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Aiden Zahir trundles in from the brush, the duke bearing a broad grin on his face, seemingly smug and satisfied by something or other.

Corriden is flat on his back, the soggy noble looking appropriately miserable for a man without armor, beer, or wenches. "Well, don't you look smug?" He asks Aiden, wryly. "Find a nice wildling woman, did we?"

"I'd maybe agree with you, if it didn't seem so spooked about that forest," Vhramis shrugs, looking morosely down to his feet. "Going to have blisters tonight."

Lucius Nepos offers a hearty chuckle at Corriden's attempt at a wisecrack; honestly, the first time he's come at all close to a good mood today. "Oooh, woo." After about a moment of silence, he cracks up into a fresh round of laughs.

Thayndor Zahir snickers under his breath, eyeing Aiden as the younger Zahir sits near the campfire.

Aiden Zahir exchanges a dry, strangely bemused grin at Corriden's comment, more humored than angered. As if by way of answering, he throws what amounts to little more than a pair of floppy ears and a cotton tail into the centre of the encampment. "It's a meagre little bugger, but I finally killed that damned, Shadow-touched rabbit. Or one of its brothers or sisters, at the least. Bah!"

"All hail the great hunter!" Corriden booms, lifting his arms in mock-triumph. "Now, my son, you may truly be called a man. A man in fancy, muddy clothing who looks like a drowned rat, but a man nontheless. Tell us of your gallant battle!"

Vhramis stops talking to himself and looks up, managing to smile slightly. "Bet that's what baby wildlings look like," he remarks.

Grinn Harwel draws a hand through his matted hair, slinging droplets of rainwater and mud in all directions, and eyes his handiwork with a grin. Now free of swamp muck, the sellsword slides the blackened hauberk over his head and tugs it down to waist level. "Now what have we 'ere, hmm? I'll skin the runt for ya, if you'll part with the legs that is," he offers, already drawing a knife.

"Well, I'm glad that my doom and gloom ain't dominating the conversation." Notes Lucius with a smirk. He pulls his wolfskin cloak so that it now rests as a quasi blanket/tent over his body and head. Warm and dry, to a degree.

A half-scowl is levelled at the jocular Lomasa, the Spymaster bidding in tone only semi-contemptuous, "I hope one of those vines sodomizes you on the way back home, you pillock. Besides, I don't see -you- catching anything. Meaty or otherwise, it's a kill, whilst all you've managed is to be molested by a Wildling of questionable gender." A sigh and shake of head to Grinn. "That won't be required, Master Harwell. There isn't enough either in fur or meat to make it worth the while. But I was determined to find a rabbit, -however- small, and kill it ... and by the Light, I did."

Dradin sits at his designated sleeping spot in the camp, cleaning his knives that were sullied from the swampwater. His armor and clothes have mostly dried off by now, but mud still cakes a noticeable majority of his person. He looks up at Aiden's find, smirking slightly.

"Waited until it was done having its way with your leg, and then gave it the old swift rock to the head, hm?" Thayndor asks, grin widening as he joins in the fun.

"Well, m'lord Spymaster, you do have our congratulations on your kill. Best I've gotten so far is a bunch of berries and mushrooms." Lucius shrugs lightly, his broad shoulders bare of their pauldrons for once. "I guess I was never much of a hunter."

Grinn Harwel flips the blade into the air and catches it by the hilt, slamming it back into its sheath. "In that case I s'pose I could take it off your hands. No sense lettin' the bugger rot, eh?" Licking his lips, he snatches the rabbit up by its ears for closer inspection. "Mmm... beats gnawing roots, leastways."

"They're not too bad tasting," Vhramis offers, looking to each member in turn.

Nothing is going to dampen the singular pride which Aiden has taken in his 'kill', and he folds his arms across his chest in gloating mien. "Maybe it'd be worth throwing into a stew pot, if we had a few vegetables to go along with it. Small as it was, I swear, that's no normal rabbit. It kept hopping out of the way, looking up at me with its beady little eyes. A vorpal bunny if ever I've seen one."

"If we had a stew pot." Corriden notes, mournfully. "I don't think anyone carried such a thing through those vines." He sits up, stretching out with a groan. "I worked for weeks on that bloody armor.."

Dradin places all of his knives back into his belt. "Out 'ere on the other side o' the Aegis, mebbe the bunnies is creatures o' the Shadow," he wiggles his fingers in a spooky fashion at Aiden.

"Roast it over the fire. At least let us get the smell of it wafting through the air; anything to forget about this dreadful rain." Laments the Blade, nodding at Corriden and pointing towards his lonely looking breastplate. "S'all I got left of my armour. But at least it's something."

Four-Splotch lopes up behind Dradin and taps the commoner on the back with the knuckle of a clawed finger. "What'ssss bunny?"

"Yes, that's it. The Zahir's brought us Shadowbunnies." Corriden declares, beaming slyly at Aiden. "Hey now, let's not bring up my signifigant wildling, here.. Or do you not want armor to replace what you lost when we get back?"

Ah. There he is. Vhramis turns his attention to Four-Splotch as he makes his expected entry into the camp, seeming a bit pleased that he was singled out this time to scare half to death.

"At this point I'd eat a bloody Wildlin'," Grinn states matter-of-factly. He fishes a bit of string out of a pouch and lashes the scrawny creature to his belt. The sellsword's lips clamp shut as their guide appears seemingly from out of thin air, and he coughs nervously into a clenched fist.

Dradin jumps as Four-Splotch catches him off-guard. "Oi!" Realizing that this particular Wildling isn't going to kill him, he quickly regains his composure. "Y'know. Rabbits. Conies. Wif the big pointy ears that hop 'round," he points at the one hanging off of Grinn's belt.

Aiden Zahir's eyes narrow, their viridian depths glinting with almost serpentine intrigue as they fall upon the incorrigible Corriden. For a moment, the Spymaster's face goes deadly deadpan, his reply curt, flat, and unsettling, "Don't you mean -if- you get back, Lord Lomasa?" And then a wink dispels the mood as quickly as it came, and one cannot be sure just where, if anywhere the Spymaster was in earnest. Hands clap in suddenly chipper disposition, Aiden inquiring, "So then, when shall we be off, and where to? We've an Emperor to save, and maybe a corpse or two to leave behind. Where the latter is concerned, it could almost be any Zahir family function."

"The earssss hop around?" Four-Splotch puzzles over this, then shrugs and peers through the sheeting rain until he spies Vhramis Skinner. In a loping crouch, the hunched Wildling makes his way through the camp to stand before Vhramis. "Perfect weather, yesss?" He closes his eyes, lifts his face to the sky and laps at the rain with a sharp-tipped tongue that slips out between rows of yellowed fangs.

"Hares." Corriden rumbles as he stands, stretching out and smiling at Aiden lazily. "If indeed.. Although I'm a sight more sturdier than you, so I'd say I'm the likelier of the two of us. But what do I return to? A reputation in shambles, nobody to socialize with me unless they want something.. The usual." The large man steps closer to the unarmored spymaster with a vicious smile. "You go back to a cushy position. Funny how that works, Zahir."

Lucius Nepos lifts his eyes to regard Four-Splotch. His eyebrows shoot upwards at the same time, producing a suprised look on his face. "What we really need is some extra protection to make up for the stuff we lost in that swamp. I'm practically nude here, and if we meet the Black and Yellow tribes I'd really rather not engage anyone at the moment." He notes, finger wagging at.. someone.

"It could be a bit more dry," Vhramis comments to Four-Splotch, watching the Wildling lap with half curiosity. "Don't enjoy the rain as much as you do, I think." He glances up to Lucius and nods his head slightly. "I'm not sure what to supply you with, however. I doubt the Wildlings have any armor to give."

Ashlynn stares at Four-Splotch for a moment in morbid fascination before she shudders and turns back to securing the last items of her pack, ensuring that what needs to remain dry is well protected.

"Pssssht," the Wildling replies to Vhramis, waving a clawed hand dismissively, fingers scraping the muddy earth. "Bad weather for mad sssspectressss. We go now. No bother ussss. Easssy travel through foresssst."

Grinn Harwel sidles up beside Lucius and snickers. "Blades armor, far superior," he mutters sarcastically, jingling his hauberk.

Aiden Zahir lifts a brow at the Splotchy one in less-than-convinced reaction. "Easy for a Wildling, you mean?"

"Alwayssss easssy for Wildling," Four-Splotch retorts to the Zahir duke. "Thisss easssy for walldwellersss too."

Dradin blinks as a droplet hanging from his hair falls and splashes on his nose. "Yeah," he grunts in agreement with Aiden, "Probably gonna run into explodin' trees or ravenous chitters or summat."

"As long as those specters, as you call them, don't like it," Vhramis comments, considering the creature closely. "One thing that I wonder, before we leave. Your claws, they poison." He reaches his hand to point to the gashes across the leather cuirass on his chest. "But the Yellow tribe didn't. Do the Black poison?"

The Wildling holds up his hand, bringing the claws within a few inches of Vhramis' neck. "All poisssson walldwellersssss, if want," Four-Splotch says flatly before he starts to lope through the rain-soaked underbrush in the dense forest that leads away from Snake Tangle, northwest toward the Green Tribe village.

A look of distaste begins to form on his face, but Lucius rises from his seat, haversack safely dry under his cloak. He twirls the iron throwing spear in his hand and begins to follow Four-Splotch on his way, black leather boots slogging through the mud with much effort. "Bloody rain." He repeats.

Aiden Zahir rises, drawing his cloak fast round his neck to ward off the rain as best he can, making to slog through the mud after the enthusiastic Wildling, but not before assuring Vhramis, "If it weren't a friend of yours, Steward, I'd find the nearest cliff to push it off of."

"Thanks for that," Vhramis scowls at Four-Splotch's back, reaching up unconciously to scratch at his neck. He glances to Aiden and snorts, before stepping out from under the tree to begin to follow. "Everyone ready?"

Corriden trots after Four-splotch, unencumbered but sodden and miserable. "His majesty's hopefully having a drier time than we are." The man muses absently, jogging to keep up.

Ashlynn tenses as soon as Four-Splotch reaches toward Vhramis, her breath catching until the Wildling has moved away again before she lets it out with another shudder and then heaves her pack back over her shoulder. Hair clinging damply around her face and neck, she sends a brooding look after the creature before moving after it with a resolutely set jaw.

Dradin trods along behind Vhramis and Four-Splotch, boots going *squelch squelch squelch* as they sink into the mud. "Yuh," he nods to Corriden. "He is Emp'ror an' all 'at." He runs a hand through his matted hair as he walks, flicking off the rain.

Grinn Harwel sloshes through the mud beside Lucius, one hand resting on the leather hilt of his sword. "The rain ought t' mask our scent," he says, more to himself than anything, "Maybe keep them bloody Wildlings off our track for once."

Ever the ray of sunshine, Aiden interjects at Grinn's commentary, "Ah, but it won't do much for the spectres, now will it? I rather doubt that they rely upon a sense of smell. Doesn't do them much good beyond the grave."

Four-Splotch leads the expedition through the shadowy, rain-slashed depths of the wilderness, through thick underbrush and between the trunks of massive bloodwood trees. Observant walldwellers who aren't busy trying to slog their way through the forest may notice other mottle-skinned beings swinging from tree to tree, using the high limbs, moving in tandem with Four-Splotch's path - Green Tribe members providing escort to the village.

Of course, though, Lucius doesn't notice this. He is glad to get under cover of the trees, shaking out his wolfskin cloak and probably showering everyone but himself with lots of water droplets. "We should be vigilant, as always. I don't even want to know what kind of bad things these woods hide."

Dradin's hand rests on the hilt of his dagger at the mention of spectres. "Four-Splotch said they wouldn' bother us in the rain," he says to Aiden, blinking irritatedly as droplets from Lucius catch him in the face.

"How can we be vigilant for anything else with so much commentary from within our own group?" Ashlynn sighs, half to herself as she casts Vhramis a rueful look before blinking away rain droplets, glancing around herself uneasily.

"Hey, we've got an escort!" Corriden's just now noticing, as he waves to the wildlings in the trees. "How's this for surreal? Heh! Just wait until they hear that these fellas have the rudiments of a basic civilization when we get home.."

Dradin looks up upon Corriden's remark. "Woow," he looks awed at the sight as he trudges along. "Tha's almost majes'ic, it is." He grins at Corriden, "Now, you tell people 'at and they'll jus' be *more* scared of 'em."

"Not far I hope," Vhramis mutters, glancing to Ashlynn and smiling faintly. "Well...at least they're friendly wildlings. For the meantime."

Grinn Harwel shrugs, his dark eyes shifting toward the branches overhead and the Wildlings all around. "Escort? We're bein' corralled like mindless livestock." He draws a ragged breath, his hand tightening around the sword's hilt. "Better be a damn good reward for this."

Aiden Zahir clears his throat, interjecting into the conversation with a wary, "No one is to discuss this outside of this group until express permission is given by the Lord Regent or the Emperor himself, should we find Talus hale and fit to return with us. What we have seen could tear away the very foundations of Fastheld if fear is allowed to germinate through its telling."

"Oh, yes, truth is scary, ain't it?" Corriden asks, glancing over at Aiden sharply. "What ever would happen if we actually told the /truth/ to the unwashed and uneducated masses? Dreadful business."

"I just wonder if we're gonna have somewhere dry to stay when we get there.. Light knows, the Emperor is probably livin' on a throne up there, taming those savage Wildlings." Lucius's green-blue eyes regard Aiden curiously. "What? That there were a bunch of savage creatures playin' friendly escorting us? Not much truth there. Or that they speak? Old news, there too."

Ashlynn's mouth twitches, unbidden, as she glances toward Vhramis at his rejoinder before she looks over her shoulder toward Aiden, one brow arched. "Odd sentiments coming from you, if I may say, considering Lord Zolor Zahir's flippant spread of knowledge throughout the realm concerning She Who Protects, almost before the council had fully adjourned."

Aiden Zahir rolls his eyes and shakes his head in middling disgust, retorting in typical royal superiority, "It isn't a matter of not telling the -truth-. Imagine, if you will, -should- we return to Fastheld without Talus. All we have to show for our efforts is a dead Prince of the Blood, and both arrows and armor in the swift-adapting hands of the Wildlings. I can think of nothing more likely to spread panic and discord throughout the realm. This is an occasion when facts can be infinitely more damaging than fiction. No, there will be no broaching of these subjects unless a higher power grants the right to do so. You'll take these experiences to your dying graves, if need be," the Spymaster warns in no uncertain tone, voice hard as steel and just as deadly sharp.

After about ten minutes spent running through the forest - unmolested by mad spectres, mindtakers or gibberers - the wilderness thins and opens onto a wide clearing in the midst of the tall trees. Within the clearing, more than a dozen wood-framed, skin-walled structures, including huts, barns and a low-roofed central longhouse, are arranged. Wildling warriors can be seen standing watch in the rain. More than a dozen spears jabbed point-up in the earth on either side of the village entrance give warning against intrusion: Impaled on each spear is the head of a fallen foe, in various states of decay. Some appear to be walldwellers - men, possibly Bladesmen who fell afoul of the Wildlings on patrol. Others are Wildlings of rival clans. And some are silver-haired, round-faced humanoids that look rather odd for Fastheldians. Four-Splotch doesn't give the piked heads a single glance. Instead, he speaks in a chittering tongue to one of the Wildling warriors, indicating the expedition. The warrior bobs its head in response, then departs toward the longhouse. Four-Splotch turns to regard Vhramis. "Wait here. Ssssoldier reportssss arrival."

Lucius Nepos regards the spears around the village with a passive look, stopping in front of the enterance to the place and jamming his spear into the ground by the buttspike. "Looks like quite the welcoming place. Should we start to celebrate?" A wry grin quirks up at the sides of his lips.

"It's still the realm's right to know." Corriden snaps in reply. "We're not fat sheep to be led about by the council in the emperor's absence... And by the Light, that's what we've been treated as! I won't lie for anyone's sake, unless his majesty should order it himself. /His/ ass I don't dare contradict, since I owe him money and all. If we fail, th' realm'll know that we tried.. /And/ what we face. So, y' high-and-mighty stuffed shirt, suck on _that_, and just try to send me to m' grave if y' dare. I'll rip you up like a used whore." Gosh, such a friendly expedition.

Dradin makes no further comment, continuing his trudging pace until they come to the village entrance. "Woow," he repeats, staring at the structures ahead and giving a curious glance to the silver-haired heads. He turns to frown at Corriden and Aiden. "Aw, c'mon, we jus' got 'ere and you two's arguin' already."

Vhramis stares at the town, not engaging in the argument. "Yes," he replies distractedly to Four Splotch. He stares for a few more moments, particuarly at the heads, before turning to whisper to Ashlynn.

"M'lord Corriden!" Ashlynn interjects, her face studiously composed though her gaze is steely. "Let us not start another Shadow-hunt just yet, and debate this another time? All this will become moot when the emperor is returned to us."

Aiden Zahir ignores Corriden's tirade, too wide-eyed is the Spymaster upon entering the encampment. He simply stares at one of the silver-maned heads for a moment, the notion of what those are, and the implication of what it could have for their society taking time to process. When it does, he points with long index finger towards one of the foreign heads and intones, "And not a word about -those-, either. I don't care," a hard glance over shoulder at the acid-tongued Lomasa, "what your feelings are. I am a member of the Imperial Council, and until such time as the Emperor or Lord Regent contradicts me, -I- speak for the Crown. You betray such an order at your peril."

Grinn Harwel mutters something about slaughterhouses as they come into view of the village and its tasteful decor. "There be enough gibberlings and boogidiboos between here and the Aegis after our hide, m'lords." He turns toward the squabbling nobility and spreads his arms wide. "Last thing we need is dis... er dissipation in the ranks."

Despite the inclement weather, as word spreads quickly of the newly arrived walldweller expedition, the sinuous forms of slouching mottle-skinned Wildlings start filtering out of the huts and tents to get a look at these latest outlanders. And from one of the tallest tents - still a little bit small for a human - emerges a man in stained blue tunic, dark cloth trousers and mud-splattered leather boots. His long brown hair is bound back in a tail and his cheeks and chin are covered with dark growth of a beard and mustache. Although he appears much different than usual, those who know Talus Kahar XIV will recognize the Emperor despite the changes. He peers through the slashing rain, trying to pick out familiar faces in the expedition. Ultimately, he decides to get closer and starts walking toward the village entrance. None of the assembled Wildlings, over whom he towers, attempts to stop his progress.

Ashlynn casts a worried glance toward Vhramis before her eyes rove over the encampment more slowly, lingering briefly upon the silvery-heads upon the spears before she nods to the steward grimly.

"As you wish, Mistress Birch." Corriden murmurs, glancing over at Aiden. "It's a very bad idea to cross someone who doesn't have anything to lose, you stuffed-shirt vulture. I remember how you hung back during the business with the prince and did nothing useful. I don't intend to forget. I've told you what I plan on doing; Interfere with me in any fashion and I guarantee that if there are any peices left of you, they will be very, very small ones." The large man states in a completely flat, opaque, and emotionless tone. That said, he moves after Ashlynn, the stress easing from his features as he spots the emperor. A rough grin breaks across the man's scarred face. "Y'still look shorter in person!" He calls out.

Lucius Nepos picks up his spear from the ground, and stuffing his wolfskin cloak into his haversack points the iron implement towards one of the silver heads. "What in the Light is that, anyways?" That is, before he spots a human in the ranks. Still not sure of who it is (it could be a phony!), his eyes squint. Then, the realization dons on him like a ray of light, and he kneels down as a good subject, dropping his spear next to him. "His royal highness!"

"Where in the light..." Vhramis mutters, still morbidly entranced by the silver haired decapitated heads. Though, he's snapped out of his trance by all the sudden yelling, turning to see what the big deal is about. Oh, right. The whole reason he's out here. "Ash," he taps her shoulder, gesturing towards Talus.

Dradin, though he's probably never seen the Emperor up close and personal, goes out on a limb and assumes that this is, in fact, His Majesty, especially from Lucius's reaction. He lowers himself into an awkward kneel, looking as humble as possible.

Aiden Zahir's jaw works in tension at Corriden's outburst, but nothing more is said. For Talus, lost Emperor of Fastheld, has again been found. And Aiden would be a remiss courtier indeed not to do proper obeisance. Striding towards the approaching, towering figure of the Kahar monarch, a warm and affable smile instantly sparks, the Spymaster setting back into the cordial mien which is his normal wont, arms going wide as he exclaims, "Your Imperial Majesty! Light be praised!" And with that, he goes at once to fluid kneel, managing it in an elegant, singular motion despite the rain and infirmity of muddy ground.

"Wha-?" Ashlynn begins distractedly with Vhramis' tap, before she sucks in a sharp breath upon seeing the lean figure emerging through the downpour. Slowly sliding the pack off her shoulders, she straightens with a deep breath, and as soon as Talus has reached ear-shot, she smiles softly and executes a simple bow. "Your Majesty," she says quietly, voice thick.

Outnumbered and surrounded by Wildlings, the last thing Grinn wants to do is drop to his knees and bow. The soldier remains standing, ever wary and ever prepared to sling his sword free in an instant. He does dip his head, however. A curt gesture perhaps, but beyond safety of the Wall there is little time for courtly etiquette.

Favoring the Imperial courier with a warm smile, Talus Kahar XIV inclines his head. "Mistress Birch." He nods to Vhramis and the others. "I suppose I should have known this would happen." His smile fades a bit as rain continues to patter the vegetation and ripple puddles growing on the ground. The Emperor looks down at Four-Splotch. "We will use the longhouse to meet. Privately. You have nothing to fear from these people." The Wildling chortles hissingly, but nods acknowledgement. Talus then says to the soaked walldwellers: "Come. Let us talk in a drier place." With that, he turns and strides toward the longhouse in the middle of the village.

"Should have known?" Vhramis echos, looking to Four-Sploch briefly before setting off to head to the longhouse. His eyes stay active, taking in the strange sights of the surrounding village.

Brow arching in curiosity at the Emperor's reaction, and his curious turn of phrase, the raise of Aiden swiftly follows, standing and moving with swift gait to follow Talus towards what one hopes is warm, dry purchase within the longhouse.

"Um.. wha's 'at mean," Dradin asides to Corriden, moving to follow the others to the longhouse.

Lucius Nepos rises from the dirt, his bare knee now all muddied up. He spits on the ground and picks his spear up, then begins to walk towards the longhouse, eyes taking in all the details of the strange little village. "If his highness says that this place is alright, it's alright." Lucius shrugs.

"Well, it was a speech in a public place." Corriden grunts to Dradin, tailing along after the group with a scowl. "I guess that's the imperial way of saying 'I was a stupid bastard for getting kidnapped and throwing the realm into chaos' or something." With a shrug, he follows after.

Ashlynn sobers as well at the emperor's words and shift in mood, watching him pensively as she picks up her pack and follows slowly after, absently brushing rainwater from her eyes.

"Not you too." Grinn trails after Lucius, no less tense despite the Emperor's words.

Soon enough, the expedition finds itself within the rather cramped - but tolerable - confines of the longhouse. The accommodations consist mostly of wadded animal furs piled in an oval. Talus settles onto one of these lumps of fur that passes for a seat and motions for the other Fastheldians to follow suit. "The spider-eye stew isn't all that appetizing, so you should help yourselves to any jerky or fruit that's brought in to us." He sighs, lacing his fingers together between his knees.

Vhramis fixes his eyes on Talus, frowning faintly as he considers the man. "Your Majesty," he says quietly, slowly taking a seat across from him. "You are well? Not injured?"

Dradin obliges His Highness and takes a seat next to Vhramis, running a hand through his wet hair and cringing at the thought of spider-eye stew.

As Talus seats himself, Ashlynn automatically picks the position immediately to his right...perhaps out of habit, from days in the throne room where she would be seated as court scribe. Letting her pack thump down behind her in a soggy bundle, she squeezes excess water from her hair before settling down upon the fur, her expression twisting a bit at the thought of the stew.

Lucius Nepos lays his bag down on the wooden floor of the longhouse, next to a furpile, also removing his boots and dumping the water they hold out the window. He drops the boots next to his bag, and then laying his spear down finally seats himself. "Fur has never felt so good on my bottom." He says. As everyone settles in, the Blade also begins to remove his segmented cuirass, to air out the inside of the armour and give his chest a break.

Corriden plunks down gracelessly into the furs, removing his boots and peeling off soaked woolen stockings, which he drapes over the boots to dry a bit. That finished, the Lomasa leans back with a sigh, content to remain quiet for the moment.

Aiden Zahir descends upon one of the offered furs, attentions remaining raptly upon the Emperor, the Spymaster scrutinizing the haggard Talus' face for the slightest hint, the faintest inflection which might betray his feelings or motivations. "Fastheld will be overjoyed that you yet live, Majesty ... and to see you again soon enough, we may hope?" he inquires, head canting to one side in curiosity, as though not taking that 'return' as a given. No, not for a moment.

Grinn Harwel plops down on a lump of fur and peels off his drenched cloak. "Jerky?" That piques his attention. For the first time since the day's march he releases his weapon, clasping his hands together in his lap and waiting expectantly for the promised food.

"I am well enough," Talus replies to Vhramis. He scratches absently at his bearded cheek. "Thank you." His gaze shifts from Vhramis to each member of the expedition in turn before getting back to Skinner. "Thank all of you for the effort. It should not surprise me at all that you have come, especially seeing the leaders of this enterprise." He chuckles, shaking his head. "Before much longer, I was going to send word ... somehow ... of my situation. I had hoped to head off a search party. But the Wildlings weren't having much luck getting past the Aegis. Regent Nillu and Blademaster Lomasa have redoubled the patrols, it seems." His brow furrows somewhat, and then he says, "I appreciate the effort of your expedition to track me down, to find me, but I am afraid I cannot provide the resolution you want. I cannot return with you to Fastheld."

At that, the Lomasa sits up and /stares/ at the emperor. "Just why in th' shades not? Everything's fallin' apart around home. People need you, so why're you sittin' here playin' scaly savage?" He queries, baritone a deep rumble.

Ah, and there's the rub. The reaction from Aiden is not one of shock or disbelief, nay, nor disagreement. He merely nods in calm, cool, almost expectant resignation. "As you wish, Majesty. Your reasons must be sound, and if they are such that you may divulge, we would hear them, gladly."

Lucius Nepos's eyes narrow at the man he once called Emperor. His royal highness, of impecable blood and lineage. He slams his hands down on the ground, growling. "Some of us have DIED for you! We slogged through these wild lands, endangered ourselves so that you may better the realm.. And you tell us to go back-" In the middle of speaking, Lucius breaks out into a coughing fit, hand to his mouth as he struggles to breath at the same time.

Ashlynn stares, stricken, at the emperor, before a single word finally makes it upon a whisper past her lips. "But..." Then, lost, she can only shake her head numbly and entreat Talus to explain further with a wide gaze.

Well. That's not exactly the answer he was expecting. The woodsman stares at his Emperor blankly for a moment, considering the new development carefully, before voicing his concern intelligently and concisely. "Huh?"

Dradin's jaw drops at Talus, staring silently at the Emperor. "but.. but.." he stammers, unable to form a coherent sentence.

Grinn Harwel's eyes widen in shock at this latest revelation. His cheeks flush red and his eyes narrow into thin slits. "This best not interfere with the reward," he rumbles beneath this breath, glaring at his Emperor with an expression just shy of outright malice. He keeps his thoughts to himself, though, allowing those of better blood to talk.

The Emperor nods to Lucius, frowning. "Men died for me *before* this happened. It surprises me little that they have died during this expedition. And, for that, I am most sorry," he says. He then gazes across the oval under the longhouse canopy toward Vhramis. "Alieron Mikin raised a riot because I had the temerity to suggest we ally ourselves, if only briefly, with someone Shadow-Touched in order to resolve the Ravager issue. Can you imagine what somebody with similar motives could do against an Emperor who has been beyond the Aegis, who has been 'touched' by the taint of these dark lands?" He grimaces. "Don't bother imagining. I have *seen* it. Yes, I believe that right now, my absence has caused no small amount of tumult. But my return would bring chaos of another more deadly kind. I have a son, and the realm has a regent. The Kahar line, as it stands now, is secure. But were I to return, the upheaval to come would be catastrophic. I cannot allow that to come to pass."

Aiden Zahir is swift to inquire after the Emperor's response, expression and mien beatific and acquiescent as ever, "Shall we tell the people of Fastheld that you have died then, Majesty? Would that be the best way to forestall the conflict of which you speak? To allow word to spread that you are yet alive, and for reasons however perfect in altruism refused to return, would be equally cataclysmic upon the already fragile political fabric of the realm."

Twitch, twitch.. Snap! Yes, it's almost audible, as the young giant's face contorts with fury. "Yer out of yer inbred Kahar mind!" Corriden Lomasa roars, shooting to his feet and glowering at Talus. "Everyone expects the regent y' left to go shuffling off his mortal coil any time now, th' Blades are a wreck, everyone's afraid of th' bloody overgrown bushdragons, and you leave people like his grand twittyness over there.." He stabs a meaty finger at Aiden, "T' lead us? By Ufell Lomasa's butt hairs, yer as mad as a lark! We've all been 'touched' by coming after ya, and your own bloody brother's rotting at the bottom of some cliff to get us here." Subtility.. Thy name is not Corriden. "You think leavin' an underaged brat is secure? I doubt he'll live to see twelve, yet alone a crown! Now get off your lilly-white Kahar ass and come home with us already!" For a disgraced blacksmith, he sure can get some volume with that voice of his!

Anything which would have been said by Lucius is definately stolen from his open mouth by the Lomasa. He remains seated, frowning, nodding at Corriden's arguments and using his finger to animate the conversation further. "The realm will fall if you don't come back, your majesty. The Instrumentalist said so, and now it makes sense." The look on his face is sullen.

"Who will protect your line?" Thayndor asks of the Emperor, quietly, after Corriden's outburst. "You have seen what has happened after the alliance you made. You anticipate much trouble over the situation you are in now, Majesty. What will happen to your House and your line, without the Prince of the Blood to protect it?"

Dradin remains silent. Either because those around him share his sentiment, or that as a commoner he's probably not in a great position to mouth off to the Emperor.

Ashlynn shoots those with various of outbursts a half-exasperated glare for their lack of proprietary, but it is Aiden's all too smooth agreement which she reserves the most venemous look. "No," she states clearly on the end of the other arguments, "Perhaps it is time that it changed, Your Majesty." She gazes directly upon the emperor as she says with all the conviction she can muster, "We have had unsteady peace for generations, but it cannot last. Not as things are. In times of upheaval, it is essential to have a firm and steady hand to guide the reins, or too much can be lost in the ensuing chaos."

Nikolaes, perhaps oddly, is the only one who remains silent. He studies Talus with a quiet, but intense gaze and there is worry in the depths of his blue eyes. The silent Bladesman wears a frown as he stands there in his bare feet before his emperor.

Vhramis considers Talus still, giving a brief look to Ashlynn next to him. "Your brother has fallen, your Majesty. I left Fastheld with him originally. The pair of us became seperated when hordes of wildlings...the Black tribe and Yellow tribe as I later learned, attacked us. We left to bring you back, because Fastheld needs you."

Talus' mouth falls open and his eyes widen as he hears the mention of Serath's fate. He stares at the floor for a moment, jaw rigid as his mouth closes. Quietly, he bears the venomous response from Corriden and the velvety smooth agreement of Aiden Zahir. In silence, he composes himself as Imperial custom dictates, to keep in check the emotions that are vying to shriek across his face. Ultimately, his attention returns to Vhramis as he says, "What the Instrumentalist foresaw is what will happen if I return. If I remain here, beyond the Aegis, then, yes, the realm will struggle, but it will stand in the end. If I come back ..." His voice trails off for a few moments, and then he soldiers on, "If I come back, it will be civil war. I will die. My son will die. The line of Kahar emperors will be at an end and Fastheld will be plunged into a dark time it has not known since the Cataclysm." He looks toward Ashlynn. "I do not make such a decision lightly or rashly. I have had ample time to consider the good and bad of it. If all of you truly wish to save the realm, it must start by leaving me here. Do what you can to protect my son."

Aiden Zahir readily nods, bearing this with a cool resignation in stark contrast to the bombast which prevails the tenor of conversation. "Again, Your Majesty, I must ask, how shall we explain? Do we announce your death, allow the realm to mourn, and thence heal as best it can? You alone know what is best, and it is ours, however much our consciences may rail against such a notion, to assent to your greater will. But there must be an explanation ... and nothing short of a mandate from your lips is likely to keep it within our breasts, locked in secrecy, to our dying days. We must have that, if we are to protect your son, serve your throne, and save your kingdom."

"Y' daft bastard." Corriden mutters, explosive temper only just beginning to cool down. "You believe what a flying desctructive shadow-creature says over yer own bloody subjects? Anyone who'd bring down th' government doesn't need you there to find the incentive." He seems about to say something else, but instead looks over at Aiden with the murderous expression of impending violence, hands flexing slowly.

"Then we'd best to tell the Realm we failed in our quest," Thayndor says speculatively. "That the Wildlings were too thick in numbers, that Serath Kahar died heroically exactly as he did - buying time for us, a last gasp to guard our escape. That the fate of Talus Kahar remains unknown. Oren Nillu will maintain control. And if he fails ..." Thayndor shrugs. "The legendary Emperor might return, bless the Light."

"How can you say all that with such surety?" Ashlynn asks hoarsely, consternation beginning to show in the strain of her expression and words. "Is it the Instrumentalist which has prophesied thus? How can you believe her with such absolute trust?"

Vhramis simply stares blankly at Talus, not seeming to know what to say.

Nikolaes poses perhaps a different question, waiting until the others have cooled a bit. "You intend to stay out here alone? I agree with Mistress Birch - how can you know it is truth? There are already those who hold enmity toward Regent Nillu." As he speaks, he fastens the bearded man with an odd, searching look.

The Emperor frowns at Ashlynn. "Do you really want to take the chance that she's wrong? That she's lying? She has no reason to lie," he says. "It is one thing for *you* to leave the Aegis and seek me. You had the blessing of the Regent and Blademaster Lomasa. But I was carried off by the Ravager, expected to be found dead, if at all. That I survived will provide ample fodder for my opponents to color me as an ally of the Shadow. Everything else I try to do will be seen through such a lens." He shakes his head. "The Instrumentalist merely showed me the chain of cause and effect, should I return. It is not so far beyond the scope of imagining that I could not possibly believe it could come to pass. It *can* and it *will*, if I relent and go with you." He peers over at Aiden. "As for the story ... you should tell them I live, and that, acting in the best interests of the realm, to prevent discord over my exposure to the realm beyond the Aegis, I have opted to accept exile and put full faith and hope in the Regent and my son and heir."

Broad shoulders shirking off his previous concerns, Aiden merely inclines his red-blonde head in fast concurrance. "Thus is the word of the Emperor, thus is the will of the Light. We shall do as you bid, Majesty. We may all of us fear for the future of the realm without you to lead it, but we cannot go against the will of the Crown. As you order, we can ... we -must- obey," this last bit spoken with a pointed glance at Corriden in particular. "I pledge my life to preserving that of your son, the Prince Royal and Heir, and will see him installed upon his rightful throne."

"The Wildlings...allow you to live here?" Vhramis manages to ask, voice tight. "What are they?"

Ashlynn's mouth works for a moment, but unable to come up with more compelling counter-arguments, wrenches her eyes away from the emperor to look half-pleadingly, half-desperately toward Vhramis.

"Like they'll believe it." Corriden snorts, shaking his head in a moot fashion. "We can't just leave you here." He glances over at Nikolaes thoughtfully, then back at Talus. "Among other things, those black beasties know how to use bows and arrows now. This tribe'll be overwhelmed, if the fighting methods are any indication. If yer gonna trust the little bastards, I oughta stay an' make sure they know how to make bows an' weapons to protect yer daft ass. " He folds his arms across his chest, looking defiantly at the emperor. "At least /these/ beasties don't want to kill all of us, after all. Behooves us t' see that they win."

Lucius Nepos, too, is completely silent, still stunned at the responses which the Emperor has given them tonight. He takes a few minutes before starting a movement, that of a dissapointed headshake. He mumbles something venomous-sounding at a low level.

Dradin sighs, "Emp'rers word," he echoes Aiden under his breath, an expression of disappointment apparent on his face. He looks around at the others, perhaps in hopes they'll convince Talus otherwise.

Nikolaes' frown returns but this time it is grieving. As the others continue to speak to Talus, the Bladesman begins unlimbering his haversack from his back. He pulls a woodsman's axe from it, a hunting knife, and loops a long coil of new rope over his forearm before digging into the bag again.

The Emperor shakes his head, managing a grim chuckle in response to Vhramis' question. "Out of deference to the Instrumentalist, the Wildlings have granted me some measure of hospitality on a temporary basis, so long as I do nothing to threaten them. Now that you have come and heard what I must say, I will be expected to leave this village and establish my own encampment - where, I have not yet decided. But, yes, for now, I have their amnesty." He nods toward Corriden. "The Black Tribe is clever. But the Green Tribe and its allies are learning as well. Apparently, when they digest other beings, they gain wisdom and knowledge from those beings." His mouth twists in a rather disgusted grimace at this last statement, but then he sighs and says, "The Black Tribe can mimic, certainly, but they do not evolve with the same capacity as the smaller Wildlings."

Aiden Zahir shares the Emperor's distaste at the telling of the Wildlings' brutish and grisly practices, head shaking in wonderment. "How thoroughly disgusting. Yet ... intriguing."

Nikolaes gives another look into the haversack and begins putting things back into it, taking out two soggy parchments instead. He slips them into his cuirass and then steps forward to put the haversack before Talus' feet. "It isn't much, but you can have it," the Bladesman states. "Perhaps it will help."

Lucius Nepos shifts his gaze to Aiden. "Yeah, I suppose you're trying to figure out a way where you can use the Wildlings to further your goal of riches. Like minions, or something, you know?" He then looks back at Talus. "Make your own encampment? Are there even other humans out here that you could live with? Otherwise, you're gonna get ripped up by some of them beasts the 'lings were talking about, your majesty."

"'s probably how they managed t' get into Fast'eld," Dradin remarks to himself upon Talus's explanation of the Wildlings' behavior.

"Yuck." Corriden states dryly, still wearing the mulish, defensive expression. "Yeah, well, especially if the hospitality ain't gonna last, I'm stayin'. Won't greive th' Spymaster anymore than seein' you stay, I'm sure." He growls, in a tone that brooks no arguement. Turning to Vhramis, he pulls the obsidian scimitar, still encrusted with gore, and tosses it over hilt-first to him. "Give it to Rowena Mikin."

Vhramis shifts his weight on the fur pile, nodding his head faintly, and absently reaching out to catch the tossed scimitar. "And you will live alone in the wild," he murmurs. "And what will I tell Gerald? He was always hoping to see his Emperor pass by him. I was hoping to see him again...perhaps take him hunting one day."

"The Wildlings know of other people like us ... Fastheldians or their offspring, who have formed quiet settlements in the wilderness," Talus replies to Lucius before glancing over at Corriden. He shakes his head. "I will not ask *any* of you to stay. In fact, it is an imperative that what remains of the expedition return to Fastheld without leaving anyone but me behind. If one stays ... it speaks to the disunity of the realm and will seed discontent. I cannot allow that. I will make my way in exile. My final request as Emperor is that *all* of you go back. Go back, live your lives and keep the realm secure for my heir." A faint smile touches his lips as his gaze shifts back to Vhramis. "Gerald will get over the disappointment, I think, although I would have very much enjoyed the experience."

Trembling, Ashlynn can only turn a forlorn look back upon the emperor as it begins to sink in that there will be no convincing him otherwise, and finally she can only blurt out quietly, "May I speak with you in private? When...when the others are done with their questions...and there is a little time...Your Majesty."

Nikolaes seems to be done with his arguments, oddly enough. He does reach up to unfasten his soiled cloak as a last gesture, adding it to the small pile of useful items that he's giving to his Emperor. Then, the barefoot Bladesman gives Talus a crisp, respectful salute.

"I have the added convenience of having nothing to return to." Corriden growls sourly. "They can say a snake ate me or something, it doesn't matter. I didn't do much listening when you were on th' throne so it's a bad time to start." The Lomasa declares in a dead-stubborn manner.

Aiden Zahir ignores the verbal barbs sent his way, far too curious is the Spymaster at the highly unusual request of the courier and scribe. Hawkish gaze falls upon her, the Viper's eyes glinting in intrigue. Secrets, after all, are his specialty.

The Emperor nods to Ashlynn. "Of course. I hope you brought parchment and ink - you have one final missive to compose for delivery to the Regent." He then smiles at Nikolaes. "My thanks. Those items will help, most certainly." Finally, his attention goes to the recalcitrant Lomasa and his smile fades. "They can say anything they want. But people have a tendency to find out the truth of such things when it benefits them." His eyes shift toward Aiden Zahir and the smile quirks back into place. "Don't they?"

Nikolaes lowers his arm and gives Ashlynn one of those oddly intense looks, curiousity visible upon his features.

His boots dry after storytime, Lucius removes a fresh pair of woolen socks from his back and fits them on his feet. Then, he slips his boots back on. Finally, lifting his cuirass up, he begins to fasten it around his body. This done, his fingers trace the engraved image of the Ivory Tree. "Who do our vows apply to, now, sir, if I may know? Our Emperor is no longer Emperor. The regent is without enough power. The Imperial heir is too young. He'll likely be dead within a year, if things continue down the same road as they are now." The too-wise commoner shrugs his shoulders, sighing.

Nikolaes winces, lifting his right hand to press fingers to his temple. One might think being outside the Aegis isn't good for his health.

Vhramis smiles faintly at Talus. "There's lots I regret, you know," he says to him. "And a lot I've learned I can never change." He glances to Ashlynn and nods his head to her. "There's some things I would say to you, as well, if you would wish to hear them."

Ashlynn closes her eyes at the mention of a last missive, simply nodding in silent agreement before she clenches her jaw and straightens in her seat, turning an impassive look upon the curious glances she receives, waiting patiently for the audience's end.

"Did you not hear him?" Thayndor asks, with one eyebrow raised. "You have a request from your Emperor to look after his heir, in our own ways. As if a Zahir would be allowed in much proximity to the heir to the Throne," he adds, wryly. "Perhaps, in many cases, for good reason." No glance to Aiden is given.

Nikolaes murmurs toward Thayndor, "Well, Tomassa isn't allowed near the child anymore. Stands to reason the three of us will be next since we've been here."

"Oh, yeah, the heir's just going to drop dead without a disgraced blacksmith hammering away a debt. I can just see it now." Corriden grouses, shaking his head stubbornly. "Wheras this skinny fella here happens to be our ruler and may or may not be turned loose on his own, as able and defended as a day-old calf. Y' can take that order an' shove it, yer royal nibs. I'm not going anywhere. A Kahar /always/ needs a Lomasa to look after him.. Or at least provide a convenient sheild of livin' flesh."

Aiden Zahir effects an incredulous look at the Emperor's comment, his smile spreading sly and veritably dripping with guile. "Some might, Your Majesty. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment," comes the non-committal and deliciously vague return. Thayndor, however, warrants a stern glance and a sharp rebuke, "We all of us serve to the best of our abilities, with the talents we are given, -kinsman-. Methods may prove different from one servant to another, but the goal remains the same. There is not a man or woman present who has not already laid down his or her life for the good of the Throne several times during this journey. To doubt that is a dishonor to our quest, and to those such as Serath who have paid the highest price to see it completed."

"My son will be protected," Talus replies simply, and then he stands slowly, stooping, however, under the low roof of the longhouse. "You may all camp in this tent tonight. Tomorrow, the Instrumentalist returns from her patrol of the surrounding lands. She will bear you all back to the crack in the Aegis, so that you may deliver word of my exile to Fastheld." He knits his brow as his attention once more settles on Corriden. "And *you* will go back with them, even if someone must strike you senseless and bind your hands before loading you on that beast." With that, he ducks under the threshold of the longhouse and out into the rain, leaving the expedition members to their thoughts and considerations.



Return to Season 3 (2005)

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