warning: crossover, spoiler
It was the late afternoon, and Kenshin had been speaking with Rand again, when Rhuarc announced that the place where he intended to stop - called Imre Stand - was close by.
"Why are we stopping so early?" Rand asked. "There are hours more of daylight left." The red-haired girl, Aviendha, who was walking beside Rand's horse replied, telling him that the reason they were stopping there was water. Kenshin nodded.
"In a climate like this, it would be best to stop beside water, even if it lengthens the journey somewhat," he said. Rhuarc did no more than raise his eyebrows slightly, but Aviendha looked at him in gape-mouthed surprise.
"How would a wetlander like you know what is sense in the Three-Fold Land?" she demanded. Kenshin shrugged.
"I have common semse," he said. "I have eyes in my head. Even though we do not have any place like this in my homeland, I have tasted this climate. It is not difficult to see what is sense." He paused, and looked at her askance. "Do you have so little common sense that you must be *told* what is sense in a particular place?" Aviendha pressed her lips together, and glared at him, until a look from Rhuarc set her to blushing. She turned and faced forward again. Rhuarc nodded.
"Also, the wagons cannot go much further," he said. "I do not want to leave them behind. I cannot spare anyone, and Couladin can." Rand looked back at the wagons trundling along, guarded now by a group of Aiel.
"No, you don't want to do that," he said, and laughed softly. Mat gave him and odd look, and Rand smiled back. Kenshin began drifting away, as Rand laughed again, bitterly this time, and Aviendha made another biting comment, and the man they called "Dragon" engaged in conversation with Rhuarc. The red-heaired swordsman stopped when he saw a pair of the Aiel women called "Maidens of the Spear" run up to Rand's group, and say something to Rhuarc. In spite of it's low timbre and clipped nature, Kenshin caught a few of the words, including "trouble". Kenshin watched as Rhuarc went off to rejoin the main body of his people, and returned to Rand's side in time to hear the end of Aviendha's explanation of what the "trouble" was likely to be. The prickling feeling of his danger sense danced across his back and arms. Unconsciously he put his left hand on his saya. Wondering where the feeling could be coming from, Kenshin looked around.
Rand looked askance at Kenshin. He had seen how the young man had tensed slightly when he had grasped saidin. Even if he wasn't able to channel himself, it seemed that he at least had some ability to sense channeling in action. Kenshin listened to Rand and Aviendha's exchanges, and continued walking with them when the rest of the people went forward. After a little while, they arrived at Imre Stand. Rhuarc was the only Aiel plainly visible, but Kenshin could spot others here and there. Kenshin stopped next to the Aiel, and Rand reined in and dismounted. Rhuarc continued studying the stone buildings that made up the stand.
"The goats," Aviendha said. Kenshin thought her voice sounded troubled. "Raiders would not have left any goats behind. Most are gone, but it looks as if the herd has just been allowed to wander."
"For days," Rhuarc said. "Or more would remain. Why does no one come out? They should be able to see my face, and know me." Kenshin nodded in agreement. He had not been here before, had not even been in the world long, but he could feel that something was very wrong here. He said as much.
"Yes," Rhuarc agreed. "But I do not know what." He headed toward the buildings, and didn't object when the others followed him, hands on their respective weapons. They came to a door of rough wood, made of small planks. Part of it's bracing was broken, hacked and smashed by axes. Even though axes weren't commonly used as weaponry in Nihon, Kenshin recognised that the purpose of the axes used here was just that. Rand looked in, and after a moment, he recoiled, a blade of fire appearing in his hand. Kenshin's eyes widened, and a small "oro" popped out of his lips. To be told of the One Power, and to actually see it in use were two completely different things. Aviendha came out as soon as she had gone in.
"Who?" she demanded, her voice and expression full of outrage. "Who would do this? Where are the dead?" Kenshin looked inside, and felt sick to his stomach. He had seen - and done - many horrible things during the Bakumatsu, but rarely had he ever seen such atrocity.
"I know of few who would be capable of even considering such a thing," he said, his face pale.
"Trollocs," Mat muttered. "It looks like Trolloc work to me." Kenshin looked at him.
"Those twisted monsters I was told of?" he asked. Mat nodded.
"Yeah. They'd do this for sure," he said. Aviendha snorted contemptuously.
"Trollocs do not come to the Three-fold Land, wetlander," she said. "No more than a few miles below the Blight, at least, and then seldom. I have heard they call the Three-fold Land the Dying Ground. We hunt Trollocs, wetlander; they do not hunt us." Kenshin found the girl's attitude irritating. She was arrogant, and did not seem to have a single respectful bone in her body, and seemed to think that very nearly anyone not Aiel born and raised was inherently inferior. Rand's glowing sword vanished, and Kenshin again felt the prickle of danger. /What *is* that?/ he wondered.
Rhuarc signaled for his people to come in, and Kenshin observed them rise from their hiding places, and found himself to be impressed with their abilities. They were really as good as any onmitsu. A while later, the rest of the people showed up. Word of what they had found spread quickly, and Kenshin sensed the rising tension among the Aiel. It would have been enough to raise his hackles, had he not already been in a state of heightened alert. Everyone seemed to expect attack at any moment.
Kenshin watched as the Aiel Wise Ones, and the lady Moiraine and Lan examined the room, but he could not read any reaction from them. When Lan came out of the room, Kenshin fell into step beside him. The Warder said nothing.
"Well?" Kenshin prompted. Lan remained silent for a minute more.
"Trollocs," he said shortly. Kenshin nodded.
"Mat was right then," he said. Lan nodded in acknowledgement. Kenshin continued to walk with Lan back to the Wise One's camp. He sighed under his breath. The young swordsman found himself wishing for some tea just then. Or if he were honest with himself, wishing for anything from his home. He had been plucked from his country and world, and set down in a place that was embroiled in a worse war than the Bakumatsu ever was. When they reached the camp, Lan spent some time explaining to him in detail what the various Darkspawn were. He had had a general idea before, but afterwards, with the aid of Lan's detailed explanation, Kenshin knew exactly what a Trolloc was. And a Myrddral, and a Drakhgar... The list went on. During their conversation, Kenshin had come to a very important conclusion: his oath of non-killing did *not* apply to any of these monsters.
A while later, Rand appeared, seeking Lan. To the Wise One's disapproval, he asked Lan to watch him go through the sword forms he had been learning. Kenshin went with them, and was somewhat surprised when he saw Rand using what was, to all appearances, a shinai. Lan noted his suprise, and commented on it.
"That looks much like a type of practice sword we have in Nihon," he said. "We call it a 'shinai'." Lan nodded.
"Interesting," he said. They watched Rand. Kenshin could see that although normally he was skilled in this area, today something seemed amiss. After a while, his arms dropped, and he was panting for breath.
"You lost concentration," Lan said to Rand. "You must hold onto that even when your musclues turn to water. Lose it, and that is the day you die." Kenshin nodded in agreement. His shishou had given him much the same advice, years ago. Although his lesson had hurt a whole lot more. "And it will probably be a farmboy who has his hands on a sword for the first time that does it," Lan added, with a sudden, incongrous smile.
"Yes. Well I'm not a farmboy any longer, am I?" Rand asked the Warder. Kenshin thought he detected a hint of wistfulness in the young man's voice, but he wasn't sure. He had noticed that as Rand had been practicing, they had had gained an audience. There were Aiel from both camps watching them, as well as some of the peddlers. Rand, it seemed noticed them as well. "How do Aiel fight, Lan?" Rand asked.
"Hard," the older man replied dryly. "They never loose concentration. Look here." Kenshin watched as well, as Lan used his sword to draw on the ground. "Aiel change tactics according to circumstances, but here is one they favour." Kenshin listened, and nodded from time to time as Lan detailed some of the tactics of the Aiel. When Rand asked for a way to counter it, Lan explained that as well. Occaisionally, Kenshin interjected with a comment on strategy.
"Why do you want to learn to fight Aiel?" Aviendha interjected. "Are you not He Who Comes With the Dawn, meant to bind us together and return us all to the old glories? Besides, if you want to fight Aiel, ask Aiel, not a wetlander." She paused. "Or a stranger who is not even from this *world*. Their ways will not work." Kenshin gave her a sidelong look that spoke volumes. Her attitude was not improving his veiw of her.
"It has worked well enough with Bordermen from time to time." Rhuarc's approach had gone almost unnoticed by any in the group, so quiet were his footfalls. He carried a waterskin with him, as well as two spears and a pair of bucklers. "Although I have never heard of such tactics as Kenshin has stated." The young man shrugged.
"I have had some experience with warfare," he said. Lan short him a wry look, and he shrugged again. Rhuarc turned back to Aviendha.
"Allowances are always made when someone suffers a disappointment, Aviendha, but there is a limit to sulking," he said. "You gave up the spear for your obligation to the people and the blood. One day no doubt you will be making a clan chief do what you want instead of what he wants, but if instead you are Wise One to the smallest hold of the smallest sept of the Taardad, the obligation remains, and it cannot be met by tantrums." During the speech, Kenshin had listened with interest, and he began to get an inkling of why Aviendha behaved the way she did. While it by no means exonerated her rude behavior, at least said behavior was more understandable. Rhuarc tossed the waterskin to Rand, who caught it, and swallowed the water in great gulps.
"I thought you might like to learn the spear," Rhuarc said, as Rand lowered the half-empty skin. For the first time, it seemed, Rand noticed the weaponry that Rhuarc was carrying. The young man seemed very weary to Kenshin, but he took a spear and buckler anyway.
"That mountain can grow awfully heavy sometimes," he sighed to Lan. "When do you get a chance to put it down for a while?"
"When you die," the Warder replied. Kenshin looked at him askance. "Duty is heavier than a mountain, death lighter than a feather," Lan said to him. The red-haired swordsman nodded, and watched as Rand squared off with Rhuarc.
Later, Kenshin found himself looking at the sky from a clear patch of ground. Rand was still sparring with Rhuarc somewhere behind him, but he wasn't concerned with that now. There was a great deal going on in his mind at that moment, but the thing that weighed most heavily was the thought of his home. He missed it. He missed the mountains, and the rivers, the ocean and the trees. He had never seen anything as desolate as this Three-fold Land. Another thing occurred to him. If the Dark One were to break free, he would be free in all worlds. Did that mean that he would be loose in Kenshin's world as well? He sighed. He was still mourning Tomoe, and now here he was, plunged into a world he knew nothing of, caught up in a conflict that threatened to destroy all worlds... He sighed again, and ran his hands through his hair.
"You seem troubled," came a voice from behind him. He snapped around, and had half drawn his sakabatou, before he realised who had snuck up on him.
"Moiraine-san," he said, nodding to her. He would have to be careful not to get caught up in his thoughts like that again. It could be fatal. "What are you doing out here?" he asked. The place Kenshin had chosen to observe the sky was at some remove from any of the camps about Imre Stand; he had been seeking solitude for his thoughts.
"I wished to speak with you," the Aes Sedai replied. Kenshin nodded. He had expected as much. He waited, giving her a level look. After a while, Moiraine began shifting her feet. Finally she sighed.
"What is the nature of your ability?" she asked finally. That was the thing that most concerned her. That this young man - hardly more than a boy - possessed such strength was unsettling. Kenshin shrugged.
"It is as I told Lan - traning, and nothing more. My abilites are hardly unique where I come from," he continued, thinking of his shishou, and his adversaries among the Shinsengumi - especially the third captian, Saitou Hajime. Moiraine raised an eyebrow.
"Have any of these... super-swordsmen ever gone mad?" she asked. Kenshin gave her a look as if you say 'do you think I'm an idiot?'.
"We're not channelers," he said. "That much I know." Moiraine shot him a quick glare.
"I was not implying that you were," she said cooly.
"Yes," Kenshin said, "you were. I am no fool, Moiraine-san." He sighed, and looked her straight in the eye. "My abilities are the result of training. Years of training, and nothing else, since I was a young child. Yes, I have a natural affinity for this sort of thing - I would not be as skilled as I am otherwise. But that is it." His last sentence had the firmness of finality that brooked no argument. Moiraine found herself to be somewhat taken aback. She had never met anyone - except Rand - who treated her this way. She pressed her lips into a thin line. At least *this* boy was polite. She would find a way to make him useful, though, however he acted. His eyes were turned back to the sky, watching as the sun sank below the horizon.
"It is getting dark, Moiraine-san. I expect dinner will be ready soon. Goodnight." Kenshin bowed slightly, and then headed back to the camp. Moiraine watched his retreating form, and with no small sense of frustration headed back to the camp of the Wise Ones. The strange young man from another world made her uneasy. The situation was falling farther and farther out of her control, and it seemed like there was very little that she could do about it.
"Don't worry about him," Lan advised when she mentioned the subject. "He's a good person, and will do what needs to be done." Moiraine sighed internally, and ate her dinner.
Back in the other camp, Kenshin was eating dinner with Rand and several other of his new companions. The traders were there, and Kenshin was keeping a surreptious eye on them. This was the first time he had seen them up close, and there was something about them that raised a number of alarms in his head. Especially the large woman - Keille - and the minstrel - gleeman, he corrected himself - called Jasin Natael. There was something about them that was just not... right. He had caught himself unconsciously fingering the hilt of his sakabatou several times already now. /If I were still the Hitokiri, they would be dead/ he thought. He kept his suspicions to himself for the moment, but made a note to speak to Rand about them as soon as the opportunity presented itself. They ate dinner with little conversation. The food was unfamiliar to Kenshin, and some of it was very spicy - so much so that he turned red and started choking when he tried it.
"Ororooooo!" he wailed in distress, clutching his throat and waving his hand at his mouth. "Oro! Oro! Oro! WATER!" he finally managed to shout. The traders were looking at him bemusedly, and several of the Aiel were laughing, but Rhuarc handed him a water skin, and Kenshin quickly gulped down more than half the contents. "Ahhhhh," he sighed. The red-haired swordsman shot his companions a hurt look. "You didn't have to laugh," he said in an injured tone. The Aiel clan-chief chuckled again, and apologised. After they had all finished eating - with, Kenshin thought thankfully, no further culinary surprises - Rhuarc and another Aiel named Heirn pulled out pipes, and stuffed them with tobacco.
"Would you sing a song for us, Natael?" Rhuarc asked. Natael blinked, as if surprised by the request.
"Why, of course. Of course," he repeated. The way he said this once again raised Kenshin hackles. Something was definitely not right here. The man was hiding something. "Let me bring a harp," Natael continued, heading off toward one of the traders' wagons. As he left, Mat too brought out a pipe and filled it with tobacco. By the time Natael had returned with his harp, there were three contentedly smoking men around the fire. The gleeman struck a pose, and began singing. It was a song of battles, and honour, that Kenshin found moving.
/Whetever else he may be, he is a masterful performer,/ the red-head thought. When the man had finished singing, Rand was staring into the fire with a slight twist to his lips. Mat also looked distracted. Nateal was looking at Rand.
"You did not like the song?" he asked. Rand rubbed his hands together.
"I'm not certain how wise it is, depending on an enemy's generosity. What do you think, Kadere?" he asked the trader. Kadere hesitated, glancing nervously at the woman - Isendre - who was clinging to him.
"I do not think of such things. I think of profits, not battles," he said. Keille laughed. The woman who had attached herself to Kadere gave Keille a condescending smile. Instantly, the large woman's eyes became hard, glittering dangerously, and Kenshin had to fight to keep himself from drawing his sakabatou. He had to break that habit; he had a long way to go from being the Hitokiri.
/But in this situation, maybe I don't want to give up all those habits/ he thought. Suddenly, the prickling feeling that had always warned him of danger skittered across his senses. At the same moment, shouts of alarm and cries of warning came from beyond the tents. Kenshin fell into a ready stance, his hands hovering over his sakabatou, and his eyes darting about, and muscles ready to spring into action, wherever the attack came from. The Aiel had pulled veils over their faces, and a second later, swarms of hideously misformed creatures came in from the darkness. They were all at least twice the size of a large man, which made them perhaps five times Kenshin's size. Not for the first time, he wished he were just a *little* taller. They had faces mangled by the presence of snouts and beaks, and horns grew out of their heads. Their hands were clawed, and as often as not, they had hooves instead of feet.
The hideous appearance of what could only be Trollocs caused Kenshin to recoil internally for a moment, but before the monsters could take any action, he launched into a lightning speed attack. He had taken out several of them, when he caught his first sight of what had to be a Myrddral.
The creature had the basic form of a slender man, clad in serpentine black armour, but that was where the resemblace ended. The Myrddral had white skin - absolute dead white skin, with lank black hair. And where a man would have eyes, the Myrddral had nothing. Then, as if sensing his gaze, the Myrddral turned to face him. 'To know the gaze of the Eyeless is to know fear', Lan had told him. And indeed, for a second he did feel an almost crippling terror. However, he quickly shrugged it off. It was no worse than what he had experienced from users of the Shin no Ippou during the Bakumatsu.
With a powerful kiai, he dashed at the Myrddral, dodging to the side of it's attack quicker than the creature could follow. The Myrddral slashed at his midsection, but with a sinuous twist, Kenshin avoided the blow. In one corner of his mind, he was aware of the Aiel fighting around him, and of Mat weilding his naginata with deadly accuracy. In the other, he was anticipating the moves of his enemy. The skills he had developed over the years he spent fighting in the Bakumatsu helped him to accurately gauge the ability of nearly anyone he was fighting.
The Myrddral aimed another attack at his stomach, and this time instead of merely dodging, Kenshin leaped into the air, reversing his sakabatou as he did so. As he came down, he brought the sakabatou down on the Myrddral, cleaving it in half from it's head all the way down. The red-haired swordsman landed in a crouch, which was a good thing, as it prevented his decapitation by the Myrddral's flailing death throes.
Without pausing for breath, Kenshin leaped back into the battle. Deftly he avoided blows from Trollocs and Myrddral, while at the same time managing to deliver many of his own. However, he did have a few close calls - once when a Myrddral's black blade skimmed across his chest, and left a faint scratch, and again when several Trollocs attacked him at once, leaving a narrow cut on his left arm.
At one point, he found himself fighting back to back with Rand, who was fighting off the monsters with his sword of fire. Together they managed to withstand the onslaught of nearly twenty Trollocs at once, although Kenshin felt some surprise again when Rand incinerated five of them in a great pillar of fire. Then he was on his own again, dodging and attacking, using natural rock formations at ricochet points to add force to his attacks. At one point there were several Trollocs in a line near him, and he opened the ground under them with a Dou Ryu Sen.
Then it was over. The Trollocs and Myrddral lay on the ground, dead or dying. With a sense of horror, Kenshin realised that the Myrddal were still thrashing.
"The Halfmen never fully die until the sun rises," an Aiel whom he did not recognise said to him, before moving off. Kenshin shuddered. /What kind of... twisted monster could have possibly created these things?/ He shuddered again. He spotted Rand, Mat and Aviendha, and headed over to them.
"...all right?" he heared Rand asking Mat. Mat struggled to his feet.
"Oh, I am fine," he muttered. "Nothing like a little dance with Trollocs to ready you for sleep. Right Aviendha?" The Aiel woman smiled tightly. Then Mat noticed Kenshin apporaching. His eyes widened, and he took a step back, half falling into a defensive posture. He spat out curse in an unrecognisable language. "I thought you said you couldn't channel," he said accusatively to Kenshin.
"I can't," Kenshin replied. Mat snorted.
"I saw you blast the ground out from under those Trollocs," he said accusitorily. Kenshin began to reply, but stopped when Rand shook his head.
"He wasn't channeling." Rand gave Kenshin a hard look. "Whatever he was doing, it wasn't channeling." Mat swallowed at this tacit reminder that one of his best and oldest friends could channel, and was doomed, like all men with that ability, to madness and death. A tense silence fell upon them, when Rhuarc strode up, his face grim. An almost palpable wave of relief spread across them, as the clan chief's approach broke the tension that hed been hovering over them like some dark spell. Rand cleared his throat.
"Bad news?" he asked Rhuarc.
"Hn. Aside from Trollocs here where they should not be, not by two hundred leauges or more?" the clan-chief replied. "Perhaps. Some fifty Trollocs attacked the Wise Ones' camp. Enough to overwhelm it, had it not been for Moiraine Sedai and luck."
/Luck.../ Kenshin thought as Rhuarc continued, telling of the much smaller attack on the Shaido. Kenshin looked at Rand. /Luck.../ he mused again. /I'm beginning to wonder if there's any such thing./
"I bring enemies with me, Rhuarc," Rand was saying. "Remember that. Wherever I am, my enemies are never far." Kenshin felt a slight chill at those words. He had a great deal of sympathy for Rand; the young man had been plunged unwillingly into a role that would in all likelyhood bring him to an early grave. Although Kenshin had been in a similar situation during the Bakumatsu, he at least had gone in willingly, with open eyes. Suddenly he felt a burning pain across his chest.
"Ah!" he gasped. It was coming from the wound that the Myrddral had given him. /But it was only a scratch!/ He clenched his teeth. Rand looked sharply at him.
"What is it?" he asked, glancing around. He had noticed Kenshin's ability to sense danger before, and was wondering if the gasp was a reaction to something like that.
"My... chest," Kenshin said through his teeth. Rhuarc stepped up to him, and pushed his kimono open. The clan-chief hissed. Kenshin looked down. What had been a shallow scratch was now a livid wound, that was getting visibly worse.
"What gave you this wound?" Rhuarc asked. Kenshin told him about the Myrddral. Rhuarc's face turned grim. "It must be treated a soon as possible. Why did you say nothing sooner?"
"It was... only a scratch," Kenshin gasped out, as he fell to his knees, doubled over with pain. "I have had worse from my shishou in practice." Mat looked at him grimly.
"A wound from a Fadeblade is never 'just a scratch,'" he said. Rand nodded, and looked around. Where was Moiraine? He himself had no skill with healing, so they needed to find the Aes Sedai if Kenshin were to survive. He spotted her, with Egwene some fifty feet away tending to some of the wounded.
"Moiraine!" he called, and gestured her to come, quickly. Egwene shot him a look of swiftly concealed irritation, and followed Moiraine as she glided swiftly across the parched earth to Rand.
"What is it?" the Aes Sedai asked. Rand nodded to Kenshin, who by this time was fighting for consciousness.
"He was cut by a Fadeblade," Rand said. Moiraine felt a tinge of surprise, but showed no reaction on the surface as she knelt to examine the young swordsman. /He must truly be made of strong stuff if he is still conscious and functioning after a cut from a Myrddral in that area of his body./ Fortunately, Kenshin was even less affected than she had feared; much of his reaction was due to excruciating pain. Swiftly, she cleansed the wound, and healed it shut.
"There," she said. Kenshin thanked her. She nodded, and then turned to Rand. With a slight frown, he allowed her to examine him, but he was not injured. Mat had left when Rand had called the Aes Sedai, saying he was going to bed, and muttering about the peddlers.
"This was aimed at you," Moiraine said to Rand. A few more words were exchanged, also between Rand and Egwene, but Kenshin was not paying any real attention to them. The whole of his attention was taken by one of the thrashing Myrddral. Apparently, although the Trollocs were being dragged off for disposal, the Myrddral were being left until sunrise, to ensure that they were truly dead. He shuddered. The things were like the worst demon creatures out of a nightmare. He stood there as if hypnotised for how long he didn't knwo, until one of the Aiel Wise Ones touched him gently on the shoulder and told him that he should sleep. With a sigh, he nodded, and with one last shuddering glance at the still-thrashing Myrddral, went to seek his tent.
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