon, a knife with an elaborately carved wooden handle inlaid with ivory of people on horses hunting a cat. It was not Vlahiskoi style, and exceedingly intricate. He was confident and quick, unlike the shambling dead that tore limbs or the walking bones. I thought he must be another of the scouts, as Riduk and I had shot down on the roofs at the start of the battle. He asked me what I hoped to accomplish; if so few stranglers were worth it. If living so, desperate, broken, and unmanned, were worth it? I replied every life was of worth. We fought- traded blows. He said I could not kill him. I said to sink back into the earth. At last he jumped back, scoring my arm, and howled. It was shrill, pitched and long like the scream of some unwholesome thing that carries over mist or even storm. Then he ran. “
“My position was desperate, so I threw both mine and the red sword, rather than give him the lead of arming my bow. With the both he was felled. I drew my third as I ran to close the distance and took his head. They have played at ends before. But the cry had been given already, seconds before. I reclaimed the blades and took the head and body. I thought……surely ash could not be made anew. There must be some way to prevent the dead from rising again. I carried the pieces to the burning quarters and threw them in, even as two scouts came on me and watched. They had some memory of horror to their faces, and fear. They fought briefly with me, but I could not kill them before they retreated. I thought no more of it but to get away….to leave no track if more should come to that position looking for me. This …youth, like to a fallen Ranger, I would later learn more about from the Knight Himself.”

“The coming of the charge of the silver disks, and of my leading them to Gregor’s is already known. The return of all to the mines, the gathering of food and supply, the decision to try the castle with their ….specialist. My ill-treatment of the Knyaz’s person. These passed and then we three stood in the last night-shadows of trees with the threat of the knights after us and a nephew prince’s cries loud in our ears. I should have listened to Specialist, by the Prince…it was his son and the man’s manner was gruff and uncaring. I did not want blows to come or harsh words. It was the forest of Severskii, and I am swift. There were no scouts anywhere. I thought the child surely must tire soon and then I could fade into the forests and return in wan morning to the mines. I was wrong. So confident an apprentice could seldom find a better correction or teacher. But the price…..I should not have made the choice when the price was not my own to pay but the Noble Prince. “

:::Vlad handed his son over so willingly. Trusted me in his uncertainty and terror of the strange events. A subject he has seen or overlooked perhaps a dozen times, and a fellow Vlahiskoi over the dangerous and unknown stranger. Over the man that wanted to put the children in a hunting sack. The Knyaz’s Nephew and sister in law. Sevastyn’s. Riduk must have found him in the days of my travel here. I have caused his brothers such pain, yet I would wish he were here to ease mine? Well, should we see each other again I doubt mine will be wounds needing to be tended. He will be thin, run apart and wild, days more then I to a place of Elves. His city and the castle flying black banners on his return. It will be as beneath the pine. If I am allowed to see him, or touch him, it will be mine to comfort him. ::::

“The child did not stop…I ran in the coming dawn the length from the corner of the castle to the dip of the steep over the road as it followed the river. The Snufflers…I have not seen them, but their slavering and shuffling gate was behind me as pack of hounds before the Hunt. And I heard the plate mail and ricket-hooves behind. Laughter and excitement and shouts of wonder at the cry of a baby in the growing light! A baby in the midst of the battle? It had gone from simple diversion to a formal Hunt. It was Hunt. Then the sound of plate and glimpses of Green Lacquer and Gold from the opposing side…down in the forest near the bank. The Green Knight and his closer knights had joined…If I moved forward, they would catch me on the road itself, and behind was the rest of the hunt. I had only up the steep or down the river and face the bridge and any who met me there. I chose up, towards the gorge and the rapids. The ground grows rocky there. The prince finally ceased crying, but already driven so close to the ridge I was visible in the traitor sun, and the Knight spurred faster to keep up and below me on the road until all others had fallen behind us. Only the elevation separated us, and still I could not double back for the Hunt. Others there have been, surely, that have stumbled delirious and wounded from the burning….but he did not pursue them with such persistence. Women have run in the night with their youngest children fleeing from the slaughter. This for the child he did not know? My best judgment is that the draw lies in the distinct unreality of event….the sense of being in the midst of a tale in those moments. He is proud in bearing and seems to style himself the perfect knight of lore.

I looked for anything that would keep the child and I out of reach still and give more path of escape. There was a snow shoot….it went direct to the rapids. I took off my armour and wrapped it about the young prince that the winter river would touch him less if at all so swaddled and doubled….and took the shoot. My strength held to keep him aloft and navigate to the opposing bank on the face of the cliff. The knight followed and watched at a walk as I continued. I think together we both calculated that already dead…the rapids posed him little harm, nor the fall.”

Konstantine would pause, testing in his throat and scowling as he tried to match the tones and inflections correctly, even though his own throat had not the same magic of undeath or command in it:
‘You look cold,’ he called, as I paused in this dread. I had no choice but to try the cliff. To try it and do my best if I fell, to take the fall myself and not the prince. ‘There is more than bodies and carnage in our camp. There are warm fires and food.’
I made no answer. I heard him dismount.
‘Will you not come? The child must be cold. The water and snow…it will not last long.’
Pity for the flayed and gutted dead I have not seen as they walk or ride beside his banners. Pity for the living soon to join the ranks as fuel or slaves. However sweet the offer, it was poison. I shook my head and started to climb, but the ice was too thick there, water frozen that was splashed up by the rapids. I fell below the surface again and climbed out. Tried again. I made it halfway before the grip was wrong. I heard the last of his armor hit the stone as I surfaced. I tried a third time, I was halfway as he made it to the bank and started his own climb. He does not tire…he must have started to gain then as the winds froze the leathers on my limbs. I made it first to the top and started to run again. Up…only up. I must have been so slow, maybe it was not running. There are boulders there. I risked once the gain he would have to throw one down. It didn’t work. The finale of that meeting was already told. “

He would pause there if there were any question.

No cues from Aleksey’s boots, only quiet as he considered what he heard. Before he started again, when he made move to draw breath to speak “He followed you in broad daylight. Did any others? We know the skeletons walk the daylight hours, and the ones who look as though they are living. What of the snufflers?”

“They followed me through the trees and it was day, until my sprint and the terrain separated us. The knights. It was a full Hunt as for sporting, even as the Knyaz might enjoy.”
“Dawn had come as I reached the forest edge and first chose to go up.”

::there is pain in him, not fear, for the loss of the prince. Too young yet even for a name. What other subject would have given so much, without thought for his own skin? When he was free away, but for the crying. I will tell Vlad of your mourning. Of your heroics. He will feel less a fool. He did not give his child over into poor hands. But that mourning must come later. Konstantine pleads with me for understanding. Shall I let him know that he has it? I brought him here to speak of our enemies, to know their weakness, if they have any. Their numbers and names. But he feels he is on trial no doubt.:: “Daylight does not stop them” said tired. “Only the shambling corpses seem to return to earth for it.”

“You are not on trial. That is all past. Though I will tell Vlad of your mourning. The knell rings true in your tone, for a nameless child no blood of yours. You could have set him down and saved yourself, leaving no tracks and bait behind to stay the hounds, but you never did. I will tell him these things.”
“But now I must see with your eyes. Was there no weakness in them? Is it true then, that they cannot be killed? There must be some magical key. Or do I tell tales to myself for comfort and hope for a third son to come to me with a talking bear and a magic tablecloth. Yet there must be some way.”
“He bore the wound your master gave him,” having heard it before in short.

“I do not presume of the Knyaz’s time, I am sorry that I have forced on him the information in form of a tale…..it is how I am best used to giving chronology and full account. I will try at brevity,” he would bow in his kneel.

“No. It is detail I want. We have all these days at our behest.” He would sigh ::he takes it as a reprimand. Well, I have reprimanded him with the life of one of his own, and he has the death of my nephew on his hands, what should he expect but reprimand. Why should he take my words for an attempt at reassurance when the last I reached out my hand it was with scepter and sword to make harsh decree::

“Before our duel, when he had drawn sword he said exactly this,” mimicking, " ‘Do not lay down now! You cannot have come so far and fought so long to finish as a stag. There must be strength still in your arms with only running.’ "

Konstantine would brush his scarred cheek, fingers tracing the broken lines of the split over the bone. “I woke warm. The air was scented with aromatic wood and the charnel battle banished from the atmosphere. I was bare or cloth or device, except for these close irons, and laid on ermine and fine beaver, and spiraling roses wrought of gold as though real hemmed me in. I tried to bend the thorns or flowers, and while they moved they would not break. Enchanted, it is a bird-cage of a size that two people could be…… kept… within.” ::::Or one kept and the other visit to twine into them as the very roses leave one to suspect. :::

.
.
He would give exact account from his precise memory of the tent. He can make Aleksey and knights uncomfortable

While he spoke he would have heard Sasha mumble like someone had jostled him in sleep and then “oh, lay back down. There is nothing you can do.”

::::Laurente and the others are awake to hear? no::::
:::Laurente may have woken at the first sounds of my voice.::::
“The Knight came. He watched me from his bed and drank a goblet of something. Just that, then left. Later a man came. The Necromancer. A man of severe, though perhaps once handsome, countenance. He was thin, and his skin too tightly drawn over the bones of his features. From the back he almost appeared a woman. His hands were always red when he came to ruffle the desk. His robes were plain, worn brown and tattered despite their faded embroidery on the edges. Maybe they were nice before they were worn by a corpse for the some passage of years. He ignored me except as one observes and sucks one’s teeth at a friend’s excesses. He is called Gaspar, and is whom the Knight called for in a rage that Anstice and Illya, and the archers that fired on him, were to be taken alive.“

“From their manner with each other, his teeth sucking and his free entry into the others tent, they are both generals. Or would you say this green knight is the lord?”

“The key to that lies in the conversation the following day.”

He would hear a muffled noise like a hand over a mouth and then shushing calming noises
Aleksey makes no comment on any of the extra noises in the other “room”, nor would shift in his throne as if listening to them.

He would go through all the conversations wrote then, leaving out his personal thoughts or feelings, briefly detailing his hamster wheeling escape to get to the conversation and events of that conversation about Bertok.

“It was in learning of bertok……he said the scouts will do nothing then. He was leader of the scouts. The Knight, then, as best I could guess, is their overall marshal, but each seems general of their own camp in his campaign. So they do seem in some ways autonomous. And Barnabas, whom I guess to be the portly friar, was away on some other business to have arrived. So independent in action. But this is only my guess.”

Then the water for touching conversation, and denial.

The Rose Knight leaving it out of reach.
Konstantine hears a sob muffled, more shhing, very soft.

Give short account of getting it and then expand again when he returned and give full of the strange conversation of roses and his own ….mistake in thoughts about what would happen when as the knight stepped through.

How detailed would that accounting be?
Exact, voices and all, since it would flesh out the character of the knight for the Knyaz to better strategize against.

He would hear more sobbing as well muffled as it was, it sounds angry as much as anything, and the cloth moving sounds of a minor struggle. The knyaz ignores all this as far as he can tell, like the other side of the screen is no part of this room. He would get up to pace though, looking at the shelves and out the windows.

Konstantine would stop with, “and I ran. And it was night.”

“Where have they come from? What foul mouth spews this mist and them with it? Hell, a necromancers stronghold in the northwest. We cannot know, only hope that the mist brought them from Rsha, and those camped at Rsha are all the more there are. These three servants and the knight their master. We cannot know whence they came, but I hear some of why in this talk of roses.”

“Cannot a gilded rose, planted in new soil, come to sprout again? Your answer roused him. There is more here than the hunger of the dead, the nature of evil things to destroy. They come to conquor.”

“They will not tolerate the living as their subjects if this gaspar’s reaction is any telling. They wish to make this a land of the dead. But there is hope for them in that wish. Perhaps they are cursed and seek a way to lift it?”

“Sevastyn believes in curses and foretelling. It is bread and butter to the gypsies. Could there be any truth to it? Who could we ask about such things.” ::my mother if she lives.:: “We must find someone who can see beyond what is plain, and answer us about curses, someone who knows more about the workings of the dead. Someone unsavory.”

“Moreover, they can be killed. They can be wounded. You killed the one and burned his body. They said it would take seven days to bring him back, and it seems they needed his body and this priest to do it.”

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See Sevastyn Run

His rasping breath, pulse, and the jar of his shins on frozen earth had become one rhythm, loud enough he couldn’t hear anything else. But that drum had played so long he didn’t hear it either, like being underwater, or deaf. The elation came and went. He would feel
bodiless, a wind sweeping over the hills. His mind followed like a kite, free to swim in its
own fancies. He imagined Konstantine ahead of him, dancing under moonlight, grinning over his shoulder, running in slow motion it seemed, hair lifting and falling. He could reach out and let it trail over his fingers. Then the fatigue would set in, and his legs, for all that he couldn’t feel them, were shod and shackled in lead, and the bellows in his chest burned, and his mind was too tattered to hold images. Then the fatigue passed, the fetters fell away, and he was soaring drunk on his own exhaustion again. Like sun and moon the feelings cycled, but the true moon had risen and set only once.

They had to shoot three arrows into his path, each a step ahead of him, before he noticed
the whine and thud counterpoint to his drumming. He jogged a few steps past the last
one and looked back at it, stopping to stare. He saw golden wood with bright feathered
fletching, merry paint winding down the shaft like embroidery on a hem. It was a mistake,
to stop. The pain must have been chasing close behind. It slammed into him, hand and
knees into the ground. Sweat was dripping off his nose and bangs, leaving holes in the
snow.

“Va Corellon! Herth Severskii na Sevastyn ya. Isha laya ne, ehh on this wet earth has chased him? It must be them. Were he a hind his heart would have burst by now. Get him up, if he doesn’t walk his muscles will seize.”

Sound filtered in, then understanding. They were speaking Elvish, lifting him by his elbows,
encouraging him to move his legs. He had passed their borders already. Sylvania. “Help”
he rasped out and coughed before he could say more. They seemed to understand.

“It’s a three day run. Severskii will have fallen.. Rus will be next…they will ring us around.” They were talking to each other over him.

“Nyet!” he said, dragging himself up and close, inches from slanted green eyes. “One day.

Still time.”

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