Leylah had taken notice of a cultural peculiarity about the Karésec men that eventually caught her full interest.

It began with the dark markings on their skin. She had grown accustomed to seeing it, and at first she had guessed it was an ancient tradition on how warriors showed what clan or tribe they belonged to, and whose command they followed. She had not been entirely wrong about that, but after the defeat of the first Thurayyan warlord, she realized there was more to the markings than she had thought.

She watched as many of the Karésec warriors lined up and waited around Volya Segher's tent. Urged by her own curiosity, she walked closer, though she made sure to stay out of the men's way. One of Volkov's warriors sat on a stool with his upper body bare, while Segher himself was busy with some kind of long, wooden tool with sharp needles attached to it at the end. His marked face was set in a concentrated expression while his hands worked the tool with rapid and quick movements, controlled and precise. The needles punctured the warrior's skin repeatedly, deep enough to make him bleed. Then, Segher used a brush to rub a dark liquid into the puncture wounds, before he continued. The warrior's face revealed no kind of pain or tension, even though the process looked to be quite uncomfortable.

Fascinated, Leylah watched the entire session. Segher did not look away from his work more than a few times, and then it was only to dip a piece of cloth into a bowl another type of liquid, clear and thicker than the dark one. He rubbed the substance onto the freshly marked skin. Once he was finished, the warrior thanked him and allowed another one to take his place on the stool. Segher and the second warrior exchanged a few words, agreeing on a spot on the back of the man's shoulder, before they fell into silence.

"They mark themselves with victory."

"Already?" She did not look at Ilham where he had come to stand beside her. She continued to watch in fascination by the sight of Segher's concentration and the meticulous precision in his hands while he worked the tool on the second warrior.

"One warlord fallen is one less enemy," Ilham answered her unspoken confusion. "Though I agree with you; the victorious marking-ritual may be premature. We still have four warlords to be concerned about."

Finally able to tear her gaze away from the session, she looked at the Sherokahn. "So all their markings are marks from enemies defeated?"

"No," he answered and nodded slightly towards Segher. "I have done some research amongst the warriors. Segher was once a thrall at the house of Volkov's uncle. A powerful family in Karésec, considered nobility by their own standards. He left their service and joined the Karésec army after a few years. He was still a young man at the time. He carry the marks of the people he has lost. It is said he has sworn himself to be their avenger."

Leylah followed Ilham's gaze and watched Volya Segher again, recalling her conversation with Ilham about the incident where Segher had lost many people to Thurayyan slavers.

Ilham did not elaborate, and neither did he have to. The Mistress understood enough, and she knew that if she wanted firsthand knowledge about Segher's past, she would have to speak with the man himself. Nevertheless, the fact that he had marked himself with loss along with victory revealed his devotion and sincerity regarding his duties. It was information that not only earned him her respect, but also a watchful eye. Even though she did not like the prospect of these men as enemies, it was still crucial to take into consideration the possibility.

Segher finished his work on the second warrior and was already speaking to another when Leylah left the area of his tent. The other Karésec men took very little notice of her beyond the small exchange of nods she now appreciated as their way of greeting. A formal person could perceive the gesture as disrespectful, but to her it was a perfectly legitimate way to acknowledge someone's presence without having to spend an unnecessary amount of words and time.

Redirecting her attention, she made her way through the camp towards the other Sherokahns. The brown clothed men were easy to find, and they had claimed a part of the camp as their own domain. Not officially though, but it seemed that most of the Karésec warriors stayed clear of that particular area. Leylah had no intention on correcting the trend. Truth was; she was quite satisfied that her men was starting to make themselves comfortable next to Volkov's men. As sophisticated as most of them could be, she knew there was an animalistic way to their behavior. The Sherokahns needed a secure place to retreat to, and being so far away from the Sanctuary Fortress, this was their substitute.

Upon her approach, her men greeted her and paused their tasks. The Mistress did not waste time and immediately announced her purpose. She already knew exactly who to send, and where to send them. The five Sherokahns complied unquestioningly and began packing their equipment. They knew what to do and why.

If everything else had been this easy, Leylah thought, she would have been a very satisfied and content woman in this position of power. Watching as the five chosen Sherokahns readied themselves for departure, the hint of a smile lingered on her lips. The familiarity in their demeanor was not only a welcome sight, it was also closely accompanied by a certain portion of pride on her part. The kind of pride a trainer could feel when a pupil followed orders and did exceedingly well. The fact that she had become so symbiotic with these men and her position amongst them had not been because of her inherited title from Jabbar, but because she had worked very hard to be their equal. Equality demanded respect, and since the Sherokahns held each other in very high regard; she demanded their respect. Leylah was not only proud of the men, but also herself and the fact that they respected her enough not to question her command.

The notion gave nutrition to both her pride and sense of humility.

"I will await your reports," the Mistress said once the men was ready to leave.

The five men each whistled their own, unique tune while they rode out of camp. Shortly after, the tree branches stirred quietly in several places and winged animals followed the riders out of the forest.

Planning the second attack on Thyrayya was, if not as frustrating as it had been the first time, an infuriating test of patience. The Mistress was however, glad to have Silja Therokev present at this meeting. Whatever had been the source of the disagreement between Volkov and his Commanding Officer, it was obvious they had laid the subject to rest for the time being. Therokev offered perspective to their planning; she asked questions that needed reflection, reminding the leaders that they were in fact not all-powerful and mighty. It was like having a child present at the table. An intelligent child who knew the importance of the, sometimes unknown, answers to all of her 'what-if's' and 'why's' and 'how's'. In many ways, Therokev reminded the Mistress of a younger version of herself from a time where she had been a captive of the circumstances. From a time when the Sherokahns had been associated with fear and danger of death. However, unlike the naïve and sometimes childish person Leylah had been, Therokev was very much aware of her role in this conflict. Her questions were driven, not by fear or to satisfy a stubborn need for knowledge, but by the fact that she genuinely cared about the outcome of their plans.

The Mistress found herself regarding the Karésec woman with appreciation, and in hindsight to her questions, realizing why she had been successful and gained the title she now owned. Preparing for all possible alternatives and outcomes, even the worst imaginable, enhanced the chance of success. Therokev's questions were, in its simplest forms, diplomatic and tactical statements that Volkov and The Mistress might, in fact, be wrong.

"The size of this fortress demands that we bring as many men as possible. How will we be able to sneak undetected close enough for a surprise attack?" the Karésec woman asked, and looked between the others.

"We will need to move at night," Volkov responded and pointed down at the map unfolded on the table. "We should divide our force and approach from different directions." All four of them watched and followed the paths his fingers painted on the map.

Segher nodded, but seemed deep in thought. "There is not much cover to be found in that area."

Kai Lakatos had remained mostly silent through the entire meeting, and did not make any comments this time either. The cultural advisor looked like he was mentally absent and preoccupied somewhere else.

"But there is some," the Mistress interjected and moved closer to the table, pointing at a few areas where the topography indicated a rugged terrain. "My scouts will be able to provide more details when they return, but I am quite certain we should be able to sneak a small group close to the fortress."

"Is that enough?" Silja asked. "A small group will never be able to take down the entire place."

"No," Volkov admitted, looking at the Mistress with narrowed eyes and a speculative smile. "But it is enough to create a distraction, giving the rest of our forces time to move close."

The Mistress offered a tiny smile at the Karésec Lord.

"Same tactic as the last time?" Segher asked, furrowing his eyebrows.

Leylah looked away from Volkov and back at the map. "No. The terrain does not look like it offers cover from responding arrows, just barely enough for my men to crawl undetected through."

"Well, it seems we now have the rough sketches of our mission," Volkov commented with a satisfied expression. "All we need to do is await the reports of the Sherokahn scouts."

Breaking up the meeting, Segher, Lakatos and Therokev walked away towards their own business, while the Mistress stay behind and watched as Volkov gathered the maps from the table. He did not acknowledge her presence at first. Once he had rolled and folded all the maps and neatly stacked them into the leather bag they were stored in for safekeeping, he finally looked at her.

"Was there something you wanted to discuss?" he asked, pocketing his hands and looking expectantly at her.

"Yes, it concerns your friend, Segher," the Mistress began, taking a step closer to the man. "It has come to my attention that he has experienced some unfortunate losses in his dealings with Thurayyan slavers in the past."

"He has," Volkov confirmed. "I cannot say that he ever fully recovered from the incident." Volkov was apparently not willing to give her any details about the matter. His slight frown was not unfriendly while he waited for her to continue though.

"Is he vengeful?" The question fell out a lot more bluntly than she had intended, and by the look of Volkov's surprise, he did not take her insinuations well. Trying to save the situation, Leylah searched for words. "I mean, if he is vengeful, I am concerned his feelings may cloud his judgement."

"Have you asked him how he feels?" Volkov responded harshly. "Have you had a conversation with him beyond these meetings and at the dinner table?"

The Mistress exhaled the air she had in her lungs. "I have not."

"I am quite sure Volya is capable of answering to your concerns himself."

"I meant no offense, Volkov. I asked you because you know the man, from what I gather, better than anyone else here does. If you do not wish to speak of it, I will ask him myself, of course."

Volkov exhaled as well, his shoulders relaxed and he smiled again. "Volya Segher is an experienced fighter and a valuable asset to this force. If I believed his judgement distorted, I would not have asked him to join us. I know the man well enough to trust him with my life. Does that answer to your concerns?"

"It does," the Mistress admitted with a small nod. "I apologize for the discomfort my question brought you."

Volkov looked like he was annoyed and about to say something, but then held his tongue and thought better of it. A fraction of an impatient grimace crossed his features, and disappeared as quickly as it came. Puzzled, Leylah watched as he rubbed his chin and searched the camp with his eyes, as if he, too, was looking for words. When he finally abandoned the search, he looked back at her and shot her a strained smile.

"I will see you later, Mistress. Excuse me." Moving past her, he began walking.

Leylah interrupted. "There was one more thing, Volkov…. Barak." His first name rolled off the tip of her tongue in an unfamiliar way. The sound of it not quite right in the way her own language allowed her to pronounce it.

The man stopped and turned to look at her, his surprise by hearing his first name carefully concealed behind a guarded expression.

Leylah, in a moment of uncertainty, wrung her hands together and glanced at him. "I…. I wanted to thank you for the other night. You offered your ear in a moment where I needed it, and I forgot to thank you. It was very kind of you, and even though it did not seem like it at the time, I do appreciate it."

The man seemed to search his memory, and then his eyes glittered humorously. He smiled and offered a gracious nod in appreciation of her words. "Anytime, Mistress. We are merely human, after all." His deep voice had a polite softness that was both intimate and distant at once.

Leylah relaxed, reassured that he accepted the careful apology as well as the compliment. When Volkov again turned to walk away, she had nothing more to say to him.

If there was one thing Barak Volkov was good at, above all else, it was understanding people and the mechanisms behind their words and actions. He had spent many years watching the many circles of society, from the villagers back home during his childhood, to the royals at the Castle of Haven. He had played his part in building and expanding his own village, the province Karésec, as well as Haven itself. Being a warrior, trader, Karésec noble and a simple traveler, he had learned how to approach most situations both with words and his weapons. In addition, if he could allow himself to boast, he had some moderate skills in the process of deduction. Whenever in doubt about the accuracy of his deductions, he usually found a way to root out the truth. His second wife had accused him, humorously, of being 'quite sneaky'.

The Sherokahn Mistress, however, had proven to be very perceptive and not easily distracted.

He had been somewhat aware that the Sherokahns were looking to gain more insight about their Karésec companions. Knowing what little he had known in beforehand of this assignment, as well as what he had learned after meeting them and their Mistress, he had expected them to behave in certain ways. What he had not been aware of, was that the Mistress was suspicious by nature, bordering on paranoid. Not only was it unexpected, but also challenging, as it worked quite well for her.

Luckily, she was too well behaved to hurl accusations at him.

Reminding himself of the rumors about her, and her impressive display in the training circle, Barak corrected that notion slightly. Well behaved, perhaps, but only up to a certain point. Cross her in any way, she turned ruthless and unforgiving.

Ha had not lied when he said he preferred his skull attached to his shoulders.

On the other hand, he mused and smiled inwardly, she would quickly find herself in a tight spot and outmaneuvered if she ever tried to rid him of his head. It was insanely tempting to provoke her into trying. Sadly, they needed the Sherokahns' aid and cooperation. At least for the time being.

Walking through the camp, he pretended not to notice Silja looking at him with a curious expression, and headed straight for Volya who sat at one of the tables talking with a few other warriors. "I need a word," he announced without any unnecessary explanations.

Volya looked up at him. "Right now?"

Barak crossed his arms, responding to the questioning gaze of his friend with a cocked eyebrow and a head tilted downwards in annoyance. Volya stood from his chair then. "Let us go for a walk," Barak decided, and whistled for a couple of dogs, Ciar amongst other, to follow them.

"What is this about?" Volya asked, greeting the animals and following Barak towards the camp's exit.

"Not here in camp," Barak commented carefully.

Seeing that his friend understood, he led them through the exit and into the woods. They walked at a leisurely pace, unhurried and assumingly unconcerned. Barak and Volya often spent time together, so no one had a second thought about it or questioned seeing the two of them going for a walk. After all, Volya had parented Barak in many ways before he left the servitude of his family.

The damp forest closed itself around them even though they did not venture far from the camp. Old as it was, the trees were thick and the roots had fought themselves out from the ground. Moss grew everywhere and were soft underneath their feet. The air seemed like it thickened, the scents from the ancient forest ground were distinctive and pleasant. Barak, suddenly feeling homesick, inhaled deeply with a sigh. The dogs trailed behind them, sometimes ahead and around, but always stayed within a certain distance of Barak. They sniffed the ground, dug a little in the moss for whatever it was that had their attention, and looked at the moment like nothing more than normal, confident dogs out for a walk. Watching Ciar a second, Barak briefly wondered how Leylah would have managed living permanently with such animals.

The though was pushed away as quickly as it came to him. The Sherokahn Mistress was, perhaps, the source of many unwelcome ideas, but the timing could not possibly have been worse. He looked at Volya, his tattooed friend, remembering her heritage.

"You look troubled, my friend," Volya commented, searching Barak's gaze.

"Not as troubled as you will be, shortly," Barak responded calmly and paused his walk.

"Really?" Volya paused as well. "How so?"

"Mistress Qadir voiced a concern about your past. She asked if you are vengeful, and if your feelings may distort your duties." Looking closely at Volya, he waited for a response. Anything that could give the man's thoughts away, but found nothing.

Volya chuckled and gestured towards his own appearance. "I did not put myself through this bodily transformation for the sake of my own amusement. You know this."

Barak chuckled as well. "I advised her to speak with you herself."

Volya's smile faded. "Oh, I see." He paused, looking at the dogs with a distant expression a while. Barak noticed the pain in his eyes. The grief, anger, and the promise of revenge. When his friend's eyes finally went back his own again, Barak steeled himself. Volya smiled. "I will speak with her when the time comes."

"And speak is all you will do." He could not help the ice and threat that drenched his voice, even though he felt sympathetic to Volya's pain.

"Should I remind you I have been outside servitude to you and your family for many years?" Volya responded slowly, narrowing his eyed at Barak.

"I cannot allow you to disrupt this mission, Volya. I say this as your Commander, leader of the force you are currently working within. In this particular matter, you are inferior to me, and I need you to remember what is truly important and leave your personal vendetta aside."

"Personal vendetta, huh?" The look in his friend's eyes said it all. He did not even try to hide it.

"You think me a hypocrite," Barak responded. It was not a question, nor did it need any answers. Volya knew him all too well. He knew of Barak's plans, his promised reward when this was over, and he knew the man well enough to realize his male interest had been caught in the middle. Volya also knew that his own personal disposition, the oath he bore as visible reminders on his skin, conflicted with it all.

Sighing, Volya admitted defeat. "Very well. I will speak, and reassure the assassins' Mistress of my loyalty and honor."

"Thank you," Barak said, genuine gratefulness seeping through him and reflecting off his face. "It comforts me to know you are still capable of reasonable reflection."

"Hah!" Volya laughed loudly at that, bending backwards and tipping his head. "We shall see whose reason will falter first!"

Barak laughed as well. "Is that an offer for a wager?"

"You can be sure of it," Volya responded, chuckling as they headed back to the camp with the dogs in slow pursuit.

Barak had been careful when he asked questions about the Mistress' heritage, and Senator Aliih had not been very accommodating towards the Karésec man's curiosity. He had, however, learned that she was a descendant of a tribe that no longer existed as an independent community. It had scattered and dissolved during a small and violent takeover when the entire province had pledged to Haven. Not every tribe had been willing to yield, and Haven had known how to take care of them. This was not information Senator Aliih had offered though, and it was not information Barak was willing to share with the people involved just yet.

There had also been a small, and at the time insignificant, detail who had followed with the information when he acquired it. It was about Radovan, the former manservant and bodyguard that had served the Mistress' family. Unfortunately, Barak had been able to piece together what the information meant, and stupidly shared it. A decision he now wished he could have altered.

Volya had pledged to avenge his brother's death immediately. Barak was unsure of why his friend felt so strongly about the matter. He had not seen his brother Radovan since they were very young, and he had only mentioned him a few times. The most legitimate and plausible explanation he could find was that Radovan had been Volya's older brother and only living relative. The news of his death, and the fact that the hands of a Sherokahn had delivered it, the very Sherokahn the Brotherhood's Mistress was married to, who had fathered her children…. It was safe to say that Volya had not taken the news kindly.

"What a mess," Barak mumbled to himself once he was back at his own tent. It was not for him to speculate, but even he admitted to having trouble with understanding why a woman would marry the man who had killed her family. "Women!" he grumbled, but with a smile crossing his lips. Every woman he had ever known had been magnificent in her own way. The Sherokahn Mistress was no exception.

Returning to his earlier and repeated annoyed admiration of the Mistress' perceptive nature; he wondered whether it was a simple coincidence or perhaps an instinctive response on her part that led her to question Volya. Barak had no illusions that Volya was the only person of interest for the Sherokahns, but marking him in particular was ultimately a decision their leader had to make. Was there something about the man that led her to perceive him as a potential danger, he pondered while he retrieved the letters one of his men had delivered earlier that morning.

Recognizing Aron Jarva's handwriting, Barak discarded his pondering, made himself comfortable on one of the chairs and tore the envelope open.


I know this was a short chapter, but I wanted to post it to show you that I'm still here. I haven't abandoned my story, even though it's ben a long time since my last update. A lot of stuff happened, and I had trouble getting back into it. But Leylah's story has ben at the back of my mind constantly, probing me in quiet moments, reminding me that I still truly want to tell this story. So here it is; a reminder that I'm still here. I truly hope you'll join me on this adventure again.