Dasha staggered just a little as she sat heavily by the small fire. Exhaustion dragged at her in more ways than one, from the fight and the revelation before, and combined with the blood it made her fingers slip on the clasp of her now-ruined cloak.

 

I overdid it. Damn, she thought, distantly, as Fang followed with a worried whine. Cocky and careless, Dasha. You had to piss them all off, didn’t you? At least it will make a good camp… 

 

She sat heavily, with a groan she allowed herself because there was no one else here to hear it. Talon swooped in and landed on one of the wooden legs of the large, makeshift staircase she sat under. The pirate camp was ramshackle as a general rule, but this place under the stairs would make a good little hidden shelter with some tarps and reinforcements. That work would have to wait, however.

 

She needed to tend to herself first.

 

It wasn’t the first time Dasha had taken on odds that bordered extreme, or the first time she’d been injured doing so, but it had been perhaps a little reckless on her part. Eyes the color of pine needles were dull at the moment; her short black hair was matted with filth, and a small slice across her cheek scored a straight sharp nose. The ranger fit the definition of “tall, dark and handsome” but she wasn’t dark with brown and green now. Instead, blood and gore soaked her ruined cloak -an old faithful soldier now beyond saving- and her hunter’s gear and piecemeal armor too. Dasha laboriously fumbled with laces and buckles as she stripped. The cloak fell with a wet slap onto the ground.

 

Kit. Need my kit. “Fang, fetch kit,” she said, shaking herself as she slurred it a little. I’ve lost more blood than I thought if I’m stumbling on speaking. Fuck. 

 

Fang immediately began to rummage in her bloodied backpack. He came back with the kit and her spare cloak as well. Talon landed on his back, as she was wont to do. Fang’s leather harness and armor kept him safe from her wicked claws. The hound whined softly as Dasha started a fire, set a pot of water on it, found a bottle of liquor that bordered furniture polish instead of something actually edible, flipped the kit open and laid out the supplies.

 

“Talon, sentry,” she said, a little hoarse. The hawk took off immediately. She would keep watch. With guard set, Dasha stripped off the rest of her clothes.

 

There is a history of violence there, carved into pale skin: old scars, newer bruises, and now several fresh wounds that started bleeding again as she began the process of cleaning herself up. Dasha was built like an arrow, straight and keen ad strong, all sharp edges and angles, perfectly built for one purpose as she hissed in pain.

 

It was a good hurt. Pain meant you were alive, after all. And it kept her focused instead of worrying about what she had found in the damn Vanguard’s headquarters.

 

Ah. That’s why. That captain got me after all, she thought. Besides minor to moderate assorted contusions and cuts, two bullets had found purchase in her flesh, ripping through her thigh; a slash across her back was shallow but crossed nearly the length from her hip to her shoulder; where a dagger seeking her heart had skittered off the sternum instead thanks to her quick reflexes; and where something (bullet? Arrow? She didn’t remember) had carved an ugly graze just above her ear.

 

Dasha took the liquor, threw back a swallow without flinching, and sat next to Fang. A flask of greenish liquid was next from the kit, which would help with the healing, though not immediately. Then came the hot water, and once she was relatively clean, the liquor. It was hardly fit for pig swill, but Dasha was an old hand at using alcohol to disinfect her wounds. Medicinal supplies were at a premium, and so was the healer’s time, during war- and war was what she knew. She set her jaw against the burning and clenched her fists silently until the waves of  throbbing fire in her nerves passed. Then she rinsed off with more hot water, and out came bandages, thread for sutures, and a jar that smelled strongly of mint and astringent. A leather thong tied her hair up in a stubby ponytail to keep it out of the head wound.

 

“…Fang, bottle?”

 

The hound rose and brought her the bottle of water she kept with her. Dasha drained it. She needed fluids, and food, but fluids first. The hunter moved with the stoic assurance of someone well used to tending their own wounds as she applied the salve to her back wound -no way she could stitch that, terrible placement, bandages and the healing ointment would have to do- and then started with the needle and thread on the rest of it.

 

Wish I had enough left in me to heal myself a little- but I’m not good at that as it is, and I’m tapped. When forced to close quarters -and she had been, once she ran out of arrows, each finding killing purchase in throats or eyes- Dasha relied on shadows and speed and precision to inflict devastating injuries on multiple targets in a short amount of time. The natural magic that came easily to rangers combined with it to give her the speed of a snake and the bloody ferocity of an enraged tiger. Fighting like that burned the candle at both ends, though.

 

Mechanically, she tied the final knot in her scalp, and exhaled shakily. Without being asked, Fang went back to her bag and yanked out a tightly wrapped bundle, bringing it over and depositing it pointedly in her lap.

 

“Yes, mother, I’ll eat,” she said, and he thumped his tail at her as he lay back down. There was a packet of pre-made soup mix, and there was a fresh spring here, so soup was making in short order, which Dasha was ok with. Soup required little to no effort from her, and now that she was finished and washed and sitting, thoughts heavier than the usua post-battle drag crept in.

 

….I have to look at it sometime. It may as well be now. At least I have privacy, she thought, and braced herself as she took something from the side pocket of her bag.

 

A ring, thick and heavy, in silver and gold, depicted a winged lion roaring and rampant. It was a man’s by the size and weight, and old, very old, if well-kept. The firelight threw flickers of sparkle off the edges of it.

 

A lazy spark, borne up by hot air, floated by it, and the smell of ash-

 

-overwhelmed everything, even the pain, the screaming she still heard (would never not hear, the high keening shriek of a broken mother ripped apart in front of her children as the light faded from their eyes and it was a mercy) and the agony of her own heartbeat, her own breathing. Somewhere, she knew the hot-cold-numbness meant she was horribly burned, and that the fires still raged, and she needed to move if she wanted to live. 

 

But Dasha did not want to live. She’d bleed out soon, or go into shock, surely she had to die soon- she couldn’t move, could barely manage to keep breathing the hot air with tortured lungs, had only just dragged herself to poor faithful Biter’s corpse. His end had been quick though, holes big enough for her fist in his chest, perhaps the only quick death among the ruined bodies that littered what remained of her home. Many were missing limbs, butchered like animals in a literal sense. 

 

The Flame Legion had no mercy to show them when they came. Shamans animated twisted wooden burning effigies with foul magic in the name of their gods. They stood twice as tall as the tallest pines, and were flanked by devourers bigger than houses. Combined with ground troops, they set fire to the forest, then her cabin, then her village, and crushed the soldiers and townsfolk that resisted. Dasha’s hit and run tactics, her traps and ambushes and sniper’s perches, proved useless when the Flame Legion brought their true strength and that terrible fire to bear in force. 

 

She killed the soldiers who came for her, made her stand in the marketplace as others grabbed pitchforks and older children ran with their siblings in their arms. And she killed and killed and killed in her righteous fury and her grief, cutting swathes of the enemy down. It didn’t matter. The advantage of sheer numbers and some new power over fire itself took their toll, and she was crushed just like the local apple stand now smashed to tinders. The gut wound alone was mortal, let alone the burns, the ruin fang and claw had made of her shoulder, the arrows in her side. It had to be soon. Let it end, she begged, silently, to the uncaring gods. Grenth, please, I tried, I’m sorry, I tried, it hurts, let me die, let me be with my brother hound, let me die, let me die…

 

There was no response, only her own pain and the waves of white-cold-hot feverchill from her burns. Agony. Agony and ash on the hot wind, and the smell of death that stalked the lands ripped asunder by this war just like the people who lived here. 

 

…Footsteps. 

 

Her first thought was that the Flame Legion had returned, looking for more food. That was enough to make her stir. The steps stopped. Despite her former pleas, Dasha made a choking noise, tried to get her arms under her- if she could reach her boot knife- 

 

“Divines,” breathed a voice- a warm, masculine, and unbelievably, incredibly, miraculously human voice, a little shaken but deep and strong. Dasha twitched. It was all she could manage, all she had strength for; the boot knife might as well have been a thousand miles away. She tried to focus, grit and blood gluing her eyelids shut, and a hand in a leather glove touched her face, cracking open one eye. She heard him inhale sharply as he saw the damage she’d sustained, but also the way her eyes expanded and contracted, still alive. The face swam in her vision, but another hand, glowing faintly white-blue, and wearing a ring in silver and gold with a winged lion, reached for her as spots swam in front of her, and finally began to fade into darkness… 

 

Teeth on her arm made her jump, startled out of the flashback. Dasha swore, and Fang, biting her arm gently, released her looking contrite.

 

“No, no, not you, brother hound, sweet Fang. Thank you. I- I haven’t gotten lost like that in a while,” she muttered, petting him with a bandaged hand. He came back, closer, and laid his head in her lap. Dasha swallowed. That hand, that magic, saved her life, though she hadn’t been grateful for it at first. Work helped, gave her purpose, kept her present, reminded her why she had to help the king and kill the charr, to safeguard humanity. Humanity would never be safe as long as the charr existed. It kept her from getting lost like she used to. But…

 

… The king said that he found me. I had always thought that was him. She looked at the ring, sitting as innocently as a bomb in front of her.

 

When I saw them leaving thier base, realized it was thier base, well, it was happy chance. Lucky. I thought if I scouted it out, snuck in, I might find the method they are using to control the Commander. Instead… that ring, on his desk. He didn’t have it before. I couldn’t see the face, but I remember- I remember that ring, that hand… 

 

But the king said he found me. 

 

If that wasn’t the king… who was it? 

 

And, she thought, with deep unease, why would he lie to me? 

 

It made no sense.

 

She looked back at the ring.

 

It was clearly a signet ring, expensive, detailed. Nobility? She thought back in her mind. So who-

 

Dasha froze.

 

Most commoners had only a vague knowledge of the nobility. But when she’d been appointed Royal Forester, she had to learn a good deal more. I can’t believe I never thought to- Bordren. As in… Lord Barradin, the Lord of Northern Pines, including Pine Creek and the Needlewoods, where I used to live… 

 

Is the Commander part of his bloodline? Does the king know? Does the Commander? He never mentioned this. Five years of being the arrow in the King’s quiver,aimed by the Commander at the hearts of our enemies. Five years of being his shadow. It was good work. I was… content. But neither of them said anything about this… The revelation left even more questions with her as her brow furrowed deeply.

 

Surely there’s an explanation. It’s probably a simple one, I just don’t realize it. The King wouldn’t lie to me. I don’t deserve it, I’m just a forester, but we have… a connection. We’re Ascalonian. We understand in a way Maya and the others can’t, no offense to them, but they’re… innocent in that way. They haven’t seen. They don’t know. 

 

If he knew, he’d tell me. I’m sure of it. 

 

I’m sure of it. 

 

“There’s- there’s probably some… innocent explanation. He wouldn’t just lie. He’s the King, after all, and he’s an honorable man. Stern, but kind, and wise, and honorable above all else,” she said to Fang, who thumped his tail a little more. The smell of ready soup was rising; she removed the little pot and set it in the sand in front of her in the sand. The handle folded cleverly and turned to one that made the pot into a bowl.

 

But the ring sat in front of her still, and it drew her eye and her doubts as she ate. Try as she could, she couldn’t make the face in her memory resolve into the King’s, and the ring remained as stubbornly crystal clear as always.

 

…I think- I should keep it for now. Just until I figure things out. I’m sure the King has a good reason. Maybe I should talk to Maya. She says that is what friends are for, and she says she is my friend, like Fang. I don’t want to bring it back with me until I know more. That felt oddly right. Yes. She’d hide it here. Just in case.

 

Of what, she couldn’t articulate.

 

Talon, returning from her watch as the sun went down, walked carefully in and looked at Dasha, then at Fang’s mournful expression as the hound scooted closer to his ranger. With an imperious air, the bird came to sit by Dasha’s side in solidarity. It made her heart swell.

 

“Such good friends. Sharp sister, sweet brother,” she muttered, and for a brief moment all as well as Fang heaved himself bodily into her lap and settled there. Talon hopped up as well on top of him, and Dasha murmured compliments and praise to both as she gave them the pets they deserved.

 

Finally, exhausted in more ways than one, Dasha made herself finish the soup and stand. Old spare clothes from her pack would do for now; her other things would have to be tossed. She examined the cloak and sighed. Well, it might be good to keep here, just in case she needed it. It could use a dunk or seven in the ocean though before she even tried to wash it.

 

Putting clothes on pulled at her stitches and other hurts. She didn’t bother with boots, barefoot in the sand as the sun began to set, though she did make herself tie the tarp up and around as a windbreak and roof against the cool night air from the ocean and potential rain. It hurt more than she expected.

 

Definitely overdid it, she thought, as she flopped back down and fed more scrap wood to the fire. Yet she still didn’t rest. Fang and Talon were fed and settled for the night, with Fang guarding, and only then did Dasha finally allow herself to lay down on her bedroll, in a hollow in the sand.

 

In her hand, she held the ring like a talisman. Perhaps it would ward off the evils of the night and the dreams that followed.

 

It didn’t.

 

She dreamed of fire and ash.

Author Cael
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