New alliances

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Her legs were mending, slowly, according to their own schedule, but there were some, small, signs of improvement: she could shift her position, sat beneath the tree inside their shelter, without triggering agonising pain. That seemed like progress. Her sleep had returned to a regular rhythm, rather than the fits and starts of the previous weeks when she'd sometimes find herself asleep for over two sunsets, and then immediately afterwards be stricken by an anxious insomnia.

They'd moved the camp once, despite the considerable discomfort and the difficulty of moving her, but she'd insisted upon it, in an attempt to keep them one step ahead of anyone venturing out from Treydolain. Lief had strung together the thick fronds one of the nearby plants, braced by two thin branches, and had dragged her on it as a makeshift stretcher. It was time to move again, as they were still only a day's walk from the capital, if that. They needed to be making progress back towards Bruckin, somehow, if they were to be any use at all.

Though she'd shared the Black Scree with Baron Lief for many years, he had always been a private passenger, keeping to his quarters or standing alone on the deck. They had only ever spoken in the context of travel and timings, and certainly nothing of any personal note. Though conversation had remained slim during their time in the forest, it had nonetheless revealed to her a side of the man of which she'd been previously unaware. Beneath his bluster there was a more contemplative aspect, clearly always striving to match his brother's strategic insight and restraint. Bruckin thought of Baron Lief as a stomping fire dragon; Treydolain regarded him with the irritated patience required when dealing with a dangerous player on the board. She had seen him cultivating those personas, always determined to put on the right show for the right people. Lief put Bruckin first and left little room in his life for himself, but being stranded in a forest with only Holst for company had forced the issue somewhat.

As for her, she shared her intense frustration at being forcibly removed from events. The rescue plan had been perfect and would have worked, had it not been for the rogue factor of the queen and her otherworldly armour. Holst wondered, not for the first time, whether every soldier in the army would be wearing such armour when they came knocking on the gates of Bruckin.

There was a rustling in the bushes that surrounded their camp and she pushed aside a handful of twigs and leaves concealing the shelter so as to peer out at Baron Lief's return from his latest camping trip.

A man stood in the small clearing, unfamiliar, tall and armed. He had a dishevelled, disgruntled appearance of a man who was quite at home traipsing through forests for days. He was older than her, perhaps in his fifties or early sixties.

She sat perfectly still, holding her breath.

The man turned his eyes towards the shelter. "I can see you in there, you know," he said, his voice a low, tired growl. He spread his arms wide, away from the weapons on his belt. "I'm not here for a fight."

She said nothing, unsure of what to do. She was in no condition to run, let alone fight. But he might not know for sure that she was there - and any time she could gain gave Lief a chance to return.

"I'm guessing," the man continued, "if you were going to attack you'd have done so by now. I'm not planning on coming any closer in case you try to stick me with something sharp and pointy. But can we at least manage a conversation?"

Remaining silent seemed an absurdity, so Holst cleared her throat. "Who are you?"

The man looked please, shifted his posture and rested his hands on his hips. "The name's Roldan," he said. "Roldan Stryke."

"Why are you here?"

"I'm from the city. Came to see what I'd find out here. Care to tell me your name in return?"

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