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Fool Boys and Firm Bosoms


The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long passed, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

To some, this new new brought sewn crops and a bountiful harvest, and the nearing of Bel Tine. Most of the folk in the Two Rivers celebrated the occasion with festivals, and with the hope of Gleemen coming to entertain the masses, or peddlars arriving in their extravagant caravans to bring news of the wider world; Of Kings and Princes, of the fabled Aes Sedai and bloody wars fought at the edge of the world. But such folk tales were seen as just that. Tales of entertainment.

To young Alidrin Baldyr, it was simply the time to travel to Taren's Ferry. Though that was a celebration in and of itself, truth be told. His da and his three sisters at home would begin working the small farm they owned, tilling the fields as his youngest sibling, his brother Rodin, would start to learn the art of sewing as their late mother had once done for extra money. Ali could not wait to be out of the house and traveling on his own.

In reality, he was old enough to find a wife and start a farm for himself. His 23rd birthday had passed this winter. But his da needed help on the farm, and he hadn't the heart to simply leave his four siblings until they were of age, no matter how much he wished to explore the wider world. He did not like to admit it, but the Gleemen's tales of far off conflicts and intrigue of courts, located in immaculately large Palaces that boggled the mind fascinated him. The greatest excitement Ali ever had was hunting the hair or the wolf, or practicing staff fighting with his da and friends. Or gambling.

It was the latter reason he visited Taren's Ferry this day. It was his job to bring in news from the outside world, and to ask when the merchants would arrive to ply their wares so his father could sell the wool and cotton that made the Two Rivers so famous. He crossed the Taren River with his walking staff, over the bridge and into the populated community of cobble streets and one inn. To most outsiders it was a quaint place. But to Ali it was the largest city he had ever been in.

Dusk had fallen, and most of the colorful people would be in their homes or the Inn, though he had seen the occasional watchmen out and about. Dark tales had been circulating through the region of nameless fears. Old enemies of the light that had penetrated so far into the Westlands that even Taren's Ferry was not to be entered or left in the dead of night. "Here, boy!" an elderly beggar said, his beard nearly drooping to his twig-like legs, smiling and holding out his decrepid hand to reveal two necklaces made of copper. "A good price I will sell them to you, eh? For a pretty lady?"

A good copper necklace would be a dowry worth his hide back at the Two Rivers, but this elder likely wished to rob him blind. Ali was not stupid. Plus he reminded him of old Olger back home, thinking Ali just another boy that needed to be kicked. "You smell like a goat," was all Ali said, and he strode past him, his walking stick hammering into the cobblestones as a warning with every step until he made it into the Inn.

As all buildings, the Inn was raised on redstone foundations, in case there was flooding from the Mountains of Mist. The wood was well cut oak, and the Innkeeper, Boldin Hightower, was an old friend of Ali's. The young men stepped into the warmth and the song, a conservatively dressed girl standing on a chair at the back of the room, singing a song of the love of an adventurous Coyote and the Beautiful Eagle that watched over him.

The stout men of Taren's Ferry filled the tables, though the occasional traveler or stranger mingled with them. It was not yet new spring however, and no one from anywhere else as far or farther than Whitebridge would show up here until then, or not at all. Inside the tables were round and stable, with plenty of room for drinks and games of chance to be played. A pretty serving girl fluttered her lashes at Ali as he stepped in, and he blushed, smiling back but growing a bit too shy to say anything.

It has always been his problem, his lack of experience with women. 'They could steal your heart as well as your purse and you get three guesses as to which they'll hold dear,' his uncle Montel used to say when he was very young. With dark locks of wavy hair that neared his shoulders and an athletic body, he was not unused to the attentions of girls, but only when he traveled, and whenever that occurred he was out of his element.

Well, just as well he wasn't here for that. The gaming table called to him, where he could win crowns and rumors aplenty, something the tall youth always managed to do when he made it here. His eyes glimmered at the sight of rolling dice, and if any were looking at him they would see their true color. At a cursory glance, most thought Ali had eyes as brown as the earth. But in the light, the truth would be revealed to show a maroon hue.

"Alright, boys." Ali said to a few other young men, some he recognized and some he didn't, setting down with them and unloading his pack onto the floor. "Grin, no cheating now. This year you'll not weasel your way out of paying me what's due."
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The wind howled for her bones. It thirsted for her marrow. Such black pain it would bring her that she would sing for a thousand years before she died. Mave tore furiously at the leaf patterned mosaic, fingers closing uselessly over empty air. The great black wind rolled towards her like a fog bank, bloating out the Ogier wrought stonework like a sheet of sentient darkness. The storm lantern flickered and gutted before the on rushing wind regardless of the fact that thick Ayamar glass made such a thing impossible. Not for the first time she wished she had used more reliable illumination, but she supposed if she were getting wishes that wouldn’t be where she would start.

The insidious song of the wind pounded in her temples and it was all she could do to keep plucking at leaves that didn’t exist. Black tendrils reached hungrily for her, coiling and twirling through the archaic air like streamers from an illuminators firework. Her fingers closed on something and a leaf, at one heartbeat merely a rendering on ancient stone, came away in her hand as fresh and life like as any she had seen on the spring ivy. The air in front of her shimmered a curious blue gray but she didn’t wait to investigate. Releasing the leaf she hurled herself through the oddly translucent disc a heart beat before it closed behind her, sealing away the horrible song of the wind. Machin Shin would be denied a meal today.

The cold hit her first. It hadn’t been this cold when she left Caemlyn this morning but that might be thousands of miles from here. She wasn’t certain where here was. When she left Caemlyn she had tried to keep the old map of the Ways clear in her mind but the crumbling arches and collapsed islands had made it impossible to follow any plan. Once she had heard the wind she had simply ran, unconcerned with where she might end up, as even Caemlyn was preferable to being devoured by the ancient evil that haunted the crumbling wonder of the Age of Legend.

Desperation had driven her to attempt the journey. Each time she had attempted to leave Caemlyn she had found men waiting for her. Rumors were being spread that she was a bandit who used her looks to ensnare men and kill them in their sleep for the copper they carried. Wanted posters with crude drawings of her had began to appear and she knew that if she loitered even another day in that city she would be taken. What would happen to her she didn’t know, but death was probably the kindest fate she could look forward to.

Mave pulled her wollen riding dress around her slender frame. She had pawned the silver candlestick she had stolen when she fled Tar Valon and used the hand full of copper she had been given, at a no doubt ruinous discount, the pawn broker had suggested that he might be willing to give her a better deal in exchange for her favors, but she wasn’t that desperate. Not yet. The dress was a vast improvement over the plain white novice dress she had been wearing when she stowed away on the river queen. Merely putting the thing on had taken an effort of will that nearly undid her. The banded dress of an Accepted, that which she was entitled to wear, was just too obvious but it had still taken all her will to put herself back in the hated white dress. Mave didn’t want to think about what would happen if she were dragged back to the Tower, there as well the best she could hope for was death.

Mave was a tall girl in her early twenties, with the willow grace and coppery skin of her native Arad Doman. Her eyes were a dark and almond shaped and, despite her present predicament, glittered with intelligence. Untill a few weeks ago she had ben an Accepted of the White Tower, her future as stayed and sure as anyone in this age could wish. Now she was a vagabond, on the run from not only her teachers, who were terrifying enough, but also, she was certain from agents of the Shadow itself.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that Velma Sedai had asked Mave to assist her in her research. Aspiring to the Brown herself Mave had leaped at the chance, Velma valued her fluency in the Old Tongue but Mave sensed that she was sounding her out, making the final decision as to whether she was ready to begin preparation for the Shawl. It had been fun at first, tracking down lost manuscripts and sifting through pieces of dusty lore which centered around the days before the Trolloc wars. Velma had never quite told her what she was looking for, but asked for references Londharon Cor, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Eharon. As time went on though Velma began to grow more and more paranoid, she would talk to no one, even the other Browns until she trusted Mave alone. One night Velma had appeared as Mave was making her way to her room and hurriedly thrust a roll of parchment into her hands.

Confused, Mave had returned to her room intending to return it to Velma Sedai in the morning but, when morning had come Velma was dead. The Yellows said that she had died in her sleep but Mave knew differently. When Cora, an Aes Sedai of the Grey Ajah, with whom Mave had never spoken, showed up and demanded to know what Velma had been working on, she had grown concerned. Back in her room she unrolled the parchment and discovered a map, carefully drawn in charcoal, which showed a location somewhere near Londharon Cor. The words ‘buried for all these years’ were printed in Velma’s neat handwriting. When a summons had come from Cora requesting Mave join her in an isolated courtyard Mave had made her decision. It was clear to her that her mentor had been murdered to prevent whatever she has been researching from coming to light. Sneaking up to Velma’s chambers she had witnessed a pair of cloaked Sisters tearing through the dead Aes Sedais possessions.

All her years in the Tower Mave had been told that the Black Ajah didn’t exist. But peering through the keyhole that night she had seen Velma’s ancient warder laying face down in a pool of blood and she had known better. Not knowing whom to trust and fearing that Cora planned a similar fate for her, she had fled without so much as returning to her own rooms. The parchment was tucked into her traveling bag now, as mysterious and ominous as ever.

Looking around Mave found herself in an ancient ruin, the wall beside her was marked with the familiar leaf pattern, though she had no desire to attempt to open the Waygate given what lurked on the other side. Coming slowly to her feet she found she was atop a small rise on a much larger mountain. The land sloped gradually downwards to the west, where a broad silver ribbon marked the passage of a river. Heavy forest blanketed the hillside, though currently she was above the canopy. To the east it rose into an impressive peak, thrusting into the sky like a dagger. Other peaks stretched off to the north and south, though low cloud obscured them after a time. Snow lay all around, though that was a function of altitude as much as the season. On the plains the snow would be melted or almost melted. Though she wracked her mind, no geographical fact emerged to help her place herself. The walking staff she had stolen in Caemlyn had been lost in her mad scramble through the ways. Sighig she picked herself off and began the long trudge down the side of the mountain, looking for some sign of human life.

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Jahn cursed as Ali tossed yet another successful hand of dice. Back home his da would have whooped anyone who used that kind of language around the girls, even if it was in public and they weren't even his. A serving girl set down a few pints for them, and Ali grinned, tossing one of the crowns he had won to cool their steam. "The drinks are on me, fellas. Thanks for the chat. My family will love knowing the merchants will come early this year."

"And do they love that you're a hopeless cheat?" Filch asked, the oldest of the young crowd with a beard that hid a frog-like bowl throat, and nasty eyes that lingered on everything a tad too long. Ali wasn't in the mood for his games. "You're just mad that I come here every so often to win over your money and you lose every time. Oh don't give me that look, Jahn Holsom. You're just as bad, only you hold your tongue because you know Evelyn has a soft spot for me."

Ali wasn't usually this forthright and blunt, but these wool headed fools had been increasingly agitated as of late, and he had expected them to greet him warmly after a long winter. He grabbed his staff in his strong hand and headed out, the sun now barely peeking over the horizon. Usually he'd find a room at the inn, but at the moment he felt like walking. He would make it home, hopefully before his da and siblings went to visit his uncle Montel for a few days. They always got together just before Bel Tine. Ali used to join them, but ever since he experienced his 20th winter, he'd enjoyed the solitude of the empty farm.

The morning was crisp, and the sun's warmth had barely begun to lessen the cold of night as Ali left Taren's Ferry to head southward toward Edmond's Field, taking one of the lesser known roads to make better time. Old folk would say it brought you dangerously close to the Mountains of Mist, and Creator knows what sort of spirits haunted that dreaded area. But there was many miles of forest separating the road from the mountain, and the eldest son had taken the road many times in youthful rebellion of going against his elder's advice. What was one more trip?

He whistled with the birds. The plump little creatures hanging in the trees above him as they sang, and though he whistled a tavern tune, they almost seemed to be singing with him. He could hear the words in his head, from when he heard the song first all those years ago by his nan.

"The fields are sewn and the winter's done.
Celebrate Bel Tine and await the Sun.
Keep to your kin and love shall win.
Whistle this tune until the Dark One's gone."

He was just about to whistle the second verse, when he came upon something that would change his life forever. Or, something came upon him, more like.
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The curriculum at the White Tower was noticeably lacking in any mention of wood craft. As she stumbled her way through the brush, Mave bitterly wished she could trade one of her lessons on Tarien politics for a little practical pathfinding. Great trees loomed around her as she pressed onwards, motivated by the simple reasoning that if she kept going down hill she would reach the river she had seen from the mountain and that once she found the water all she needed to do was follow it down stream until she came upon some settlement or another. That theory had felt a lot more promising before the canopy of fresh spring leaves closed over her and the slope of terrain began to level off. Having grown up on the wide plains outside of Bandar Eban she found the dense forest alien and oppressive.

She had spent the previous night in a small hollow beside a stream carved by the fresh snowmelt. Not wishing to risk the smoke of a fire in such unfamiliar country, she had heaped a pile of river rocks and channeled flows of fire into them until they radiated enough heat to keep her warm. The food she had bought from Caemlyn consisted of hard baked bread and dried apples, and though there were ample mushrooms to be found, she hadn’t dared to eat any of them. She was careful to ration her food, though even so she would only have enough for two or three more days. Bringing down game was theoretically possible, though given the way she moved through the woodlands, she would have to stumble across the world's only deaf and blind deer in order to get close enough to strike it down.

At dawn she had set out again, following the stream besides which she had camped. The going was easier where the water had already cleared a path and she had a sense she was making better time. Abruptly, the sound of voices startled her and she froze in place. Creeping forward over the mossy rocks she looked down over a small waterfall which fell a dozen feet into a pool. On the rocky shore was a small untidy camp that sprawled around a rude hut of sticks and mud. Two men sat around a fire they had built between the hut and the water, a joint of meat, possibly venison was roasting on a spit. Both men were bearded and unkempt and one was wrapped in a filthy but recognisable white cloak, a golden sunburst nearly invisible beneath months or years of grease and dirt.

Mave pursed her lips. These men must be deserters from the Children of Light, the frothing zealots who followed the teachings of Lothar Mantelar. Unconciously her hand went to her pouch where her few coppers and her ring, a gold band fashioned in the likeness of a serpent eating its own tail, were concealed. Deserters or not she doubted they were any friends of hers. Did this mean she was in Amadicia? That would make the mountains behind her the Mountain’s of Mist, which was good, though finding herself in the heartland of her enemies was not.

“Enjoying the view?” came a voice from beside her. Mave’s heart nearly leapt from her throat as she started, spinning to find a man watching her from the other side of the small stream. Like the man below he wore the remnants of a white cloak and a heavy beard. In his hands he clutched a short bow and there was a sword at his hip, though he didn’t as yet have an arrow knocked.

“I’m lost,” she said, her mind spinning like an upended wagon wheel as she tried to come up with some sort of believable story for how she had come to be here. The men below started at the voices and looked up too the waterfall where Mave was concealed.

“Well now you are found,” the stranger said mildly, though Mave detected something unpleasant in his voice. It must have shown in her face because the man sprang at her without warning. She screamed as his body struck her driving her into the icy water with a splash. Below her she heard shouts and curses as the men below rushed for the waterfall. The stranger outweighed the young woman and pinned her easily, his broad hand encircling her throat, a feral grin split his lips and he grabbed the neck of her dress, tearing the fabric to expose her bosom.

“Our second young doe in as many days, lucky us,” he laughed, leaning down as though to kiss her. The serenity and euphoria of Saidar filled her like the warmth of a rising sun. Everything stood out in incredible relief, the feeling of each individual rock and patch of moss on her skin, the varying currents of water, the rough calluses of her attackers skin. A smile split her lips inspite of the dire situation and her attacker, confused by the reaction hesitated for a fraction of a second, his grip loosening. A single weave of air, tiny and sharper than any razor lashed across his throat. A crimson wave washed over Mave’s face as the blood gushed from the wound, staining the waterfall red. The deserter stumbled back, clutching vainly at his neck as blood spurted between his fingers. He tried to stand then sank to his knees and pitched forward into the water, his body to heavy for the stream to lift over the lip.

Gasping for breath Mave pushed herself to her feet. The men below were shouting as they rushed towards the small rocky rise. Picking a direction at random she fled blindly into the forest. Killing with the One Power was about as serious an offense as could be imagined, though even the Mistress of Novices herself couldn't have claimed that this instance hadn’t been in self defense. Branches tore at her as she sprinted across the uneven terrain, trying with one hand to keep the ruin of her dress in place, less from an instinct for modesty than to prevent it from tipping her up. She could hear her pursuers shouting behind her as they crashed through the brush in pursuit.

Without a plan Mave ran, picking her path wherever the undergrowth was thinnest, hoping to find somewhere to hide long enough to evade her pursuers. Hurdling what she thought were natural rocks, she burst unexpectedly onto a rutted but well traveled road, realized belatedly that it had been a low stone wall, and crashed into a young man who had paused, obviously hearing the commotion in the woods and sending them both sprawling to the dirt in a tangle.
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The forest had been dark and cruel as of late, even at the end of winter, only the birds had appeared again, and they only appeared when the sun did, which was infrequent at best. In fact, this was likely the first sunlight Ali had seen in weeks. The winter had been harsh, and there had been talk of Wolves and Bears appearing in the Westwood. Wolves were rare, but he had not heard of a bear in seven winters, yet here they were, attacking livestock and men. Ali wouldn't easily forget having to fight off a small group of wolves after two sheep had been taken naught but a month ago.

Even in these forbidding times, he never expected to face more than a few roughs on the road between Edmond's Field and Taren's Ferry, though what he found first was something he could never have been prepared for in all of his life. Because out of the brush came not a wolf, bear, or thief, but a coppery skinned woman with an uncovered bosom. She hit him with all her weight, but Ali was a tall and strong man. "What?" he voiced in surprise, until he realized that an exotically attractive woman had impacted into him, and her bare breasts were against his chest.

If you later told Ali that steam had shot out of his ears, he would have believed you. His tongue suddenly felt too big for his mouth and he stammered, backing up with his youthful face flushed. "Wha-!? who're yo..." He suddenly realized she was covered in blood and twigs, and understood immediately that this was more of a dangerous situation than a provocative one. "Blood and Ashes," he cursed, catching her before she fell.

"Miss?" he asked, and she didn't immediately respond. "Light! Miss are you ok?" He knelt her down and let her lean on his curled legs. What was he going to do? Who in the creator was she? On further inspection, she was definitely a foreigner. Copper skinned and likely the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. He needed to cover her up, for both her and his sakes, so carefully, without his eyes focusing on her full bosom too much, he began to lace up her bodice with a pure focus. The void and the flame, his da had always said. He usually meant that for stick fighting and archery, but he supposed it was useful in many situations.

"They're coming." The woman said, her eyes opening lazily. Ali blinked, having just covered her up. "What? Who?"

Muted voices could be heard from the tree line, and the brambles began to show. What pine and leaf that had stubbornly clung to the trees this winter bounced from the movements of men approaching. When they came onto the road, they would see Mave on the ground and Al standing there, stick in hand and pack settled on the earth. The lead one grinned, his hair tied in a topknot and a dagger in his callused fist. "Boy, run along and leave us the woman."

"I'm not a boy." Ali said, stone faced and chest out. "I'm no fool either. It's not right to treat anyone this way, especially a girl. Leave now. But if you step closer, I'll kill you." Later, Ali would look back on this statement and wonder if he was really prepared to do just that. Then men certainly didn't believe him, at least after a few moments. A second man with a sword, and a third with what looked to be a makeshift farming implement was now there flanking the topknot.

Al needed to calm down and focus. Just by their faces he knew that they were going to attack. Bloodthirst was in their eyes. The man with the dagger leaped at him with an underhanded thrust, a common move his da often said inexperienced ruffians would make. He moved with little thought to strategy, so in tune was he to his staff. The top part of his walking stick banged down on the man's hand, causing his nerveless fingers to drop the knife, and before the blade had hit the ground, the flow of the staff was redirected to crunch into the assailant's nose with a thrust, breaking it.

He didn't have time to think, stepping past and thrusting once more with his staff, this time between the next one's sword and his arm as he charged. He pressed down on the arm, causing the appendage to bend and lose his stance. He was no ammatuer, and instead of continuing his movement, the bandit tossed his sword into his other hand. He left his face open however, and Al's staff cracked into his cheek bone audibly. He spun, hooking the man's leg with the bottom half of his staff and twisting it with a quick jerk, tripping him up and probably breaking his knee.

The third man was the smartest, though. He had gone around to Ali's flank, and when his back was turned, and tried to hack at him from behind until something tripped him up, sending him flying into the air as if a bear had swiped him! Ali twirled, staff at the ready to see him sail over the young man, and the woman concentrating on the thrown bandit strangely, as if she had the power to move him like a puppet. The exertion seemed to tire her out, however, for she slumped into the dirt once more.

Light, what did he just see? That couldn't have been her...

He kicked the first attacker in the face for good measure, and then gingerly lifted the woman up in his arms as if she were a babe. She was relatively small at least. He'd carried sheep back to the farm before. It was a ways back to the house, but he set off with his staff under his armpit, leaving the men groaning on the ground. He didn't know what was happening, but he knew this girl was hurt and he needed to help.

A horse whinnied in the distance, and Ali realized it was behind him. He glanced backward and saw a frightening figure, clad in a black cloak astride a black steed. Ali could barely see the bottom of his face, but he swore the man was looking right at him. "Sir?" he called, and looked to the woman in his arms, and then back to where the rider was. Only to notice that he had disappeared. Al blinked, but the rider was still gone, as if he had never been.


4 hours later

The oil on the cast iron pan filled the kitchen with crackles and pops as Ali finished preparing the meal he was making for himself and the woman. It was only an hour ago that they had made it home, and she had yet to awaken. Thank the light his family had left already, but even still he put her in the guest bedroom, having wiped her face, hair, and what part of the chest he was comfortable with cleaning before he went and fetched water for her. Now he was preparing food, knowing that whoever she was, she'd likely wake up hungry.

He had spent a lot of time in thought as he carried her back, and the rider kept intruding on his thoughts, because he had felt true fear from the man. Somehow, he knew the rider had meant him harm. Had hated him. Could he have been with the fellows Ali had beaten up? What was more frightening was that he recalled one other thing that made the man so horrible. Even in the morning wind, his cloak had not shifted...

he'd also come to the conclusion that the woman he'd found had to be Aes Sedai. The shawl and the agelessness to her features, along with the fact that she was a bloody foreigner that could lift men without touching them. What else could she be? He almost felt she was too dangerous to bring home, but he couldn't simply leave a woman out in the cold. Even an Aes Sedai could be helpless unconscious...he guessed. Light, he didn't even know.

There was a knock on the front door.

His da and siblings couldn't be home... Quickly he grabbed his staff and headed out of the kitchen, letting the meal cool down now that he had placed the food on the plates. At the front door, he looked out the window and saw Bran Feran, one of his boyhood friends that lived two farms down. Brown haired and a head shorter than Ali, he had a matter of fact way of saying things. Ali opened the door. "Bran? What are you doing here?"

Bran didn't speak at first, looking unsure of himself. "Ali, you need to tell me now. What have you done?"

Ali blanched, taken aback. He briefly wondered if news of the men he had fought had reached the town, but that was impossible! Could it be the woman? "Nothing, what are you talking about? I just went to Teran's Ferry for the night and came back. Why? Bran, don't laugh but you're freaking me out."

That answer seemed to cause Bran to deflate. "I believe you. Sorry, I wanted to ask. Ali, be careful. There's a...man asking around town for you."

"A rider? In black?"

"Yeah. He won't give his name, but he knows yours. No one seems to trust him, but sooner or later a Coplin will run their big mouth and he'll be on his way here."

Ali groaned in frustration. "Blood and Ashes, I saw him on the road earlier. I didn't even speak to him though, Bran. I don't know what he would want. I admit it, he scared me."

"I only saw him for a second, but he scared me too. You know you can hide at my place, right?"

Ali grinned, and this time he truly did look like a boy. "Thanks Bran, you're a good friend. You better go on though. I'll see about that, but I need to finish a few things here first." Truthfully, he would have taken his offer if it wasn't for the woman in the guest room. No need to bring her or Bran into anything, so he didn't mix the two with telling him she was there. "I'll see you later, ok?"

When his friend left, Ali closed the door and slumped, running his hands into his thick mass of hair. What was going on?
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Mave dreamed. As she often did her dreams took her back to the terrible night she had passed through the arches. Naked and shivering, her novice dress left behind and the trials ahead of her. The trials had been hard on her. She could remember them only in dreams, but she had stumbled from the final arch bleeding from dozens of cuts. She would certainly have died if the Aes Sedai hadn’t been there ready to heal her. For weeks afterwards she slept only in snatches and work screaming. Her room mate had been moved to a different chamber and another Accepted had not taken her place.

Wakefulness cae back to her in stages. First there was a dim awareness of warmth, welcome after hours spent in the mountain cold. Then the memory of the three bandits came back to her and she sat up with a start, snatching at Saidar as unconsciously as she drew the blankets up to cover herself. After a moment it became clear to her that she was in no bandit camp. The room was small but lovingly built out of dark wood. She lay upon a bed beneath several cheap but clean blankets. There were several chests along the wall and a book shelf that contained some bound volumes that she recognised: The Travels of Jane Farstrider, The Legend of Brigette and several other stories on the same general theme. A hand full of toys, whittled from wood or simple peddlers craft were propped on a shelf, momentos rather than items of everyday use.

Her chest and arms were scraped but clean, something that must have been done to her after she lost consciousness. Vaguely she remembered crashing into a traveler on the road. It must have been he who had bought her her. Foolish, she should have killed all three men and been on her way. The thought made her vaguely queasy. She had never killed anyone before but she could still feel the blood of the man whose throat her weave had cut pulsing over her. The Three Oaths were not to be transgressed lightly, she might never have a chance to win her shawl, she certainly wouldn’t if she couldn’t prove she had been right to run away, but she didn't want to be stilled. The thought of life without Saidar was too much to bear.

Reluctantly she climbed out of bed. Her dress was hopelessly torn and she hadn’t bought any changes in her flight from Caemlyn. Reaching into her pouch she touched her great serpent ring and the fateful map and felt relief that she hadn't realised had been waying on her. Holding her ripped dress up she stood up and moved to the rooms single doorway and looked through into a warm farmers kitchen. Burnished copper pots hung besides drying ropes of garlic and other herbs. A few bowls of spring berries were set out on the counter, probably the first forage after a long winter on stored food.

A young man was slumped against the doorway, his dark wavy hair rumpled and messy. He looked to be in his early twenties but Mave was herself no judge of such things. He looked up at her and froze as though he had been bought face to face with a ghost. She froze too, uncertain as to what she should do or say. After a moment she cleared her throat.

“Ah, thank you sir, for taking me in. I am uhh sorry to have put you to any bother.” It seemed like the mother of all understatements, but what else could she say?
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"Uh no problem." he said, suddenly feeling almost as awkward as he had when she had bumped into him on the road. He quickly got to his feet, and it became apparent he was nearly head and shoulders taller than her. He unconsciously smoothed his hair out a bit. "I mean..." he realized he paused too long, and he sighed. "I'm sorry, this has just been a very odd day. You'd think the sun showing itself would bring a more relaxing morning." he jested, giving a smile.

The smell of freshly cooked food wafted into the foyer, and Ali's stomach rumbled quite loudly at the wonderful scent. "Oh, I made breakfast, or lunch. It's ready in the kitchen, if you want some. Please, I wouldn't feel good about myself without putting some food in your belly. You went through more than I did this morning, I merely caught the tail end of it."

He gave a her a hopeful look, and if she acquiesced he would stride into the kitchen and pull a chair out for her, water and food on the table. It was no banquet, but there was a homemade, fresh quality to it that was not served at the tower and it made the mouth water at the sight of it. A robust apple gleamed beside eggs, ham, and whole sausage links atop a plate made of darkwood, and a stout fork and knife to use for utensils.

Once she sat down, he would give a very formal bow, no doubt something both he and she was unused to. "I am Alidren Baldyr, but I go by Ali. Or Al, either way really." he said, before realizing just how odd he was probably being. He shook his head and sat down across from her. Light, he was being a fool. "Just ignore me. I don't get guests often."

"Are you feeling alright?" he asked her.
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Mave took the offered seat with a smile. It had been a long while since she had eaten anything besides the dried fruit and trail rations she had managed to find in Camelyn. Her last real meal had been a hasty mouthful of cheese before she had fled her inn to search for the Caemlyn waygate.

“My name is Mave Kashana,” she said, taking a drink of water to give herself time to concoct a believable lie. Not knowing where she was made any attempt at fabrication difficult however.

“I’m a traveller from Arad Doman,” she said after a moment, “I got lost in the mountains and then I stumbled across those men…” she trailed off, not a word of that was untrue, her instructors would be proud.

“Speaking of whom… you managed to fight them off? I’m afraid I don’t remember everything that happened on the road.”
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"The Arad Doman..." he echoed, deep in thought. "That's near the Aryth Sea?"

He believed every word, though as he was on edge today, he wouldn't be surprised if she told him something ridiculous soon that he would also believe. Simply because if you told him yesterday what happened today, he wouldn't believe it. "You're lucky to have gotten this far, honestly." he said, leaning back and crossing his arms. "They're infested with wolves this time of year, and bandits too apparently."

She certainly seemed exotic, and if his geography was correct, the Arad Doman was a nation that was across the mountains to the east. He wondered if there were roads he didn't know about that went through the mountains? Even if there were, no one who had any sense would use them because of the cursed place. This woman seemed to have gotten through well enough, however, until she was waylaid on the road this morning.

"Oh, yeah." he said, almost embarrassed. "After you ran into me they attacked. They likely have a few broken bones but I didn't do anything serious to them." At her surprised look, he added. "I'm the second best staff fighter in the Two Rivers, behind my father. He could beat anyone, though I haven't practiced against him in two winters."

"I..I don't know what happened to the third fellow, though. He had me, until something caused him to fly like he'd been thrown, and you were awake for a moment. Do you remember?" He wondered if he should mention the dark rider, but he decided one question at a time. He took this time to eat another sausage, though his maroon eyes, now visible in the sunlight through the windows, stayed intent on hers as she answered.
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Mave opted not an answer, instead taking a bite of sausage and savoring the hot juices that spurted into her mouth. She had never heard of the Two Rivers and it helped her not a whit to place where she was. It could be anywhere from southern Saldaea to Amadicia itself, though she suspected that it was rather closer to Amador than it was to Maradon. The Children of Light could be found anywhere of course but it made sense that they would be closer to home.

"Well there was a lot of confusion," she said around a mouthful of food, evading the thrust of the question, "I'm just glad you were there to help me." She laid a hand on his for a moment.

"Very glad," she amplified.

"The Two Rivers, that is part of Andor? I'm afraid that my geography is a bit muddled," she confessed.
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He...did not notice that she dodged the question once she expressed her gratitude. His face heated. "Of course, yeah. I'm glad too. Those woods are deadly, these days." He cleared his throat and took a big bite of his apple. He wasn't usually this tongue tied, but then again he wasn't usually eating breakfast with a foreign woman alone after having roughed up a few thugs on the road. Suddenly the dark rider entered his memory again, and he sobered up.

Andor? He had on a considering look. "I don't know, actually." he said. "I did hear that once, that the Two Rivers was apart of Andor. But that was a long time ago, no one from Andor comes here." Wasn't Andor east of here? "If you go east and make it to Whitebridge, that would take you to...light, was it Caemlyn? I just know Whitebridge would take you most anywhere. The furthest from home I've ever been would be past Taren's Ferry, and at the foot of the mountains with my friends when we were kids."

"I wish I could help you more. If you want we could go to town and ask for a map. Or the Peddlars will be here in a few days, but, the best I know is that the mountains are west and Whitebridge is east."

He lost himself in thought. "Are there other foreigners with you? A rider clad in black?"

He didn't believe she traveled with anyone else, but he didn't know how else to bring up the man without asking if she was with someone or worse, she was pursued. Then again, he had asked for Ali specifically. A bloody foreigner asking for him!
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Mave felt a surge of relief to at last have some notion of where she was. She hadn't heard of Tarren's Ferry but Whitebridge was familiar to her. Supposedly there was a great bridge of heartstone there which had been erected in the Age of Legends. The city of Baerlon was west of Whitebridge from which a road ran south into what had once been Manetheren though there were no major cities in the area now. Mave wasn't sure how best to procced from her but at least she had a point to start from.

"No, I'm not travelling with anyone," she said shaking her head. Even at this early stage there were folk travelling. She wondered what Ali would say if she mentioned that she set out from Caemlyn yesterday afternoon and had traveled a thousand miles in a few hour. The thought made her supress a giggle that was part amusement part hysteria.

"There will be peddlers you say?" she asked, her mind turning back to the task ahead of her. She didn't want to wait a few days but she needed to equip herself for the journey.

"I need to buy some new clothes and.." she paused as a thought struck her.

"Do you need money for the food? I have some coin.." she went on uncertainly.
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"You can stay here for a few days." He offered, and immediately realized exactly what he had just offered. Well, he couldn't just kick her out of the door, so far was she from the Arad Doman. Thank the light his family would be gone for four days, so by the time they got back, if Ali was quick he could make it as if she had never been here. "It's no trouble, and you might feel better after a real bath. I only wiped off what blood I could off of you." He said sheepishly.

"Coin?" he asked incredulously. Coin money was a luxury here, and not many had more than ten coins for rainy days or when the Peddlars arrived at Bel Tine. He was short on money, truth be told. Like he had recalled, this winter was particularly harsh and there was little reason to travel such dangerous roads, so trade other than actual trading of flocks and herds went from uncommon to rare. "I couldn't accept coin from you, it was the right thing to do."

And it had been. A lot of men often wondered if they would do the right thing in a certain situation, and he had. He guessed he should be proud of himself. "But if you want to, you can stay here and then in two days we can go to the town for Bel Tine. It's not safe going down the road alone, though I think you can appreciate that more than most."
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Mave nodded gratefully, while she was fully prepared to pay for the food and aid, her supply of coppers was meager and she didn't know how she would gather more in the near future. She cleared her throat looking down at her ruined dress. Ali seemed young to her, but she knew that familes often began early in such rural environs. The house around here was obviously that of a family but there might be several generations living here.

"A bath would be lovely," she agreed. It had been a very long while since she had last taken one. Not since leaving Tar Valon weeks ago. Of course she was able to channel herself clean but that wasn't the same as a relaxing soak.

"Do you have family here?" she asked looking around. She hadn't seen or heard anyone but perhaps they were merely out for the day. The passage of seasons had slipped more or less from her mind and she hadn't known it was nearly Beltane. Perhaps they were out preparing for the festivities.

"You have already been very generous but if you have needle and thread or perhaps a spare change of clothes?" she plucked at her ruined dress in embarrassment.
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He smiled in relief, please she was a reasonable person and wouldn't simply run off without much rest. He would feel and likely act differently with a relative stranger living in the house with him alone, but it was still better for his conscience that she took his offer. Plus it would be nice to entertain a guest. He had not done something nice for someone for awhile, not that he wasn't apt to, but it seemed every chore he did was an obligation and not a kindness.

He stood up, his height and solid shoulders apparent once more, particularly because she was still seated. "I do." he said, going to clean up the pans. "But they're off visiting my Uncle miles away and they'll be gone for a few days." he confessed. He wiped his hands of grease on a small cloth so he could begin cleaning, speaking as he started. "I should be living alone, or with a fiance apparently. But my siblings are all too young to help my father out with the more important things he needs help with so I've stuck around for a few years."

Once she was done, he'd take her plate and refill her water cup with the barrel of water in the corner kitchen, handing it to her again. "I know we have some hand-me down dresses in the room down to the right at the end of the hall, where my father still keeps some of my late mom's dresses. Sorry if that's weird, but that's all we have. Though we do have quite a lot of knitting equipment through the foyer, because half of what we do here is sew to make textiles to sell, so if you want that instead, then certainly."

He had an earthy and earnest way about him, though it contrasted the clear capacity for exacerbation and intelligence she saw when she first found him on the ground or when he'd handled the thugs. He moved like a mule at work. Then again people did say that about Two Rivers men. They could give mules lessons and teach stone with how stubborn they were.

"How about this? You can check on if a dress fits and I can sew your dress back up later, and while you're changing clothes, I can make a hot bath." He spoke matter of fact-ly, like a man that was born into work.
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An hour later Mave was dressed in a simple dress of bleached linen. Though it had originally belonged to Ali's mother, he was true to his word and had made the necessary alterations with the skill of long practice. The dress still didn't fit perfectly, but it had been bought in significantly to accommodate Mave's wasp like waist. There was an old pair of stockings and shoes that didn't fit to badly also. Having been under a strain of urgency for a long while, part of her wanted to be off that very moment, but part of her realized that rest and preparation were better uses of her time than blindly rushing off in the general direction of Illian. She needed to take the time to gather supplies from the peddlers and figure out the best route to take.

It was nice too, she had to admit, to be in the company of someone her own age who was both handsome and was ignorant of all of the peril and politics that had been her life these last weeks. For a moment, at least, she could pretend that she was a normal person and this was a normal day. It was surprisingly fun. Ali was fussing about the stitching of the waist coat he had found and was in the process of fitting it when the door swung open without a knock. Two boys both unfamiliar to Mave, though Ali clearly recognized them both stood at the door mouths hanging agape to find their friend alone with a girl none of them had ever seen, his hands on her hips as he fitted to the waistcoat.

Before ALi could speak they both turned and bolted down the drive way hooting and hollering with the mirth of boys with a secret they had just uncovered.
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Ali had just finished fixing the stitching, a line of thread in his teeth as Mave stood as still as a statue. To his surprise, his professionalism overweighed his bashfulness, because she was indeed a very pretty woman. But he focused on his work, noting her approval at having him help, which in turn gave him a bit of elation that only a young man could get when seeing the smile of a woman. Still, it all dropped into the dirt when Galen Brightstone and Stephan Anderlen poked their heads into the door.

If Ali wasn't so single minded me might have slipped on the stitching or poked Mave, but thankfully he almost didn't notice the interruption until they were already turning and running down the street. His mouth dropped open in horror, and his first instinct was to chase after them, but the fact that Mave was there, lovely eyes gazing at him and even amused that kept him from running out the front door. Still, he sighed. "Oh light!"

He set down the thread and needle, and placed a hand on his forehead, riding his thick, wavy fringe up as he contemplated what this meant. At Mave's forthcoming question, he replied with. "I think..." He sounded as if he was pronouncing terrible news, like one would give a family who had unknowingly lost their farm. "No, I know." He said, and laughed helplessly. "Don't be surprised if everyone in the town tomorrow believes you're my future wife."

He could only imagine how awkward it must feel to be her at the moment, and for his part he looked away to hide the embarrassed blush. "Well, the wheel weaves as the wheel wills." he replied. It was a saying he had heard a Gleeman say when he was a small lad over ten winters ago, meaning 'whatever happens, happens for a reason.' "I'll check on your bath water. Does it feel ok?" he asked. It had been quite a skillful stitch up, for someone with such large hands.
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"Everyone believe I'm your what?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. Even as she spoke she knew that the boys, obviously friends or at least neighbours would be spreading the rumor that Ali was out here alone with a strange woman no one had seen before. If this was the sort of place she suspected that meant that not too long after that there might be a visit from the local wisdom or a good wife just 'dropping in for a chat'. None of these options filled her with enthusiasm. Still there was nothing for it.

Ali busied himself elsewhere while she stripped and climbed into the tub, alowing the warm water to wash over her body, cleansing her of the dirt of the road and the smell of fear she had endured since the first whispers of the wind in a place where no wind should blow. The cuts and scratches on her body prickled and stung as the water reached them but she relaxed her mind as she had been taught and ignored the sensations. She scrubbed her hair with the small piece of soap that was provided, feeling guilty for using up what was probably a luxury item in such a remote locale. She resisted the urge to channel or even to hold Saidar. It was best that she play the part of the lost traveler. It was bad enough she had lost her head and used a weave on the road, but she couldn't have known that the boy she had run into was some sort of staff fighter. She mused events until she was pleasantly soaked and the water had began to cool and then climbed out of the tub, dried herself off and donned her newly tailored garments. She would have to leave a coin or two when she went no matter how much he protested.

Joining Ali in the kitchen she found him crouched down behind a table, peering over the window sill. A severe looking woman was walking down the path to the door along with a man in his early forties. He wore a medallion of some sort around his neck, though his clothing was indistinguishable from Ali's. Perhaps the mayor or whatever it was called in this place. Mave suppressed a groan.
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"Alidren Baldyr!" the stern woman yelled. "You get out here right now!"

She had long, flowing strawberry blonde hair, with waves of curls that framed her broad but lovely face. Her dress was conservative, most likely due to the chill, colored green and white with archaic symbols stitched into the wool fabric. Her hair was tied into a long braid that flowed down her back, and she placed her hands on her hips. "I won't ask a second time!" as the mayor simultaneously knocked on the door, taking a much less aggressive approach.

"Young Alidren, might we have a word?" he asked, affable.

Ali's jaw was set firmly, and his hands curled into fists as his strong chest lifted and fell from his deep breath, steeling himself for what he was about to experience. Still, he had an apologetic look when he looked at Mave who seemed far from comfortable. "I'm sorry, stay here. This won't take long." he told her, and stepped out of the Kitchen and into the foyer. He had thought to hide from them, but if he came to Bel Tine in two days without an explanation of where he was then he would be the village liar.

When Ali opened the door, he would be kindly but firmly given a greeting by the mayor. A stout man in wool and cotton, with a mustache that was flecked with grey. Ali stepped outside, and the door would shut behind him. Mave would see Ali squaring off with the woman, who looked a barely two or three years Ali's senior, at least by the way she acted. She only made it to his chest but she had a way of speaking to him looking down her nose.

The Mayor would sometimes pipe in to defuse the situation, but mostly it was Ali and the woman, with the tall younger man explaining rationally and the woman seemingly taking everything out of context and in the worst way possible, though by the end of it, she seemed to be satisfied, though annoyed that she wasn't conceded to immediately by Ali, who turned and stormed back into the house, closing the door behind him.

He didn't talk for nearly half a minute, fuming and obviously not wanting to engage in conversation until he cooled off. Once he did, he sighed and stepped into the kitchen, trying to find something to do. "I need to leave the Two Rivers." He said, unable to not think aloud, needing to vent. "No matter how old you get or what you've done, you're always seen as a fool unless you're the head of a family or a wisdom." he said.

He realized he hadn't explained what happened. "The Mayor and Wisdom Valerie had come over expecting to see you and to give you a talk, but I explained what had happened on the road...three times. Eventually when I didn't change my story they believed me, and told me it wasn't right to keep you here. Then I told them to get off my property." He said, taking out some bowls from the upper cupboard for later use tonight.

He grinned at the last part of his explanation. "I'll go start a fire in the den." he declared, walking out of the Kitchen though remaining in earshot. "I'll make coffee soon, if you want some."
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Unfortunately Ali had underestimated the persistence of the Wisdom in addressing a situation she felt to be scandalous. While she was forced to obey Ali’s demand to stay off his family's property the woman was far to strong willed to let that stop her. Within an hour of the confrontation a string of ‘visitors’ began to arrive. Mostly middle aged wives of the village bringing small gifts or returning items that had been borrowed at some point in the distant past. Ali met each delegation with the same polite but firm demeanor, sending them on their way and resisting their efforts to get inside the house.

Mave sat in front of the fire on a cushioned wooden chair sipping the coffee, which turned out to be a local term for kaf, and beginning to feel a little besieged. The feeling of relief she had enjoyed at being somewhere safe was beginning to wane, would gossip reach her enemies who would be able to piece together where she was? It seemed unlikely that Tarren’s Ferry was a big enough place to have darkfriends of its own but a careless word in Baleron might not be so harmless.

Ali chatted with her in between fending off unwanted visitors, mostly about life in the small village and his families work. Mave deliberately turned the conversation back to things that the boy was passionate about in order to keep him from asking too many questions about her. The only information that she divulged was that she was on her way to Illian where she had some family. That was technically true, King Mattin did have an Aes Sedai advisor who was, technically, a sister to Mave, albeit a much older sister, and Mave had no intention of seeing the woman. The likelihood that an advisor was a Black Sister was too much of a risk and even if she wasn’t, unless Mave could convince her of her story she would be on her way back to Tar Valon in a heartbeat.

As evening came on and Ali returned from fending off yet another curious neighbor the boy let out a defeated sigh. He held a wooden spoon in one hand, allegedly one that her father had loaned someone in the forgotten past.

“If the entire bloody village is determined to see you, perhaps we should let them see you,” he said. Mave looked up at him and cocked an eyebrow which made the boy blush.

“I mean… there is an inn on the Green, if you wanted we could go there for dinner,” he half stammered. Mave considered it for a moment.

“Well, I don’t want to cause you any trouble…”

“It’s no trouble,” Ali quickly assured her, “I swear we haven’t had this many bloody visitors in my life.” Well it wasn’t exactly as though she were keeping a low profile her. Mave stood and smoothed her dress out with her fingers.

“In that case I’d be happy to come,” she said with a smile. This made Ali blush a deeper shade but he quickly fetched a coat and a shawl and a moment later they were heading out the front door. They made there way down the stone path and passed several apple trees which were just beginning to green with springs first buds. There was a well worn path that lead away to the east, it had been cleared at some point in the past, though it was obviously kept so by the passage of human feet. Ali had his staff in his hand, though whether as a walking aid or because he felt he needed a weapon Mave wasn’t sure. Meeting her and fighting those bandits would be enough to rattle anyone she suspected.

“Old Edgar al’Cagan runs the inn,” Ali was saying, “He is the mayor you met before.” Mave hadn't actually met the mayor but she smiled nonetheless.

“The hand that pours the brandy rules the world,” she said with a chuckle. Ali began to chuckle too then froze.

“Blood and bloody ashes more visitors,” he muttered and tugged Mave’s hand leading her off the road and down a small game trail that crossed it. Mave couldn’t hear whatever sound had tipped Ali off that someone was coming down the path but he moved with a certainty that made her trust his judgement. The hunkered down behind a fallen tree, watching the path. Mave wasn’t keen on meeting the wisdom either though she thought this was going a little far.

“I’ll bet its the wisdom come too…” he trailed off as it became obvious that it wasn’t the nosy wisdom. The clop of horses hooves on the soft dirt track preceded the rider only by an instant. A black clad figure astride a black horse came into view at a brisk pace that wasn’t quite a walk and wasn’t quite a trot. The man wore a hooded cloak and his face was concealed.

“This is the one who has been asking questions about me… well if he wants answers…” Ali moved as though to stand and head back to the path but Mave’s hand shot out and gripped his wrist with her slender fingers. The boy froze, apparently having the good sense not to cry out. She shook her head in mute warning. Ali looked confused but he subsided. Something about the rider made her blood run cold. He passed by without glancing right or left and in complete silence save for the breathing of the horse.

“You said you didn’t know him,” Ali said once the horseman was out of sight towards the house. Mave repressed a shudder.

“I don’t,” she admitted, belatedly releasing Ali’s wrist. A suspicion was forming in her mind that she didn’t want to fully explore. Her companion looked at her, obviously realising she knew more than she was saying.

“He gives me a strange feeling,” she said. Ali nodded his head in agreement.

“Can we get to the village without taking the trail?” she asked after a moment. Ali nodded. He had grown up in these woods and knew them well.

“I can’t just let him wander around the house though,” he protested, though he was already leading her deeper into the woods.

“I think once he realises there is no one there he will leave,” Mave said, as Ali led her down onto a rocky stream bed and east towards the town.

“You know, you talk but it dosen’t seem like you say anything.” Ali complained. Mave’s face split into an unexpected smile.

“Thank you, my Mother would be pleased to hear you say that.”

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