Completed Not All Cells Are Steel and Stone

Maranae

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The clatter of wheels and groan of overloaded axles quite easily drowned out the sounds of nature, the dirt kicked up obscuring the sharp scents of the wilderness. All around trees towered over the narrow road that the half dozen carts rattled down with more than twice that number in men and women under arms. Short and tall, of a variety of races, they presented a mismatched coalition of guards from seemingly every walk of life.

The caravan guard was a high risk, relatively low reward job. It attracted those who sought adventure, who did not wish to be seen by the greater public. By those running away; either from their past or from themselves.

In that regard, the tall redhead was no different. It was only in the way she differed from all of her companions that was unique.

It was well past the middle of the afternoon. The shadows ran long, the air stifling and close beneath the canopy. Winter never really touched this land very harshly, but even so it was unusually warm for the season. Sweat stood out on her brow as she clung to the side of one of the carts, claws punching into the wood to get a solid grip. Claws and teeth, two features that marked her out as being not precisely human, along with her yellow eyes. Those swept the road ahead, scanning for any threat.

Her name was Maranae, and she lived in a cage of flesh and bone. And just that moment, she very much wished that they could pass another day without conflict. The battered and notched blade on her back was more for show than for actual use; the blade was dull as a club. The claws on her hands and feet and the teeth in her mouth were far more effective weapons.

The best weapons were those that never had to be used, though.

"Another quiet day!" Her eyes cut to the side, narrowed against the dust. She offered the boy riding alongside her a sunny smile that brought out the freckles on her cheeks, but she said nothing. Words were difficult, anyway; at best she sounded uneducated and simple. And maybe she was, outside of the set of skills that had been forced upon her. "I was expecting some excitement by now," said the boy, raising his voice to be heard over the clatter of the wheels.

A seeker after glory. The youth was perhaps twenty or thirty and elven, and clearly of some means. Clearly to anyone but Mara, anyway; the concept of money was tenuous at best, baffling at worst. The 'job' she worked now was more because she could pass unnoticed in most places as a guard, most of whom were seen as transients and degenerates anyway. It was quite likely that what she was being paid was grossly low, but she would never have known anyway.

The boy tipped a feathered hat that was liberally coated in dust, gifting her a bright smile that made him quite handsome, and then booted his animal up the line.

She looked skyward quickly and then back to the road winding ahead. Still a couple hours shy of dusk. Wending their way down the shallow valley in a generally northerly route, darkness would fall fast when it did. The hills and ridges around them were no mountains. The thick forest blanketing them rendered the majority of it impenetrable, though, and was precisely the reason the current load of goods that she worked to guard was under threat.

She was just think of that in her own, slow way, when a shout sounded ahead. She looked up, eyes narrowing on a tree that had been felled across the road itself. Eyeing the six carts, the dozen guards all suddenly alert and wary, and the equal number of drivers and others that had tagged along for the cross country trek.

Then back to the blocked road ahead, the man standing atop it as the carters hauled back on reins, and caravan guards drew bows or blades.

Maranae was no longer smiling as the man blocking their way started making his demands.
 
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The roads of Arethil were never truly safe. It didn't matter if you were on Epressa or Liadain, all the world over travel came with its own risk. And so, hence why larger parties like this caravan tended to form, and why men like Ruslan joined them. He had a capable axe-arm to offer (along with a gift that need not be mentioned or shown unless absolutely necessary), he was no slouch when it came to the manual labor, and he himself could use the escort. Safety in numbers, after all; the most capable swordsman in the world could be brought low by a large and determined enough rabble.

So here he sat on one of the rear carts of the caravan—the one with the rather large and noticeable red-haired woman. Among the caravaneers she stood out (how could she not with the claws adorning her hands and feet?), and so Ruslan had pegged her for the time being as another auxiliary addition, just like himself. Everyone had somewhere to go, hmm? For Ruslan, for the duration of his Gezi, he had quite the number of things on his checklist out here in the wider world. Might as well take advantage of his extended excursion from home while he could—he planned on keeping busy, quite busy, upon his return.

Things were going fine. Another quiet day, like the young elf elf with the stylish hat had said.

Until, like the very mention of peace having been boldly spoken into the air summoned trouble, the valley into which they were descending had its path blocked by a felled tree. Ruslan, seated with his back to the front of the cart and his legs dangling from the cart's rear, didn't know it until the caravan came to a stop.

He heard the declaration of demands, dimmed as it was by distance. He couldn't catch all of it, but "precious metals" were gleefully mentioned all right. In a manner almost bemused and in disbelief he turned round at the waist and as well looked over his shoulder. "Now what do we have going on here?"

"Keep an eye out," said the other man riding on the cart, Goffred. He jumped off from the back with his readied blade. "Sometimes the craftier raiders like to distract first and then come in from the sides."

Ruslan slid off from his seat and dropped down to the road after Goffred. He reached to his belt and pulled his axe out, lifting it and resting it on his shoulder at present.

He glanced to the tall woman. Smiled a little and gestured to her claws, "What's sharper? Those, or that sword on your back?"

Maranae
 
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Mara's eyes were focused on the man atop the tree, who had yet to jump down. Who stood there with the imperious manner of someone who knew he would be obeyed, of someone who had nothing to fear. Her eyes sharpened on him, her pupil contracting into a vertical slit in the sea of yellow.

She blinked rapidly when the stranger spoke to her, cut her eyes to the side. Another like her, she had assumed from the outset: hired on for coppers on the day and rations, silver for any actual work that need be done. Such as the kind of work lining itself up right in front of them. She looked at her hands, fingers tipped in feline-like claws, then at her feet - feet with the tips of her toes left bare, the rest wrapped in leather. And then looked back up to him.

She played his words through her head again, and again, and thought of how to answer. Words did not come easily for her, and she had to make an effort not to sound like a child in her turn of phrase. For answer, she shrugged. "Not either. Not use if not need," she replied in clipped words that were definitely twisted by the fangs in her mouth. She flexed her fingers as she looked to the gesticulating highwayman, and shook her head.

Maranae did not take her weapon in hand like her companions had. Instead, she fixed her attention on the man currently shaking them down.

"No need for anyone to die," the bandit was saying to the 'van master, who stood at the head of her procession with her hands on her hips and thunder in her eyes. "Just pay the toll and you can pass," he said.

Mara tilted her head to one side to better hear.

"We pay no toll, thug," the woman who ran this caravan snapped. She was a bearish woman, stout and sturdy and absolutely impervious to intimidation. "Clear this damned branch out of the road and get out of our way," she snapped.

Her ear twitched. Other sounds, subtle as they were, caught her attention. She looked to the woods. At first, she saw nothing with that steady stare... but gradually the shapes emerged from the underbrush. Men in rough armor or homespun and mismatched bits and pieces of armor became visible on either side of the road. What had appeared to be simple underbrush turned out to be low wall constructed of woven branches so that it was difficult to see.

She was not well versed enough to know that the enemy would enfilade them from that position, their archers - numerous - ready to cut them to pieces. She merely gestured with those beclawed hands towards the emerging trouble, and said as much.

"Trouble," she murmured to Ruslan. Her blade remained on her back, her attention fixed on either side of the road.

"You'll give us what we want, or we'll take everything and leave you lot for the crows," the bandit chieftain said. The 'van master swore to herself, and then spit at him, "Go fuck yourself," before drawing a pair of wicked knives herself. The leader of the bandits had a heartbeat of notice before the stout woman was on him. The surprise on his face was quite comic, even as it glazed over in death as she dismantled him in a series of quick cuts.

Everything went insane after that.
 
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"Ah, the masterful art of achieving victory with one's sword sheathed," Ruslan said, paraphrasing a line of similar sentiment from one of the texts he'd read at the War College. "That's the challenge."

Goffred, not too far ahead, turned back to the two of them and commented, "Nothing so fancy is going to happen here today. I've been on enough of these to know that if these raiders showed themselves, it means they think they can take us."

"Fair enough," said Ruslan, and then gave his axe a spinning flourish and added with a grin, "It isn't as though I have a sword to keep sheathed anyway."

"Money's money, though. And the loot from their dead bodies is money too."

And to this Ruslan gave an appreciative nod. Goffred's confidence was admirable, reminiscent of that Gildan courage back home. Good man. Ruslan thought about buying him a drink once the caravan reached its final destination.

Up ahead, the caravan leader was exchanging harsh words in what passed for negotiation. "Mama Bear" is what a number of the caravaneers called her, a nickname to match her physique and temperament and so all the more suited to her. One certainly did have to be tough to be in this line of work. As far as those negotiations were going, well, hadn't Goffred struck the nail square on the head? Oh, where was that elf with the stylish hat? Ruslan had half a mind to congratulate him for goading fate to summon them some excitement.

Trouble.

Ruslan glanced to Maranae, followed the track of her gaze, and saw then the tiniest rustling in the murky shadows of the shaded wood off to his left. And here one could note just how quickly things could go from relative peace to explicit violence. The bandits' spokesman found himself filleted by Mama Bear, and his lurking cohorts didn't receive this kindly at all, and thus the first volley of arrows came whistling out from the woods. A successful ambush, felling a number of caravan hands whose attention was elsewhere.

Ruslan had dived to the other side of the cart, pressed his back to it as he heard the thumps of arrows imbedding themselves into the wood. Goffred, a moment later, was around to this side too, his shield with no less than three arrows stuck in it.

Ruslan looked to the other man. Spiting the danger, he said with comical annoyance and an exaggerated roll of his eyes, "Archers."

The flippant, gallows humor worked. Both men, their hearts thudding in their chests, shared a laugh as the ambush continued.

Maranae
 
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The trap sprung, and it was clear from the outset that they were horribly outnumbered. Even though the ostensible leader of this pack of thieves had fallen before ever the first arrow had flown, they still rallied and fought.

Clearly, there was a chain of command, and the one who had stepped into the dead man's shoes still liked their odds plenty good enough to carry on.

Arrowed thocked into the wood of the vehicles, found the flesh of horse and man alike. Not all of the brigands behind the makeshift walls were archers - barely half of them were. The others carried axes and hammers and rudimentary spears and stolen swords, and they waited for the archers to soften the targets up. The screams of pain were entirely one-sided to begin with; it took a moment for the guards to string bows and knock and draw.

The fancy elfin youth cried out as an arrow took him in the leg, pinning it to the horse he rode. The beast scream in pain, bucking the young mercenary off her back and tearing the arrow free of his leg as she did. He landed badly, struggling to rise.

And the tall redhead herself too one too, high in chest. She gasped in pain as the force of it spun her off her perch on the cart. She landed face first on the dirt of the road, she sharp exhalation from the impact spraying blood into the greedy earth.

Silence save for the scream of the downed carthorses and the elfin youth reigned after that opening salvo. And then, bright and clear, Mama Bear screamed to them, rage dripping from every word. "South, break south! Leave the carts!" She suited her own words and barreled towards the barricade there.

As if her movement had spurred them on, the archers on that side of the road knocked and loosed again. Those to the north, once assured that they were not going to be attacked, simply dropped their bows from the ready position while the brigands with melee weapons surged over their barricade.

Maranae, now on her hands and knees, drooling blood, made a mewling sound as she gripped the shaft of the arrow and tore it from her chest with such brutal strength the wood splintered in her grip. Blood splattered on the forest floor. Face ghostly white from the pain, blood running down the worn and stained leathers, she got to her feet unsteadily. Turned towards where the remaining guards were now making their way...and pelted after them with a surprising turn of speed.

There would be a melee at the wall. Behind them, the varied weapons raised, their assailants closed in. The quickest stopped at the carts, taking a position to defend them if they should turn back.
 
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Ruslan hazarded a look around the back end of the cart. He jerked back as the glint of an arrowhead caught his eye and, Regel willing, he'd reflexes enough to evade the arrow; the zip as it passed suggested it would have missed regardless, but there wasn't anything wrong with making sure and keeping sharp, eh? He looked out again.

The elf with the stylish hat was down, and far. Damn. The redhead with the claws too; closer, yes, yet this was what ambush archers loved, for a wounded enemy's comrades to break from cover and try to help. There was gear on the ground too from the fallen—bows, shields. Might as well be on the adjacent continent. Going into direct line of sight of the archers on the north side either to help a comrade or scavenge gear walked well over that dividing line between daring and foolish.

Mama Bear's resounding cry put into words the prevailing sentiment among the surviving caravaneers.

"No loot today," Goffred said, prepping himself for a sprint from the caravan.

"There's some to the south." Ruslan bumped Goffred's shoulder with a fist. "You've a chance yet."

"Yeah, I'm glad they put all their cross-eyed archers on the south side."

As if to punctuate his insult and inadvertantly prove it right, an arrow limply smacked into the cart in the little space between the two men. Ruslan and Goffred shared a quick glance, each a touch incredulous, their tandem huffs giving life to the shared thought of Well we didn't think that would be so true.

"Let's see if they're any more handy with a sword. Ready?"

"Ready."

They were about to break from the cart and rush south, rush to meet that half of the raiding force coming over their barricade with their melee weapons in hand. Plenty of the caravaneers were already in motion to that effect. But a surprise stayed both men as they saw the redheaded woman not only up and seemingly well, but sprinting faster than any of the other caravaneers. Ruslan and Goffred shared another quick glance, this one with the surprised shared thought of You see that too, right?

Dismissing the bemusement, Ruslan said, "Lovely day for a run," and at his words the two men went bolting after the other retreating caravaneers, not too far behind Maranae. Ahead was the southern barricade the ambushers had set up and the wave of raiders surging over it, their battle cries resounding with confidence. The only way past was through them.

If ever there was a test of the martial skills Ruslan had practiced in the War College, then this was it. Blood and glory, or dirt and dark. No two ways about it. With trust in Regel, trust in his axe-arm, and the promise of victory purchasing him everything this day, Ruslan charged into battle.

Maranae
 
A good turn of speed, but one that would not let her forget the pain. Her chest ached where the arrow had been ripped free. Every breath was an agony and difficult besides; blood still drooled down her chin and rattled in her chest even as it leaked through the hole there.

The coppery scent of her own blood and that of her companions made her nose flare regardless. She could feel the beast within, always barely a breath away, stirring. And her world narrowed to what was directly in front of her. Her companions were vaguely seen shapes, the roars of triumph of the thieves behind them muted and distant.

Mara ran, stumbling and catching herself, coughing and expelling a red mist as she did. But she kept going, and came upon the barricade even as Mama Bear did. That worthy caught a heavy spear with one of her knives and deflected it just enough, and then fell upon its wielder.

The archers retreated and faded back as the melee fighters stepped up. And Mara, light headed and pained, came face to face with one of them. Wielding a spiked club, the brute overtopped her by several inches, squaring himself and swinging at her with the heavy weapon with the solid intention of dashing her skull into pieces.

That was what he thought would happen, and what would have happened if she were human. Instead...

...the descending weapon stopped cold, the girl swaying a little under the force of it. His arm was in her hand, and she had stopped the blow as cold as if he had hit a wall. He barely had time to register the shock before she threw him out of her way, blood spraying from her lips as she grunted with the effort. The man went down spinning, blood leaking from where her claws had unintentionally pierced his flesh.

Two more stepped up behind him, bearing blades. Mara's eyes tightened, but she readied herself to face them... and still without the blade on her back out.
 
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The battle was one not entirely untouched by desperation. The caravaneers, naturally, had the ferocity of fear and all the strength garnered from the feeling of being a cornered animal; the raiders, not only their lust for plunder but their need for it, as therein lay their livelihoods, and though they might escape with their lives should the battle turn sour for them, of what good would it be without a single coin to carry them on?

As for Ruslan, one thing he certainly kept in mind as his body and his arms did their work was a particular lesson from the War College. The gifts of Praetor could lead one to overconfidence or complacency, thinking that all opponents might be like a surprised mage suddenly stripped of their power. But in truth, humble, mundane steel was just as much a threat to a Praetor as to any other fighting man; a Praetor could blink a fireball out of the air, a fantastic feat, but not so much as a rusty sword out of his chest.

All that said, it was good to have a friend at your side for these sorts of wild, physical battles.

Ruslan and Goffred worked as an impromptu team, like a two-man formation, using that slight advantage of numbers to waylay one, two, three raiders who came their way (maybe they had a bit of overconfidence in them). On the last, Goffred rammed him with his shield and Ruslan, from the side, swung a mighty arc and cleaved through the raider's side, and then buried his axe in his chest when he turned for a dying swing of his own.

A stray arrow from the bandits holding the caravan, sailing past, reminded them to hurry up and get cover.

"Almost there!" Ruslan said, and indeed the barricade was but a hop, skip, and a jump away.

"You see that?"

"What?" At Goffred's prompting Ruslan turned and looked. He didn't see Maranae grab the big raider's club nor lay hands on the big raider himself, but he did see the man flying from the after-effect of it. She had undeniably thrown the man. Ruslan was astonished to say the least; she was a tall one, yes, but she also seemed to have an ogre's strength in that lithe frame.

He recovered. Thumped Goffred on the shoulder as two more raiders appeared to menace Maranae. "It wouldn't do to let her have all the glory," he said, smoothing over that second-ago amazement with a dash of facetiousness.

And the two men came charging toward to help Maranae engage their common foes.

Maranae
 
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Pale, pain radiating outward in fiery lances from her chest, she stood her ground as her foes came in to attack. She was acutely aware of the entire battlefield around her.

The vicious and unapologetic savagery of Mama Bear as she clove into anyone who came close until she was little more than a blood-soaked demon. Most of that blood was not hers, despite the overwhelming odds.

Another nameless caravaneer that batted aside a rudimentary spear with his blade, snapped the haft of the weapon. Took an arrow through his forearm - still split his opponent from clavicle to pelvis in a murderous overhand swing.

The tag-team effort of Goffred and Raslan did not escape her notice either. Pale, pained, and loathe to do this one thing she had been crafted to do, the flow and ebb of the field was in her blood.

She stepped forward, sliding sideways with grace and speed marred only by the fact that she stumbled a bit as her body twisted, as pain bit deeper and harder. She swung out in a backhanded blow, and caught the raider that had been swinging overhand with his blade high in the arm with a muted crack; sending him flying sideways as though he'd been struck by a giant with his arm twisted at an odd angle, blade dropping from nerveless fingers. Head swimming, Mara huffed a breath that bubbled blood on her lips.

Two more came, but one of her companions had snagged his attention - Raslan or Goffred, she did not know. The other one thrust at her, and she leaned back. Not fast enough, but enough to avoid a lethal blow as he sank two inches of steel into her thigh. Turned out to perhaps not be the greatest victory in the world as she stepped into his reach, fist balled up to deliver a colossal blow to his chest. Even through leather, even with the sound of triumphant yells and screams of pain, it was impossible to miss the sound of crunching bone as the man went down in a heap.

In front of her, no further enemies stood. With a quick glance to see if the others had succeded in breaking free, she continued into the woods, leaving the sound of revelry from the raiders behind her.
 
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The charge brought them into confrontation with one of the better equipped raiders. Full chainmail, well-maintained weapon, even a freshly looted round shield with only minor wear. And the man himself proved to be a competent fighter.

Ruslan pulled his attention from Maranae with a sharp cry, though the raider was hardly startled by seeing the two men bearing down on him. Ruslan and the raider exchanged a quick series blows to no effect on either of them, axe and sword each in their opposing hands flying with fury. A kick from the raider, square into Ruslan's gut, bought space. Goffred stepped in, he and the raider bashing their shields against one another, their weapons swinging around the rims in hopes of blood purchase. As Ruslan recovered, he heard Goffred yelp, but his companion still stood. He rushed back into the fray (hearing the loud crunch of bone from Maranae's punch as he did) and with a strike perhaps guided by Regel himself managed to drive his hard into the nook of neck and shoulder. The raider grunted. Goffred knocked him to the ground. And Ruslan stood over him, the dazed raider, and with all his might brought his axe slamming down on his armored chest yet still caving in his ribcage—his death was assured in a matter of agonizing minutes.

There was no time for anything else now but flight, and so Goffred and Ruslan hurried along with the rest of the caravan stragglers. It was like a queer changing of positions, as those caravaneers who emerged with their lives ran into the woods and the raiders who emerged victorious from their duels descended down to the caravan to claim their share of the spoils.

* * * * *​

In the woods, eventually the loose group of stragglers came to a stop. Many nursed wounds, all were panting, exhausted.

Ruslan was doubled over, hands on his knees, the intense exertion of the battle and the flight catching up to him now after the fire departed from his veins. Thank Saint Sofia that he'd gotten through it without blood spilt.

He looked to Goffred. Asked, "Are you wounded?"

Goffred, likewise doubled over, pulled back his hand from his arm and showed a spot of blood. "I'll live."

Ruslan nodded. Then he looked to Maranae, who they happened to be near, and to ask the same, "Are you wou—?" He caught himself, then aptly rephrased, given the look of her. "Are you well? Will you be alright?"

Maranae
 
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She kept with the caravaners who had survived by sheer will alone. Each step was an agony, a spike of fire punching through her chest. Her breath still rattled in her lungs, and blood wept down her back and front with every step. The tide had slowed greatly, but even so she could feel the weakness lurking in the background. Entwined with that ugly pain was something else, something more feral.

The coppery scent of blood was a sickening, enticing stain on the air. It stirred animalistic instinct within, instinct that she deliberately crushed.

The trees thinned, and eventually the ragged band entered a clearing. At one time, there had been a homestead here. The skeletal finger of a stone chimney clawed at the sky, the rotted timbers and tumbled stone of its walls all that remained. The forest was well on its way to reclaiming what humanity had thought to tame.

Mara stumbled, caught herself, then stumbled again. On one knee, a hand down to keep from going the rest of the way, she heaved each heavy breath. The pain climbed, and she bore it.

Words. She blinked, looked up at the man - Ruslan, she thought - with yellow eyes tight with pain. Her teeth were stained with blood as she opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. Paused, considered. "Not ... well," she rasped at last. The words bore a little twist; her long incisors did not make speaking easy most of the time. When they were long, anyway; in her current state, the bestial nature was at the forefront. "Need time," she whispered, breath quick and sharp and crackling.

The wound she had taken would be fatal for a mere human, or an elf, or most of the humanoid races. But she was none of those things. Wasn't even sure if there was any humanity left in her, however she might outwardly look. Such thoughts were difficult and sluggish. Violence came easier.

But she hated violence.

The blood-splattered girl sat backwards heavily, head hung as she struggled to breath. As the strange magic woven through her flesh did its grisly work. The phantom pain of hunger rose with it, the gnawing weakness a promise that would soon become difficult to ignore. "Not luck, this day," she managed. Elsewhere in the overgrown clearing, Mama Bear was working her way through the other survivors, offering those with minor hurts her consolation and stopping for those more seriously wounded. The acrid tang of magic flared here, there, and with it the redhead found her hackles rising. "Only more fight. You... hurt?" It took an effort to form the words, the think them. They came out as a feral growl as she coughed wetly and spat a stream of bright blood on the forest floor.

The hole in her chest still leaked. Inside, though...
 
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"No," said Ruslan, then he began to take off his brigandine, intent at getting to his shirt and tearing strips of cloth from it. "God and saints, you still have open wounds."

Arethil was home to a plethora of kinds: mankind, elvenkind, orckind, so on. Of what kind the redheaded woman belonged to, Ruslan couldn't say, but she bled blood as red as anyone else. Maybe she had the constitution of a dwarf, maybe she could live through such a wound, yet for there to be any hope the bleeding had to be stopped.

Ruslan had his armor off, the bottom of his shirt held in tight fists, ready to pull and tear, when his eye caught something. He looked up, looked more intently at it. One of the smaller cuts on the woman, fresh as any other from the brightness of the blood around it, simply...sewed itself back up, and there was not, so far as Ruslan could tell, a scar or seam of any sort to even hint that a moment prior a weeping wound hand been there.

He paused. Said, "That's not natural."

Though, unlike a good many of his fellow devout Gildans, his words were spoken with an air of intrigue and fascination. He even looked to the larger wound on her chest, wondering if it might do the same.

Maranae
 
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Hunger. Weakness. A rising tide, flowing outward from her core as inexorably as the real tide. She fought it, though it made thinking even more difficulty, made words come even more slow. The tang of blood in the air took on new significance, and it hardly mattered whose blood it was she scented.

"G-good," she managed in response to the answer. She swallowed hard. It was difficult to ignore the sensation of flesh crawling under her skin, and the even less pleasant sensations deep in her chest. The gift of her blood worked its little miracle, mending and binding her hurts at varying speeds. Some would have called it a gift, anyway.

She did not know what to call it.

Hands in tight fists, so tight the knuckles were bloodless, she followed his movements, saw him getting ready to make bindings, and saw his eyes track her lesser injuries - ones she hadn't even felt or noticed - and then settle on the wound in her chest. The torn flesh round the arrow wound already looked pink where it wasn't bloody. The flow had already stemmed itself considerably.

A moment of alarm, of panic, filled her head. He could see, and he knew there was something otherworldly about her, something abnormal and abhorrent. The thoughts moved with glacial slowness, her blank expression slowly shifting this way and that to follow the run of her thoughts.

Unease into worry, worry into fear, and finally fear into indifference. Or, perhaps, not entirely indifferent. There was something like shame there, too.

"Am... a beast. Monster," she said slowly and thickly. Like an animal with human traits, barely more than an animal to begin with. Shame cut through her slowly; this was why she did not talk much to others outside of those times when she was hale and well fed, and her thoughts could flow more freely. "Not ... normal. Natural," she added.

She waited, breaths coming short and sharp and agonizing, for the recriminations and accusations. The same ones that sped her from civilized places for a variety of reasons, not least of which being her bestial feature on an otherwise quite attractive frame. Enough to lure people in only to find out that she was, in fact, anything but normal.
 
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Jura condemned the use of magic, as it was the exclusive province of the divine. Magical beings, furthermore, were abominations in the eyes of the religion, grossly contrary to the right ordering of things. But many races had characteristics one might think magical, yet were not: a troll's regeneration for example.

Was this similar? These self-mending wounds of the redheaded woman?

Many within his House, even from among his own family, had detracting opinions about Ruslan departing Gild to embark on the unofficial custom of Gezi. Yet it was experiences just like this that Ruslan sought, the meeting of peoples unknown and cultures foreign. He was a believer in Jura, yes, but his faith was not marked but zealotry. Curiosity and discovery were allowed their pre-eminence.

So he offered the redheaded woman an easy smile. Said, "You don't look like a monster to me."

He reached down for his brigandine, intent on picking it up and putting it back on, but then a new thought interrupted him.

"My name is Ruslan." With a sweep of his free hand he added, "And now we can be properly well met, as much as the occasion allows."

And though he didn't quite know, he asked anyway of her wounds, "Is there anything I can do?"

Goffred, he was aware, was busy patching himself up nearby.

Maranae
 
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Animal hunger gnawed at her mind, at her spine, at everything she was. The healing continued apace, drawing the ambient magic from around her even as it fed upon the essence that was her. She looked up with those remarkable yellow eyes, white blood-shot and deeply underscored by dark circles. After a moment, she offered him a strained smile, pink stained teeth gleaming in the gloom of the clearing. It did not reach her eyes, though.

Therein swam hunger, such deep and consuming hunger. She clung to her sense of self with a tenuous grip.

"Ma... Maranae," she rasped. A thread of blood dribbled down her chin, ruby drops catching the light as they fell earthward, the forest swallowing them greedily. "Need...need to eat," she growled, and tried to rise. She managed only a few inches before falling back to hands and knees.

The hole in her chest was gone. Internally, the damage had yet to unwind itself. Both healed wounds and unhealed and healing ached with a vengeance, as though every minute of hurt denied by being mended so swiftly were being amplified a hundredfold.

She looked up through pain-brightened eyes. "Much food, she needs," she said and cursed inwardly at the slip. It had taken months to break the ingrained habit of child-like speech gained while caged and raised. Severe injuries and the resulting weakness and drain afterwards always made he regress mentally. "Then ... better."
 
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Odd, that, the use of the third-person there. It didn't make what she was saying unintelligible in Common, but the irregular usage suggested something, likely that Common wasn't her first language. This seemed even more plausible, he had to say, from the claws and the teeth. She could be Letai, yes, but maybe not. Maybe of a kind from areas more remote.

But in any case.

"Well Maranae," Ruslan said, his smile becoming a bit strained as he knew the bad news was coming, "that is likely the one thing not a man among us has on his person."

Ruslan's case was no different to any of the other caravaneers, he imagined. With no time to grab any of his personal gear, all he had in his possession now were what he wore on his back, had on his belt, or carried in his hands—none of it food.

He started to put on his brigandine again.

"What the land provides between here and the nearest settlement is all that we will have."

He did embark on his Gezi in the spirit of adventure, hadn't he? Well, now he certainly had it.

Maranae
 
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"That lass doesn't have any trouble making the land provide," Mama Bear said suddenly from behind them. Maranae looked up, mildly startled. That woman could move as stealthy as a cat when she wanted to. In fact, Mama had hidden depths to her that Maranae could scarcely comprehend on a good day.

Right now base comprehension was a trial and a chore. "Hunt she shall," she growled out. After a pause, she gave a strangled croak and then coughed long and hard. The ground in front of her was flexked with blood, but it was not the bright lung-blood one would expect. Clotted, dark - as though it had been there a while - and gleaming in the fading light. Mara took a ragged breath, and then got to her feet slowly.

She looked a mess. A fan of dried blood ran down the stained leathers. Dried blood flaked from her arm and chin. And aside from that...

...the light gleaming in her eyes was near feral. The inner struggle raging behind her eyes displayed it here and there on her features. Her hands remained clenched.

"Save the violence for later, girl," Mama said, looked to the two men. She made no comment about the apparent state of the mercenary woman. "You two squared away?"
 
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Both Ruslan and Goffred looked to Mama Bear as she appeared and gave her remarks. Ruslan found that he did not doubt it, did not doubt it in the slightest. The woman Maranae with her bestial features could likely do more with that natural fitness than a sharpshot man with a bow and arrow. If his eyes hadn't deceived him, he did believe that he'd seen her throw a raider as though he were nothing more than a sack of flour.

You two squared away?

"I'm better off than some of my friends," Goffred said grimly but realistically.

"Fortune favored the bold," Ruslan said of himself. Perhaps something like boastfulness could be heard in it, but what he said had been the simple fact of the matter during the desperate escape from the ambush. Every man's luck varied by a degree their gods ordained, but boldness always helped improve one's lot when a situation became dire.

He made an offhand gesture back in the direction of the caravan, saying mostly to Maranae but for Mama Bear's awareness as well, "I had to leave my hunting bow on my cart." That and all the rest of his gear, but it went without saying. "Else I would've seen what I could do for sustenance in short order. Will you be able to walk?"

Her wounds were healing all of their own accord, but her attempt to stand had been noticeably labored.

Maranae
 
"Arrow... chest," she managed. Barely. It would have been a joke if she had the mental capacity for it, which definitively was not right then. "Can walk," she added quite slowly and thickly.

"Damn straight you can," the woman replied gruffly before turning to Goffred and Ruslan. Mara blinked at the woman, yellow eyes gleaming in the pale light. She had worked with this particular caravan for a time, had some idea of what the head of it was like. The scent of blood in the air made it difficult to think, and the bestial instincts that ran right beneath her surface would actually approve of what she knew was coming.

"We'll get that bow back," she said in as dry and matter-of-fact a tone as could be had. "Let me see the arm," she demanded of Goffred. Demanded, and did not wait for his consent. Arm in hand - a surprisingly strong grip, that woman - she examined the wound. And laughed. "Had worse saddling a horse. Bled more when my time comes," she said. All the same, magic suffused his flesh, low and slow and lingering. No fancy high sorcery here, merely mending over time.

She did not even offer for Maranae.

"Gather your things. We will make camp here, together, while I send Andon back to spy on our unwelcome guests." She paused as she turned, looked back. "Hope you haven't had your fill of fighting. Going to earn your keep today. Maybe put paid to the debt our friends incurred." There was something truly evil in her eyes at that last, a smoldering rage that knew no bounds.

"Hunger," Maranae whispered as she took an unsteady step in the direction that the master had gone, looking back at Ruslan with nearly feral eyes.
 
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Gather your things.

Well, that was the easy part. To say that they might well be sleeping under the stars tonight was a charitable description of their ragged situation. In addition to his bow and his travel pack with all his gear, Ruslan's cloak as well was back on that cart now in the raiders' hands. Would've made for a more comfortable night's sleep, but that was least of anyone's concerns right now.

Hope you haven't had your fill of fighting.

At this, Ruslan just smiled easily. He had no trouble with the prospect of another fight against the raiders. If there was one thing which captivated him in learning the history of his country, it was the valor in which all the battles of old were fought, in the individual soldiers who held in their hearts the most stalwart convictions and sincerest pride for their homeland, who made their craft warfare and their dearest wish to fight and fight well, for in that all else followed. There was glory to be had in it. Immortality.

Goffred stretched his back and mused facetiously, "I would've preferred an easier pouch of coin on my belt, but I guess earning it isn't so bad."

This got a small chuckle out of Ruslan before he stepped off along with Maranae. The bestial woman was a hell of a fighter. If she could be made fully well again, the raiders would have a formidable foe with whom to contend. And...heh, if nothing else, ensuring victory against the raiders could get him that cloak of his back. It was comfortable. And warm. And his favorite color.

"Maybe," he said as they walked, "we can make a deal with one of our esteemed fellows here."

Ruslan glanced about the caravan survivors. Found one caravan hand, a bald man with a thick mustache, who actually had his backpack still slung over his shoulders. He pointed the tip of his axe toward him.

"Such as him. He might have some food in that pack of his. Let's see if he's willing to trade."

Maranae
 
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Yellow eyes followed Ruslan's eyes, and caught sight of the pack. Even from here, even with the coppery scent of blood thick on the air... she could smell it. Morsels of food. Hunger surged in her, a wild and insistent demand crashing through her diminished sense of self.

Her fangs lengthened. Her claws did as well. A kind of magic, brutal and rough, flowed through Maranae - but it was a flow that she had no control over, that was intrinsically a part of her.

The truth was that everyone here was food, if it came to it. Only some overriding part of her, some sense of self that had survived what had been done to her to make her into the creature she was now - only that kept her from turning into a truly wild, feral thing. A monster in truth. She had not been wrong in her own self-assessment: she was a beast every bit as dangerous as those creatures the Monster Hunters sought.

"I can smell it," she growled low in her throat, and turned to face the bald man. It might have been a trick of the light, but it seemed as though the shape of her body had changed. Still willowy and supple, but an added layer of tone to her slim muscles. Muscles that should not be as strong as they were. Bones that should not be as resilient, either. "Give it to her," she snarled. Hunger, overriding and all consuming.

The bald fellow paused in his tracks, and looked at the young woman staring at him as if he were dinner. The fellow had managed to get clean from the fighting earlier, but even so he paled under the intensity of her stare, and the attention of the two other guards with her. "I don't have much," he managed, fumbling with the drawstring that held the thing shut. She watched his hands intently, animal eyes following each and every movement.

The half wheel of hard cheese had barely cleared the opening in the pack before she snatched it from him. Well, tried to anyway; the first grab missed as she stumbled, weakness still waxing and waning in her. The second time, she managed to grab it. The food, scant morsel that it was, was gone in seconds. Baldy took a step back, wide-eyed and wary.

Cheese hit her stomach, and then the core of her being did what it did. Took that morsel of food and tore it apart into something akin to mana, and then absorbed it into her flesh. Hunger waned. A little bit, but it released her mind and allowed the fog to clear at least a little bit.

"That is not... not enough. But..," she said as her eyes cleared. A little, at least. Teeth and claws seemed to revert back to their previous state, too. "Thank you," she offered haltingly.
 
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"Y-Yeah," said the bald man, glancing to Ruslan either for some kind of explanation or reassurance or something else, and then back to Maranae. "Don't mention it." The bald man wasted no time in hustling off to join a small circle of normal, human caravaneers.

Ruslan couldn't help but to smile. What could he say? Bearing witness to the whole interaction was amusing. Underneath this surface level amusement though, like thick and powerful roots, was a deep intrigue bordering on wonder. One helplessly becomes accustomed to all the familiarities of one's home, and specifically the inhabitants thereof: the fearsome strength of ogres no longer bore any surprise, and neither did the astounding endurance of dwarves nor the piety of his fellow humans. In Maranae was something novel indeed.

"You have a way with words," said Ruslan, making a little joke of it as he watched the bald man scurry off. Those claws, those fangs, did a lot more of the talking.

With those qualities in mind, though, he was prompted to ask, "May I ask you where you're from, Mara?"

Maranae
 
The ghostly pallor had faded to merely a sickly one. Maranae opened her mouth to say that she already had mentioned it, but the bald fellow was already gone. Fled, like so many did before her. The faintest sense of otherness, of being utterly alone washed through her.

But she was still too far gone to wallow in her own insecurity.

She blinked and cut her eyes back to Ruslan as he spoke. The words flowed less sluggishly in her mind now. A distant, weak part of her was surprised that he too had not fled her presence. She cocked her head to one side, trying to understand what it was he meant by that - a way with words - when he posed a question that she could not easily answer.

Flickering images. Blurred faces. Light and dark and the scent of human habitation - chamber pots, unwashed bodies, fish, horses and their manure - alongside fear and pain and suffering and a bright emotion she could not define.

"She... I don't...," she began slowly. She turned to face Ruslan, yellow eyes gleaming in the dim light. "Do not know. No ... memory. Only shadow there..."

Maranae shivered involuntarily, mentally shying away from whatever the questions and the memories it evoked brought forth. She shook her head as if that would dispel the few intact memories she still had from before her escape into the world. The memories from before her time in that cursed, traumatic place were nothing but shards.

Ephemeral and as easy to grasp and hold as sand.

"Only remember hole in ground," she said defensively, communicated mostly through body language.
 
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He wasn't...expecting that answer. Now granted, upon reflection, he couldn't really say what answer he would have been expecting, as he knew not her kind and therefore had no plausible guesses as to from where on Arethil she hailed, but a hole in the ground? That was all she remembered?

The poor thing. Being tied to the land of one's birth, sharing in all of its woes and fortunes, was one of the great sources of meaning in life.

In any case, it looked like this was positively the last thing Maranae wanted to talk about. So Ruslan played it off easily, making of it no great matter, "I've heard it said that it matters less where you're from and more where you're going." In a friendly gesture he clapped her arm. "And I can tell you, once Andon returns we will be going to a nice place where they serve warm, fiery revenge."

He always liked saying that better than ice cold revenge. Why not have a little passion in bringing the fight against those who've wronged you and your fellows?

Maranae
 
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She flinched at the casual contact. Actually flinched, stepping away from Ruslan as though...

She regarded him suspiciously for a moment, then offered a tentative, bright smile. When no further contact came her way, she finally straightened and appeared to pick over his words in silence. Pick them over, roll them round her head as though searching for some hidden meaning... or perhaps, just for their true meaning.

"Not... not like fighting," she finally said by way of reply. Her stomach growled in hunger, eyes remained rooted on Ruslan. "Only way Mara knows, is fighting. Not like. Only made to do it, not ... not want? Desire?" She shook her head to scatter the cobwebs slowing her thoughts.

She looked at her hands, pale flesh spattered with her own blood and that of others. "Made to do. Made to learn, and only fight. No other purpose."

An odd image, that. Looking at her blood-drenched hands, the hilt of a long, notched blade poking over her shoulder. Every inch a mercenary, if not a stupid one. Every inch loathe to take up the trade she found herself in - if only because there was no other that she was suited for.
 
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