Part of the What You Leave Behind Arc
Part of the What Dreams May Come Arc
Summary: Lionel and Leone begin their slow and painful recovery from the life-threatening injuries they both suffered during the Shadow Plane expedition. Lionel, grateful for the self-sacrifice of his peers, summons Celaeno and Krice to meet with Esche, Leone and himself outside Frostmaw Fort. There, the Catalian's allies ask him to explain the presence of the spectral woman who fought beside them, and he's only too happy to speak of the woman who saved his life. With Valrae's continued existence explained, many of the disparate threads of narrative coursing through Lithrydel converge. And as the war rages on, the Alliance finds solace in its first major victory.
Lionel | Days pass into nights, nights into dreams, dreams into light, light into days. Lionel shakes violently against the leather straps binding his legs and arms against self-harm. The toxin spreads and the dreams are fevering. He sweats, and in sweating, sleeps, and in sleeping, he sees it all repeat like cruel tapestry: Vailkrin burning, Catal burning, his dead wife burning, everything burning, everything but she. Through the fires of hell, she holds her hand, her ghostly presence unburdened by the heat, ushering him to escape a certain poisonous serrated blade, prompting him to leap from a spire of impossible height, ensuring he is alright, fading into night, but still watching over him as night becomes day. And so the cycle repeats. Sometimes, the flames are blue ice, and Lionel feels such grave chills; his body, holstered to the bed but a million miles from his dreaming mind, goes rigid and numb. His sweat turns cold and he whimpers. Even oblivious to his own pitiful sounds, he knows she is there, ever-watchful, her spectral hand passing through his tightly-balled fist. Valrae has hopes to soothe him so, but she expends her spirit’s energies to do it, and she cannot remain this way forever. Days pass into nights, nights into dreams, dreams into light, light into days, and the fading woman holds fast, stubborn against the tide, unable to leave his side, fraught with fear that he should join her among the dead. Lennier, ignorant to the fallen witch’s presence, steps right through her and administers his treatments. He change Lionel’s towels, brings water and potion to his lips. The war within rages on. Vailkrin burns, Catal burns, Alexia burns, everything burns, and at last, the fever burns away.
Lionel | Four days after Khitti brings him to the Tranquility and the considerable medical care of Lennier, Lionel regains consciousness. His right arm is in a sling and a bandage wraps around his forehead. He struggles to rise, and light conversation follows. Stubbornly, he insists on departing for Frostmaw the very next day. His sister travels with him just as insistently; the man can barely walk, let alone hop on horseback for such a lengthy venture. Indeed, he falls off twice. Her holy spells keep him safe, although her patience surely wanes. Late into the following morning, the surrogate siblings arrive at their destination. Lionel briefs the Queen from the comfort of his own quarters rather than the throne room, for it is immediately apparent to Hildegarde that he cannot stand for quite so long. At Esche’s urging, he takes tea and oats and lake-caught herring for lunch despite protests that wine is all he wants or needs. He wanders the fort’s halls alone through the afternoon, hoping to find Valrae’s smiling image to reassure him, but no matter where Lionel looks, she is nowhere to be found. Sadness doesn’t consume him; melancholy is what he feels, for he knows, deep down inside, that she weakened herself to the very brink of ethereal existence staying close beside him through the worst of it. Wherever she’s gone, she’ll be back, and that’s enough for now. The sun’s last rays shine upon the City of War and a starry sky unfolds its panorama overhead. Lionel, dressed in his scarlet silk button-up shirt and slacks, steps outside into the cold courtyard and awaits a few of his allies. This will be the first time they’ll have heard him speak since whatever it was he last spoke to them on the other side of Leone’s portal. He takes a deep, crisp breath, exhaling visible steam. Esche shivers as he walks up beside him. “I don’t remember everything,” Lionel confides to his elven companion. “Do you remember enough?” Esche’s question is as pragmatic as ever. “I think so.” Lionel winces uncomfortably. “I know we won. I know the cost wasn’t nearly as high as it has been in the past. I know our friends did more for the realm than I could ever have hoped for or asked of them. I know I stabbed that bastard through the chest but he lived,” Lionel grimaces. “And I know I would be dead on that spire if Valrae didn’t save my life.” Esche lofts a brow and smiles gently. “Dead soon thereafter, too, were it not for Khitti and Lennier.” Lionel knows that too. His own smile is small but meaningful. His promise has been fulfilled: he made it home. Not for his own doing, but for the doing of others. “Guardian angels,” Lionel muses, causing Esche to blink. “I’ve got ‘em,” the Catalian finishes the thought.
Celaeno had likewise been rescued by the aid de camp’s efforts, though it was more her not being left unconscious in the desert as she recovered from her own efforts in that place. Even that any health potions had not restored her strength enough to keep her from exhaustion. She had not been poisoned or slashed, but the damage to her internal organs one attempt after another had required a few days of constant rest and care from Lennier. Where Lionel had recovered in four days, though, she had taken a mere three before she wandered back to Xalious. The rest of her days had been filled with her usual routine: study, practice, sleep, repeat. It hadn’t done much to restore the dark circles under her eyes or her wan, sunken features. She took comfort in the fact aht many others from the mission looked far worse than she. The message to come to Frostmaw hadn’t surprised her, and her walk there had been surer than the past. She was visiting more often, after all. Soon she found herself walking up to the fort, through the courtyard. Her wolf-fur lined cloak covered her black winter robes while her gauntlets stayed tucked away to keep their oil from drying out too quickly. Their scraping may have been more frustrating than typical with her more prone to headaches. There’s a deep breath as she approaches where she spots that signature scarlet shirt, an exhale as she bows her head. “Mister Lionel. A pleasure to see you up and about.”
Krice had spent all of his time - post Shadow-Plane battle - in the Frostmaw Fort, almost exclusively lingering in the clinic at Leone's bedside. When he wasn't watching over the unconscious priestess, he was being accosted by one of the nurses to get his own injuries tended to. Unlike Celaeno, he did not come from the outside. He ventured into the courtyard from the fort itself, dressed in his usual attire - along with a katana strapped against his right hip; easier for his dominant hand to reach the hilt. His steps were slow but relaxed, and every visible expanse of flesh above and around his button-down shirt seemed healthy, without injury. Still too under-dressed for the harsh iciness of the War City. Lionel stood a few metres ahead, alongside his trusted companion, Esche, and beyond them a bowing woman caught the warrior's eye. Whether or not he recognized her, he'd grant a nod of greeting if she looked his way, but his attention swiveled again to Lionel. " Good to see you're not dead," Krice stated to the Steward, essentially echoing Celaeno's sentiment.
Lionel hurts when he extends his unslung arm in a wave, but he does it anyway, because it’s the least he can afford for heroes such as these. “Glad to be among the living,” he replies. Naturally, a pang of guilt tickles at his throat when he says it, but he chooses to believe that with the crystal skulls collected Valrae will soon be able to say those words herself. “It’s been explained to me at some length that a benevolent contraption within a temple in the City of Sorrows was tapped-into in order for our magically-inclined folks to cripple Kahran’s dominion over Shadow Portals.” Lionel glances at Celaeno meaningfully. Esche, meanwhile, bows deeply to her. “That’s a heck of a thing,” the Hero of Hellfire recognizes. “All of you banded together to do what many believed impossible. We’re still receiving scattered reports of Shadow Portal activity throughout the realm, so the enemy hasn’t lost the power entirely, but there’s no mistaking it: they’ve surrendered well over 80% of that terrible spell’s capability. They’re being far more selective with their troop deployments now. Which means they’re slower. Which means we’re seizing the sudden advantage and catching them unawares.” Lionel turns to Krice, nodding. “Which means that for the first time since the fighting began -- perhaps for the very first time since the earliest, then-anonymous ambushes close to two years ago -- we’ve found a way to fight this war on -our- terms, not theirs. And I hear-tell you slew a general, too, Krice. They’ll be feeling -that- for a while.” Esche cants his head and takes a few leisurely paces toward a stone bench, crunching snow underfoot. “How is the High Priestess?” The elf silences Lionel with his inquiry. Lionel has not been oblivious to their colleague’s condition, but he’s wanted to congratulate Krice and Celaeno first and foremost. As Lionel has now done so, Esche has seen fit to ask the important question.
Leone is finally awake after a week of complete unconsciousness. The farrier is much the worse for wear, thanks in no small part to the massive expendature of energy from the mission into the shadow plane. All the way back from the acursed realm, across the desert (and perhaps through the skies, depending on how Krice had carried her back), the smith's flesh dripped like hot candle wax, falling in red and white pools onto the ground, where it sizzled and popped like freshly roasted meat from a spit. The rush to quench the fire that raged through the farrier's diminutive frame is frenzied. There's an aura around the blacksmith that reeks of heat and power. It scents the air with notes of iron and water, like quenched steel just out of the forge. It lingers in a cloud around the petite plover's bed for the duration of her convalescence. Then, abruptly, the nearly phosphorescent, chartreuse eyes are open. The sacred smith is fighting to get out of bed. There is a ruckus down the hall from where Lionel, Krice, and Celaeno have run into one another. The distinct sound of shouting - unintelligible for now - is followed by the thud and clatter of furniture meeting the floor, and then the clang of dishes. Door hinges creak, screaming wildly against the treatment they are receiving, no doubt the wooden portal yanked open suddenly and savagely. The slapping of bare skin - unshod footsteps - upon the cold, stone floors of the fort follows down the length of the hall before, gradually, the High Priestess comes into view. She is disheveled, wild-eyed, and sweating. Leone is, fortunately enough, in a long, woolen robe, unadorned and colored a drab grey.
Celaeno’s entire tawny face turned brick red at the mere glance and it turned an even deeper shade at Esche’s bow that had her tugging her hood down a little further. “Yes, Lady Leone, Lady Gilwen and everyone were stunning. I’m glad they all made it back safe.” Or as much as she could remember through the red haze between the portal and the desert. Krice’s accomplishment, voiced aloud, had both of her dark eyebrows going up as she peered his way, stormy eyes trailing to the katana on his back with new admiration. Her pointed ears pricked under her hood at the new commotion coming from behind Lionel and Esche, perhaps something her elven heritage afforded her to pick up from that distance before, shortly after the commotion, just the woman that was asked about emerged. Her blush faded to a faint rose as she smiled with evident relief. The woman’s holy aura still felt actively repellent against the dark aura perpetually streaming out of her chest, but she had gained a fast appreciation for the smith’s quick humor and enormous abilities in her short time knowing the diminutive priestess.
Krice listened attentively to the words spoken by Lionel, genuinely interested to hear about the effects caused to the enemy by their mission into the Shadow Plane. He nodded in acknowledgment of his achievements during the battle, eyes drifting toward Celaeno as her attention shifted to him, but soon enough his focus was drawn away. Looking northward at an unseen and as yet unheard event, the warrior waited just a moment before turning, prepared to return to the fort. Leone's arrival ultimately compelled him forward, striding purposefully to her side where his hands hovered, ready to support her weight - at whichever place he could touch without causing her damage. He murmured a quiet word to the priestess, though by his expression - subtle as it was - one could be forgiven for thinking that he was reprimanding her for rising so soon into her recovery.
Lionel’s eyes follow Leone’s arrival scant seconds after Esche has finished speaking. He’d wondered about Leone, and silently, Leone has brought her answer. “Good,” Lionel says, sighing out a breath he didn’t know he’d held. The extent of the High Priestess’ injuries isn’t lost on him but the knowledge that she lives overrides all that. They really have done the nigh-impossible together. “I think I owe everybody an explanation. Everyone gave their all in the city’s streets and within its hallowed, mysterious temple, and I was nowhere to be found. I’m sorry.” Does he truly need to apologize? Probably not. But Lionel is nothing if not compassionate, and little more if not self-deprecative, too. “As soon as the battle began, Kahran warped me to the top of the tallest spire. Whatever he did next, I awoke to find myself suspended in midair over the ledge with that rat bastard choking the life out of my neck. He wanted to kill me with my own sword. If he wasn’t so theatrical about it -- if he’d shanked me quick and been done with it -- that would have been the end for me. But he tried to send a message using Hellfire as his herald. I was able to will it to ignite upon his cloak and make a break for it. Next thing I knew, our swords were clashing. While each of you fought a desperate struggle down below, it was all I could do to parry his blows. But Kahran’s strength isn’t natural. Not that that should surprise any of us. He gained the upper hand and slashed my right arm with poison. I impaled him on my way down… or on my way back up… or… something.” He pauses, biting his lip. “It’s a blur. The sky lit up beautifully thanks to your job by the Rising Star. Kahran, wounded but not down for the count, told me he’d take satisfaction in knowing I’d die up on that spire alone. Only… I didn’t.” Lionel smiles warmly at the cold, starry night. “Our phantom friend got me through Leone’s portal, Khitti got me emergency treatment, and now here I am.” He swallows hard. It hurts to swallow, he realizes; his treatment is far from over. “Leone… thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for leading them down there. How are you?”
Leone is not focused on the party at first. She's looking through everyone, past the clatch of friends and allies and toward the open streets of the city - and then Krice steps into her field of view. The smith's stark stare snaps over to Krice. Her pupils enlarge, tiny pinpoints of black spreading out across intermingled lime green and lemon yellow of the iris like ink and water across a page. Lionel, Celaeno, and Esche all soon come into focus afterward, the sunny, verdant gaze falling upon each of them in turn. It slowly returns back to Krice, and a smile tugs one corner of her lips up. No doubt he can already smell the blood that's prickling the back of her robe, where the not-quite-healed scabs have been reopened, and are now weeping. The soft smile stays, and a hand reaches upward to cup the warrior's shoulder. "I will be fine," the notes of grit and gloss tumble over one another, parched but distinctive. A grateful smile is passed toward Celaeno, before the farrier's focus shifts to the Steward. "We all were fighting our own battles - and one together - in there. Each part played its role, even unseen. We know that you were giving it your all, and that's all that was expected," the smith states rather matter-of-factly, "But I do have a question: the woman in the red cloak, the one who appeared suddenly once we'd entered - who is she?" The smith had never met Valrae, nor had she been present for the upheaval in Larket. The witch was a total mystery to her.
Celaeno’s eyes widened as Lionel recounts his tale of survival and miraculous rescue. Leone’s smile is gifted an equally thankful bow of her head. Who was that the woman who Leone asked about? The phantom friend? She keeps her questions to herself, just then tasting the tang of blood spreading through the chilly air and noting a few of the spots upon Leone’s plain robe. That has her frowning, opening her mouth as if to suggest something, yet she was far from a healer and Leone’s friend seemed to have her well in hand. Her mouth snaps shut as she chooses instead to observe for the moment.
Krice's shoulder rotated beneath Leone's hand as he lifted his own, hovering it just under her elbow. He clearly wanted to offer physical support to the weakened, injured priestess but didn't know -where- to press; she was practically pock-marked with wounds. Her smile did little to assuage him of his concern for her well-being, but the stoic warrior's response to Leone was minimal at best to those who did not know him, his emotions minimal. Lionel's words were heard but he didn't immediately look back in the direction of the Steward, so focused was he on the injured Priestess. However, with her words addressing the other male's apology, Krice diverted his attention from Leone to Lionel, listening once more with attentive ears.The warrior himself said nothing in reassurance to Lionel, but hopefully the Steward would be able to tell, by his expression alone, that he agreed with the Priestess. Lionel had nothing for which he needed to apologize. He glanced briefly at Celaeno before looking Leone's way once more. " A witch, dragged away in the chaos of a battle over in Larket. It was months ago, now... I guess they really did kill her." He turned somber, pensive in his contemplation of the event in question.
Lionel | “Thank you.” Lionel delivers it with purpose. Leone’s words of encouragement are becalming. He knows Krice well enough to recognize the man’s heightened concern for Leone. He also knows Leone is in the best place she can be. He listens to Krice’s explanation, pauses, looks away, and then looks back at everybody with resolution in his countenance. Lionel is the only one here who can say far more than that. With so many threads to this story, it’s his responsibility as leader to lend context to whatever threads he can. If his friends are to continue risking their lives -- look at Leone now, even! -- they need to know why. “Her name is Valrae Baines-Older. Valrae led the oppressed witches and fellow Larketian rebels against their Crown.” Lionel once fought alongside Krice against that self-same Crown. He spares the silver-haired warrior a brief glance before pacing between the party. “The fighting lasted months, but Kahran dispatched troops to stoke chaos’ flames in that troubled and corrupted city, and Valrae was captured by Larketian soldiers as an indirect result. She was charged with things I scarcely believe she did and burned at the stake in front of -- among many others -- Queen Hildegarde and myself.” Lionel puts more weight on his left side to stave off the growing aches in his right. The action causes him to become more conscientious of how strange his next few words must sound. “I never met her. But I saw something of myself in her when she died. It would have been easy for more logical minds to say that I saw what I wanted to see. Nothing more. But when her restless spirit connected with me through a strange crystal skull left behind by that enigmatic trickster, Mulgrew, back when we fought the Ouroboros... “
Lionel | He shakes his head soberingly. “We share a bond, she and I.” Dulcet Catalian notes inadvertently reveal the deeper meaning of the line. “Uma soon told me that whatever the reason was that Mulgrew gave me that skull, gathering a number of them together could bring Valrae back. And whatever anybody may think about denying the dead their rest, I can tell you personally that Valrae probably -wants- to return. What’s more, we -need- her, because she was one of the witches who erected that magical barrier around Cenril the night Kahran announced his identity to the world. It’s thinned almost to bursting. Only she can restore it. I don’t know how quickly Kahran can mobilize an invasion force without as many portals in his network, but we’d better not risk it.” Esche studies Lionel expectedly. The elf is among the very few aware that Valrae may have somehow unearthed a map by way of the emerald crystal skull’s powers which could lead the Alliance to the first of several dungeons Mulgrew told them during the Ouroboros expedition could hold the keys to defeating Kahran. “There’s more,” Lionel continues, “but I think I’d like to wait until we call an official meeting to reveal it. I trust each of you implicitly, but I’m still trying to process this part myself.” He shrugs, harming his right arm. Muttering a small Catalian curse, he looks between them. “That’s who she is.”
Leone reaches out toward Krice once more, steadying herself against his arm, her fingers curling around in a firm grip that borders on desperate. She's latched on to the silver-haired warrior to keep her upright for the time being. The explaination, first by Krice and then further revealed by Lionel brings the priestess to a slow nod, one that brings her vision to strafe over to Celaeno, and a brow quirk to the necromancer in-training. "Every since I was very young, I've been able to see spirits," the smith starts off, "At one point, the visions, the visits, got so frequent and disruptive that I built a barrier, a wall, against them. So that they could no longer invade my space and my mind. But if I dispell that wall, I can see them. All of them. Not particular ones, but every single one of them that exist in a place. You see, for me, the spirit and real worlds overlap," she explains mostly to the silver-armed elf, though the information is pertinent to Lionel as well, "And when Krice was...taken. By the drow - he and I found that we were able to speak because of -our- particular bond. What I mean to say is...I can speak to her, if need be, and then I can help you to speak to her, too. Er, without needing to carry around an artefact, and without needing to be in another plane." A small nod accompanies the priestess's statement. Rambling as it is.
Celaeno finds herself, despite hardly knowing any of these people, innately relating to much of what they said. She rubs her chest, her own brush with spirits. That one had seemed to be haunting Lionel, and a dear one based on the way he spoke of her despite claiming only one meeting, had her neutral allegiance shifting. To hear tell of this spirit’s defense of witches and persecution by Larket has her other gauntlet clenching into a fist. “So this Kahran and his force are partially responsible for that travesty?” She had only freshly arrived near the end of that conflict, and had missed it like Leone, but had dear friends harmed in it. It stoked the vengeful part of her, made her reflect on unpleasant experiences back when she was younger as if they were fresh. “I...am not sure how much I can contribute. Yet I am becoming stronger. Should...you need aid in the future and I can lend it, do seek me out.” She glances toward Leone and Krice in turn. “You as well...All of you kept me alive. That is owed a great debt. I won’t let that go unrepayed.”
Krice harboured no issue, supporting Leone as he did, keeping his arm rigid and slightly bent for her to better hold onto. Whilst she spoke, he listened and glanced across the faces of the three who stood before them; first to Lionel, and then to Esche, and lastly to Celaeno. Though Leone had used his captivity at the hands of drow as a mere example of her ability to connect people beyond the physical, it still seemed to strike something within him and he glanced elsewhere, coolly staring at an indistinct smattering of snow at the southern edge of the courtyard. Celaeno's words, spoken in anger first, and then followed by her appreciation to all of them, drew him from his own shadowed thoughts and he looked up. Focusing on the lesser-known woman, he said, " I can speak for everyone here when I say that you owe us nothing. It's enough that you'll do what you can to defend your freedom." And along with it, potentially the freedom of others. Whilst Krice was quiet and reserved, he shared some similar views to Lionel and occasionally saw fit to speak of them, for instance in this case - to reassure Celaeno.
Lionel | “I would appreciate that,” Lionel answers Leone sincerely. In truth, the Red Witch and Catal’s Last Prince have spoken together before. But there is no doubt in Lionel’s mind that Leone can only help to further their connection, skull or no skull. Only seconds afterward does he consider how this enhanced communications technique could aid the realm; for the first time in a long, long time, he’s thought first and foremost about how it would make -him- happy. Celaeno’s query compels Lionel to reply, but Esche, ever a fount of knowledge and philosophy, opts to respond instead. “Kahran’s precise role in Larket’s troubles may never be identified. Long before we knew his name, Lionel suspected a dark hand at work in many of Lithrydel’s woes, from saurian incursions to Haathian insectoid rampages to -- indeed -- the wrath of King Macon. It could be nothing. It could be everything. But it is certain that Kahran launched an attack on the city four months ago in order to draw its discord to a fever pitch. In that, he was eminently successful. Hundreds died, if not more, and mere weeks later, Valrae was burned at the stake. What Kahran did not anticipate, or, indeed, -could not- anticipate, is that her martyrdom would become the rallying cry for the masses.” And for himself, too, Lionel quietly ponders. When the shaven-headed elf bows slightly to indicate he’s spoken his piece, Lionel takes a step forward to express his belief in Celaeno. But Krice, so often on a similar wavelength, speaks first. Lionel simpers receptively. “Khitti has faith in you, Cel. We have faith in you, too.” The stars glimmer, not like fire but nevertheless boldly and brightly. The Alliance has fought a hard-won battle and it feels as if the conflict that threatens to rip the land asunder may one day end without complete and utter cataclysm. “I think that’s all for now. I need to hit the road again soon. We’ve got camps fighting -their- camps all along the countryside, and comrades like Khitti and Kreekitaka and Gilwen and Kasyr and Uma and Brand and Niix and Eleanor and…” He chuckles at his own longwindedness and breathes. “...And all the rest of them, and they’re fighting their own battles out there, and we need to make sure they’ve got what they need. I’ll call a formal meeting as soon as I’m back in Frostmaw. Stay vigilant, and Esche will ensure you know where to find me whenever, wherever, for whatever it is you need.”
Leone maintains her grip on Krice, her knuckles beginning to blanch. Again, a smile is issued toward Celaeno. "I think you're mistaken," the High Priestess chuckles out, "You saved everyone else, with your camoflaguing enchantments and scent transformation on the talismans. We'd not have lasted nearly as long without your efforts," the farrier is only too keen to remind the elf. A nod is issued to Lionel, confirmation that, at any time, she's ready to help. Then, the limpid, green orbs sweep back toward the silver-haired swordsman. "Come on," the blacksmith invites in a fractured tone, "Help me back to my room. Bertram will make us some tea." The holy woman pauses, and again looks at Celaeno, "Come see me soon? Within the week. I have something for you," she invites toward the novice necromancer before shuffling back toward the corridor that contains her chambers.
Celaeno cheeks returned to that bashful shade, but she replied with yet another bow, ever formal. Though her chest warmed at the reassurance. It was an odd feeling, being helpful, but perhaps she could get used to it. However, she began to rub a subtle warm aura across her arms and shoulders under her cloak, the chilly winds ever creeping under her skin, no matter her layers. “Be well soon, with utmost speed.” She said in reference to Lionel’s shoulder, Leone’s weeping welts. She takes mental note of those names he mentioned who were also allies. She would have to write them down when she returned to the Xalious Tower. “I will come by to visit you soon, Lady Leone, and send word ahead of me.” She offers a parting nod to Leone’s silver-haired companion, still nameless as far as she knew, though she would remember his face. “My thanks once more. Good day to you as well, Sir.”
Krice's attention once more seemed mostly devoted to Leone, the tightening of her hand on his arm a telltale sign that she needed to return to her room. He was patient through the remaining conversation that unfolded between the others around him, but with the priestess' revelation that they seek her chambers, he nodded his understanding and glanced outward at the group. Lionel and Esche received a simple nod, whilst Celaeno was offered a casual correction for her use of 'Sir'; way too formal. " Krice," pronounced 'kreece', like an unintended fold in cloth. Turning, he moved with Leone toward the fort once more, his arm rigid for her stability, matching her pace to lessen strain.