Desperado

White Apes.

White Apes with Six Limbs, and disturbing intelligence in their eyes.

White Apes whose blood ran so cold, mist seeped from their mouths and noses as the breathed, and rose from their bodies as they bled and lay dying in the Spring-time warmth of Arden. They had faced them before, and learned not to let a blade linger in their flesh, lest the chill reach your elbow. Finn and his Company had been able to keep the other rushes at bay, as they never seemed organized or never seemed to make their thrust in enough numbers. It had been a running battle that left Finn's line smeared across their side of the Black Road, like too little butter on too much toast. He had wounded, his own and from other companies, not far behind the lines, just barely far enough for them to be tended, with those that could be moved being taken further back as time and resources allowed. The Apes had been unrelenting, and now they were making their final push — in massive numbers, and with far more organization than they were previously thought capable of.

Finn burst back through to his side of the lines, laying about him with his horseman's mace, having decided that blunt trauma was the best way to handle these creatures. Blake danced upon their bodies with sharp hooves and bone-splintering kicks, rider and warrior acting in concert to reach their men. Covered in gore, Blake looked nearly black from the blood, no long was he gloriously tiger-striped, and Finn's armor and skin fared no better. At the very least, most of the blood was not their own. Blake galloped for the heart of the Ranger Company when they finally broke through, with Finn calling out, "Sergeant! Sergeant!"

"Sir! Captain! Lord Finn!" A man raised his arms amidst the defenders, and turned his own horse over to meet Finn along the way.

"Sound the retreat, Sergeant. By the numbers as we planned."

He gave a curt nod, and called for the horn-blowers to relay the order. All over the woods it echoed, and after a moment, Finn could see the signs of a measured retreat, though he could not be sure of how well it went elsewhere. "Pull them back to the Fire Wall."

Finn rejoined the fighting. He knew what had to be done, and if it was going to be done, he would make sure as many of his lads as could be spared made it past the Fire Wall. His face a grim mask, he rode along his lines like death, plugging holes where he saw them, rallying the men when they flagged, and killing apes with a hatred they likely did not truly deserve. When the time came, he wheeled Blake and together they charged towards the Fire Wall.

He raised his own command horn, and sounded the signal. Much to his credit, the order was immediately followed. Streaks of red appeared ahead of him, as fire arrows and torches were tossed into bales of oil-soaked hay, batches of dried wood and leaves, and tent fabric. It burst into a line of fire, that swiftly rose into a wall. It would burn part of the forest, but two streams that turned the land into a wedge, green wood, a recent rain, and Finn's Will would keep it from claiming the Forest in this corner of Arden's Shadows. Finn lowered his face to Blake's neck, and pulled his water-soaked hood up just before they plunged into and leaped over the fire, galloping onward towards what remained of the company.

The Rangers stood mute for a moment at his arrival, steam rose from his horse and his cloak and armor, and both horse and rider had clearly been singed black in places. "MOVE! Your Brothers did their work and well! Or this Fire Wall would have been for nothing! The fire will stop these frigid beasts! MOVE! Get our wounded and pull them back Sergeant! Sergeant! Sound the Retreat Again!"

Over one hundred good men held the line so that the Apes could not get past them before the Fire Wall was raised. Fire was anathema to the ice-blooded invaders, but it could only be used sparingly in the Forest, their bane could easily become the Rangers' as well. One hundred good men, to save close to four times that number. The math was right, so too was the command, but Finn hated the math, for all that he was so gifted with it.


Rebecca's days weren't nearly so exciting. The longer that went on, the more twitchy she got. Eric didn't want her in the thick of the action. While she could see his point, it didn't make it any easier to deal with. Not even Eric could stop her from joining the soldiers when the forces of the Black Road strayed too near Kolvir. The crossbow she had found in the armory had been just what she needed. Though more then once it was tossed to the wayside as she leapt into the thick of things with an axe in each hand and yelling things that her mother would have washed her mouth out with soap for.

After making sure none of that blood and gore spattered on her was hers, Eric gave her another stern talking to. While it worked well enough for a few days, it wasn't long before she was again feeling twitchy and short-tempered.

Flora, of all people, had finally exiled her to the stables after she had flattened yet another visitor from the Golden Circle. Flora's instance that there were better ways to handle these events fell on deaf ears; nobody touched Rebecca anywhere without her permission. Nobody. She didn't care if they were the King of Siam, and even less when they were just some officious toady who made assumptions about Rebecca and her character because of the way she dressed or talked.

Sometimes she thought her father might just have a hand in these incidents; she knew him well enough to see that smile he was trying to hide while Flora ratted her out.

She'd rather be in the stables anyway. She took Demon from the Royal Enclosure and went to the Military Stables. She helped tend to the wounded, and it was appreciated by the vets and stable hands. Injured and fresh from the field, the horses were often in pain and fighting the ones trying to help them. She talked them down, soothed them, listened to them. The other handlers had called her a Horse Whisperer, and that was close enough to the truth that she didn't correct them.

Steads being readied as replacements had to be run through their paces, and she gladly did that as well. A few times even she couldn't get her point across and Demon was called in to demonstrate a maneuver. She couldn't help but agree when he stated he had earned his beer. She had too, she decided.


Finn's next leave was a welcome one. The part of the campaign for Arden's Defense that he had been involved in had become long, grueling, and a bit too heavy in sacrifices and what felt like Pyrrhic victories. Julian had not disapproved of any of Finn's actions, they were, in fact, actions he had already been forced to take in one form or another himself. Julian saw to the whole picture and didn't like it, Finn had to see only to his piece of it, and knew full well that the whole picture was not so bleak as to turn this war into a losing one, but every inch they held was dearly paid for.

When Finn rode up to the Cock and Bull Tavern he had not even made it up to the Castle. Blake was filthy, and so was he, and both needed a bath, a rubdown, and a large meal to fill their bellies. Finn paid the stableboy extra to tend to Blake, and promised him even more if he made sure the Tiger-Horse got a rare piece of steak and a handful of candy.

The lad was aghast at Blake's condition as he took the reins. He walked off with the horse, muttering assurances and the promise of a bath, a rub down, a really humongous steak with a bucket of beer for good measure and a handful of the cherry balls he liked so much, since Miss Rebecca had given them a big bag full of candy for Blake and Demon and the rest for the lads to pass out.

He walked into the bar looking worse than any farmhand or rancher or blue collar stiff that had ever sauntered in after a long day of work.

Little by little as he was noticed, conversations died. It wasn't like they didn't know what was going on beyond the city, but rarely did it show itself under the roof of the tavern. The young man he remembered serving their ale the first time he was with Rebecca here slipped through the crowds towards the back room of the tavern.

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Finn was bandaged in places over his dark shirt and dark leather breeches, and his kit and mail were in a filthy bundle he toted over his shoulder. His hair was dry, but looked unwashed, and wild, and he had a shadow of a beard. A faint scar rode his cheek, and a bandage showing a red line was above his eyebrow. he slumped down into a chair with a grunt, and a sigh, and asked for a shot and a beer. Finn looked around to see if Rebecca was in; as much as he had come to love Amber, he and Blake needed a ride out of there, to some place that maybe was not knee deep in blood. It wasn't all he needed or wanted, but it was a start.

It was Maggie that saw him first. Once she shook herself out of her stupor, she moved quickly across the room towards him. Heedless of the mess and the fact that he was sitting, she took his arm and started steering him even as she fussed over him while trying to not look like she was fussing. Mick came out of the kitchen, took one look at the silent crowd, and cleared his throat loudly. It seemed to break the spell his entrance had cast over the tavern, and slowly the volume of noise begin to rise back to its normal levels, though people still cut looks in his direction as Maggie led him across the floor towards the stairs.

"Bright Goddess, Your Grace," she said quietly. "You look as if you could fall down any minute. Well, we'll fix you right up, we will. Good, hot meal, hot bath, yes. I'll send a bottle of Her Highness' whiskey right up too."

Finn managed a small smile at the woman's reaction. Having never really been mothered, he found the way she treated him, despite the use of his honorific, both endearing and refreshing. "You should see the other guys, Maggie." The smile did not last, and he nodded. "That all sounds fantastic."

The arched opening that led to the back room was suddenly clear of people. Except for Rebecca; dressed in black leather trousers and a black silk shirt embroidered with red roses at the yoke, black hat with a silverwork band that matched the toe caps on her boots. She had a guitar slung over her back and a half a glass of whiskey in one hand. Half a cigar dangled from the fingers wrapped around the glass. Her eyes raked over him and she silently lifted the guitar over her head and handed it to Maggie.

"Trade ya," was all she said.

Maggie patted Finn on the arm, took the guitar and left Rebecca to deal with the battle weary Duke.

"Can't let ya go anywhere by yerself, can I?" she asked as she handed him the glass. Her arm went around his middle and she ushered him towards the stairs. "C'mon. Let's git ya cleaned up."

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"No, I reckon ya can't." Finn smiled again, "You look as good as ever." He moved with her, and while he did not lean on her much, it was more habit that kept his back straight than willpower. His arm went around her as they went, and with the other he drank down the whiskey. He sighed, "Left my kit in the main room." He had the only really valuable thing he had brought into the field on him already, clasped around his left bicep over the black cloth of his shirt. The rest was entirely replaceable, though it took a while to break a set of mail in the way he liked. "Tell me about your day, Rebecca. You can likely guess at mine." Finn looked at her, "Did I miss hearing you sing?"

"Maggie'll see ta yer kit," She said as she handed her cigar to a surprised dock worker they passed on the stairs. "An' I ain't had enough to drink to be singin'." She gave him a crooked smile and pushed her hat back with one finger. "Maybe later. Reckon my day was pretty borin' compared to yours. Nearly caused one of those 'diplomatic incidents' when a fella from Kashfa decided that a woman wearin' jeans was an invite to fondle her ass. Don' reckon he'll be doin' that again. Wailed like a little girl who done watched her puppy get trampled. I only broke his nose. Don' know what he was carryin' on fer."

Finn nodded, he did not think that either Maggie or Mick would put up with theft in their place, and certainly not of a veteran. In truth, Finn doubted anyone downstairs would be interested; it was a hard working, honest lot, salt of the earth, as they say. They'd sooner clean his gear than steal it, but it had a dangerous weapon or two, and he'd hate for the kids to get their hands on it. "Well, I'd like to fix that then. More whiskey for you." He made space for someone coming down, and leaned on Rebecca a bit. "I'm glad you were here." He smiled slightly, and continued up with her. "Stupid." He commented on the grabby-handed noble, and then tilted his head at her turn of phrase. Finn's smile crept across his features, and then his surprised laughter was loosed in a bark of delight. "Ha! That does paint a picture." He chuckled, repeated the words in his head, and laughed again. "Was Florimel aghast?"

"It was a right bully snit," Rebecca grinned. "Reckon there shoulda been fireworks." At her door she fished out the key to her door. "Be surpris'd if there ain't a song written fer the occasion." She pushed open the door and turned sideways briefly so they could both go through together. Afterwards she kicked it closed with a backwards tap of her boot. She reached up and turned up the lamp on the wall by the door. "Ya look right dragged out, Finn," she observed. "Can ya get outta that mess while I go start ya a bath, or ya need help?"

Finn smiled when she grinned, and there was an almost imperceptible flicker of a wince when she mentioned fireworks. The smile was the slightest bit less honest after that. He squeezed through the door with her, rather enjoying that, and got his feet more directly under him when she turned up the lamp. "Yes, I believe I can. A bath would be like heaven." He eased the armband off of his arm, which was wrought to appear like dark green vines and leaves crafted from some metal. Finn set that aside carefully, and then began to get out of the rest.

She had caught the change in him, but didn't remark upon it. She knew soldiers; was among them everyday she was working with the Military horses. She knew her usual response to him keeping things in wasn't going to fly. If he wanted to talk, she'd listen; usually that's all that was needed. Rebecca had led him to the chair then left him to deal with his clothes since he said he could manage alone. She tossed her hat with unerring accuracy to hang on the bedpost and then she vanished into the bathroom. The sound of running water followed immediately afterward.

He peeled his clothes off, which was a sensation he was beginning to get used to. Finn didn't really appreciate the fact that he was getting used to it. Even working for the Warlord, he could not recall ever being in the midst of such a grind. Pressure and difficulty turned the Pattern-influenced discovery of milk chocolate into a gold mine for the troops for one quiet day, and when their relief had arrived, it was as close to a holiday as any of them were likely to see. The shirt went first, then the boots and breeches. The boots he put aside, they were comfortable, broken in, and mostly clean.

Letting the tub fill, she stopped inside the doorway back into the bedroom and watched him. He was boneyard tired, and not just physically. She recognized it, having worked herself to that state more then once. But hers didn't normally involve bloodshed and death.

Standing nude, the map of where Finn had been was clearly drawn upon his skin. There were bruises in almost a rainbow of colors all over his legs, arms and torso. A healing wound that was still scarred was clearly an arrow taken to his thigh, and there were claw lines across his ribs adding to the fine and faint network of scars Rebecca was already intimately familiar with. It seemed for every scar that was fading away to nothing, Finn had accumulated at least one more to match it, a couple of burns just for good measure. He healed swiftly, which made the message clear; fighting had been constant and not remotely easy.

"Damn," she breathed, and it wasn't in the normally admiring way that was tinged with desire. She winced at some of the new scars, knowing that had to have hurt. She walked over to him and wrapped her arm around him again. "C'mon. Bath. I reckon we'll need to rinse ya a time or two to get the worst off 'fore we actually bathe ya."

Finn met her eyes, "It looks worse than it feels." He smiled slightly, and slipped his arm around her when she came over to get him. He sighed softly at the feel of her silk shirt. "Not exactly the visit I hoped for, but the Castle just wasn't for me today." He looked at her and the nodded. "Honestly, clean water, hot clean water, would be my idea of close to heaven." Finn managed to smirk, and give her an undisguised lascivious look as she helped him along. He clambered into the tub when they got there, and sank into slowly, hissing when the heat and water reached tender spots or fresher scars. "What's that phrase you use when you misuse a horse and send him to the stables? I feel like that."

"Been rode hard an' put away wet," she smirked. She unbuttoned her shirt, revealing the narrow strapped t-shirt underneath. The silk shirt was already dirty, but there was no sense in making it worse. She hung it on the hook behind the door and filled a pitcher of water from the sink. "I'm guessin' Blake ain't any cleaner? Lean forw'rd so we can git som'uv that mess outta yer hair."

Finn nodded, "Yes. That. Only it sounds like more fun when you say it." He took a deep and cleansing breath, and tried to willfully relax in the heat. "No. He's not. He may be filthier, the lad downstairs was as a aghast as Flora must have been at your diplomatic incident. He promised Blake steak and beer and all manner of goodies." He smiled, his chocolate eyes brightening with a hint of pride. "Ah, you and Demon should have seen him out there these last few weeks, Rebecca. He was hell on hooves, plus with teeth. He deserves all the beer and steak he can stomach." Finn leaned over, rolling his shoulders slightly, and leaning his head forward to be rinsed. He closed his eyes, "Do you feel like getting out of Amber for a bit? I mean, once I feel human again?"

Her fingers worked through his hair as she slowly poured water over it. It trailed down his chest and back, adding more dirt to the already dirty water. "Ya know, I reckon I could be talked inta that. Startin' to feel a mite hemmed in. Makes me a touch violent." She smirked. "As the Kashfans know."

There was a knock on the door and Maggie yelled from the other room. "I got two bottles here. Will that do?"

"Reckon so," Rebecca answered. She emptied the pitcher and refilled it from the tub faucet.. "Fer now."

"Dinner will be up in about ten minutes," the tavern wench responded. There was a rustle of materials and then the closing of the other door.

"Well, yer trapped now," Rebecca chuckled. "Maggie done stole yer clothes." Rebecca continued pouring water over him until it was only slightly filthy. "A'right. Drain the tub and refill it. I'll go get ya a drink. I should warn ya not ta get used to this sort of pamperin'. I don' do it oft'n."

Finn had groaned quietly at the tender treatment, and barely noticed Maggie coming and going. He opened his eyes, and smiled, "She did? They're hardly worth washing. She's been terribly nice." He reached for the drain plug, pulled it and turned to Rebecca with a small smile. "I was not expecting it, but I do appreciate it. I won't get used to it, you have my word." He started refilling the tub, and leaned lightly against the side to watch her walk away, his eyes traveling along her leather clad legs. "Maybe when I'm clean, and the water is clean — I can convince you to join me in here." Finn closed his eyes as the heat slowly started to rise over him with the water level. He settled in again, with another groan. "So, where would you like to go? Somewhere open, if you please, with lots of sky."

"It'll haveta be clean 'fore I'll git in it," she replied from the other room. The clink of glass and the splash of liquid told him what she was doing. While she was in there she removed her boots and her socks. Nothing worse then wet socks. "If ya can follow direct'ons, I reckon we can go ta Cimarron. Be nice ta see Uncle T and the Lone Pine. Promised Wyatt I visit now an' again, an it's been awhile." She walked back in and handed him a tall glass of whiskey. "They'll lik'ly wanna have a party. " She gave him the eye. "Be good fer ya."

"Hmm, I'll try not to be too messy then," Finn nodded, his eyes still following her. Were he more poetic, he would have said something literary. After seeing battles for so long, seeing Rebecca in tight leather moving around was — inspiring. While it was true he did go into Shadow to hide a quiet talent for singing, a fact only his horse and Rebecca knew, he was not a songwriter, so he was direct. "I could watch you walk around the room all day." He took the offered drink and sipped it gratefully. "A party?" Finn considered that for a moment. "You know, I think you're right. Do you know the time difference, if any?"

Rebecca laughed. "If this is doin' it fer ya, you'll be needin' to nap after watchin' me work." She leaned against the wall and slid down until she was sitting cross legged across from him. She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Lessee. Reckon it's two ta one at the moment" She took a thoughtful sip of her drink. "Ya got the usual three days o' leave?"

Finn smiled, "After looking at horse's backsides — the real kind, not the ones that dress in silks up at the castle — well, looking at you is sort of like finally getting a hot bath." He tilted his head slightly, "Heaven in tight leather pants." He sighed and the smirked, "I did not think it would fit." He lifted up a bit and leered mildly, before dropping himself into the water. He stayed submerged for a time, the glass of whiskey held aloft, and then he rose from the water looking a little more clear eyed. He swept the water from his face, and shook his head slightly. "Five days. Two days extra given in lieu of a medal we didn't want." Finn's use of the word 'We' was conscious. "So given that, its practically time for a vacation." He drank a healthy swallow of whiskey after looking contemplative for a moment. "That should be long enough to find and pass some time in Cimarron." Finn smiled, "I can take direction."

"Reckon so," she smiles. "Likely take a day an' a half to git there with me describing it ta ya an' movin' fast. We can jest Trump back." She went quiet as she did the math in her head. "Oh, yeah. Plenty o' time. I'll give Dad a call an' let him know we're a-goin'." Rebecca grinned. "We'll ev'n git ya a saloon girl."

"There's no reason to hurry in, especially considering I'll be relying on your talent for details. We'll want to take it easy anyway, so I can keep subtracting the Black Road from our path." Finn drank more whiskey. "The trip home is always faster than the trip out." He set the glass aside and proceeded to wash up. "I thought there was to be pampering that I was not to become accustomed to?" Finn smirked, "A saloon girl? It's not even my birthday."

"I didn't say we was Hellridin'," she pointed out. "Jist movin' along brisk like." She takes a drink from her glass as she unfolds herself to stand. "And thar's why I don' cotton to spoilin';" Rebecca says as move to the vanity stool behind his head. "Ya get five minutes, ya want an hour. Men." She checked the time on the silver watch from her pocket. "Aw-rite. Ya want ta soak longer an' eat in tha tub, or I'll wash yer hair till Maggie gets here with the food an' ya get out an' eat at the table or in bed?"

Finn chuckled softly, "I would defend my gender, but they'll have to look out for themselves for a few days." He smiled and settled down so she could reach him, "I'll get out to eat." He lifted himself up with his arms and gave her a quick kiss, "Thank you, Rebecca." Then he settled back down, and leaned his head back. "I'll only eat in bed if you join me, otherwise I'll eat at the table." Finn smiled, his eyes closing, "You're overdressed again."

"One o' us needs ta be for th' moment," she countered. Rebecca set her drink aside and got her pitcher again. Rebecca didn't necessarily have a lot of experience washing men's hair; Wyatt was the only other person she had done this for, and that had been when he'd been laid up with an injury. She had, however, washed a lot of horses, and Demon was especially vain about his flax-gold mane and tail. She combed her fingers through his hair with one hand to spread out the shampoo she was pouring with the other.

Finn groaned in obvious pleasure, and she could almost hear some of the tension draining from him as his head half-lolled and his shoulders relaxed. He took a deep breath, through his nose, and exhaled it slowly from his mouth. It seemed to relax him just a little further. "I'm not sure I see why you have to be dressed, but as you're doing the washing, I will accept your logic."

"We'll eat like civilized folk. At tha table. I gotta robe ya can wear. I'll wear one too so ya don' feel under dressed." She smiled. "Breakfast is fer eatin' in bed."

"I've not been civilized for weeks, months even, I lose track out there in the deep woods." Finn smiled, though she could not see it, it was echoed in his voice. "Excellent." He chuckled softly, "Yes, yes it is."

"Seein' the state ya were in, Maggie'll likely even fix yer favorite breakfast," Rebecca said. Her fingers massaged his scalp and worked the lather through to the ends of his hair. "I'll have her pack us some sandwiches fer the road." She worked in silence for a while until it was time to rinse his hair. "Lean ferward. It'll be good ta go home; no stresses, no worries, good folk, real food, nights with a million stars in a wide open sky…."

"So — everything!" Finn said with a bit of enthusiasm, "I don't think I've ever been so fussed over." He paused, "It was nice. I think I disrupted happy hour though." He fell silent as Rebecca massaged his scalp to work the shampoo into his hair. He thought that alone my melt him down into the water. "Sandwiches." He echoed. "Good." He leaned forward as asked, "You sound a bit wistful. It will be good for both of us, I hope." Finn smiled, "I like the sound of real food and an open sky. Don't get me wrong, I love the woods — but right now I'd rather not be crowded in."

"Yeah," she agreed as the water ran over and through his hair for the rinsing. "Fer all that it is, there ain't a whole lot o' elbow room in Amber; nowhere I can go an' not see signs of people fer miles…"

"Or a bloody copse of trees." Finn intones as the water sluices away the soap.

There came a knock on the door of the other room, and Rebecca stood. She put two towels in arm's reach for him and then gestured. "Linen closet's got a robe hangin' on the hook inside."

"You decent?" they heard Maggie yell.

"Hell no!" Rebecca hollered back.

"Are you naked?"

"Whadda think?"

"Fine then! Put a shirt on and give me a hand!"

Rebecca laughed and gave Finn a grin before she went to help Maggie set up dinner.

Finn chuckled dunked himself again, and ran water into the pitcher as he pulled the drain out. He got to his feet and gave himself a final rinse with the pitcher, pouring it over his head. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, basking for a moment in the warmth and humidity of the room, before he picked up a towel and patted himself dry. He stepped out of the tub, and wrapped that towel around his waist, before picking up the other to dry his hair. Finn peeked out the door to say, "Thanks, Maggie!" And then ducked back in to dry his hair a little more, before finding the robe.


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