It is well into evening by the time the castle comes into sight. Some time during the afternoon, a light, wet snow has begun to fall, and it sticks in Megren’s hair and along the wool of her cloak.
Fiddling with her knapsack and coin pouch within, shivering slightly beneath her cloak, Reina is leaning against the foot of the northgate stairwell, glancing up intermittently to scan the outer ward. Spying Megren, her expression brightens. Lifting a hand, she waves the woman over.
Lanisen follows a few steps behind Megren, his shoulders hunched against the snow and the cold. He is carrying his pack lopsided, over his left shoulder, and he looks pretty worn out.
Megren glances at Lanisen several times, indicating that she knows he’s having a tough time of it, but she doesn’t offer to alleviate his burden, perhaps because she already has. Though not seeming to have a hard go of it, she looks a little relieved as they enter the ward, and she smiles at the sight of the familiar girl there. “Reina!” she greets happily.
“Hello,” Reina says cheerfully. She tones down the enthusiasm at once upon spying Lanisen, offering him a nod and a tiny wave of her fingers before retaking her seat at the bottom of the staircase, running an oilcloth over a leather gauntlet. “How was your trip! What, by the lion, possessed you to go camping in this weather anyway?”
Megren puffs, looking upward. “Well, it wasn’t snowing when we left,” she says unrepentantly.
Lanisen offers Reina a small smile in return and shifts his pack.
“Well,” the girl says, peering down at her cloth before peering back up at the two. “Did you two have a nice time at least? Away from the furor of the castle?”
Megren glances at Lanisen. “Well, I did. I think we’re about ready to be in out of the cold, though.”
Lanisen agrees, “Just about.” He wipes at his forehead, where snowmelt-wet hair is plastered to his skin.
Megren asks, “How are things here? You kept everyone safe for us, I hope?”
Reina grins. “Oh, that’s me, the swordless wonder. Yep, I kept everyone marching in tandem. I mean, really, the entire castle staff would just be utterly lost without me.” A beat, then laughter.
Lanisen grins faintly. He lowers his pack to the ground to lean against his leg while they talk.
Megren crosses her arms and says will full sincerity. “I believe it.” She glances toward the southern end of the ward. “Want to escort us securely into the kennels?”
Reina grins, rising to her feet and tossing the gauntlet she has been polishing, oiling, whatever, into a pack which she slings over her shoulder. “Not mine,” she explains. “I’m on boring polish my armor duty because I complained I was bored. Note to self, don’t do that. Right this way, toward the smell of dogs that I do not try and bathe anymore.”
Lanisen looks bewildered, but he stoops and picks up his pack again, shouldering it with a wince.
Megren reaches out a hand in an offer to take his pack for him.
Lanisen makes a face at her.
Lanisen mumbles, “I’ve got it this far.” to Megren.
Lanisen mumbles “I’ve … it … far.”, to Megren.
Megren makes a face back but drops her hand.
“Home sweet home,” Reina says, walking into the kennels and spreading her arms wide as if it’s some place new. “Should I let you two get settled in upstairs?”
Lanisen looks mildly bewildered, but says, “I’ll unpack later.” He drops his pack by the door and kneels to greet an armful of hounds.
Megren drops her own pack and gives due attention to the couple of dogs that decide not to leave her feeling left out.
Reina mumbles “… the … … constancy. … things never change…””, to Reina.
Reina just hovers by the door, watching the two and looking around warily. “You know, I’ve not been here since the bathing disaster,” she muses, almost to herself. “Odd…”
Megren glances between the two of them. “What disaster?”
Lanisen is nearly knocked over by aggressive affection from Tohol. He rights himself and puts his back to the wall, reaching to dig through his pack for his extra stone. “Huh?”
Reina smiles a bit. “The disaster shortly after I arrived here, in which I tried to help by bathing a dog who dwarfed me in size about ten to one and only ended up ticking Lanisen off.” She grins at Lanisen. “Actually yelled at me. I was impressed. And embarrassed, but still, impressed. I’m embarrassing him, aren’t I? Hmm.”
Megren glances at Lanisen with one eye squinted, like something in this doesn’t quite fit with her impression of him.
Lanisen looks more confused. He looks back at Megren to see if she has any idea, then something dawns. “You mean the time Kirb had you doin’ his chores?”
Reina laughs. “Yep! You remember! I remember, but, I have a tendency to remember everything. Like the time you helped …” She trails off at this, a rather haunted expression crossing her face. “Well, never mind that, but I remember a lot.”
Lanisen says, frowning anxiously, “I didn’t, I never /shouted/ at you.”
Megren moves to skirt them and check on the fire and what little else she knows how to maintain in the room.
“For you, it was shouting,” Reina says, glancing over her shoulder at the kennel door. “Doesn’t matter anymore, I think it’s funny now. I needed a good few telling offs back then. Did you see anything interesting on your trip? Have either of you seen the Captain around lately?”
Lanisen’s frown goes deeper and he glances uncertainly to Megren. But he doesn’t push it any further. He finally finds his stone, gets to his feet, and carries it to the fire to warm.
Megren reaches her hand out to take it and put it in for him, the gesture carrying a routine familiarity in it by now. “Gave the Captain a quick farewell before we left. We saw a wild cat, never seen one out that way before.”
Lanisen takes out the second stone from its pocket in his coat to check for any remaining warmth. He makes a face and hands it over to Megren as well.
Megren sticks it in the fireplace beside the first one and straightens, brushing off her hands. “Let’s see, what else did we see.”
“A cat?” Reina asks. “Oooh! Like a lion cat?”
Megren says, “Not so big. Big paws, though.” She leans down and holds her hand to a little about knee height. “About like that.”
Lanisen sits down on the hearth near Megren and volunteers, “Grey. Sort of tufty ears.”
“Hmmm,” Reina says. “It’s been… so long since I’ve left the castle. I’ve probably seen them during a sojourn into the forest. Maybe. I just can’t recall.” A shrug as she fiddles with a lock of her hair.
Megren asks, “Well. Lanisen and I were talking of having a cider when we got back. Shall I go and fetch three?”
Lanisen settles his elbows on his knees and kneads at his right shoulder.
Reina smiles. “Actually, I’d better get back to my room. I’ve not really been feeling the best lately, and I’m a little tired. Besides, you guys probably want to wind down, and I’m not exactly known for my low energy levels.”
Megren draws the girl in at her side and kisses her temple. “All right, if that’s what you’d like.”
Reina hugs the woman tightly. “I’ll see you soon, yes?” she asks.
Megren says, “Definitely.”
Lanisen grins down at Tohol as the hound flops at his feet and reaches down to rub his ears.
Stepping back from Megren, Reina smiles, then waves to Lanisen. “Night, Lanisen,” she calls, pulling the door open and beginning to duck out.
Lanisen says, “G’night, Reina.”
Reina smiles, then pushes out into the night, hurrying at top speed for the inner gatehouse.
Lanisen watches until she’s gone, then heaves a sigh and allows himself to wilt a little more.
Megren says, “If you’d rather sleep, I won’t be offended.”
Lanisen says, “Mm. Nah. I got a couple hours in me yet.”
Megren says, “Hmm, all right. Hungry, or just the cider?””
Lanisen considers, then gets to his feet. “I could eat, prob’ly.”
Megren says, “Good, because I’m starving.”
Lanisen says, “There’s prob’ly stew. Hope it’s somethin’ with potatoes…”
Megren muses, “Carrots.”
Lanisen says, “Onions.”
Megren says, “Garlic.”
Lanisen says, “Stew things.”
Megren sticks her tongue out.
Lanisen grins. “I’ll get food, you get cider?” he offers.
Megren says, “Sounds fair.”
Lanisen starts to head for the door. “Back in a few.”
Megren follows after him.
Lanisen returns shortly with two bowls of the sort that are actually small, crusty loaves of bread hollowed in the middle, filled with creamy soup. There are two slices of yellow cheese on the side of each bowl, half melted into the soup.
Megren is already there, two mugs on the table before her.
Lanisen says, setting the bread bowls down on the table, one at his place and one at hers, “It’s potato soup, and there’s chunks in it. But Ren said the chunks are only potato bits and ham, so that’s all right.”
Megren asks, “What’s not all right chunks?”
Lanisen says, “What? I dunno. Chunks you can’t tell what they are by lookin’.”
Megren squints an eye at him.
Lanisen says, “You don’t know if it’s gonna be crunchy or chewy until you bite it, it’s the worst!”
Megren asks, “What? Where’re you getting crunchy stew?”
Lanisen asks, “You never had stew with, I dunno, celery? Or onion that ain’t cooked?”
Megren asks, “And… you… couldn’t tell what it was?”
Lanisen makes a face at her and gestures at the opaque soup in front of them. “Stuff hides.”
Megren looks very skeptical.
Lanisen makes a grumbly sort of noise and sets to his meal.
Megren drops it and sighs with happiness on her first bite of soup. “Ren is the very best.”
Lanisen squints a little suspiciously at his spoonful of soup and the dark flecks of floating herbs and spices before he eats, then hmmms in contented agreement.
Megren says, “I should find Sir Darrin after this. I promised him I’d check back in when we got home.”
Lanisen nods, breaking a bit off his bowl to dip in the soup. “I’ll… prob’ly go to bed.”
Megren exclaims, “Oh!” She gets up and goes to the fireplace, pulling one of his stones out from it. “Here.”
Lanisen says, “Oh, thanks.” He takes the stone and drops it into its pocket, breathing out in contentment.
Megren sits again, digging back into her soup. “Mm.”
Lanisen’s eyes track around the room idly as he eats, checking to be sure that everything is in its place after his absence. “Home’s twice as good after you’ve been away,” he remarks between bites.
Megren glances around the room. “Yeah.”
Lanisen says, “Thanks for gettin’ me away.”
Megren says, “Yeah. Thanks for coming.”
Lanisen nods. A couple bites later, he asks, “Still wantin’ to do it again?”
Megren’s brows lift.
Lanisen says, “Go somewhere.”
Megren asks, “Yeah. I mean — you want to, now?”
Lanisen says, “Well. Kirb didn’t burn the place down.”
Lanisen shrugs and gets back to his soup.
Megren says, “Yes.”
Lanisen asks, “What?”
Megren says, “I do still want to.”
Lanisen says, “Oh. All right.” He glances at her again, halfway searching. “Sorry, I just– if you didn’t want to, that’s, that would be all right, I wouldn’t…”
Megren says, “Yes, I want to.”
Lanisen says meekly, “Okay.”
Megren says, “Name the time and place.”
Lanisen asks, “What? I dunno.”
Megren says, “I mean, not right now.”
Lanisen pauses and says, “Spring?”
Megren says, “All right.”
Lanisen says, “Okay.”
Megren says, “You can settle on where later.”
Lanisen says, “All right. I’ll… start thinkin’.” He breaks off another piece of his bowl.
Megren nods. “Good.” She has already finished her soup by this time, and takes a good swig of her cider before setting it back on the table. “I better set off.”
Lanisen says, “Yeah, all right.” He covers a yawn and rubs his neck. “See you tomorrow?”
Megren gets up and collects her dishes. “Course.”
Lanisen says, “I’ll get those, don’t worry about it.”
Megren asks, “Are you sure?”
Lanisen says, “Yeah, just leave ’em. I’ll run ’em back to the kitchen tomorrow if not tonight.”
Megren sets them back down and goes to fetch her pack instead. “Thanks.”
Lanisen says, “G’night, Meg.”
Megren says, “Night, Lanisen.”
Lanisen finishes up his soup and begins to clean up.