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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Fantasy · #1063509
The next few chapters.
Chapter 3

Andellyn woke up late at night. It was perhaps ten minutes until her watch was supposed to start. Gerik had taken first watch, and Andellyn had been given second. She looked at the clearing’s rock. He sat there, lit by moonlight, and her heart skipped a beat. Hardly knowing what she was doing, she stood up and walked over to him. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Not at all.” She couldn’t tell the expression on his face in this light, and she was no good at interpreting the tones of people’s voices. She took a seat next to him on the rock.

After a moment of silence that was awkward only to her, she managed to ask a question that she’d been wondering about for some time. “Sir Gerik, who is Gorden?”

He didn’t look at her when he spoke to her, but kept his eyes on the clearing. “It’s not really important that you know. He’s an adept gone bad. An old… aquaintance of Brae’s and mine.”

“What is he doing, and what are we doing to stop it?” A cold breeze passed by, and she shivered.

“Don’t worry yourself about it, kid. I’ve got it all under control, and that’s all that matters.” He looked up at the moon. “I believe my watch is over. Remember, any trouble, anything unusual, and you wake one of us up.”

She nodded, and he went off a bit to where the others slept. It was a long, cool night. Andellyn wished she had a cloak. She walked back to the sleeping area to get her blanket, and brought it back to the rock. She sat there, in an almost unconscious waking state. There was still at least half an hour of her watch left when Braeden woke up.

He came to the rock and sat without asking if she minded. “Chilly, isn’t it?” She nodded vaguely. “But it’s so clear. Not a cloud in the sky.” He paused, looked at her, looked back up at the sky. “It’s beautiful.”

She said nothing for a while. “Bard Braeden, h – “

He cut her off. “Just Braeden, please. Or if you get to liking me, then Brae. That’s what my friends call me. Titles are for formal events and strangers. We’re all friends here. Or at least, we ought to be, if we’re to accomplish what Gerik means us to.”

She seemed confused for a moment. “Very well. I will call you Braeden, but what about the others?”

“They’re you’re friends too, are they not?”

“But Master Kiomo is my teacher, I must show him respect. And Sir Gerik…”

“Call Kiomo ‘master,’ if it makes you feel better. As for Gerik, quite frankly, he probably doesn’t care what anyone calls him.”

“All right then. Braeden, how do you and Gerik know Gorden?”

He smiled slightly. “So it comes to that. Well, you have a right to know, since we’re dragging you along. I grew up with Gerik and Gorden in Mabandad Castle, the fort of a minor lord named Joffney whose lands were small and infertile. The three of us were inseperable. Gorden was the oldest, Gerik’s senior by three years, and mine by five. We were like brothers. Our parents worked in the fortress. We were always getting in trouble for something. And Gerik was always the cause of both the trouble and the getting caught. He hasn’t changed.

“We were also always getting into fights with the other children there. Well, that is, Gerik and I would get into fights with the other children, if not with each other, and Gorden would support us if it came down to it, but most of the kids were scared of Gorden. That’s another story entirely, but suffice it to say that they had seen him fight their peers, and didn't want to argue with him.

“We were all three good with our fists, but neither Gorden nor I liked to fight. Gerik would pick fights whenever there was nothing to do. I fought when my temper got the better of me – which, to my degredation, was quite often. I still have problems with my temper, but I’ve improved slightly. Gorden only fought when he was forced.

“Anyway, as we got older, we had to choose our paths for life. We could remain where we were and work as our parents did, or we could join one of the three High Classes. Any of us could have been knights, we were all adequately skilled with a blade. Gorden and I both had magic, although his was great and mine small. And I also had a gift for music. Well, Gerik’s only option of the three was to become a knight, but he would have chosen it even if he’d had more Talent than anyone who’s ever lived or a voice like honey. Gorden chose to become an adept not only because he didn’t like to fight, but because he liked the idea of having this power inside him. I chose to be a bard for many reasons – I loved music, I loved life, which bards value above all, and I loved the Code." He didn't ask if she was familiar with the Code - each member of the High Classes was bound to it.

She blinked slowly in confusion. “But adepts and knights have the Code, too."

“Bards follow the Code most strictly; knights follow it most loosely. Most adepts keep to it, but some stray…” He paused here, his brows knitted. “Anyway, I wanted to live the Code. No bard has ever broken it, at least, none that I’ve ever heard of. It’s superstition that if a bard breaks it, his voice will grow raspy and his fingers will cripple. No bard wants that.

“So Gorden, being too old for the Academy, was taken under the wing of some Itinerants that were visiting the fortress. Few learn magic wholly outside the Academy, but it’s not unheard of. They stayed put for five years before they left with Gorden in tow. He was fifteen when they took him away. At that point, Gerik was a squire to a knight who was at the fortress, and I was harper to a bard named Mandrell. Gorden wrote to us whenever he could. Two years later, Gerik and I went out into the world with Sir Trempin – that was Gerik’s knight – and Mandrell. After a year on the road together, we went our separate ways. Mandrell thought Gerik might be a bad influence on me. Gorden kept writing for two more years after that, until he got his greys and his staff. Gerik was knighted later in the same year, and the following year I got my brooch and harp.” His hand went to his throat, where a simple silver brooch clasped his cloak.

“All harpers and minstrels have harps, too, of course," he added as a side note, "but theirs are of oak, a crude, durable material fit for learning. A bard’s harp is of rowan. But I’m getting carried away; you wanted to know about Gorden.

“So the last time he wrote Gerik and I, he had just become an adept. When his letters stopped, we didn’t know what had become of him. I began having dreams about it, and they shocked me, because I saw the darkness that had grown in his heart. Gerik dismissed my dreams as merely that – dreams. But he was never much of a believer in bardic ways. It is impossible for anyone to know the future, but it is not uncommon for a bard to dream of the past or the present. It’s one of those small magics that we do. Many people forget that bards practice magic. Some of us are very powerful, but I can only do simple things. My dreams started coming before I took the Trials, and it has become clear since then that dreams are my magical arbenigrw." All magic-weilders have an arbenigrw, or specitaly. He wondered for a moment what Andellyn's was, but pushed the thought from his mind and moved on.

“After I became a bard, Gerik and I traveled together for a while in search of Gorden. We never found him, but we did find traces. We heard someone talking of him at an inn, and managed to find out which way he was going. We followed him in that manner for a few months, hearing progressively horrid stories of him. It started with people saying his presence made them feel scared. Then, people began to talk about his destructive behavior and menacing threats. I wanted to find him so badly, so we could find out what was wrong and how we could help him.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Finally, we got to a town in the far north of Creddarn, just south of the Arswai Mountains. There, they said he went north. We knew we’d lost him, then. No man knows what lies north of those mountains. We checked towns and villages in the area, just to be sure, but there was no sign of him.

“I’ve asked wise men what lies north of the Arswai Mountains, but none of them know. I have on occaission gone up to random strangers and asked. The best answer I’ve gotten was ‘Only the demons know what lies in the demons’ realm.’ Gerik has yet to tell me how he knows Gorden is making his bid for power now. Part of me always knew that Gorden would try to overthrow the people, the king, at some point - he loved power too much, loved being feared. I’ve never doubted that he’s still alive. I’ve always hoped that he’d come back to us, the way he once was, but that’s a naïve idea.

“There. That’s all I know.” He looked her in the eye, but she couldn’t see the pain in his gaze.

She thought for a moment. “What are we going to do about him?”

Braeden drew a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “Strictly speaking, I don’t know. Gerik has yet to tell me his plans. But the way I see it, unless Gerik thinks Gorden will come to us, we’ve got to go to him. And that means going into – and possibly past – the Arswai Mountains.”

A shiver went up and down Andellyn’s spine, and she pulled her blanket closer about her.

“Go on to bed, now, Andellyn. Your watch is over.”

She stood up, but protested. “I couldn’t possibly sleep now, I – “

He cut her off. “Nonsense. I’ll sing you a lullabye. You’ll be asleep before you know it.” She nodded and turned to walk away, but he called her back. “Kiomo calls you Andy, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “I suppose he does.”

He thought about it for a second. “May I?”

She looked down at her feet, then up at the stars, then directly at Braeden. “Yes.” She began to walk back to where the others slept.

“Goodnight Andy,” he called after her.

“Goodnight Brae.”

She lay down, wrapped in her blanket, and had just enough time to catch a hint of a melody resonating from the rock in a rich tenor voice before she fell asleep.

~~~

When Andellyn awoke the next morning, the others were up already. Braeden passed her a hunk of meat on some bread and encouraged her to eat up. She had just time to swallow her breakfast and settle her things onto Ebony before they were trotting steadily northeast. She wore the bracelet and the Black Sun, and the rabbit's foot and knife were secure on her belt. She had discreetly disposed of the gopher after Finn had fallen asleep, not wishing to offend him.

She rode behind the men, who spoke quietly. She didn't really count herself as part of this crusade against Gorden, so it was none of her business what they said about him. She was sure that was what they were talking about. She found herself staring at Gerik. Even from behind, and in the saddle, he was quite a sight. The sun glinted off of his golden hair as it would off of real gold. She was transfixed.

They rested around noon to water the horses and have a light dinner. She decided that perhaps it wasn't so bad to have Finn underfoot all the time. He did make a pleasant companion, and didn't interrupt her thoughts. She ate the strips of dried meat she'd been given with no company but the dog as the men continued keeping their own counsel. After a few moments, voices were raised, and she couldn't help but overhear what they were saying.

"Gerik, I keep telling you, my dreams haven't told me anything of his movements! I would know if he were really up to something." Braeden's voice rang clear and crisp in the spring air.

"You and your dreams! My sources are never wrong. Waern, Tirrant, and Naggirt have all been ransacked by goblins bearing the White Flame."

"And that automatically means Gorden? You have to consider the other possibilities."

"You know as well as I, Brae, that goblins have never united before. And you know as well as I what the White Flame means."

"But I'd know, Gerik. I'd be able to pick up something like that about Gorden. Besides, the Crown would do something if Creddarnogi were in danger. Your sources must be wrong; it's the only explanation."

Kiomo silenced them both. "Brae, it is possible that Gorden has found a way to shield himself from your magic. And the Crown - if it has heard the news - is either doing something that will fail for lack of knowledge of Gorden or hasn't a clue what to do about him. Or perhaps it has dismissed the thought of him being a real threat."

When they continued, they'd dropped their voices again, and Andy heard no more. She threw a stick for Finn and watched as he sped after it.

They stopped for camp on some flatlands that night, and Andellyn had the second watch again. She made an effort to wake with time to spare before her watch was to start in an attempt to speak with Gerik. She approached him shyly where he sat cross-legged on the ground. Unable to speak, she looked the other way and sat down beside him. He was silent, so after a moment she plucked up the courage to speak. "Hello."

Gerik smirked. The girl again. "Hi, Andellyn."

She spent a few moments trying to think of something - anything - to say. Without realizing it, she said, "I'm scared." She hadn't really thought about it. But now that she did, it dawned on her that it was true. She was marching off into the unknown, and she was afraid.

"Don't worry, kid. I've got it all under control. Nothing's going to happen to you."

She smiled a shy, relieved smile, but couldn't manage words.

He yawned. "I'm kind of tired. Say, would you do me a favor? Take the rest of my watch?" He smiled in what he knew full well was a winning way.

She blushed in the moonlight. "A-all right."

She sat her watch thinking of Gerik. But, as on the night before, Braeden woke early as well. She saw his sillouhette in the starlight. He stood, stretched, and loped over to her. He sat down where Gerik had sat several hours earlier, stretching his legs out in front of him and leaning back on his elbows. "It's quite a night, isn't it?" From their location, they could see a great expanse of sky, and there wasn't a single cloud blocking their view. The moon was full and bright.

Andellyn drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. She drew a deep breath, as if she were trying to breathe in the world. "Yes, it is. You're up early, Brae."

He shrugged in reply. "I was restless."

"Were you restless last night as well? Perhaps you should see a healer."

He sighed. "Last night I slept fine. Well, except for the nightmare that woke me up." He laughed faintly at his own joke.

She smiled just slightly. "What was it about?"

"I don't remember," he answered, shaking his head. "I hate it when I can't remember dreams. It frustrates me, you know. The one thing I'm really good at, magically speaking, and it escapes me. Maybe it meant nothing. But it may have been important, and now we'll never know."

"At least you're good at something magical. I often doubt I even have Talent. I think it must have all been a mistake. I don't know why Master Kiomo decided to take me of all people with him. I'm only a hindrance."

Braeden frowned. He shouldn't tell her what Kiomo had told him. He wouldn't, of course. But he didn't like to see the girl berate herself so. "Cheer up, Andy. It'll come to you. Just give it a little more time."

They were silent for a time, but it was an amiable silence. Finally, Brae spoke. "Are you afraid, Andy? Of what's to come?" She could barely see his face in the light, but his brows were knitted in concern that she couldn't read.

She smiled broadly. "No. I've nothing to fear, Gerik said so himself. He won't let anything bad happen to us." She had wanted to say "to me," but decided against it.

Braeden scowled. "Gerik said that? He's a fool if I ever met one." He paused for a moment, then looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "You believed him, Andy?"

She blinked. "Of course I believed him. Gerik is a knight; he's a good man; he--"

Braeden laughed, loudly and harshly. "A good man? Gerik? Andy, he's a dishonest, scheming, vulgar cad. Even for a knight, he's low. And as for being a knight, he's mediocre at best. He does the occaissional neutral-but-almost-good deed to keep up appearances."

She stood, indignant. "How can you say that? Gerik is very kind and generous. And he's fearless."

Brae laughed again, but this time it was a good-natured laugh. "Calm down, Andy, let's not wake up all of Creddarn, now. You got one thing right; I'll give you that much. Gerik is fearless. But that's nothing to be proud of. There's a difference between fearlessness and bravery. To be brave, you must experience fear and then act in the face of it. To be brave is an honorable thing. To be fearless is just stupid. It is wise to fear that which may hurt you, Andy. And this little quest may do just that. I'm scared spitless by the whole mess. But I'm doing it because it needs to be done. Kiomo's the same way. Gerik, he just refuses to believe that the dangers we face are going to be that dangerous. He's a damn fool."

"You're supposed to be his friend!"

Brae shrugged. "I am his friend. Part of being a friend is acknowledging the other person's faults. And I'm also your friend. And as your friend I would advise you to stay away from him. But it's more complicated then that, isn't it? You... you care for him. Don't you?" He wouldn't look at her.

She folded her arms and looked at her feet. She was embarassed, but Braeden was her friend, and he was so easy to talk to... She couldn't keep it to herself any longer. "I... I think I might love him."

Braeden almost laughed. Almost. Part of him wanted to laugh very much, to dismiss the possibility as if it were nothing. But part of him wanted to cry, for various reasons. He told himself it was just because he was worried she'd do something stupid. He told himself it was for her that he was upset, not for himself. He'd just met the girl, for Rhianna's sake! He'd only just met her... After a moment, he found his voice, but it was hoarse. "I see." Then, after a moment, he added, "Go on to sleep, Andy. I'll finish up for you."

As she drifted off to sleep, she heard the first few notes of a mournful tune as they were fingered on the harp.

Chapter 4

They continued in the next day as they had the day before, and the scenery remained unchanged. Andellyn was fairly bored. She found herself talking to Finn as if he could understand her words. When they stopped to eat, she dined with him while the men kept their own counsel. She was warming to the dog without realizing it, without wanting to. Before too long, the sun set, and they made camp once more.

Andy didn't wake for her watch until Gerik nudged her to consciousness. "Your turn, kid."

Finn woke with her to guard their friends, and she spent most of the time stroking his smooth fur. Brae was up early once again, and settled himself by her silently. After a moment she asked, "What ails you tonight, Brae?"

He smiled pleasantly. "I did it on my own this time. The last two nights - I liked that. Having someone to talk to, you know. It seems I'm so busy during the day. All I can do is talk to Gerik and Kiomo about... all this. So I thought I'd wake up early, so that we could talk. If you'd rather I don't in the future, I won't."

She smiled shyly. "Oh, I don't mind. I rather like having someone to talk to besides Finn."

The dog looked up at her and whined.

Braeden chuckled and scratched behind Finn's ears. "She didn't mean anything by it, Finn." He looked up at her intently, eyes laughing. For several moments he watched her, held her eyes in his own which had stopped their laughter. "Do you sing at all, Andy?"

"Me? No. I've never... I've hardly spoken, Brae!" She smiled just a little at her piteous speech. "I don't think I'd be very good. Why?"

"I'd like to hear you try. I think you could be great, Andy, really."

"I..." she began, but couldn't find the right words. "Me?"

He half laughed. He shook his head, but he was grinning. "Yes, you, Andy. Will you try? Please?"

She opened her mouth, but found no words. And he expected her to sing? She heaved a small sigh. There was no sound argument to be made. "All right. But I don't know anything about it."

He fetched his harp like a boy might fetch his mother's purse when he's told that he may buy some ice cream. He checked the tuning quickly without saying a word to the bewildered girl. Once he had assured himself that the harp was indeed in tune, he looked up. "Listen." He played a series of notes in ascending and then descending order. "Now, I'm going to play it again. Sing along."

"But I don't know the words!" she protested.

"It doesn't have words. Just make a noise. Here, listen to me." He played the scale again, singing along in a series of 'ah's. "Can you do that?"

She shrugged worriedly. "I can try."

He gave a reassuring smile. "All right, then. Try to stay on the same pitch as the harp." He played the scale slowly while she fumbled along with her voice.

He flashed an amused grin. "Louder, Andy. I can barely hear you. Once more." He played it again, and she followed a bit more steadily and strongly.

After they'd finished, he fell silent, voice and fingers.

Her brows knitted in concern. "Are you all right, Brae? Was I that awful?"

His face remained emotionless for a moment. Then he looked at her. The happiness in his expression could not be seen in a smile, for he wore none. Rather, it glowed in his eyes. "Beautiful," was all he managed to say for a moment. Then he did smile. "Yes, yes. You've exceeded my expectations, Andy. Let's try an arpeggio." He played one quickly. "Got it?"

Andy blinked. She shook her head, as if to throw off confusion. "What? Slow down, Brae. I don't know what I'm doing!"

He laughed at himself. "I'm sorry. I get a bit carried away sometimes." He played the arpeggio once more, slowly this time. "We'll try this, and that'll be it for the night. Is that all right with you?"

She nodded. "Yes. That's fine."

He played the arpeggio again. "Here we go." He played it and she sang, still a little nervous.

He began to run her through it a second time when a rough-looking man emerged from some nearby scrub.

The notes Andy was singing caught in her throat, and she froze. The man leapt at Braeden, who merely stood and continued playing his harp. His tune had changed, but he showed no sign of noticing the man.

Just before the ruffian could strike the bard, however, Brae said, very quietly, "Stop." He was still playing the instrument. The man stopped, frozen in his tracks.

Brae, still plucking away, turned to look the man in the terrified eye. "You will find your mouth can move. I suggest you use it to explain yourself." His voice held suppressed rage.

The man did move his mouth, but it was a moment before words came. "I - I wasn't doin' anythin'!"

Brae altered his tune slightly. "The truth, please. And plenty of it."

The man's eyes gained a hazy look. "My name is Mickey. I'm a thief 'round these parts, if I can't get better work. I was goin' to search your camp for valuables an' steal them. And I was goin' to take the woman, too. But I wasn't goin' to hurt you folks. Not unless you put up a fight."

Brae's jaw was clenched in anger, but he managed to keep his temper under control, if just barely. "And why were you going to take the woman?"

"A man gets lonely, y'see--"

Brae cut him off. He had suspected the man's intentions, but he hadn't been sure. "That will be quite enough." The tune changed again. "Mickey, we carry very few valuables, and what we have we'd like to keep. The woman will remain safely in our company. I want you to go to a temple. They'll give you sanctuary if anyone is trying to track you down for theft. I suggest Rhianna's, personally. You will go there, and you should consider putting your life in the service of one of the gods. It'll keep you out of trouble and under a roof. Go now."

Mickey snapped out of his trance, turned, and ran.

Brae gradually stopped playing. He looked at Andy where she sat, still petrified. "You all right?"

She took a deep breath or two before answering. "Yes. I'm fine." After a moment, she asked, "What would he have done to me, Brae?"

He winced slightly at the thought, and felt the successfully repressed rage begin to rise again. "You don't want to know, Andy. Trust me."

She nodded, accepting what he said. "Brae?"

"Yes?"

"Can you teach me to do what you did? With the harp and your voice?" Her own voice was filled with awe, and he thought he heard a hint of admiration.

"I'm afraid not. Only bards can do that. You're not allowed to learn, and you haven't had any previous bardic training, so you couldn't do it. It takes years."

"Maybe I could be a bard. I'm not proving to be a very good adept."

He frowned. "Don't say that. You'll be fine, once you sort yourself out. Besides, it's too late. Didn't you pledge yourself to Gwinn when you became a prentice?"

She looked rather glum. "Yes."

"You know you can't pledge yourself to Rhianna, too. And anyway, you're a too old to begin the training - you are eighteen, you know; you're an adult now. And you're female."

Andy thought about this. It had not yet occurred to her that she was an adult, and it rarely occurred to her that she was female. It didn't seem fair that these things could keep her from the power she had just witnessed. But that wasn't a very adult way of looking at it. "I just wish I could do what you did just now. It was amazing."

He couldn't help but smile a little. "Music may have some magic to it, Andy, but once you find your magic, you'll probably outstrip me by a long shot."

"You think so?" she asked, genuinely curious.

Braeden's grin spread to cover a good portion of his face. "I know so. Now go to bed. You've had more than enough excitement for one night."

She murmured a good night and went to her pallet. Brae sat his watch fingering his harp thoughtfully. When it finished, he went to wake Kiomo up. Usually he nudged the man and went to sleep, but tonight he wanted to talk. "Kiomo," he said, shaking the adept. "Kiomo, can I have a word?"

Kiomo stood slowly, his old bones creaking. He didn't seem overly surprised, but neither did it look as if he'd been expecting this.

They sat down where Brae and Andy had been earlier. Braeden's cool grey eyes met Kiomo's deep blue ones gravely, and the younger man spoke solemnly. "Someone tried to rob us tonight."

Kiomo blinked. This was not quite what he'd expected to hear. "On your watch?"

Braeden shook his head. "Andy's. But I was up at the time."

"Oh?"

"Singing lessons," he answered shortly. "I got rid of the thief."

"By what means?"

"Music," said Brae. "What else? I had the harp in my hands, there was nothing else to do, except maybe a spell, and you know I'm not very good at magic. Besides, music is more humane."

"Not if you brainwash people, Brae," put in Kiomo, half in jest.

The bard became defensive. "I didn't! I wouldn't! I helped the man, Kiomo. I told him to go to a temple so he could have sanctuary from the law, and suggested that he consider serving one of the gods. That's hardly brainwashing."

Kiomo smiled. "I meant nothing by it, lad. Calm down, before you wake the others. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?"

Brae shrugged. "Andy said afterwards that she wanted to be a bard. Said she wasn't any good at being an adept, and I had told her earlier that she had a good voice. I suppose it's my fault."

"It's not a crisis, Braeden. She just feels unsure, a little lost, maybe. You didn't ruin her life by exposing her to the beauty and power of music."

Brae looked at his feet, then up at the stars. "I wish she wouldn't discredit herself the way she does."

"She'll be fine once I crack her shell," the old man assured him. "And until then, she's got you to encourage her, and Finn to stand by her, and me to guide her, and Gerik... well, I'm sure Gerik's good for something. Gwinn take me if I know what. But he must be of some use." He smiled a bit at his own joke, but Braeden remained somber.

"She's got Gerik to hope for," he supplied morosely. He paused. "She thinks she's in love with him, Kiomo. He'll break her heart without a second thought, and she can't see it."

Kiomo heaved a small sigh. He'd guessed as much, for he was a very observant man. But it hurt a bit to hear it. "That's out of my control, unfortunately. But hers won't be the only heart broken in this matter, will it, Brae?"

The bard was silent and wouldn't look the adept in the eye.

"I've seen the way you sneak glances at her, Brae. I've seen the look in your eyes when you see her looking at Gerik."

Braeden wished he hadn't put his harp away when he'd woken Kiomo. He desperately wanted to play his frustration away. After a moment, he burst. "She's barely conscious of my existence!"

"She's barely conscious of her own existence," interjected Kiomo.

"It's not just that. I've been attracted to women before, of course. But I've been able to escape it before. I've been able to play away the feelings. With Andy... she's in the music, Kiomo. She is the music. I can't get away from her, because she's in everything I see and do."

"The Code does not forbid emotion, Brae. Neither does it forbid courtship or marriage. You aren't doing anything wrong by loving her."

"I never said I loved her. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about her. But I can't stand by and watch her throw herself at Gerik only to be used up and tossed away like a scrap of parchment."

Kiomo put a callused hand on Braeden's shoulder. "So don't stand by and watch it happen, Brae. Do something about it."

Braeden didn't answer him, but stalked over to the place where the others were sleeping and turned in for the night.

~~~

Andellyn woke the next day in high spirits. Braeden was quieter than usual as they broke their fast, but she didn't notice - Gerik had handed her a chunk of bread and looked her right in the eye. She barely managed to eat, and gave most of the bread to Finn. The small band was soon saddled up and on the move. The land grew rockier and steeper.

That night Andy sat her watch humming absentmindedly. When there was only half an hour or so left, she came to the realization that Braeden had not joined her. She felt a bit insulted. Was he angry with her for some reason? Did he not want to teach her to sing? She reached out a lonely hand to Finn and scratched behind his ears.

The dog looked at her and whined.

"What's the matter, Finn?" she asked him. "Are you all right?"

It buried its nose in its paws by way of an answer.

"Well, I don't know what you want me to do, so it's no use complaining."

After a moment, the dog rose and walked over to the sleeping figures. It began to nose one of them until it woke up. Andellyn heard the man voice his protest.

"What - ? Finn, what is it?" Then Braeden's voice took on a tone of sudden panic, and he sprang to his feet. "Is she in trouble?" But upon seeing Andy sitting perfectly safe not far away, he relaxed. Apparently deciding that since he was up he might as well stay up, Brae walked over to the girl, wrapping his cloak around him as he went.

He sat down next to her in silence.

Feeling awkward, Andy eventually spoke. "If you don't want to teach me music, you just have to say so, Braeden."

For a split second his face was contorted in what may have been fear, anger, disgust, or shock. He himself wasn't sure. Neither was he sure whether it was aimed at her or himself. "It's not that, Andy, honestly. I do want to teach you. You've got a beautiful voice."

"Then why didn't you wake up? And why didn't you bring your harp over here?" Her voice was small and timid, like that of a child who has been beaten.

"It's just..." he trailed off. And what can I tell her? For the love of Rhianna, I don't even know! But I can't tell Andy that. She'll think I'm just refusing to tell her that I despise her. "Don't worry about it, Andy. I've just not been feeling myself."

She looked at him, worried. "Are you sick? I think Kiomo's got some herbs with him. I could prepare some for you."

He couldn't help smiling a bit at her concern. "I'll be all right. Thank you, though."

They were silent a bit longer, but this time it wasn't awkward. After a few minutes, Braeden spoke. "Would you like to try a song before you turn in?"

"But your harp - " she began, only to be kindly interrupted.

"The harp is not necessary. It adds to the effect, but a voice is enough. Would you like to try a song or not?"

"I..." she began timidly. "I would. Very much."

"Okay then. I'll sing the chorus once for you,and then we'll get started.

"Far away from us now
Lies a sunlit valley,
Beyond the horizon
And just out of view.
Someday soon we'll pass
Out from under this shadow
And into that valley,
Just me and you.

"Got it?" he asked.

She shrugged a bit. "I think so. Maybe."

He smiled. "Just do what you can. We'll sing the chorus together, and I'll do the verses solo."

He began the chorus again, and she joined in timidly, fumbling with some of the words.

Far away from us now
Lies a sunlit valley,
Beyond the horizon
And just out of view.
Someday soon we'll pass
Out from under this shadow
And into that valley,
Just me and you.

Oh, the times, they are dark,
And each day it gets darker.
Hope seems to dwindle,
But don't let it die.
For as long as you
Remain here beside me
To love and to guide me,
I will not cry.

Far away from us now
Lies a sunlit valley,
Beyond the horizon
And just out of view.
Someday soon we'll pass
Out from under this shadow
And into that valley,
Just me and you.

Though the wind may blow,
And the water boil,
Fire may rage,
And the earth, it may shake,
Firm my spirit shall stay -
I won't shake; I won't tremble.
If I'm not alone
Then my hope won't break.

Far away from us now
Lies a sunlit valley,
Beyond the horizon
And just out of view.
Someday soon we'll pass
Out from under this shadow
And into that valley,
Just me and you.

Evil before me,
And evil behind me,
And evil above,
And below, and around.
But a brilliant light
Burns strong in the distance,
And I won't give up
Until it I've found.

Far away from us now
Lies a sunlit valley,
Beyond the horizon
And just out of view.
Someday soon we'll pass
Out from under this shadow
And into that valley,
Just me and you.

There was a moment of roaring silence. As the song had progressed, Andellyn had gotten more confident, and had sung louder and better. But there had been something off about her singing.

"You didn't understand it, did you?" Braeden asked kindly. "You knew the words, but you didn't feel it."

She nodded in agreement with his statement. "What was it about?"

He heaved a small sigh. "Hope. The singer believes that no matter how bad things get - and things are bad - that there's always a ray of hope. It's also about friendship, and drawing strength from the support of one's friends. I thought it was a fitting song."

She nodded again, almost absentmindedly. "It was pretty. Now that I know what it was saying, I think it was beautiful." They were both silent a moment. "I like singing, Brae. I really do."

The corner of his mouth twitched a bit. "So do I. It's one of the reasons I became a bard. And I have to admit, I've never been one for duets, but I really enjoy singing with you."

She let out a little laugh. "You'd probably do better without me."

"We'll see about that once I've trained you up a bit more," he consented with a playful wink. "Now get to bed. You need your rest."

~~~

The next day they were met by a group of bandits double their number when they stopped to stretch their legs and water their horses. Seeing Kiomo's greys and staff from a distance, they made sure to knock him unconscious as they set upon the travelers. Gerik immediately drew his sword, and began defending himself from three of the men. Braeden could not waste time getting his harp, for it was strapped securely to the back of his horse, and was only able to muster a small fire spell that managed no more than to distract his assailants for a few seconds. He drew a knife from his belt, and breathed a swift prayer to Rhianna.

Andellyn was almost paralyzed with shock. Finn was faithfully defending her, but he was only a puppy, and it didn't take long for one of the men to land a good hard kick to his ribs. For a moment, Andy thought she felt a spark of something inside her, but as her mind grasped for it, it slipped away, insubstantial as mist. She fumbled for the knife Kiomo had given her, but it was knocked from her hand almost as soon as she had it unsheathed. Apparently the bandits didn't want to hurt her, for the burly man who had attacked Finn and had made her drop the knife put his own blade in his teeth and lunged at her with his hands. She lashed out with a fist, and hit him squarely in the jaw. There was a loud crack, and the pain in her hand made her doubt that the sound came from the man, but he was thrown off his guard, at least.

Gerik had managed to kill two of the men who had set on him. The third knew a thing or two about swords. Every opening Gerik thought he saw was defended strongly when he went to strike. Gerik had managed a few small cuts a grazes, but nothing major, and he himself was not unharmed. He feinted right, spun around left, and just barely managed to stab the man in the side. He'd had to leave himself open to do it, though, and barely got his sword out of the man in time to save his own life. He got a decent-sized gash on his belly, but his opponent was dying. He hit the fellow on the head with the hilt of his sword and took a moment to assess the situation.

Brae was holding his own against two men, but would be doing much better if he would kill his foes instead of merely trying to render them incapacitated. Kiomo and the dog were down, though whether dead or unconscious, Gerik couldn't tell. The kid had lost her weapon and her wits, but only one man was attacking her. There were two men going through saddlebags. Gerik considered a moment, and decided that Andellyn and Braeden would be able to fend for themselves for as long as it would take him to protect their supplies.

The two thieves were inattentive. He gave a quick yell, and with two flicks of his sword their throats, bared to him when they turned their heads, were cut. He stepped quickly over to Braeden and cut the head clean off one of the assailants. Both Braeden and the other bandit stopped and looked at Gerik in shock, for they hadn't noticed his presence, but Braeden remained in control of his facilities enough to knock out the bandit while the man's attention was diverted. Braeden hurried quickly over to Andy, but Gerik paused to stab the unconscious man through the gullet.

Braeden rammed into Andellyn's attacker in a furious rage, knocking the man over. As the outlaw stood up, Gerik approached, and the man had barely gotten to his feet when the knight's sword buried itself in his chest.

Braeden glared at Gerik. "You shouldn't kill them needlessly. They were confused, not evil. They didn't deserve death."

"Anyone who endangers our mission deserves to die," defended Gerik. "And anyway, it's none of your business what blood I spill."

"It is when I can prevent it being spilled," countered the angry bard.

"I killed all eight of them. Get over it, Braeden. Grow up. Kill or be killed. If it wasn't for me you would be dead."

Braeden opened his mouth as if to say something, closed it, shook his head, and marched off to the horses. Gerik wiped his sword on a tuft of grass before sheathing it. Andy said nothing, but sat down on the ground in a daze.

Braeden had soon crossed back to where they were with a waterskin and bandages. He knelt at Kiomo's side, and hummed a tune, coaxing the adept to consciousness. Blue eyes opened, and Braeden offered the old man water. After Kiomo had a drink, Braeden went to Finn, and hummed the same tune as before. He poured some water into a cupped hand for the dog to lap up and examined the beast's injuries. He walked then towards Andy, and shoved the bandages rudely at the knight as he passed.

He knelt in front of Andy, who was staring blankly ahead. He murmured her name, and, receiving no response, he hummed a variant of the tune he had hummed over Kiomo and Finn, and she blinked, awareness coming to her.

"You all right?" he asked softly.

She nodded. "Just a bit scared, I guess. Is Finn okay?"

"He'll be okay," he reassured her. "He's bruised, and I think he might have a cracked rib, but Kiomo will probably have him good as new before long." He handed her the knife she'd dropped, and she slipped it back into its sheath.

As they spoke, Kiomo was indeed healing the dog. Healing was far from Kiomo's greatest skill, but he managed to heal the rib. He would not strain himself to the point of fixing things that could be healed well with time or herbs, though. Gerik held off on bandaging himself. The only bandage he really needed was one for his abdomen, but it would be better to let Kiomo make a poultice for it, which Kiomo did once he finished with Finn. Before long, they were off again.
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