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 [ 18+ ] who hath desired the sea — her menaces swift as her mercies, for bird
Lar
 Posted: Sep 9 2015, 01:03 PM
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There is a certain surreal quality to the minutes—hours—that follow the fight. Mariam moves like a paper lantern drifting in the wind, alight with some inner turmoil. She frees herself from the attention of the other graduates, however many of them clap her proudly on the shoulder and offer to take her out for a drink. They might be proud, but a bubble of shame floats uneasily in Mariam's throat—is she any better a fighter for being ruthless?

Wordlessly, she collects her weapon from Samuel. He moves to say something but the look in her eyes stops him; Maram might punch him too. She is gone from the paddock almost as swiftly as Alis, gaze cast down to the dirt so she doesn't have to see the margrave's daughter retreating proudly.

*

The glaive is battered, its blade dulled by dirt and steel, its pole splintering and rough where the biting axe landed. In the quiet of her room, Mariam takes whetstone to steel, her mouth as grim a line as the sweep of the glaive.

*

In the low evening hours after the sun has set, when the chill of the ocean rolls in on the wind, Mariam loses herself in merchant's stalls; among horse-dealers; fitting new armor. She acquires a new glaive, this one steel-wrapped and capped with brass at each end. The new blade is a different shape, cruel as a scythe and cold as a winter sea, crafted from the finest marbled steel. There is no guisarme to unseat charging horsemen—Mariam will be among their number now.

Coin purse lighter, she takes her new treasure down past the docks, to a rocky beach where waves tumble the stones. Here she practices until the new glaive feels like an old friend; she shears tough sea grass with the gentlest swing and repeats blocking forms until her arms feel heavy and bruised from the effort, until the sea darkles in starlight, the whitecaps roaring their empty longing.

Mariam dreams of Thermyras.

*

With one blast of horns, the long night blooms into an even longer morning, ripe with the smell of horses and hay, of unwashed men working hard in light armor, of leather tack being soaped and oiled last minute. Mariam is issued a mount from the palace's supply: Percival, a younger chestnut gelding, fresh out of training. He has the sweet eye of a puppydog and the cowed stillness of a well-broke warhorse. Mariam takes her time readying him for the journey, talking sweetly to him in her islander tongue all the while. He flicks an ear at her as if he understands, and noses her pockets for treats.

When Percy is at last ready, Mariam clears her little room in the palace, tucking trinkets and letters away in the folds of her bedroll. She says a last goodbye to the starlings outside her arrow-slit window—to the only home she's known for years.

*

Armel Cormeilles heads the company, his standard-bearer at his left hoisting the lion high. Mariam sours at the sight and kicks her mount to the side, veering out of formation and urging Percy forward to the front of the herd. She glimpses Alis' black eye blooming amidst the chaos and ducks her head, embarrassed, before falling back into position.

Samuel, beside her, touches her sleeve in gentle reassurance.

*

Around midday, they reach the village of Corraro, whose suntanned villas spread through the swooping vineyard hills. Armel and his ilk talk long over maps, charting a course, while the chipper knights chatter between themselves over lunch of salt-fish and summer sausage. Mariam eats in silence, far from the others, her fingers grazing the sallow bruise on her jaw. Before the horn calls again, Mariam rides the perimeter of their little company and spies Alis again, astride a beautiful dark bay who moves like the horses of myth.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs, pulling up alongside her rival as Armel and his men mount up and sound the horn. "I didn't mean to black your eye."
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bird
 Posted: Sep 9 2015, 04:54 PM
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There isn't time for much more, when the horns call. The margrave's goodbyes are Northerner-brusque, familiar as ever - keep the wind at your back, and gods light your way - but he holds his children tight on that hellish morning, and stays until Tomas' squire fetches their steeds.

He doesn't tarry long after they leave. There are still pikemen to train, infantry to raise and drill, rations and horses and bowstrings to supply if the man dying in the prince's chambers is to believed. No small feat, in this balmy, peace-fatted country, where the crown prince near faints at the sight of blood.

The citadel echoes, empty, by the time the sun breaks over the sea. Gods willing, Armel's men will find nothing.




*

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*




The road to Corraro takes them winding up through the golden scrublands, kicking up fine yellow dust that fogs the air between the cypress trees. Alis rides alone and a little apart astride her great dark destrier, pride swelling in her heart when she turns in her saddle to look back over the thundering cataphract. Still, the silence chafes. Neither the islanders nor the little lordlings riding with them are any great friends of hers, and Tomas is too sullen and Armel far too serious to talk to for very long. The blue dolphin haurient is nowhere to be seen, though somewhere in the pack she spies a curly head sometimes, the edge of a familiar bruise.

She isn't very hungry when the call comes to halt, and takes to wandering up and down the road to stretch her legs instead, picking grapes off delicately as she goes. A young man sitting cross-legged in the shade stares after her as she unties her reins from the gnarled trunk of a holm oak, and looks hurriedly away. No jibes today, and for good reason: Alis knows what she looks like.

The men are still mounting up when the destrier swings his head around, ears flicking backwards at hoofbeats coming up the path. "Diablo," Alis says, pulling him back with a firm hand and a sharp sound between her teeth. The look she throws Mariam over her shoulder is molten silver, even through the bruise.

"No?" Her eyebrows go up. "Then what did you mean?" The silken tone she takes still curls into the shape of steel: not to you, fishwife. Why should Mariam be sorry?

--------------------
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 10 2015, 12:15 PM
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Mariam bites back a harsh reply that rushes like the tide; her hands tighten on the soft leather of her reins. Beneath her, Percy shifts and drops his head to lip at the ground. She shushes at him and strokes his neck lovingly, purring at him in melodious islander tongue.

When at last he stills, Mariam turns again to Alis, this time without the stubbornness in her chin. If anything, there is pity in her doe-like eyes.

"I meant for you to yield," Mariam replies softly. "So I could spare your pretty face."

She clucks Percy forward, two strides ahead of Diablo, and the pair of them fall in with the rest of the knights. By now their formation has become nebulous and the roads have narrowed so that only three or four can ride abreast, kicking up clouds of dust. There is a sacred cast to the light here, golden and steady, without the vast blue of the sea flickering within it.

Mariam wonders if it's possible to get landsick—if so she is now, queasy at the thought of land so still and immovable under her mount's four hooves.
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bird
 Posted: Sep 10 2015, 07:38 PM
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"Aim better next time, then," Alis says, but it isn't much of a barb at all -- a half-hearted stab, caught a little off balance. Mariam has already moved a little up ahead of her in the pack, a shining new glaive strapped across the back of her saddle, her eyes wide and brown and lying as sweetly as she had at the tourney yesterday. Alis doesn't buy any of it, scowling after her with heat spreading under her jaw. The horn beckons them further up another bend in the road, a long silver line winding up away from the distant blue smudge of the sea.

Then, on impulse, she nudges Diablo forward with her heel a few paces, coming up beside cow-eyed Percy on the path. A young knight riding a little too close to her flank mutters under his breath when she cuts forward - don't ride so close, Eastmarch - but he falls back in the line, ignored.

"New stick?" The new glaive seems like decent work, actually, at least along the part of the staff that she can see. Her voice is airy, as if she hadn't spent yesterday afternoon chopping up the old one.
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 10 2015, 08:16 PM
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"I was due for a new one," Mariam says, and the waver in her voice could be anger or accent. She looks at Alis out of the corner of her eye, distrustful. "The old one took a few good hits yesterday." Whether she means it as a compliment is a mystery as black as a moonless night; there is a shy quirk to her lips as she adjusts her grip on her reins, gaze cast down at her lap.

By now the morning's excitement is gone, overcome by afternoon drowsiness; no small number of the men blink hazily along the road and grumble for their beds. Outside the training ring, there is a wistfulness to Mariam, the inexorable touch of islander aesthetic in her. She devours the scenery as hungrily as any of the men would a hot meal, and wonders at the changing trees. When at last they crest the final hill in view of the sea, she twists in her saddle to watch the slice of blue disappear behind golden hills.

A cloud passes over her then, fleetingly, and her rail-straight riding posture collapses a bit in the shoulders. Mariam bites her lip.

"What is the north like?" she asks, and then, lower, "What do they have us marching up for?"

There have be whispers but no more, ghosts of the truth. If anyone has an inkling, well—

Who better than the lion's daughter?
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bird
 Posted: Sep 10 2015, 10:42 PM
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For most of the country, Cypria ends not much further north than Corraro.

Alis knows these golden hill towns well enough, in the perfunctory way that a young noblewoman might, given an expensive horse and not much of substance to do. Here, the goats graze between vineyards and the olive trees and the breeze smells like earth and tarragon. To the west, the ground greens and turns to terraced farms along the lazy banks of the river Iscamor; looking east, the coast curves around towards the shallow Basadona shores. But the road north - the real road north, winding past idyllic farms and sleepy villas and into the forested foothills - is something she hasn't seen since she was small, looking over her shoulder and sitting astride a shaggy-haired mountain pony. Still. Mariam asks after the north and Alis remembers the names of each gray range and spearheaded peak; mountain streams, clear and swift and deep, welling up in the cool shadows of fir trees. Beate's ice-eyed people have a word for the aching that inevitably comes with remembering. In the southern tongues, it translates poorly -- the memory of bones.

"Forests, mostly," she says, tilting her chin up the long, steel-backed line ahead of them. "Oak trees and ship pine -- at least once we reach the southern weald. After that, you'll probably be heading east out to drill near Campigna." You, not we, of course. Alis will ride under the Cormeilles lion - north with Armel and his grim-eyed men.

Not that the margrave had mentioned that explicitly, per se. Not, in fact, that he'd mentioned very much of anything on that subject at all. Despite everything, the lion's daughter knows only a little more than what everyone else does -- more details, maybe, but not the substantial ones. Armel would know more, captaining their little convoy. He must. He must, and it stings as much as the warm ghost of the mountain wind on her face, now just a soft sussurus within the vines.

Alis presses her lips together then, casting her eyes down at the golden dust. "Some raid in the north," she says. Whatever melancholy cloud comes over Mariam seems to sweep over her too, before she looks over again -- this time a little steelier. "A patrol gone, and near two hundred shields and archers along with them. The rider last night -- he's the only one they left alive."
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 11 2015, 07:48 AM
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"Gods," Mariam breathes, swallowing the sudden lump in her throat. She looks over the company and tries to imagine the lot of them tangled in battle—tries to imagine twice their number falling in some rocky valley in the north. It is a grim vision, a harsh reality. For all the skill she has honed in the last years, nothing can prepare her for the first rich red bite of battle.

The shadow of it follows them along the road, dulling the rich emeralds of the dawning forests. A moth lands on Mariam's hand like a portent, and Percival shies from the ferns so badly that the other horses are on alert. On the sea, Mariam can see for miles in every direction; here, where the first pines stand tall, she feels caged in and uneasy, the rattle of armor setting her on edge.

"Have you fought before?" she asks to fill the growing silence. Out of the corner of her eye, Mariam inspects the bruises blooming across Alis' face—admiring her handiwork, maybe. Fleetingly, she wonders how the ribs are healing.

Mariam looks away.

"Beyond sparring, I mean."
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bird
 Posted: Sep 11 2015, 09:28 AM
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Gods is right, even if they're not the right ones. Barbarians have crawled into mainland Cypria before - burning fields and killing cattle, but they have always been turned back easily. Patrols of hardy Marcher rangers wander the rocky scarps and the wooded valleys, famed for their skill in the woods and in battle - the thought of two hundred of them dead makes even the most arrogant of southern knights go dry at the mouth. Surely, says the whisper traveling down the line, surely there must have been something else? What did the dying scout say, that the margrave would send his own son to chase a rumour?

The trees that overtake the shoulders of the higher hills are tall and straight, with wide, spreading canopies - stone-pines, unaccustomed to alpine snow and prized for their tooth-like nut. In their cool and welcome shade, the smell of pine-sap lingers. Alis tilts her head back to breathe it in, birds calling high in the red-barked branches. Up ahead, not a few of the men ahead have poured water from their wineskins over their heads to cool off, the backs of their necks pink with sun.

The question makes her go a little hard-eyed - the look she shoots Mariam just a little too stern. Beneath her surcoat and scale, Alis is a map of bruises: purple and green across her chest and sides, paler blue on her knees and pink scrapes along her knuckles. Her left shoulder feels strong today, though the skin on it is still sallow. Beate's stinging tinctures have helped along the split in her lower lip.

"Some," she admits, adding, "Lots of brigands on the roads here." There hasn't been a real war since her father's time, though Armel and his veteran riders had waged a few brave campaigns to hold the line in the north and sun-baked west. Still, she sits tall and with her head held high, pulling her back straighter for all the aching sinew in it. Maybe a little taller, whenever Mariam turns her head -- Mariam, who had given at least as good as she'd got.

Alis takes her in with a long and steely look.

"You haven't, have you?"
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 11 2015, 02:27 PM
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"Not since I was a girl," Mariam replies, unabashed. "And then all I did was stand with my glaive and pray the keep didn't fall."

The attack had come from the coast, and so they had all poured into the walls of the city, soldiers and civilians alike—those who weren't out in their fishing vessels, harrying the greatships. Mariam remembers standing on the ramparts, a curly-headed child on her hip, overlooking the bloody hail of spears; remembers the moans from the infirmary; remembers the silence after it all ended, the boats burned down to the waterline.

"It was an ugly thing," she says. "They talk about it like war is glory, right up until the day it comes."

Mariam's mouth is a grim line as the trees cast dappled shadows over her face. Her bruises ache, deep down to her bones, but she quietly thanks the gods that they are only bruises. Be grateful on the road, an older knight had told her once. You'll miss it in battle. Saddle-sore, Mariam thinks of his pockmarked face, his scarred old words.

"Is it different with brigands?" Mariam asks, turning to face Alis. "Or do you still feel as bad about winning as about losing?"
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bird
 Posted: Sep 13 2015, 09:09 PM
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Ah, war is hell -- that old chestnut. War is hell, and men are foolish -- and maybe it's true, given how most men winding north with them were lured into their ranks. But Alis grew up among legends, born where the earth was so steeped in iron that the mountain passes showed red with it. War is the margrave's heavy books wrapped in leather to her; the old great-axe, kept sharp, hanging on the wall. Glory was the mortar between the stones.

But she keeps looking at Mariam in that quiet as if she might read something there, watchful as a cat in the harbour. Her eyes are still there when the little fishwife looks up. "Oh," Alis lilts, and grins as if she's vaulting over the paddock fence again. It spreads across her face, a wild, sly, feline thing, luminous in that soft golden light. "I never feel bad about winning."

Maybe there have been less brigands and more broken noses among tavern drunks, in the past, but as a fair and honest loss -- a black eye should hardly count.

She swipes at a pine bough hanging a little too low over the way.

"If war is so ugly, why are you here?" Gods, it better not be for Cypria!
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 13 2015, 10:04 PM
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For a moment Mariam is caught up in that wild smile; tastes the copper of bloodlust heavy on her tongue. She meets it with a wildness of her own, straight-backed and serious, colored with the inexorable depths of the ocean—of a life hard fought and well loved, a life without the mark of blood on every page.

"Of course you wouldn't," she mutters, schooling herself to stillness. The ache of some vague emotion makes a home in her chest, and Mariam pushes her mount a stride ahead, breaking rank with Alis. The chill coming off Mariam could rival the cold bite of the north—and yet her hands wring at her reins, uneased.

Moody silence spreads there, under the pines; Mariam rides on, her back to the margrave's daughter, eyes dead ahead on the silvery stream of knights rising before them.

"I have my reasons," she says arily, minutes later. "Duty, family. If I don't look out for my people who will?"

Not you, the look she shoots over her shoulder says. Not the north.

"Why are you here?" Mariam asks—and then, sharply:

"Couldn't find a nobleman to marry?"
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 Posted: Sep 14 2015, 12:28 PM
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"I swore an oath too, you know," Alis snaps, seething. "Same as you did." It wouldn't be the first time she's said it. Not that it's any of Mariam's business - and it's hardly the source of her ire -- but there have been suitors, of course. Alis pictures flies on meat, thinking of them - those supplicant scions of the rich and powerful, plying her with pretty things and sweaty palms. Fortune had favoured the boldest least: no amount of time with the maegus would ever quite fix Felipe's pretty Cigogni nose.

More importantly, though, who the hell is Mariam -- who the hell is anyone to question her place? Briefly, Alis recalls the glaive coming down, the fist at her cheek. How dutiful.

But it isn't enough to sit there, scowling with her hackles up, and so it isn't long before she bares her teeth again. "Well, we can't all do as well you did." It's cruel and it's petty and she knows, but there's no stopping Alis once the first blow lands. "Lord Dashwood's boy, isn't he? Do you have a duty to him too?"

The idea is repulsive enough that she barks a laugh, scaring birds out from the underbrush. "Gods," Alis drawls, rolling her eyes up towards the heavens, a mock prayer curling her unpenitent little mouth. "I should hope to one day be so lucky."
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 14 2015, 01:19 PM
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Now Mariam bristles, too, her hand resting on the hilt of the dull shortsword at her waist. She spits beside the destrier's dusty black hooves, matching Alis' scowl.

"I've known more good men than would ever look at you," she snarls back—and the truth of it must hurt. If Mariam is a dancer with her glaive, Alis is a brute. The knights say crueler things about the bitch of the Marches than they do about soft-faced Mariam. Her, they coddle—and court.

"I have a duty to all my brothers," Mariam snaps back, though she thinks of knocking Samuel in the dust again, spitting into his face for the indignity of the other night. Whores, indeed. "You swore to it too—unless papa just bought your shield for you. Wouldn't that explain a lot?"

And she matches Alis' laugh with a harsh sound of her own, one that makes Percy flick his ears back and lift his head in surprise. The other horses—and their riders—have begun to ease away from the pair. Mariam strokes her steed's neck, but all the same her eyes burn like fire on Alis.

"Ask the Gods for temperance, while you're at it," she remarks bitterly. "You swore to that one as well. Supposedly."


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 Posted: Sep 14 2015, 06:59 PM
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"One more word out of you about my family, Thermyras," Alis warns. She keeps her eyes on Mariam even when the path narrows and the pines thicken, forcing them neck-to-neck. For all the harsh winters of the ranges, there is nothing cold about the lion's daughter -- under her skin there is a wildfire, cresting over the hills and devouring the earth. She swallows its smoke back long enough to raise her chin and add, "I've earned my place here." But her knuckles are white and her eyes are gleaming, incandescent, alight.

She isn't lying. Like any good Marcher child, Alis had a sword in her hands as soon as she was strong enough to swing it, and a stick in her hands long before. She had said the words too, once: loyalty and temperance, chivalry and fealty -- to the realm, to the north, to the crown. Not to the likes of Mariam, and certainly not to the likes of Samuel.

"He called you a whore too, you know," Alis says, when Mariam's laughter has stopped ringing through the trees. Her axe gleams in easy reach, strapped to her saddle. "What vow does that fall under?"
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 Posted: Sep 14 2015, 08:18 PM
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"And what?" Mariam retorts. "You'll let me black your other eye?" Her glaive is within reach; the glinting blade of Alis' axe is no more threat today than it was yesterday—less, even, with the steel-wrapped haft of the new glaive.

"There's more to earning your place than being able to swing an axe," Mariam says coldly. "Do you think anyone is going to save the Cunt of Cormeilles when you end up in over your head?"

She urges Percy forward with her heels, mouth twisted into a sour frown, and disappears into the ranks ahead. Let them scold her from falling out of line; Mariam is steaming with fury. The lordlings she's been schooled with have their egos, yes, but none of them are so infuriating as Alis—how dare she act as if she knows it all.

How dare she question the few friends Mariam has.

*

The stormcloud still hasn't left Mariam's face by the time the group splits an hour later, nor by the time the training group breaks to make camp. The sun hangs low, kissing the horizon and dimmed by the trees, and in a copse of pines the new knights stake their tents. Mariam raises her canvas a distance away, where the women will camp—where the cooking-fires blaze and the horses are penned in by the pack-wagons that bring up the rear of the company. She spreads her bedroll and digs the women's latrine, savoring the dull ache of well-worked muscles, stretching the tightness from her legs.

When she returns to camp, there is another tent beside her own—one embroidered at the corner with the Cormeilles lion rampant. Raw hot fury boils up through Mariam, pinking the skin beneath her freckles, but with it comes the sweetness of satisfaction. For all her smugness, Alis is here with the new knights, with her black eye and bruised ribs and split lip to show her ranking in the group.

Mariam smiles to herself as she sheds her armor like a snake's skin, scattering studded leather in a pile at the foot of her bed. For good measure she lays her glaive beside her bedroll, admiring the sweet curve of its blade beneath leather sheath.

In the gloom after the sun sinks, Mariam lingers by the fire, speaking in lilting foreign tongues with the cooks and dicing vegetables for them to toss in their great stew pots, and after a while she settles down with her dinner beside the firepit. The warm lips of cider have already kissed color into her cheeks; she sits with more than her share of it poured out into her mug.

Cast into darkness, the northern woods begin to show their chill.
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