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Chapter 9 - Reunion in Exile, Part I

The skull shattered into bony fragments -- individual teeth, the jaw piece, several side pieces, and the cranium. Even as these pieces rained down from the chimney top, he readjusted his grip over the shaft, feeling the way of the puppeteer return to him, then reached out for control of them with his mind, felt the power of his way attaching to them like the strings connecting a puppeteer to the puppet.

With a thought he raised several pieces of dislodged teeth -- the skull's four incisors -- back up into the air before him, levitating. As they weighed next to nothing they rose up with ease, obeyed his every mental command as he sent these teeth off to his sides, then drew them back before him with another thought. The four floated in midair with him scarcely having to concentrate on them.

Such small little projectiles, he thought as he peered at the floating teeth. Small, and despite being incisors, the sharpest bone fragments he had, he expected them to prove completely lacking in penetrative power. Nonetheless he launched them, one after another, at the shaman. The first missed completely; the second as well but glanced off the ground closer to its intended target than the first. With the third Art managed to hit where the shaman would have been had it not dodged; with the fourth he hit anyway. The last one stabbed into its leg, eliciting a gasp from the shaman before with a pat of its hand it knocked the tooth aside. It hadn't even drawn blood, or at least not any that Art could see.

Even from twenty paces away he raised the teeth off the ground again, had them circle around the shaman. The shaman, for its part, had started to retreat away from Art, had brought its three agile minions closer to itself with bucklers ready to deflect, and held a buckler as well in its left hand. It seemed to understand that Art held the advantage here with his height and possession of a ranged attack.

"Aww, leaving already? And I wanted to show you something too," protested Art as he leapt to his feet and then leapt to where he'd dropped his looted scimitar, holding it against his chest with his right arm. He leapt again, to stand atop some ruined wooden walls of a house nearer to the shaman. It picked up its pace as it retreated. With a thought, Art began to pepper it with attacks from the four teeth he controlled, stabbing at it from all sides. Each time one of the flying tooth struck a reanimated minion or bounced off a buckler, Art took but a moment to regain control over its trajectory, to bring it in for another shot. Each time he aimed for the eyes; each time the shaman blocked the flying teeth with a buckler or the body of one of its minions. At this rate, it was going to get away.

Art leapt after it, to land right in the shaman's path. The shaman, in response, had its three minions each take a step away in all directions, to give itself a buffer space between Art and itself, even as it held its buckler close to its face. Art cocked his head. "Hey, I don't think a buckler is meant to be used that way. Can you even see?" he asked, even as the shaman, surrounded by its minions, continued to back away. "No, I think not," he answered himself as he propped his staff against his chest and grasped the scimitar he'd been holding with his right arm. The four flying teeth dropped to the ground as the way of the puppeteer fled from Art's mind.

"Not smart, covering your eyes like that," said Art. "Problem with that is you won't see this coming." Then he struck forward, scimitar cleaving through one minion's leg and then another. The two minions attempted to parry, but the shaman had been keeping the buckler over its eyes and had voluntarily blinded itself to Art's actions. The reanimated warriors parried nothingness even as Art dismembered their legs, and both collapsed.

"Bawk off!" shouted the shaman as it burst into an all out run, allowing its last minion to collapse to the ground.

"That's not a smart move either, trying to flee from an adept," said Art as he glided after it with his way of the albatross, overtaking it with ease even as it continued to shout in fear; and with a single slash across the creature's nape decapitated it. "Definitely not smart."

He surveyed the ruin he'd wrought. The headless body of the clothed shaman, leaking blood out its neck at a profuse rate to stain the soil of the wheat field it had fallen into. Its head had tumbled away, hidden by those same crops. The three midget bodies, collapsed upon the fields a few steps closer to the hamlet, two with legs missing. He looked upon them all, and let his breathing and heart rate slow.

He'd done it. After an intense fire fight he'd finally taken down the invaders that had been guarding the hamlet. Even though he'd lost an arm and much of his fighting capability along with it, even though a mere handful of these midgets could have been a mere footnote in any battle his old self could have fought, he'd still managed to eke out a victory. He hadn't been reduced to a helpless, complete decrepit, as he'd so feared becoming. These bodies lying before him proved it.

But that sense of triumph felt short lived. He'd killed these creatures, but had failed to stop them from torching the hamlet and killing all its inhabitants. Now that he'd found a cluster of midgets, he expected to find more in the vicinity. While he had slept, the front lines of the invaders had swept through the forest past him, leaving him behind enemy lines. And that meant these creatures had slaughtered, and would continue to slaughter, their way through all the peasants and commoners from here westward until they hit some force that could stop them.

His thoughts turned to Warriv, and Taril, some of his closest compatriots. Had they made it to safety? Surely they had managed to do so? The fact that these midget warriors had gotten ahead of Art and Selena did not bode well for their fates. He hadn't seen them since parting ways earlier the previous night. If something, anything had happened to them while he wasn't around to protect them… He'd never forgive himself.

That meant more battles ahead. Art had to prepare himself for the road ahead. Touching down beside the shaman's corpse, he dropped his skull-staff and plucked the shaman's staff out of its hand, then with another leap and another, he'd returned to where he'd left Selena.

Selena stared at him with eyes wide open, silent.

"Um," said Art, "Are you quite all right?" No answer. He sighed. "I know, I know, I look like a mess, you can make fun of me for it," he said, looking away. "One of these days I'll buy myself some new clothes, then you'll see just how dashing I am --"

"How do you do that?" -- "Do what?" -- "You… You just went out there and…" -- "Oh crap, you were watching?" said Art, face-palming. -- "I saw you, you were leaping from tree to tree!" -- "You shouldn't have been watching." -- "I want to be able to do that too!" -- "Little girl like you has no business seeing the horrors of battle." -- "Can you teach me? Please please please?" -- "You're like ten years too early for that." -- "Aw! Why do I have to wait ten years?" -- "How'm I ever going to explain this?" -- "How hard can it be to explain it? Just try!" -- "Your parents are going to be mortified." -- "They're not here, it can be our little secret!" -- "Look, can you just forget that you ever saw it?" -- "Forget it? Are you kidding? That was awesome!" -- "Oh what am I saying, of course you can't forget something that awful." -- "Not awful, awesome!" -- "Awesome? Did… did you even see what I was doing?" -- "Of course I was! I didn't know you could dance so well!" -- "Because I was kill-- You know what, never mind," said Art, realizing that Selena hadn't actually seen the fight on the ground, only the fight in the air, not with all the wheat stalks before her eyes.

His stomach groaned in protest. Selena's stomach groaned in agreement.

They looked at each other's bellies, then at each other's faces, with embarrassed looks on their own. Then Selena burst into giggles. Pointing a finger at his belly, she said, "Your tummy's so much louder than mine!" -- "Well my tummy's a grown-up's tummy, it's bigger." -- "You mean you're more hungry." -- "That's right. Hey, does that mean I get to eat first?" -- "I get to eat first!" she said as she slapped him on the belly with a momentary look of reproach. -- Art chuckled as he stood there and let her slap his gambeson over and over. "Come on," he said, holding out his left arm for her to take hold of. "Let's go see if we can't find some decent food." -- "Finally! What took you so long?" -- "Well, let's just say that some baddies found some food first and went all, 'finders keepers' on us, so I had to trick them into giving that up."

They arrived at the entrance of one of the hamlet's burned-down houses, and Art guided her into the room. All about them lay the wrecked remains of its former inhabitant's possessions: ruined clothes lay strewn about the floor, now trampled over by the midgets and smeared with blood and ash and dirt and charred straw. The thatching that used to form the roof now lay in ruins over much of the pieces of furniture there: a desk, half eaten by fire, broken wooden implements. The corpse of butchered domesticated rabbit, in the corner. A corpse lay against the far wall, its body hacked and lacerated in a dozen places, blood trailing from it to the ground.

Art grimaced as Selena gasped upon seeing the cadaver. He hadn't wanted to have Selena see all this, what with her being merely -- what, six, eight? But with only the one hand, he couldn't very well go through all the trash here to find anything useful, and someone had to stand guard in case more of the midgets decided to pay the place a visit. And, he figured, she'd seen worse back at the monastery.

"What… Is he… dead?"

Art patted her shoulder with his arm. "Don't worry about him. Go, see if you can't find something that's good to eat."

Selena advanced, started to pry through the wreckage, stepping gingerly around the pools of blood and all the debris all about, and several times causing a pile of wood or straw to collapse to the ground. After a minute, she turned back to ask him, "You're not going to help me look?" -- "Nope, I'm keeping a look out." -- "No fair!" -- "I… Think of it as, if you find anything good to eat, you're feeding me. Okay?" -- "Okay," she replied, then set about with renewed enthusiasm. Art grinned at the thought of her treating it as a game.

In the end they found several loaves of bread in one of the houses, plucked some vegetables and fruits off some burned-down plants that had been growing in several of the hamlet houses' attached gardens. The meat they didn't dare eat, for it had most likely been hours since the livestock had been butchered and left on the ground to rot. They brought the food into one of the burned down houses, one devoid of any corpses, where they sat down to eat what they'd foraged.

"So what did you find?" asked Art, peering at what Selena managed to scrounge together. "Ah, quite a feast you have there." -- "Yep! It's a feast, and I'm starving! Here, you have some too." -- "You sure you don't want to eat all of it? Not that big of a feast, you know. You'll still go hungry." -- "No! I'm not having all of it, today I'm feeding you!" She picked up a big juicy strawberry, held it by her thumb and index finger, stretched it out toward Art's mouth. "Open up! Say 'Ah'!" -- "Ah!"

As Art bit into the berry, letting its tarty juice flow into his mouth, his thoughts lingered on how he'd found someone to live for and cherish amidst a sea of death and apathy.

By the time the two of them had come upon a village, the sun had long begun to sink back toward the horizon, and it bathed its surrounding farmland with streaks of golden light. They'd come across the corpses of several more midgets, these with arrows sticking out of them. He'd pulled the arrows out of the corpses and inspected them; bodkin point. Quite effective against mail, rather wasted on nearly stark naked creatures such as these. He'd then given them to Selena to hold on to in case they proved useful.

Turning to Selena as they kept on walking, he said, "looks like we're here." -- "The Rogues? How do you know they're here?" -- He pointed at the arrows in her hands. "That's how."

She looked at the arrows clutched in her hand with a frown. "I don't get it."

"Most arrows used for hunting don't have narrow points. Just any old pointy tip on an arrow shaft will do. You don't need anything more for hunting fowl. Besides a bow and an archer, of course. But see these?" he said, touching the bodkin point. "See how they're super pointy? Can you tell me what that's good for?"

"Hmm," said Selena, tapping an index finger on her chin. "I don't know. Are you going to tell me?" -- "Come on, I can't tell you that easy." -- "Oh come on!" she said, "tell me!" -- "I think you almost have it figured out," he smirked. -- Playfully thrusting the handful of arrows at his waist, she said, "If you don't tell me, these are going to be very good for stabbing you with." -- He snapped his fingers, smiling. "You got it!" -- "Huh?" -- "Stabby stabby." -- "Uh… Oh. Oh!" -- "Yeah, exactly."

Up ahead, he could tell that the village sported no palisade wall to defend itself. Amidst the cluster of several dozen houses, he could see figures busy on the streets.

"So how does that tell you the Rogues are up ahead?"

"So what I said earlier. These sharp arrow tips are good for going through people wearing armor. Like this," he said, patting his gambeson at the chest. "And also mail." -- "What's mail?" -- "Mail is the armor made out of those little rings." Here he connected his thumb to his index finger. "One after another after another, all linked together, above and below and side to side. Too small for your normal arrows to go through, but these super pointy ones go through just fine. So these arrows are made for war, against well armored enemies. Most people don't have them. But the sisters of the Sightless Eye have a monastery they have to guard from any enemies who wants to break in, and if they're going to try that they'll have on a lot of armor. So the Rogues have these, and they're the only ones around who would have these, or be allowed to have these."

"Un", she nodded.

"You.. aren't following, are you?" -- "Of course I follow! These are super sharp, good against baddies, sisters have them to fight enemies." -- He snapped his fingers. "You got it." -- "Why do the sisters have enemies? Why can't they just be friends?" -- "Uh, I'm not sure. That's a question I'll be asking them once we've caught up to them. Maybe they made those red-skinned creatures angry at them." -- "If they made someone angry, why don't they apologize? Then they wouldn't need to be enemies." -- "Well aren't you smart, you little you! You should go up to them and tell them." -- "Ha! Maybe I will. Then they can all be brothers and sisters. Hmm. Little brothers and big sisters." Then she stared at the ground, downcast.

"What's the matter, little one?" -- "It'd be nice to have a big sister." -- "Well wouldn't you rather have ten?" -- "Ten? No, that's way too many! I can't have so many sisters, I can't stand it!" -- "Well it's time to say hi to all your sisters," said Art. As they approached the village, he removed his helmet and aventail to hold it also in his left hand.

A pair of women dressed in the white and brown gambeson of the Rogue sisterhood approached to greet them, the older one wryly remarking to a young woman still in her teens, "See, what did I say? Told you they weren't the enemy." -- "In my defense, from a distance they sure looked like a shaman with a midget warrior." -- "Only you, Sasha. Sometimes I wonder why they allowed you to become an initiate of the arrow at all."

"Well met, sisters," said Art when they stood no more than a few steps apart. "Well you sure look in better condition than me."

The two women looked him over, raised eyebrows at his stump of an arm and at all the blood covering him that had congealed and blackened. "Welcome to Thistledown… I didn't imagine it was possible, but I have to say, looks like it. Were… were you part of the caravan who stayed at the monastery when…?" -- "Unfortunately." -- "Seems you've had a rough time. But as you say, you were there. Count yourself among the lucky." -- Art gave a half hearted grin. "One can try."

"What's that you got there?" asked the elder woman, nudging her chin toward his staff.

"Oh, ah, this?" said Art, turning to look at his looted staff with a grin. "Fine craftsmanship, this one. Earned it myself." -- "Earned," echoed the woman. -- "Ah, well, someone like you might think I'd stolen it." He put away the nonchalant look his face, turned stoic again. "I had a hard fight out in the woods on the way here. I had looted another one off one of the shamans. It saved my life a good number of times. When it broke, I picked up this one, after I killed the shaman wielding it."

"You've been fighting… in your condition?" said Sasha, looking him up and down.

"Good you think that way," said the older woman. "You're lucky I told Sasha to stand down when I did, otherwise she'd have skewered you. If you hadn't noticed, only our enemies carry such staves."

"Well, seems I must thank you for having saved my life," said Art, bowing deep and smiling.

She sighed, and turned to the younger. "Sasha, you know the drill." -- Sasha nodded. "Please, follow me," she said, and whirled on her feet to lead the way to the center of the village.

Art and Selena followed. Soon houses surrounded them on all sides. They passed several of the local peasants, who looked upon them without any sign of surprise, and some who looked distinctly out of place, whom Art judged to be the caravaners. As they went Sasha explained, "After the disaster most of us made it out of the monastery in one group -- me included. We regrouped here, as this village lays closest to the monastery and lies along the path most of the caravaners take. That allows us to intercept any other caravaners haded east before they meet a grisly death at the hands of the invaders, and affords us the best chance of drawing together what few stragglers had gotten separated from the main group. Like you."

"If I may ask… how many made it?"

Sasha bore a smile, and spoke, sounding cheerful and saccharine, though she didn't turn to meet his gaze. "I'm sure you'd like to meet back up with your friends and family, whomever you've been traveling with. If so, you probably have no need to worry. We've been tracking everyone's names, taking note of who had arrived. The majority kept with us when we retreated. Most of the caravaners made it here safely."

"I know. I was there, I saw how the sisters fought to give us every last second, despite knowing what they faced." He stared at the back of Sasha's head; she had fallen silent, and not turned to face him, opting to keep on walking. He continued, "They … you.. fought well." Another silence. "How many sisters made it?" She stood still, but kept looking away. "Why do you ask?"

"I need to know," replied Art. He needed to know what the sisters would or could do in order to determine what he should do next, and the best way to find that out would be to understand what they had to work with.

"A hundred and eighty-nine."

"And that is, out of how many?"

She turned to face him, then. In the gilded light of the evening sun he could see tears brimming in her cheeks. She replied, grimacing. "Only a hundred and eighty nine, out of two hundred and sixty four."

Better than he'd feared, at least, his mind spinning. That at least gave them a good fighting chance. Maybe not enough to retake the monastery, and certainly not while the beast dwelled within, but a leader could do things with that number that couldn't be done with a few dozen fewer. Schooling his expression, "Good to know most of the sisters made it out alive," he offered in consolation.

Her fists had clenched by her sides. "You wanted numbers, right? Those are the numbers, but that's all they are. But, last night… Last night I lost my hall-mother Marianne, my hall's eldest sister Ella… elder sisters Jessica, and Idria, and Carla, and… every single one of my younger sisters. But you wouldn't care for their names, would you? You wouldn't know, wouldn't know just what I've lost, wouldn't have any idea how much I loved them, they were just as if they'd been my own blood sisters. I'd grown up with them since I turned eight, celebrated with them, laughed and sang with them, shared my hopes and sorrows with them, do you understand? I'd never had family outside of them. I've never before set foot outside our monastery. And now I'm here, in a world where I don't belong, surrounded by strangers I don't know, and I've lost all the people I'd come to know and trust, the only ones I'd entrust my secrets and fears with, the ones I could turn to for comfort. And now all of them, gone! In one stroke I lost my home, my possessions, my loved ones…" She choked back her sobs, but tears fell glistening down her cheeks.

"I won't presume to tell you to stop hurting," said Art, then pointed at his stump of an arm. "But rest assured, I have not been hurt much less."

She sniffed, then turned to face away from him and toward the village center. "Let's go," she said, her voice resolute, and the two continued to walk. As they went, some of the people there stopped their activities to get a look at him, then resumed their work.

They arrived in the middle of the village, and stopped before the church. "We've arrived. Just a minute." Then Sasha called out, "Father Beltrand."

Moments later the pastor and a church boy emerged from within the castle's wooden double doors. He pastor, an aged man with balding white hair wrapped in white robes, gave one look to Art's bloodied form and with a wearied sigh, asked Art, "You are a caravan member also?" -- Nod. -- The pastor turned to the church boy, a wiry fellow who couldn't have been more than ten, "David, ring the bell for our new guest here, please." -- "Yes, father," said the church boy, and then went racing back into the church.

The priest turned to Art. "I take it things have been difficult. here, but we've been providing room and board to all who need it. I would have opened the church doors, as we would ordinarily do for those seeking shelter, but with the sheer number of caravaners… I spoke with the rest of us villagers. If you wish to stay with our village for the time being, I can find someone who can take you in."

"Thank you, father," said Art with a slight bow of his head. Then he looked up as the church bell sounded out, once, its deep booming ring reverberating throughout the village buildings. "And this is…?"

Sasha answered, "Quite a few of the caravaners had gotten separated from people important to them. For the most part they have remained here in the hopes of reuniting with those they'd lost. This village is after all the closest one to the monastery. Every time someone who had fled the monastery finds their way here, we ring the church bell once, letting them know someone has arrived."

As Art turned around he saw people dashing out of their homes and from down the streets leading into the village center, some of them shouting, calling out names like questions: "Daren?" -- "Erin?" -- "Sherry?" -- "Reginald?" -- One after another they came out, then one after another they stopped in their tracks upon getting close enough to see his face or figure, before retreating in slow, slinking steps, looks of disappointment and barely withheld grief upon their faces as they turned away from him.

"Art? Art!" someone shouted with a gruff voice from the street he stared down at. Art turned and set his eyes on the man, seeing his wide, untrimmed stubble of a beard, his wide belly, the wide, welcoming grin on his face -- "Warriv!" He'd half thought his old friend had been a goner; the sight of seeing him again brought tears to his eyes, tears he wiped away with his right arm as he rushed on over. They embraced, both of them wrapping their arms around each other's backs, their necks on each other's shoulder, for a moment before parting. "Warriv old pal, you're okay!" -- "And you're alive too! Thank the heavens you got back safely!"

"Art! Finally!" Behind Warriv another man, this one standing taller and leaner, joined in on the exclamation, and Art embraced Taril as well, then Art looked upon the two of them with an uncontrollable smile on his face and the two of them looked at Art with tears brimming and, as they looked him up and down, equally wide grins that shrank into frowns, their foreheads furrowed with worry. Art trailed their stunned looks down to his right arm and he raised it before him, tentative. "What, this?" he said, then paused, trying to find some joke to crack to lighten the mood, something to relieve his friends of their worries, but came up empty, the painful thought of having lost his arm overwhelming him. "I…" He looked away in equal parts of shame and grief for his loss.

Warriv and Taril stood equally speechless for a moment, before Taril silently embraced Art again, this time tempered with sorrow, and patted Art on the back. "At least you're back to us. That alone is more than we had dared hope for. It must have been so terribly dangerous, but you're among friends now. You're safe, okay?"

Art nodded, then burst into tears, not minding how unmanly he seemed, not minding that they fell upon Taril's white tunic. A moment later Warriv hugged him as well, and Selena wrapped her arms around his waist a moment later, and together they stood for a very long moment in silence before at long last they let go.

"Where are Johann and Tyler?"

"They went with the archers," replied Taril. "Off on some scouting party just a few hours ago. They may not be getting back til tomorrow; their planned route is quite out of the way. But they are well."

"Thank the heavens for that," said Art as he released a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. "The two youngsters seemed so itching for adventure when we picked them up, I couldn't have forgiven myself if they had just gotten themselves killed on something so senseless. Huh, I really should have expected that they'd be racing off to their next mission already. What about Boone?"

The two of them looked at each other in silence.

Oh no, thought Art, knowing what to expect, and feeling that pit in his stomach form. "He didn't make it?" -- "We haven't seen him yet. And he's not listed on the bulletin. I checked not half an hour ago. But no one reported seeing him get killed. He could be on his way here as we speak." -- "But wasn't he with you?" -- "Yes, at first. But then -- and I'm not sure when -- we became separated. I would like to think he had made it safely out of the monastery and just gotten separated in the fighting afterward, but… we can't be sure."

"Boone…" Art thought of the doddering old fool. Once again tears came to his eyes. "It feels like we had been traveling together forever. Six years? He'd traveled with us, always lightening our day… Can't believe he's not here any more."

"He's not necessarily dead, Art. You have to keep your hopes up. It's only the first day after that night. It's very likely he'll make it here tomorrow or the day after."

Art nodded, even as he bore a frown, even as he knew just how unlikely it would be for someone like Boone to make it. The oldest, frailest of the six of them, the least aware of the situation and surroundings, all alone in the woods, surrounded by roving bands of shamans and their midget warriors… He wouldn't admit it before these two, and he dearly wished it not to be true, but his rational mind was practically writing the man off as a lost cause. "We'll wait. We'll wait for him, and if he's not here by nightfall tomorrow, then when he does get here I'll beat his sorry ass for making us worry so much."

"Who's the girl?" asked Taril.

"Oh, this is Selena. Say hi to Warriv and Taril, Selena." -- "Hi," she said, keeping shyly behind Art's side as she looked at them with wide eyes. -- "Hi Selena." -- "I brought her out of the monastery when I fled. She… The mother is," said Art, and made a slash-across-the-throat gesture with his left hand. "And I've no idea where the father, Eamond, is."

Warriv and Taril looked at Selena with grief-filled eyes even as Selena continued to stare back, seemingly unconcerned. Then Warriv spoke up, "Let's consult the bulletin," and the two of them led Art and Selena to the side of the open space comprising the village center.

Beside the currently empty hanging iron cage that comprised the gallows and the wooden pillory beside it, stood a wooden board upon which had been nailed a piece of parchment four feet tall and eight feet wide. Upon it had been written, in several neat columns, peoples' names in black ink. Atop it sat an inkwell with the lid covered, an ink pen resting beside it. Before it a constantly changing group of people stood, each of them looking at the names for a moment before moving on.

"We've been tracking the names of the arrivals on this board," explained Warriv as they approached. "Just in case someone arrives when their friends or family are otherwise preoccupied and aren't able to show up, they'll be able to consult the bulletin to see if someone they know arrived in their absence." He stepped in front of the viewing crowd, beckoning Art to approach, then pointed at a name written on the parchment: his own.

"Bedfords," said Art, reading off the name written close to the right of "Warriv Tryvesant". -- "Aye, the Bedfords, they're the ones I'm staying with. Once you get assigned a local family to stay with your name you'll want to jot that down here as well so that anyone who knows you will know where to find you." He uncovered the inkwell and dipped the ink pen in it, then wrote down "Art Waverley" in the shortest, right-most column, beneath all the other names. "Done."

Art looked over the names before following after Warriv and Taril. Some one hundred names, give or take a dozen or so, it seemed. "These are all the caravaners who have arrived?" -- A grunt of agreement. -- "Quite a few names. Most of them arrived safely, then?" -- "Aye. A few of them -- those traveling alone, in pairs or groups where the members had met up -- had already left, earlier this afternoon. Reckon they feel it'd be safer the further away they got from the monastery, the sooner the better if the redskins are going to start crawling all through these parts soon, and they hadn't any time to lose."

Warriv gestured at the bulletin. "Do you see… his name?" -- "Eamond," Art repeated to himself over and over as he perused the list. So many names. Among the list he recognized Warriv's, Taril's, Johann's, and Tyler's names, but he'd arrived at his own without seeing Eamond listed anywhere. His heart sinking he went through the list again, this time more slowly, making sure he didn't skip the name if it was listed; and again he caught no sight of it. "He's not here."

Gods, thought, Art. With her mother dead and her father either dead or missing, Selena had effectively been reduced to being an orphan. She had, after all, no one else to turn to, none other than himself. That meant that he, who'd never gotten married or sired children, would have to take care of her… all by himself. He doubted whether he was up to the task. That would have been iffy even in the best of times. Right now, with him being practically penniless? "He's not here," he repeated, the words sounding hollow, as he stepped away from the bulletin.

"Maybe he'll get here tomorrow," Taril offered. -- "Maybe."

"Who are you looking for?" asked Selena, holding on to Art's hand while peering at the list.

Art sighed, patted Selena on the top of her head. He couldn't break it to her that her father too was dead, especially not with there still being the possibility that he was alive. With her already losing her mother… The best favor he could do was not remind her of her father as well. "Never mind that, Selena. You said earlier that I owed you a feast, remember?"

"Yes, I remember!" exclaimed Selena. Then her stomach grumbled and she looked away, bashful.

"Come," said Warriv, chuckling at her innocence. He gestured for them to travel down the street. "You sound absolulely famished."

"Yay, food! I'm starving," said Selena as she hopped along after Warriv as he and Taril led the way, proceeding down the street. Art followed right after.

"The caravaners who left… You didn't go with them?" asked Art as they walked back. -- "We were waiting for you and Boone. Now, just Boone. Once he shows up, I'm thinking we'll be headed west, too." -- "To where?" -- Warriv sighed. "I abandoned all my wares back at the monastery. Same with… well, just about all the merchants. And much as I'd like to get those valuables back, I consider my own life more precious by far. I can't waltz right back in and pick up what I'd left. Thankfully I have family to return to back in Kingsport. A home, a wife and two children, extended family. Plus, I've left quite an extensive stash behind." -- "You reckon they wouldn't spend it all inside of a month?" -- "That's what a hole in the ground is for," said Warriv, clapping him on the back with a grin. -- "Saving up for a rainy day?" -- "So I'd be able to rebuild. It's enough for me to start a traveling merchant business. Even with the monastery pass closed, I can just sail up and down the western coast, maybe going a bit inland at times. Then if the monastery gets reclaimed, I can pick up right where I left off."

Art then turned to Taril. "Taril, I don't think you lost much back then?" -- "I make it my business not to." He gestured at the flute attached to the side of his belt. "This baby is enough for me to make a living anywhere I go." -- Art sighed in relief. "That's good to know." Now if only he were as lucky.

Warriv noticed the despondent look that had overcome Art. "What's with that look? I'll still be employing you as a guardsman, same as always." -- "Aren't you forgetting something?" Art replied, raising his right arm. "I'll never be able to fight as a proper swordsman again," he said, tearing up. "Fat lot of good I'd do. Staying with you, I'd only be a hindrance."

"Have you lost your mind, Art?" asked Warriv, causing Art to look up in surprise. "Do you think I only had you with the caravan as a guard? After all these years? You ought to know better. Yes, I know how well you can fight, but even if you had no arms at all, I'd still have you accompanying me. Friends don't abandon friends, remember? Ah, don't mind the cost. After all these years I've built up quite the retirement nest. Don't you worry."

Tears swelled in Art's eyes at this display of grandiosity. He'd been so worried, back when he'd sat alone upon the cliff side, wondering just how he'd live the rest of his life, how he'd earn his next meals. He resolved then and there, that he'd do whatever he could to repay his long time friend's kindness, even if he could do little regardless. "Thank you," he said, wrapping his arms around Warriv in embrace. "I wouldn't know what to do without you. Really."

"When he said he'll have you accompanying him, I don't think he meant that close," said Taril with a smile, causing Art to back off, embarrassed. "Now look sharp, we're at the Bedfords'."

"You're not seriously going to come into our home looking like that, are you?" said Nathan Bedford as he stepped out of his home to greet Warriv, Taril, Art and Selena, but looking at Art in particular. Tall and clean-shaven, a man in his thirties, he wore a plain though bright yellow tunic, a brown coif on his head, and leather boots without any any blemish of dirt or mud. "Warriv, this is?" -- "Nathan, meet Art Waverley. Art, Nathan." -- "Ah, Art. Well look, Art, you don't look all that great if I may say so myself. I won't have you coming into my place with all that much blood all over you." He turned to call into the house. "Oi, Penny, bring a towelcloth and my spare set of clothes over here will you? And some soap." -- "Coming," said a woman from within.

"You look about my build, so hopefully my spares will fit you. That gambeson you wear looks like it took a hell of a beating. I hope you don't plan on going into battle with that again." Then Nathan turned to look at Art again, his roving look stopping upon the stump of Art's arm, and refrained from saying anything else. Art felt that lingering look of somber pity on the man, and felt embarassment creep over him. It was one thing for him to reveal his loss to his close confidants; another matter entirely for a complete stranger to look him over… It felt like he'd become sub-human.

"Here," said Penny as she emerged from the house, bearing a clean white woolen towelcloth and a plain white tunic draped on her outstretched arm and handed them over to Nathan, who passed them on to Art. Penny was dressed in a green tunic secured with a simple brooch, and looked altogether as prim and proper as her husband. "Oh my," she said as she saw Art. "There's a river, runs right by the west side of the village." -- "You're going to want to go," said Nathan, -- "And take a dunk in the river," continued Penny, -- "So you're all clean and tidy," -- "Then come back here," -- "Where we'll have some food set out for you," -- "And you can regale us with tales of your adventure," -- "That is if you wish to share them," -- "Aheh, yes, only if you wish to share them," -- "We wouldn't want to discomfort our guests in any way," finished Nathan.

Art looked from the one to the other and back and forth with a stunned look on his face, surprised at how the two seemed to practically read each others' mind so smoothly to be able to continue each others' sentences with such ease. How nice it must be to have a soulmate one could understand on such an implicit level. He nodded to them. "Thank you for your generosity. I'll be back shortly."

"Need us to show you there?" asked Warriv.

"I should be fine," replied Art, holding on to his towel along with his torch-staff in his left hand. "Flows down the west side of the village, right? Then it's going to be hard to miss. Maybe if I miss it, I'll trip over the bridge and fall into it," he said with a grin.

"You're going to need someone to help you," said Taril, gesturing at Art's right arm. Art realized then, that he'd not be able to get out of his gambeson without assistance, nor would he be able to scrub off fully, nor get clothes back on, by himself.

"What now, you're offering to help dress me?" Art teased. "Didn't know you took that kind of an interest in me."

Taril humphed as he shook his head, then knelt down to Selena's level. "Selena, was it? Do you think you'll be able to help your uncle Art here get dressed?"

Selena took a shy step backward, put her thumb in her mouth. "Art's not my uncle," she said, her cheeks flushed. "He's my hero!" -- "Hero, huh?" asked Taril. -- "Yes, hero! He saved me from the monastery."

Art saw out the corner of his eyes, Penny and Nathan giving each other knowing looks, and next he saw them looking at him in a new light.

Taril looked up at Art. "Huh. Looks like our very own hero has saved his damsel in distress after all. So gallant, you." -- "Shut up, Taril." -- Taril chucked as he turned back to Selena. "Well then, will you help him change his clothes? Since he's your hero?"

"Yes!" exclaimed Selena as she have an excited jump.

"Well, that settles it then," said Taril, rising. "And… if he tries anything, you let us know the moment you get back, alright?"

Art groaned, and deadpanned. "Really?"

Nathan patted Art on the shoulder, then kept his grip on his shoulder. "If it's as Selena says, that you really did rescue her from the monastery… You have our thanks, even if Selena is too young to fully appreciate it. Of course, I hadn't been there, I don't presume to know what last night must have been for you, but I'd at least heard tell from those who had been willing to share their experiences. It must not have been easy."

Art looked down at his feet as memories came to mind, of evoking the way of the crashing boulder to break the girl's chains. Of slicing his sword through Cassia's neck like a hot knife through butter, of her haunting parting words. Of pulling the midget warriors away from the gates as he shouted at the top of his lungs for Selena to make a run for it. Of standing at the gates, the way of the monolith in mind, hewing down all who attempted to strike him or get past him, holding his ground with a single-minded determination as he broke the onslaught of their wave. Of searching all through the small hours of the night, alone in the hostile darkness, wishing, constantly wishing, that she'd made it to safety. And finally, the utter relief of finding her right as his legs gave out. "Not easy."

"Well then, hurry along now," said Penny with some light-heartedness in her voice. -- "And go get yourself cleaned up," finished Nathan.

"Here, we'll hold on to that for you," said Warriv as he relieved Art of the staff. "Meet us back here when you're done."

"Thanks," was all Art could make out as he looked upon them, faces both familiar and unfamiliar but all warm and caring. It felt like so long since he'd last been in such company, so long that he'd been trapped in the nightmare. Oh, to finally find himself in a place of safety, where he would willingly relinquish his staff, what had been his only lifeline out int he wilderness! And now that it was finally over, now that he had his friends and acquaintances to turn to should he have any need, he hadn't the words to express how he appreciated their being there for him. "Thanks." That and a nod was all he could manage as he led Selena down the street to west side of the village.

He found himself a nice, somewhat secluded stretch of the riverbank hidden from the rest of the village by a patch of bushes and a line of willow trees, their leaves forming a curtain to hide them from sight. The other side of the river bank stood some fifty or a hundred feet away -- not a particularly wide river here. He'd settled on a spot downstream of the river -- which flowed north-to-south along this stretch before wending its way west to the sea -- and could see the wooden bridge crossing over the river to his right.

"This place should do," he said, bending down to set the towelcloth and spare set of clothes upon the grass by the riverside. Once he'd shaken off his boots he turned to Selena. "Care to help me out of these?" he asked.

"Sure!' said Selena as she she about getting Art out of his gambeson. As she did so she peered over all the places where it had gotten burnt, or slashed, the wool slipping out from within, and patted on a few of those spots. "Ooh! Fluffy." -- Art smiled. "That's what happens when you wear it into battle: it gets messed up." -- "No; I like it this way. Looks warm and cozy. There," she finished helping Art get his good hand out of his gambeson, whereupon Art took the rest of it off and set it on the grass alongside the clothes he'd been lent. "And the tunic as well."

Once they'd finished removing his tunic he proceeded to remove his pants as well. "You should probably look away for this part." -- "Why, what are you hiding?" -- "I'm not hiding anything… you know what? Yes, I'm hiding, nothing important for you to see." -- "Okay, turning away now." -- "Good girl." He finished removing the rest of his clothes, leaving him stark naked, and proceeded into the water. A bit chilly, but he'd gotten used to that by now. He immersed in it up to his waist, sat upon the silt of the riverside. "You can look now."

"Hey, when do I get to go in the water? It's been a while for me too, you know." -- Art chuckled. "I'm sure Penny will love to give you a nice scrubdown sometime later. Here, you have the soap, right?" -- "Yep!" Selena handed it over to him. -- "Thanks." He proceeded to dab the soap in the water and rub it all over himself. He took his merry time, taking in the sights of the calm, sunny summer day, white cumulus clouds sailing like puffs of soap bubbles upon the water, peaceful and cirrus clouds stretching across the skies far above them like wisps of drapery from heaven. A zephyr blew past, dancing with the draping willow leaves. "My, but this is quite a sight." If only this peace would last forever.

Before long he had finished washing up with the soap -- or as much of himself as he could. Turning to Selena, he asked, "can you lend me an arm with this?" -- "Sure, where do you need it?" -- "Left arm, shoulders, and back." -- "Leave it to me!" -- "Make sure you don't slip," he said. "Or if you accidentally fall into the water, it'll be funny. And then we can play splash the water at each other." -- "Humph! As if I could fall in that easy." Then she paused, looking at him accusingly. "You're not going to pull me into the water, are you?" -- "What? Would I ever! I do not deserve that accusation." -- "You better not, or I'll tell." She took the soap and squatted down, and started washing his left arm with the soap.

As she worked he watched her expression. She seemed completely absorbed by her task, humming a soft little tune to herself. So innocent, he thought. She seemed right at home here, in this little idyll, surrounded by people who would protect her, removed from all the fighting. He felt a bit of euphoria encompass him, at the feeling of accomplishment, and the thought that he'd been the one who had brought her out of the hell that would have befallen her, and delivered her to safety.

"Huh, what are you looking at?" she said when she took notice. -- "Nothing." -- "You're smiling. At what?" -- "You." -- Her cheeks flushed. "At me? Why?" -- "I… wanted to thank you." -- "For what?" -- He wasn't sure what he'd actually wanted to thank her for. After all, he'd been the one who had saved her, not the other way around. She may not realize it, but she owed her life to him. And yet, he felt that if he'd not come across her, he'd not be as redeemed as he now felt. She had filled a hole in his life, and for that he was thankful. "For being here." -- She'd gotten started on his back; now she stopped her scrubbing. "Is that all?" she asked, pouting -- "Hehe. And thanks also for helping me out." -- "That's more like it. Now turn. I can't very well work your back like this." -- "Aye, aye."

When she had finished she set down the soap. "Done! Eh… you're not asleep, are you?" -- Exaggerated snoring sounds. -- "Hey, wake up!" she said, laying the smacks down on his shoulders and back, before proceeding to shake him. "Don't you be falling asleep on me!" -- "Augnh.." he yawned. "Do I have to wake up now?" -- "Yes. You absolutely have to get up now." -- "Oh, all right." -- "You weren't really asleep, were you?" -- "Of course I was! Your washing my back just felt so heavenly I couldn't help but fall asleep." -- "Oh yeah? And how would you know how it felt if you were sleeping?" -- "Ah, you caught me."

As Selena burst into laughter, Art picked up the towel. "Look away now, I'm going to get out of the water." Once she had her back turned, he started to dry himself off. He worked in silence, then once he finished with his lower clothes he said, "I'm good now." -- "You're good? Then we can leave now right?" said Selena as she proceeded though the willow leaves. "Wait wait wait, you're not just going to leave me like this are you?" he said, holding out his arms to show his naked upper body. -- "Sure, why not? I'm going to go back now. You can just catch up later." And then she took off, giggling as she went.

"Selena! Why, when I get you, I'm gonna…" Art fell silent as he watched her go. "Damn her spirit." Then he grabbed his towelcloth, his discarded clothes and the tunic he'd yet to put on. With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly. And then he was leaping down the street, the passersby hurrying to the sides as went after her, and gesturing and whispering to one another as he passed them by.

"Selena!" he shouted as with a final leap he landed right between her and the door the Bedfords'. -- "Aww, and I was so close too!" -- "Selena, you and I are going to have a nice long talk," he said, taking a step toward her as she took a step backward, a grin still plastered over her face. Then he saw several of the villagers around the street, staring at him. "On second thought, we can skip the talk," he said, then opened the door and darted inside.

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