Aneilos peeled off her shirt with a sigh. "Oh it will be so nice to wear clean clothes to bed tonight." She dunked her shirt into the water then tossed it ashore with the rest of her laundry waiting to be washed.
Dean made a noise of approval as she removed her trousers. "You know, we should have offered to wash the men's clothes, since we're doing ours."
"Ha and by that, you mean Zenon's clothes." Aneilos grinned as she waded into the pond.
Dean paused. "No… I mean all of them."
Aneilos smothered her smile. "The water's chilly."
Dean gave her a suspicious look before stepping into the water. It was quiet for a while as they bathed, then she spoke up. "Zenon probably wouldn't want me to do his laundry anyway." She smiled a little. "He'd probably insist on doing his own and then do everyone else's without telling them."
"Oh yes, he's very generous." Aneilos agreed straight-faced. "Yes, I can just see him scrubbing your clothes with passion and desire."
"Aneilos!" Dean splashed her, a blush rising in her cheeks. "That's entirely inappropriate to say, and completely false."
Aneilos snickered to herself.
"You should be ashamed."
"I'm not. Not at all. He likes you, Dean. I think it's ridiculous how much effort you've been putting into denying it to yourself. You can't convince me that you two are just friends. Your feelings are transparent and his nearly so. He goes out of his way to help you, he laughs with you –"
"You're talking nonsense. He's a nice person. He helps everyone and laughs with everyone-"
"I'm not finished." Aneilos cut in, encouraged as Dean's tone held less conviction and defensiveness. "He seeks out your company. If you ask me, he spends more time with you than he does with Ryo. In fact, I bet the only reason he hasn't broken that physical barrier to show his interest is because he's unsure about your feelings."
That caught Dean's attention. "Wait, you don't think he assumes me indifferent to him, do you?"
"Ah ha! You admit you're sweet on him!"
"Wha- I- Sweet on him?"
"Yes! Sweet on him. You know what I mean, don't play dumb. Are you?"
"Sweet on him!"
"…Well… yeah, why not?"
Aneilos laughed, feeling the bubbly excitement of exchanging secrets. She laughed harder when Dean could no longer hold back a smile of her own. "Oh, you are smitten!"
"Yeah, well…" Dean made an effort to try to tuck her smile away again, but ended up just laughing. "Oh Ane, he's just so… he's amazing."
"Oh I believe it." Aneilos scrubbed at her hair.
"But, really, do you actually think he's interested in me, or were you just saying that to get me to admit, that I like him?"
"You two were practically made for each other- how could it be otherwise? You laugh at each other's jokes, you have similar temperaments – I mean, if it's not one thing, it's another. Don't argue with me either, I'm just calling what I see. Whether you take any risks on what I say is your call, but I promise I'm not lying about what I think."
Dean sighed. "Well… hey, what about you and Tokala Tyrone? You two seem very…. Off and on."
Aneilos blinked in surprise at the turn of conversation. She dunked her head to rinse out her hair before replying. "I… I don't know what our problem is." She moved in to shore and sat on a rock to brush through and braid her hair. "Most of the time we have a lot of fun together. He's so funny. Did you see me practically falling off my horse yesterday?"
Dean smiled. "Yes it was quite a show."
"He's fun to talk to… though to be honest we spend a lot of time not talking when we're alone.
"Oh really? What do you do?" Dean raised an eyebrow.
Aneilos splashed Dean. "Our relationship isn't completely shallow, thank you. We just… don't talk."
"Isn't that little uncomfortable?"
"Not really. It feels like we're both just content in the silence."
"You like that you don't talk, then?"
"Well… I like that we can enjoy each other's company in silence. He jabbered a lot when we first met. He's a big flirt, so I like that he acts differently around me than he does around other girls. I wouldn't mind if he talked more, I guess, but maybe that will come out more, as we get closer.
Dean nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe he talked a lot without saying much at first and now that he's getting to know you, he wants to talk about meaningful things, but he can't think straight when you're around him."
Aneilos laughed. "Yeah well… you know… he kissed me last night."
"What?" Dean exclaimed, splashing water at Aneilos. "You're just telling me now?"
"Hey, I thought you'd notice me being gone for so long and maybe been suspicious enough to ask, or something like that." Aneilos picked up a shirt and started scrubbing it with the soap.
Dean just rolled her eyes. "Gone? When were you gone?"
"Ha, what a terrible friend! I was gone for over an hour, walking with him. No, wait! It's my fault. I should have realized that you and Zenon were having much too intimate a conversation for you to notice the comings and goings of your only female ally."
"All right, all right! I'm sorry." Dean swam over and joined Aneilos in washing their clothes. "Well don't punish me, tell me about the kiss. I presume you consider this the first kiss? Not the accidental one when you two barely met?"
"Pff, in comparison that was nothing. This was a kiss to be written down in the history books." She exulted in the memory, allowing herself a grin from ear to ear. "Oh I felt it everywhere."
Dean laughed. "Wow. I don't know whether to blush with embarrassment or jealousy."
"Oh with twenty years more experience than you, I feel quite sure your first kiss with Zenon will put anything Tokala Tyrone's lips can accomplish to shame."
They shared a string of girlish giggling, and then went at the laundry with renewed vigor. Finally clean, and with their damp clothes loaded into bags they made their way back through the forest toward the campsite. The light was dimming and their eyes went down to their feet to prevent any stumbles.
"Are we lost?" Aneilos inquired as she disentangled her foot from the underbrush.
"No. I know where we are. We'll be there in less than ten minutes."
"Are you sure? Because I don't remember it being this hard to navigate."
"It's just the light. Don't worry, I promise I know-
"Hey, Harn, look!"
Aneilos bumped into Dean, as the Tyrollsos stopped abruptly. Aneilos followed the unfamiliar voice to their left. Jumping down from a fallen tree landed two burly men. Still standing on the log, was a large red haired man, his arms crossed and an unpleasant grin on his face. The two on the ground had brown hair and nondescript faces. One stood about a foot shorter than the other. The taller of the two had spoken, and continued to speak. "Don't see many pretty wenches like you out in the forest at dusk. You lost?"
Dean tensed as the man dropped his bag and began to approach them. "We are neither lost nor alone. Our company is expecting our return, at present."
The one presumably addressed as Harn laughed. "They're polite, Jarken. Hardly as fun as it could have been."
"Oh don't worry, they're exotic. That should make up for any lack of sass."
Aneilos gripped Dean's arm and stepped back as the two men continued to approach. "Do you have any weapon on you?" She asked quietly.
"No." Dean replied through clenched teeth.
Simultaneously dropping their bags of laundry they both turned, making a mad dash towards camp. Aneilos didn't look back, but she could hear the men holler and charge after them. Her foot slipped on a fallen branch, but she caught herself with flailing arms, and managed to continue her forward propulsion. Dean was not as lucky and fell hard, the branch having rolled out from under her foot. Aneilos stumbled to a halt and turned back to help Dean.
She didn't get a chance to see the mass before it collided with her, but she knew what it was. She fell onto her back, the man atop her. Stars filled her eyes and her chest tightened in fear. Instinct kicked in and taking in a deep breath, she let out a reverberating scream. The man awarded her with a hard slap across the face, which renewed the blinding stars. She could hear Dean struggling with one of the other men, and she followed suit.
The man atop her laughed a bit breathlessly. "We're in luck, Jarken." He grabbed her wrists, and smothered her mouth with his own as she began to scream again.
Aneilos recoiled from the man's stench and tangible filth. Tears pricked her eyes and she whipped her tail, and fought to free her legs with renewed efforts.
"Arel, get over here and hold her down." Harn hollered, freeing Aneilos' mouth.
She immediately began screaming again, and this time Dean's voice joined her.
"No, come hold this one down!" Jarken insisted. "Ack, no!" There was a shuffling and Aneilos could hear the pounding of feet.
Harn turned his head to argue, and Aneilos took advantage of the distraction to twist her body from his grasp. She didn't get very far before his thick hands enclosed her waist and pulled her back. His mouth spewed curses. Aneilos gritted her teeth and swung around, landing a clenched fist in his face.
He cursed loudly, but his grip didn't lessen. Tears came to Aneilos' eyes as she was forced back to the ground.
The red haired man appeared above her. "He's run after her. Hurry up."
"Hold her arms down," Harn ordered.
Arel knelt down over her, and pinned her arms down. Aneilos blinked through her tears only to see his lascivious grin. "Don't worry, you'll get a chance with each of us."
Aneilos let out an angry yell and spat up at him. Harn slapped her hard and then yanked up her shirt, and began tugging at her trousers. She screamed angrily as she fought uselessly. She caught site of the other man, who was dragging an unconscious Dean across the ground.
"I had to tackle her down, and she hit her head. We should be able to wake her-look out!"
Seemingly from out of nowhere two lean figures launched at Arel and Harn. There was an eruption of commotion as a battle ensued between Aneilos' assailants and two lithe elves – Zenon and Ryo. Shaking terribly in shock, Aneilos watched as Jarken joined the fray.
Her mind turned to Dean and she pulled herself together enough to crawl over to her friend's unconscious body. A dark bruise was forming on Dean's temple, but she was visibly breathing. Aneilos wrapped an arm around her and slowly began pulling her away from the fight. A wet thunk and gurgled scream yanked her eyes back to the fight, just in time to see Zenon pull his blade from Arel's chest. A gasp redirected her eyes just in time to see Harn jaggedly rip his knife from Ryo's stomach. A scream ripped from Aneilos's lungs as she watched Ryo slump in Jarken's captive arms. Zenon let out a cry and lunged at Jarken's back, driving his sword through his spine. In a fluid motion he let go of the hilt and spun around Jarken's falling body to drive a knife in Harn's neck. Blood sprayed from the wound and with two wet thuds two more bodies hit the ground.
Aneilos's eyes were wide as she stared at the gory scene. Still shaking, she pushed herself to her feet and walked toward Zenon. He saw her and ran to her, catching her in his arms. "Are you all right?"
She nodded jerkily, and pointed at Ryo.
Zenon's eyes were already wet with tears, though his voice did not betray any despair. He shook his head, and gently pushed her head down to his chest to avert her eyes. "Where is Dean?"
Aneilos allowed him to hold her, and her body began to calm. "Sh-she's behind the tree. She's unconscious b-but I think she's all right."
"We need to get you two back to camp, can you walk? I need to carry Dean."
She nodded. "I can walk. W-what about Ryo?"
Zenon led Ane over to Dean. "We'll come back for his body." He picked up Dean. "Hold onto my arm."
Ane took his arm and let him lead her away from the carnage. She glanced at Ryo's body just once, and saw the end of Zenon's sword protruding through Ryo's chest, pinning him to his captor. She swallowed a shuddering sob and clung to Zenon's arm.
Everything was a blur after that. Alarm rapidly spread through the camp at their arrival and NcTeimtai immediately took her into his care. She found herself wrapped in a blanket in her tent only minutes after she'd been handed off to her brother. She could hear the men talking outside the tent, but she didn't listen to their words. She watched Dean sleep on the bedroll beside her, and tried to think of nothing. With tears filling her eyes again, she held herself tightly and prayed to whatever Almighty that Aome insisted existed before the shock and exhaustion buried her in sleep.