(With Tarquin and Annalea)
Once more, four people made their way through the thickets and hills of Lordaeron, this time in the crisp chill of late morning, seeking after the Rider. Aelflaed had snatched what sleep she could while Chryste winged her way to them on gryphon-back; the same jostled nerves and fearful hope that had kept her from any real rest also kept her moving and alert. Even she’d been well-rested, though, this would have been a hard party to read.
Chryste, of course, was as unreadable as she always was when armed and prepared for violence. Any fears or doubts, if she had them, slowed her no more than the monstrous sword across her back seemed to. She brought up the the rear, and Aelflaed led them herself; between them, Tarquin and Annalea were a matched pair. Bright-eyed, alert, their smiles stowed for once in favor of the steady wariness of hunting animals, and whatever worries they brought with them to the wood hidden behind it.
Aelflaed halted them at the same spot Orryl had on the night before. She was no tracker, but the night was carved in her memory like graven stone. “‘Tis off here,” she told them, “well back’n the forest.” She looked at Tarquin, too tired and heartsick to care if she was overstepping. “An’ I think ye maun like ta talk oan what wir goin’ ta be doin’ once we get there, boss.”
Tarquin looked at her strangely, then at Annalea with a species of chagrin floating across his face. Annie was the one who answered. “It would help, wouldn’t it? Sorry, Aely. We get used to…” she made a minute gesture that carried a world of explanation in it, with her clever bard’s fingers. Kaleigh, al’Cair, ap Danwyrith – hands and head and mouth – with no need to state the plans they’d gotten used to carrying out. Aelflaed had known them longer than to be offended.
“Anyro’,” Tarq offered, looking into the scrub and the shadows of the tree line, “Best we speak it, whatever, an’ be certain. Annie?” The priestess lifted an eyebrow, and Aelflaed surged into the gap before she could speak.
“Beg pardon – Annie, Tarq-” Chryste, peering off into the distance, didn’t seem to give a damn who was talking – “Want ta be clear oan’t. What it is wir lookin’ t’find. Jolstraer, e’en when he wis with us, ye ken how it went wi’ him, th’ stubborn auld mule. Do things jus’ t’piss ye oaf, remind he wisnae auld an’ bent’s all thit…” She mastered herself, fought the tide of memories, things she hadn’t mourned for years coming back up again.
Chryste’s soft voice surprised her, especially with the dark woman still looking out at the trees. “Yeah. Foul-tempered fucker, wasn’t he? If we’d tried crowning him King of Stormwind, he’d of said he didn’t need an ugly damn chair, he could stand on his own two feet.” She laughed and showed them a rare smile. “You think it’s him, Aelflaed?”
“Pretty well convinced, yeh. Sounds like him, feels like him. I’d think if it wis sommat tryin’ ta pretend ta be him, they’d be nicer, an’ less flummoxed by findin’ me. He’s… well, e’en if it is Jols, he’s dangerous. He attacked me fir tellin’ him I thought he wis full ay shite. Likely will do similarly if wir na careful about how we approach him – he may be defensive, air jus’ flat out hostile. An’ he’s … stronger than he used ta be. An’ bigger. ”
“Stronger and bigger,” said Anna, contemplating. “At least you didn’t add ‘meaner’ to the list. The Jolstraer I remember was, uh, cantankerous, but not mean. Not to anyone in the Colors, at least. If it comes to fighting, you three can hold your own. And, well. Not that I want to knock him down, if it’s really Jolly, but if he gets past Chryssy and yourself and Tarq…” She held out one hand and walked a coin made of shadow across her knuckles. “Let’s leave that as unlikely for now, and hope it’s him. And he’s in a good mood.”
“Think yeh that last twa’s a bit, uh, contradictory?” Tarquin smiled faintly. “We’ll be mindful, Aels. Wir here ta find a mate, no’ start a fight, so we’ll eat a few kettles ay shite if that’s what’s served. Awright?” Aelflaed nodded. There was nothing for it now but to trust them. “Now ta the first point – Annie?”
“Right.” The shadow coin grew and elongated, twining around her fingers in a thick tendril. From there it split into a hundred thinner threads which she gathered into a loop. “I’ll want a look at him. Jolstraer, that is, not the body he’s been shoved into. Whatever this… Aes’kyr? Is that it? Whatever she did, I ought to be able to see the traces of. But that’s only going to tell me that someone shoved a soul into a body. I can do that from a distance, but…” Annalea mmphed. “I doubt he’ll like the rest. I need a look inside, to make sure it’s not some poor sad git made to believe he’s Jolstraer ap Taborwynn. That’s twofold: looking for outside fuckery first. I doubt he’ll take too much issue with that.” The skein of shadow threads disappeared up her sleeve. “If I don’t find any, I’m going to want a stroll through his memories. To be absolutely certain.” She grinned at her companions, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I doubt he’ll take well to that.”
Aely attempted to grin back. “Dinna think he will, but if ye explain it, he maun be muir obligin’ than jus’ outright goin’ siftin’ through his head. I canna actually prove it’s him oan my own anyway, an’ I’m na afraid ta say as much. I heard his last confessions, so I dinna ken there’s much ye’d find wha’ I dinna already ken anyway. He says he’s unfinished business, an’ things he needs ta say – best way fir him ta say it is fir folk ta actually believe it’s him. An’ ye can offer tha’ proof, Annie. Only hope he sees it tha’ way.”
“If it’s him, Aels, then he will. I expect yeh’ll make him.” Either Tarquin was dead certain, or bluffing like a champion. “Let’s be about it, then. Take us ta the man.” Aelflaed nodded and turned towards the treeline, and after a bare moment’s hesitation, led them off the road and into the forest’s edge.
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