Winter had past. The snow, the cold and the blustery winds that came with it had hunkered the trio into their cabin for too long. As the months past, Falina found Axym's never-ending tales of women, debauchery, and Dwarven Ale, not only unbelievable, but down-right appalling.
"It's a test," Bahl would say, "Putting up with the dwarf is a test of patience"
"A test of patience you say," Falina would counter "It's not like we have much of a Gods Damned choice; else i'd throw him out into the snow!"
"I heard tha', lass," The Dwarf would say!
To pass the time, Bahl would hang Falina from the ceiling rafters and swing a staff at her with only a rope to parry lumber. She bore more bruises with each strike, larger than those upon her forehead when she fell to the floor below.
She was shown the arts of slight of hand, the arts of stealth and hiding within shadows, and the gift of slight-walking, but never to Bahl's satisfaction. Often-times, Falina would curse him and storm off into the cold night in frustration, only to return to try again. Bahl's temperment never changed; his face was a portrait of patience and indifference. Axym's? Well, he simply smiled knowingly reminding her simply, "Fastest hands I've ever seen!"
The walls bore holes from throwing knives, crossbow bolts and arrow heads, and day by day, they would show her the arts of range weaponry - and her arms and leg bore scars from daggers and short blades when Bahl and Axym took the time to show her the Martial Arts. She remembered each wounded, and by winter's end, she'd grown proud of them.
Every day was a trial. Every night was yet, another game of cat and mouse, as Bahl snuck to her bed in her sleep and pounced upon her with a blade at her throat. "You must learn to sleep lightly - no matter how fatigued you may be. One slit of your throat, and your life is forfeit!" he'd say and wish her a good night.
Light-sleeping was one aspect of her daily routine that she could not master! One night, Bahl had even left her out on the front porch in the middle of blizzard when she would not wake after his attack. She'd spent the following week nursing a chill-burn sickness from her feet and hands from the cold. Mercifully, Bahl had relented with his training for a short time.
One week blended into the next, until finally, Falina was at a loss as to which months had passed, and which months were to come. She knew, only, that the days had grown warmer, and that the wheat-grass had begun to turn green, again.
As she woke that morning - it could have been mid-day, or past -she found herself alone in the cabin. The warming sun beamed into the curtainless cabin, with the flapping shadows of hung clothes out to dry playing across the wooden walls. There was a bowl of cold porridge, uneaten, upon the table, and the kettle hung over the hearth simmering tar-bean tea over a smoldering hearth.
"Where in the...," she said to herself, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, letting the rest fall silent.
She dressed quickly, with new undergarments, a new doe-skin tunic and leggings. She found her boots and pulled them on, tying them from knee to tow, and reached for her staff. Squinting, she looked outside at a blank field, with only patches of near melted snow, and narry a stiring beast, Tiefling or dwarf to be seen.
With the staff over her shoulder, she made her way to the table, ate three or four mouthfuls of cold rasberry porridge, poured herself a cup of tar-bean tea, and made for the outdoors.
The smell of lilac was heavy - as the indigo trees were everywhere. Trilliums, rabbit-flowers and Mums began to bloom around the treeline.
"Beautiful aren't they?" Falina jumped so high, she almost fell forward, her cup of tea spilling all over the front of her tunic. She spun on Bahl with a mean look in her eyes,
"For the love of all things Fasdeus, why do you do that.. ??"
"Because I can," there was no smile in his words, he merely spoke matter of factly.
Falina settled down, and drank what was left of her tea, and wondered, "Where is Axym? We haven't seen him in two days,"
"Three days, actually,"
"How do you keep track?"
"In time, you will too," he said searching the tree-line, "He went into the nearest village in search of news. We have been isolated for a time," he nodded, "we are sure to have news of Devensheer, or the goings on to the North.."
"What is North?" Falina looked up at still cowled Bahl.
"That which seeks to end your life," his lips thinned.
"About that," Falina started.
"Not now," Bahl pointed - running through the trees was the dwarf. "Come," Bahl said starting to run, the young woman close behind him, matching step for step.
They met at the center of the field, the dwarf took the time to lean upon his knees, doubled over at the waste, "I ran most of the way," he reported between gasps.
"You have news?" Bahl's head bobbed.
"Aye, an' it's not good!"
"What is it?" Falina took her turn.
"There was a siege over the winter - in Devensheer," Axym choked and coughed.
"And did the wall hold?" Bahl stratched his head and began to pace.
"Aye, but not before there were thousands lost. They say Marrokville men marched upon the field to help," Axym smiled, "No doubt our mutual friend answered the call himself.."
"The Blue Knight," bahl answered absently, "Kanan Al'Barran,"
"I've heard of him - he's a legend... " Beamed Falina - and she beamed further, "Wait a moment... You know him?"
Axym stood upright, now having caught his breath, "Know him? I taught him all he knows, lassy!"
"Why?" Bahl asked bluntly, dispatching the idol chit-chat.
Axym's face was dark, "They.. and by they, i mean scores of undead, necromancing son's of lycans and their minion sought the heir... it seems our ruse was for naught, me boy!"
Bahl patted the dwarf on the shoulder, and shook his head, "No, my friend... not all was lost. We had a year to make her ready.."
"And is she?" Axym eyed Falina critically.
"OF course I am.. i've never been more ready.. i'm fit as a horse."
"No, she is not!" Bahl's lips twisted, "Your pride will forever be your death, girl.. blast it!" he turned on a heel and made back for the cabin..
"You, yourself, told me i was the best student you'd ever had!" Falina barked. "I'm TIRED of never living up to your IMPOSSIBLE expectations... STOP!!" she chased after him, now in a rage.. "STOP I TELL YOU and listen on my words, or so help me, i will thrash you, this way to that, and no stop until your manhood has all but left you, and you sing to me like a baby sister!"
"H'op," Axym laughed and followed, not wishing, for one second to miss this one.
"For 10 month, I've stayed cooped up in this bloody cabin with you and your ... " she jabbed a finger at Axym, ".. your pet dwarf, " Axym's face split wide with a mischievous smiled tugging at his beard,
"This is gettin' good," he muttered under his breath.
She continued, "I've hunted for you. I've cooked your damned meals, and eaten that slop your call stew - i've been beaten, cut, run ragged, and left outside in the cold, shivering to tatters .. I have played your silly games, and received naught but bruises and welts to your impassive .. altogether irriating pleasure. I have run through this damned forest until my blister burst only to form new ones... and you have the GALL..." her head tilted down, her eyes peering dangerously under her furrowed eyebrows, "THE GALL to tell me i am unready!"
Bahl's tongue played within his mouth as he stared down at her sighing. He swallowed. "Ask me, Falina El'Cairn," there was heavy emphasis upon her new family name, "ask me if I am ready to save your life, when we are walking the streets of Tavenlore and a wraith stands over you with it's hand poised to suck the life from your chest..."
His words confused her. She looked up at him, not know what to say. What had a wraith to do with her not being ready?
"ASK ME!" Bahl never shouted. Never once in the year that she'd known him, had Bahl EVER shouted. And so when he did, finally, her throat constricted, and tears stang her eyes - and she blinked until one fell... "ASK ME, for Pondera's sake," he got into her face, and she could feel the heat of his breath upon her cheek; the red rings around his pupils were wide and ominous.
"Would you?" her voice was small; meek.
"Would I WHAT?"
"Would you save my life!?" her chin quaked.
Axym looked at his feet; the debate no longer fun for him.
"YES," bahl shouted.. "And you know why??,' he stepped into her and placed his forehead against hers, and snarled, "I'll tell you why.. here is why, AND, it will make you LAUGH!!!" he poked her chest with a jabbing finger, and pulled away, "Because it is my BLOODY duty! that is why, girl! But if you were READY, Falina Hardister - D'veln.. EL'CAIRN or what-have-you .. i wouldn't bloody well have to, now would i!??! Your PRIDE WILL GET.. YOU. KILLED!" his breathing was ragged. "But the game has changed, now hasn't it??" his eyes fell upon Axym this time, who, for his part shrunk back a step.
"Aye, lad," his voice was somber.
"And we have litte choice but to leave this place," Bahl's voice was harsh, hoarse even. "And for this - the three of us," his finger pointed at each of them, "Must depend upon each other ... our lives are in each other's hands... that is THE WAY.. Falina. That is the way of the Shadow-Hand... Brother.. Sisters ... and you and your bloody pride," he spat, and his breath shook as he spoke.. "YOU. ARE. NOT .READY!"
"Laddy," Axym had heard enough.
"No." Bahl pointed at the dwarf, and shook his head, "NO, Axym - do not meddle where there is no meddling needed."
Falina's tears were now free-flowing as she searched the sky for wisdom that IT simply did not offer. It had been such a lovely morning. And as Bahl walked away, his name was caught upon her lips and she made to run after him to argue her point, but a dwarven mit held her back.
"Stay put, lassy," his voice was gentle, sympathetic even, "There's not talkin' to a tiefling when he gets like this.. Let him burn away the steam.. he'll come around,"
"I try, Axym," Falina's shoulder's slump, "I do all that he asks of me.. and he is never pleased,"
Axym smiled, "Ye know what i think, girly?" she shook her head clueless, "methinx you remind him too much of his-self," Axym patted her upon her back, "Come on now.. let us go pack some gear,"
She sniffed, and walked with the dwarf... "where are we going?" she asked.
"Marrokville, my dear. We're gonn'eh see a friend!"