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Over Hill and Under Tree (Shiva x Traveler)

OP
Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
His hand was more reassuring than she had expected, and Maerwyn was tempted to grasp it further when he let it go. But the ground was beginning to slope more drastically, and was coated in such a thick coating of loose pine needles that their footing could be precarious at times. "We should have taken those sticks after all," she muttered to herself, having declined the gift of the walking stick from her father out of pride against her wounded leg. Thankfully the stiffness of it was quickly fading, but every now and then she experienced a quick little seize of the muscles, not painful, but probably dangerous if it should occur on the higher mountainside paths.

She wouldn't attempt that until tomorrow, probably early in the morning when they'd have plenty of light. In the meantime, there was a little trickle of a stream beside that would no doubt have enough fish for their supper. They'd need to cook it quickly; even with the eagles overhead Maerwyn didn't like the idea of giving away their location on the eastern slopes with a fire after dark. While Orin began to gather wood she made her way to the streamside, peering into the water for signs of habitation.

"I doubt we'll meet anyone on this side of the mountains," she remarked, rolling up her sleeves and picking up a likely-looking stick. "If we followed the road over the High Pass we might have, although there's just as good a chance the people we meet might be goblins. But we aren't taking the High Pass." Pulling out her knife, Maerwyn began to sharpen the stick into a sharp point that would serve as a spear. "We probably won't encounter anyone until we come down the other side, and even then we ought to be careful. The goblins keep to the eastern slopes, but trolls like the west. They usually stray farther north than where we are though."

Satisfied with her tool, the mercenary crept to the waterside again and was silent for a long time. But less than a quarter hour later, her wrist suddenly splashed downward, impaling a fat brown trout on her stick. "There's one for you," Maerwyn grinned triumphantly, pulling out the spear and setting the fish aside on a wide flat stone on the riverbank. She caught her own a short time later, along with a couple more they could either eat themselves or leave as offerings to the eagles instead.

"As for finding work with a mercenary corps," she continued once the fire was roaring and the fish were slowly turning over the flames. "Anyone looking to cross the mountains would hire guards well before they crossed the river. Even if we did meet someone and they wanted to hire us, they're either too cheap to pay a proper wage, or they've had a nasty streak of bad luck that I'd not care to share." Pulling her flask from her belt, which had been refilled with the rich liquor of the woodmen, she took a deep drink before holding it out towards the dwarf. "No, Master Dwarf, I don't think we should expect anything to fall into our lap until we each a proper village west of the mountains. But that's probably for the best. A large group of people couldn't manage the road I intend to show you."

Her eyes sparkled a little as she glanced upward towards the rocky bare heights of the mountainside, already being swallowed up in the shadows of the setting sun. "It's a good thing you've got those strong legs and shoulders. I expect we'll need to do a bit of climbing in the morning. Think you're up for it?" Grinning, she picked up a wild raspberry from the small pile she'd gathered from the nearby bushes, and popped it into her mouth. "I can't exactly carry you on my back after all."

After dinner, she was insistent about extinguishing the fire completely, but didn't feel the need to go to sleep just yet. It was still relatively early in the evening, and between the boughs overhead she could see the stars beginning to blossom in the sky. "We'll need to go back to sleeping in shifts again," Maerwyn sighed, recalling how nice it had felt to wake up that morning with Orin's head resting heavily on her chest. "Shall I talk the first watch tonight? I don't imagine there should be too much trouble, but we can't be too careful..."
 

Traveler

Pulsar
Joined
Feb 5, 2014
Location
PST
Maerwyn had a way with fish. It seemed that she could always read the water, and when it came to catching them for their dinners she never came up short. Orin wondered if it had something to do with her father’s shape-shifting, or if she was simply as gifted as the bear.

The dwarf tried to minimize the sound he made and stayed far from the streamside to not cast a shadow over his partner’s fishing area. He enjoyed his duty in the camp; coaxing the fire to light always reminded him of working the forge, and that was one memory that he cherished from the mountain. When she announced that she had one for him he had to wonder why she always cared for his needs first.

He sat by the fire with her as she turned the fish, nodding at her assessment of their chances of being hired. “Are you sure that we can manage the road?” he asked gently. He felt like she had too much pride to suggest going in a direction that might be problematic for her. “I mean, I’m a clumsy, heavy-footed dwarf, and if I got injured it would be difficult for you to help me on a narrow path.” His eyes shined with concern. And then she joked that she couldn’t carry him on her back, and he grinned across the fire at her.

“Maerwyn…” he poked a stick into the embers, playing with the remaining fire before it had to be put out. “You’re always taking care of my needs first. Like with the fish; you said that the first one was mine, and I have a mind to think that you would go without rather than see me hungry. I understood it when I was just your employer,” he looked up at her. “But we’re partners now. Everything I have is yours.”

He leaned back on the log and then stood. “I don’t want you to put aside your own needs for me, Maerwyn. So if you’re tired, let me take first watch. And…if this route is going to be dangerous, for either of us, let’s find another way.” He held his hand over the soil where the fire was, testing it to make sure that the fire was completely out. “I’m going to miss sleeping with you. Now I understand why Havus and Lorryn gave up traveling.” He stood and put his hands on his hips as he looked up into Maerwyn’s face. After a moment of losing himself in the memory of their last night together he drew in a breath and shook himself out of the daydream.

“But if you’re not tired, I’ll sleep first.” He gave her a grin. “I gotta trust my guide, right?”

He helped to straighten up their camp and laid out a bedroll near the fire, then made sure to bury the fish bones to discourage any scavengers from coming around. Traveling with Maerwyn had taught him a lot about the world. He imagined that there would be a lot he learned about scaling the sides of mountains that was different from spelunking in a cave. He had to trust that Maerwyn had been through the pass before and knew what she was doing. She was seasoned, despite her fewer years. She certainly knew more about their route than he did.

He just hoped they didn’t come across any previous members of her group. The last ones they met had been wanting to see her dead for double-crossing them. That memory sent a chill down his back. If there was something that his partner did well, it was to leave an impression on the people she met.
 
OP
Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
Maerwyn couldn't hide the blush on her cheeks at Orin's insistence that everything he had was hers. "I assure you, Master Dwarf, the day I can only catch a single fish is the day you'll go to bed with an empty belly. In the meantime, eat what I give you and don't make a fuss about it. We're hardly going to starve anytime soon." Of course, that was assuming they could make their way through the hidden paths across the mountains without delay. If the weather held out (which seemed likely) and they weren't detained by goblins (which was hopeful, if not likely), she was sure their food would hold out, and the traveler was well acquainted with several fresh springs that would provide them with plenty of water. The trouble would only come if they deviated from the course she had in mind.

"If I can drag four of your countrymen at a time up the face of Hatholtaen, I think you'll manage," she replied, gesturing towards a peak a little ways to the north of their current location. "I took a party of merchants from the Iron Hills up that way two years ago, and I didn't lose one of them, even though I was tempted to throw them off the edge myself with all the grumbling they were doing." Rolling her eyes at the memory, Maerwyn helped herself to another drink from her flask. "Besides, if you have the energy for other physical activities, you wicked little lecher, I have no doubt you're strong enough to climb."

Smiling a little, she leaned over and brushed her lips against his cheek before rising to her feet. Going over to her pack, she withdrew a bit of canvas that had been firmly threaded with thick ropes. "I think the girls gave you one of these, didn't they?" the mercenary remarked as she began to tie the ropes to various branches of the oak overhead, creating a sort of hammock slung about seven feet off the ground. "I'd recommend using it if so. There are wolves on these slopes at night. Or you can just use mine if you like." Once her bed was secured, Maeryn pulled her old bearskin out of her pack as well tossed it into the sling, then began to scale the branches as easily as a squirrel.

"Wake me when you can see the moon through those trees," she instructed, pointing at a gap in the foliage overhead before pulling the cloak of her hood over her face. "Good night, Orin," she added in muffled tones, before immediately falling into silence.

*****
Despite the occasional howl from the north, the wolves didn't dare to come so close to the eagles' hunting grounds, and the night was relatively uneventful. Shortly before dawn, Maerwyn wandered a short distance away to gather some berries for their morning meal, and squealed in delight at coming across a wild plum tree in full fruit. By the time Orin was awake, she'd amassed a colorful pile that would have made them both rich if it had been jewels instead of breakfast. Whatever they couldn't finish the mercenary was careful to pack away in her bag, hoping they'd be able to enjoy the rest as a midday meal once they'd scaled the shining gray wall of Hatholtaen.

Once they'd packed up again, she led him along the stream, pausing only to break off a sturdy-looking branch that could serve as a walking stick as the trees gradually fell away. The sun was warm on their backs as they made their way ever upward, and when they finally reached the little spring and waterfall that served as the creek's headwaters, Maerwyn finally let them pause.

"And here's where it gets interesting," she remarked, taking off her pack and cloak. After making her sure braid was tight down her back, she began to fish around in her bag for a long coil of rope as well as several small metal spikes. "You should relax a bit and eat something if you need it. I'm going to climb up there and lay a path for you first. Then I'll come back down to get my bag, and you can climb up after me. Think you can manage that?" Her tone was light, but there was genuine concern in her eyes as she looked over at her companion. The rocks leading upward were smooth and could be downright treacherous in the rain, but so far the skies were still clear, and Maerwyn could still remember all the right crevasses in which to place the anchors for the ropes. Placing these in a small pouch that hung on her belt, along with a small hammer she'd gotten from the smithy in her father's house, the mercenary began to ascend the slope without a second thought, never daring to look back as she climbed ever higher.

It took her more than an hour to reach the top of the cliff, and by the time she did the young woman needed to pause a few minutes to catch her breath and flex her hands. The rope was rough in her hands, and she hadn't thought to put on gloves before climbing, though thankfully she'd had a pair tucked in the pouch that had held the anchors (all now driven at regular intervals up the mountainside). After giving her fingers a good stretch, Maerwyn sighed in relief as she felt the soft leather covering her red palms, and she rose to her feet to take a look westward before descending again.

Then she saw the clouds. Fuck was all she could think. They were far off yet, at least a couple of hours away, but black as night with silvery flickers of lightning around the side. Her first instinct was to get back to the bottom of the cliff as quickly as possible and tell Orin to wait until the storm had passed, knowing the dangers of being on an open mountaintop when thunder was ready to strike. But as she looked back down towards the waterfall, she realized in alarm that the spring had cut a small canyon on the side of the mountain, one that would no doubt flood quickly once the rain started to fall.

Thankful Orin would be too far away to see the alarm on her face, she quickly began to scan the immediate area for anything that could serve as shelter, finding nothing but a little shelf of rock jutting out over a goat path perhaps thirty yards away. It probably wouldn't keep them dry, but at least it would probably keep them from being struck by lightning. They would have to move fast though.

After making sure the rope around her waist was secure, Maerwyn began to descend the cliff at a speed that probably would have appeared alarming to her friend at the bottom. When her feet finally touched the ground again, her face was pale and her breathing was hard, but hopefully the dwarf would assume that was due to physical exertion alone.

"Ready?" she asked, trying to sound as calm as possible as she began to secure her pack on her shoulders. "Do you want to follow me up, or do you want to go first?" It probably would have been wisest for the woman, being the lighter one of the two, to go ahead just in case of missteps, but at least if Orin was ahead of her Maerwyn would be able to drive him faster up the mountainside, and speed was of the absolute essence.
 

Traveler

Pulsar
Joined
Feb 5, 2014
Location
PST
Maerwyn had a way of making the serious light, and as she hinted that one fish would mean she was fed and he was not, he chuckled into his flask. She eased his concern and turned his thoughts to other things as easily as others waved off an annoying fly. She made him wonder what his kinsmen were doing, going to Hatholtaen peak, and whether there were minerals there to be mined. A flash of covetous desire crossed his mind before he reminded himself; it was not his mountain. It was not his home; there were more than enough treasures to be found by all the clans, and anyway, he had decided that his treasure was not going to be found in things but in experiences.

Even now, a small fortune was sewn into this vest and jacket, and he’d spent just a fraction of all he had saved from his smithy work. And no matter how much he spent, he could have never bought the brunette human’s affections, or the wisdom she had shared, or her loyalty… those things had no price. He frowned slightly as he thought of the implications; he had tried to buy Dís’s love with this gifts, and she had been honest in her dismissal of him. Perhaps that was a lesson he should have learned years ago, but it was his own stubborn pride and fixated focus that blinded him.

Maerwyn drew his attention again, calling him a wicked little lecher. He laughed heartily as he watched her come in for a soft kiss. ‘Ah, she missed,’ he thought, wishing she had kissed his lips in stead of his cheek. “A mountain’s not as fun to climb as you are,” he said, standing and brushing off his trousers. He pulled at his beard, relishing the additional length it had gained, and stretched as he tossed the remnants of his meal into the fire.

There was something nice about watching the guide work. As she began to untie the canvas and rope, he nodded. “They did give me one,” he said, wary as she began to tie it to the tree. He looked up as it swung there, much too high to be of use. “I thought it was for hauling wood, or some such.” He frowned even deeper as she tossed her bearskin into the hammock and scampered into it.

“You’re not seriously going to sleep up there, are you?” He shook his head and grumbled something about taking his chances with the wolves, and elves swinging from branches like monkeys. She wasn’t an elf, but she was certainly sleeping like one. He found himself a good place to watch the camp, hidden from view but still able to see all there was to see, and though the wolves cried their songs that night, none came through on his watch. When the moon finally came into view he waited longer, giving her the gift of a fuller night’s sleep since, despite her claims, he thought she was still healing. When he decided it was time enough and woke her, he curled up in his blankets near the embers and fell asleep, knowing he was safe under her watchful eyes.

Dreams flickered through his head of Maerwyn, smooth, and eerily lovely in her humanness, against this skin. Her body was flawless; silken. His, hairy and hard, moved roughly against her. Then as he turned to kiss her, he noticed a soft fuzz along her skin. ‘Why Maer, are you growing a little beard?’

In his dream she smiled at him and ran a hand along his cheek. ‘Seems only fair,’ she said, ‘as you are loosing yours.’ In her fingertips she had pulled a tuft of his beard from his chin. Orin startled in his sleep, then heard his brother’s voice behind him.

‘Good thing you’re not completely like Ma,’ he taunted and pointed, and as Orin turned his shocked eyes to see, he realized that Havus had grown tall and slim, and her ears had tapered points upon them. Then he saw that she was clean-faced, and with a startled snort Orin woke.

He heard the morning birdsongs calling forth the sun, though the sky was still velvet and dark. Orin brought a hand to his face, afraid of what he might find. As his thick fingers patted his jaw and chin, he discovered that his beard was fine. Still there. Still thickening and lengthening, and completely intact. He sighed with relief and crawled from his blanket, eager to be on their way.

Maerwyn gifted them with a bushel of fruit, and though Orin thought that only one thing was sweeter than the taste of their juices on his lips he bit back the thought and tried his best to not let his thoughts of her dominate the day. Like all dwarves, he tended to be obsessive. And without a forge or the distractions of the mountain’s dramas to fill his mind, he naturally focused on her. Thankfully, she tended to walk before him. He let himself feast visually on his guide even though his hands remained empty of her for the first part of their hike.

“So you’re going to climb up,” he observed, his hands on his stout waist as he surveyed the cliffs, “and I’m to relax down here and do…nothing?” He grimaced. “I can manage that,” he agreed. The question in his mind was, could she?

As he watched her climb, painstakingly setting each spike when a natural foothold was missing, he flinched inwardly each time he thought that she might slip or her hold was too tenuous. He watched her climb as if, by watching, he could keep her safe. A morose thought that if she fell he could at least find her entered his mind, and like an irate house wife with a broom after a mouse, he chased that thought around until he could sweep it out the door.

It seemed like hours before she reached the top of the climb. As she stood there, safe, Orin reached a hand behind his neck and stretched the kinks out, then glanced up again to see her begin to descend. She rappelled down the cliff like a dwarf born and raised underground. He felt a swell of pride at her speed, thinking that she was quite clever to bring enough rope to ensure she could return.

When she finally reached the bottom, the look on her face alarmed him. “Are you sure you’re ready to go up so soon?” He asked. Then he realized his mistake almost as soon as he said those words. “I mean… you must be thirsty,” he said, and it’ll be difficult to pull the stakes up behind us.” His eyes roved over her face and noted the rapid pace of her breaths. He twisted his mouth in thought.

“Take a quick break, at least; a drink and sit. And then you can go first, and I’ll follow and pull the pitons free as I go…unless you mean to leave them?” Once it was decided, and she paused long enough to catch her breath, he eyed her pack warily. She was carrying a lot in that bag, and the fruit added extra weight, but he felt that her pride wouldn’t let her share her burden, so he eased his concern by telling himself that if she slipped he would catch her weight on the rope.

They’d be fine. Wouldn’t they?

Finally, they started up the hill, and Orin, though experienced, found it hard at times to reach as far as she had. He bit his grumbling down, remembering her comment about throwing certain dwarves off the cliff, and followed, albeit slowly. He sensed the haste she felt and tried to hurry, though he tested each spike and hand or foothold to ensure that the ledge that supported the slim human would take the weight of a dwarf and his pack.

Somehow, they made it to the surface, and as he clambered up the edge, his pack shifted and nearly pulled him off again. With a heave of his strong legs he propelled himself up, and over, and then scrambled to his feet to look at the valley below. It was both beautiful and terrifying. The sky was dark and restless, and the valley grew more dim with each passing moment. “That looks like…a storm,” he said, shielding his eyes from the breeze.

The vertigo nearly did him in. The caverns were different; though there were cliffs in there as well, the walls and ceilings always gave him a feeling of being grounded. Of being locked in. The open sky, despite the clouds, were vast. He felt like he might drift away if the breeze were to get much stronger. Hastily he began to help her roll the rope. “We need to find some shelter,” he said, though he knew that she was already thinking the same thoughts, if not… “Did you know this storm was coming?” he asked. “Why didn’t you say something?”
 
OP
Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
Maerwyn pointedly looked away as she felt Orin's eyes lingering on her thigh. She wouldn't have minded so much if he'd had that familiar lascivious gleam in them (and who knew dwarves had such appetites?), but she knew that beneath the close-fitting wool of her trousers he was staring at the ugly white scar that lingered there. "It's fine," she insisted, tossing him a length of rope he could use to tie a harness before adjusting her own. "It's been almost two weeks, and thanks to that elvish medicine or whatever it was Iorhild used, it's just a little stiff. But it feels better the more I use it. And if you're going to spend the next year fretting over me like a mother hen, Master Dwarf, I'll leave you at the bottom of this cliff right now." Her tone was light, but had an edge to it that made it clear the subject was closed.

After ensuring her pack was fully secured on her back, she took a deep breath and reached for the first handhold. "Now let's get going. I want to be at the top while the sun is still at our backs. This is going to get a lot more difficult if we have to climb with the light in our eyes." Although she knew the clouds would probably be over their heads before the sun was, but this didn't seem like the time to bring that up.

Her pace this time wasn't nearly as light as the first climb had been. Her pack was throwing off her balance somewhat, and one more than one occasion she missed the hand- or foothold she'd been reaching towards. Please don't let Orin see she prayed silently, unsure how he would react if he saw his guide go tumbling down the slope and shattering her body on the jagged rocks below. But always on the second try she managed to secure herself, and eventually they did make it all the way to the top, although by the time they reached it the air had turned cold and the wind was beginning to pick up.

Now Maerwyn finally did take the break Orin had insisted on, and sat back a few feet from the brink with her back against a gargantuan boulder. With the darkness coming in from the west, the sunshine east of the mountain seemed brighter and more beautiful somehow, and as the mercenary raised her flask to her lips, she pointed out in the direction they'd come with her free hand. "See that?" she remarked, pointing beyond the silvery-blue line of the Anduin below, and the vast emerald sea of Mirkwood. Beyond that an endless bank of fog had washed over the west of wilderland, but there was a small promontory peeking out over the top.

"There's the Lonely Mountain," Maerwyn remarked with a smile over at her companion. "You've come quite a long way, haven't you Master Dwarf? And summer's only halfway gone." Although the gust of wind that roared past them seemed to argue otherwise.

Orin seemed little interested in the beauty that lay behind them, only at the threatening shadows that loomed ahead. Sighing, Maerwyn took another drink then stowed her flask and rose slowly to her feet. "Yes, I imagine it could get quite violent. We ought to find shelter, and quickly. We're above the treeline, which means we're all the more likely to get struck by lightening." Giving the dwarf a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder, she began to lead him towards a gravelly trail that hugged the edge of a deep ravine until it led to the rocky outcropping that would have to do for their cover.

“Did you know this storm was coming?” Orin asked, and Maerwyn thought there might be a hint of accusation in his voice. “Why didn’t you say something?”

"Because I was quite sure you wouldn't climb up if you knew," she replied cheerfully as a few loose rocks tumbled down the slope to her left into the debris-filled canyon hundreds of feet below. "And I didn't want to drag you up behind me if I could help it, or spend another night down in the woods." A crack of thunder rang out over head then, and the long-dreaded rain began to fall. Glancing back over her shoulder, Maerwyn gestured towards the ledge then quickened her pace, ducking under the low-hanging rocks just as the rain began to turn to hail.

For once Maerwyn was glad she was shorter than other humans, and she doubted Orin would have any trouble walking right under the shelf, which couldn't have granted more than an inch or two over five feet of clearance. The space underneath was large enough for both of the travelers to sit underneath with their baggage on either side of them, but it did nothing to protect them from the bitter wind or the occasional hailstone bouncing harmlessly off of their packs.

"Believe it or not, we're actually quite safe up here. Wolves don't come up this high," the mercenary continued once the dwarf was safe underneath, hoping the pleasant conversation might ease any concerns he had about the storm. "There's nothing for them to eat. The paths aren't wide enough for mounts, so the merchants don't use them either, and if there's no merchants to rob, that means there's no goblins either. I have heard rumors that there are giants in the northernmost reaches of the mountains, but I've never seen one. Not even sure if they exist, if I'm being honest."

A blinding flash of lightning streaked across the ravine in front of them, and the following crash of thunder was enough even to make the levelheaded Maerwyn jump a little. She was quick to laugh it off though, and smile gently over at her companion. "It'll be over soon, I'm sure. These mountain storms always burn themselves out so quickly. And at least it isn't snow!" Although the wind was cold enough to threaten it, and shivering a little she pulled out her bearskin, wrapping it around herself before offering a length of it to Orin, in case his own layers weren't enough to keep him warm.
 
Last edited:

Traveler

Pulsar
Joined
Feb 5, 2014
Location
PST
Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn. If Maerwyn had a beard she’d be a perfect dwarf. He had seen the blaze in his eyes when she refused to rest, and each time he glanced up at a bouncing pebble, she was stoically moving forward as if nothing had happened. If he hadn’t had his own struggles (and pride) climbing that cliff, he might have started to grumble.

That, and the fear of being tossed over the edge by his guide. Despite her chuckle when she mentioned it, he could well imagine her hauling a flailing dwarf over the edge and screaming down after he fell “You should have had a better attitude!” She was a fighter to her core; hard pressed and worn down until the shine and polish made her what she was today.

He looked down at her now as she sat. The weariness and worry on her face concerned him, and though the light had dimmed, the sun stroked across the sky to brighten her face as he gazed upon her rough-hewn beauty. His eyes softened and he turned to look where she had pointed, unsure if he would see dragons or clouds. As his eyes traced the line of the ridge, he heard her description and shuddered.

“Yes,” he whispered; his voice hushed in awe. He stared for a moment as homesickness tugged at his heart. He had to look away. It was too painful to fathom the distance between him and home. Besides, he had a new home now, and she was slowly getting to her feet.

Maerwyn didn’t seem too concerned about the storm, though lightning strikes didn’t sound fun. He’d seen their effect on trees and such, of course, once they storm had passed and the mountain opened, but never seen it happening. In a way it excited him. In a deeper way, he was terrified.

The rocks tumbling from their feet to the ground below did not excite him. Quite the opposite. “You know,” he said, ducking under the ledge after Maerwyn and feeling the pelting rain turn to frozen rocks as he did, “I think you should know. I don’t really like heights,” he confessed. “It feels like falling pulls harder from up here.” He edged out of his pack and set it nearer the door, blocking a bit of the wind. It howled outside the cave, sending sprays of moisture in stinging bites to taunt them. He pulled up his legs and wrapped his arms around them as Maerwyn began to settle herself and speak of the creatures that might, or might not, hunt them in the mountains.

The lightning streaked across the sky, making him jump in surprise. Then, like a curious pup he crept on his hands to peer outside, in time to hear the thunder. It sounded like boulders being rolled across the mountaintops, and the trail of smoke where the strike had hit was quickly being put out by the rain. His eyes turned towards the darkness, wondering how long it would last.

Slowly he crawled back in, then went to cuddle next to Maerwyn. After pulling the end of her bearskin around his shoulder and wrapping an arm around her, he rested his head next to hers. “This isn’t so bad,” he said.

After the storm had sent a few more light shows streaking across their window, Orin decided to address the Ogre in the cave. “Maerwyn? You do know that I trust you, don’t you?” He turned his head slightly to look her in the eye. “I trust your experience, and your wisdom,” he said, using a thick finger to brush away the hair from her brow and tuck it behind her ear. “And if you tell me that we have to do something, I might ask you questions, but I’ll do it.”

He rested his head against hers once again. “You don’t have to lie to me. If you’re worried, let me worry with you,” he said, “because you’re not in this alone.”

Another streak of light lit the sky, and this time the rumble moved over their shelter. The storm was directly overhead, and it sounded like hundreds of little goblins were hurling pebbles against their packs. He smiled softly. “I’ll follow you through any storm,” he said, “even if I think you’re crazy for it.”
 
OP
Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
“I think you should know. I don’t really like heights.”

"You don't say," Maerwyn replied drily, adjusting her position slightly to allow him more room under the rock shelf. "Well, I can't say I've ever met a dwarf who did like them, so you're hardly alone in that. I was rather impressed, you know, when your mother agreed to go off with Emlin, considering her people like to build their houses up in the trees. I suppose you must get your courage from her, hm?" Smiling, she leaned a little closer to him, his warmth easily chasing off the bitter chill of the wind.

She was content to sit there with him in silence, letting the storm blow out its rage around them in the hopes that they might still have a few hours of late afternoon light that would at least get them to the far end of the pass. Perhaps the effort of trying to plan their route had twisted her face somewhat, or maybe the thunder just had him on edge, but the mercenary was surprised at Orin's gentle inquiries into her fears and concerns. Her eyes widened a moment before she let out a soft chuckle, then leaned her back against the stone wall behind her.

"Well, I'm a bit worried the rain might wash some of the trail down into the ravine. That would mean there's more climbing ahead of us," the woman remarked, finding the dwarf's hand beneath the bearskin and giving it a little squeeze. "But luckily it seems to be more wind than anything else, so I think we should be all right." Pausing, she looked more seriously over at her companion. "I'm glad you trust me though, Orin. You know I'd never let anything happen to you, don't you? Not just for the money you owe me, but...but..."

Another peal of thunder saved her from needing to finish the though. Releasing Orin's hand, she quickly turned her face away again before he could see the emotion in her eyes. "Anyway, I'll protect you, so you needn't worry. And truth be told, I'm not worried either, other than for the little day-to-day things." Very slowly, her smile began to return. "Believe it or not, Master Dwarf, this is my life. Storms and heights don't trouble me, although if I'm being honest I don't care much for those underground caverns your kind seem so fond of. Feels rather like being in an early grave to me, no matter how large and grand the tombs might be."

A little shiver ran down her back, to the point where she actually seemed to relax at the next crack of lightning. After the following thunder had settled, Maerwyn finally steeled herself enough to look back into Orin's eyes. "And how do you like it?" she asked softly, searching those shadowy depths for any sign of fear or distaste. "You've lived the wandering life for almost two months now. When your year is up, will you go back to your home under the mountain, with your forge and all your high relations?" There was a hint of bitterness in her voice as she spoke of the latter.

"Or...do you think you could be happy, living like this?" Speaking the question seemed to take more strength even than climbing the face of Hatholtaen. If his answer was 'no', what did that mean? Well, it meant that after a year they'd part as friends, and Maerwyn would go on alone. The idea had never trouble her before, but now...

"I know it's not luxurious," she added quickly, trying to speak loudly and quickly enough to drown out the thoughts in her head. "And times like this, with the cold and the noise it can be downright trying. But there's freedom in it too, knowing you can go where you like and do as you wish. You never need to worry about getting trapped somewhere too dark--or too high--because you can always choose to go somewhere else. That's what I like the most."

But a nagging voice at the back of her mind suggested. Wouldn't it be better if you had someone at your side during all of that? Yes, yes it would. But Maerwyn wasn't about to risk rejection by outright asking the dwarf to stay with her. Besides, he seemed to admire her strength. If she showed the weakness of a fawning young girl driven mad by her first infatuation, there was a good chance he wouldn't want her at all, either on a road or under a mountain.

"Oh! Look there!" the woman said quickly, pointing off to the west. A faint line of pale blue was growing thicker beyond the passing line of stormclouds. "I think we should be done with this soon after all, thank the stars. I know of a decent campsite for the night too. A very wide ledge, absolutely no chance of rolling off the edge at all."
 

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He smiled as she shard her worries with her, and when she squeezed his hand he squeezed hers back. Then she turned and told him that she would not let anything happen to him. Not just for the money he owed her… and he scowled in the darkness. Hadn’t he told her that everything he had was hers? How could he still owe her anything?

It seemed there was still a barrier between them, and it caused a sharp pain to flare in his chest and the palms of his hands. Thankfully, thunder roared across the sky, and his small gasp was hidden in its rolling rumble. He cleared his throat, hoping that his discomfort was hidden in the storm.

But as she continued, assuring him that she would protect him, he wondered if she thought that she needed no protection. And if she did, certainly, she didn’t think it would come from him. Because… in her eyes… he was not capable of being a shield for her against the world. Perhaps she saw him as just… a child. Naïve.

Useless.

Then she told him as she smiled, that traveling was her life. Her life. She loved the storms, loved the heights, but didn’t care much for caves. And his heart, already tender from the last few months, felt shredded. He thought about the way he had clung to Dís, and the sorrow it had led to. Not just for him, the fool, but for the poor dwarven maid who had told him at every twist and turn that she was not interested. How had he been so blind?

And when he had proposed ‘forever’ to Maerwyn she had dismissed it. She had said that she could never be his wife. She had told him to seek his forever later on… and earlier she had told him that she had not settled down with Aevar because she preferred the open road. She didn’t want to be tied down forever. He was beginning to wonder if that applied to people as well.

She asked him how he liked their travels, and though he had loved every minute of it, he felt he had overused that word. His eyes met hers, though the shadows hid their glisten, and as her questions turned towards the Lonely Mountain he felt his mouth grow dry. He began to open his mouth to reply when she continued.

She spoke of freedom, and never being trapped. Of being able to go somewhere else. ‘And perhaps, to be with someone else,’ he thought. There was a short break in the conversation, and Orin, always the polite one, began to answer her questions.

But then she quickly pointed and exclaimed, and his attention was drawn away once more. It was beautiful, the line of blue. It looked like a streak of hope beyond the storm. And hope was in short supply.

“I would like that,” he finally said. “Falling off ledges in my sleep is not on my agenda.” He pulled her closer as the winds picked up, pulling the bear skin higher around them. It seemed morbid that they would take shelter under the skin of a bear when her own kin walked in their skins, but the young dwarf decided not to question his human lover. After all, there was no telling how long this would last, and he wanted their time together to be pleasant. He rested his head against hers and watched the storm rage before them.

After a particularly bright streak of light passed their window, and a few moments later the thunder rolled across their cave, he spoke. “It does seem that the storm is moving,” he observed. Soon, they might be moving too.

“I have enjoyed these past two months. It…doesn’t seem like it’s only been that long. And I don’t know what I’ll do when our year is up, but I’m not going home until I find that dagger,” he reminded her. “So… I suppose I’ll have to get used to living like this. That gives you a lot of time to teach me what I need to know… in case you get restless and want to leave.

“I know you like your freedom. You won’t have to worry about feeling trapped with me.” He didn’t want to make the same mistake with her he had with Dís, imposing his wants upon her own. What had Maerwyn said? That she would be old and grey before he was ready to be married? Perhaps that was her way of telling him ‘no’. She loved the open road. She loved the ability to go as she wished, and explore… not even the tall, handsome human fletcher had been able to convince her otherwise. What chance did a stubby dwarf have, no matter how handsome she had told him he was? She had said those things in bed; many lies were said in bed, he had been told. Lies to inflame the passion and increase one’s lust. Maerwyn knew her way around the world, and part of the world was the pride of men, was it not?

He swallowed down his doubts and sighed. He had ten months with her, before their contract was over. Perhaps he should just enjoy the time they had, and let tomorrow care for itself.
 
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Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
Maerwyn's expression hardened at Orin's mention of leaving. "Now listen here, Orin Indrafangin," she said in a tone that was almost a snap, tightening her grip on his wrist. "The only person I ever left was my father, and you know why I did that. Why I can't...well, nevermind. You know how things are between me and him." Was that a guilty look that flashed behind the proud mask on her face, or just a final flicker of lightning in the retreating storm?

"Anyway, I leave places, not people. It's not my fault if someone decides they'd rather be someplace else than be with me, is it?" Thilion could have joined her in the mercenary corps after all; the Captain had certainly wanted him in their ranks. Aevar could have chosen to stay with her as well, but he'd chosen Laketown and his haughty wife instead. Even her mother had chosen to let Maerwyn go. Beorwyn could have run with her into the woods, she probably could have even picked the girl up and carried her to safety. But instead she'd forced her daughter to run off on her own, and she too had stayed behind to face her death at the hands of monsters.

Releasing Orin's hand, the mercenary clenched her fingers into fists as she turned her face away. "No, Master Dwarf. I think it's rather more likely you'll fall in love with some pretty spot out in the wide world--there are so many of them, you know--and give up the road for a chance to make your pretty rings and things, and impress the bearded lassies with their fine clothes and rich fathers. I'll not begrudge you when you do, though you'll forgive me if I say 'I told you so,' when the times comes." Taking a few deep breaths, she forced a smile when she looked back at him, rising slowly to her feet.

The storm had all but cleared now. There were still a few drops of rain lingering in the air, and a scattering of hailstones mixed with the gravel beneath their feet. Maerwyn took her time rolling up her bearskin and stowing it in her pack, but once the straps were securely slung over her shoulders again she reached out a hand to the dwarf, and her expression was softer.

"If you are a mad dwarf though, as I'm beginning to suspect," she continued. "And you do prefer a life of wandering to one of security and wealth, then I'd be more than happy to have your company as long as you're willing to offer it. It's nice to have a partner to watch your back in a fight, and to throw down a rope if you do have the misfortune to fall off a cliff. Having a regular fuck doesn't hurt either; good for the nerves, you know." With a teasing laugh, she pulled the dwarf to his feet, then jerked her head towards the west. "Come on, we'd better get moving. We'll have to move slowly while the ground is wet, and we've quite a long way to go."

By some miracle, they did make it to the campsite before the light was entirely gone, but Maerwyn was firm about not traveling after dark on such treacherous ground. There was no wood for a fire, but they still had the rations the woodmen had given them, and they could huddle together for warmth after dark. The next morning was equally chilly, but after they'd hiked for a few hours the sun had crossed the first line of peaks behind them, bringing enough heat to mix with the gentle west wind and make them relatively comfortable. As the mercenary had predicted, they had little trouble from either goblins or wolves, although the weather had tended towards storms in the afternoon, and they'd nearly been washed away by an untimely rockslide on their fourth day of travel.

After that incident, Maerwyn had decided it was perhaps time to find a way into one of the lower valleys, and was pleased on the sixth day when they came across a blue-black mirror of a lake, surrounded by scrubby pine trees and tough grasses. The latter had clearly been gnawed by deer, and despite it not even being noon yet the mercenary insisted they make camp for the day in order to hunt and catch their breath after the treacherous paths above. They still needed to be cautious of course; she could see the peak of Orchaeg peeking ominously out from between the nearer mountains. "We're at least a few days' ride from the goblins' stronghold," she explained, laying aside her swords and pack so she could venture deeper into the woods unencumbered. "Farther by walking. I don't think they'd have any reason to come up this way, but we should be careful nonetheless."

The only thing her arrows found that day though was a young buck, his horns freshly sprouted but his reflexes not quite quick enough to avoid the hunters. Maerwyn needed the dwarf's help to carry the carcass back to the lakeside, but she made quick of the butchering on her own, and before long the smell of roasting meat filled the little valley. For the first hour or so the mercenary was tense and quiet, listening for the sound of approaching footsteps of either animals or worse. But when nothing came in pursuit of their meal she relaxed somewhat, though she kept her swords close at hand.

As her hands flexed around the hilts, realizing she hadn't had a chance to use them in weeks, she looked more thoughtfully over towards her companion. "Orin..." she said slowly, eyes moving from his face to his axe. "While we're waiting for dinner, what would you say to a little bit of sparring practice? Just to make sure this leg of mine won't slow us down too much in case of a fight?"
 

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Location
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Was she asking him if he would find that he loved a place more than he loved her? At first he thought to deny the notion, to deny that he would ever choose anything over her company, but as she continued to defend her life and tell him that he’d fall in love with some pretty place and set up shop, he couldn’t tell her that it would not happen. After all, she understood the ways of the road and the world so much better than he. Perhaps she knew the signs. Perhaps…she was right.

He lowered his head as she rose, convinced that she had spoken prophecy. It shamed him. He wanted nothing to do with it, but she had cast doubt upon his heart. He looked up, seeing her silhouette block the revealing sunlight as the storm let up.

Orin barely noticed as the bear skin was rolled up and stowed into Maerwyn’s pack. He took her hand as it was offered, standing to his stout feet. And as she suggested they leave, he agreed. “I do like the road.” And he had the next ten months secured. A lot could happen in that span, and if it were alongside Maerwyn, it was guaranteed it would not be boring. Especially the nights. And as he thought those things, she echoed them as if she could read his mind. He gathered up his pack and followed her along the precarious path. Areas her light-footed steps moved easily, shifted under his weight. He balanced himself with one hand on the cliff, or grabbing onto roots and branches, until the path widened, and he could walk more firmly. By the time they made it to their camp sight it was too dark to do more than take shelter and keep from the wind.

They talked no more of leaving or falling in love with a pretty spot. They barely spoke at all, though Maerwyn tried her best to keep their mood light.

But even so, his dwarven heart felt heavy. Gone was the joy he had felt at the Woodman’s home, and gone was the elation he had experienced when he had held the mercenary on Midsummer’s Night. It was as if the impending shortness of his time with her had dulled the very light of the sun. Later in their travels, that feeling was further compounded when she consistently provided for them, never requesting his help, or it seemed, allowing it. The buck that provided that night’s nourishment was slain and butchered by her alone, and Orin was beginning to feel like a spectator in the edges of Maerwyn’s life.

He stood by the fire as it crackled in the evening light and looked at the small pile of wood he had gathered. He began to shred the bark off with the edge of his axe, stacking one piece on the end of the other. At Maerwyn’s suggestion, he chuckled.

“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t use a sword… “ His eyes flickered up to her. “And I might hurt you.” He gave her a cheeky grin. “Unless you’re willing to spar with sticks?”
 
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Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
"Quite confident in yourself, aren't you Master Dwarf?" Maerwyn laughed back. "I know it's been a few weeks since I've had to do a bit of slashing, but I'd wager I'm still fast enough to avoid that axe of yours. But if it makes you nervous, I'll not force you into anything." Removing her swords, she looked thoughtfully up at a low-hanging pine branch overhead. With a mischievous grin, she jumped upward and caught it in both hands, breaking it off with the weight of her body.

"I don't mind a little stick play though, if you're of a mind," she continued, feeling the weight of the branch in her hand. After cutting off the needles with her knife and breaking it in half over her knee, each half felt similar to her swords in length and weight, although they were a little thicker than she was used to. Stepping back a ways to avoid accidentally bashing her companion in the head (it probably wouldn't do much damage if she did, but Maerwyn couldn't imagine it would feel very nice), she began to assume the practice stances that had been drilled into her head all those years ago. "This is how I learned how to fight," she remarked, glancing back over towards her friend with a mischievous light in her eyes. "I wasn't allowed to use swords until I got so impatient I stole a pair."

The mercenary took a few more practice swings, the sticks not moving quite as gracefully through the air as her blades would have, but still rushing with alarming speed before her face. Satisfied that they would serve her purpose, she fully turned her body back towards the dwarf. "I do have to insist you not use your axe. That versus wood doesn't strike me as a very fair fight," she laughed, setting aside her makeshift 'swords' to see if she could help him find a branch to serve a similar process. It would be more of a challenge, considering the heavier weight of the larger weapon.

"Did your father teach you to use that?" she asked curiously as she moved from tree to tree. "Seems like most dwarves are fondest of axes. I know a few that carried swords though, and one who had the largest hammer I'd ever seen. We were going over the High Pass one spring and ran into a small party of goblin bandits, and he smashed one of the bastards' head in like it was a pumpkin. One of the strangest things I ever saw." Shuddering a little at the memory, Maerwyn decided perhaps it was best to let Orin manage his stick on his own, and returned to the fireside to give the meat another turn.

Satisfied with the progress of her roast, she picked up her own sticks again and resumed her practice swings. "Ready whenever you are, Master Dwarf," Maerwyn grinned, positioning one stick defensively across her body while the other poised to strike downward from her shoulder.
 

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Pulsar
Joined
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Location
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Confident was not a word Orin would have used to describe himself. He chuffed a laugh, then leaned his axe against a log and began to stack the wood. He tried not to let the taunting tone of Maerwyn’s words egg him into play, but when she jumped up and broke off the branch, he was both worried for her and sad… for the tree.

He walked over to where she was weighing the broken bough, then eyed the torn bark and seeping sap with a critical eye. True, a live branch would have more flexibility than a dried one, but the dwarf couldn’t help but feel a bit of sadness for the injured tree. He took a draft from his flask and watched the girl as she prepared the stick, then the other, for their little game. “I think you just want an excuse to whack me,” he said as he began to strip off his heavy belt and the items attached to it. His eyes flared in surprise as he watched her taking her stances, seeing the distinctive Elven influence in her moves.

“Why didn’t you just ask for a sword, instead of stealing them?” he asked, stepping around the edge of their campsite as she took her practice swings. He thought that a lot of her troubles came because of her penchant for taking what wasn’t hers; Thranduil… Torwald… who knew how many more people were out there with a score to settle with Maerwyn Stickyfingers? She wanted what she couldn’t have, shouldn’t have, and perhaps even things she could buy.

Her insistence that he not use his axe drew a smirk. “As if I would even consider that,” he said. He started looking for a decent stick among the deadfall; something about the right length, with a hook or an offshoot. Something that would give him some of the advantages his weapon held, even if he couldn’t meet the weight and balance.

“My father uses hand axes, and a pike,” he said, “When he’s not mining. But he never had much time to teach me, so Holt and Margo did, among others.” He found a sturdy piece of oak with a side branch that suited him and brought it over to the fire to trim off the remaining bark. His body flinched when she described the poor goblin. “Are all goblins evil?” he asked, his voice lilting at the last word. His eyes darted to the forest before returning to his task. His stick was long and thick, but it felt like air in his hands compared with his normal weapon. He was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea.

At least she wasn’t talking about him leaving, so he counted it as a win.

He flourished the branch with each hand, testing its feel before bringing both hands to its shaft. Maerwyn looked playfully wicked as she grinned at him, her eyes sparkling and her ‘swords’ both in defense and offense. He circled her, taking in the stance of her legs as he did. “I don’t know if I can attack you,” he said, thinking that he’d only want to attack her in bed, “I suppose I can spar.”

With a grin he moved forward and feinted a strike, before reversing its direction to swing across her side.
 
OP
Shiva the Cat

Shiva the Cat

It's not pretty being this easy
Joined
Jun 1, 2019
Location
merrily on my way to nowhere at all
"To my credit, I did ask first," Maerwyn remarked as she suddenly lunged for the dwarf. She wasn't trying to hurt him really, just give him a light tap on his side with one of her makeshift weapons while fending off his own blows with the other. "But for some reason, my teacher thought it would be inappropriate to give a twelve-year-old girl a pair of Elven short swords. Can't imagine why, though I suspect he might have been a little afraid of me." Laughing, she feinted sharply to the left, then whirled quickly to the dwarf's other side.

Her breath still came easy as she spoke, although her movements were getting quicker. "A short time after that, I came across a band of mercenaries traveling along the northern borders of the forest. I didn't think they'd miss a couple of old blades, so I snuck past their guards after dark and helped myself to their supply wagons. I made it almost all the way back before I learned their Captain had spotted me and followed me back out of pure curiosity." Was it just her imagination, or was Orin picking up speed in his motions as well? He certainly wasn't having any difficulty managing his own stick, and Maerwyn was beginning to feel splinters digging into her palms from her own.

Still though, her smile was warmer than it had been in weeks. "Well as it turned out, the Captain was willing to sell me a pair of blades if I agreed to join up with the company for one year as a scout. I accepted, and that was the start of my illustrious career as a sell-sword." As if to emphasize how illustrious that career had really been, a particularly strong blow from Orin's stick sent Maerwyn's left one flying, the other one gripped rather awkwardly in her left hand. For a moment, the mercenary stared at the broken stick on the ground, then glanced back at her companion. "Of course, there wasn't anyone among the company that knew much about two-handed fighting. But they did teach me a trick or two."

Winking at him, she suddenly tossed her left stick into her right hand and shot straight forward to strike Orin in the chest, while her foot stomped down on the other stick so hard it flipped upward into her open hand. Continuing their little "dance," Maerwyn began to circle around the dwarf again. "Holt...that's your brother, isn't it? You haven't spoken much of him. Not close?" She could hardly blame him if that was the case, considering she couldn't even remember the names of all her brothers' children and wives. "And Margo's your sister? I didn't know she was a fighter too. It seems the Indrafangin clan is full of mysteries."

Now her breath was beginning to hitch, and she was beginning to gasp the way she often did when they were in bed together. Maerwyn would have been more than happy to keep the play-fight going all night if it had been possible, but out of the corner of her eye she saw a little tongue of red rising up against their roast.

"Oh shit, it's caught!" she gasped, immediately dropping her sticks and running to the fireside. The damage wasn't too bad, just a small corner that was going to be overly crispy for whoever had the misfortune to eat it, but the mercenary decided it was probably a sign that they should stop for the night. "Call it a draw?" Maerwyn asked with a giggle, pulling out her knife. "I'm starving. But that was immensely enjoyable, Master Dwarf. Thank you for humoring me. Now come get your supper, you've earned it."

Cutting him a generous portion of the meat and placing it on one of the metal plates Isvera had given her before leaving, she then served herself up a portion and sat comfortably with her back against a tree. "You asked about goblins before," Maerwyn commented after she'd had a few pleasant bites. "Are they all evil? All the ones I've ever met, yet. I suppose there might be some out there inclined to mind their own business and not go about troubling others, but...I doubt it. Mama always said goblins, orcs, and wolves serve The Shadow, and they can never be trusted."

A child breeze kicked up then, making Maerwyn shiver as she took another stab of meat. "We'll still need to keep a watch tonight, if that's where you were going with your question," she continued, giving him a pointed look. "But perhaps when we reach Rivendell...did you figure out how to get there yet, by the way? Because I still haven't the slightest idea where it is, besides west of the mountains in general and I think somewhere along the Loudwater."
 

Traveler

Pulsar
Joined
Feb 5, 2014
Location
PST
Sparing with Maerwyn was unlike sparing with other dwarves. She laughed and made easy conversation, though her swings and blocks were skilled and she did not hold back from tapping him whenever she broke through his defense. As she whirled and feinted, he let out an ‘Oh ho!’ of surprise, his brows shooting up at her quickness.

“Scared of you?” He teased. “I can’t imagine why…” She sped up and made him focus more on her movements then on her words or the way her hair teased the air around her face. He found her more difficult to keep up with, but soon he was catching her rhythm as she reversed her strikes and made to break through, and a few times he responded by trying to breech her defenses, though her double-handed approach was wickedly quick. The lightness of his ‘axe’ made switching directions easier, which made him wonder if he should practice with a weighted axe to hasten his reactions.

And then she mentioned that she signed on with a company of mercenaries when she was still very much a youth, and Orin almost dropped his stick in surprise. “What?” Had she not continued to assail him, he would have stopped right then to get the rest of that story. “I can’t believe you started working at that age,” he grunted, then ‘Ooofff’d’ at her poke in his chest.

His brow shot up, both amused and perturbed that she threw him off with a wild story and a wink, before he came around to continue in their spar. She seemed half juggler, half warrior, and all sensual distraction despite the sweat and dirt.

“Yeah, Holt’s my brother and Margot’s my sister. We’re not really close, but we’re not enemies either,” he said as he used the shaft of his stick to block another blow, then stepped away from her next move. He was just getting warmed up and felt like he had begun to reach his stride. The cool mountain air refreshed him, reminding him of the cool breezes that filtered up from the depths of the canyon caverns back at home. “They’re both older than me. I was… a surprise,” he added, wondering if the age difference was what made them seem more like acquaintances than family.

He was about to elaborate when the fire caught her eye and Maerwyn sprinted off with an enthusiasm that made him wonder if she was as easily distracted when she started as a mercenary. And when she suggested they call their spar a draw and stop for the night, he was a little disappointed. It was like smelling and seeing dinner but never being able to put it in your mouth. “Sure,” he replied, setting his practice stick against a tree and joining her. “I think you’re good enough that we could try, slower of course, with our real weapons next time,” he said. Then worried that she might be insulted at his words. “I’m not that good actually,” he amended, his cheeks growing flush. “In truth, I might not be good enough to practice with someone who isn’t as skilled as you are, you know, because I might not stop soon enough.”

It was lame. He felt lame. But it was true; the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her because he wasn’t good enough to control his swing.

He accepted his portion, noting that she was overly generous, but aside from a ‘thanks’ simply sat across from her. There was so much that she did for him without asking; things that went beyond a hired guide. It felt strange, not having had much experience with relationship and the things that went with them, and he wondered if she treated all her employees like this, or if he was truly special. Then, understanding where his thoughts were taking him, he mentally put them in a tiny room and barred the door. There was no profit in musing about things that might not matter.

“Goblins, orc, and wolves, hmm?” He wondered about that. He supposed she was right; only a few peoples chose whether they were good or bad, among them humans, dwarves, and elves. But it seemed that some of the two-legged folk were born bent towards evil; and so the goblins were best considered so rather than risk a dagger in the back. “Your mother sounds like she was a wise woman. I wish I could have met her,” he said, then looked across the fire at his companion. “She would have probably been very proud of the strong, smart woman her daughter became.”

The meat was good, though the quick cook and lack of light made some parts cooler than others, and the flesh was tough at times. It nourished their bodies and for that he was glad, and it wasn’t another serving of fish.

When she mentioned watch, and gave him a pointed look, he felt his ears turn pink. “What?” he asked again, his mind racing to figure out what she meant. Then her look took root and he furrowed his brow. “Is that all you think I think about now?” He laughed and shook his head. “No, Maerwyn, I just thought… there’s a story of an old goblin who traveled with some people,” he explained. “A fairy tale. I just wondered how much of it might have been based on fact, and how much was true.”

He chuckled as he continued to eat, shaking his head at her insinuation. Sex was like whiskey; great to have, better to share, but not something that he needed to drink every day.

“Rivendell – through the pass and south,” he said. “At least, according to the map. It’s between the river and the mountain range.” He thoughtfully tapped a piece of meat against his bottom lip as he gazed into the fire. “There’s a dwarven rumor…” he began, then thought better of it. “Nevermind. It will be nice to see the lands, even if they’re filled with mostly elves.”

His eyes took in the sky and the swift movement of clouds far above them, little wisps of white that captured the moonlight. “Do you think they’ll let us stay a while? Or… you haven’t stolen anything from Elrond, have you?” His grin widened playfully. “There’s no reason for us to avoid the area, right?”
 
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