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Witcher

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The Queen of Mirrors



The year is 1149. A war between the elves and humans is at a ceasefire. Unknown entities are kidnapping men and women from both sides of the battlefield. In the midst of this crisis, emissaries from a mysterious kingdom have entered the fray, and they've used unconventional means to host a peculiar gathering...


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PROLOGUE: THE INVITATION

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Somewhere along the Aedirn-Dol Blathanna border...
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Mavaldi shouldered his way through the crowded tent. The layers of fabric lining its posh interior were starting to make it very warm and unpleasant. The collective smell of onion breath, gurgled beer burps, and body odor were making his eyes water.

"Move!" He groaned, shoving a beanpole of a man to the side.

"Just who do ye think ye are?" The man rolled up his sleeves rearing for a fight, but as he glanced at Mavaldi's cat-like gaze and two swords, he apologized for getting in his way.

The witcher then approached the nearest wall, motioning for the two men in front of him to clear a path. They wore heavy armor around the shoulders and legs, their torso covered in a leather jerkin with the Aedirn coat of arms on their left breasts.

"We ain't some peasant farmer you can easily push aside, Mavaldi, the witcher." The tallest of them scoffed, resisting the urge to spit on Mavaldi's boots.

"Aye," The other one chimed in, flashing crooked teeth between an unkept beard. "Just cause you've diplomatic immunity around these parts don't give you the right to do as you please."

Mavaldi looked as though he wanted to say and do something he'd most likely regret, but he steeled his temper and unclenched his jaw to force a smile.

"You seem to know a great deal about me, yet I know little about either of you." Mavaldi snorted.

"August of Aebirn." The tall one stated.

"Winfrey of Aebirn." The toothy one croaked.

"Forgive me, Sir August, Sir Winfrey. This tent, while extravagantly embroidered in decorative fabrics and never before seen tapestries, smells of horse shit. I need air and plenty of it."

Mavaldi watched as the two relaxed their posture and nodded in agreement.

"You're telling us, lad. Those scented candles ain't enough to cleanse this gathered blight. You'd think they'd have a keg on hand at the very least," Winfrey motioned the witcher over to a creased opening in the layered fabric walls, rippling against the outside breeze. "Your nose'll thank ya."

An evening gust cooled Mavaldi's face, the smell of forest pine and honeysuckle refreshing his senses. He closed his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh of relief. He turned back to the knights, now surveying everyone in attendance.

"Bunch of would-bes and has-beens the lot of them," August said. "Fresh from the mud in search of rumored gold. Who's to say there's truth to any of this? We've all gathered here on a whim. A ruse is likely at play here."

"Aye, an elaborate prank." His companion nodded. "Could be the damn elves trying to pull a fast one on us."

"Unlikely." Mavaldi hissed. "We're here on neutral ground. Both Aedirn and Dol Blathanna encampments agreed to the terms. Let's not forget why this summoning was even allowed in the first place. That's right, the abductions, not by either side, but from supposed monsters in the wild. Humans and elves are being kidnapped, gone without a trace. If it weren't for the eye witness accounts and the ceasefire attributed to our shadowy hosts, this damned war would've carried on until nobody was left. I'm not going to pretend like any of this makes any bit of sense, either... "

"Aye," Winfrey butted in, "The same time these monsters start attacking and in come these...Kel Deth...Dledge-"

"Kel Dlesinthe." Mavaldi corrected. He stared up at the emblem above the rows of lit candles, barely exposed by the silken drapes. It was hung almost like a shrine to be worshiped. On the coat of arms was a crescent moon, hovering above a mountain range. Beneath was the moon's reflection in a lake where eight stars rimmed the lower edge of the emblem. Nothing came to mind at the sight of this image. No work of art, piece of literature, or historical document. It felt alien, yet oddly familiar.

"Have any of you even seen them?" The tall knight asked aloud, not just to his fellow companion and the witcher. "Our hosts?"

Those that heard or cared to listen shrugged.

"I seent them! White cloaks with masks." Someone hollered.

"Deep in the forest at night." A woman added.

"From a distance, but I ain't never come near one..." A man with a squeaky voice confessed.

"I fancied one in bed! Dirtied her cloak up right I did!" A smart ass commented, igniting juvenile cackles from all around.

"It's odd..." A dwarf with a braided blonde beard and mane stepped out and faced the crowd. "I've only heard from everyone else that this tent would be here. Thought it be some jokesters, nay, thieves looking to corner me unawares, but I can't even recall who told me in the first place. It's almost as if I was drawn to this place...What about you, witcher?"

Mavaldi could feel everyone's eyes staring at him. He shrugged.

"I was tasked to investigate the latest disappearance of Aedirn soldiers south east of here, near the edge of Blue Mountain. There were visible signs of struggle, but little-to-no evidence of anything else. No traces of blood, skin flakes, hair, or innards. No scent or hum at my medallion to suggest monsters at work there, just boot prints leading to nowhere. Anyways, I reported my findings to the Marshall, who then told me to come here... Either way it doesn't matter. We'll all find out who these mysterious people are soon enough and hopefully get to the bottom of this madness..."

The tent's noise volume rose. Everyone began exchanging theories and trading stories about how they ended up there. Mavaldi kept near the fabric wall, taking in more pine and honeysuckle air as it snaked its way inside the tent every now and then.

Amidst the growing bustle of the tent, Alma kept to herself. Leaning forward onto her elbows, her gloved hands clutched her ale awkwardly. Her eyes flicked about the tent, wide and almost nervous. Fidgeting around, it was painfully obvious how out of place she felt.

After all, she was used to the small villages and towns of the countryside. Having this many people in one area was new terrain for her. The strange and vulgar people, the luxurious tent, even that god-awful smell were all new to her. To have this strange combination rolled into one was overwhelming. Left one aching for the open road. Though, upon greater thought, she self-consciously wondered if being alone truly was a better alternative. Most of these people seemed to have companions they could share their adventures with. Melancholic, she tried to cast off those thoughts and watch the people around her. She was here for a reason after all. Though she was taking a well-deserved break from travel, it didn't mean that it was a good time for self-pity.

From her position seated at a table in the corner of the tent, she had a pretty good view of the others who inhabited it with her. Since she'd barely spent time in any kind of company, it was interesting to study these individuals as they went about their lives.

When the Witcher made his way to her side of the tent, she nearly gasped in awe. She'd never seen someone so strange. Immediately her mind wandered to those famed mutations of their strange guild. Oh what a marvel it must be to work with such strange items! Well... If they existed, that was.

These thoughts were broken as he began to incite talk. It didn't take much to listen in on the conversation. After all, she'd taken her place there strategically to somewhat have some release from the heat and smell. Catching the phrase, "diplomatic immunity" she raised an eyebrow. Maybe it was a bit egotistical, but she hadn't been aware that these men even knew of words such as those. However, more interesting was that it referred to the Witcher.

But it seemed like her attention wasn't the only one awoken by his presence. As other voices chimed in, she tilted her head curiously. Of course she'd heard some of these rumors, but her curiosity was peaked all the same. But when the blond dwarf spoke, she couldn't help but nod herself. Rather the spiritual person, she had felt compelled to follow whatever had called her here because of her strong belief. It wasn't that she was religious. No, no. In fact, she sometimes wavered on atheism. But, she couldn't deny that she swore there was something out there.

The Witcher's response certainly prompted debate. And it peaked her curiosity enough to pull her to her feet. Not quite sure what she was doing, she found her way over to the Witcher... Or Mavaldi, as the others addressed him.

"Excuse me?" Although she was visibly nervous, she didn't dare stutter. She wasn't that pathetic, she thought as she cleared her throat and spoke up, "Sorry. I was just curious by something you mentioned... How do you expect to find these missing people if you have no leads? You have to have some idea, else you wouldn't be so sure. Right?"

"Excuse me?"

A dark-skinned woman with curly hair and large, captivating eyes revealed herself from the crowd.

"Yes?" Mavaldi grumbled.

"Sorry. I was just curious by something you mentioned... How do you expect to find these missing people if you have no leads? You have to have some idea, else you wouldn't be so sure. Right?"

"Who said I had no leads?" Mavaldi snapped with a tinge of irritation in his voice. His cat eyes stared deeply into hers, then gestured at the tent. "Feels like I'm currently standing in one."

But she was right. The fruitless investigation had nipped at his pride all day long, and he was clearly temperamental about it. Were there truly no clues at the site of the kidnapping? No, definitely not. He was sure of it, clear as day. Which made it very aggravating to walk away from, knowing an unfinished puzzle was being left behind. For the time being...

"Apologies, my lady, if I am being uncivil." His cold tone made it hard to convey sincerity, but it was there. Somewhere. "Speaking of ill-manners, does my lady have a name? I have many, and I'm sure my unpleasantness inspires you to think up several colorful names to call me by, but Mavaldi will do."

Although she had sensed he wasn’t the friendly type from his earlier interactions, she hadn’t been prepared for the intensity of his gaze. His words only added to this harsh persona he exuded.

At first, it frightened her. Everyone knew the old legends. A silver sword for hunting monsters, and a steel sword for hunting men. It wouldn’t take much effort to skewer her. But as she thought on it, the more it seemed ridiculous. In most occasions, asking a question didn’t warrant skewering. Especially with so many witnesses.

Finding herself a little braver, though feeling no less awkward (living with a hermit for a good portion of your life will have that effect), she took the moment to inspect him. Other than his eyes, she was rather surprised. Something about him definitely isolated him from others of his race, but he still seemed human. In fact, he was kind of good looking. Well better than these blokes anyways.

With this realization, she rubbed her arm and looked away, feeling rather foolish, ‘I really should trust master’s advice more...’

Breaking back to the present, she almost missed what he said. The tent really was rather out of place here. That and the arrival of all these people and this underlying “call” they felt brought them here... Well it was downright suspicious.

As he asked for her name, she felt herself smiling and chuckling involuntarily, “My lady? Well that’s a first.” Truly it was. Despite his earlier actions, he seemed to be trying to seem a bit friendlier. She could appreciate that sentiment, though she found “my lady” to be rather amusing.

“Alma S—“ Her mouth began to form the beginning syllables of her last name before she stopped. She’d almost forgetten that it should no longer mean anything to her. So instead she awkwardly shut her mouth offered a strange smile. Holding out her left hand, she tensed as she realized her mistake. Finally holding out the right hand, she inwardly swore. Shaking hands was what civilized people did, right? And it was this hand... Or was it her left?

It seemed awkward to her, though she went with it and tried to recover, “A pleasure... Mavaldi.” Blinking, she wondered if it was too formal or if she seemed like she was being fake. A bit frusterated with her own stupidity, she tried to push back those thoughts... She came here to ask another question anyways.

“You wouldn’t happen to need help would you?”

This woman was becoming fascinatingly odd by the second. Upon closer inspection, she looked and seemed to feel out of place. And her name? It was difficult to pick up, partly due to her withdrawal from revealing her full identity, which was even more peculiar.

"Pleasure to meet you... Almonds." Mavaldi shook his head, knowing he was most likely mispronouncing her name as soon as he said it out loud.

Then there was the sheepish smile and awkward gesticulation of her hands. She definitely gave the impression of somebody foreign to local customs. Maybe she was a dryad in disguise, or a hermit's daughter drawn from boring seclusion to chase gold and mystery. Whatever the case might be, it was charming, and her attempts at cordiality made her even more adorable.

“You wouldn’t happen to need help would you?”

In that moment Mavaldi felt a slight vibration in his medallion. The sensation caught him off guard, but he maintained his poker face with a curious look in his eye. Ah, I see...

"Tell me, Almonds, what makes you think you can help little old me?"

A soon as he said Almonds, she froze. Immediately a rush of thoughts filled her head as her eyes rounded. Did he really just call her Almonds? As in the nut? The edible, little nut in those cute, little shells that she'd eaten only once in her lifetime? Did he just call her Almonds?

Wait! Maybe she'd introduced herself wrong? The embarrassment would be enough to kill her. What could be worse than meeting a cold-hearted legend and introducing yourself as Almonds. A mortified look crossed her features as she replayed the events in her head. No... No, she didn't introduce herself as Almonds. Relief swept her features, and she nearly stumbled forward as tension left her body.

So, did he do it on purpose? Was this a snide remark? She'd never been good at social cues, so how she know if he was making fun of her? Did this mean he was being rude? What did she do wrong? Was it the handshake?

Another, thought crossed her mind. He could just have mispronounced it. It's not like Alma was a common name anyways.

She nearly slapped herself as he addressed her again.

Raising a finger, she regained her composure and tried to calm down, "First, my name is Alma... Though, I mean, Almonds is fine. I like almonds. I've had them once, but that was just a--" He didn't want to hear her almond story!

"Uh, it's unimportant. But, I'm..." Pausing she wondered what would be a good way to put it before carefully continuing, "gifted. Yeah. That's a good word for it. And I know a lot! Well, enough to be of use, anyways." It felt as if she'd spent her entire life reading and studying. Which was probably why she was so damn curious.

Motioning to the sword hilt at her left leg, she nodded, "I can protect myself too, so I won't be any issue. I'm just in pursuit of knowledge." That was a good way to sum it up. "Pursuit of knowledge" sounded so clean. At least that sounded right. She'd already made a fool of herself so far.

"Interesting..." Mavaldi said, rubbing the prominent scar dug into his right cheek. "I'd ask you for a list of skills and talents, but why spoil the surprise? It'll be an entertaining spectacle should you turn out to be a catastrophic letdown, but something tells me you won't be. Call it a Witcher's intuition..."

A moment, which probably felt like forever to Alma, passed between them before he spoke again.

"I'd be thrilled to have your companionship, Almond." Mavaldi's fiery eyes locked into hers with a stern disposition. "But be warned: we're in the midst of a turbulent crisis. Tensions are high with unknown forces at play. Keep your eyes peeled, stay close, and trust no one."

The two remained silent as the crowd grew irritable with each passing minute. Then, without a herald's announcement, Marshal Ignatius trudged through the entrance, trailed by a group of knights. The Marshal was decked in full Aedirn armor, blue eyes peering from his helmet's lifted visor. Then there were gasps, followed by an eerie silence, as a lanky figure waltzed in after him. Pointy ears, pierced with rings and jewelry, edged out from her braided temples. One eye was forest green. The other, milky white, with a sliver of a cut shone from the brow above it. Her cadre emerged from the crowd in silence, gathering around her in a perfect circle.

"Vidienne of the Shade?" Mavaldi's eyes widened. He glanced at her new companion and nodded. "She's an elite Aen Sidhe warrior. Fiercest of them all."

Here in this musty tent stood two chess pieces from opposite ends of the board. They've been at war with each other since the deaths of Lara Dorren and Cragen of Lod, the first public union between elf and human. The tension was brewing in the crowd as the two opposing forces stood face to face. The elves and humans in attendance, who've been glaring and uttering profanities at each other for the last hour, were readying themselves for a fight.

"Quiet!" Marshal Ignatius spoke first, raising a clenched gauntlet. "The terms of a ceasefire are still in effect! Disobey this order and you'll be dealt with, immediately!"

"That's right." Vidienne spoke, grinning as she stepped out of her guardian's protective circle. "While I'd want nothing more than to rid this crowd of its lesser ilk, our mysterious hosts have gathered us for a good reason."

The crowd erupted. Marshal Ignatius and his troops attempted to police the audience. Vidienne and her guards looked weary, shifting into a defensive stance as their hands rested on sword hilts. The candles flickered like lightning chaining across a dark sky. Mavaldi clutched his humming medallion, then instinctively put himself in front of Alma.

"Look away, Almond!"

The candle flames grew impossibly bright. It was as if the sun found its way into the tent, but it was no sun. The silhouette of a cloaked figure appeared at the center of the blinding light. The brightness quickly faded, and all eyes eventually adjusted to the strange figure that stood in front of the emblem hung on the wall.

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"Good evening... I see that you are all here. Let us begin..."

Blinking a couple times at his reply, she rolled it over in her mind. She didn’t know whether that was an insult or a compliment. Her skin crawled as she began to think the worst, for she truly had nothing intelligent to say to that. The silence that followed did feel like forever as she waited for him to speak or for herself to come up with a good comeback.

But when he did reply, she relaxed, her shoulders rolling slightly as she did so. Who cared if that earlier comment confused her! He’d said yes. This was the perfect time to learn and maybe even help solve a mystery. How exciting.

“Thank you! I promise I won’t be a letdown! Well... Maybe just a little, but you won’t regret it!” Smiling cheerfully, she found herself nodding up at him. His advice made sense. If she tried she could follow it. But then again, wasn’t she trusting him, a stranger, not to kill her? Did that advice apply to him as well? Did it apply to herself?

Her reverie was broken with the arrival of newcomers. Glancing towards them, she marveled at the armor and later, the woman who entered just after the other. As Mavaldi explained who she was, Alma admired her. She was rather pretty, in an intimidating sort of way, and her jewelry was so shiny. She’d never realized all the different ways you could pierce an ear. Feeling her own curiously, she briefly considered doing so herself.

That was until, she remembered what she’d read. Looking around, the tension was tangible, thick enough ro be cut with a knife. The two figures only seemed to exacerbate the crowd with their words. Shifting, she fiddled with her gloves. Her attention was caught by the candle’s flicker and Mav’s words.

Shielding her eyes, she shut them closed until it seemed the threat was over. She only dared look back up when the voice rang through the tent. Curiously, she peeked out from behind him, taking a step forward to get a closer look.

What a strange... Man? Truth be told, she could barely tell from the gender-neutral clothing. Instead she stared at the metal that covered his face. ‘That must be extremely uncomfortable. How do they breath? What does he mean by begin? Like a game? Ah... Crap,’ A sinking feeling gnawed at her stomach as she crossed her arms and stared at them.

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CHAPTER 1
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Two days later...

The rocky path was momentarily lit by a stray beam of light, as if guiding the weary travelers up the pass towards the Blue Mountains. The Witcher traced the beam up into the foggy overcast, past the grey plumes of clouds that muffled the sun's true radiance. The blazing candle lights from the tent flickered into his mind. Mavaldi recalled the peculiar emergence of the metal-masked figure in white from two nights ago...

"I am Izraith, emissary of the Kel Dlesinthe Kingdom," Its voice was that of two, both male and female sounding, amplified with a tinny vibrato emanating from its mask. It was as if the emissary was talking directly to each individual, into their minds, where it could not be interrupted. "Whether you believe this, or anything I say after, to be true, matters little to me. We exist, and have existed, before most of your ancestors crawled out from the evolutionary pool. But that talk is reserved for another time, and for those worthy of such truths..."

"To the point: I am sent here by my Queen, whose name you've not earned the right to know. A growing case of abductions, unrelated to your senseless human-elf feud, is concerning. Our Kingdom faces the same threat, and we've but no choice but to ask for your help in this matter. Trust me when I say that by helping us, you'll help the lives of those who've been taken, as well as prevent far more fatal consequences for us all. I can sense you doubt and I do not care. The ones I seek I know will come, and you will be handsomely rewarded for it. On the second morning sun from this night, those deemed worthy will find the way to us in the Blue Mountains..."


Mavaldi remembered the ruckus it caused. How Marshal Ignatius demanded more answers, how Vidienne of the Shade cursed at Izraith for downplaying the human-elf war. Yelling, lots and lots of yelling, but the white figure just stood there, answering to no one. The crowds eventually filed out of the tent, looting and vandalizing to compensate for time wasted. Others approached Izraith with questions, but his silence was infuriating, so they shrugged it off as some cheap play write performance and left it at that. It was only until Marshal Ignatius ordered his knights to apprehend the emissary, did Izraith move. It was quick and sudden, like a blink of an eye that threw off one's equilibrium. When everyone came to, Izraith was gone, including the emblem. Leaving everyone in attendance with more questions than answers, the Aedirn and Dol Blathanna representatives left the tent, more convinced to their cause than ever before. As for those that stayed behind? Well...

Those who were willing to find out whether or not this was all some big hoax, decided to travel together to Kel Dlesinthe. At the very least, they'd be in good company. Maybe laugh it all off over a campfire with a keg of beer or two. But if it were true? Well, then what better adventure was there, outside of fighting in a holy war...

The Witcher adjusted himself on the saddle of his buckskin stallion. He looked over his shoulder at the caravan of adventurers. Mavaldi knew most of them from the invitation. Aedirn knights, Sir Winfrey and Sir August, trotted on their brown mares next to a spotted donkey carrying the blonde dwarf, Draymuth. His gaze fell upon his new companion, Alma. They didn't really have a chance to talk since the incident in the tent. This was mainly due to Mavaldi's insistence on riding solo for the next day. He told her he had loose ends to tend to, as well as gather alchemy ingredients and items for the coming journey.

"Easy, Chuvalo." Mavaldi called to his horse, tightening the reins. The stallion did as commanded and he peeled back to match Alma's pace.

"How goes it?" The Witcher asked.

Ever since the strange appearance of Izraith, she'd been obsessed with searching through the texts she carried for anything of pertinence. If she hadn't been crazed in her search for information on Kel Dlesinthe earlier, she certainly was now. Even as she walked alongside her pack mule, she busied herself with a book in one hand, reins in another. The only thing that seemed to pry her attention away from the text was to watch the sky above in awe or to make sure her footing was sure. Nevertheless, she flipped through the pages of one of her late master's journals, despite her fascination with the strange beauty of the foggy sky above.

The memories of that night continued to consume her. Despite having occurred a few nights ago, it was still so bright, so vivid, as if it had just happened moments ago. And it seemed the more she focused on it, the more things were revealed to her. Sifting through the recess of her mind, it seemed as if more minor details became apparent. From the strange buzzing in the back of her mind as the voice rang not aloud but in her mind, to the costume that Metalhead wore, light reflecting off that iconic mask.

She couldn't get her mind off it. It was too strange, too amazing, too fanciful. 'Like something out of a story,' Thinking to herself, she looked past her book up to the heavens above, admiring the shifting grey clouds. Slowly her mind drifted to the event of the days following that day. Mavaldi had taken a few days to himself, which she didn't really mind. She liked being alone. Though it had been hard to find a moment's peace within this caravan. It made her uncomfortable. Partly because she was rather insecure and she was rather horrible at starting conversations and keeping them going. Not forgetting to mention that she didn't want to explain her situation to anyone else.

Though this last sentiment turned out to be a dud. In between gathering her own alchemy supplies, practicing her own craft, researching, and replenishing the energies within her "sword," she'd found some other acquaintances.

When Metalhead had disappeared and the effects of his spell had cleared, she'd been helped up by a not-so-friendly face. An elf, wracked with scars and a haggard look about him, had pulled her to her feet as she struggled to find her bearings. He'd helped her up more so out of a need to get her out of the way without trampling her. But, being the awkward woman she was, she had thanked him until he'd almost begged her to leave him alone. Taking at as a joke, she was stopped in her tracks when he made a remark about the nature of mortals such as themselves. Staring at the ransacked property that surrounded the tent, his words had touched a chord within her, reminding her that not all carried masks about them. After all, he couldn't hide that savagery had added those extra wrinkles and spots about his face and aged his mind immeasurably. It had surprised her when he'd decided to join them... Though the more she thought about it, the more she realized it made sense. So she'd taken to bothering him, asking him for advice and the occasional help with translations. Even though he'd initially seemed annoyed by her, he seemed to have taken a liking to her constant questions.

Of course she'd met others. A strange human couple, selling all kinds of trinkets, substances, and herbs that were either rare, illegal, or just straight-up fraudulent had somehow come into her good graces. Lucky enough for herself, she had enough common sense to see through their glorious descriptions. That was how she'd met them. Not understanding that they were no better than most thieves, she'd stopped a pitch of theirs, pointing out that Troll's saliva didn't act as a cure-all. In fact, it had no real uses. But as she contradicted them, she did give them some good ideas to rip-off the next round of illiterate customers. Finding her naivety strangely endearing, the woman had invited her to join them for dinner. They'd explained to her that they were in pursuit of the strange goods this Kel Dlesinthe had to offer. Maybe they'd find something that would set them apart from the other merchants that traded rarely with this nation. That was before they'd offered her a strange alcoholic brew of their own making. She'd barely left with her morals and clothes intact. Since that night, she often visited them for a good laugh and friendly banter.

There weren't many others she'd considered "friends." Mostly acquaintances and strangers, with whom she could barely say a word to without babbling or awkwardly staring.

"How goes it?"

Her reverie was broken by a familiar voice. Blinking, she nearly dropped her book and stumbled into her mule. Catching herself, she placed the book back into it's little pack and glanced up at the Witcher.

Giving him a small smile, she pulled a curled strand of hair behind her ear, "Fine, I would say. I almost--" She almost mentioned the threesome she'd barely escaped from having, before realizing that wasn't something most shared. Clamping her mouth shut, she gave some thought to her reply before glancing back up with another grin.

"Did a little research, but came up with nothing enlightening. Met a few friendly faces--" Just as she mentioned "friendly faces," the sounds of a sword being unsheathed sounded just in front of them. Confused, she paused as she realized what was going and who was involved.

An ex-soldier (from the looks of his battered coat of arms) stood off against her friend, the aged elf from earlier. Clutching their rusted weapon in their bandaged hand, the human spat curses at Indaic, hatred that can only stem from a broken being portrayed in their every feature. Meanwhile the Elf stared back, a look akin to disgust and pity across his own face.

"Pull out yer sword, knife ear!"

"It'd be a shame to waste it on scum such as you."

With that, the veteran turned to the growing group of onlookers, spit flying he snarled through the scarred ruins of his mouth, "You feckers would lower yerselves to travel with animals such as 'e? 'E's more likely to gut ye as soon as yer back's turned. Still want to travel with an animal such as 'e?!"

Her eyebrows furrowed, and despite her fear, Alma spoke up, "Of course I would! Better than to sink as low as you." She immediately regretted her words as the soldier met her gaze and with a lazer-like intensity walked up to her, his armor jangling with each step. Shrinking as he stared down at her, his pale blue eyes pierced her own terrified and wide ones.

"Then yer no better than 'e or 'is kind. Better off dead."

She cringed. His breath smelled awful.

Mavaldi listened as she replied. She paused, reeling back from her initial thought, then resubmitted a more carefully worded answer. He smiled. There was something Alma wasn't telling him, and he playfully speculated on the possibilities. When she mentioned research, he nodded intently, slowly rearing towards the saddlebag jostling against the side of his horse. Just as he was about to reach for an item to present to her, he heard the loud clangs of rusty armor fast approaching. The Witcher motioned for the crossbow instead.

The man was clearly distraught, whoever he was. The shadow of his former self was painted in the creases of his unkept armor and rusty blade, his blue eyes, glimmering like dying blue stars. Perhaps he was a stalwart knight in his heyday, now a mere vagabond robbed of nobility, if he ever had any. The man's sights were set on the elf, Indaic, who Mavaldi knew little about. Alma clearly had an affinity towards him. She yelled back at the man, refuting his claims against Indaic. Mavaldi was surprised at her vigorous response. He secretly wondered if the elf was one of those friendly faces she was too shy to talk about. Was that jealousy he was feeling?

"Step away from the lady, you botchling's ass." Draymuth said as the man threatened Alma, steering his donkey to get in between them. Even though he was elevated on a mount, he was barely at eye level with the man. Draymuth rested a gauntlet on the battle axe strapped to his waistband. "You lay a finger on her and you'll have a bolt between the eyes, with your little prick cleaved in two before you hit the ground."

The dwarf nodded over to Mavaldi, who kept his crossbow trained at the man's head.

"I cannot vouch for the integrity of this elf. But as they say, birds of a feather, and all that..." Mavaldi grinned.

The Aedirn knights, who were mostly quiet throughout this ordeal, finally spoke up.

"Hold it!" Sir August said. His green eyes glared at everyone. "This man is, or once was, a knight. Surely there's some truth to his warning."

"Aye, and we know little about this elf... and in these times we should be weary of elves." Sir Winfrey said, more so to himself than to anyone else. He scratched at his itchy red beard, spat on the ground, then threatened both the man and Indaic. "Speak, you loons, or my halberd'll skewer you into spit roasts for our next campfire! How do you two know each other?"

Through the following events, surprise filtered through her. She hadn't expected anyone to really stand between her and the knight. That didn't mean she wasn't thankful. In fact, the farther she was from that walking bag of spit, the happier she'd be... Well, that and if Indaic was safely out of trouble.

Her eyes flicked towards Draymuth, sharing an appreciative glance before turning to Mavaldi and mouthing a silent, "Thank you." Alma noted that she'd have to properly express her gratitude later. After all, most people, whether they were human, mutant, or whatever, didn't do anything just for free. Another lesson she'd learned the hard way. Though she didn't have much to offer in return, she thought absently as she stepped aside. Even if she was a bit terrified of the ex-soldier, Alma still wanted to be able to see what was going on.

The scene didn't have to be filled with corpses and plagued with the scents of rotting flesh to have the same heavy stillness as the aftermath of a battlefield. The tension between the two was tangible, turning the air to lead and chasing away the soft glimpses of the silvery heavens above that occasionally poked caressed the landscape. If there really were Divines and she truly a sinner, Alma thought, it seemed that they were hiding behind the fog, so as to escape the horrid sight below. Part of her wished she could hide with them. It was strange to see these two beings, so alike in their tired natures yet separated by the strange fortune that had deemed them to be of opposing races, so at odds. Like a laughable parody of Ignatius and Vidienne, had they only been ran through the mud and set upon by the scourges that followed the common folk.

The soldier carried himself like a knight from legends of old, his posture never faltering despite the limp in one of his legs and the ill-keep of his weapon. Indaic held the same proud bearing, though that pride carried on in how he kept his items as well. However bitterness and gloom followed both of them, burrowing itself deep in their eyes. Her eyes caught the elf's tired amber ones, and for a moment, the exhaustion they carried took her breath away. Although she wanted to be optimistic about the situation, a certain pressure began to build on top of her chest, as if bricks were being laid upon it haphazardly.

As the knights addressed them, Alma wanted to protest, but kept her mouth shut. She wasn't sure why she felt so moved. Maybe it was the sorry, pathetic feeling she got from the situation. Or that she felt both their sorrows so tangibly, even without knowing who they were.

The ex-soldier bowed his head respectfully, before beginning, venom in cold blue embers in his eyes and the sharp cut of his mouth as he spoke, "Pardon me, Sir. I am... I was, Sir Guthram. Last night 'dis, elf, nearly slit me throat as 'e stole provisions of mine while I slept soundly. If I 'adn't woken up when I did... Well, 'dis scourge 'ould very well 'ave continued 'is folly." It seemed that with these two fellow Knights, he'd remembered himself. Keeping his temper in check as he addressed them, he recalled some grammar and language of his past. But he couldn't keep the hatred of out his voice as he occasionally glared at Indiac, even saying "elf" as if it was the worst slur you could use. He was sure this elf had attempted to harm him. After all, he'd never seen (or acknowledged) any who had done differently.

Keeping from sighing, Indaic merely clenched his jaw, and waited until it was his turn to speak. There was no use in arguing with those who didn't want to listen. Part of him wished he hadn't cut his hair a while ago. Perhaps he could've avoided these accusations if only he'd kept an even lower profile.... But, somehow, a part of him knew that it wasn't likely.

"My name is Indiac," He kept it simple; it was not as if they really cared for his identity anyways, "Last evening, I was asleep by the time the moon was reaching it's peak. I promise you, I've never laid eyes on this man till now. I have no reason or want to see him dead, nor do I want, or have I ever wanted, his supplies." He chose his words carefully and spoke with purpose. He had no reason to think they would ever listen to him, though he realized that there were some who gazed favorably upon him in the crowd.

The two Aedirn knights looked at each other, communicating without words like a jaded couple tethered to one nervous system. Sir August then unseated from his horse and trudged over to Indaic. Sir Winfrey did the same, but headed towards Sir Guthram instead.

"What the blazes are they up to?" Draymuth frowned. He clicked at his donkey to circle next to Mavaldi. The Witcher lowered his crossbow, leveling it on the black mane of his stallion, still aimed at the ex-soldier.

"A comedic performance about a good and bad constable, only both are terribly bad." Mavaldi scoffed. Much to his estimation, the soldier and elf made conflicting testimonies, perhaps taking a page from Izraith on providing more questions than answers. But the Witcher possibly sensed another scheme at play here."Either way, this is wasting precious time. We've more important matters to attend to, like chasing myths and legends, do we not?"

He lightly kicked at Chuvalo's sides to steady the horse forward, motioning himself between the two parties and their mediators. Mavaldi then contorted his tongue and lips to make a loud whistling sound to call onto their attention. He gave a look to Alma, the same stern look of caution he gave her after they made an agreement two nights ago.

"I've no intention of watching this trial drag on. We've a lot of road left to cover and the storm clouds from the east are not slowing down." Mavaldi's irritable expression did not go unnoticed. "Sir Guthram, why not alert the authorities back when the incident first occurred? Judging by your coat of arms, faded and unkept as they are, you'd have a far better time making your case with the local authorities. Yet, somehow, you've not only managed to track him down, but lie in wait along this pass for his arrival?"

The Witcher unsheathed the iron sword behind his shoulder, crossbow still aimed at the man. "Surely this isn't some distraction on your part for something far less provocative as you claim? Like robbing travelers swayed by rumors of an enchanted kingdom in the Blue Mountains? I'd hate to clean this bolt from your skull innards. And if my claim is comically farce, be gone with you, Sir Guthram of the Mud. I'm sure another caravan with an elf's company will afford you the attention your plight demands."

'A bad omen,' She thought, watching them converse. Knights were loyal to their brotherhood and often that loyalty led them astray. It only took one brother to choose greed or another sin to bring others of their order to their cause. It was that kind of cultist behavior that had the potential to create atrocities. Though, she guessed it also created a close bond that most didn't share. She definitely couldn’t claim to have anyone she trusted completely. Maybe it was something that only a certain type of people could have.

‘A thought for another time.’ She had more troubling matters right now than her crippling loneliness.

The elf seemed confused as well, his eyes flicking from either Knight, knowing they would be biased. After all, it was a knight's word against his own. Considering the recent events between the two races and that both these “judges” were humans, the odds weren’t promising. Thankfully, Mavaldi stepped in.

As the Witcher rode his mount between them, Alma gave him a questioning look. What was he going to do? Was he really going to try and help out Indaic just based on her word? Speechless, Alma’s eyes betrayed her surprise, her lips parting slightly.

She understood what his glance had meant, but she knew inwardly that if push came to shove, she most likely wouldn't keep quiet. Alma was loyal too, similar to this brotherhood of knights. But more than that, she had a sense of morality, even if she could be misguided at times.

At Mavaldi's response, Guthram's eyes narrowed. His scowl took up all of his face, darkening his eyes. It was a rather horrible look on him. It promises only the ugliest mankind had to offer. A shift in his cheeks revealed that he had clenched his jaw, as if holding back an angry retort.

But as Mavaldi spoke, Alma’s mouth flew open for a few seconds. Shutting it hastily, she hoped no one had seen that absurd expression on her face. In her whole life, she’d never seen such an extreme form of altruism. And never in her life had she seen words quiet someone so quickly. Admiration colored her face, a proud smile landing atop her features.

“De legends of ye’ mutants is true. Silver fer monsters and iron fer man,” He stared unblinkingly at the Witcher, icy eyes meeting catlike ones without an ounce of fear. Maybe his fear had died with his morals.

“Yer no better than dis cutthroat. Wit’out a trial ye’d leave ‘im go?” Turning to the crowd, he puffed out his chest, softening his gaze into determination, “And den t’ accuse me wi’ no proof! No hon’rble man would dream of ‘t!” He paused, his gaze sweeping the crowd as if peering into ech of their souls and figuring out who they really were. The silence seemed to be deafening, the crowd shifting uncomfortably before he began again. His tone became reverential, as if he was a preacher to the choir.

“But, we can’t blame ‘im. ‘E is just a freak. Not one of us. ‘E ‘as no say in our affairs. ‘E can’t even feel! Why listen t’ ‘im when ‘e knows nothin’ of our ways,” The rumble of realization began to spread theough the ranks. The seed of doubt has been planted. Guthram was making sure it grew strong, like a mother guarding over her own child. Fear coarsed through Alma. She couldn’t just let this happen. She needed a way to quickly dissipate the tension, to disperse the crowd.

Her eyes flicked about the various wagons, mounts, and people that made up the caravan. But it was daylight and no one had any torches to start a small fire. Neither was there anyone left who wasn’t gathered or sitting atop their wagons staring at this debacle. Swearing under breath, she felt her stomach sink, awakening that awful anxious feeling. That was until she saw the fidgety mare tied to one of the supply wagons. It was large and bulky enough that if the horse began to run, Alma was sure there would be a sure distraction. And hopefully no one would get hurt unless they ran directly in front of the wagon.

The mare and her twin were led by an older man, who was too busy watching to try and properly calm her. Occasionally he would pull the reins and mutter, irritated that she was distracting him from his view. All it would take was a loud sound to set her off. And so it would be done. Taking a deep breath, Alma tried to feel and gather the energies about her. She’d done harder spells than this... A simple sound shouldn't be too hard. Problem was, she didn’t exactly know how to conjure it. That didn't stop her from trying, as the crowd became more exciteable. Various people shouted their opinions, ending up only in exasperating the situation.

The sudden sounds of a shrieking whine and a pop silenced both crowds. And with that, the mare pulled at her reins and the chauffeur went flying, completely falling out of the wagon. Landing a few feet away, he luckily got up and rubbed his shoulder, yelling at someone to catch the cart. But the mare was already taking off, her fear motivating even her twin. Other mounts began to get excited, pulling at their reins.

Suddenly it was as if the whole situation had been forgotten. People began to calm their own excitable mounts while a few souls decided to go after the cart. Despite all the action, those in the middle remained still for a split second. However, Guthram was the first to move. He slowly turned to the elf and spat as his feet.

“Ye’ll pay. I’ll make sure of ‘t,” His threat seemed to freeze the air, even as he stalked off to fetch his horse. When he’d disappeared from view, Indaic seemed to let out a long breath. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. Although he no longer felt like a cornered beast, dread built up inside him. He had no doubt that he hadn’t seen the last of Sir Guthram.

Alma swore in relief, a very unladylike term falling from her lips. Looking up, she smiled at the elf and approached curiously. Stopping herself from giving him a hug, she almost patted his shoulder before deciding against that too. He didn’t seem the type.

“That got rid of him. At least for now. Are you okay?” Looking him up and down, she could see no visible wounds. Shaking his head, his expression looked grim.

“I’m fine. I’m afraid he won’t give this up that easily.”

“You’re probably right,” Her expression seemed glum now, her eyes flicking to the spit on his boots before steeling herself and looking up, “But this buys us time to... Well, to come up with a plan?” She had no idea what they could do at this point. However, she was invested in his wellbeing now.

Glancing up at the Witcher, she gave him a worried smile, “And you? He was pretty... Nasty.” There were a few other choice words she’d rather have used, but for now “nasty” would do. Although she’d initially had the same fears of the lore surrounding Witchers, she’d been able to recognize her own paranoia. It irritated her that Guthram was unable to get past his own prejudices. Especially since she was starting to feel a certain affection for him, despite barely knowing him. Someone who’d willingly put themselves in harm’s way for another was new to her. He was someone she would most definitely want to know.

“Me?” Mavaldi answered Alma’s question with a question, sheathing his blade and putting down his crossbow. “Oh, don’t worry about little ol’me. Goblins like that man have uttered slurs my way for as long as I can remember. No, I’d be more concerned about what’s really going on between him and our elf companion.”

The Witcher didn’t insist on an explanation. It wasn’t his business to know everyone’s secrets, but in order for him to stay alive in this world, information was a valuable tool. All will be revealed, Mavi. People are like oceans. You’ll only drown in their bullshit if you go against the tide. Watch for the forming swells, feel the wind patterns, and you’ll sail to where you need to with little resistance. The words of master Heryn stung at him like an annoying wasp. So condescending was he with his terrible sailing metaphors. Always flowery with his words like some amateur poet. Sage of the sword. Bah! Curse you, wherever you are, you fleeting bastard!

“Aye, Witcher!” Sir Winfrey barked at him. “Was it you who scared those horses? How convenient of those beasts to cause a scene after Sir Guthram spoke ill of you, is it not?!”

A crowd gathered behind the knight, hurling profanities at Mavaldi, who didn’t look the least bit disturbed by it all. It was more of a surprise to him that they took this long to finally speak up on their prejudices.

“No, Sir Winfrey. It wasn’t me.” The Witcher pointed at the Aedirn knight. “It was you.”

The crowd gasped. Sir Winfrey scoffed. Draymuth picked his nose.

“Yes, Sir Winfrey. They mistakened your face for a bearded striga and bolted. Quite the countenance, considering a Witcher present among you.”

Sir Winfrey’s face turned flush red, a shade lighter than his gingery beard. He stomped toward the Witcher with the pointy end of his halberd raised. “Why you sack of pig shit, I’ll -”

“Help!” One of the men that ran after the cart came limping into view, stumbling onto the ground. “Wolves! Benard and Tully are surrounded by em!”

In that instance all matter of debate had seized. The knights, eager to prove their chivalry, ran passed the wounded man and into the wooded shrubbery. Draymuth trailed after them, wielding dual axes.

"I always wanted a fur coat!" The dwarf yelled.

The Witcher grabbed the reins of his horse and trotted in the wounded man’s direction. His tunic was spotted in blood and the trouser sleeve of his left leg was cut to ribbons, exposing deep, fleshy cuts. Mavaldi leaped from his horse and to the man. He revealed a small vial from his pouch.

“What are ye doin? Get away ye mutant!”

“Quiet. It’s a numbing agent to dull the pain.” The Witcher uncorked the vial and forced its contents into the man’s mouth.

Mavaldi worked quick and effortlessly as he yanked the man’s belt from his waist and applied it to his bleeding leg as a tourniquet. The Witcher then drew up more ingredients from his pouch. He splashed a clear liquid, an antiseptic of some kind, at the wounds. He then doused it with a clump of herbs before smacking them on major points of injury. Mavaldi ripped off one of the man's own sleeves and used it to dress the wounds. The man yelped, but his previous state of anxiety was melting away into what looked like a drunken stupor.

The Caravan was in a state of panic. Some of them fearfully jumped into their carts to seek refuge while others drew weapons, nervously looking about for wolves. The foliage along the pass was equally dense at both sides, and the sun, dimmed by the storm clouds, did little to light their surroundings.

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR....

A silhouette on all fours emerged from where the man escaped from. Dark blue eyes glared with yellow sharp daggers for teeth , contrasting with fur that looked as ominous as the storm clouds above. This lone wolf managed to bypass the incoming help of the Aedirn knights and Draymuth. It stared menacingly into the crowd, surveying the caravan as if picking which meal looked the tastiest. Without a moment's hesitation it locked in on a merchant, who stumbled backwards onto his arse and screamed for dear life.

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