There is, in those two words, more truth regarding the nature of the region of cinder wrought solitariness that is known as the Ashlands than anything else could ever do justice to. A landscape of ash and ruin; so bleak as to be impressive by that virtue alone. A landscape so immense, and outlandish, as to take on a dark grandeur all of it's own.
A dark grandeur at once compounded by the dark clouds in the dark heavens that float above the dark sand underfoot. It is - to say the least - dark indeed, with no natural light able to penetrate the overtly oppressive miasma that haunts the sky above, making these bleak and seemingly endless plains take on a malevolent air. Were it not for the reassuring hiss of the Jadesnake river close towards the west, they would perhaps be /too/ desolate for one to bear.
For four, however, the going doesn't seem to be too bad, especially when one of them just so happens to be Serath Kahar, who - as fate would have it - has seen worse. And who can doubt that? "Serath Kahar." he cheerfully recites, leading the way with heel and boot as the Aegis looms ever closer; a dark shadow on the southern horizon. "Sovereign Prince of the Blood, Lord Protector of the Realm, Regent of the Empire, Former Horsemaster of the Imperial Horsemen, Honorary Captain of the Emperor's Blades, Former Commander of the Pathfinder Rangers, Brother to a Murdered Emperor, Betrothed to a Mikin Princess, Established Weapon Master, Honarable Knight of the Realm, Dedicated to Rowena Mikin, Half Brother of the Wolfsbane, and..."
He trails off, and for a time there is only the clink of the various buckles and scabbards that rest upon his person to continue the list, accompanied by the continual rustle of the arrows that rest in the quiver upon his back, sounding with every jolting step. "...I think that's it. Did I miss any?"
"Bearer of shiny swords," Vhramis suggests in a distant voice. Yes, Wolfsbane is quite distracted at the moment, the devestation of the landscape that surrounds him sending his mind whirling off to places devoid of reason. Is that a face in the cloud cover? And what is that noise far from behind? Are they being followed? "Reason has nothing to do with it," he mutters, shaking his head. No, they aren't being followed. And the clouds? His imagination.
And....if there are more titles he's forgotten, Rowena hardly takes notice. Her brain also fails to remember that effort was required to draw each step forward, and thus she becomes left behind, staring after the click-clack of scabbards with befuddled mixture of puzzlement and genuine concern that perhaps she'd forgotten a very important detail in his natural history.
"Half brother to the Wolfsbane..." She repeats moreso for her own benefit than to call his attention to the matter. Her beaded brow crinkles with deep thought, looking rather distressed at her confusion before snapping her gaze forward. "What sort of childhood pledge have you made that was so secret as to have been kept from female society if I've not heard this title?" She concludes, stumbling forward after them with a bit more haste.
"Bearer of shiny swords indeed." Serath dryly repeats, turning around mid-step so that he continues walking the virgin lands of ash backwards, his gaze thusly presented to those shadows previously behind him whom he considers to be his life and soul. "So says the one the with the glowing warbow."
Still, the brief smile - lost as it is the darkness - is quickly forsaken as Rowena asks her question, pacing as she does closer to him amidst the obscure depths of an Ashland under the iron grip of night. "You didn't know..." the Prince muses, only now realizing the impact of what he casually spoke only a moment ago. A soft sigh caresses the cinder-swept reaches of the immidiate vicinity. "There was no pledge, Row. I didn't know until about a year ago, and even then I dismissed it as a trivial matter. I only have one brother, I told Talus, not two. But that before... well, all this. Vhramis was baseborn, be-"
Now, that strikes him as a curiosity. "Before? Vhramis, how old are you?"
"Mm," Vhramis mutters, glancing about to Rowena curiously. His skin has a bit of a gray pallor to it, as does mostly everything else in the forsaken lands, and the brush of hair across his head collects the ash quite effectively. Though the soft glow of the warbow just referenced to by Serath refuses to be dampered. "Twenty...four," he concludes after a moment's worth of thought, looking forward again. "Been so for a few months now."
Vhramis!? Looking between the two with an incredulous gape, Rowena utters a rather strangled sound before getting her words to come forth right. "Well that would explain a *great* deal." She declares, color returning swiftly to her cheeks, hidden by the smears of sweated soot, until it burns her ears. "A.. colossal..ray of enlightenment!" She further professes, fixing her stare ahead again so as to not trip on emptiness in this void they trekked through. Speechless on the train of infidelity thoughts that follow, the duchess lapses into a smoldering silence.
Twenty four. Well, that's a shock to the system, and a shock that jolts the question that follows the previous one. "And how old am I again?" Serath asks himself in question, apparently having last track of things as trivial as 'age', and 'distance', and 'direction', all in one fell swoop. "Twenty... nine, I think? So I must have been... four. And Rowena was three." He, too, falls silent as the weight of that revelation drowns his words beneath a tide of somber thought.
Though he remembered how old Rowena is, it seems, without any trouble. Even though Rowena has little to do the the blood that bound over two decades ago. Priorities...
"Four." He repeats, softly and without much emotion. "What does it explain, Row?" the Prince asks after a few sullen heartbeats have passed, apparently concerned about her own change of emotional state.
As for Vhramis, he looks almost as if he's swallowed a lemon, as the sudden chosen topic brings to him his own flood of thoughts and emotions. Though he's still aware of his surroundings enough to catch the edge of Rowena's shifting mood. It could be noticed that the walking distance between the two of them has increased slightly. He always was somewhat intimidated by her.
"He was the only one to have gained your trust enough to follow you into the wild." Rowena states matter-of-factly, her mind still mulling over sympathies for the poor (though late) Empress Mother. "And then there's the mannerisms..." Elaborating no more on that, she turns her head to the side with a rather bellowing sneeze, blasting her airway free of the abrasive ash. Following up that endeavor (which nearly cost her balance) with some additional coughs, Rowena shifts her focus away from unfaithful secrets and towards restoring the breath in her lungs. She delays their stride again, sinking to her knees for momentary relief of the back burden. With one hand plunged into the softness of the swirling shadow beneath their feet, she unceremoniously hacks forth the plaguing grime that the winds have days and nights to slip down her throat.
It takes only a heartbeat for Serath to swiftly pace to Rowena's side, and only another after that before the wayward Prince of the Blood can be found softly rubbing the Duchess's back as the Lady of Light's Reach gives back the Ashland's gift to the desert of cinders. Deep furrows in the surface of that which pretends to be sand herald the passing of his boots. "I think you're on the wrong end of this, Row." He tenderly purrs, all thoughts of adulterous Emperors and scorned Mothers buried for the moment beneath the ashen terrain. "And not the only one," he sincerely whispers, "I just wasn't brave enough to ask you."
"It wasn't meant to be widely known," Vhramis adds, his tone apologetic. He steps away from the two, giving them at least a small measure of privacy, and starts quietly drawing in the ash coated ground with his boot.
Intermittently speaking between coughs, though a bit hoarsely, Rowena shrugs against the helping hand. "I'm fine, I/cough/I just/coughslurcough/it free. I never meant to imply that you shou/cough/ve asked me. We've spoken through this, Serath. You did as you felt you were required to do." Then, with a sound that would put even Cinder's hairballing attempts to shame, the Duchess purges her lungs of the offending, black glob. Thank the Light for darkness.
Exhausted, she remains bowed forward, ribs heaving to replentish her oxygen supply. "The moment my shoulders pass through that gate shall be the happiest time I suspect my life shall ever posses." She sighs and scrapes at her face to rid it of a thin but gritty layer.
"Assuming we can find it again." Serath notes, without the slighest hint of humor in his voice. Dark nights, dark words. "Which shouldn't be too hard if we keep following the river. Light, if Thayndor Zahir can sail a boat through it, I'm sure we won't have any problems. Still..."
And thus the purr returns, and as he caresses Rowena's back with a tenderness befitting of his view of her, that distinctive warmth that sets him apart from his brother - dead though he may be - returns to the Prince's voice in full. "I'm not sure how we'll be able to pursuade the Guards that I'm actually a Prince, Rowena's actually a Duchess, and Vhramis is actually my half brother." A voice of warmth, in a night of cold.
Well, there's a point to Serath's words, Vhramis realizes, and he turns about to regard the pair. "We left quietly, and can return in much the same way. Unless they actually patched up that breach in the wall, which I doubt will be the case." He looks down, giving himself a look, before shrugging. "I could almost pass off for a ghost."
"Send that bloody raven to bid the archers stay their arrows." Rowena advises, leaning into Serath's touch by sitting back to her haunches. "If that may fail, I might be forced to don the silk gown and sing to them songs of sweet sorrow which haunted the Palace grounds before my departure. Let us arrive during the day so that we appear less as though we've secrets to hide."
Rowena of course is no fool. The soldiers atop the Aegis would be too far from their persons to see their faces even if they should stand directly at its base. And any self-respecting guardian of the Aegis would not think twice to launch attack on any infiltrator. Gaining the right to approach her home would be a true feat to behold.
"I doubt we'll see any Blades." Serath confides in a tone that suggests that he's revealing some dark secret, loud enough for all to hear. "The Aegis is too long for them to be able to cover every inch of wall, and there are only ten thousand of them spread across the realm. It's always been a sore point with Hartnek, but the fact of the matter is that the realm doesn't have many resources to spare for the Aegis. Beyond a token effort, that is."
As Rowena moves to lean back against him, Serath in turn moves to support her better; even going to far as to see how much of his cloak he can fan around her frame as they half-stand there together. "The Second Wildling War wasn't a mere coincidence. Or the assault on Hawk's Aerie. Still, that was before the Lady Kalath'aria took wing, and changed the rules of the game. And, of course, this is all assuming that we can find a small crack in a very, very, very large wall without using the river gate."
"Another half a week following the wall if we do base it on the gate," Vhramis suggests with a half-hearted shrug. Serath is right again. He usually is, though, and it's something Vhramis is getting used to. "I suppose we'll find a way, as usually. We've managed to do many surprising things in the past, after all."