At first glance, Raisa was divine. Her silky hair tumbled down her back like a golden waterfall, and her eyes were clear sky-blue. She had flawless porcelain skin and perfect rosebud lips.

Raisa would have been beautiful, had it not been for her ugly expression.

"This is her." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," Nikolai said, pushing past to stand between her and Nadya. "Raisa, this is... I'm sorry, you never told me your name," he smiled apologetically.

"Nadezhda," she said, watching the other woman warily. "Nadya for short."

"Why are you here?" Raisa demanded, placing her hands on her hips. She was rather tall.

"I don't know how I got here," Nadya answered, looking to Nikolai for help. "I was out in the storm. I don't remember exactly what happened."

"Why? Did your village get raided?"

"Well, no. Not exactly."

"Are you a gypsy? Did you get separated from your tribe, or whatever it is you have?"

"I'm not a gypsy."

Raisa took a step closer. "If you're an escaped criminal and you're putting our village in danger, we have the right to execute you," she hissed. "You'll be burned at the stake!"

"Raisa!" Nikolai stepped between the two women. "Please, don't say that. We don't know she's a criminal. I'm sure Nadya will tell you everything you want to know, if you'll just—"

"Stay out of this, Nikolai," Raisa snapped. "It's your fault she's here in the first place, I watched you carry her here. You should have left her to die. I'm taking this to the elders of the village; they'll do something about her."

"Raisa, don't—"

"Nobody cares what you think!" she snapped. "You're just a woodcutter, and a cowardly one at that! I'm a blacksmith's daughter. People listen to me."

Nadya balled her fists. "Don't talk about Nikolai like that. He's not a coward, he's kind. He took me in and helped me, and he didn't have to do that."

Nikolai raised his eyebrows. That was the first time anyone had ever defended him. He turned to Raisa to see her reaction, but found her staring at Nadezhda's clenched fist in horror.

"What the hell is that?" she whispered. She grabbed the other girl's left forearm in her iron grip, earning an indignant yelp.

"It's just a tattoo," Nikolai said, leaning closer to get a better look at it. He couldn't see how this was significant; lots of people had tattoos, especially those from the less...sophisticated communities. Some villages used them to mark things such as betrothal; others used them as a kind of reward for acts of heroism. He wasn't sure what a younger person like Nadezhda could have done to warrant such an elaborate tattoo, but he had to admit that it was rather pretty. It showed two lengths of rope tied into a simple knot, which had been intertwined with stems of two types of flowers, neither of which he recognised. He had never seen them growing in Gallsess before. Nadezhda was written along the bottom of the design in graceful calligraphy, and there was a large blank space at the top.

"Idiot! It's not just any tattoo!" Raisa scolded.

"Please let go of my arm," Nadezhda said through gritted teeth. Raisa's nails were starting to dig into her skin.

Her grip did not relax.

"Is it ceremonial?" Nikolai asked, glancing at Nadezhda.

"Damn right it's ceremonial," Raisa growled, "except the ceremony hasn't happened yet."

Realisation dawned in Nikolai's eyes. "My gods," he breathed. "You really are—"

"A Shadow Warrior," Nadezhda finished, snatching her arm away from Raisa. "Yes, I am. And I'm a good one, too." She raised her chin slightly. "One of the best."

"And one of the best Shadow Warriors wouldn't be out alone in a storm just because they were lost," Raisa said quietly. "Your Order was attacked, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Nadezhda answered, lowering her gaze.

"How do you know they weren't trying to kill you, if you're as good as they say?" Raisa's voice was growing slightly hysterical. "There's probably a whole platoon of Osvirian soldiers tracking you! You've led them right to our village! The whole point of the Shadow Warriors is to keep the Osvirians out of Gallsess, and look what's happened!"

"I—I'm sorry," Nadezhda whispered. She fixed her eyes on Nikolai's wooden sculptures so the others wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.

Raisa's right, she thought. This probably is my fault. If the soldiers really were trying to kill me, then all the... deaths... they're because of me.

"What are we going to do?" Nikolai asked, his voice low and solemn.

Nadezhda flinched away from him, expecting him to be angry. Instead, she was surprised to see him looking scared and a little bit hurt. Of course, she realised. He probably thinks this is all his fault. He brought me here, after all.

"I'm going to the Chief," Raisa declared, "and you can't stop me." She turned on her heels and swept out of the house, her yellow cloak swirling behind her.


A/N: This chapter has way too much talking in it. OTL But something big happens next chapter, and I wanted it to be a chapter on its own without this conversation beforehand. Still, I hope there was enough info here to keep it interesting. '^^

See you next time! :D