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LadyAnnaLee Nine Sided Awesomeness. Nine Sided Glory

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Darin was the bane of her mother’s existence. The lack of hips and the flat chest could be forgiven. It’s not like the girl had control of the body the deities had decided to bless her with. However, Darin was positive that her mother had still not forgiven her for cutting her wavy brown hair short with the kitchen knife when she was 16. The 19 year was also convinced that every time her mother saw her wearing pants, she had a heart attack. Darin didn’t care. Pants were more practical. It was just her and her mother. Someone needed to keep the farm going. No one in the village wanted to help so it fell to Darin.

Of course, that wasn’t the case now. Now Darin had a GRAND DESTINY. The entire village had stared in disbelief the day that The Gardener had come to their home. Everyone in Astra knew The Tree was dying. No one knew how to stop it. It was also known that The Gardener had left their post and was traveling though Astra. What they were looking for was unknown. They wondered though towns and cities. They visited the Elves and the Sirens. Great Human kings had played host to the Gardener. The village Darin lived in was a small human place that wasn’t on the way to anywhere important. It was quiet too. No one visited, and when those filled with wanderlust left, they didn’t come back. They never expected to see The Gardener. The entire village had come together to hold the best feast they could.

Then The Gardener had pointed at Thomas, the village’s best hunter and, Milla, the lord of the neighboring town wanted her to wife. He pulled them into the relative privacy of the elder’s home. He talked to them forever. Most people had gone stayed. A few, Darin included, went back to work. She was not expecting to finish with the day’s work long after dark to look up to see The Gardener staring at her.

He gave her The Seed. He also gave her instruction to plant The Seed. He couldn’t tell her where. He could only tell her that The Seed knew where it needed to be planted. He warned her of the danger. It needed to be planted before The Tree died. Some people didn’t want The Seed to be planted. It wouldn’t belong before all of Astra knew it existed. She needed to be careful. She needed to be both patient and quick.

Then they died. In front of Darin. She let out a scream. It wasn’t long before people came to see what was going on. It took some explaining, but soon everyone in the village knew what task The Gardener had given the village’s oddest girl. Darin protested. Someone needed to take care of her mother. Thomas said he would. Mila promised she would see it done. That protest dealt with the village came together to outfit her for her journey. Since traveling as, a boy was safer, her tendency for wearing pants was safer. The butcher gave her a decent knife to defend herself with. Darin’s mother cut her hair short, kissed her goodbye, and sent her on her way.

That was three months ago, and Darin was starting to think she should have traveled with someone. She was currently hanging upside down. She had fallen off a cliff and into a forest. A tangle of vines had caught her. However, now she was stuck. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There were the giant spiders, the bridge she almost fell off of, the bandits that took her pack mule. Darin was not liking this adventure.

She muttered to herself, “By The Tree, why me.”

If The Tree weren’t so important Darin wouldn’t have gone on this adventure. The Tree was what kept most evil out of Astra. Evil was still there, but it was difficult. The closer you got to The Tree the less evil there was. Darin had heard extremely old stories of war, and she didn’t want that in Astra. She would avoid it if she could. So, she needed to find a place to plant The Seed. She knew that the only way she would find the place would be travel Astra until she found it. She was not doing a very good job of that. She wasn’t sure what she would do when it came time to fight to defend The Seed. In her opinion, the Gardener picked the absolutely person for the job.

Darin tried to break free, “Oh come on!” A few vines snapped and she dropped a few feet, “Haha! Progress!”

She could do this! It had been three months and she wasn’t dead yet. The deities had to be looking out for her. She would get out of this mess. She would figure out where to plant The Seed. She would preserve peace in Astra. She could do this!
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On the eve of her own execution, Ridahne Torzinei had slipped into an uncomfortably real dream that had then turned...different. What had begun as slightly changed but very believable images of past reality suddenly became something new, something she hadn’t seen before.

She saw the tree. The leaves fell unseasonably early and were a dark brown color, not the usual painted reds and golds of autumn. The bark was crumbling and the wispy branches in its great heights were wilted and dropping. She felt the pain of it even as she saw it, and a darkness creeping closer like the shadow of a hungry beast towards a dying campfire.

“No!” She’d cried out, both in dream and in reality.

The tree was dying. Everyone knew that. Her people could feel it. But she had never seen it except in tapestries or grand paintings, except then. And she was convinced she was seeing it as it was, not as she imagined it. Or, she thought, as it might become—she didn’t actually know how far the decay of the dying tree had spread.

She heard the clash of steel and the wet squelching sound she knew came with killing. She heard shouts, pounding hooves, bells…

And then a voice.

It was indistinct—neither male nor female, young nor old, loud nor quiet. It just was. And deep within Ridahne’s bones she could hear—or feel?—the words spoken to her so clearly:

“You will come upon her in the wild. She has The Seed. And she will need your help. Redeem yourself, Child of the Night Sky, and save the land you love.”


She jolted awake and was about to call for a guard, but one was already there. Ajoran. His hands were curled around the bars and his mouth hung open slightly, brows knitted in concern. She didn’t have to tell him she’d had a vision, because he knew her well and knew her urgent yet bewildered expression. She’d never had a vision before and they weren’t even common among the Azurei tribe—the Children of the Night Sky. The Eluri, the elven tribe to Azurei’s east also known as The Children of the Wind, did more of that sort of thing, and the Children of the Dawn Sky—the Orosi—never did at all. But still, visions amongst the Azurei were not unheard of.

“I need to speak with the Sota-Sol immediately.”
“Ridahne…” Ajoran said softly. “She won’t see you…she wants you dead. A vision won’t change that…”
Her eyes were hard, unmoving, set with the kind of unbreaking, determined fire that made Ajoran love her in the first place. “This one will. Tell her it’s about The Great Tree.”

That was four months ago. The Sota-Sol was interested in her vision, and in a shocking turn of events, Ridahne was…kind of pardoned. Sort of. She was no less guilty of her transgressions and the fresh tattoo added to the pattern on her face was proof of that. But she’d been given a chance to redeem herself and prove herself worthy to her Sol, and was sent on a highly secret mission to find the bearer of the Seed. Except at the time, there was no Seed. The Gardener was male—the same one that had been for many years—and there had never been any talk, speculation, whisper, rumor, or thought of a seed, much less a bearer. And with that kind of vague hopelessness Ridahne set out on a long, directionless trek through the other elven tribes and their lands. She spent some time in the Dust Sea of North Azurei, figuring that was a horrible wilderness to be caught in and she did know how to navigate it. But nothing. So she wandered north to the human lands feeling increasingly stupid as each day passed without news or sign.

But then her efforts proved worthwhile when she began to hear consistent rumors of a new Gardener and a Seed. Yet no one seemed to know exactly where to find her, so Ridahne roamed the wilds for three months, checking taverns regularly for news. And as time slipped away without any further sign or hope, the bitterness crept over her again. She hadn’t been executed…but now she was exiled. Doomed to spend her life wandering until she and the tree both withered away into nothing.

At least, that’s how she felt that afternoon as she plodded dutifully along the thick, overgrown forest path that was dark under the shadow of a great cliff to her left. Her hunting cat, Mitaja, had been sleuthing around for interesting morsels and every so often, Ridahne would see the massive feline peer back at her through ferns and brush.



The large beige and black cat padded up to where the human was dangling and struggling up above and sat beneath her, patiently flicking her black-ringed tail. The cat yawned, showing very large, powerful teeth and a rough curling tongue and her gold-green eyes studied the human intently. And then she gave a very loud yowl, and repeated the noise a few times as if calling more of her kindred to the scene of a future meal. Except the animal that answered her call was not another cat, it was a horse. Seated atop the creamy tan horse with black socks, mane and tail, was a tall, slim woman with darker russet skin that suggested she came from the south. She had wavy dark hair that reached her collarbone and a multitude of tattoos of varying styles, the most notable and unique of which were the many that formed a pattern on her face; black, blue, and even some white. A silver ring was in her nose and many more in her pointed ears. She carried a short sword that was obviously visible and sheathed in a leather scabbard across her back and, unseen under her indigo shirt, were two knives strapped to her lower back. But the sword was not the thing about her appearance that made her seem intimidating, nor was it her long scarred fingers or her confident air. It was her eyes. Amber colored like fresh honey, they stood out against her sun darkened skin and exuded a piercing quality. Those eyes looked up at the human with an amused glimmer.

“What do we have here…?” If her appearance didn’t give away that he was elvish, her southern accent did. Ridahne sighed. Too often she ran into poorly prepared vagabonds who decided tramping the wilderness with no idea of what they were doing was a good idea. She saw no gear to speak of and they were too far from the nearest town for this human to be a wandering local. She shook her head slowly. “Idiot boy. Fell from the cliff, didn’t you?” The giant cat reared up and put her paws on the trunk of the tree, attempting to get close enough to sniff. Ridahne dismounted and stood beside the cat, stroking her silky short fur. “Don’t you have a knife? Blessed Tree, did you honestly come all the way out here without any supplies?”
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Darin was not paying attention to her surroundings. She was more concerned with the vines currently entrapping her. She wiggled some more, and another vine snapped. She smiled. She absently thought that this probably wasn’t the best idea. If she got free this way she would go tumbling to the ground. She would probably break something. That much was clear. Still, she didn’t have anymore options. She had no idea where she was. So, she couldn’t expect help from anyone. She had to get down herself. Another vine snapped. Her smile turned into a smirk. This was actually going alright; for now. She was sure it would hurt when she hit the ground. That was a problem for then.

She let out a shout when she heard a yowl, “By The Tree!”

She down to see the biggest cat she had ever seen. Darin felt her eye go wide. It looked like it could be bigger than her. It the back of her mind Darin had to admit that the cat was gorgeous. It looked to be cream and black colored with a ringed tail. If it didn’t sound like it was calling for more of its friends Darin would be inclined to sweet talk it. As it was, Darin was fairly positive that a whole pack of cats was about to emerge from the forest. Then they would wait for her to fall into their waiting paws. The traveler risked a glance at the vines. Suddenly she prayed to the deities that they held long enough for the cats to get tired of waiting. She looked down just in time to see a rider come into view.

Darin knew she was staring. This woman screamed dangerous. She was also beautiful. Darin had never seen skin that color. Of course, she had never seen an Elf before. Darin was amazed by her dark waves even as she wondered how the woman could stand having hair that long. Her eyes were the part that begged for attention. They spoke of untold danger while being the most striking shade of amber. They seemed to look straight though Darin. She was the single most beautiful woman the human had ever seen. She wondered if all Elves looked like her. Darin wanted to see more if that was the case.

Darin knew her looks couldn’t compare. For one thing she had to look like a bumbling idiot. She was stuck in a tangle of vines and was about to plummet to the forest floor just as soon as they broke. For another thing she was shades of brown. Her skin was tan from working in the field just about every day from when she was fourteen. Her eyes were a washed out brown and her hair blended into her skin. She had to recognize the stark differences between them. Though she had to wonder if now was really the time to compare looks.

It was a good thing the Elf spoke first. Otherwise Darin would have lost herself for a moment and blurted out some vague compliment that would only end with the warrior laughing at her and her face turning bright red. The Elf’s words also snapped her to her senses. She was glad she had been mistaken for a boy. She wasn’t sure what rumors about her were being spread, but she wasn’t a complete idiot. She may not have any supplies, but the fewer people who knew who she was and what she was doing the better.

The Elf was still waiting for an answer, “My supplies were stolen. My knife is in my pack. I can’t use it properly so that seemed like the best place for it.” She was trying to keep her voice as deep as possible without making it obvious she was faking, “And yes, I fell off the cliff.”

Darin truly hoped the Elf didn’t laugh at her. She wasn’t sure she had the emotional fortitude to be laughed at right now. She rather the Elf just left her hanging than laugh at her. Maybe that was silly. It wasn’t like laughing would truly hurt her. Darin supposed she could stand a little bit of laughing if she helped get her down. The traveler supposed the only way she was going to get help was if she asked.

Darin decided to try, “I don’t suppose you would be willing to help me down.” She smiled nervously, “Or at least not stand there so I don’t fall on you.”

Because that was still the plan. It was working before the gorgeous cat showed up. Darin was fully prepared to keep wiggling and trashing. She couldn’t be stuck here forever. She wasn’t planting The Seed all tangled up after all. She needed to get down. She was going to get down. Even if this stunning woman wouldn’t help her Darin would get down.

Darin gave her head a shake. She needed to stop repeating herself. Even if she was only repeating herself in her brain. She would get nowhere by doing that. She needed to think positive, and she needed to remain focus. She could do this. Maybe. Possibly. If she didn’t break something on her fall down. No! First, she would get down. She would deal with the ground when she got there. Besides, maybe the Elf would help her.
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Ridahne tied her hair back loosely with a piece of cloth and with a wave, ushered Mitaja out of the way. The cat lay beside the horse, which was so used to her presence that he didn’t even notice.

“I could help you get down, yeah.” She let that statement hang for a moment before, with a glimmer in her amber eyes she said, “but I think I might let you hang there for a bit until you learn your lesson.” Of course she said this as she stalked back to her horse with long legs and took a coil of rope from the saddle. “Everyone underestimates the wild...” she said as she began climbing the tree the human was stuck in. She’d climbed things her whole life, so a knobbly tree with vine clusters was no problem for her long limbs and practiced fingers. “Nobody seems to realize how dangerous it is, because the woods and mountains don’t seem so scary when they’re close to home or on the road. But when you begin to get really far out there, the realization eventually dawns that there is no one to help you when you fail. You got lucky this time.”

Ridahne tossed the rope over a higher branch and with one of the dangling ends she tied a secure loop around one of the human’s ankles. She would have gone for the waist usually, but the ankle was what she could reach... she hoisted the rope until tension was taken off the vines and then with a practiced hand, she drew a knife from behind her back as if it had come from nowhere and sliced the remaining vines in one swift swipe. Her rope held firm and she lowered the young stranger down to the ground one fistful of rope at a time. She then deftly descended, sheathed her large knife, and began coiling the rope.

Mitaja swept in then, sniffing the human’s face with her large black nose. The cat’s face had black streaks under each eye as if she had once cried ink, and each foreleg had two black rings just under the elbow. And then, after the cat had given him a thorough sniff, she began to purr and push her large head under the stranger’s hand.

“Mitaja likes you. That’s something.” Ridahne leaned against her horse, inspecting the human with her bright eyes. “You don’t look too beat up. How do you feel?” Her eyes traveled up and down, assessing her condition, when she noticed the boy’s hands. They were slim and smooth, not rough like a boy’s would be—not one of that age. And it occurred to Ridahne that she’d mistaken the human for a boy.

“Oh...you’re a girl? Apologies, I mistook you. Probably safer like that on the road though. Speaking of, what is a girl who doesn’t know how to use a knife, disguised as a boy, doing all the way out here? Where are you going? If it isn’t far, you can—“

It was like she’d been struck by a stone. “You will come upon her in the wild.”

Ridahne stopped dead, mouth open, sharp eyes fixed on the girl. Could it be...? Finally? Her eyes narrowed and she took a very slow, very measured step forward. “What....are you doing out here...?” She asked slowly. Suspiciously. She knew. And she could see worry spreading across the girl’s face, but she couldn’t afford to have her bolt...

“Mitaja, hold!” The trained hunting cat leapt onto the human, pinning her down with her great weight, though beyond that she did not move. Ridahne came closer, her whole look and tone growing suddenly intense. “She won’t touch you until I tell her. So answer me honest. Where are you going and why?” She had to make sure it was really her. And tact was never one of her strong points—this was the only way she knew. She had to know.

Please, Great Tree, let this be her.
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Darin so glad the Elf was willing to help her. At least now she wouldn’t break something. She could have done without the comments about the wild being dangerous. She was well aware of that fact. That was why it was called the wild. Besides. It wasn’t like Darin was here by choice. If it was up to her, she would be back on the farm getting ready for the harvest. She supposed she did have a choice. It just wasn’t much of a choice. She couldn’t just let Astra fall.

Once she was on the ground the cat got closer. Darin held impossibly still as she was examined. When the cat decided that she was okay Darin let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding. With a slight smile she began running her hand though the cat’s fur. She thought that was the right thing to do since the cat had all but demanded it.

Darin whispered, “You really are beautiful.” Louder than that she told the Elf. “You’re right it’s safer. But, how did you?”

She didn’t get a chance to finish before the cat was pinning her to the ground. Darin was convinced the cat was bigger than she was. She tossed a look at the Elf. This wasn’t good. This is why she needed to get The Seed planted. No on wanted to be nice any more. Though why the Elf had decided to help her ground only to pin her to the ground was beyond her. People made no sense to Darin. Not for the first time Darin wished she was back on her farm. Why did it have to be her?”

Darin decided to answer the question without going into too much detail, “I’m a journey for my mother. It’s very important. Please let me go. I’ll try not to bother you anymore.”

There, the Elf wouldn’t be able to call her a liar. Darin was on a journey to protect her mother. It just so happened that it was also a journey to protect everyone in Astra. And it was very important. It was life of death important. Darin couldn’t tell her anymore. She may not have been prepared for the wild, but she wasn’t stupid. She couldn’t jus go around telling people she was on a journey to plant The Seed. That would a paint a target on her back. While it was true some people would be more willing to help her, Darin had no experience in telling if a person was bad or good. She knew that too. So, it was better to keep to herself.

Darin knew better than to try and struggle out of this mess. The Elf was clearly a fighter. Darin had none of those skill. Somehow, she didn’t think being able to plow a field would help her in this case. She could only hope that the Elf would take her answer and not question her further. It was a true answer, so if the Elf had someone to tell she was lying she wouldn’t be able detect a lie from her. At least that’s what Darin was hoping.

Darin was not above begging, “Please. I’m just a farm girl. All I want to do is finish my journey and go home.”

Also true. That was what Darin wanted. She wanted to figure out where The Seed wanted to be planted. Then she needed to plant it and make sure it would grow. Then she wanted to go home, back to her mother, back to her farm. In the back of her mind Darin knew that wouldn’t be the case. In the back of her mind she knew The Gardener had called her to do more than just plant The Seed. Darin wasn’t paying attention to that part of herself. If she did, she thought she might collapse from the sheer overwhelming nature of this whole adventure.
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Ridahne inwardly deflated, but years of training kept her exterior unchanging. Just a journey for her mother? Ridahne really hoped she could sort of shock the answer out of her, as she guessed the new Gardener would not be quick to reveal her identity to a stranger on the road, not with all the people out there who sought to hinder her, which was why she was even out here in the first place. It was also the only reason she was still alive, she told herself. It took her until then to remember that she was...well...intimidating. Not only were elves in general tall and could be described as 'exotic' by most humans, the Azurei clan were fierce, heavily tattooed, and generally a little rough around the edges. One had to be in order to survive the desert wastes. But even among her own clan, Ridahne was often described as a bit intense. She had a wild spirit to begin with but then growing up poor, losing her mother at an early age and then eventually her father, her warrior's training and the lifestyle that came with that, and all the time spent alone in the Dust Sea, hardened her. Life had seen fit to make her aggressive, loud, and blunt, and while it had saved her life before, at the moment it was getting in the way.

She had to think through this differently.

"Oh..." she said letting some of her genuine defeat show through a bit. Her eyes still watched the girl's face, but with a short whistle she called off her hunting cat, who obediently left the human to go rub up against a tree. "And that's...all you're doing?" She hoped that wasn't the case. Ridahne wanted so desperately for this person to be the one she'd been looking for, she couldn't just give up that easily, even though she might be wrong about her. Except...no. She wasn't wrong. She knew it. Ridahne just knew it. But she had to get it out of her, she had to be certain. "Mm. How long have you been away?"

Ridahne checked her saddlebags and the gear inside of them before deftly mounting her horse, Tsura. "Where are you headed?" she asked with a little bit of a resigned sigh. A real fear that the girl wasn't being evasive settled in her stomach. Maybe she wasn't the one. Maybe Ridahne had just been overeager. "I can take you as far as Greyrock, if you feel like giving your legs a rest. I figure I owe you a little for making Mitaja pin you down...sorry about that by the way. I don't normally jump strangers...it's just...I've spent a very long time in wild country looking for someone. Four months, actually. She needs my help, see. And for a moment I thought...I'd hoped..." She gave a very real sigh. This wasn't so much a ruse anymore; with every word she spoke she realized how ridiculous the idea sounded. What were the odds that she would actually stumble on this mystical Gardener, right here, right now? No matter what the stupid, accursed vision had said, Ridahne was beginning to believe that she'd never find what she'd been looking for. And the bitterness that had been clouding her all day slipped back into her chest.

This was a fool's errand. And she was the chief fool.

Head hung a little bit, she almost imperceptibly shook her head, dark waves swaying a little. "Forget it," she grumbled. "You want a ride or not?"
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Darin didn’t like the way the Elf attempted to make sure it was just a journey for her mother. It made the girl warry. There was something about how eager the Elf was to know how long she had been traveling that set her on high alert. Though it was odd how quickly she gave up on that line of questions. Darin wasn’t going to answer any questions unless the Elf insisted. When the cat got off of her Darin slowly sat up.

Maybe she wasn’t the brightest, but she said, “A ride would be awesome. Greyrock is far enough.”

Darin didn’t actually know if that was far enough. She had no idea where Greyrock was in relationship to where she was now. She didn’t know where it was related to the whole of Astra either. Of course, she didn’t know where she was in relation to all of Astra, so it’s not like it mattered. The village she called home had no maps. Darin wasn’t really bothered by the fact that was lost. She had to travel all of Astra. She was hoping not all of Astra, but it could be all of Astra. She supposed she should be at least a little worried. It wouldn’t do to spend years wondering in circles. Maybe there would be a map in the Greyrock place.

Darin stood up and slowly approached the horse, “Well I don’t know who you’re looking for, but I needed your help down, and I guess that I need your help out of this forest. So, it’s good you came by.” She shrugged, “Maybe they’re in Greyrock.”

Darin was pretty positive that she was the girl the Elf was looking for. She didn’t know that for sure, but the way the Elf was talking about the girl needing her help, and the feeling Darin was getting made her willing to bet that she was looking for the person who had The Seed. Since that was her, she was being sought after. Darin wasn’t going to tell her that though. She wasn’t sure how much of this was a ruse to get her to trust the Elf. Right now, she couldn’t trust anyone.

Still, she was tired of walking. She had been doing nothing but walk for the past three months. Even before all her supplies were stolen Darin couldn’t ride the pack mule. There were two reasons for this. The first was that the mule wouldn’t move with people on its back. It was just that stubborn. The second was that Darin didn’t know how to ride. She never had a reason to. She worked a small farm in a small village. Though that reason did lead to her current predicament.

Darin looked at the horse with confusion on her face, “Um. How do I get on?” She slowly backed away, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. I don’t know how to ride.”

Now that Darin was thinking about it properly this was a terrible idea. The Elf had her cat pin Darin to the ground and started demanding things she had no real right to demand. Darin had no clue where Greyrock was or even what kind of town it was. For all she knew it was a den of less than honest people. This whole adventure had her on edge. She had always been less trusting than most people, but now she was down right twitching with distrust. She wasn’t even sure what way was the right way anymore. She was convinced she was losing her mind.
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Ajoran looked good in the Taja sash. His whole uniform made him look rather handsome, Ridahne thought, though she refused to look at him now. For the last two hours, she'd been looking everywhere but at him. Currently, she'd been studying a shaft of moonlight that cut across her cell wall.

"Why did you come?" Her voice echoed through the red stone halls even though she spoke softly.
Ajoran sighed. "I didn't want you to do this alone, Ridahne."
"You should have. You are a Taja, one of the few guardians of the Sota-Sol herself. A place of honor. Your place is not with me."
Ajoran shook his head, a tiny, sad smile touching his lips. "I knew you'd say that." Silence. The two were normally very comfortable, if not pleased with communal silence between them but tonight was different. The silence made Ridahne think of the other times they had sat quietly together, and that hurt more than even her impending death. She refused to break down for anyone to see. She would die tomorrow. But she would go with her head high.

"Do you regret it?" Ajoran asked.
Ridahne sighed heavily and let her head roll upon her shoulders so that she now stared at the wall beside her. "No." Her tone was resolute. Hard. Unmoving.
Ajoran said nothing for a moment, just drank in the sight of her. Blessed Tree, she was stubborn. She was fire and she was stone. And he loved her for it. He wanted to tell her that in his heart of hearts, he thought she'd done the right thing, but he couldn't. Not as a Taja. Another slow, sad smile. "Knew you'd say that too."


--

That night had completely changed the trajectory of her life. It had literally saved it. Whether or not she deserved to be saved, Ridahne felt that was up for debate. But she was nonetheless, all because of a stupid vision. A vision she was growing to hate with every passing day. Maybe it was a false one--such things had happened before. Except...it felt so real. There in that dark cell, and even in front of each of the Sol, in front of Ajoran, Ridahne was absolutely certain it was real. But now...

Some reasonable part of her tried to explain to herself that it was just her anger getting the better of her. Of course it was real, she was just frustrated that fulfilling the vision was taking so long. She'd known about the existence of a Seed even before there appeared to be one--or at least before the rumors started. That had to be worth something.

And yet, she'd been traveling for four months in search of some girl in the wild who needed her help. No name to go by, not even a region. The girl could be a siren, an elf, or a human for all she knew, though she had learned from rumor that supposedly the bearer of the Seed was human. Still, they could all be wrong. After all, no one had actually seen her, and that made Ridahne feel like she was chasing a ghost. Perhaps she was never actually meant to find this person at all, and the only reason she was spared from death was so she could live out her long elvish years in bitter seclusion, banished from her home and everything she'd ever loved.

REALLY GREAT, ANCESTORS. She thought bitterly, mentally screaming into the sky. THANKS FOR THAT, THANKS A LOT.

The elf gave a derisive, bitter laugh. "In Greyrock? I doubt it. This phantom I've been searching for has eluded me for four months. And I'm a good tracker, by Azurei standards. For a moment I thought she'd be you. Don't know if you've heard this, but some elves--the Eluri mostly but sometimes the Azurei also--occasionally get blessed--" she said this with tangible virulence "--with visions. Mine specified I'd find this phantom in the wild, which is why I thought..." Another defeated sigh. "No. She won't be in Greyrock."

Ridahne gave her a withering look that clearly read: you left home and you don't know how to ride...?. And once again a tiny flare of hope blossomed inside her chest. What if she was? Why wouldn't she reveal herself? How was she supposed to convince her she was there to help? Or maybe she just really was a naive farm girl. She'd thought that if she did ever find this person, the clouds would part and a bolt of sunlight would beam down upon them both and reveal their purpose to one another, and she wouldn't have to squeeze the information out of her under threat of an Urala cat's teeth.

Just one more cruel dig from fate.

But then she saw her taking a few slow steps back, and Ridahne could see the anxiety on her face. "Look," she said with the tone and expression of someone jaded by years of strife who now saw no reason to dance around the truth. "If I wanted to kill you or rob you, I could have done it three times over by now. I am what southern humans call 'a Ghost of the Sands'. Veerkari'e, in my language, just means female warrior. But humans lost in the desert start to get poetic." She shrugged. "Whatever you call me, I know my way around a blade, so if I'd wanted to, I could have. But I haven't, and I don't intend to, whoever you are." Ridahne thought for a moment before adding, "Even if you were who I thought you were, that's not why I'm here." She said this pointedly, making eye contact with the girl with those striking amber eyes of hers. But she said nothing else on the matter.

Ridahne slid one foot out of the stirrup for the girl to use and held out her hand. "By the way, if you want to convince people you are a boy, you'll have to rough up those hands a bit more. The wilderness has done some of the work for you, and some people might not notice, but I can tell you that boy's hands don't look like yours." As she said this, she wiggled her own slender fingers, one of which bore a silver ring. "I'm Ridahne, by the way. Ridahne Torzinei. C'mon. I'll buy you a drink and a hot meal when we get to Greyrock. You look like you could use one and...I did tackle you with a hundred and thirty pound cat." There was a quirk of her lips that was almost a smile.

Ridahne was still torn about how she felt about this girl. Good sense, frustration, and a lack of hope made her almost certain this was not Astra's new Gardener, but some irritating gut feeling made her unwilling to give up just yet. Only now that she'd exhausted her 'blunt' card, she had to play the long game.
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Darin supposed she had a point, though it wasn’t just about the Elf. She didn’t know anything about Greyrock after all. She wasn’t sure she could say that out loud. She looked ready to hurt her just because her patience had run out. That would not be an agreeable idea. So, the human slipped her foot into the stirrup and let her hand hold the Elf’s so she could be swung on the horse. Darin came to a conclusion right away. She did not like riding. It might have just been because she hadn’t done it before, but she didn’t like it.

As she got mostly settled, she told her current companion, “Darin. I’m Darin. I don’t have a last name.”

She had never needed one. Home was small. Everyone there knew everyone else by sight. She knew that most people did have two names. She wasn’t sure why, but she knew that sometimes people had the same name as another person. That wasn’t usually a problem where she was from. She didn’t think it would be a problem for the Elf. She had never heard of a name like Ridahne. Then again, maybe it was a common Elf name. She wouldn’t know. Darin supposed if she needed a second name, she could be Darin Seed-Bearer. There was no way she was telling anyone that though. So, Darin would have to do. It had done just fine for the first 19 years of her life after all.

As they traveled Darin looked at her hands. She had hoped that the four years of working on her farm would have harden her hands at least a little bit. He mother certainly sighed over the state of her hands. They were the roughest out of all the girls’ in the village. Darin was starting to realize that the world was bigger than she thought. She knew that, but she hadn’t known that. Before the Gardener came the farthest she had every gotten from home was the market in the next town over. That was just about a day’s journey, so nothing like the two months she had been travel now.

It wasn’t really two months. It was more like two and a half. The Gardener had come to the village 3 months ago. It had taken about a week and a half for the village to get her set up for the trip. That was actually a good thing. Ridahne said she had been looking for the person she was searching for, for four months. So, it couldn’t be her. Of course, the Elf said a vision had started her journey. Maybe she had known about The Seed long before Darin had known. Though if she really was looking for her the vision didn’t seem to be particularly helpful. For that Darin thanked The Tree. Who knew what the vision told the Elf? Well, she supposed Ridahne knew. That didn’t mean the human knew. For all she knew the help Ridahne was talking about was help losing The Seed. Darin just finished telling half-truths. She wasn’t naïve enough to think she was the only one that did that.

Absently Darin mentally checked that she still had The Seed. She didn’t keep it around her neck. The last thing she needed was people questioning why she had a necklace where the pendant couldn’t be seen. Instead it was in a band around her thigh. The best seamstress in the village had sewn The Seed into a pouch that was tight around it. Then she had sewn it into a band in such a way that the band looked flat. The stitching was small and tight. She had done it three times. The for the pouch was linen that had been waxed so it was both stiff and water proof. The band was the toughest leather. It was then sewn around her thigh. When Darin was ready to plant The Seed, she would have to carefully cut it off of her, and then she would have to be extra careful to cut it out. It was probably over kill, but Darin didn’t care. She had been given this job for some reason unknown to her. She wasn’t going to mess it up because she was sloppy. That why, even though she couldn’t possibly lose it, she mentally checked for it every other second.

Darin could feel The Seed. It lingered in the back of her mind. It wasn’t words or anything she understood. Still, it had been that way snice The Gardener had given it to her. She could sense if there was distance between her and The Seed. She figured that would be how she would know that it was time to plant it. As for what it looked like; The Seed looked like an ordinary apple seed. It was small, black, and unassuming. Everyone in the village had looked at it. She was the only one that had the connection with it. Everyone knew it was The Seed as soon as they had seen it. Darin had tried mixing it with other apple seeds. Appearance wise it worked. Everyone could pick it out though. They had to see it though. So, the band hid it well enough.

Darin asked Ridahne, “How long till Greyrock?”

Now that they had been riding for a while Darin was convinced that she didn’t like it. The Elf seemed to move with the horse. Darin was being moved by the horse. She knew that the animal had to not like it. She didn’t like it either. The sooner she was off the happier the both of them would be. She knew that she would be stiff when it was over. If she could help it, she was never getting on a horse again. She didn’t think that would actually be an option. Though The Seed she could vaguely feel The Tree. It was dying just a little bit faster every day. She might not have time to walk the entirety of Astra.
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Ridahne gave a little nod. "Darin," she repeated. "Hm, forgot some humans didn't have family names. Not that it's important anyway. It's been twenty years since I've been to the human lands. I've forgotten a lot of things about it." Ridahne didn't look to be a day over thirty, though something about those eyes of her suggested otherwise. Elves were not immortal (the question always irritated Ridahne when she was asked by some drunkard at a small town tavern) but they did live for hundreds of years. Ridahne was a very young hundred and three.

Mitaja, who had disappeared for a while, emerged from the underbrush a little ahead of them, shared eye contact with her handler for a moment, and then vanished as quickly as she'd come. "Greyrock? Mmm..." Ridahne craned her head back to try and steal a peek at the sun, then around at her surroundings. "An hour, at this pace. Tsura has good paces, he can run very fast for a long time, but not with two and all my gear." Ridahne patted the buckskin gelding's neck. "You're stiff. I can feel you on the saddle. Relax a bit at the hips and you'll be more comfortable. And if you're going to continue this...journey, you should know how to use a weapon, or you'll get robbed again. I happen to be a specialist with blades, I can teach you some things and help you find a little dagger that suits you." The sword on her back was easily visible, and now that Darin was up close she was able to see the delicate silver inlay into the dark, polished handle and the single raw sapphire set into the leather scabbard. But Ridahne lifted her sleeveless gray shirt a little at the back to reveal her two knives. Only part of them were visible under the fabric when she lifted it, but by their size and something about the worn look of them, they were clearly not meant for hunting and shaving kindling. They were for fighting.

"You don't strike me as the fighting type and, from what I remember, most human females don't fight. Right? Pity. But you need to know how to defend yourself if you'll be on the road for any length of time. There won't always be a Veerkari'e to save you." Her accent got extra thick whenever she spoke her own language, even just one word of it.
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Darin tried to relax the way she been told. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. She constantly felt like she was going to fall off. And every time she did, she tensed up again. Maybe if she found something to distract her. After coming to that conclusion, the human decided to study her companion. Her sword was beautiful, but Darin had to admit that she didn’t know if it was practical. She supposed it was. She couldn’t imagine this warrior having anything that wasn’t.

Darin responded to her offer as politely as she knew how, “Thank you but I have a knife. I just don’t know how to use it, so I keep it in my pack.”

Darin knew it wasn’t an impressive knife, and it certainly wasn’t made for fighting. It was on of the butcher’s knifes. It wasn’t too long, Darin felt powerful using it. She knew it wasn’t much, but she had managed to use it to get away from the people who stole her pack mule. They had been planning to do something horrible to her, and they still thought she was a boy. She shuddered at the thought of what they would do with her if they had found out she was a girl.

Darin continued, “Though if you could teach me how to use it that would be great.”

She supposed she actually had two weapons, but she wasn’t using the second one for anything. It was a seem ripper the seamstress had given her. Darin had accidently poked herself on it just by tapping the end of it. It was sharper than her knife, and Darin wanted to keep it that way. She knew that the sharper it was the easier it would be to get The Seed out. That reminded Darin.

She asked a question she didn’t think would get a straight answer, “Who are you looking for? She must be important if you’re getting visions about her. Is she some sort of Elf princess? Do Elves even have princesses?”

Darin knew she wasn’t going to get a straight answer. Why would she? The mission that Ridahne sounded super important; like hers, and she was doing her best not to talk about it. It was just that an hour was a long time to spend in silence. Darin didn’t want things to get anymore awkward than they already were. After all, she had basically agreed to this woman teaching her some self-defense. Darin looked at the frankly scary looking knifes. She wanted to come out of the training, however brief, in one piece. She knew she was going to get injured at least once, but if she was lucky it would be minor.
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"Oh you do have one? Well c'mon then, let's see it." Ridahne twisted around in the saddle, craning her head back to face her current traveling companion. She knew that even if it was the best human-made knife in all of Astra, it wouldn't compare to the ones she carried. Elf blades were legendary for their light weight and ability to hold an edge without being brittle. For true weapons and not just knives of utility, the steel was folded repeatedly, adding layers of high-carbon steel until the surface of the metal showed dark lines that ran through the blade like markings on a topographical map.

Ajoran had made hers. All three of them. The Teleisun family had historically been bladesmiths for as long as anyone could recall, and Ajoran had taken up the craft in his younger years. He was a soldier now. A high guard of the tribe's matriarch, and for a man, there was no greater honor. But in his days as a smith, he made beautiful blades. When she was still a child by her people's standards, a mere twenty summers, she'd commissioned a sword from him not just because she knew he was good, but because she'd always sort of liked him. And he, her. He crafted it with her in mind and poured each of his feelings about her into that blade. It was a work of living poetry. The knives, he made her some ten years later and they, too were his love letters to her. Those three blades and the carved carnelian pendant she wore around her neck were the only pieces of him she still had left.

Darin asked her who she was looking for, and specifically if she was an elf princess. Ridahne laughed. It was not a mocking sort aimed at the ill-informed, but instead it was again the derisive, hardened laughter of someone who'd long ago lost hope and given way to bitter toil and despair. "No, no elf princesses. At least, not by your definition of 'princess'. In Azurei at least, we have the Sota-Sol--what you might call a queen. She is the absolute ruler of our tribe. And below her are four lesser Sol that oversee their own province, but they answer to the Sota-Sol. Perhaps you can call them princesses, but unlike human royalty, they are not born into the position, they are chosen and groomed over the course of about a hundred years before they are ready to replace their mentor. That's not the case in Eluri and Orosi, they have different systems."

She gave another dark chuckle to herself, shaking her head a bit. "No. She is not Azurei, or even elvish. Rumor has it she's human but that could be speculation. She's a siren, for all I know." She threw up her hands in exasperation. "But you won't believe me if I tell you who she is. Or who she's supposed to be. Maybe you would, I don't know." Her voice was level and the volume was appropriate for speaking to someone directly behind her, but something in it showed her deep-rooted frustration.

For a while, it seemed like she wouldn't offer anything else on the subject. She was quiet, stony even as she guided the horse through the thick forest. But then, after a painful silence, she spoke softly.

"I was supposed to be executed. A disgraced traitor. And the night before I had this stupid vision. I saw the tree and how bad it looked, and a glimpse of what could be if it were to fall. And though we haven't seen it for ages, my people still remember the bitterness of war... but then a voice said to me, said these exact words, 'You will come upon her in the wild. She has The Seed. And she will need your help. Redeem yourself, Child of the Night Sky, and save the land you love.' And suddenly I went from being eight hours from death to being Azurei's secret symbol of hope or something. And at the very hour I was supposed to be beheaded, I was sent home with all speed to collect my horse, my things, and my hunting cat, and was sent on my way with all the blessings of all five Sol. And so for FOUR MONTHS I have been puttering around every overgrown corner of Astra, still publicly marked as a traitor for all my people to see," she gestured to her tattooed face, "and yet set out on a hopeless quest that's supposed to make up for my excuse of a life while conveniently taking me away from everything and everyone I've ever loved. Azurei's living embarrassment, swept under the rug for the world to forget! And for a moment I thought you...I thought maybe you could be her and I got one last cruel surge of hope but that too seems to be fruitless. Like everything else."

Ridahne took a few breaths, realizing as if for the first time that she'd been ranting. Her anger had been evident the whole time, and now that she was done speaking she didn't know what to do with that anger anymore. She wanted to break something, hack something, but nothing was convenient. So instead she looked up to the sky and said, "Ir khalei des'iale na a'aevir!" Though it wasn't apparent what exactly she said, it had the feel of curses and bitter words.

Another few breaths, and she forced herself to gain control. "I don't know why I told you all that." She waved a dismissive hand. "Sorry for unloading my sob story on you, I'm just..." She sighed after spending a significant amount of time searching for the right word. "I'm just very lost." Her voice was soft, low, and whatever fire had flared up a moment ago seemed to have been burned out and quenched.
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Darin swallowed, but didn’t say anything while she thought. So, the Elf was looking for her. Not only that but she was a traitor. Darin wasn’t sure what to make of that. Apparently, the fact, that the Elf was looking for her was keeping her alive. She wasn’t sure what to make of that. The compassionate part of the human wanted to scream that she was right here. The practically part of her want to run as soon as they reached Greyrock. She wasn’t sure what part would win. The only part that made a lick of sense to Darin was that Ridahne appeared to regret oversharing. The human could relate to that.

In fact, she could relate right now, “I’m the bastard child of a farmer.” She shrugged her shoulder’s “Not that that makes you feel better, but I figured it would be less uncomfortable if I shared as well.” Darin continued, “I mean I’m a bastard, but that doesn’t really matter. Marriage isn’t really a thing in my village, so my parents weren’t wedded, but two people do make promises of devotion and fidelity to each other. That’s what my parents did. Then, when I was fourteen, my father just left. He didn’t give a reason. He didn’t say goodbye. He disappeared in the middle of the note. He took the farm horse, half the supplies, and both our hearts. Everyone in the village looked down on my mother for not being able to keep him happy enough to stay. They figured that she had done something to drive him away. So, no one was willing to help on the farm. That meant I had to step up. I taught myself though trial and error and have been doing it practically single handily ever since. My mother worries over me because you can’t work a plow in skirts, and I cut my hair on my sixteenth birthday. She’s worried I’ll never find someone to start a family with.” Darin sighed as she stared off in the distance, “There was no one else to do the job that needed doing to I kissed my mother goodbye, and started this journey knowing I was unprepared. But it’s got to be done. SO, I’m going to do the best I can.”

Not for the first time Darin wondered if that was true. Was she the only person for the job, or had The Gardener run out of time? Maybe she was just the first candidate he had found. He had died literally two seconds after giving her The Seed, and Thomas and Milla wouldn’t tell her what their conversation with The Gardener had been about. They said that she would know when she needed to know. Needless to say, the human felt woefully unprepared for the task she had been given. She didn’t feel like she would ever know why it had been given to her. She just knew that it was. So, she had to do it the best she knew how.

Darin gave her head a shake, “Enough about personal history.” She held up her knife, “This is my knife. I know it’s not meant for fighting, but I have stabbed a man with it.” She shrugged, “That was an experience.”

She didn’t think the man was dead. She had stabbed him in the chest, but she had stabbed him on the wrong side to get his heart. She wasn’t trying to kill a man. She just wanted to get herself and The Seed away from him and his group of ne’er-do-wells. Was that the right word, or was bandits better? Darin didn’t know and she didn’t want to know. She just wanted a few lessons on how to use her knife better.
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Mitaja heard her coming first. Hadian had been in a dead sleep and the sound of hooves thundering up to his small hut would not have woken him if it weren't for the cat, who had been draped over him like a living blanket. She got up and stretched, putting one large paw on Hadian's chest in the process which caused him to groan and sputter a little. But then he did hear the hooves. When he got up and opened the door to peer into the darkness, he saw a white horse approaching and nearly choked on his own tongue; white horses were reserved for the Sol and their Taja. Reason kicked in and he thought for a split second it might be Ajoran. Perhaps the deed had been done, and he had come to give Ridahne's brother his condolences. After all, if things had gone differently, they might have called each other brothers. But the lack of Taja's sash and an overabundance of wavy black hair told him otherwise.

"Ri...dah..ne...?"
"Hadian!" His sister leaped out of the saddle and threw her arms around him, holding tightly.
"Ridahne, the horse! Did you...what did you do?"
"I didn't, I have to send her back. But they wanted me to get here as fast as possible, I've been riding for a full day. Take care of her and then send her on her way, yes?"
"I don't understand...Ridahne..." He gingerly touched the brand new tattoo, swollen and fresh between her eyes. "How are you not dead?"

Ridahne's hands gripped his arms hard. She had so much adrenaline she could hardly stand it. "I had a vision. About...the Tree." Now his hands were gripping her arms. "There is, or is going to be--I don't know--a new gardener. That's all I'm allowed to tell you, but you CAN'T tell anyone else. Nobody. Not even Nyyvai. Come, Hadian! Help me pack!"
The two rushed into the tiny house. "You've been pardoned? But your Ojih...?"
"Doesn't show that, no. I'm not really pardoned, not fully. It depends on my success. I'm sorry, Hadian, I'll need Mitaja."
The older of the two nodded. "Right. Does Ajoran know?" When Ridahne nodded Hadian asked, "Then could, when you're done, could--"
"No." Her tone went suddenly cold and hard. "I'd only bring him shame."
Hadian knew his sister's tone and wisely did not press. "Can I ask where you're going?"

Ridahne had been gathering food and madly stuffing it into a thin cloth sack, but she stopped dead at those words. And, as if for the first time, she realized the enormity of what she was about to undertake and said slowly, "I don't know, Hadian."


---

"Fate can be downright cruel, can't it?" She muttered. Well, at least she wasn't the only miserable sap. Still, some irritating part of her that was still clinging to hope made her think that if her own admission didn't draw out a confession that Darin was the Gardener, then nothing would. Because she isn't. Go figure.

Ridahne turned around again, this time taking the knife with one of her slender, scarred hands. She inspected it, hefted it, even swung it a little. Tsura gave a little leap of his forelegs--not quite rearing but definitely a little hop--and his pace quickened, but Ridahne quickly reigned him in. "Sorry. He's trained for fighting and I'm giving him ideas..." She hefted the weapon some more and turned it around a few times. Then she chuckled. "You stabbed a man with this?" Her laugh grew stronger, more amused. "I gotta hand it to you, that's determination. Good for you. Your first time is always an experience. You hunt and kill animals for food, or you slay an injured horse to spare it from misery, and you think you're ready to kill a man when a situation gets desperate enough. But you're never ready for that first time." She spoke with absolute experience.

Ridahne had killed. Many times. But she had never murdered anyone in cold blood at least, or that's what she told herself the first few times. It remained true even to that day, but after so long it didn't seem to matter anymore. She knew that on the whole, she was doing good, even if it meant spilling blood. There was, after all, some evil that not even the Great Tree could quell, and especially not so far south. Ridahne was there to find those who slipped through the cracks.

"Does that blade suit you? Because you could do better...I'd feel easier leaving you with a real blade and not a kitchen knife...ai, this is barely even sharp!" Ridahne took a smooth stone from one of her saddlebags and began to sharpen the blade right then and there, like it bothered her to even hold a dull blade. In a way, it did. She likened it to someone who spent their life raising elite horses being presented with a mule for racing.
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Darin would admit to a yelp of panic as the horse started moving a way that was unfamiliar. Ridahne's explanation did nothing to make her feel better. She could feel her heart racing as the Elf calmed the horse down. The human wanted to be off of it. She didn’t want to ride anymore. She tried to resign herself to the fact that she would probably have to. It wasn’t easy.

Darin felt obligated to point out, “I didn’t kill him. I just stabbed him. I suppose he could be dead because of me.” She shrugged. “But I wouldn’t know. He was breathing when I left.”

She watched Ridahne sharpen the knife. The butcher made sure that she knew how to do that. She had done it every time she actually used it. It didn’t seem to want to hold an edge. She was probably not taking care of it properly. She didn’t know how to check if she knew how to take care of it.

Darin shrugged, “I don’t know what you mean. How can one blade suit me better than this one? If you send a plow horse into battle it’s still a plow horse. I don’t know how to use a knife for anymore than cutting things like rope and vegetables. So, a better knife would be pointless. I can use a sickle, but I was told that wasn’t a practical defense for a trip in the wilds of Astra. Not that the person who told me that would know.” Suddenly she had to ask, “Can I use a sickle for defense in the wild?”

She hoped her hope wasn’t apparent in her voice. She knew how to tell if a sickle was in good condition. She knew how to properly swing one as well. Darin had to admit that it probably wasn’t practical. She was hoping the answer was maybe. It would be nice to use a weapon she was used to. She might have to make some adjustments, but it would be better than learning a whole new skill set. Though she probably wouldn’t be able to buy one. Sickles were too important to farm work. It wasn’t like a farmer would just sell her his for the meager amount of coins she had.

She found herself thinking about her farm. Technically it was her mother’s farm, but everyone in the village knew it was actually Darin’s farm. It wasn’t the most impressive farm in the village. There was only one field, and for the most part Darin grew the things that would get her and her mother from one harvest to the next. There were a few chickens, goats, and ducks. There had been one lone pig before it got fat enough to eat. It was a simple life. She hoped Thomas and Milla were keeping up the farm. They had promised that they would. Darin hoped she saw it again. She didn’t think she would. She didn’t even know what direction home was in. That was how lost she was. For all she knew she could have been traveling in circles for who knew how long. She really needed a map.

She found herself asking, “Have you ever heard of a town called Lively? If so, can you tell me how far we are from it and what direction it is?”

Lively was the closet town to the nameless village where Darin had grown up. It was the village where the lord that wanted to marry Milla lived. It was where the market was held. She didn’t have much hope that Ridahne had heard of it. There was still a better chance of her having heard of it than Darin’s home. If the Elf had heard of Lively at least Darin would be able to figure out where home was. Right now, that was all she wanted.

Suddenly Darin thought she saw something in the trees. She was overcome with a feeling a dread. It was the same feeling that she got when the bandits had surround her. She had to give it to Ridahne. The Elf may have been a traitor, but at least Darin didn’t feel a strong urge to run away from her.

Quietly, as not to draw attention to herself, the human asked, “How far to Greyrock?” She knew her eyes were supper wide, “We need to get out of here. Soon.”
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Ridahne smiled, and actually turned around in the saddle so that Darin could see the rare expression. But something in her eyes spelled sadness. Just a little. “Ohhh, just because he’s still breathing doesn’t mean he isn’t dead now. Some wounds take you slow. And even if he makes it out alive and comes around, he’s got to battle infection for a long time. That’s what usually gets people. The wound festers and nobody really knows how to help it. But I suppose it’s possible. I’ve been stabbed once...” she touched her side right above her hip. “Some twenty or so years ago, I can barely remember. I tell you what though, the man who did it is long dead.”

She casually looked to one side as if she’d heard something, but it didn’t seem to concern her too much. Few things did when it was just her—she could defend herself and she’d already prepared herself to die once. “Darin, I’ll tell you something you should never forget: you can defend yourself with anything. I mean anything. A stick, a rope, an axe, a hoe, a chamber pot, if you have to. Some things are more useful than others, but anything can be used against you and so therefore you can use anything against someone else. I know of a woman who defended her goats from a wolf with a knitting needle. True story. If you can use that sickle effectively and comfortably, then you can count on it as a weapon. You’re better off with something you feel good with than something that feels alien to you. For example, I could shoot a bow. I am capable, but you should never rely on my aim in a tight spot, because it’s not what I’m used to. Blades though, I can count on.”

Ridahne thought for a bit about Lively. She might have maybe heard of it once upon a time, though it didn’t really ring a bell. She’d been in human lands for maybe three months and she hadn’t paid much attention to where she was going, mostly because it didn’t really matter. She shook her head. “Don’t know, not off the top of my head...I’ve got a map somewhere in the saddlebags though. Why, is that where you’re going? Or where you came from? Must be a small place, I assume?”

Again, Ridahne tilted her head to one side as if listening for something, and then gave a two noted whistle. In a moment, there was the sound of four trotting feet crunching towards them and Mitaja appeared through the brush and waited for them to pass, taking up the rear and following much closer now, black ears swiveling. Ridahne gave a slow nod. “Yes,” she said as casually as if Darin had just informed her of a change in the weather. “We’re being watched.” Her voice was low and soft but not overly harried. Ridahne was not worried. Aware, and would act accordingly, but not worried. Even so, she felt the need to move a little more quickly. “Hang on to me tightly and try to relax the rest of your body as best you can. I’m about to show you the stamina and speed of Azurei horses. If they give chase and decide to engage, the best they can hope for is to come away with only ONE hand missing.” From someone else, this might have been bravado, but she was so casual, so absolute about it that there left no room for doubt that she meant every word.

When Ridahne was sure of Darin’s grip, Ridahne barked a sharp “HAH!” And flicked the reins, and suddenly they were flying forward on thundering hooves. The ride became much less smooth than before, though it didn’t phase Ridahne in the slightest. After all, she nearly lived on horseback for most of her life. Their burst of speed cut down the time of their trip considerably, and before long the smell of woodsmoke filled the air and they came upon the little town of Greyrock. It wasn’t particularly large, though not tiny either. It had all the amenities one would want in a settlement, including tinkers selling baubles in a thriving marketplace, though most of the residents knew each other by name. Tsura was heaving, though from the way he tossed his head and grunted it seemed like he’d enjoyed the sprint.

Ridahne dismounted fluidly, her dancer’s body moving with practiced ease over the horse’s withers, and helped Darin out of the saddle. “I’ve got to get Tsura taken care of and stabled for the night, and then let’s see about that drink and a meal I owe you, eh? I think I’ll be staying at the inn tonight, and if you’ve got nowhere else to be, you’re welcome to join me. I can teach you a few things about how to use that blade of yours.”
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Darin wasn’t sure where she was supposed to be holding on to, so she held on to Ridahne’s waist. At first, she kept her grip loose. Then, when the galloping started, she let out a shriek and gripped so tight she couldn’t feel her fingers. When they stopped Darin had to force herself to let go. Even with Ridahne helping her down she still fell more than she dismounted.

She nodded as the Elf told her the plan, “Sounds like a plan.”

Darin was still shaky, so she didn’t make it to the inn right away. Instead she found a place out of the way to sit down for a moment. She put her head between her knees and tried to focus on breathing. She had not liked riding the horse one little bit. She liked horses just fine. Heath, who was Rolland’s plow horse, was a complete sweetheart. Darin had never ridden a horse before. Heath would let riders on his back, but that wasn’t what he was meant for. She was willing to bet that Ridahne’s horse was nice, but Darin preferred walking beside her horse rather than being on top of it.

She muttered to herself, “I can’t walk all of Astra though.”

“No, you can’t. Few people could.”

Darin’s head snapped up to see a man she didn’t reconigize. His clothes were neat, his smile was warm, and he seemed to be a pleasant sort of character. That didn’t change the fact that Darin looked in to his teal blue eyes and want to scream. She didn’t know if she wanted to scream in terror, scream for help, or scream in warning. Something inside of her didn’t like this man. That didn’t make any sense. It was true that she wasn’t trusting anyone, but there was a difference between not trusting someone, and deciding that they were evil just because of some vague reason. She thought he was evil and not evil like the bandits had been. They had just been trying surviving in a less than moral way. Darin thought that the man in front of her of evil for the sake of being evil. She tried not to let it show on her face.

His voice was full of concern, “Are you alright boy? You look kind of shaky.”

She struggled to come up with an answer that wouldn’t raise any alarms, “I’m just not use to riding.”

The man nodded as he smiled at her, “That makes sense.” He held out a hand to her, “You need to keep moving. If you stay still too long you’ll get stiff and riding will be even harder.”

She didn’t want to touch his hand. Especially after what Ridahne said about her hands. She couldn’t see a way out of it. She forced her hand into his so he could help her up. She let go of it as soon as she could. She hoped that her face hadn’t shown the fact that as soon as she touched him her thigh, right under The Seed, had started to burn. What was that? The Seed had never done that. It stopped as soon as she let go. Where was she getting these thoughts from? It wasn’t like she could read the hearts of men. Could she? She needed to get away, quickly.

She forced a smile to her face, “Thank you. I best go find my traveling partner.”

The man nodded, “I’m sure I’ll see you around. Safe travels.”

That sent so many shivers down Darin’s spine that she couldn’t say anything. She just ducked her head in a bob before scurrying away. She wanted to see if he was watching her but didn’t dare look over her shoulder. She needed to find Ridahne. She knew the Elf about as well as she knew the man. Logic dictated she trust the man more. Outwardly he had nothing but charming and his hunting cat hadn’t pin her on his command. That didn’t change the fact, that for some reason that had to be connected to The Seed, she was terrified of him. At least Ridahne hadn’t made The Seed react anymore than it already did.

Since Darin didn’t look back, she didn’t see the dark-haired man stare at her as she hurried towards the inn. The look on his face was calculating; like he was figuring something out. When he did a cruel smirk of triumph graced his features. It didn’t destroy his good looks, but it didn’t enhance them either. He quickly replaced the look with one of bland of indifference.

As soon as Darin found Ridahne she would rush over to her, “Ridahne!” Her eyes were blown wide with terror, “It followed us! It’s not good!” It was clear the human was close to freaking out, “What do we do?”
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Ridahne led Tsura to the nearest stable as she whispered promises of cool water and crunchy apples to her steed in her own jagged language. At the stables, a young human boy of about thirteen was in the middle of mucking out the stalls when he noticed someone come in.

“Hullo!” He said brightly, dropping his rake to go and greet her. He noted the horse first and, knowing a bit about horses, realized just how fine an animal he was. His creamy tan coat the color of sandstone was trail-worn but still sleek and smooth under the road dust. His black mane and tail harbored no knots or snarls, and his shoes, though dirtied, looked to be in great condition. He was about to marvel aloud at him when he noticed Ridahne herself. His mouth gaped. Ridahne guessed he had never seen an elf before, least of all one from Azurei. She towered over him, her eyes gleaming and her silver piercings glinting off the sunlight. There was a definite beauty and grace to her, though nothing so soft as the sort found among human women. Everything about her was hardened, jaded, and she screamed “dangerous” Not evil, perhaps. One admires a wolf and yet doesn’t approach, after all. The poor lad nearly bolted when Mitaja trotted up next to her handler.

Ridahne let him flounder for a moment before she smoothly said, “I need to stable my horse for the night. My cat will sleep with him—don’t worry, she won’t bite you. See to it he’s cleaned, fed, brushed, and well watered.”
Remembering himself, the lad nodded. “Yes ma’am.” He took the horse’s reins hesitantly and led him into a stable.
“Oh, and if he comes to any harm on your account, I’ll see to it you lose one of those hands of yours.” She gave a curt smile and, leaving both her animals in his care, she strode away as gracefully as a breath of wind. The boy thought for a moment she might be joking, but as she turned he saw her sword across her back and decided it was best to assume she wasn’t.

Ridahne went to the inn next. Right as she reached the door, Darin bolted up to her with wide, panicked eyes, explaining that whatever they’d encountered in the woods had indeed followed them. For a moment, Ridahne looked Darin over as if to say ‘What aren’t you telling me?’ Before she looked out over Darin’s shoulders. The elf towered over Darin too, as she was taller than most men. Up close and with Ridahne’s hair now tied back in a half ponytail, more of her unique features could be seen. For example, she had a very odd piercing in each ear—a little engraved silver plate that looked riveted into the flat, upper part of her ears where they slanted to points. She also had a very large dangling earring in her right ear made of carved and scrimshawed bone. In order for the jewelry to fit into her earlobe, the original hole would have had to been stretched slowly over time. Her facial tattoos, too, appeared to have even more detail in the full sunlight. Black, blue, and a little bit of white made chaotic and yet very intentional patterns on her face as the lines blossomed out from her right ear. Some of the markings looked ancient and faded. Others, like the black one down the bridge of her nose, seemed much more recent.

“It...?” That gave her some pause. But she thought, and then a dark smile spread onto her lips. “Do?” She chuckled. “We do nothing. If this hunter decides to be so bold as to attack us inside a tavern, then we’ll sit patiently and let our prey come to us. It might think itself clever and dangerous, but it has never met the likes of ME. All you need to do is stay close to me, and quietly tell me if you see it. I will make it rethink everything it has ever done.” There was something...almost sinister about her tone and the hungry gleam in her eyes. The truth was, she hadn’t had a good hunt in a while. “Tell me, what is this...thing? Is it man? Beast? Or something in between?”

Giving another scan of the horizon, Ridahne pushes open the tavern door. She smiled. “Come. I owe you a drink.” The tavern was near empty this time of day, though by evening it would undoubtedly be packed to the brim. That suited Ridahne just fine. Being elvish and therefore rare in these parts, she tended to attract a lot of attention in crowded places, which she didn’t really like.

The barman looked up with a little bit of surprise. "Afternoon, miss, lad." He gave a polite nod. "Can I get ya something?" His eyes were on her sword hilt poking up behind her head, hoping she wasn't going to be trouble.
"Two drinks, and two servings of whatever you've got in the kitchen." Ridahne fished out some coins and slid them across the bar, then found a table against one wall for the two of them to sit.
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Nothing? There weren’t doing anything? Darin didn’t like that at all. She didn’t know who the man was, but she knew that whatever was planning could not be good. It needed to be stopped. Then again, she didn’t know much about fighting or tactics. She was a farmer and the most strategy she ever had was deciding what crops to put where. Darin might not like it, bur Ridahne had a better idea of what strategies would be best. Besides, the human wasn’t quite sure what to make of the look on the Elf’s face. She decided not to push any more than she already had. So, instead she grabbed the mug and plate handed to her and followed Ridahne to sit down.

As she sat down, she told the Elf, “I don’t think it was either.”

Darin couldn’t imagine the person she met was actually a man. Being a man implied some wort of decency. She didn’t think he had any. Being a beast meant he should be more concerned for basic things like food, water, and other things for survival. He seemed to calculating for that. Darin almost wanted to call him a monster. Something that did evil for evil’s sake and evil’s sake only. That didn’t seem right either. He wanted something. What that something was the girl could only guess at.

Darin told her companion that, “I think he’s a monster. I’m not sure.”

With that sure turned her attention to her meal. When she took a swallow of her drink, she almost coughed it back up. Only sheer force of will made her swallow it. That had not been water. Darin was not sure what it was, but it didn’t taste very good. Luckily her mother had taught her good manners. Ridahne was buying her supper. It would be rude to complain about it. She was not looking forward to it. Oh well. She could be falling off another cliff.

Darin started on the plate of stew. That was the best thing Darin had ever tasted. That was probably a little bit of exaggeration. She had been surviving on increasing stale crackers and dried beef. The vegetables were over cooked, and the beef was a little tough. It could have used less salt. It still fabulous. Most likely she ate it too fast. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to waste time and let it get cold. She then choked on the last bite of it. The feeling that had come from the man with the teal eyes was back.

Darin looked up from her food. She did her best to make look like she had just finished her meal and was reevaluating her situation. As causally as possible she grabbed the mug to bring it to her lips. Her eyes went wide as she saw who had just walked in. The extreme desire to scream had returned.

Instead she softly nudged Ridahne with her toe. (It may have been more of a kick. She wasn’t sure.) Her whisper sounded hoarse, “Ridahne!” She jerked her head towards the door, “There.”

It was the man with the teal eyes. This time he was joined by two other people. Both were human. One was male. The other was female. The male was armed with two thin knifes strapped to each side of his waist. They were almost as long as Ridahne’s sword. He was bald and his head sported a number of blood red tattoos. The female was about Darin’s height but looked denser. Her bow was unstrung, but the quiver on her back was full of arrows. The teal eyed man did not appear to be armed.

The man looked around. When he saw Darin he smiled what she supposed was supposed to be a charming smile. He came over and with a laugh said, “I told you I would be seeing you again. I’m Mark.” He pointed at the man, “This is Luke.” He moved to the woman, “And Sara.” He held out his hand to Darin, “I didn’t get your name?”

The lie came out so easily it shocked Darin, “Martin Lively.”

Darin was not accustomed to flat out lying. Hopefully Ridahne wouldn’t call her on it. For a brief moment she needed it to be true. She knew how she had picked that name even if she had picked it as she was saying it. Martin was her father; the one that had left without given any reason why. She had her mother hadn’t used that name since. He was always “that man.” It was still a name Darin thought of everyday. Lively was the name of town closest to her village. Hopefully it made an acceptable surname, Darin had never bothered with one of those before.

She took his hand for the briefest of moments before he turned his attention to Ridahne, “Now what is a beauty like you traveling with a scamp like him for?”

Darin didn’t know what Ridahne was planning to tell him but knew that they needed to tell this man anything, but the truth. She wished she had a way to tell Ridahne that. She hoped the Elf got that. The Seed had burned while she was touching him again. She needed to look to see how the band was holding up. She didn’t think she could lose The Seed; she felt it in the back of her mind at all times. That didn’t mean she wanted to misplace it either. She couldn’t do it now though. Not while Mark was here. She almost hoped that Ridahne just ran him threw. That would at least get rid of the nasty feeling. The problem was that Mark hadn’t done anything yet. Darin only had her instincts to go on. Unfortunately, that was not a good enough reason to skewer someone.
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"A monster...?" This genuinely gave Ridahne some pause. She knew the ways of humans and of elves when it came to combat (though she had woefully little experience with sirens in any capacity) and she especially knew the ways of beasts, as she had hunted for her family since she was just a little girl. But monsters? It wasn't so much that she felt like a monster would be out of her league, it was simply that she could not classify it. 'Monster' was a loose term and could mean any number of things. She wasn't yet sure how to prepare, but she trusted her instincts and her blades. "Monster or no," she said, her voice low. "Everything must meet its end some day or another. Death is master of all. May I be its harbinger if things go ill." One thing was abundantly clear about Ridahne: she did not tolerate being harassed and her incurred wrath would be swift upon any who had the gall to harry her or, in this case, anyone she cared about.

Ridahne sat there like nothing was wrong. She looked completely and perfectly at ease to the casual observer, but if anyone knew her, they would see that each of her movements, even a simple reach for her mug of beer, was measured, slow, careful, and intentional. When she set the mug down, she did not let it thunk down and instead set it quietly down. She was not looking towards the door, but listening. Ridahne knew her prey would come to her--she just knew. And as a hunter she felt a certain kind of serenity in the waiting, in the patient stalking. This monster thought it was stalking her. But it was woefully mistaken. It was in this tranquility of lurking and listening that Darin kicked her shin a bit, making the elf flinch. But she finally looked up from her plate to see the group approaching.

Her face remained impassive and perhaps even cold, though Ridahne could feel the moment she lay eyes on the lot that there was something seriously wrong. A chill touched her spine that made her want to draw her sword, to have it ready, but she did not move. Steady. Hold. She could see Darin was very uncomfortable and Ridahne didn't blame her. Sweet talking people set her teeth on edge. Not only was that not the way in Azurei, it more often than not was masking some other, less pleasant subtext. Ridahne was impressed by Darin's ability to lie--that skill would keep her alive on this journey of hers, whatever it was. The man spoke to her next, and as she brought her amber eyes up to his teal ones, her violent disdain was extremely obvious. If it was possible for a person to look like a wolf, Ridahne was doing it very well. A wise man who valued his life (or his hands) would start backpedaling as fast as the space allowed, like a hunter might if he encountered a mother bear and her cubs. This man, Ridahne noted, was very unwise.

Not missing a beat and piggybacking off of Darin's lie she growled, "You're distracting my apprentice. Get lost. Or you might end up with one less hand than you came in with." She did not raise her voice, and that was perhaps the most unsettling part. She was cold. Calculated. Confident. And just below the stony surface was a fire waiting to be unleashed. Ridahne wanted to spit at him, to curse at him and strike him. Steady, Ridahne. Hold. She knew to wait for the right moment, but something inside of her was begging him to take the bait.

Try me. You'll regret it.
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