Domhnall and Iridiel
The rain felt much like opting to stride through a waterfall of fresh glacier melt. The shirt and vest were quite adequate when he was expecting a fight or sitting by fireside, but they were far from ideal protection from icy torrents. He was a patient enough of a man, Domhnall figured - it was a good trait for a hunter to have, and he had done a fair share of stalking and waiting for a chance for ambush amid downpour -, but the blasted cold was not his thing. The trees in his homelands never froze their damn leaves off...
This time, he was not going to go out of his way to douse the fire. He would just pick up the bolts, grab the bags and spear, don the coat (not that it helped too much against being already wet, but at the very least it kept some of the warmth in), and go.
Speaking of which, he had not ridden horses all that often, and this one was about as tall at the shoulder as he in his entirety. Getting up there and taking the reins in his hands was easy enough - he wasn't a forestfolk for nothing -, controlling the beast, though... Well, he hoped the white horse did not have too much of a mind of its own. Even if they liked you, they were still easily spooked... I promise that no branch by the roadside is going to bite you, and you promise to not throw us off, alright? Ain't any snakes out this season, that's for sure...
Luckily, the beast seemed content waiting as Iridiel took position behind him, and then following its slightly smaller brethen as he lightly nudged the creature's sides with his boots. He was not entirely sure whether the horse did so out of its own volition or due to his careful encouragement, but as long as it was headed in the right direction, it was good enough.
The Highlanders were hardy people, well-used to cold weather and driving rains, too often the dominant weather of the Contaetha back home. Yet this seemed to chill Iridiel to the bone - it probably didn't help that Angora now had her cloak. Murchad whined behind the striding horse they were riding on, his once-majestic white fur now bedraggled and muddied, his breath steaming in the cold autumn air. Iridiel herself pressed her body into Domhnall's back, clinging to him and what warmth seeped through his clothing and emanated from his skin.
Ahead, Angora and Jaelnec were holding a very... awkward conversation. It was difficult for Iridiel to catch any of what they were saying, so rapid and unfamiliar was the speech pattern of Rodorian to her ears.
"It looks like someone found a new friend after all," Domhnall idly commented. He wasn't listening too closely what the two ahead were saying, even though their horse was not far behind (not that he would risk trying to convince the beast to take upon a different pace without a pressing reason), and he could have probably deciphered most of what was going on. It seemed a bit too personal, somehow.
"You think so?" Iridiel snickered, though truthfully she was relieved - it would not do to have two members of the group going forward to be at each other's throats, not at all. She noticed that Domhnall was suffering from the cold - of course he would, a forester like him tended to live in the warmer and wetter climes of the counties, in areas like Sruighlea, in Lodainn; the forests and seasides of the southern counties truly were a far cry from the hills and grasslands of Loch Garman.
It was strange - she had traveled with Domhnall for years, but yet knew relatively little about him, his background and indeed, why he had decided to accompany her on her long sojourn into the great unknown. The elders at home had no doubt hoped she would die alone in the wilderness between the Contaetha and the western Marcher Lords, but she hadn't, partly thanks to him. And thanks to the Mother, to Sulis, who had spared and protected Iridiel consistently. But now, they were in their greatest danger yet; in this far-away land, in Rodoria, beset by a plague that killed indiscriminately, and that had no known cure or relief from what little Iridiel had been able to pick up.
Iridiel was no stranger to plagues. Her eldest brother, Neill, had died of the flux, whilst epidemics ran riot every so often in the streets of Atha Cliath, filthy and crammed as they were. Every so often, a plague would surface in the capital, and traders would carry it from town to town, and so the Contaetha would suffer once more from some disease or so. The druids could only do so much, and the elders of the towns and cities never seemed to care overly. Iridiel herself had escaped disease so far in her life - all praise to Sulis indeed - but now she was once again plunged into a world of death. Not even the Gods could save them all, as some said.
Domhnall's old hometown, in turn, had been left untouched by plague for the time he had lived there. There was disease, but it was more sporadic, and mostly took the old, the young, and the weak. This one here, though ... this one did not discriminate. Old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sickly, clean, dirty, it appeared to strike everyone equally, and not even care whether you went shoulder-by-shoulder with the afflicted or lived as a hermit. Some even insisted it was not just here, but rather all of Reniam. So potentially the Counties, too?
No known cure. Felt like an especially nasty way to go - no hope, no way to fight it, just the growing pain and the knowledge that after a week, you're done and that's it, game over. Didn't even have the decency to be sudden or subtle enough to not leave time to contemplate one's own impending demise.
Was it already a decade since he had left? Not quite. His departure from his home town had been somewhat more amicable than Iridiel's - at the end of the day, he had not killed any persons (though one of his traps had almost cost a person a limb during an unrelated incident - what was he even doing there, and was he blind?), and his exile was more an agreement than a sentence. He had probably not quite expected to end up this far back in the day.
Iridiel he had encountered not too far from home ... but definitely far enough to wonder what a lone highlander was doing there. In the beginning, he had come along with her mostly because the direction had fit and it could get a bit boring without the company of someone who at least understood what you were saying. Originally he had not even cared that much why the other was on her pilgrimage; that, he had asked later, when it had started to become evident she might become a long-time companion.
Over time, they had gotten used to and comfortable with one another's presence, he supposed ... never mind getting through a fair number of tight spots together. If you had seen someone both at their best and worst, yet still decided sticking around was a good idea , and you were certain said someone was as willing to risk their skin for you than you theirs, it could only been concluded you had found company worth keeping.
"U-huh... The boy's not tried to backflip off the horse yet and, well, it almost feels like I should be embarrassed to overhear what they're talking about." And Domhnall was not the kind of person to be easily embarrassed. "The girl has not had a nice past even before he met the thing ... nor much choice in her life."
"What exactly are they talking about? I can't catch head nor tail of it, Domhnall... Gods, I'm going to struggle in that city of theirs, I can't understand anything they say sometimes..." Iridiel sighed and relaxed on the horse's back, the cold now less biting, less pervasive to her body. It was not warm, but Iridiel found herself warmer than before - perhaps Domhnall's own heat was finally worming its way through. Her hair was plastered to her face, rain still cascading, almost cannoning down, rivulets of rainwater working their way through her clothing, soaking her skin beneath even her furs. She longed for nothing more than a nice warm roaring fire, the smell of wood smoke and a fresh tankard of big beer, and a warm bed to lie down on after the exertions of the day.
She thought back to the long months she and Domhnall spent in Thessaleia. The Thessaleians were most interesting folk, mortal enemies of the Eireannach... and as far as Iridiel could see, there was absolutely no reason why. The Thessaleians were civilised, genteel folk, their cities bright, paved and a far cry for the thatched crowded masses in the muddied streets of Atha Cliath. The Thessaleians were obsessed with them, most intrigued - these barbaroi from the West now come to their cities! Iridiel hadn't wanted to leave Kyrileis, but it was necessary... the hordes of the Contaetha had been marauding close by, and the risk of them sacking the city was ever-present, and so, with a heavy heart, she and Domhnall had left... she realized that she had never actually discussed that matter with him.
She sighed and reached forward, running her hand through Domhnall's hair. Murchad, for what it was worth, was still unhappily plodding along next to them.
Domhnall pondered for a couple of moments before answering Iridiel's inquiry, setting aside his own unwillingness to listen in in favor of responding to Iridiel. "The gal was apologizing for the, uh, little incident by the campfire, I think... And the boy was saying something about being a better person than his master, at least. Not using people. And she is now telling more about the ..." There was slight hesitation as he tried to figure what the best approximation for the Firm would be in their native. "... mob, I suppose, she was part of. Apparently, her father is both a smith and some important fellow in that mob. And she was forced into this life - refuse, and they break you, that kind of deal. It would appear they chopped someone to pieces for saying no. And then sent the pieces for the other families as a warning. Sounds like a lovely bunch..."
"Fu-cking mother of mercy... that must be terrible for her. I had no idea she was in that state, gods above! I've heard of what the Brotherhood does in Atha Cliath, and other mobs, but, fuck me sideways, that's not a pleasant thought... being cut up and sent about places as a message to those who don't play by their crap rules. Reminds me of the clergy, aye... play by our rules or forever leave society. But at least they don't fuckin' kill you." Iridiel seethed. Angora, this woman who was originally nothing but a criminal murderer, was forced into her life, pressed into service as a murderer and assassin. Her blasé attitude earlier must have been a shield, an attempt to convince herself that her former life was perhaps not that bad. Or maybe she wasn't thinking straight. Who knew? But she could hear bits and pieces... and Angora said once that they 'broke' her.
"Sounds like those twats need dealing with."
Domhnall remained silent for the while Iridiel seethed. It appeared to be characteristic of him - as long as he was still in comparatively high spirits (or at most annoyed in the typical, mundane sense), he swore freely and casually, company permitting, but once he was truly angry, mournful or condemning, he grew quiet.
"You're not alone in that sentiment," the forestfolk finally commented, quite matter-of-factly. Whether he was referring to the young squire's apparent reaction to the further revelations or his own thoughts on the matter was left to anyone's interpretation. Perhaps both. Carefully, the hunter untangled one of his hands from the reins and reached back to catch the hand that had moments ago been running through his hair, squeezing it.
Just what were they getting into? It would probably not be easy to figure out who was the victim and who was the perpetrator here... 'If your daughter doesn't work for us, then we'll sell her off to the highest bidder, and there's no-thing you can do about it. If your husband complains, we'll cut off his balls and feed those to him. Oh, and you, if you rat us out, we'll rape your wife and sell your infant son to Melenian pirates. You know how Melenians view males, right?' It was ... disturbingly easy to imagine a system from which you simply couldn't get out without losing everything you cared about, and then some. So people kept picking what felt like the lesser evils, and that was all they knew to expect...
Instinctively, he wanted to draw his shoulders closer to himself. "What hell of a life that must have been... And, I reckon, it might take some figuring before we untangle who has been threatened with what here." It was almost too pragmatic way to look at the situation. Pragmatism made it feel more ... real.
"You mean to say she might be exaggerating? Oh come on, Domhnall, that's not something you can just lie about. I mean, it is, I suppose, but you'd have to be a really good liar, and I don't think she's that good." Iridiel shook her head, scarcely able to believe that Angora, despite her illegal acts, was truly in the wrong here. She had been forced, threatened and coerced into whatever it was that she'd done. And yet... an inkling of doubt grew in Iridiel's mind, as she thought back to the conversation around the campfire before. Angora had been brushing this off as though it was nothing prior to this, and now she had turned a complete 180 degrees, and telling of this... horrific story of coercion, deceit and violence.
It seemed odd to Iridiel, now, looking on it with a 'dispassionate perspective' as they might say in Thessaleia - remove all emotion from your thought pattern (not easy for a Kavanagh) and think rationally and clearly. Perhaps Domhnall was more correct than she gave him credit for. Why would Angora be so blasé about her past life initially, only to reverse course when she encountered an overwhelmingly negative response? Was it all a lie? No, surely not. She scrutinized Angora closely, from her body language to her tone of voice - even if she couldn't understand much of what they were saying due to the rapidity of their speech, she could still tell much from their body language. The squire seemed taken in by the story - and why wouldn't he, a man of honor such as he - and yet Angora... she did not have the body language of a liar. She was speaking about something, and it was not the language of a liar, there was no stumbling, no stammering... She spoke clearly, quietly. As though she were truly ashamed of her actions.
Perhaps there was hope for the youngster yet. Leastways, the mob would be a danger to them in Zerul City, if Angora's past associations caught up with her- Hold a fucking moment. Angora had been found by the group, insane, half-naked and blood-soaked, seemingly driven mad by the spirit inside the Black Sword. She said that the mob - the Firm, Iridiel remembered her calling them - had sent her out on a mission to obtain the Black Sword for someone, likely the ever-present 'mysterious man with connections' no doubt. Did someone know of the risks? Had someone sent her out on this mission specifically with the objective of killing her, or at least sending her out to die, alone, in the wilderness, at the blades of some band of misfits like the Crusader's Guild? What would those people think if they saw Angora return, clean and accompanied by several heavily-armed strangers? Would they be in danger too? Would Angora be at risk of death by an assassin's blade when she returned to Zerul?
"She is telling what she knows ... I think," the forestfolk surmised. "Or, at the very least, what she thinks she knows. She is just someone who does the dirty work, aye? The less she knows, the better? And wouldn't they want to ensure there were no outsiders - including, perhaps especially, family members, like unaffiliated children? Something along the lines of 'they won't talk if their hands are bloody, too', and 'once a part of the mob, always part of the mob'..." Domhnall winced. "Or perhaps I just have too hard a time picturing a person who would force their own child into a life like this if they believed there was another way..."
He had not meant she had been lying - rather that she might not know the whole truth, either. Though, there was this one bit she had told earlier - about how she had imagined stealing the sword would bring her family fame and fortune. That didn't quite fit the narrative of using it to get away she was laying out now... For some reason, those two clashing snippets rose to the forefront of his mind and refused to go away now that Iridiel had outright asked him about lying. Which one was it?
Iridiel sighed and shook her head. "We'll have to see. But parents... can sometimes betray their children for their own benefit. You should know that family can often be those who will sell you to the devils. Look at me. Mine refused to defend my right to freedom."
"I guess," the forestfolk agreed, voice unenthusiastic or perhaps mournful; to not fight back - to yield to others' demands - was one thing, but to do something like that if you didn't have to? If there was no one pointing a sword at you and going 'or else'? He remained silent for a moment as he listened, letting go of Iridiel's hand to wipe over his face. The rain had ceased almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Small blessings, as they said... "She seems to be offering for us to stay with her family ... the boy seems to think the mob would be too dangerous, and might be after her, or even come after us all. Especially with the sword on her person. She seems to trust others of her family but her father."
"No doubt her dear beloved dad dragged her kicking and screaming into the mob life... probably was complicit in that whole 'breaking' thing she was talking about earlier. But she raises a good point - she said her brother was with the City Guard - if we can get her brothers on our side we can use their influence to keep Angora and ourselves safe. Actually... Belenus would say that if we can corner the father, we can coerce him into helping us, or at least, you know, stopping him from obstructing us. I could probably... uh... assist in that, if we need to. Thing about the squire is that he'll want to do things by the book. But people like the Brotherhood in Atha Cliath and probably the Firm here are used to fighting people who do things by the book. Need to do things their way... catch them off guard."
Iridiel's demeanor was dark, her voice dripping with subterfuge and venom towards those who had seemingly done Angora harm. She barely knew the girl, and yet she chafed at her restrictions on her freedom to choose her own life - seethed with hatred at those who confined her.
"How will we know that the guard - or at least some of the officials - haven't been bought by the mob?" Her siblings, mother - they had to have known, no? So, it stood to reason that they were either too afraid, or accomplices themselves. Neither would be much help - neither the prey that froze in place as its kin were torn to shreds, nor the predators themselves.
"... We just have to trust in the Mother. I know you're not a religious man, but you've seen the Mother in action first-hand. You know what I am capable of, as her sworn servant." Iridiel grimaced as she wiped her own hair out of the way of her face - the rain, blessed be, had ceased. Perhaps now they could work up some warmth for the doubtless-long journey ahead.
He was doing injustice to predators, comparing them to these people in his mind. Predators did not use terror and torture to make you live the kind of lives they wanted you to lead. They just wanted to catch a prey with the least amount of energy and danger they could, and eat their fill. A land without predators soon ended up broken.
"It always seemed growing up that gods were the kind of beings better simply not angered as long as they didn't choose you themselves. I do not doubt their power - never really did, let alone now that I've been traveling with you for years - yet it also seems like they prefer to interact with a select few rather than the average guy." Domhnall shrugged. "I can't help but imagine it must get tiring, even for a deity, to listen to millions, each of whom only wants something of you."