Somewhere in the forests southeast of Black Rock Hold near the Sea of Azov and Eastern Weyr’s border

Four more days have passed since they stopped in the forest and cooked what meat they could catch over a fire. They had to resort to scavenging for berries, root plants, and whatever small fish or snails they could catch out of shallow streams and rivers. With the horses about, hunting game had become difficult and even without them, something always seemed to spook away the animals in line with Lan's bow just before he could take the shot. They ended up having to double back several times too, because of cliffs or steep descents the runner beasts couldn't handle. Eventually, nearing the forth day out in the woods, it was becoming apparent that the pair needed to find an available source of food and shelter, even if the nearest hold would be a few days ride yet.

As the day grew long once again and promised no end to the vastness of the forest, the pair settled on a relative small clearing nearby the river. The runners were allowed to drink and to graze, again with the hobbles that they had taken from the supply raid. Ers'lan had likely sent Jaye to see if there were berries around, mushrooms, or anything edible that could satisfy their bellies. The last of the salt fish they ate just the other day and the bread vanished a day before that. All they had now to live off of was the land and the land was a harsh master. Lan himself was trying to strike a fire, but with the recent rains they've had coming through the forest, everything was still damp and wet. The flint's spark was only lasting for a few moments befer it puttered out, even with the driest wood he could find it still didn't catch, doing a great deal of smoking instead. Crouched down with sodden damp clothes, he was spitting out a string of curses that would make even a sailor blush. At least Jaye wouldn't be around to see him abruptly and violently kick at the little tee-pee of wood he had worked on for more than a half hour… sending sticks flying everywhere. It was getting harder, just the two of them…

And so comes salvation or temptation at least and it's a wonder what manner of men skulk about in these neck of the woods. For the last four days and the days before, the two have been hunted, both seen and unseen. When previous attempts to snare them failed, they moved back and returned to following in the shadows. Always far enough to be unseen but not entirely unnoticed, that sort of unsettling feeling that /someone/ is nearby at least. And they have been watching. While Lan goes about taking his frustrations out on the fire kindling, an all to familiar man steps up just within the perimetre of the would-be camp. Biran hadn't wanted to be the one to come, but it's one last attempt at a… "kinder" persuation before the pair are deemed unattainable and will have to be dealt with accordingly. While he has only made himself partially visible, he's likely not alone and that is his backup and shield. How many men and of what size and skill? Armed? Most likely. A low whistle pierces the silence and then a dry and humorless chuckle. "And after so much time spent building it…" Biran drawls, "Such a waste." He stands far enough away not to be an immediate threat, still partially covered by shadows and lower foilage. "Care for some help? I have a newer flint and I don't think you look too thrilled at a rather cold and wet night out here." he adds with just a bit of a smirk, waiting and ice blue eyes watching Lan carefully. He appears calm, but truthfully Biran is tensed and coiled, prepared for anything in his rather brazen approach.

Jaye is currently absent from her partner's side, indeed, off trying to find, well, something to eat anyway. Of course, it's likely she's not too far, and hopefully she won't stumble into the midst of Biran's hidden men while she's scavenging. The small game had been noticeably absent even while she was picking the berries she found over yonder a ways. So far she either hasn't had any luck or she just hasn't gathered enough to feed the both of them. The woman had been having that uneasy feeling, but still she went off by herself because they needed food. Now she was nowhere to be seen, and Ers'lan was kicking at the poor innocent pile of sticks. Not a rustle of leaves nor a shadow cast to reveal if and where she is. But wherever she is, she's well-armed for sure.

Ers'lan had that eerie feeling that they had been followed, keeping their conversations to low whispers and using their alias names for the adventure. He couldn't prove it, he couldn't even pin point where the feeling was coming from, but he always felt like big brother was watching - a frustrating monkey on your back when a man's trying to hunt a wild boar or a prancing stag. He had eventually gotten used to the feeling, not looking over his shoulder so much the longer the trip went on. Tonight though, his head jerks up rather abruptly at the low whistle, eyes wide and limbs frozen in that momentary terror of being startled. He hadn't heard the man coming into the camp, the horses failed to give him warning, Biran could've been on him without him knowing. His hand drags out his knife blade, steel slithering out of a hard leather sheath, eyes darting toward the woods, looking for signs of his partner or looking for signs of others. Regaining his composure is not too easy now, as a rock from the pit goes rolling out of his way when he kicks it with the back of his heel, making him look unprepared and intimidated. His tongue comes back when he remembers to breathe, drawing that short dagger out in front of him to show the man he was armed, threatening Biran if he came closer. "Whar de ye want!" Lan's tone was rough, ragged, but there was an ice edge to it that seemed to rage, demanding, "Ye shardin fig of a git be takin after us…. WHY?"

Jaye will be safe for now, as Biran's men have been ordered not to approach her and simply keep tabs on the woman's movements. If she finds them, they're to try and talk her down or simply let her go. Not really the response one would expect from strangers skulking in the deep backwater forests, but while they are hardened men, they have orders and they know that breaking those orders lead to… unpleasantness. And not by Biran's hand either. That would be merciful. As Lan draws his knife, the man simply holds up his hands, palms out and empty, raised in the universal sign. "I ain't here to fight you. I have not drawn no weapon." But he is armed, there is a well aged and plain looking short sword at his hip, sheathed and buckled in it's scabbard. That much is obvious as he steps out just enough to be clearly visible, now that he's made his move. He comes no closer, eyes constantly fixed on Lan, not seeming at all ruffled by the icy welcome he receives. "Because I need an answer and you've been rather slippery indeed. You and that woman you have tagging along. Gone out has she?" he asks, but there is too much of a knowing smirk to his lips. Of course he knows. "Been finding the game scarce?. Of course, if it's /food/ you're looking for, you need only consider my offer again and give me a yes or no. Simple. Or, you can try and slip free again and starve a slow death by hunger in these woods. Which would be a pity. Skills like yours are rather… coveted. Not many have been able to elude us so many times." Biran points out what appears to be flattery but it's hard to say. His voice hardly gives any inflection towards much emotion.

Jaye still hasn't shown herself, maybe because she's still hunting for food, or maybe because she heard the whistle from Biran. But even with the conversation happening now, Jaye is hanging back. She's just out of sight in the woods now, weapons drawn just in case. She considers the scene before she reveals herself. Only after trying to see if she can spot any of Biran's men from her hidden vantage point does she finally emerge, moving over towards her partner, pair of bone blades still brandished. She slips up beside Ers'lan, still keeping hidden beneath tattered cloak and baggy clothing, "I knew sometin' was fishy." She spits out. "Twas you be chasin' our prey 'way." Yes, well, she's hungry and this realization does not amuse the woman.

The universal sign only gets Lan to lower the tip of his blade slightly, still holding it there at the ready, just not pointedly at Biran. Adrenaline is coursing through his veins at that point and his heart beat racing fast if one could tell from the strong pulse in his neck, otherwise only the grit of his teeth and the outward anger would suggest he's covering up his weariness and his trepidation. Where Jaye is, he can't say, but he can only hope that she's managing her own, whatever Biran's men decide to do. Tired as he is, Lan's gaze betrays him as he looks toward the forest when the man mentions his woman going out - as if to search for her. Those cool blue eyes of his stray back to Biran, his form spreading out a bit to balance out his weight on his feet, boots crushing any hopes of having a dry place to have a fire. Damp, wet, his hair dripping fine beads of water every so often across his dirt stained face, he did look on the brink of being beaten by mother nature, by the harsh unforgiving elements of the road. Biran's declaration for why he was there has Lan drawing his knife lower, his head tilting as if to hear more of what the strange fellow had to say. Of course there's a rather momentary smug grin for the compliment of being able to slip away so many times, it doesn't last because Biran is speaking of finding the game scarce. The talk of food causes Lan's stomach to growl and his hand to pivot there as if to settle the noise down. Licking his lips like a man on the verge of desperation, his lips move as if he is about to ask, halted to an abrupt silence when Jaye comes upon the scene and gives her two bits to the conversation. It would seem Lan's desperation wasn't enough to go over and beyond the woman just then.

Biran's gaze flickers away from Lan as Jaye steps from the forests now, but he does not draw his weapon or flinch away or react defensively. He simply watches her with an almost detached coolness, as if he doesn't consider her any threat at all, as harmless as an insect under the heel of his boot. Not exactly the best of attitudes for one to recruit new bodies into the fold, but Biran isn't here to make friends. Besides, it's not him that they have to impress. He just sniffs out likely candidates, hounds them down and brings them in. "Chasin' your prey? Perhaps. If there was prey to chase. 'Fraid these hills were bordering in barren long before we came to 'em." Biran remarks dryly towards Jaye, but it's to Lan he glances to again, noting the lowered tip of his blade with a touch of satisfaction. He doesn't hear the growled protest from the other man's stomach, but he assumes from Jaye's comment alone that they are hungry. "We are well supplied," he goes on to say as though nothing at all were amiss with the whole situation. "Food, clean water, tools, anything you could want… we have. Shelter too and I don't mean rough camps either. You two have skills we need and that's all that is required. So the offer still stands. Accept and you'll eat well tonight and more so after we move out at dawn."

Without a sound a woman appears at the edge of the forest. It's the barmaid from the tavern that first night, her flounced skirts and loose blouse have been replaced with close-fitting leather trous, vest and knee-high boots finished dully in dark khaki to blend into the forest. The tumble of tawny hair is neatly bound into a single braid down the back of her head and she's got a bow in her hands with an arrow nocked in her bowstring. The thing is not aimed, but it's clear she could raise it and fire accurately in a moment. "The only reason you two ain't dead already is Laris thinks you two would be valuable." She's almost purring as she continues casually, "He… dislikes competition, but pays his men very well," she says sweetly reasonable. The choice is clear: Join or die.

Underestimating Jaye, huh? Well, maybe it's a good thing that the man doesn't see the woman as a threat. She growls softly, but eventually she's lowering her blades, though she'll not sheathe them, not yet. She looks to be starting to say something, but then Biran is turning his attention back to Ers'lan. Hey, wait, isn't she supposed to be the brains? Wait, food? Her own stomach is likely making its own protests as she hadn't found much on her scavenging trip. She turns towards her partner, muttering something to him, one eye still on the man that had hunted them all this time. And then there's the woman emerging with her bow and this puts the woman back on alert, dark eyes now switching from Biran to the barmaid. So who is the real threat there? The man or the woman. Jaye doesn't seem to be able to decide. Jaye leans towards her partner, talking low so as not to have her conversation overheard, hopefully. She mutters to Ers'lan, "What… we should… They've… water, and… I didna…"

Those promises, to any man whose on the run and going hungry for it, seem incredibly good right then. Lan is the first one to cave most likely, his eyes switching from Jaye to Biran, lowering his knife completely as he mutters to his partner, "Reckon tis more 'n we got…" Hey, he was starving, he didn't know about her and he wasn't sure he could keep his strength to continue this cat and mouse game, without cutting down one of the runner's and feasting on its flesh to keep them going. The man needed protein to keep going and he wasn't getting enough of it. The woman who creeps up on them with her arrow knotched has him on edge again, though not to the point that he's lifting his blade. He's more so contemplating the weight of her words and the likely outcome of this situation if they were to refuse. The man looked the weaker of the pair and was baited with the talk of food, warm food, hot food, food that could fill his belly. The name drop doesn't seem to cause a change in Lan… the talk of food did. His eyes strained back toward the woman, that barmaid, then toward Biran again, back on Jaye. "We can narh last much longer like this…" he says honestly enough, if the failed fire was to be any indication and her failed attempts to gather food by the looks of it. "Who be this 'ear Laris…? Whar we be havin ta do fer 'em?"

Biran makes a clicking noise, sounding exacerbated by the arrival of the barmaid and her offer that overrides all of his subtleness. He gives her a dark look, but the damage is done. Both he and the woman are dangerous, though he tends to not make it so obvious. "Well now that that is out, as our guest here so kindly put it, yes. Laris is looking for men and women of ah… various skills. No matter how big or small. Help him to his cause and you get it all. Food, shelter, payment…" And here he's giving the barmaid (if that is what she is) a long, cold look. "So long as you do your part." Join or die. Do or die. Doesn't seem to be very many options for them. And with the bait and lure of food taken, Biran shows the faintest of smiles, knowing that they're at last succeeding with the pair. "That is not for us to say, really. It depends on where your skills are best required…" he begins, but when he turns to the barmaid, it seems to be in a silent understanding that /now/ she can step in and complete the job in securing their two latest recruits. Biran is quite content to simply step back now and watch, speaking up only when needed but otherwise cooly and quietly watching the exchange. If they accept, he will call in the other men and a camp of sorts will be set and the food promised brought out. In the morning, they will move out. If they don't accept, well… it will not be a pleasant ending for any of them.

The woman doesn't move a muscle, her grey eyes glitter speculatively in the fading daylight as the pair tense. She gives Biran an innocent 'what?' sort of look for that dark one he sends her. "Gonna stand out here and chatter all night or eat?" she asks all of them indolently, leaving it for the other man to explain who Laris is. Her smile is not pleasant as she shrugs negligently, "Hunting supply for the camp for starters, you got a problem with that?"

Ers'lan sheathes his knife at some point, his shoulders slouching, clearly not looking to get into a fight and if he was, he was pretty weak by the looks of him - or pretended he was, either way, by his body language and the way he puts away his arms suggests that he has given into their demands. These people had hounded them for days now, since the tavern, and no matter what trail Jaye and he took, they were always there at the end, pestering them to join some group. Ers'lan would have plenty to say to the weyrleaders about their methods and plenty of ideas of how to stop it. For now, he was sinking to his arse, taking a seat on a rather sodden looking tree that fell long enough to start rotting bad at the ends and bottom. He hangs his head down as he listens to the conversations, "Dun sound so bad…" in fact, for a starving guy, it was perfect. His eyes draw up over toward the woman, shaking his head at the work, "Nay… Tis narh much more 'n we be doin fer ourselves now." But if joining means food, well, there's an eager look on his face that anyone would believe to be his anticipation for a feast, "Sorry Gayle…" he looks over toward Jaye, "Be so hungry, 'n I dun 'ave it in me ta run no more…" Now bring on the food!

Jaye does sheath her weapons as well, eventually, but she's not going to lower her guard completely by the looks she's giving those that slip out of the woods with the food. "S'okay, s'ppose s'better'n starvin'." And, besides, she might not have much fight in her just then either. The pair were obviously being beaten by nature, and solid meals and dry beds sound pretty damn good to her. Still she doesn't completely let her guard down, choocing to keep her hood drawn over her face even as she slides down next to her partner if the rotting wood decides to hold her added weight anyway. Their poor mounts were probably half-starved themselves, they wouldn't've made good eating anyway, really. The woman waits, however impatiently, for the food to be brought, and when it does, she won't take long before she's digging in. Poor starving travelers, really.

Silence from the nameless 'barmaid' while Ers'lan and then Jaye speak and it continues for a few beats afterwards. Sending Biran an unveiled look of triumph, she tosses her chin at the pair, "This way," she says coolly, keeping her bow at the ready as she turns and stalks off into the forest. They'd better be ready to follow because she's not waiting. That she turns her back on them is telling that they're being watched from the forest - more men out there probably, who are ready to drop them with an arrow or knife throw if they try anything. It's really not far, just down that shallow stream not twenty paces from where they'd chosen to camp - right under their noses. Where a limestone hillside forms a gully for another to join the stream, she heads straight to a head-high cliff where some pine saplings cling to the crumbling rock, pushes them aside to reveal an opening. "Inside," she says with a smug smile that dares them to protest. A whiff of roasting salt pork, simmering beans, onions and garlic eddies out of the cleft. Hearty scents in the damp chill of twilight.

Lan wasn't anticipating that he'd have to be on the move again so soon. His hand reaches out to squeeze Jaye's hand when she sits down beside him, such a quick movement that lasts for only a moment, to express some sort of affection or ask for forgiveness. Then he's pushing up off his feet just after he sat, looking blandly at the horses he left hobbled, "Take 'em… poor beasts deserve a good feed too…" And once the runners did get some fat back on them, they'd be steady enough to continue to work for the group if necessary. Though it did seem that the woman wasn't going to wait long enough for him to grab their mounts and bring them along. So they are left behind as he starts to trudge some distance behind the 'barmaid.' His eyes are watching where they are going but after seeing so many trees and streams and gullies, it was hard to tell the place apart from any other. He tried to find something of detail to mark it and maybe later he would. Right now he's struggling to keep up with the woman, pushing aside branches and working his sore legs onward. Once they get to the head-high cliff, he stalls for half a heartbeat, wondering what doom lay ahead of him, eyes snapping warily to the woman. He made a choice to go with it right? Without protest, he shifts his bulk to squeeze into the opening and down the shaft to where the salt pork and simmering beans is already making his mouth water. Funny what starving does to a person, but he plays the part well if he's playing at all, staggering toward the smells.

Jaye was going to grab them and bring them along, but, well, she didn't want to get seperated and risk losing track of her partner. The squeeze of her hand from Ers'lan had earned a nod and a return squeeze, though she quickly removes her hand and pushes to her feet. The woman lets Ers'lan take the lead, following after him, so much for ladies first, she'd rather have him in front and she'll keep alert in the back. No doubt there're more men about, this is why she's still flashing dark looks behind every so often. Though the scents that waft forth from the cavern have her attention once again ahead of her, mmm, smells like food! Poor horses, they get left behind to fend for themselves, or more likely become something's dinner. She flashes a grin to her partner, though it's hard to see 'neath the shadow cast from the hood over her face. "Smells good, hmm?" Yes, well, now that those scents are sniffed, her stomach wants a taste, and a rather large growl escapes the woman's stomach.

"The men'll feed yer runners," the tawny-haired woman tosses out causally. "They're but a stone's throw thataway," she doesn't point which direction that little clearing lies from here, but in the settling evening, their stamping and blowing can be heard amidst the occasional spattering drops that fall from the moisture collecting on the wet branches overhead. Inside the cave, they'll find several bedrolls around the perimeter of the cave upon the thick duff of dried pine needles that keeps the floors not only dry, but springy-soft. There are a scant handful of men inside, keeping silent as they eat or rolled in their sacks already. It's her job to get them settled, make them comfortable and this she does with a skill borne of working that far-off tavern. They're shown which are their bedrolls, brought bowls of the pork and beans from the kettle bubbling on the coals in the center of the small cavern. Generous hunks of cornbread in a basket, and a sour wine in a skin. She's cool, but not unpleasant, this unnamed woman who waits on them while they eat, offering seconds and even thirds. But she isn't overly informative either. Should they ask where they're headed, her bare answer is, "South. A long trek, so get your rest."

Ers'lan's thoughts of the runners linger only as long as it takes the tawny-haired woman to announce that they'll be taken care of. He's instead looking at the direction the woman points them, spotting the faces of the few men that are in the cave, perhaps hounded enough to fall in like Jaye and Lan. He looks at the bed roll with an immediate groan, "Reckon tha be bettar than our sloppy mess of moss…" which is what they were going to sleep on, wet blankets and everything. Instead, he sits down on the bedroll with a relieved grin. See, he is the stupid one of the two. He's already let his guard down and he's already enjoying the promise of a roof over their heads and a warm meal in their bellies. The consequences of saying 'yes' to the group are far from his thoughts now. He takes the offered bowls and does find himself so hungry that he piles in seconds and thirds! At that point, his belly swells out from his stomach as he mops up all the stew's juices with the cornbread. It's only then, once he's completely gorged, that he takes to lying down on the bedroll, happy and a bit drunk with the wineskin clutched. He doesn't ask any questions during or after his feasting, slumping into a quick snoring sleep of contentment. It didn't take much to please a man. Give him food and a warm bed and he'd work! Poor Jaye, she's the one that has to question the 'barmaid.'

Jaye isn't going to question anyone at the moment, for as soon as the food is brought she's tearing into it, well, come on, the woman was starving afterall. And apparently she's forgotton about manners or anything, but then, manners aren't exactly necessary right now are they? The bed rolls are dry, this is a good thing, and oh lookie wine too. Jaye will likely try for seconds of that. She's been without for too long now and her body was starting to go into withdrawal. Maybe it's a good thing they gave in finally, at least there is the promise of food, drink, and sleep tonight. Still, however, she doesn't withdraw her food any furthr than necessary to eat and drink. And whereas Ers'lan falls asleep rather easily, she doesn't just yet. The woman appears to be sizing up the other men present, maybe even checking to see if there might be anymore women even. As tired as she is, she's not quite ready to relax and let sleep take her just yet. Besides, she knows better than to fall asleep amongst strange men.

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