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Return to Inquisition (M) Jabba x Firesblood

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Offline Firesblood

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Valaria assured Roe that she could prepare the horse herself and set about it.  She did not care for horses and they had never cared for her, but the horse she had been given did not seem to mind her so much.  Without event, the young woman finished and situated herself in the saddle, urging the animal alongside Roe’s.  Yes, she thought, lets see how far they could get.

They kept a quick but easy pace; Valaria would have been satisfied to run the whole way there, but she knew better than to suggest as much.  There was no telling how long the horses would need to last before she found her family again.  In a month’s time, they could be weeks apart from one another, and that was if they were able to track them in the right direction the first time.

“Have you been in Staunton’s employ long?” Valaria asked.

--

Oscar made no objection to Cel’s decision.  He was no longer a pup, and it was important that he make decisions such as these. 

Ampetrion seemed to be waiting for Oscar to intervene, and when he didn’t, the Mutt manner became resigned.  “Yes, very well.  We will be leaving shortly.”

With that, Ampetrion left them in favor of dealing with some soldiers who were awaiting orders, though ones that looked to be staying rather than traveling.

Oscar looked at Cel.  “Damn Mutt.  The world would be a better place without trash like him in it.  Are you sure that you want to do this?  The girl is gone.  We have every right to walk away right now.” 


Offline Jabbathejack

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Roe watched Valaria out of the corner of his eye, gauging how she handled the horse. He had deliberately chosen one who was not too taxing a mount. After a few minutes, he suggested that the increased to a trot, but not too fast too early on.

"I've worked for the Staunton family for nigh on forty years now." Roe smiled. "But it was some years before I first met Mr Staunton."

***

Celyn frowned at his uncle.
"Father told me that we would be envoys of our pack. What we are doing could forge a strong alliance. We should not throw that possibility away so easily."

His frown deepened as he looked back towards Ampetrion and he lowered his voice still further.

"I don't like that man, uncle. He smells... rotten. Do all mutts smell like that?"

Celyn was rather alarmed at the prospect of his betrothed smelling like her relative, but perhaps it was a smell that he would end up getting used to.


Offline Firesblood

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Oscar shook his head.  “I do not like him either,” he muttered, turning towards Cel and guiding him to follow with a gesture as they moved out of the way of the men moving about the courtyard.  Once they were safely aside and forgotten, Oscar returned his attention to his nephew, raising an eyebrow at his question.  He wanted to laugh, really.  “Yes, all Mutts smell like him.  Terrible, isn’t it?”

The older wolf regarded his nephew seriously for a moment.  “I suppose I had better apologize, Celyn.  You have the right of it; this alliance is important to our pack, and the Alpha would be proud to know you have kept that in mind.  The Alpha’s word is one I will follow to my last breath, but I hate the idea of allying ourselves with an abomination like Ampetrion.  The silver lining, I suppose, is that at least your bride is not like him.”

--

Valaria nodded.  “That is a lot of years to serve, Mr. Roe.  I only had the opportunity to meet Mr. Staunton the once, but he seemed a decent sort of fellow.  How has he been to you?”

It was a normal enough question, but Valaria had a notion that the best gauge of a man’s character was in how he treated those who served him.  She had seen plenty of seemingly kind and honorable men abuse their servants when she dwelled in Venice, and it was usually a good tell as to whether the man was trustworthy, or simply performing a roll.   


Offline Jabbathejack

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"I guess, for me, the true alliance is between us and my bride, Valaria. Ampetrion need not be a factor."

He shrugged at his uncle as he turned back to his horse.
"We will see what she says when we finally meet."

Taking the reins, Celyn swung back into the saddle and prepared to get back underway.

***

"Aye." Roe nodded. "He's a decent man. Cunning as a fox, for sure. He rewards loyalty and excellence, but he punishes disobedience... but he's always fair in my mind."

Roe glanced at the young woman by his side, cracking a smile.
"But I guess you ain't going to listen to me, are you? I'm paid to say the right thing, eh?"

His grin faded into seriousness.
"I was there when he brought you in, you know? Young Malachi dragging you in, with you screaming every insult under the sun. Imagine my surprise when the very next night he tells me to escort you freely across the country."

Roe fixed Valaria with a shrewd stare.
"What he neglected to tell me was what exactly we would be looking for."


Offline Firesblood

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Oscar nodded.  “That is a better way to look at it.  Either way, if you say we will go then we will go.  When we find her, we can wash our hands of the Mutt for good.”

Another hour passed before Ampetrion gave the order to ride out, and their journey began anew.

--

Valaria smirked.  “I would not have asked at all if I was not planning to listen to the answer, Mr. Roe.  It has been my experience that the way a man treats those in his employ is a direct reflection of the man himself.  If you say he is fair, then I will trust your word.  After all, he is not hovering over your shoulder making certain that you say nice things about him, and I have never known an employer to pay his men extra to speak highly of him when he is not around.”
 
Her gaze moved to fix on the horizon ahead of them when he spoke of Malachi bringing her in, her smile fading.  “Malachi deceived me.  He found me, told me a tall tale that played on my sympathies, and used it to lure me into a trap.  No one is more surprised than me that Mr. Staunton only wanted a trade of information, or that I am here with you now.”

Valaria glanced at Roe, noting his stare.  “My family.  They fled the area a month ago.  I am trying to get back to them, and Mr. Staunton has supplied the location where they were last seen.” 

She couldn’t help but feel a pang of heartsickness.  She knew that they would have likely taken an easier route and pace out of consideration for the children and the old, but they were still well ahead of her, and a month was more than enough time for them to have gone so deeply to ground that Valaria might never see them again.  She briefly wondered if there was even a point.  She knew that even if she did find them, Ampetrion would only take her away once more.  Her future would never be one of her own making if that happened, he had made that clear.

“Do you have family, Mr. Roe?”     


Offline Jabbathejack

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Roe gave her a sidelong glance.
"Not only has he given you information, miss, but he's given you a horse, supplies and a guide to ensure that you get there. Not to mention that his right hand man meets us there to help you look."

He shrugged.
"Perhaps it is to make up for Malachi's deception and a day in the cells. Either way, you must have given him exactly what he needed."

"Malachi is an interesting fellow, indeed. It is common for people to underestimate him because of his youth and stature, but as you have already found out, that would be a grave mistake. I have no idea how old he actually is. When I first met him, I didn't think he'd even be able to swing that blade he carries, but when he does..."

Roe trailed off, chuckling quietly. Of course, that was only half the story; he'd heard the rumours whispered by servants about the two men, neither of them ever seen during daylight hours, yet that was only idle talk...

"Aye. I have a son and a daughter, both of them with children of their own."


Offline Firesblood

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Valaria considered that in silence.  Roe was right, of course.  Staunton had done far more than he needed to, in providing her with what he had, and suddenly the note she had left thanking him did not seem like quite enough.  He had given her freedom and more information than she had before, and had supplied everything she could have possibly needed in her journey to find her family.   She could not reconcile the man that Ampetrion had depicted with the man she had met.  “Yes, you are right.”

She listened while Roe spoke of Malachi, but offered no words in return.  She wanted to distrust and dislike Malachi, but she was also aware that doing so would likely disrupt things on their journey.  She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt moving forward, if only out of gratitude for his help and respect for his Lord. 

Valeria glanced at Roe as he spoke of his children.  “Do you see them often?”


Offline Jabbathejack

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"Quite often, aye." Roe smiled, thinking of his family. "They both live in Lourdes, not far from the Citadel."

"When my wife passed, two years come spring, I moved into the barracks in the Citadel. It was easier that way, less time..."

He forced a smile, neatly smoothing over the silence that he had been faced with after his wife's death.

"I see my grandchildren often."

His smile faded as he looked at the young woman.
"I could not imagine being apart from them. I will do what I can to see that you are reunited with your family."

***

When darkness fell, Roe signalled for them to move off the road to have supplies and water the horses. It was a chilly night, so he busied himself with starting a fire, directing Valaria to ready some of their supplies.

"We're not far from where your family was last seen. But it'll be a few hours before Malachi joins us. Best to get some food and rest now, while we can."


Offline Firesblood

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For a moment, Valaria’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude for the man.  He understood what strong familial ties could mean to a person, what a person might do to get back to them when separated.  All she could do was offer a small smile and a nod, keeping herself to herself until she managed to regain her composure. 

As night fell and Roe gave the word to make camp, Valaria slid from the back of the horse, biting the inside of her cheek at the soreness that had taken up residence in her rear and thighs.  That alone spoke of how often she rode.  Another day and she’d likely have saddle sores, but she made no complaint.  A few aches and pains were nothing to endure if it meant finding her family safe and whole. 

Valaria did as Roe requested, delving through their supplies for something that they could eat and rest on once they were finished; all things that could be easily and quickly put away upon Malachi’s arrival.  The waiting made her anxious, but by the same token she was exhausted and grateful for the break.  Her aching haunches were grateful too.  Despite the physical fatigue, however, her mind was as alert as if it were the middle of the day, never pausing in the endless cycle of what-ifs parading in her mind.

“I do not know if I can sleep,” she admitted softly.  “I will watch, though, if you would like to.”


Offline Jabbathejack

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Roe cleared away the remains of their food, wrapping it up and stowing it safely in his pack.

"Don't you worry, miss, I'm used to this sort of life." Roe smiled as he warmed his fingers. "The fire is comfort enough for my old bones."

"You might feel better in the night ahead if you do manage to sleep, but that is of course, up to you."

He fell silent, reaching into his pack for a small piece of wood. Taking his knife, he began to whittle at it, painstakingly crafting what would become a small wooden whistle for his eldest grandchild.

***

Malachi found them easily, some hours later, guiding his horse through the trees to stop by their camp.

Roe, ever vigilant, was already on his feet as he neared. Valaria too, stirred from her light doze as he slid from the saddle.

"Evening, sir." Roe smiled as he stamped at the embers of their fire. "We'll be ready to head off in a minute or so."

Malachi nodded grimly.
"Any signs?"
"Not from here, but we're not far from where they were last seen. There should be something further along."


Offline Firesblood

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Despite the doubt that Valaria harbored over being able to sleep, as the quiet of the night grew deeper and she stretched out close to the fire, her eyes drifted closed at one point and she slipped into an uneasy rest.  What little rest she managed to gain was infrequent, peppered with moments of starting awake at the pop of the campfire, an owl in the trees above, insects and frogs singing their chorus.  The sound of hooves incoming alerted her in much the same fashion, and as Malachi entered their camp and began dismounting, Valaria got up, wincing at how much worse the pain in her body was after being inert for those hours.  The wince was the only sign of discomfort that she let slip, even as she joined Roe in packing up their camp without delay.  She muttered a hoarse but polite greeting to Malachi, remembering the discussion she had with Roe.  Malachi was here to help, she reminded herself, and she wasn’t going to be a horse’s ass about it.   

She was exhausted, she was in pain, but the knowledge of where her family had gone was near and that motivated her more than anything else ever could.  She didn't know how long it would take them to find the caravans after they figured out the direction they had gone, but something in her gut told her it wouldn’t be long after that.  Her heart ached for home, for her parents and her brothers and their wives, for the passel of nieces and nephews that were steadily growing in number year by year. 

Working together, Roe and Valaria had the camp packed in and the fire put out in less than ten minutes.  Valaria dreaded the climb into the saddle, teeth grinding together as the saddle formed up against all the tender places in her rear and thighs.  Even her lower back screamed in protest, but she did her best to ignore it. 

“How much further, do you think?" she asked, anxiousness coloring her tone despite her efforts to the contrary.  Gods, she hope they found something, that her family's former campsite remained untouched by the weather, or animals, or other people.   


Offline Jabbathejack

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"Couple of miles to where they were last reported." Roe took the lead, heading out along the path through the woods. "From there, well..."

He shrugged, giving Valaria a grim smile.
"It all depends on what we can find."

Malachi rode beside them, yet he remained silent, his gaze constantly moving on their surroundings. It did not take long for them to cover the last couple of miles, then they emerged into a clearing in the forest.

Despite the delay in their arrival, the signs of a camp were still present. Malachi slid from the saddle, allowing his horse to walk free. In the centre of the clearing, there was the remains of a fire, cooking for a number of people for a few days at least. There was some debris around, but that was only natural for any group of people on the move.

Slowly, Malachi paced the perimeter of the camp. Of course, the tracks were a mishmash, going here and there with animals as well as people. He could tell a general direction, but more specific tracks were impossible to decipher.

"They left in a hurry." Malachi spoke up suddenly, dropping to one knee to retrieve the pieces of a smashed earthenware pot from the undergrowth. The remains of the grain that had been carried within, were still there, strewn on the ground.

"See here? Far too valuable to have left that behind."

There were other things too, a child's toy, crudely sewn from some old clothes and well loved by the look of it, lying half crushed into the mud.

He straightened up, turning his attention to Valaria.
"They headed north from here from what I can see, but where their final destination was, I have no idea. It will be hard to track them, depending on the terrain and how large the road is."

"We have a number of choices. Either they went somewhere well known that they felt was safe, or that they went somewhere completely unknown, to try and avoid the chances at being followed. It depends on who they were running from."


Offline Firesblood

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When they reached the clearing, Valaria slid from the back of her horse and bent down to pick up one of the discarded toys, her brow furrowing.  The body had been made with sackcloth, and stuffed with lavender blooms and sweet-smelling scraps of corn husk, both of which had lost the scent long ago.  The tiny dress it wore was also made of sackcloth, dyed yellow with tansy.  She remembered her mother making it for one of her little nieces long ago, as she had made many small toys over the years for her growing number of grandchildren.  There, along the edge of the camp, was one of her father's shirts.  Other possessions that had belonged to her family lay discarded around the area, and Valaria knew better than anyone the trouble such a thing implied.  Her family was always careful never to waste, never to leave a thing behind.  Broken pottery was always repaired, clothing no longer fit for wearing cut down and used for blankets or other things.  They had precious little enough already, and seeing so much discarded confirmed before Malachi opened his mouth that they had been in a hurry, that something had gone wrong for them.

Her breath caught in her chest as she straightened, hugging the dolly to her breast.  She almost didn't hear the offered choices; her mind had begun to run hand in hand with worry and terror.  She gave a start and looked at him, her expression that of someone who was lost.  She processed his words with difficulty, moving to where her father's shirt lay in the dirt.  She gathered that into her arms as well.  "I do not believe they would go somewhere known to anyone, but...but they would not have left anything behind if there was any sort of plan in their minds, so...so I cannot say for certain which option is more likely," she said, her voice strained. 

They could still be alive, she told herself.  But despite that, she felt a growing weight in the pit of her stomach that told her otherwise.  Her eyes scanned the abandoned camp for any sign of what or who could have been chasing them, but she could not tell.  There were no arrows left behind, no flags, no discernible sign of who had come for her family.  There was no telling what they might find, however, once they moved on.  "North," she said softly, looking in that direction.  "Can we keep going?"


Offline Jabbathejack

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Malachi nodded and approached his horse, swinging smoothly into the saddle. The clouds had descended, obscuring the moon and it was not long before a fine rain started, but Malachi gave it no notice as he turned his horse towards the northern road.

He rode in silence as before, scanning the trees around them as before, even though the visability had vastly diminished, it did not seem to effect him in any way.

It was not long before he paused, bringing his horse to a halt in the middle of the road. There were no tracks, but clearly, Malachi had spotted something else of note. Without a word, he turned his horse's head sharply and cantered up the steep slope.

On top of the ridge, the earth was freshly disturbed. Malachi threw himself from the saddle and took the small trowel that he kept hidden within his saddlebags. Moving to the centre of the disturbed earth, he began to dig.

The smell of death was stronger than ever and he knew that he did not have much work to do. Sure enough, there was the pallor of cold, death flesh, hidden in a shallow grave. Grimacing, Malachi straightened up and turned to face Valaria.

"I'm sorry." He shook his head; this was probably one of the few things that he had said to her that was truthful. "We were too late."


Offline Firesblood

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Valaria remained silent as they rode, that same heaviness in her stomach twisting about until she felt she may be ill.  She almost didn't feel the rain, how it soaked through her dress and froze her to the bone; she only feared that it would wash away what little sign her family had left behind.  Despite the feeling of dread permeating her gut, she tried to hold onto some shred of hope that they had escaped whomever had been chasing them, that they had made it safely away. 

When Malachi stopped, her hands gripped the reins all the more tightly, until the skin stretched over her knuckles had paled to bone white and the combination of leather and her nails dug sharply into the skin of her palms.  She watched as he climbed the hill and dismounted, saw how he studied the turned up ground and bit down on the inside of her cheek.  She slid numbly from the saddle as he knelt and began to dig with a trowel.  Standing just behind him, she watched as he unearthed a hand, the little finger bearing her father's rough-crafted gold ring.  She immediately turned away, her hands rising to cover her face while the grief rose inside of her.  It was all she could do to keep herself from wailing as the full impact of her loss hit her mercilessly. 

Gone.  All gone.  Killed and buried in a shallow grave.  Her father, her mother...her siblings and all of their children...She slowly sank to the ground and hugged her knees to her chest, her shoulders shaking with silent, ragged sobs.  Hatred for Ampetrion burned like a coal in her heart.  He had taken her because it wasn't safe, but he had spared no such thought or consideration for her beloved family.  He could have taken them all to his home, but he had left them behind instead and now she was the only one left.  She had waited too long to come, and while the thought occurred to her that it had likely saved her own life, Valaria would have been happy to be buried with them right then. 

What was left for her now?  Where would she go?  Certainly she would never go back to Ampetrion, not unless it was to drive a blade right through his black heart.  She could see nothing that remained of her family's possessions nor livestock, and if her father's ring were any indication, any wealth her family had had gone to the grave with them.  It took bandits out of suspect; bandits would have taken anything and everything that could be sold or traded, especially gold.   After what seemed like an eternity, Valaria rose back to shaky feet.  All of the color had drained from her face, giving her a sickly cast, and when she spoke her voice was without inflection.  "Thank you for helping me find them.  Give...Give your Master my regards."

She looked back at the disturbed earth where her family rested, but made no move to get back on the horse.  Instead, she moved listlessly towards rocks that had been cast aside during the burial and placed them at the edge of the grave, the beginnings of a stone circle forming.