Private Tales Never trust the shadows

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Anais

The fire crackled. Flames leapt upwards and sparks dances in the breeze. The space around the gypsy camp was briefly illuminated, but one shadow refused the firelight. Two eyes, close to the ground, might have been seen for a fraction of a second.

As the fire settled a man stepped close to the ring of light. He had both hands help up, palms forward.

The open roads had frequent patrols riding between the towns of the regions, but could still be dangerous.

He came to a halt just beyond the light. His hands stayed up, but he tilted his hair to one side and grinned. His teeth were just a little too sharp.

"Not to bother you at all, but perhaps I could join you all by the fire? I can only offer a story and a favour for a hot meal and some warmth."
 
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Anais

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It was a rare thing to find wandering strangers in the night. So rare in fact that the two dozen gypsies who'd camped here found absolutely no harm at all in drinking themselves into merry states as they feasted on the bounty the forest had offered them today.

Some of them played instruments and some sang together; an old gypsy tune in a dead language. But gypsies were not ones to forget their history, and they'd go on making it. The atmosphere was a warm one, fuelled by a prosperous day, a few bottles of home made rum and some damned good music.

The ring of firelight left them blind to much else beyond it, and so the stranger was not noticed until he stood too close, and the music stopped, instrument by instrument as each one noticed him, leaving only one voice singing. Anais finished the last line of the song, even as she looked up at the man. Her voice was soft and warm, but alone with no instruments and now slowing to a stop, it was a little haunting.

A few of the men stood slowly, their eyes narrowed on the stranger and watching him silently whilst he spoke. The surrounding area was swiftly surveyed for any sign of acquaintances, but none were found, and the man's slow and seemingly peaceful approach kept most of the camp at ease. Though what he'd been doing out here alone without a steed was at least on Ana's mind, and she was certain she wouldn't have been the only one to think it.

Several glances were exchanged, as though the group were communicating without the use of words. The decision sat with Oliver, a tall, greying man with deep laugh-lines chiselled into his face, who finally spoke. "It's not in our nature to turn a hungry man away, nor do we have it in us to turn down a story." he said, his voice the rumble of gentle, rolling thunder.

"Sit, there's plenty food and warmth to go aroun'.." he said as he gestured to a space on a log. "Not often we find lone wanderers in the night, friend. I imagine you must have some stories to tell."

As Oliver gestured for the stranger to sit, Anais and another female, a little older but with the same spun-gold hair, shifted forward to ladle out a bowl of hot, rabbit stew and a large crust of bread which was passed along to him.
 
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Fingal gladly crossed the threshold of their camp and approached the fire. These people always fascinated him. The cultures of mortals ebbed and flowed with the tide. They discovered knowledge, then they lost it again. Forwards and backwards into ages of darkness and light. He often wondered if there were hands shaping their future to grander designs.

The travelling communities often stuck to what they perceived as tradition. With such fleeting lives he had found that it was often a skewed view with word of mouth changing stories over time. Still, they often had songs and stories and culture that could not be found in any town across the land. It was something he placed great value in.

He had already committed one of the songs to memory. He would commit it to paper at the first opportunity.

Fingal offered a warm smile to those that offered him food, but he was aware that he was being watched closely.

"I am grateful for your hospitality," he declared. He took a seat and dipped some bread into his broth. He exaggerated a sound of contentment as he chewed. He didn't say anything else until he had finished his meal. The bowl warmed his hands nicely, the fire and crowd kept the wind chill away.

"A story and a favour," he said, smiling. He wore a grey coat and cloak which looked to have seen better days, but his boots looked surprisingly new for a traveller.

"I have an old tale of War, and the bride he wished to impress with his exploits. Or perhaps the story of the hen at the feast of the eagles?"
 
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Some of them murmured amongst themselves as the man ate and warmed, a few plucks on a lute played here and there, as though they waited impatiently to know more or hear his stories whilst maintaining the manners necessary to allow him the peace to nourish himself. Not that it stopped a few of the girls whispering and giggling quietly as they watched him.

A large cup of rum was poured and passed along. "A favour, eh?" Oliver asked with a chuckle, followed by a few others. "What sort of favours might you do us? We're humble folks, don't need much that the land doesn't give us freely." Oliver gestured to the wide world around him and settled back against the log behind him, crossing his ankles.

As the offer of stories was once again on the table, a few of the others straightened and considered the options. Anais sat forward, her pale skin warmed by the flickering firelight. "Lets hear of those impressive exploits." she said with a twist of a smile, and others raised their cups as they voiced their agreement.
 
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"What sort of favours might you do us? We're humble folks, don't need much that the land doesn't give us freely."

"A favour is a favour," he replied with a grin. "If I am in the right place at the right time and you are in need I will find a way. You are heading east on the road to town, for trade. We go in the same direction."

It was fortunate that they were happy with the story. Few placed much faith in the weight of a favour that came offered by a stranger.

"It will come as no surprise to anyone that War come into the world not long after it had been birthed," Fingal started. He took a long swig of rum and let them settle down around him.

"What is rarely spoken of, is how much the fury he was born with settled down in the middle of his life. His thoughts to turn love. He desired the hand of the goddess Capitula, but she would not be given away more easily.

"So of course, he turned to the one thing he knew to impress her. 'I will lay siege to the sky fortress of Kruis and lay it low across the spine of the world.'

"But she shrugged and War decided that she did not believe his claims. So he laid siege to the sky fortress of Kruis and smashed it down upon the spine of the world.

"She was unimpressed. I will boil the marshes of myrethas and leave the great witch hanging high and dry. She shrugged, of course, and War decided that she did not believe him."

Fingal continued the story in the same vein. Sometimes he would explain the exploits of war in great detail, other times he would gloss over places that only existed in legend and in no mythology that had been written down.

"...and War was eventually spent. He returned home and hung up his hammer. He stopped promising bloodshed for her hand, he stopped instigating strife across all the worlds. And finally, she turned to him, and told War that he could now have her hand."
 
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Ana sat forward, wrapping her arms around her knees as she listened to the man's story. Many of the others took up similar positions of devout attention, and other than the rolling voice that told the story, the only other sounds were the cracks of burning firewood.

She smiled at the way in which the stranger told the story, but her brow furrowed sadly at the story itself.. "Why didn't Capitula just tell him? She could have saved all the suffering he caused by accepting him as he was." Ana piped up and received a gentle elbow to the ribs by the woman sat next to her. Apparently it wasn't uncommon for her to become too invested in stories and fairytales.

"Yes I know its a story." she muttered before she could be teased. "I'm just saying, he clearly wanted to impress her and she was just a damn bitch about it whilst allowing him to cause all that chaos and destruction. So, stop trying to impress me and I'll be impressed?" she snorted and shook her head with a roll of her eyes.

"Women." she huffed and grinned at the few chuckles around her.

"I'm sure what Anais is trying to say, is that she enjoyed your story..." Pollina, an older woman on the right of Oliver smiled warmly at him. "What should we call you, friend?"
 
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"Oh it is quite alright. Anais is right. It is not - I do not think - a story with a moral tale. Not like the hen at the eagle's feast. I believe they might be stories from some of the first Western humans, but such things have been lost to time."

"I find that humans like to imagine the work of gods shaping the world. Elves of course, like to talk about stories of elves shaping the world. Orcs are more natural, they speak of their kind coming from the fire and the air into this world, just as they believe dwarves simply emerged from stone."

There was a pause at the question.

"You may all call me Radagan," he offered. They had been hospitable, but he did not give away Fingal - his most common moniker lightly - let alone his true name.

"I would like to thank you very much for the warm meal and the fire, but I think that I might get on with my journey now. I prefer not to travel at dawn or twilight when the bandits are up and about. I may see you all again at the next town."
 

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A few glances were exchanged as 'Radagan' announced that he'd be continuing on..

"Ah you're most welcome, Radagan." Oliver cleared his throat. "You'd be welcome to stay until morning. Bandits aren't the only things to worry about after all." he chuckled quietly.

"Yes.. There's plenty of room, Radagan.." a rather voluptuous woman that they'd dubbed 'Boobrah' smiled her most dazzling smile at him, and Anais snorted into her rum.
 
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Fingal offered a wolfish smile to the rather obvious woman. He preferred the prey that needed to be chased, though sometimes you just needed a good meal.

Tonight, despite his appetite, he needed to get on the move.

Sometimes a promise of a favour was a nebulous thing. It was thrown into the winds of chaos and might return at just the right time. Sometimes, behind that notion, was a fae with a very distinct plan of repayment. Today was one of those times.

The town of Kattrick had become very choosy about who it let within its squat stone walls after a recent bandit attack. His reserves replenished, Fingal was going to run hard to try and slip in overnight. In the morning he would find his old friend the deputy mayor. If it went to plan then he would find the travellers stopped by the guards and come to their rescue.

Sometimes, what seemed like mystery, was just a little bit of forward planning.

"I am afraid I must get going," he said as he stood up. "Should you find me eaten by the wolves come morning then at least know they had a hearty meal!" He winked in Anais' direction.

He slunk back into the shadows he had emerged from. His footsteps went eerily silent not far from the firelight.
 
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Ana's brows rose at the wink (that was much to the chagrin of Boobrah), and she let out a quiet laugh in amusement. Safe travels were bid, and once the stranger had disappeared back into the night, much of the following conversations revolved around his visit and stories were woven of who he really was. A God? Perhaps one who watched over travellers. Or a trickster, perhaps. Had they not offered him food and warmth he might have cursed them.. Perhaps it was true that he was a simple man on his way into town, but that wouldn't have been much of a story..

They deliberated more as they drank and enjoyed the calm night until it was night no more and they woke with headaches and empty bottles. Their walk to the next town was only a few hours, and the morning was fresh and peaceful. By the traders that passed them on the road, it seemed the town's market was already in full swing and Ana cantered on ahead in anticipation.

Slipping from her saddle, she walked the shaggy mare into the bustling courtyard and stopped to soak in the lively atmosphere. It lacked music and dancing, but they would soon see that put right. The hand that came down on her shoulder was a little too heavy-handed to be any of her own people.She jolted and turned her head to look up at the town guard, a frown creasing at her brow in question.

"Can I help you?" she asked irritably.

"Thieving are we?"

"What, n--"

"Thieving gypsy scum." another guard said as he snatched the reins from her hand. Before she could reach for it she was pulled back and the grip tightened. By the gates, she could see the others being halted, and an order being called for their wagons to be searched.

"We haven't stolen anything!"

"We'll see."

Zachary, a sturdy dark-haired man that Ana had grown up with stepped in front of Oliver to protest, though he was caught with a hard punch to the stomach, and the situation began to simmer. Ana pulled her shoulder quickly free of the guard's grip and thrust the heel of her palm upward into his nose before rushing back to the others.
 
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The situation was threatening to spill over. The travellers took great pride in their caravan and were not about to oblige the town guard in crudely rifling through their belongings.

If they were lucky, then it would escalate into nothing more than a brawl. A few of them would spend a night nursing bruises in the town's cells. The others would be forced to make camp beyond the walls and wait for their return.

If weapons were drawn, then it could become far, far worse. The guards would spill blood and call for more aid from the other town gates.

"A-hem."

The guard Anais had struck pinched the bridge of his nose, expecting to stem a torrent of blood. Despite the pain, it wasn't actually bleeding.

"A-hem."

The guard ignored whatever that mild mannered cough was and looked up at the gypsy girl he had tried to apprehend. He started to run after her.

He abruptly found the ground rush up to meet him. He fell hard.

"I believe!" bellowed the man who had tripped him, "my friend said 'a-hem'." Fingal was stood beside a short, balding man, who clutched a piece of parchment bearing the mayor's seal.

Fingal still had his leg extended. He stepped forwards and politely offered to help the guard to his feet.

"Yes, well, thank you," muttered the balding man. Despite Fingal getting everyone's attention he showed no gratitude for the favour and continued in his meek voice.

"The mayor declares this troupe is known and trustworthy and may conduct their business in Kattrick."
 

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Anais turned back as she heard the guard clatter to the ground with a grunt of outrage, followed by the bellowing voice. One which she recognised. Her wide eyes settled on the white-haired man and the scene he stood centre of, her brow rising in surprise. The upset at the gates paused too, gypsies and guards both turning their attention to Radagan and the man with the announcement to make.

The declaration was much to the guard’s chagrin, particularly the one still clutching his nose and staring at Anais with a venomous glare. They stepped back from the gates reluctantly, a few more glowers and mutterings exchanged as the gypsies made a point of looking a little too smug as they passed.

“Deprived the wolves of that hearty meal, I see.” Ana smirked at Radagan, eyeing the guard as he passed a little too close to her in order to mutter his insult in her ear. Gypsy bitch. How original. Her eyes rolled and she looked over her shoulder to catch his gaze and flip her finger at him.

“You alright lass?” Oliver asked, settling a hand on her shoulder to look over her.

“Fine.” She answered with a smile.

“Thanks for that.” The older man nodded as he looked to Radagan, having seen what he’d done to stop the guard and knowing it could have been worse if it hadn’t been for his intervention.
 
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Fingal offered a lopsided smile, but refused to take credit for the sudden turn of events. There were plenty of guards here and he didn't want a run in with them later in a dark alley.

The little man beside Fingal gave a quiet "harumph."

"I think, Jerredy, that you might want to linger and make sure this direction is followed," Fingal said quietly.

The mayor had power over the town guards, but the cwn didn't have much faith in them leaving the gypsies alone if they were not supervised.

Jerredy bristled at this. He had lots of paperwork to be working on and he clearly found this dogsbody work beneath him.

Once the caravan was through the gate, Fingal turned sharply to follow after them. The deputy mayor tutted and was on his way. The favour had been repaid now. Fingal would need to figure out another way to hold some sway in this part of the world.

Fingal caught up to the older man who had thanked him.

"The guard captain is going to burst a few blood vessels, but that should be the end of that for now," he declared.
 
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Oliver chuckled with another glance over his shoulder at the guards. "Aye. I've a feeling they'll be keeping a close eye on us regardless. I'm sure we'll all be on our best behaviour!" he called to a murmur of laughter from those following behind him. Ana walked her horse until they found some spare ground to settle for the day.

It would be a fine day for music and dancing, for performing tricks, reading palms and selling their trinkets. As always, the troupe made themselves at home, and Radagan was invited to join them for another meal. Ana along with another few of the others were all-too-eager to wander the marketplace, and they did so with instruments in tow, finding themselves a nice spot by a large well in the centre of the town square, a scarf placed down in front of them to collect coins.

The drums struck first, then a lute was plucked, and attention slowly gathered to form a growing circle around them as Ana and a dark-skinned girl of the same age danced with all the freedom and passion that their people were famed for.
 
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Fingal stayed as the music began. He had an appointment to make with a flask of wine, but that could wait a while. He did so enjoy women who could move their hips to a tune with such abandon.

Nothing was ever simple in his life. There was always the balance of trade, favours to give and take, the endless search of more artwork for his master. In this case it was more personal.

He had a standing disagreement with the watch captain about his methods and recent enforcement of merchant taxes. And because of how he had been manhandled out of the town Inn one night. Knowing that the veins would be building from his oversized forehead would bring him much joy.

Fingal knew that he probably should have saved the favour for something less personal.

He approached the pair and dropped a few coins down. At the least, people seemed more keen to put down coin when there was a visually pleasing pile on the scarf.

"I'll join you all for another meal later then," he said. He glanced over his shoulder. Two guards had already arrived to stand watch. "You've got some close attention already."
 
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Ana's gaze rose from the clink of coin to the man who'd dropped them, her brows lifting in recognition with a twist of her lips in thanks whilst her arms rose into the air, rolling her wrists and hips in fluid movements to the music. She watched him as he spoke, her gaze following his glance to the guards that watched.

"We always have close attention, Radagan.. It's a shame you won't stay and dance with us!" she grinned and the two women chuckled. He was a handsome stranger, of course he'd been subject of much whisperings amongst the females of the troupe. The dark haired woman winked at him quite suggestively.

Ana's eyes rolled and she laughed. "Go quickly, before she bites." she mused, and the woman snapped her teeth together.

The musicians played and the women danced until they'd earned a generous day's pay and the sun hung low. The market vendors were packing up, and so the crowds dispersed, leaving only a few stragglers and the ever-watching guards. They eyed Ana as she gathered the cloth together and patted the heavy lump of coins with a small smile at them as she and the others wandered back to their camp, following the sound of laughter and the smell of fresh stew.
 
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"Nobody needs to get bitten now," Fingal replied. There was a subtle shift in his jovial nature. A narrowing of the eyes. There was a deep, instinctive awareness of when you were being watched by a predator. Fingal was a talkative, shrewd dealer. But at his core he was a hunting animal and in the glance that passed across the troupe it showed.

"I wouldn't want to spoil your art by attempting to dance, so I will see you all later," he declared. He bowed. His eyes stayed on the dancing girls throughout the gesture.



They had offered him more hospitality, so he did return. By the evening he had enjoyed a full bottle of wine with an old aquantaince.

The smell of food being cooked over an open fire was alluring. The pair of guards who warned him, a respectable gentleman, of troublemakers occupying the area, was enraging. In the darkness, he flashed his teeth and offered a curt word back.

"Was it a good day for you all?" he asked loudly as he wove through the caravans to the centre of the camp.
 

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The two women exchanged glances at Fingal's answer, and Ana held his stare as he bowed, watching him still as he departed. A gentle nudge at her side reminded her of the music and she turned to find Molly grinning at her.

"Sure it's me he has to worry about?" she asked. Ana's eyes rolled. She was likely the least coquettish of all of the females in her troupe, and she didn't often find herself so easily intrigued by the opposite sex. There was simply something strange about him, like she sensed something more hiding under the surface. Perhaps she just enjoyed the way in which he told a story.

Either way, by the time he joined them in camp she found herself smiling up at him along with the few others gathered around the fire.

"Certainly was!" Molly patted a fat coin purse and a few others chuckled.

"You'll be joining us on the road at this rate, Radagan. Sit! Have some stew and ale." Oliver offered with a gesture to the fire. "Will you be sharing more stories with us tonight?" the older man grinned.
 
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"More stories hmm?" he asked as he was handed a bowl of stew. The old cast iron pot was still half full. He imagined it was likely very old, passed down through generations of travellers. He imagined how much wealth it would contain if it could have held all the stories told around it.

Because for Fingal stories - like all forms of art - were a currency. Nothing had been offered in turn, the food was given freely.

"If you are heading west down the old Jericho Road then maybe I'll join you on your journey? I'm sure I could provide a few stories along the way."

A bit of company and safety in numbers seemed a very fair deal to Fingal. He offered a smile around the group over the rim of the soup bowl before he blew on it.
 
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A few of those around the fire exchanged glances at Radagan's question. The females certainly appeared more pleased with this than the males, who seemed more uncertain, with the exception of Oliver who beamed and raised his cup of ale, sloshing some over the side to hiss in the fire.

"Aye! Join us! It's not every day we walk with Gadjes." the man's eyes creased as he chuckled. Some of the others settled a bit at Oliver's agreement. Boobrah was fluttering her lashes like a damned idiot. Molly mimicked, and Ana snorted into her ale.

"We were disappointed that you didn't stay to dance with us earlier today, Radagan." Anais piped up. "Will you learn our gypsy songs and sing with us on the road?..."

"Can you keep up?" Molly added as she lifted her own drink with a grin.
 
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They saw him as an outsider. Not everyone did. They should have done. He was apart from this world of mortals, but perhaps closer to it than almost any of his kind. For that, his own kind looked down upon him.

He didn't acknowledge the looks that came from the two more obvious girls. At least, not directly. A raised eyebrow showed some appreciation for Ana attempting to hide her amusement at them.

Fingal wasn't yet hungry enough for a meal that didn't offer at least a little chase. His appetite would always kick in eventually.

"I'm sure I won't keep up," he replied, laughing and letting his gaze swing across the array of filled mugs around the fire.

"And to have joined for a dance would have embarrassed us all. But if you want to teach me some songs I would suggest I have a voice more pleasing to the ear than my rhythm is to the eye!"
 

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Ana caught the quirk of Radagan’s brow and she shrugged, a light smirk tugging at her lips and her head shaking. She watched him over the rim of her cup as he spoke, far less obviously than how the majority of the other females were leering at him, but there was something peculiarly alluring about him and she clearly wasn't the only one who thought so. His voice certainly was pleasing, but he didn't need to sing to make that true.

"Ah, Anais and Molly there are our singers. They got some pipes." Oliver chuckled as he gestured toward the two.

"It's true! Sing the coins right outta their purses, they do." Marcus, who quietly plucked the strings of his lute, fixed the pair with a charming grin.

Anais smirked at Marcus, toying with the end of her loose braid as she shifted her gaze back to Radagan. "Perhaps we'll teach you some on the road, then." she said with another long sip of her ale. A nudge at her side drew her attention to the torchlights coming their way through the dark, and one by one the others quieted and ensured their weapons were close at hand.

"Evenin' friends!" Oliver called as he squinted in effort to see their obscured faces. There were four of them, and they were armed by the sounds of things.

"Guards." Marcus muttered, and the fire hissed as he spat at it.
 
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"Ah, Anais and Molly there are our singers. They got some pipes." Oliver chuckled as he gestured toward the two.

"Anais and Molly," Fingal repeated. There was the hint of an edge as he spoke, as if the words were exhaled over a keen razor.

He liked being provided with people's names for free. Mortal kind was always so free in offering such information up.

"I would love to..." he started to say, before sensing the shift in the air.

He looked to Oliver and then up to the guards. They strode boldly into the middle of the camp and pointed at the fire.

"Can have one of those out in the open."

Fingal stood up slowly. They would be looking for any excuse to make the travellers feel uncomfortable and to expedite their departure.

"Now I do believe that the deputy..."

The heavy set guard surprised him with the speed of the blow. Fingal doubled over the gloved fist at his gut and toppled to the floor, struggling to breathe.
 
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Ana's chin raised slightly as he repeated her name, something about the way in which he said it causing her lips to curl and her gaze to narrow somewhat. Had what had occurred next not occurred, she might've shifted to the empty space beside him, but she as well as the others were all quickly on their feet as violence sparked.

"Hey now! We don't want trouble, friends!" Oliver held up his hands, unarmed and peaceful as ever. Ana glanced the guard's hands on their weapons and she stepped up to the fire, kicking the rocks over it to smother the flame.

"There! It's out." she barked urgently. If it weren't for the torches that the guardsmen held, there would have been very little light to see by at all. Their faces suffused in the ghastly orange glow only aided in making them more menacing, particularly as their gazes shifted toward her. Others had gone to ensure Radagan was alright and to help him to his feet.

"We've done nothing wrong, and we'll be gone in the morning. There's no need for any more v--." Ana frowned.

"You steal that?" the one who'd struck Radagan pointed to the coin purse at her hip. She glanced down at it and scowled back at the three.

"I earned it, actually, and f---"

"Whore, are you?" he asked, taking a step closer. "Think we'll need to be takin' her in, lads. The pretty brunette, too."

Marcus was quickly in front of her, a long dagger drawn as he took up a defensive stance.."Back off." he growled in warning. Oliver was protesting, but whatever he was saying was abruptly cut off as he took a hard hook to the jaw and fell too.

"Enough!" Ana shoved her way past Marcus and rushed to place herself between the guard about to take another hit at Oliver before she barrelled into him instead. Arms wrapped around her, trapping her arms to her sides with a crushing grip and lifting her off of her feet as chaos ensued around the camp.
 
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Fingal was aware of the chaos erupting around him. One of the travellers even tripped over his curled up form as he was shoved by guard.

He was breathing short, sharp and shallow breaths and trying to blink the tears from his eyes.

He silently chastised himself for being overconfident. What was worse than the pain was feeling that a common guardsman had managed to catch him by surprise.

As his vision cleared all he could focus on was Anais flailing her legs as she was carried beyond the light of the torches. He caught a last flutter of her pale dress in the light before she was enveloped in shadow.

Fingal found his breath and found his strength. Planting one hand he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled into the shadows. He didn't change, not yet. The guard might have been aiming to just get beyond the light to carry out the cruel act or he could have been taking her all the way back to the keep

He could work out what he could do about the other guards later. He wouldn't let them carry one of the girls away when he was the reason they were inside the walls.

Fingal was more dangerous in the darkness anyway.