[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Her warning was well received and his hand brushed along her arm, squeezing lightly before he left the trio behind, taking Meredith with him despite her desire to remain with them. Nicolai knew Florence's threat was one meant to hasten his trip inside for fear that if she found him, he would wish he had become lost inside. It made him chuckle to himself as he led the girl in behind him, falling in with the throng of people heading in from the bright sunlight to the town of Underhill.
It's name truly lived up to the mantle as within a few minutes of entering, the only light to see by was candle and oil lanterns, dangling above them from the ceiling or dotted about many doorways into homes and establishments. Holding Meredith off to one side with him whilst they adjusted to the darkness, Nicolai pulled her closer to speak in her ear given the noise about them.[+teal “You keep close to me. If you lose me then you stand still and I will come back to you – do not wander off or you won't get out of here again.”] The warning was well understood and he took a hold of her hand.
Given she was not exactly dressed for the weather and conditions of travelling – much like Florence – he was particularly keen to have her near to him to stave any wandering hands from grabbing at her or even taking her off for.. well, unspeakable things. Their pace was brisk, stopping at some crossroads as he tried to remember the turnings he needed to take. The streets, pathways or whatever you could call these narrow alleys, were quite packed with the bustling of merchants, travellers, drunkards and thieves. Many languages came from around them and the smell would change from time to time between body odour, spices, something burning or something dead.
Once or twice he would make the decision incorrectly and have to take them back a step or two, try again and find the path once more. The stone was carved in a particular manner and therefore helped immensely in that the walkways between the individually carved rooms and 'buildings' did not change. After almost half an hour, climbing slopes and ascending the mountain up several staircases, they came to the right destination.
Built out on the edge of Underhill, a good fifty or sixty feet up from the ground, Ol' Jim's Ironsmith was well positioned for it's large bellows to suck in clean and cool air from outside and to access a store goods lift that would lift materials such as ore and coal up to feed the fire. The entrance was not as glamorous as he remembered, but then it had been particularly new when he was last there and the glass panes were heavy with soot now. Meredith was still with him and he tugged her hand in his to pull her inside the doorway. She seemed a bit dazed still from the sights and sounds but she was unharmed and shook her head when he asked if anyone had tried to grab at her. A small positive.
Opening the large oak door he led her into a quite bright room on account of a large set of windows that were currently open to their left. The sounds of the world outside were over shone by the dull rhythmic beat of metal upon metal. Directly in front was a wooden counter top, long and quite dirty with a whole myriad of metal tongs, hammers and other assorted blacksmith tools dotted along it. The waiting area before it, in which they stood, had a few crates, likely empty, but otherwise no stock or anything worth more than a couple coppers was left out and on show. Seemed even Ol' Jim couldn't trust the fine folk of Underhill. To the left, along the wall from the windows in the back wall of this area, was a doorway covered by two dirty lengths of cloth to obscure the vision to the back. Walking slowly up to this counter, Nicolai rapped on the wood quite loudly.
The pounding in back stopped almost immediately and he heard the shuffling and scuffing of boots on the ground approaching. Looking at the back of his hand, knuckles dirty so easily, he tutted.[+teal “Jim, would it kill you to clean up now and.. then..”] His voice faltered as he looked up to find not a small and rotund dwarf with bushy eyebrows and a plaited beard – but a human girl with goggles over her eyes, a tan apron across her front, holding a hammer in one hand and a strip of cloth in the over. Where was Jim?
The show of force by the duo outside, guarding the horses and young boy by the mere threat of their bows, was enough to drive off most who eyed them even for more than a few seconds or lingered too near. But of course that was not to deter Adrian who had eyed their quite distinctive weaponry from afar. Watching the pairing for a little time whilst awaiting the return of his friend, he was assured in his view that they were carrying Astorian bows, and in his delight at noting that he made his way across to them.
With shield in hand and sword on his back alongside his pack of belongings, his long trench-coat caught the wind now and then and the sound of the flapping material is what caught Florence's attention to the man approaching them. Seeing fingers tighten about the bow in her hands, he quickly raised his free hand to her.[+crimson “Whoa whoa, sorry, I don't mean any offence!”] His voice was quite deep but it sat rather well with the slightly bulkier physique. Ruby eyes met emerald and he let out a half laugh that showed his relief that no immediate attack came.
[+crimson “I'm sorry to just come up on you like this, I don't mean any harm whatsoever to any of you. I'm waiting for my friend to be done in Underhill and saw those bows. Astorian right?”] There was no reply to him but with this closer look he noticed the subtleties that showed he was right.
Smiling lightly from a small touch of nerves, he lowered his hand and rest it atop the rim of his shield which he brought before himself.[+crimson “I get it, not exactly keen to talk with strangers. Lots of people are like that with me. But wow, I haven't seen an Astorian bow like that in years. It's like a work of art one of those.”] He spoke directly to Florence, watching her as she was closest, though his eyes did flicker down to Gregory to ensure there was no attack from him – after all this was not the safest of places and here he was approaching some strangers about their horses.
Florence wanted to object to the idea of only Nicolai and Meredith going in. One was incompetent and the other was down to one arm. They would not exactly able to do anything if someone jumped them. That being said, she could offer no better options for them to default to. Even if she went in as well, or Gregory, their talents laid in bows and would be of little use in the confined space inside.
Gregory, on the other hand, seemed to fine with the idea. [+darkmagenta “That sounds like the best choice for our current situation.”] Though he was a little bitter at Nicolai’s comment. The elf was not was not wrong, so he only grumped about the tiniest bit as the elf went to arm the blond boy.
Complicated feelings filled the mother as she saw her son take hold of the blade. Of course it was better to have him equipped than not, but she also didn’t like the idea of him using it. Daggers were only effective within an arms length. He was going to have to be in rather grave danger before that thing came in handy. She hoped he would not need to use it. But with the position they were taking on the outside, she doubted anyone would move to bother them. Neither she nor Gregory were making an attempt to hide the fact that they were armed.
[+teal “Anything you wish to ask before I go in?”]
Thinking on it for a while, there was not a lot that came to Florence’s mind. [+mediumseagreen “If you take any longer than expected I will be going in after you, so do try to keep to schedule.”] She didn’t go through all that grief of getting him to agree to coming to Astoria just to lose him on the way up, especially this early on.
Since there were no real questions, the pair went on their way. Bright green eyes stayed trained on Nicolai’s back until he was out of sight. Then there was nothing to do but wait. That and glare at anyone who passed and so much as looked remotely interested in them. A stern look was all it took to scare most people off. Even if they were looking for someone to filch goods off of, most pickpockets and the likes were interested in easy targets. Fighting was usually something avoided by thieves. Not to mention, save the horses and a few bags of food, they carried very little of value.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Nicolai felt the rough sleep quite badly, his shoulder feeling all the more stiff. He had taken the last watch after Gregory and woke the others a little later than usual, given they would make it to Underhill that day. With stretches and a brisk walk about the group at the end of his watch he had managed to ease aching joints and come away with just his original injuries. Having lived the rough life as a soldier he was more accustomed to these painful starts.
The travel was slow but he had thought it would be as they nursed their horses down the remainder of the slope to the town. When they came upon it he smiled in half memory of his last visit and how it looked the same save for a few more structures built outside the rocky outcropping. Serving no strategic importance and acting as merely a hub for travellers, not a real economic powerhouse, the town did not have need of walls or fortifications. The myriad of tunnels and pathways once inside served as the biggest deterrent to attackers. It was quite easy to be lost inside.
Gregory brought up a good point, one the elf had considered when he had decided to bring them here. Yet Florence voiced his other concern with the idea of separating them.[+teal “Yes the stable is the last place to take the horses. They would be stripped of their gear and gone within the hour.”] His contact could help them but three horses would be quite out of their level of help.
[+teal “I will go in with Meredith.”] No-one's head snapped to him in judgement quicker than the woman in question.[+violet “Me? Why me? I can't fight or help.”] Nicolai had his hand at his swords pommel, squeezing it to stop from playing with his shoulder as they looked to him.[+teal “Precisely why you are coming in. We need someone to guard the horses and Gregory is the best choice. I won't take Augustine in – some things are not suited for a child's eyes. And if he is staying out here, along with the horses, we need a second defensive mind out here, and Florence is our best archer.”] A look from the dwarf, a raised eyebrow of wonder at his last statement, brought a chuckle from the swordsman.[+teal “Okay, beyond thirty feet, she is our best archer. Fair?”] Given his worse eyesight he had to concede that point.
Remaining at least some distance from the entrance he intended to go down, they all dismounted. Nicolai approached Augustine, taking a knee before him.[+teal “Here, if you're going to protect my horse I want you to be able to.”] His hand had twisted the pommel of his sword and the knife within was pulled free. It was a simple blade but sharp and better than using his fists.[+teal “You remember what I taught you about short blades?”] He nodded as his hand wrapped around the slim handle.[+teal “Quick and fast. A thousand cuts. You remain nimble and on the balls of your feet, not the heel.[i Rein und raus. Wie ein blitz.“]] The Astorian made it sound all the more heroic and warrior like. It was true that the language made even Nicolai feel stronger and more powerful. Not an artisanal language like elven.
Standing up he looked to Gregory and Florence.[+teal “Anything you wish to ask before I go in? I shouldn't imagine I will be longer than an hour or two.”]
Florence took the first night shift, it being the easiest. The others had banded against her, so there was little to be done. All was clear through her leg of the stint. It switched to Gregory and lastly Nicolai. And as far as she knew nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Though when she went to bed, the ground was definitely harder. They had waited out to find a place was that not too terrible, but given the rocky tendency of this area, the solidity persisted. There was not a single soul who was not sore the next morning. And they moved sluggishly because of it, leaving a bit later than they would have liked to continue on the way down the slope.
Due to the inset nature of the town, it did not come into view until they were basically right on top of it. From where Florence sat, she could not see many people. But that very well might have been because this was only the edge of town. And if things were shady as she presumed, this place’s dealings and traffic would not take place in the most visible and accessible point in the settlement. Though, despite that first initial thought, this place really was amazing. It must have taken years to into carve into the mountain so. The peak looked as though it could give way at any moment, at least to Florence. She was sure that someone with a better knowledge of architecture would say the exact opposite. And with how old some of the buildings looked, they were bound to be right. But still, she thought it a marvel and allowed herself to take in the sight. Though, she remained cautious of what was happening around her.
The party stopped before fully entering the town. [+darkmagenta "So do you think it would be best to stick together or send a smaller group in to make the contact?"] The streets here looked as though they grew narrow very soon after entry, the horses would be too cumbersome to continue with. [+darkmagenta "There is a stable over there, but I do not like the look of it. It might be best to have some of us stay with the horses instead."] He did not want to lose a horse over some winter clothes.
[+mediumseagreen "I do not like the idea of separating."] Florence could not think of a solid way to split them. Not with Meredith and Augustine here. Had all five of their people been trustworthy adults who could fend for themselves things might have been different, but as it was the woman was hesitant. If worse came to worst she did not want to have any one person bearing the burden of defending their weaker party members, especially with Nicolai still recovering. Overall there was a lot to consider.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Nicolai had found her comment rather humorous, a little vain but her dry wit was often very subtle and finely balanced to where you almost half believed her. Laughing as he climbed up onto his horse it helped to hide the discomfort from shooting pains that seemed to run along the entirety of his arm. The pain would not subside for the entirety of that days ride, often left to steer the horse with just his left hand as the right sat unused in his lap.
It helped to ease the displeasure in the limb but with them having to traverse a decline of aggregate and rubble, it took each rider careful turns of their steeds here and there to make it down carefully and with no injury. He was rather impressed by the Astorians. Gregory he expected could ride, but with an untested animal he did a good job. And for Florence, despite riding the best tempered of the three animals, he had not expected her to control a horse quite so impeccably. He did not voice his impression however. Now was not a time to let their heads swell with pride; perhaps next time if they killed the attacker before he was struck by an arrow he would applaud them.
Catty thought aside the last hour to sundown was calm and he selected an area with not too much ground fodder for the night. With camp made, their rations for the night eaten and Gregory happily playing his lute to the delight of Florence and Augustine, Nicolai decided it best to leave the trio to their musical endeavour. They were happy, like having a camp out in the capital gardens.
His focus shifted to the relative outsider of the group, an increasingly silent and macabre Meredith who would often find herself away from the others staring at the ground or off into the dark. Despite a very logical part of his mind wanting to keep her in this confinement, as ever with Nicolai, heart won out and he grabbed his pack to move over to her some fifteen feet away from the others, their music continuing behind them.
[+teal “Here, take one of these.”] He commented pulling out a small pouch from the pack. Inside were small dough balls coated in a sticky honey glaze, a delicacy of Wistina.[+teal “I asked her to make them the first night we were there. The longer they soak in the honey the more delicious.”] The glow of the fire gave them enough light to see by and he saw the look of surprise on her face to see him sat there. In timid fashion, one he knew very well, she shook head to decline.[+teal “Come on, you need to eat one before those lot find them.”] The pouch was again offer up to her but she said nothing for a moment, only looked across to him with large doe like eyes.
[+violet “W-why are you talking to me?”] Her voice crackled. It did not look like she was going to cry, but perhaps more from her minimal talking over the last four or five days.[+violet “I almost got you killed.”] She whispered glumly.
[+teal “Yeah, you nearly did.”] He agreed because how could he not? Without Florence and Gregory to help he would have died easily. Taking his waterskin he passed it to her, placing it into her hand.[+teal “Drink it.”] He told her quietly as he looked at the sweets in his hand. She did so after a slight hesitation, clearing her throat.[+teal “But you see, nearly is the key word. I'm not dead. Not exactly perfectly healthy but still.. not dead.”] A wry smile accompanied his comments.
She passed back the waterskin and he took a sip for himself before placing the stopper back in.[+teal “You know a part of me really wants to kill you. Or at the very least injure you.”] He said it so calmly and matter-of-factly that the woman shuddered a touch as if anticipating the hit.[+teal “But I recognise that to be so ludicrous it is almost laughable. Because, and this is most of me here, in the end, what you did, what you tried to do rather, is exactly what I would have done in your situation.”]
Her head snapped to him at that and he slowly looked across to her, eyes meeting for a moment.[+violet “R-really? You would have?”] The incredulity was there in her tone.
Bobbing his head in acknowledgement he let out a sigh.[+teal “Yes. Come to me at your age, in the Castle, newly appointed as Germaine's General and all fresh and new – if you had told me I and my family would be targets of attack if I did not give him or his family or the whole country up, I'd do it in a heartbeat.”]
[+violet “You mean it?”] Oh god, is that what he sounded like to Florence? Questioning her intent and her motivations? It did not sound nice.
His lips pouted as he looked beyond her and nodded slowly.[+teal “Family is family. And I can see why you did what you did for the good of yours. Which is why I'm sorry Meredith.”]
[+violet “You are sorry? For what?”] Her voice was stronger now but they still spoke in hushed tones to one another.
[+teal “If what they said is true, and I believe it is, then you lost your family. You did all this and yet still you lost them – and I can't imagine what that put you through. And I am sorry for your loss, because I know what that is like.”] Catching her eye again he saw the twinkle and shimmer over her iris' and he shook his head.[+teal “Don't you dare, or you'll set me off.”] He said with a small smile.
[+violet “Sorry.”] She said with a half laugh, looking down at the gap between them to stop herself letting out tears. This pause, the silence that built, was where Nicolai shuffled across very slowly, lifting his arm up and placing it about her shoulders. He felt her stiffen for a moment, likely to break free, but just resting his arm there a moment she soon eased and he pulled her in against him to rest her head to his good shoulder.
[+teal “I won't lie, I don't know if a trust can be restored. I mean, that arrow fucking [i hurt]. But I want you to know that I do not blame you. And if you want it, you have my forgiveness.”] He stroked his hand along her upper arm, her body a touch cold though her cheek felt warm even through his tunic. She didn't reply to him but he felt her let out a very deep breath. Not wanting this conversation to linger any more than necessary he lifted up the pouch again.[+teal “Now eat a bloody delicious honey treat will you? I'm not going back to the damn fire if he's playing the lute or it's going to be kindling in short order.”] A huff of a laugh from her and her delicate hand reached in to take one of the sweets, remaining against him as the music continued on.
She hummed, not exactly sure she believed him. However she chose to take his words at face value. [+mediumseagreen “I understand that.”] Florence understood the feeling. [+mediumseagreen “Hopefully it will not be too difficult a transition for you though. It is by far better to receive feedback from those around you than for them to be cowed into silence at your presence.”] The woman had many memories of similar situations so she was easily able to empathize. Though the one that mainly came to mind was of Nicolai’s change not long ago. He had always argued with her, but now he seemed to be more open than ever in doing so.
Shaking her head, Florence was not worried about herself. [+mediumseagreen “My cut was not deep. I do not think it will be long at all before it is fully healed.”] Whether or not a scar would remain in that place was yet to be seen, but the woman was certain she was passed the point where she needed to worry about infection.
Nicolai bridged the distance between them; he was slow to bring his hand to her face. Seeing the hesitant, almost cautious, nature of his movement, she wondered what he was up to. Florence had forgotten the state of disrepair her face was in. It was tender, even now as he gently brushed at her cheek, but not so much that she pulled away. Despite that, the moment did not last and he pulled back. [+mediumseagreen “It was only a bruise, of course it will fade. You worry over me too much.”] Between him and Gregory she was sure she would never have to look out for herself. [+mediumseagreen “Although, it is almost a shame it won’t stay. I could do with being less pretty. My life would be a great deal simpler, I think.”] There was an underlying tone of humor as she smirked at the man who stepped back, afraid of retaliation. He was a funny one, but she was thankful he respected her request for him to be mindful of her... issue.
They set out for the day not long after that. The other’s following the lithe man’s example and mounting their horses for what was to be a rather unpleasant ride. The terrain took a turn for the rocky that afternoon and try as they might, there was no way to get the animals gracefully down the steady incline they were facing. It was a jerky canter the whole way. Often times they had to slow down to make sure there would be no injury, but they managed to keep the estimated pace. Apparently Nicolai had accounted for their time-consuming descent. But even with that, when they stopped for the night everyone was relieved. More than a shot break was well needed, but there would be no actual rest until they had set up camp, something they were getting particularly good at.
That night around the fire, for the first time on this trek, Gregory actually unsheathed his lute. He plucked a happy little tune, missing the occasional note. This far out of Wistina he was significantly less worried about being heard and discovered. If some came across them it was highly unlikely it would be anyone of consequence. The tune, while not played to perfection did lighten the atmosphere some. Florence mindlessly hummed along as each song came and went.
Augustine took notice of the woman’s quiet soft sounds as he sat next to her. [+coral “Do you know all of Gregory’s songs?”]
[+mediumseagreen “Hm?”] She had not noticed what she was doing. [+mediumseagreen “Ah, I suppose I do. We’ve known each other a very long time and I do not think he has learned anything new the whole time.”] Smiling, she let out an airy sound that would have been a laugh if left unrestrained.
Gregory looked over at the pair, an unamused but not wholly annoyed look on his face. [+darkmagenta “Do you have a problem with that? Keep in mind it might not be so wise to insult your only source of entertainment for the next month or so.”]
[+mediumseagreen “No, I quite like your playing. I am just surprised after all these years it has barely changed.”] Her smile turned into a smirk.
[+darkmagenta “And whose fault do you suppose that is?”]
[+mediumseagreen “I do believe that would be your own.”]
The gray-featured dwarf’s false sternness faded away and was replaced with a smile. [+darkmagenta “I suppose you are right. This bleeding heart of mine will be my undoing. I am too kind by far.”] His voice was overly animated over the sound of his playing that never faltered.
Florence rolled her eyes. He really was too much.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Though he had gotten his way, or rather Florence had seen sense in his suggestion and Gregory was out voted, Nicolai did concede to the dwarf in some manner.[+teal “Yes you and Florence can hunt for some food, but this is a country full of hunters. Pelts and game will not bring more than a few silver at best, copper more likely.”] Gregory had turned away, as if already wishing to be done with the conversation.[+teal “I gain nothing by delaying you all getting to Astoria Gregory. I am doing this so we don't come out the other side of the mountains missing someone.”] Despite that the smaller man just seemed to shrug, moving off to talk with Augustine.
Nicolai understood the man's concern but it seemed once more he was not trusted enough to give his opinion. It was as if he was telling them to march south into Delfin to stay for several weeks. How was asking them to sway toward a source of help in a land none of them knew at all intimately perceived as such a negative act? It did not help that this gave him an insight into how Florence must feel dealing with him and turned his frustrations in on himself a little.
When she had come to enquire how he was feeling, he bite harshly on waving her off and shutting her out. It was almost a second nature to close up and find his resolve from within. Instead, he let out a deep breath and offered a minute smile.[+teal “I am fine, just not exactly used to people talking back. You command a unit of men who do anything you say, backtalk is not expected.”] He played off her concerns about his wound with a nod to her own arm.[+teal “The same could be said of yourself, I haven't seen you tend to your arm since we left.”] The turn back of her worry switched the focus from his shoulder.
Still, he doffed his head in a polite fashion that he was accepting of her genuine worry.[+teal “When we reach Underhill we can both stock up on wrappings. Both of us were wounded remember, speaking of which..”] Given she was not surrounded by preening and always attentive servants, her hair was allowed to flow rather freely quite often and as such had cascaded down across her face. His hand rose a little hesitant at first, careful not to surprise her as she had warned him not to do, yet he gently back the dark chestnut curls. The bruise she had sustained from the fight had passed the phase of purples and deep blues and was now a shade of honey yellow showing its dissipation.[+teal “Well that has healed nicely.”] His thumb barely grazed across the chin of her cheek before his hand fell back to his side.[+teal “And here I was worried it may mark such a pretty face.”]
A curved brow rose in humour as he stepped away, quickly out of the way of any retaliatory strike she may have thrown, moving around his horse to mount up. It would be a quite annoying ride to Underhill – its name did not come from the fact it stood in a luscious plain after all. Built into the Southern Peak, a sole rocky outcropping that many took to be the beginning of the Farrastine itself, it was known for its turning an eye to some shady acts in favour of a quick profit. Not entirely lawless it was still much safer to travel in as large a group as possible.
Florence didn’t know the first thing about Underside, it was not a place she had heard of. Though to be fair she only really knew the major cities in Esteroak. The ones that were pertinent to countries that owed their lively hood to trading, such as Wistina and now Astoria. She could only hope that this place would not be too seedy. She did not want to drag Augustine into any unnecessary danger. Not if she could help it.
Gregory sort of grumbled. He knew Nicolai had a point. It was midsummer, but it might as well have always been winter throughout the mountain range. That included through the passes, even though the altitude was not quite so high. The icy winds did a fine job of spilled down the rocky slopes and settled at the mountain’s base for the full duration of the year.
[+darkmagenta “Optimally we would act as huntsmen. Selling game as we come across towns and cities.”] That had been the plan to keep them fed the way up. But he knew it would not be enough to pull in the coin they needed to dress the two, at least not quickly enough. The elf saw that and stressed the need to meet with his friend, or whoever this was. [+darkmagenta “This is just an awful long way out of our way.”] No more helpful suggestions came from him. He did not like the idea of Florence or her boy suffering more than they had to through all this, but two more days was a lot of land covered.
The olive-skinned woman saw Gregory’s hesitation to continue on this way. And with it, the way he backed down at the mention of her and Augustine. He was a fool to not see what Nicolai was doing, but in this case it mattered little. [+mediumseagreen “It should be fine. As long as we are still heading north then we are making progress to our destination.”] That was the woman’s main concern. Getting too far out of the way, while would keep them relatively well hidden, would also give the enemy more time to think about headed them off at the pass. Which was her most poignant worry at the moment. But it was also important to give themselves the best possible chance before getting into more troublesome terrain. The latter seemed to win out in the end.
She also noticed the way Nicolai winced as he moved his shoulder. It was… concerning. She watched him with a discerning eyes and asked, [+mediumseagreen “are you feeling alright, Nicolai? When was the last time you changed that bandage?”] Florence had not recalled it happening since they left the farm, but it was not as though she spent every waking moment in the man’s presence. There were times when she or he left for privacy. He very well could have done it or had someone else help him in that time.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Given their travel went smoothly he was rather surprised to find no-one quibbled or offered any complaints. Perhaps it was just an eagerness to get on with this long journey but likewise it may have been that no-one had anything to argue or complain about. And when you considered who was in this group, it was a rather sweet little miracle that they were quite harmonious. Nicolai was not going to be the one to break that up.
When it came to camping it was a stern word between the two semi-leaders of the group in Nicolai and Florence. Both wanted to take guard, neither wanted the other to lose out on sleep. In the end it was agreed Gregory would help and split the night in three, allowing everyone to sleep a little more whilst sharing responsibility for keeping their fire going and protecting everyone. Meredith seemed pleased with her lot, keeping quiet and allowed to eat and sleep without any confrontation – even from Nicolai.
Perhaps the dwarf had rubbed off on him a little and his forgiving nature left it's mark. Whilst the woman would not be trusted near a weapon or to guard them at night, he could understand she was destitute now and abandoned to the world. She was like them one way or another and his sympathy, though small, was with her.
Come the third day, just after covering over the fireplace from the night with a layer of dirt, Florence finally approached the elven swordsman and asked a question that no doubt burned in her mind these last two days. He smiled as he opened a pack taken from his horse, a stick of dried beef pulled out.[+teal [i “I was wondering when someone would ask me. Though thank you for trusting me to know what I am doing.”]] He spoke in Astorian, having become accustomed to doing so in his talks with Augustine. The others, having heard her question, continued to pack or go about their morning duties but they listened as he spoke – all bar Meredith of course, who ignored the hard-toned language.[+teal [i “We're heading to Underside.”]]
Two clueless faces looked at him, Meredith the exception and Gregory seemed to look at him curiously. Seeing the expression the elf's shrugged, though hisses a little and placed a hand to his shoulder. He still had to learn not to use it much but switched to Wistinian to explain himself.[+teal “It may not be the best of towns but it is where my favour lives and where we can gain aid. Otherwise I am open to ideas for how to raise funds for buying winter clothing and food.”] He did not have much in way of objection to someone coming up with a better plan. In fact it had been near two decades since he had last met this man, near a dozen years since they had last traded correspondence and anything could have happened since.
[+teal “Look,”] he began to move back to his horse, pausing as he lifted the pack up and into it's place with some effort,[+teal “it is two more days there, likely hit it just after midday. We go in, get what we need, spend a night and we're back off again. Would you rather Florence and Augustine go through the passes in such thin clothing? You've been through yourself, you know it won't be easy Gregory.”] He was trying to play to the dwarven man's loyalty to the pairing and tap into that sensitivity he had when choosing an option that would benefit them. It was not the kindest of approaches, but he fixed a look on the smaller man that showed he was not doing this to any ones detriment.
Florence was pleased beyond belief that Augustine was picking up on her native tongue so quickly. She should have expected it. Although he had no studied Astorian specifically, he had taken up some of the other northern languages. There were many similarities ran between the dialects so he was likely drawing on that knowledge to make some educated guesses. He was doing well and she was glad he would not be completely cut off when they arrived in her homeland. It was a relief.
They days travel went well. The boarder came with no ceremony and they crossed it with no problems. Florence had half expected for there to be a slew of Vincent’s minions patrolling the area, but that was either not the case of they happened to find a hole in the guard. Either way, they were lucky to see no signs of their pursuers. Finally something was going right.
As they pressed forward inland the air seemed to lose the moisture it carried off the waters like it did in Wistina. The dryness was not significant, but it was one of those subtle reminders that they were indeed in a new land.
Florence was not entirely sure of where they were going. They were at Nicolai’s mercy when it came to that. Gregory did have a good sense of direction and knew the roads to take to get where he wanted, but seeing as they were after he elf’s contact, he would be of little use. She just hoped it would be near a town of sorts so that they could finally be rid of Meredith. The girl’s ban from speaking had been lifted, but little came from her. Though at the same time, little was spoken to her either. She was still be shunned, and rightfully so at that. At least Florence thought so. The old dwarf seemed to be the only one who would include her at all, albeit infrequently. He had already shown his sympathies to her, so the older woman did not much see the point of continuing on with it. Her guess was that he didn’t see her as a threat now that her family, and the Taken’s, leverage with them, were gone. He had a point, but when it came to these sorts of betrayals, Florence was not easy to forgive.
[+coral “Mother…”] Augustine was sorting through his Astorian, so she allowed him ample time to try and get out what he wanted to say. [+coral “What should I… expect of… middle countries?”]
Florence smiled softly down at the boy. She spoke slowly in return, allowing him the chance to hear and try and understand her. [+mediumseagreen “You would know as well as I do. When I traveled south, it was by sea. I have not seen much beyond Astoria and Wistina. Much like yourself, everything I know I have read or heard second hand.”] It was probably disappointing to the child, but it was what it was. [+mediumseagreen “Perhaps you can ask Gregory later tonight. I know he traveled down the mainland.”]
Things continued on in this way. And after the second day of traveling out of Wistina, Florence decided she could take knowing so little of where they were headed no more. [+mediumseagreen “Where exactly are we headed, Nicolai?”] She knew he was off to see an acquaintance, one that might help them, but they had been traveling northeast for some time. She was beginning to think they were getting a ways off course for only a favor that was owed to the elf.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat Though she was rather placating him by informing him he had won this time, Nicolai was just grateful she would not start another argument. If she wanted him to stand up to her and show he was worthy of her admiration then he would show he was not a man to sit down and grovel over his wounds. She wanted to be in Astoria as quickly as possible and it would give him some good stead with her if he showed he was keen for that too. It would be a game of give and take for this journey so it was best to start out on a good footing.
Leaving her to go inside however, on the pretence of putting the furniture back and retrieving the bottle, he did grimace as he tried to move the bench. A quick look under the tunic showed the bandage was darker and lifting it a touch he could see the skin was dark in coloration. Letting out a muttered elven curse he replaced the bandage and tunic and went inside.
The breakfast was quick and amicable. Gregory helped Augustine collect enough firewood to see her good for the next month with her current stock, and Meredith helped in setting out some wet clothing on the line to dry. Nicolai and Florence were tasked with light duties around the house, which was good for the elf but he saw the frustration in the woman's face to be given such a meaningless task.
When they were leaving, packing the horses with breads, fruits and several packets of dried meats, Nicolai was taken aside to be given a thorough talking to by the older woman. It was like a pep talk to remind him that this was the opportunity he wanted with the woman he had pined for over so many years. She instructed him in how to show her enough respect and care that she had her independence, but to not stand off too much – he had to show he was there and he could take charge when needed. To be the shy and timid boy no longer. He had to step up to the mantle and be strong now. Whilst her words were appreciated, he knew it would be much more difficult than she was portraying.
[+teal “I will give it my best Helga. For better or worse, I have committed to this now.”] He smiled and offered a soft embrace, keeping his shoulder from her and nodding as he pulled away.[+teal “Though for love of God pray for me.”] He winked as she offered him a final smile and turned away to return to the porch and wave them off. The horses seemed happy for the respite and raring to go, Nicolai having to turn his horse several times to keep her from galloping off with the energy she was showing.
He led them north from the farm, following a vale through the hills that would take them beyond the border of Wistina. Not far from the farm they came on a stream that emerged from the hills. Using this as a path to head further north and from the coast, covered by a canopy of trees from the rising sun, they made exceedingly good time and their pace at times was far greater than he expected. Having ridden for a few hours, he pulled his horse back from the front to ride alongside Florence and Augustine, looking to the boy who looked about them perhaps in search of any ambush or would be attacks.
Clicking his tongue to gain the youthful boys attention, he smiled across to him.[+teal “Quick test; welcher weg ist norden?”] The surprise examination of a lesson they had taken, and in Astorian no less, was met head on and in moments he was pointing almost to their left, at ten o'clock.[+teal “Very good. Aber wenn das im norden ist, warum fahren wir nach nordosten?”] This was a good test of his logical and language skills, and a means of keeping him alert. That and it helped to pass the times also. The boy had the answer immediately but it took Augustine a moment to think of the correct words needed in Astorian, his teachings having not started all too long ago.[+peru “Weil ... der Hügel .. zu groß ist.”] He was tentative with his answer.[+teal “Und?”] He expected a little more.[+peru “Und.. wir können uns hier verstecken.”] The accent would improve with time and the pronunciation was often emphasising the wrong letter but Nicolai smiled regardless of such small details.[+teal “Wunderbar. I am glad my lessons in the library were not ignored.”] He added with a satisfied nod as they continued on along a course to his accomplice in Tyleth.
After all that emotion and sporadic-ness, it seemed that Nicolai was back to using his brain. But with that being said, he brought up some very good points in the case of leaving sooner rather than later. Looking to his shoulder, where she knew he was bandaged beneath his shirt, she wondered if he was far enough along in the healing process yet to leave. Puncture wounds such as that one were not to be taken lightly. She knew that first hand. However with the prospect of meeting a contact over the boarder there might also be the chance to rest.
[+mediumseagreen “Very well, I will let you have this way this once. But I will not be happy if you end up slowing us down later down the line because you did not take the care to heal properly now.”] Her emerald eyes stayed on him until he nodded, showing that he understood. And with that she was content. [+mediumseagreen “Then I will inform the others that we will be leaving just as soon as we finish breakfast.”]
Taking back her hand, she smiled at the man. She thought it might be best to leave things on a pleasantry. She was getting used to his tendency to overthink every little thing, so she worried that he might blow her taking her hand from his way out of proportion and they would have to do this all over again. Though admittedly it was tiring. Florence was not used to having to be so considerate of other’s feelings. [+mediumseagreen “You come inside as well. It would be best if you warm up some before eating. And you should probably apologize to Helga for getting into her wine as well.”] The last comment carried a hint of humor to it as she turned toward the door. [+mediumseagreen “While you are at it, you can tell her we will be departing today.”]
Knowing that Gregory was already up and moving, Florence went to wake her son and Meredith. She informed both of them of the plan as it stood now. Neither seemed particularly disheartened by the fact that they were leaving in a few hours, but that was probably for the best. As a group they helped out with a few more things around the house and out in the yard before everyone set down for food. True to form, Helga was determined to feed them entirely too much. Though Florence took note that most of what was put out were foods that would be easy to travel with. And as she expected, they were bombarded with leftovers as they went to load up. Then it was time to head out at last.
[+mediumseagreen “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done, Helga. You have been more than gracious to us.”] Florence smiled down at the short woman from her horse; Augustine sat in front of her. They were in the same configuration as when they rode in.
The gray-haired woman waved her off. [+goldenrod “I merely did what anyone would have done. But if you must thank me, do it by taking good care of these boys. And make sure they eat.”] Not really the type for tearful goodbyes that was all she said about that. Though she did give one final farewell to he whole group after all the individual ones were done with. Then they were off. Still off the trail, they took off toward north toward Tyleth.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat When she did not remove her hand from his like he had stung her, it was a small victory for his cause. It was a means of cementing what he was asking her, but showing that he would do so in a tactful manner. She seemed to respond kindly to it in fact, the warmth of her hand all the more evident as she squeezed lightly and the rosiness to her cheeks began to dissipate.
Her warning was well received – it would have quite mortifying for him to try something with her and she recoiled in horror at his actions. Yet he would have to press his luck at times to push ahead with winning her over. Whilst he could understand her aversion to physical intimacy, perhaps with time and a gentle approach he could show her otherwise. But that would be long down the road and a quest for when or rather if their relationship flourished.
A thought did crop up about Augustine and how she was more than happy to smother the boy in embraces. But that was more a familial trait, whereas his own embraces would be of a different kind.[+teal “I promise not to be a leech but in return do not be too surprised if I wish to be close to you – even if not in a marital manner.”] Her warmth was too enticing at times, as if she were naturally so warm.
On hearing that she wished for them to stay another, Nicolai shook his head in disagreement.[+teal “We should leave today.”] She was right that he could do with the rest, but he knew the others would begin to feel settled if they waited any longer and risked wishing to remain at the secluded farm.[+teal “The Mayfair Pass is renowned for being difficult in the best of weather and the Terrastina Pass is some distance away. We will also need to find better clothing to deal with the coming autumnal rains, I don't think your dress will do.”] Though it was a lovely dress and he was quite happy to see her wear it, it was not best suited for travelling. None of them bar perhaps Gregory were dressed for travel.
[+teal “We would be best to move on now. I know a man in Tyleth, he owes me a favour and should be able to help us some.”] His hand had pressed on hers a touch as he said this, trying to impose his decision on her as she had moments before. But of course he was easier to sway than her, and he was not about to annoy the woman now that they were in.. well, perhaps not good relations but at least not negative.
Her eyes may be been cast to the side, but from the corner of her vision she saw him shift. He moved toward her and took her hand. It was a little cool, probably because he had been outside most of the night without so much as a blanket. Normally that was not so bad a notion, but when you were a stones throw from a warm bed it was a cruel thought. She did not fight him on the contact, and made an effort not to fixate on it.
He gave her one last plea and finally there was a change in his coloration. She had no idea how he managed to push that off for so long. Surely if she said anything of this nature she would be absolutely abashed with herself. That may come to change, but at the moment it was difficult to imagine. [+mediumseagreen “I will try, I am not opposed to letting you in so that you might know more about me. Since you will be going to Astoria…”] She squeezed his hand lightly, as she commanded rather than stated the fact. [+mediumseagreen “You are bound to find out a great deal about me. I could scarcely avoid it if I wanted to. However, I am going to warn you now.”] Florence became more serious with that. [+mediumseagreen “I do not do well with physical intimacy. I am certain you have already taken notice of that.”] Aside from rumors that had run rampant in the castle, there was also his own experience with her over the course of their alliance. [+mediumseagreen “I… I am not sure that is something I can change about myself. So please, keep that in mind if a time comes and I do not respond in the most flattering manner.”] She was perhaps understating it.
[+mediumseagreen “But this seems to be fine.”] The woman lifted their hands, clasped together. [+mediumseagreen “So long as I expect it.”] She added that caveat, as she was not sure of all the intricacies of it.
Standing there a while longer, she cleared her throat as if to be rid of that somewhat awkward topic. [+mediumseagreen “Well, I suppose since it is decided, we will stay one more day to make certain that you are feeling up to travel then we can set out to the north... I will have to apologize to Helga that we are going to trespass her a while longer.”] Florence very much doubted that the old woman would mind. And so long as she was allowed to do something more than sit about, the Astorian woman would not be bothered by it either.
[google-font http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Montserrat][Montserrat As had been the case most of their time together like this, Nicolai was easily cowed by the world and given a strong dose of humility for anything he said. She was such a strong figure and had such a way with words as to make him guilty of having asked anything. It was part of why he had remained so quiet and humble before her.
Regardless of past actions however, he was in agreement that perhaps he had been too forward in his confessions to her. If he had been more subtle then maybe things would have turned out differently. Or perhaps they would be quite the same.[+teal “If that is how I made you feel then I apologise for placing you on the spot like that, but I am not sorry for telling you. Because had I remained silent then you would not be here now, giving me this chance now.”] The man cut a happier figure even if no smile creased his lips.
Even though she had turned away from him, cheeks a shade darker as she fought to control the embarrassment brought on by such an unsavoury topic, he knew she was not angry at him. If she was then surely she would have stormed away.
A thought occurred to take her hand and reassure her that even if she had experience of romance and courting and love and the like, that it was never easy to open ones self to hurt and rejection. In fact she was placed in a most favourable position as the man looking to woo her was already quite infatuated with her. But to take her hand, to touch her at all right now, would have been quite bold and forthcoming. It would have been quite out of Nicolai's comfort to be so brazen. And yet he did it anyway.
His fingers took a hold of her light hand, curling around until their palms met and he took her attention back to himself, wanting to look into those jewelled eyes again. Offering a gentle smile, one meant to reassure her, he nodded as he spoke close to a whisper.[+teal “I will take things slow and show all due courtesy – just please try not to shut me out. If you are willing to try then you must allow me in. If I cannot get through to the inner Florence, to see the woman within, then I cannot hope to succeed.”] His face felt exceedingly warm to be this intimate with her even if it was as simple as holding her hand and saying a few words.
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