Defeat was not an option, nor was mediocrity. It no longer mattered whether or not Eithne had been chosen for the quest. There had been no chance of that from the beginning. She knew that now. Darian knew who she was from the start of the try-outs, and he had humiliated her in front of everyone for reasons she did not understand. It no longer mattered, however. After that awful morning, Eithne had realized that she did not need to leave under some justification, but could do it of her own accord. She did not need anyone’s permission or approval to start her own life. Still, Eithne feared venturing out into the world on her own. She may have been stubborn and determined, but she was not a fool. She knew she could handle herself in a one on one, controlled match, but was still untested in the field of battle, and had never taken a life. Eithne didn’t know if she was ready for that.
Once again, Eithne was not particularly proud of her plan, but she knew it would work. She would follow the group selected to the quest out of town tomorrow morning, and stick relatively close to the group until she was at a point to venture out on her own. If she were to be discovered by Darian and his men, then they were sure to drag her before the council, but they would already be out of the village by then. The worst case scenario would be that she would be held as a prisoner until they returned to the village, which should give her plenty of time to figure out an escape plan. Eithne had already packed a bag with some clothing, food, flint and steel, a compass stolen from her father, and the sword she had stolen from the training fields chest for a third time. She also packed some medicinal herbs. Eithne had always been interested in the healing powers of plants since she was a child and had a knack for it. Her interest in medicinal herbs was one of her few hobbies that she did not have to hide from anyone. She was as ready as she could be. Her plan was to sneak out of her house before sunrise, take her father’s horse, and wait in the forest just outside of the village for Darian’s party to leave. Once they had passed by her, she would follow from a safe distance.
There would be a display as those leaving for the quest exited. It was tradition that when a group was leaving for a quest, or to go to war that the villagers would line the streets and throw flowers at the feet of the warriors horses as they rode through the village. It was all part of a proper and honorable send-off for the warriors, so that they knew the people they protected appreciated their efforts. It occurred to Eithne that Darian had actually mentioned what the quest was about, or where they were going. He had said that it was a very important mission, meant only for the best fighters, but had never said why or what they were looking for. Eithne did not question Darian’s motives, for he had proven himself to be honorable and valorous. Still, she was curious. Why all the secrecy? What was he after that was so important that he couldn’t even tell anyone where they were going? She suspected that he must have told the ten elves he had selected to accompany him at least, but they were saying nothing of the goal either. Eithne mused that was another reason she had chosen to follow Darian’s party. She was very curious to know what they were searching for.
It was the night before Eithne would leave her home, and she had been awake in her room for hours. The rest of her family was dozing peacefully in their beds, completely unaware of their youngest daughter’s plan for flight the next morning. During the week preceding the try outs, Eithne had been making more of an effort to spend time with her family. She felt very guilty about leaving them this way, they did not deserve such harsh treatment, but Eithne could not stay. They would never allow her to leave otherwise. Unfortunately, this was her only avenue of escape. Eithne had written letters of good-bye for each of them. Of course, there was no mention of where she went, but she did say why and that she would miss each of them very much. She had been crying on and off all night. She was leaving all that she knew, and hurting the people she loved in the process. Though, she could not stay in the village. If she did, for the rest of her life she would lead the miserable existence of a bird in a gilded cage. No, she could never live that way. Something in her soul was screaming to get out and have so much more in life. So, she would leave. It would be a hard and possibly short-lived existence, but at least she would be free to make her own choices. It was worth the pain. Eithne would leave the three letters to her family on the kitchen table when she left, each labeled with the name of the proper recipient. It was the least she could do to offer some explanation for her actions. They would probably send out a search party for her, which was another advantage to sticking close to Darian’s party. They wouldn’t expect her to be with them, and her tracks would blend with those of the party. She would be extremely difficult to find.
It was surprising how easy it was to sneak away. Eithne still felt quite guilty and sad leaving her family behind, but she was able to go through the motions of her plan easily enough during the early hours of the morning. Her small pack filled with travel supplies and sword was all she carried. She once again donned her father’s old clothes, which were ill fitting on her lithe, feminine form, but did not attempt to disguise herself as male. Her father’s horse went to her happily when she came to take him away. He was a beautiful animal, who was mostly used for pleasure and occasionally pulling a carriage, certainly not a warhorse. Though, he was very healthy and well-tempered. Eithne would need a mount if she meant to keep up with the party. Everything went according to her plan, and she was well hidden in the woods just outside of the village by the time Darian’s party began parading down the streets to start their journey.
Eithne thought that she would probably say a prayer to one of the gods if there were any left to listen. Just over sixty years ago, when Eithne was still a small child, there were many gods that dwelled in the heavens, and were worshipped throughout the world of Raashan. For most of her early childhood, Eithne had been taught by her parents to pray at the small altar above the fireplace once every morning. The elves of Eithne’s tribe traditionally worshipped Jeilei, the highest of the gods of light, as well as Myla, goddess of the forests and nature. Both had once been represented in her childhood home by beautifully carved wooden figures on the altar in the sitting room. Her mother would take great care in dusting and polishing the figures. Eithne and Rosalin were to be very practiced and respectful in their prayers to the gods as their parents were. Her family, as all of the elves of the Aranni tribe, had once been reverent and loyal to the gods. Then, the Heavenly Wars happened. The gods, who had always been known to bicker amongst themselves, began a holy war. Gin, the highest god of darkness from the underworld, tried to usurp Jeilei from his thrown of light, and rule over all Raashan unchallenged. Terrible divine battles ensued, and the heavens were not the only place the gods fought their war. Raashan was also subjected to the destruction. The planet all the gods had created together, many eons before, and all those who inhabited Raashan could do nothing buy stand by helplessly as the gods raged above and below. It stormed ruthlessly for so long, that many areas flooded and were destroyed. Climates of other places would suddenly change without warning. Eithne had even read that an entire continent, that had once been green and lush, was turned into a desert wasteland in less than a month! In other places of the world, mountain ranges violently thrust out of the earth overnight, and islands were drowned by the sea never to be seen again. It was a terrible cataclysm in which a great many inhabitants of Raashan needlessly lost their lives. The terrorized people prayed and begged the gods to stop their fighting, for their wars were destroying the very prize that they fought over! But the gods were no longer listening. They had become completely consumed by the Heavenly Wars and lost sight of why they started fighting in the first place. Even those mortals that were most devout began to turn bitter. Now, there were no longer any gods to pray to or curse. The gods had destroyed each other long ago, leaving the world in turmoil. Weather patterns were unpredictable, and it became harder and harder to have a good harvest. Raashan was slowly dying without its creators to maintain it. Those who survived the cataclysm could do nothing but watch the world slowly die around them, sadly knowing that one day nothing would be left.
Eithne’s people had been among the luckier ones. The climate in the area of the world that they lived, had cooled slightly, but remained relatively the same. Though, times were still difficult. Crops were failing and hunting was much more scarce. Eithne suspected that Darian’s quest might have something to do with helping to pull their people out of an increasingly dire situation.
The clomping of horse’s hooves on the packed dirt road got closer. Eithne ducked deeper into the underbrush as the party rode by. There was very little chance of her being seen. No one would even think to look for someone hiding in the forest just outside of the village. Still, she held her breath and kept very still as they passed.
Eithne let them get a little further ahead before she began to follow. There was a moment of hesitation before Eithne began to move. Once she took that step, there would be no turning back. It was her point of no return. If she chose to turn around and go home, she would continue on in her safe, yet stifling existence. She would be cared for the rest of her life, but unhappy.
Eithne stepped forward, toward the road.
The first day on the on the trail was pleasant enough. Nothing much happened, and it was easy going. The weather had suddenly changed from cold and damp to hot and sunny. These sorts of shifts in the weather were commonplace these days, so none on the road gave it a second thought. Eithne kept pace with the group, but kept out of sight. She simply followed the tracks left by their horses. The next three days were not so pleasant as the first. The sky became dark and poured down heavy rain day and night. It was cold, miserable and increasingly harder to keep up with the party. She was forced to follow more closely in order to stay with them, and hoped that the constant downpour kept her from being detected.
The afternoon of the fifth day it stopped raining and that night Eithne was keen to build a fire to warm herself after being chilled to the bone. Building a fire proved to be very difficult. The only kindling she could find was damp, but after at least an hour long effort she managed a small fire. Eithne sat close to her fire warming her toes and chewing some dried meat when she noticed some other orange lights in the forest not far from her. It was Darian’s camp and she was far too close for comfort! She had no idea how closely she had been trailing them in the rain. Her first instinct was to douse her fire and let them get a little further ahead in the morning, but it was a difficult thing to dash out the little flame she had worked so hard to spark. Maybe no one in the other camp would notice. They all must be just as tired as she was from the days of traveling in the rain, and they may very well assume that her fire was just another traveller on the road. Her gut told her to douse her flame, but Eithne had rationalized way to keep it burning, and so she would.
It did not take long for this folly to catch up with Eithne. She sat, happily musing on her own thoughts when there was a tap on her shoulder.
“I thought I told you that I never wanted to see you with a sword again. What the hell are you doing here Eithne?”
She knew exactly who it was from the blunt tap on her shoulder. Darian had found her, and he sounded angry.
At first, she did not turn to see him. She was frozen by the shock of being discovered by him so easily. Then, something occurred to her: she had left the village, and didn’t mean to go back. Eithne no longer answered to that authority. This realization gave her courage she didn’t know she had.
Eithne stiffly stood to her full height, which was still about a head shorter than Darian, and turned to face him squarely. “What do you care where I go and what I do?”
Darian wasn’t prepared for her to retort in such a feisty manner. In their two previous encounters that dealt with this issue, she had responded quite positively to his angry, authoritative voice. This reaction was new and unexpected. “I care what you do, because I know your family.” He returned in his most authoritative tone. “They must be beside themselves with grief not knowing where you are. Return home immediately!”
“You only care what happens to me because you want to marry my sister. Well, my family doesn’t know that you know where I am. So, when you get back you can just join them in their grieving process as if you never saw me. We are not in the village anymore, Darian, and I’m not going back.” Eithne immediately felt that she was being a little harsh, but she had decided to give Darian a fight, and she was getting a little carried away with her new found attitude.
Surprised and frustrated with her, Darian took a step forward and gripped her arm firmly. He did not like what she said about him only caring because he wanted to marry Rosalin. She didn’t know what she was talking about. Eithne winced a bit, not from pain, but simply from the contact. She wasn’t used to being touched by men.
“Why are you doing this, Eithne? Why are you following my party? You don’t even know where we are going.”
Eithne was silent for a moment as she starred back at him with defiance. She told him the truth: “I don’t care where you’re going. I’m following you because it’s safer then running away into the forest alone, and I’m running away because I can’t stay in the village anymore living a false existence.”
Darian knew that she was telling him the truth. A part of him felt badly for her. She was so determined to get away from her life. Her family must be devastated at finding her gone for almost a week. The trail was not dangerous for her to go back alone. They were still within their tribe’s boundaries. By the end of tomorrow, however, they would be outside that net of safety. Eithne did not know that and would be completely unprepared for the dangers ahead. She had done well in controlled matches, but that was completely different from being surprised by a demon on the road. No, she had to go back. She would want to anyway after she had a real taste of life outside the village, Darian assumed. Also, Darian felt responsible for her. It was true, in part, that he was telling her to go back because he wanted to marry into her family, but he respected them beyond that. What Eithne was doing wasn’t right by them. Darian suspected she already felt a good deal of guilt about it. Though, he wasn’t sure at all what she meant when she said she led a ‘false existence’ back in the village. He knew that she had always felt like an outcast, but that was no reason to discount her entire life.
“Eithne, go back, or I will take you back there myself even if I have to drag you behind my horse the entire way.” Darian’s threat did seem to daunt her a bit, which pleased him.
The threat had given Eithne pause, but she had come too far just to be dragged back to the village in shame. “You don’t have the time to do that. We are almost a week outside the village and the rain caused you to move slower than you would have liked already. You can’t make me go back because you can’t afford to lose any more time. I’ve noticed that, where ever you’re headed, you’re in a hurry to get there.”
Eithne was almost smug and somewhat proud as she spoke. This made Darian even angrier. It was even worse that she was right and they both knew it. He couldn’t lose the time it would take to drag her back to the village, and he couldn’t afford to send one of his men with her either. He would need every one of them. Besides, the way she was behaving, Darian didn’t trust anyone but himself to be able to take her back without her getting away from them. Eithne may be a woman, but she was clever and knew how to use a weapon. The other men didn’t know of her disregard for the laws as Darian did. Neither was anyone else so aware of her feisty disposition. Darian was most familiar with Eithne, and even he had to admit that this conversation was bringing to light whole other facets of her personality that he did not know about. She was a handful to be sure.
“You can’t come with us, Eithne. It’s against the laws of our people, and you would only slow us down anyway.” Darian didn’t really think that she would slow them down, but he needed excuses to offer her.
“I’ve kept up with you well enough so far.” She shot back, unmoved.
“I can’t be responsible for you!”
“You don’t have to be! I can take care of myself!”
“Then why did you even bother following me then?!”
They had escalated to yelling. Darian was unhappy that Eithne managed to get him so emotional. He was usually in perfect control of his emotions. Fortunately, his last question had given her pause again. He knew as well as she did that she was sticking close to him for both comfort and safety. She could not deny that. It was more difficult for her to rebuke that argument, and she wasn’t sure how to respond. So, Eithne simply starred back at him defiantly. Darian still held her arm. His grip tightened. As she starred into his face she watched him clench and unclench his jaw muscles. The cold blue of his eyes even seemed to be giving off chills that shivered down her spine as he held her gaze. He was waiting for her to answer him, and that she hadn’t answered almost seemed to make him more frustrated with her. Though, Eithne now felt that she need not say anything. No matter what her motives, she had made herself clear that she wasn’t going anywhere.
After what seemed like an eternity of starring daggers at each other, finally Darian turned on his heel and strode away. He could say nothing to the stubborn Eithne to make her go back. It was infuriating. At that moment he ceased to care whether she went back or not. For that moment she was none of his concern, which seemed to be exactly what she wanted.
Eithne continued to follow Darian’s party as they traveled along the road. She no longer tried to stay hidden, and followed more closely. She still did not know where they were going, but knew that they would have to stop in a town or village eventually. Perhaps, that place would be the where Eithne could leave the party and strike out on her own. Though she was still very curious as to where Darian was headed, and being around him helped her to feel safe. She couldn’t explain it, but Darian had always made Eithne feel safe and secure. She supposed that he had that effect on most people, being such a strong warrior who always seemed to be in control. Not to mention his code of honor. Regardless of how angry he may be with her, Darian would never allow harm to come to a woman. Uneventful days had passed on road. The weather grew even colder. Gloomy skies continuously threatened more rain, but, thankfully, it did not rain. The distinct chill of winter was biting early, and Eithne was sorry that she had not waited until spring to run away.
When the party stopped in the evenings, Eithne still camped out of sight, but close enough to see the fires twinkling through the trees. She knew the entire party was now aware of her presence, but they generally ignored her, most likely by Darian’s command. One night, three days after she and Darian had argued, some of the men from the party came upon her while they were gathering firewood. They had given her a good scowl and stalked off, but did not bother her otherwise. Eithne was defying many basic principles of their culture by doing what she was doing, so she well understood their contempt toward her. Though, if some of the party felt angry enough things might become dangerous. Eithne did not fear rape. Elves were not known for such vulgarity as some other races were, but the idea of her being tied to a tree in the middle of nowhere and left for dead was unpleasant to say the least. It was also because of this, perhaps irrational fear that Eithne wished to remain near Darian. She instinctively knew that he would protect her.
Two days after the men of the party had scowled at her, they arrived at a somewhat large port town called Tomak. Even though it was not very large compared to a major city, it was the biggest place Eithne had ever seen! The buildings all seemed so tall and close together. The paved streets looked so congested with people, carts, livestock, and merchants peddling their wares. Tomak was predominantly populated by elves. Eithne saw members of her own tribe from other villages mingling on the streets with elves from other tribes. She also noticed several city elves, who were characteristically much darker in coloring then their tribal cousins. However, the individuals that stood out the most to Eithne were the few humans, as well as some cloaked figures who kept their visages so well hidden that it was impossible to tell who or what they were. She had only ever seen other elves up to this point in her life, and she found it fascinating to look upon humans in real life. Eithne found humans to be a bit stocky and unattractive. They were shorter than most elves, appeared to carry more weight on their bodies, and even moved with an awkward clumsiness to her eyes. She had read that elves were considered to be among the most physically attractive and graceful races, but she had never had a true basis for comparison until now. Eithne smiled to herself as she felt a sudden surge of pride for her race.
There was certainly no lack of stimuli for Eithne in Tomak. Aside from the bustling people there were the merchant’s colorful wares of all varieties as well as the paved cobblestone streets and large stone buildings. She surmised that is was all about commerce here, and the mingling of cultures. In fact, Eithne realized after a while of wading through the streets that most people barely gave her a second glance. If a woman had openly walked down the street dressed in men’s clothing with a sword on her hip in her village, everyone would be aghast and very offended. Even if the woman was not of their tribe, it would be completely unacceptable. A few elves, mostly of the woodland tribes, did make an expression of distaste or offense when they saw her, but generally she was accepted here just as she was. This gave her yet another surge of pride and pleasure. No longer would she have to pretend to be something she was not. She felt a sense of being personally complete in this moment. Eithne decided that she loved being in the city with its grey cobblestone streets, tall white-washed stone buildings and all the hustle and bustle that went with it. There was also an unfamiliar scent to the air that smelled heavily of salt. It must be the smell of the sea she realized. Tomak was a port town. Located on the Straights of Gibson between the Northern and Southern continents. There was much trade that happened here, though many people simply passed through and did not stay in town. Therefore, Tomak had never grown to be as large as many other port cities.
Eithne glimpsed Darian and his party in the crowd, and wondered why he had come here. Most likely he meant to charter a ship to the Southern continent, she reasoned, but where exactly. She was too curious about the quest now to let it go. She had decided to go with them. The men may despise her, and Darian would be absolutely offended at the suggestion, but her mind was made up. Besides, she had already proven that she wouldn’t be a burden, and that she could handle a weapon. She would have to get Darian alone for a moment, and try to present her going with them in a way that wasn’t completely absurd to him. Eithne pushed through the crowd of people in order to catch up with Darian’s party. She was focused on a goal, and the distractions of Tomak blurred around her.
The men of Darian’s party were quite taken with the sites that Tomak offered. Many of them had never been outside the village before, and their new surroundings captured their fascination. They pointed at the different races and exclaimed over the beautiful women who walked by. Overall, their mood was quite upbeat considering the glow getting her through abysmal weather. One of the men pointed out, in shock, at a human woman who was dressed as a mercenary. Several of the others looked and let their distaste be known.
“That ridiculous thing that’s been following us should just stay here.” Proithon stated with bitterness. “She would fit right in with the other freakish women.”
Some of the others grunted their agreement. Darian chose to ignore the statement, but found just hearing it left a bad taste in his mouth. Despite her rebellious ways, Eithne did not deserve cruel comments from others. Thinking of her, he scanned the crowd to see if she was still following his group now that they were inside the walls of Tomak. He half expected not to see her, for there were many things to distract her here, but the bright shock of firey red hair gave her away easily. Her attention was on the crowd around her, and the town, not Darian or his party, so she wasn’t necessarily following them anymore. She could just be coincidentally wandering in the same direction. Darian could not be sure. She looked well, and was seemingly staying out of trouble. So, he shrugged and continued leading his men through the streets to the Dragon’s Belly Inn.
Darian had stayed at the Dragon’s Belly Inn before while on route for past journeys, and he had an accord with the innkeeper. It wouldn’t be difficult to acquire lodging for one night for him and his party. They left their horses at the stables and tipped the stable boy. Darian strode into the inn first, and was greeted heartily by the innkeeper as the rest of his men filed in behind him. The innkeeper was a rotund human named Fredrick. Darian had actually known his father before him as well, and seen Fredrick as a child. Since humans lived such short lifespans in comparison to elves, Darian had been giving the family good business for generations. Though, he was still considered to be quite young by elvish standards.
“Captain Darian! Excellent to see you again, sir!” Fredrick greeted happily as he shook Darian’s hand. Darian grinned at him warmly. “And I see you have brought your men with you this time.” Fredrick peered past Darian and made a mental note of how many beds would be needed.
“Good to see you too, my friend.” Darian responded heartily. “We are only in town for one night, but would be very grateful of your hospitality if you have the space.” He had originally hoped to be in Tomak for a couple of days to allow his men to rest, and gather supplies before setting sail, but the rain delay had put them behind schedule.
“Of course! Of course! There is room enough for all of you, though your men will have to share rooms.”
“That is not a problem at all.” Darian looked about the room and saw that food was being served, and a fire was roaring in an inviting fashion in the large fireplace located at the center of the dining area. “Shall we settle ourselves down here while you ready our accommodations?”
“Yes, please do.” Fredrick gestured for the men to make themselves comfortable and called over the barmaid to take care of them right away. Then, he hustled up the stairs to ready the rooms.
Darian ordered a round of ale for all his men and then told them to order food if they were hungry. Most of them were very hungry. Given the large order, the barmaid was quite efficient in bringing everything out, which pleased them all greatly. A few of the men even made sport of innocently flirting with her, which excited the barmaid very much coming from handsome elf men. The barmaid was a homely human girl with hair like yellow straw and a very plump bottom. Flirtation from attractive men, who weren’t drunk, was rare for her.
The Dragon’s Belly Inn had been long established in Tomak, and was among one of the more popular places to stay because of its reputation and good food. It was right off to the main street near the harbor, and had an abundance of comfortable rooms. Outside, it looked like an average place, except that the stoop was always cleanly swept, and it’s stone walls always seemed freshly washed. Even the paint on the hanging wooden sign was continuously renewed, so that the fat, happy dragon that resided on it always shone vibrant green and yellow. Inside, the place was just as clean and well kept. There was a huge stone fireplace that jutted through the center of the dining area, surrounded by oak tables and chairs that were heavily used, but very sturdy. The bar at the far right side upon entering was as long as the wall, and polished to a reflective shine. Fredrick and his family took great pride in their family business, and were rewarded with many loyal customers.
Darian had made sure that his party went to the inn first to be sure that there were enough rooms available. About half an hour after they had arrived, many more patrons began coming in looking for lodging and food. Darian was in no mood for crowds tonight, so he left his men to enjoy themselves, and brought his things up to his room. Darian was thankful that Fredrick had enough space to allow him a private room. He was the sort of person who liked having his own space. Once he had stripped off his leather armor, and washed up a bit using the bowl and pitcher prepared in his room, he felt more refreshed. The room was small, but like everything at the Dragon’s Belly, it was clean and comfortable. Darian sorted around the little room a few moments more before he decided to leave the inn for a while. After all, the fresh sea air would be nice, and Darian wanted to take a look at the ship they would be setting sail on tomorrow morning. Grabbing a clean shirt from his pack and tugging it over his head, Darian left the room and continued down the stairs toward the exit. Several of his men toasted their mugs to him as Darian walked through the dining area. Some of them might have a difficult time getting out of bed in the morning at the rate they were drinking. He inclined his head and smiled to indicate his appreciation for the toast, and continued to walk through the door.
Once outside, Darian found himself in the crowded streets again. He knew his way, and did not have to suffer long with the crowd. He made his way to the harbor, which was not far from the inn. He located the ship that he and his men would be taking across the Straights of Gibson in the morning. Some of the sailors were loading supplies unto the vessel for the short journey, so Darian asked if they minded him inspecting the ship. The sailors dismissively grunted their consent and Darian was pleased to inspect the vessel to his satisfaction. He found that he was rarely questioned.
Darian was just walking off the ship and stepping unto the dock when he was confronted with a somewhat unwelcome site.
“What are you doing here, Eithne?” He asked through gritted teeth. Eithne was standing in front of him with her father’s horse as though she had been waiting patiently for him to approach. She seemed to be in good spirits, despite Darian’s obvious dislike for her being there. She smiled at him sweetly. There was mud from the trail still covering her and the horse, but she still seemed to be aglow. Perhaps it was the new environment, or perhaps, Darian thought, that firey red hair of hers just made her look brighter then the rest.
“I was waiting for you, as you can probably see.” Eithne replied politely. “I want to talk to you.”
Darian crossed his arms across his chest. He remembered how their last conversation had gone, and he feared that she would rile him again. “We don’t have anything to talk about.” He coolly responded.
Eithne giggled a little, which annoyed him since he did not know why. “You don’t even know what I want to talk about. Maybe I just need to ask where the most respectable places in town are, so I don’t get taken advantage of.”
Darian remained stoic to her girlish smiles. “That’s not what you want to talk to me about.”
Eithne let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, it’s not about that, but I’m just going to follow you around until you at least hear me out. So, you might as well listen to me now, and get it over with.”
Her horse shook its head as if the animal agreed, and Eithne absentmindedly smiled and patted its neck before looking back to Darian for an answer. After taking a few seconds to think it over, he uncrossed his arms and gestured for her to follow him. He walked to an area of the dock where there weren’t sailors carrying crates that could eaves drop. Whatever she was about to say, he was fairly certain that he didn’t want others listening to it. Eithne beamed and practically hopped into step behind him. She didn’t expect him to listen to her that easily! She was very pleased.
Once to a sufficiently quiet spot, Darian turned to face her, and crossed his arms again. “I’m listening.”
“I want to come with you on the mission.” Eithne said bluntly. She had decided that being open and direct would probably be the best approach. She had noticed how forthright Darian was and assumed he respected the same quality in others.
“No.” He answered flatly, and began to walk away.
Eithne moved to block his exit. The horse with her really helped to block his avenue of escape. “You said you would at least hear me out.” She stated firmly.
Darian looked down at her, considering whether or not it would be better or worse to turn her down now, or let her talk, get her hopes up, and be turned down later. Eithne was looking back at him with fierce determination in her grass green eyes. She wanted very much for him to listen to her. Ultimately, Darian reasoned that she would be more hurt if he never even listened in the first place. Also, if he got that part over with now, it would prevent her from trying to persuade him again in the future. He indicated with his head that she could continue.
Eithne relaxed visibly and collected her thoughts for a second before speaking again. “As I said, I want to come with you, and I know there are reasons that you don’t think I should come. I am well aware of your feelings on the matter. However, have you considered that I could be an asset to you on your journey?”
Darian did not respond verbally, but cocked an eyebrow at her, intrigued to see where she was going with this.
Eithne took this non-verbal encouragement as a positive sign. “As a woman, I have certain skills that men don’t. I can dress wounds and mix healing herbs. I’m really great with healing herbs. I’m sure I’m better at stitching wounds closed then any of the men in your party too. I know you’re thinking that you have all survived before without a woman to mend you, and probably have you own ways of dealing with injuries, but you and your party would be better off with my help. Also, I know how to fight.”
Darian uncrossed his arms, placed his hands on his hips and looked at the dock that he stood upon with a tired sigh. He didn’t see her last point as a valid argument. She was better off sticking with her medicinal skills.
Eithne saw him doubting her last statement, and it worried her. It also made her mad. “I can fight!” She said too loudly and indignantly. “I may not be experienced, or quite as good as some of the other men in your party, but I feel that I’m good at fighting, and can protect myself. I’m not afraid to stand up for myself in the real world, Darian, and I’ll only get better. Besides, it’s one more sword added to your party against whatever attacks us. The only reason you refuse to see me as a legitimate fighter is because I’m not male!”
“Eithne,” Darian began in a tired tone that a parent would use to explain something to a child. “Our culture has certain practices and laws. You know what they are and why it does in fact matter what your sex is. You seem to be the only person who can’t abide by these laws that have kept our people stable and happy for many generations.”
“The laws are prejudice, ridiculous, and wrong, and the ones in which you and I are speaking of have had no bearing on how happy our people have been. I’m not happy, and many might argue unstable as well.” Eithne returned heatedly.
Darian might have argued for the unstable part, but it panged him when she said that she was unhappy. Is that why she was doing this? She thought it would make her happy? “I don’t want to argue with you, Eithne. So if you have said all you wanted to say then I will be going.” He gave a resolved look and politely waited or her to reply.
Eithne pressed her lips together, and looked up at the dimming sky. She was feeling very frustrated, and decided to resort to something she did not want to say before. It involved a white lie, but if he ever found out about it, it would be too late for him to change his mind. She would probably feel guilty about saying it in the first place, but she would most likely get her way. Eithne was indeed headstrong…. she could deal with a little guilt. She couldn’t quite explain it, but Eithne felt the need to stay with Darian and go on the mission. It was just something she had to do.
Darian felt that he had given her enough time to respond. He gave her a nod indicating that they were finished, and began to move past her. This time, she did not try to block his path, but he did not get far.
“Do you love my sister?” Eithne voiced the question just as Darian took his third step. He stopped but did not turn.
“I don’t see how that is any of your business.” He answered curtly.
“It is my business. Rosalin is my sister, and whomever she marries is going to become a part of our family. So, tell me, Darian, do you want to marry my sister out of love?”
Darian turned around and fixed his eyes with hers. “Why do you need to know?”
Eithne held his cold blue eyes. It was no small task. That steely stare could be difficult to take without showing submission, but Eithne was determined not to. “Because if you really do love her, then you would want to know about the other men who have also proposed to court her for marriage.”
“Rosalin is lovely and popular. I am well aware that she has other suitors.” Darian returned plainly.
“Yes, but she is actually seriously considering more than one candidate for her husband. All of which are quite accomplished, and one of them, not you, is a favorite of my parents. If you wish to sway my family in your favor, you’re going to need leverage.” Eithne mustered as much confidence she could as she spoke to appear convincing.
“Whatever you’re getting at? Spit it out. Now.” He was being direct again.
“I’m talking about me.” Eithne replied calmly. “I would be your leverage.”
Darian’s brow furrowed. He understood her exactly. If he went along with this, then he would have to have her along on the mission. The men wouldn’t like that. Of course, it also meant that Eithne was agreeing to return to the village after it was all over. She really was clever, and a little sneaky. This way, he could ensure her safety while on the road, and be a hero to her family for returning their beloved daughter to them. His place as Rosalin’s future husband would be secure. It was still giving Eithne exactly what she wanted though, and he had no doubts that she would be anxious to join in the fray of the fight. Darian inspected her physique. She was lithe, willowy, and didn’t look like she would be able to take a hit at the first glance, but there was strength and lean muscle there. She was a bit thin, but it was easy for a warrior to see that she did have muscle on her bones. She wouldn’t break as easily as some might think. Plus she possessed a strong determination with a competitive edge. Those are two good qualities for a fighter to have. Although, Darian could not help but think of how her proposal smacked too much of blackmail. Basically, she was telling him to take her with him or he wasn’t going to marry Rosalin. He wasn’t even sure that she was telling him the whole truth about the other suitors. He felt fairly confident that Rosalin liked him the best, but it was her parents who had the ultimate word on the matter. If they favored someone else then he could have good reason to be nervous.
“Well?” Eithne prompted. She felt uncomfortable letting him think this through too much. Darian was too smart to be allowed enough time to fully analyze her proposal.
“You’re very impatient.” Darian muttered at her.
“It’s a quality I’ve come to accept about myself. What is your decision?” She snapped back.
“I know what you’re up to, Eithne. I’m not blind. How do I know I can trust what you say about the other suitors?” He replied skeptically. He didn’t like her attitude.
Eithne sighed. “Honestly Darian, you know how many suitors there are after Rosalin. She’s beautiful, friendly, traditional, intelligent, and comes from a very well respected family. Most every eligible bachelor in the village is trying to court her. I’m not just telling you this so that I can come along on the mission. It’s part of it, yes, but another reason is that of all my sister’s suitors you are the most tolerable. I would like you best as a brother-in-law, and I think that you would be good to Rosalin. So, what do you say?” She thought that some flattery couldn’t hurt her case. Anyway, it was true.
Darian took a moment to study Eithne’s face in the early evening light. She appeared to look be looking back at him in earnest. Also, he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t flattered by what she said about him. He had never really been sure what Eithne thought of him before now, but had always wanted to know. “Alright, fine.” Darian finally conceded. “But only on my conditions. If you don’t obey my orders, you’re out. Understood?”
Eithne could not disguise her excitement as she gave a vigorous nod to show that she did understand his terms. She could have hugged him in that moment, but she knew better. She was just so pleased that he had agreed to allow her to go with him! Quietly, Eithne mentally noted to keep her word and listen to Darian’s orders, even if it was something she didn’t like hearing.
“The first condition,” Darian began, assuming his authoritative voice. “Is that you give me your sword.”
Eithne’s mouth immediately opened to argue the point, but then she remembered what she had just promised to him less than a minute ago. Instead she shut her mouth and unbuckled her sword belt to hand it to him. “May I ask why you are disarming me?”
“You’ll get it back tomorrow.” He stated curtly as he took the weapon. Glancing at the hilt, Darian noticed it had the stamp of a training weapon on it. He should have known where that missing sword had gone from the training fields chest. “I’m not going to tell the men about this until we are on the ship headed to the Southern continent. That way, they won’t be able to insist that I just leave you in Tomak. My men and I are staying at the Dragon’s Belly Inn not far from here. You’re on your own for accommodation tonight, but stay on the East side of town. It’s safer. Be at this dock, ready to leave at sunrise tomorrow morning.” With that said, Darian did not wait to see if she had any questions. He turned about sharply and walked off in the direction of the main street.
Eithne was still in shock. She was going with them on the mission! Questions flooded her mind, and she wanted nothing more than to chase after him and ask every one. Of course, that would be a bad idea. She had pushed her luck enough for one day. A few seconds later a burst of adrenaline coursed through her body. Eithne could not contain her excitement and gave a whoop of joy accompanied by a hop. Some of the sailors on the dock stopped to look at her. She wasn’t even embarrassed about her sudden outburst. She was going on the mission! She was about to have her first real adventure!