Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 3.1

ELMIRYN________________________

A maiden asleep in her canopy bed.

A poor picture.

Elmiryn reached out and touched her cheek.  Cold beneath the fingers.  Skin, once smooth like a babe’s, now sticky and rubbery as if a thin layer of mucus covered her.  How could thought reside here?  How could life reside here?  The warrior smelled almonds and rotting wood.   Her eyes strained vainly to see more than fine white lines in a canvas of black, the definitions feeble and shifting as she leaned in closer.

“What are you doing here?  Cursed child, you aren’t supposed to be here!”

Her father’s voice.  She turned in the direction she heard him from, and saw a vague outline of a man.  Elmiryn blinked and opened her eyes wide.  Her head hurt from trying to see him fully. “Father?”

The man came towards her menacingly.

Startled, the woman stepped backward with hands before her.  “Now wait a minute, I–” Her words were cut short as her foot fell through air.  Her body careened backward into a dark pit, where she lost all sense of self.

————————

Elmiryn awoke with a small shout, her body shooting upright as she stretched out a hand.  Confusion flashed quick over her face, and she gazed at her own arm before letting it fall against her again.  She glanced over at her companion.  Nyx was still asleep.

“Nightmare,” Elmiryn muttered to herself.  She let her eyes glaze over as she unbraided her hair, the motions of her fingers somehow comforting in a way.  When she finished, she stood from the bed and left the room.

The inn keeper was up, already preparing for the day.  She took a moment to prepare the bath for the warrior and Elmiryn tried to relax in the water.  Afterward she came back up to the room to find that Nyx was still asleep.  Elmiryn went to her bed and crossed her arms, her damp hair framing her face.  The youth was frowning, her hands clenching and unclenching, faint whimpers coming from the back of her throat.

Elmiryn rubbed her eye in a brief show of exasperation.

…Rats?  Sure.

“Nyx.” She shook the girl’s shoulder lightly. “Nyx. Wake up.”

A groan. Nyx shifted so that her face turned into the pillow, away from Elmiryn. “Mmmrph.”

Elmiryn rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “How is it that I’m awake before you are?”

“You’re right.” Nyx mumbled, turning her head enough to offer a sleepy glare. “You should correct this grievous mistake and get back into bed. You ought to be hung over worse than a opossum.”

“What does a opossum have to do with it?”

“Go back to sleep and I’ll tell you.”

“You can’t tell me if I go back to sleep.”

“That’s the idea.”

Elmiryn’s shoulders shook with laughter as she tried to keep quiet. The battling suns had barely colored the sky with their blood and the streets were still delicate in quiet.  Elmiryn shook Nyx’s shoulder again. “Hey, c’mon.  Get up.  …Nyx, I will drag you out if I have to.”

Nyx whined and hid her head under the blanket. “You always come with the same threat!”

Elmiryn placed her hands on her hips and quirked an eyebrow. “Well! I didn’t know I was being judged on creativity!

“Why do we have to get up so early every day? What’s the point?

“I like to make the most of my days.”

Nyx poked her head out and glared squintily. “Aren’t you even a little ill from all that drinking you did!?”

The warrior feigned anger. “I was not that drunk. Sheesh.”

“Elmiryn–”

“Ah, ah!”

An irritated sigh. “Elle. You could barely walk in a straight line. That’s fairly inebriated in my book.”

“I could so walk in a straight line!” But Elmiryn grinned coyly and suddenly took an interest in the ends of her hair. “…I just…y’know…needed a running start.”

Nyx snorted into laughter, “That makes no sense whatsoever!” She looked back at the woman, her smile spreading so far that dimples appeared in her cheeks.

The warrior grinned triumphantly.  “HA! I made the morning grouch laugh!”

The shapeshifter growled and looked away.  After a moment, she looked back at Elmiryn in what appeared to be earnest. “Would you really drag me out of bed?” she asked quietly.

Elmiryn paused and locked eyes with Nyx.  She leaned down and planted one hand next to the girl’s head. “Would you like me to do something else instead?” she breathed.

Nyx kicked the blankets off and scooted upright, the sleep leaving her eyes almost instantaneously.  Elmiryn jerked back to keep from knocking heads together.

“Fine. I’m up,” the girl said stiffly.  Her cheeks were red again.

Elmiryn stepped away and began to braid her hair.  She didn’t lift her gaze. “I suggest you take advantage of the bath. I took the liberty of heating up some water for you.”

“Is it one of those public baths?”

“Yes.”

Nyx shook her head, looking away. “No. I’ll bathe elsewhere.”

Elmiryn gazed at her critically. “Where? We aren’t near the stream anymore and there isn’t going to be a spring up in those mountains.”

“I don’t want anyone…to see…” Nyx pointed weakly at her back.

The warrior shrugged. “I’ll keep watch. Meanwhile, I’ll fix that hole in your collar.  Like I promised.”

“…Really? You’d do that?”

She gave the girl a smirk. “I just said, didn’t I?”

Nyx hesitated a moment. Then nodded. “Alright.”

————————–

When they entered the trail that led through the mountain range, Nyx had still refused to lift her gaze from her newfound book, and Elmiryn was becoming bored.  The warrior looked at the younger girl out of the corner of her eye.  “Where did you get that book?” she asked eventually, voice a little flat as she regarded the item like a dog who had sat in her favorite chair.

Nyx glanced at her, then looked back at the book.  “Some man gave it to me in Dame.  It’s like a collection of writings.”

“A man?  Do you normally accept gifts from strangers?”

The girl was quick with her riposte.  “Do I normally go journeying with warriors who shoot holes into people’s clothes?”

Elmiryn did a light face-palm as a chuckle bubbled up her throat.  “Oh fuck me.  It’s been, what?  Three days?  I’ve already apologized AND mended the hole.  But you’ll never let me live that down, will you?”

Nyx gave her a hard look.

The warrior crossed her arms and gazed back at her with a smirk.  “What did I do now?”

“Nothing.” The girl looked away, her lips thin.

“No.  Clearly I did something…again. So tell me, what did I do?”

The Ailuran sniffed delicately and turned the page of her book.  Elmiryn marveled at the fact that she had been able to read all this time and not trip or stumble once.  It was enticing in a way.  The girl could keep herself ordered and moving despite a shifting environment.  She tucked this observation away for later use.

“I don’t like foul language,” the girl mumbled finally.

“You’ve never cursed?” Elmiryn asked, disbelieving.

“Well of course I have.  …When it was appropriate.”

This made the woman laugh outright.  “When is cursing ever appropriate!?”

“When someone behaves like an ass hat, Elle!” Nyx snapped, glaring at Elmiryn pointedly.

Elmiryn held up her hands a light smile playing on her lips.  “Okay, okay.  I know how grumpy you people get in the morning.  I’ll leave you to your reading.”

The girl gave her an incendiary look, her arms falling so that the book slapped against the top of her thighs.  “What do you mean…’you people’?”

The warrior looked back at her, unconcerned.  “Ailurans.  Your kind tend to sleep in.”

“We do NOT always sleep in.  We aren’t lazy.”

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Now who said that?  It’s common knowledge that most cats are nocturnal creatures.  There isn’t anything wrong with that.  If an Ailuran was working all through the night, then I say, LET him sleep in!  He’s earned it!”

Nyx’s eyes narrowed.  “Fine.  But now you’re insinuating that I’M lazy.”

“…Insinuating?” Elmiryn repeated, her expression nonplussed.

The girl sighed and rolled her eyes skyward.  “‘Insinuate.’  To subtly suggest something.”

“Ah.”

“So aren’t you?”

“You’re ASKING me?”

The girl brandished the book at the woman.  “Well I want you to admit it!”

Elmiryn was unmoved.  “But you just said I did it!  Why would I have to fess up to something already pointed out?”

“I was only accusing you, alright?  It was not a statement of fact.

“Okay…”

“So?”

“So what?”

Nyx grit her teeth and her grip on her book visibly tightened.  “Did you or did you not insinuate that I was lazy?”

Elmiryn placed a hand daintily on her chest.  “…But if I fessed up to that, it would ruin it!  Like a good joke!”

“Only it isn’t a good joke!”

The warrior snickered.  “Not to you it isn’t.”

Nyx hissed in the back of her throat, and her shoulders and back tensed like a feline puffing up.  Then, suddenly, she took a deep breath and walked a little faster than Elmiryn.  This was amusing to the warrior as the girl had shorter legs, so her quickened pace looked more like she were trying to restrain herself from running.

“I know what you’re doing, Elmiryn,” The girl said primly over her shoulder.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow.  “Oh?  What’s that?”

“You’re bored, so you want to make me curse.  Well I won’t.”

“You won’t?”

“No.”

“Not even a small curse?  Can’t you call me a cunt?  Or a cream-basted sow?  What about a shit-faced ninny?”

Nyx turned the page she was looking at in her book, her ears red.  Elmiryn was certain she hadn’t finished reading it.

Aware that her game was over, the warrior’s gaze trailed from her companion to their surroundings, where the climbing path led them through large collections of rocky crevices, around dusty boulders, and past defiant juniper trees.  It was past one of these old marvels that Elmiryn’s eyes lit onto an irregularity.

One of the small branches of a low, but aged juniper was snapped off, the branch nowhere to be found.  The exposed wood was still bright and damp.  Elmiryn slowed her steps to gaze past the juniper to the narrow space beyond it.  The place was dark in morning shadow, and no strange sounds came forth.  After a moment, the warrior continued walking.  Perhaps it had only been an animal?

Nyx glanced back at her, only now aware that Elmiryn had slowed down.  “Something the matter?” she asked, her voice still somewhat tight.

“Not really.” The woman looked up to see her companion gazing at her with sudden worry.  She smiled at the girl and walked past her.  “There’s nothing to worry about, Nyx.”

The shapeshifter trailed after her, and the warrior could feel her eyes on her back.  She looked back, and with no real plan in her head, she asked quietly.  “Nyx.  You aren’t afraid of me, right?”

Nyx blinked at the sudden question.  “Afraid of you?” she hugged her book to her chest, her tawny eyes turning away.  “I suppose…” she paused and brushed a strand of hair from her eyes.  “In a way, I guess I’m getting used to you.  But you are intimidating at times,” then she added, timidly, “Alot of the time…”

“Can you trust that I’d keep you safe?” Elmiryn slowed her steps so that she walked at Nyx’s side.

The girl looked at her.  Then nodded.  “Yes.  I believe you can do that.”

Elmiryn closed her eyes and smiled.  “Good.”

That was when she grabbed Nyx by the nape of her neck and threw her roughly to the ground.

 

 


Back to Chapter 2.4 | Forward to Chapter 3.2

Chapter 3.2

ELMIRYN________________________

A bolt embedded itself into the splintered wood of a tree, the line it cut through the air slicing the place where Nyx’s head used to be.

The weight of her knife was an assurance as she turned, dropping her bag and bow onto the ground. Already the heart quickened with the promise of action. Elmiryn slid her right foot to the left and heard, rather than saw, the second shot coming. With an instinctual swipe of her blade, she felt the projectile knock away–but the sound that entered her ears and the shock that traveled up her arm made her pause and blink. The attackers were firing heavy steel bolts.

Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes turned, glinting toward the spot she suspected her assailants were hiding. A little further back the way they had come, where the clean break from juniper branch had been. Somewhere there. There were other small spaces between the rocks, little crevices, and just enough shadow from the rising suns to conceal someone.  So many places to hide here.

“One more. Go on!” she barked.  Elmiryn’s enemies seemed to pause at her bravado.

Quickly, the woman assessed the situation. She didn’t know how many of them were out there, but their hesitation brought up a number of possibilities: the men (assuming they were men) were few in number–small strike teams, though experienced, were typically more cautious; they were inexperienced and so were easily spooked by her lack of hesitation; or they had heard of her by reputation.  It was also possible for a variant combination of those.

Whatever the case, Elmiryn sensed she had some sort of an advantage.  The next step was just exploiting it once it became absolutely clear.

Nyx scuttled on the ground behind her, dirt clinging to her chin and nose as her breath came in harsh gasps. “Oh nine hells…Sweet Aelurus, please…ah…” Her voice trailed away as she tried to gather herself. “Elle, where–”

The girl’s words were cut off as Elmiryn leaned back far, and with her free hand, snatched out at the next crossbow bolt that was fired. She felt a sharp sear of pain. Hot blood trickled down her bracer and her elbow through a slash in her gloved palm. The woman’s gaze sharpened and without even pausing to look at the projectile or her cut, she bowed her head and stalked toward the place she now was certain the shot had been fired. There was a curse. “Fool!” someone said, before the sharp ring of swords being drawn could be heard.

Two men came out from their hiding places–one from where the juniper tree had been, the other from down atop a jagged rock near it. Elmiryn blinked at them.

No, wait.

They weren’t ‘men’.

They were ‘boys’.

Perhaps in their late teens yes, but still too young to be attempting something this dangerous on their own. The warrior’s eyes widened when she heard a scuffle and a squeak behind her, and mentally kicking herself, she whirled around.

Another man, much older with a leathery face and short dark hair that seemed stuck in a puffy state of shock had Nyx held close to him with a knife to her throat. Elmiryn tongued her cheek. She had always been told that ‘fighting’ and ‘protecting’ were two different things.  Offense and defense.  Offense was only employed in the instance that all parties could reasonably be expected to keep from failing.  Nyx, though she was a therian, was hardly a warrior.  She’d really have to remember that from now on.

“Drop your weapons, Elmiryn,” the man commanded firmly.

The warrior didn’t move, her mind trying to find a way out of the situation.

That was when one of the boys behind her cried out in a voice that cracked, “Father! FATHER! It’s a therian!”

The man stared at who was apparently his son. He took Nyx’s hair and yanked her head far back to get a proper look at her eyes. The girl in question stared up at him fearfully. Without even hesitating, the man raised his knife with the intent of stabbing her exposed neck, fear flashing across his face. Nyx screamed and thrashed, like an animal caught in a trap.  Her compromised position afforded her no leverage to utilize her natural strength.  The girl’s voice didn’t sound right to Elmiryn, but it occurred to her later that it was because she was trying to attribute the noise to a human, not a therian. An Ailuran no less.

The next few moments Elmiryn found hard to tell anyone in any certain terms. Fighting, at its most heatest, was always a visceral activity. The pull and shock of limbs, the guttural cries, the smell of sweat and dirt mingled…In truth, much of the details of the fight had to be procured from Nyx later, who recounted it with ashen expression and a voice so meek that it felt entirely appropriate to call her a kitten. When asked why it was she could not recall the exact details of the event, Elmiryn explained in ironic tones that the images of the battle had already faded and the only thing left was an aftertaste of emotions and sensations that tingled her body.

She could recall, for instance, the instantaneous pull of her stomach at the sound of Nyx’s inhuman screech. She remembered the thrill of the risk she took, turning her back on the two armed boys behind her and flinging the steel bolt at the father like it were a throwing knife. Pain–which shot down her arm from the deep cut she had received. She remembered the sound of crunching dirt as one of the brothers behind her started forward, a growl rumbling in his throat.

When she saw Nyx dodge the man’s knife through a timely twist of her body, Elmiryn felt a brief moment of relief warming her otherwise cold skin.  The girl, finally in a proper stance, knocked her captor’s hand away and evaded his attempts at grabbing her again.  Seeing this, the woman remembered feeling impatient with herself.  She had to remind herself that her companion was still in danger.

This fact in the forefront of her mind, with adrenaline pumping hot through her veins and a vicious grin spreading across her long lips, Elmiryn drew her knife.  She ducked low, then launched herself backward into the charging boy, stabbing back with both hands.

There was that satisfying dig, the jolt at the hilt of her blade as Elmiryn felt the blade sink into flesh. She wasn’t certain where she had got the boy.   Perhaps his hip?   His stomach?   His thigh? Wherever the place, he screamed. Not accustomed to pain. Not accustomed to battle. Elmiryn rocked against him to shift forward, aware of how the knife wiggled and dug in further from the motion.

“Phillip?” the boy’s brother said in a querulous voice.

The woman drew her sword next, a hiss escaping her throat as she held the weapon in her uninjured hand. Rather than holding it out in the customary fashion, the warrior instead turned the sword the other way, so that the blade rested against her bracer. Crouching, she held out her sword arm like it were a shield, while near her chest she held her knife in her bleeding hand, ready to fence with it. She smiled viciously, her cerulean eyes locking onto the other brother, who took a step back at the sight of her.

Without hesitation he threw down his sword and held up his hands. “Please,” he begged, “Let me just get my brother and leave! I didn’t even want to do this!”

Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow at him. She waited a beat, as if weighing her options. Then she heard Nyx scream again, but this time her voice had gravel and weight to it.  The sound was feral, and there was anger in it, one that threatened to spill over if not contained. Without looking at the boy again, the warrior took off at a run towards her friend.

Nyx and the mercenary had managed to migrate from their previous position further up the trail, so that the warrior had to struggle to reach them quickly.  Given her recent assessment, she was surprised to discover what she did.  Surprised, but not displeased.  Looking back with her limited memory, Elmiryn recalled the Ailuran had been doing a fine job of evading the skilled swordplay of the older mercenary. There was the whistle of Nyx’s limbs as she did a backflip over a rock, the sharp twang as the man’s sword came down and missed. His frustrations colored the air with curses, and every successive swipe of his blade only made them worse.

Elmiryn had been ten paces from them when the man managed to land a blow, however insubstantial, over Nyx’s brow.  From where she was, the woman couldn’t tell if the cut was deep, but it did begin to bleed profusely. The girl gasped, stumbling back as the blood trickled into her right eye. She squeezed her eyes shut with a groan. The man raised his sword, prepared to deliver a fatal blow.

This particular moment Elmiryn remembered feeling the pull in her stomach again as she readied her knife to throw it.  It wasn’t a throwing knife, but she wouldn’t reach the man in time otherwise.  She set her sights on the back of the man’s skull, but then something happened.

Nyx opened her eyes, and they had changed. Slits where round pupils should have been narrowed against the glare of morning light, and the rich tawny color had turned a brighter and more vibrant shade.

The girl took a deep breath…and roared. Really roared. Or screeched. Or something along those ferocious lines. The sound rattled the warrior’s head so much that she actually dropped her knife. Hours later, when recalling the noise, it would make her body tingle and the hair on her arms raise, something scintillating but frightening about how such a sound could come from someone so small. The mercenary stopped too, actually taking a step back when the savage noise hit him full force. That was when Nyx lashed out, her voice spitting from the back of her throat, her hand swinging up from low at her side as she put all her body into the motion.

The blow connected, striking the man on the side of his face. The mercenary was hit so hard, not only did his head snap, but his body spun once before crashing gracelessly into the dirt.

Elmiryn blinked, uncertain of what she saw.

This was when the trance of battle had gone, and the warrior was better able to recall the details of the events afterward. Like the panicked look on Nyx’s face in the moments of quiet that fell.

“Oh gods…” she breathed, her hand, still tensed like a claw as blood dripped from the tips of her fingers. She blinked rapidly, eyes reverting back to normal. She held her bloodied hand close to her chest and looked at it. Then her eyes flitted to the man again, her face scrunching up as tears welled in her eyes. “Oh I’ve killed him!” she wailed.

Elmiryn stooped to reclaim her knife and went to the prone mercenary. He was lying face down in the dirt. She laid her sword down momentarily and turned the man over, eyes narrowed and with her knife at the ready in case he pulled something. Nothing. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, and at the side of his face were four bloody gashes. The warrior put her ear to his nose and mouth.  She pressed her fingers to his neck, feeling his pulse. He was breathing and his pulse was a bit fast. She looked back at Nyx. “He’s alive, and he’ll stay that way. The cuts you gave him are deep. They’ll leave scars, but that’s hardly fatal.”

Nyx didn’t seem convinced. She held her hand at the wrist as if afraid to let it go anywhere else. “I could’ve killed him,” she breathed shakily. “I used all the strength I had. I could’ve killed him.” She looked to the ground, and muttered something in her native tongue, then grit her teeth, as if furious. “You loathsome beast…” Nyx hissed lowly.

Elmiryn shook her head, “No, Nyx. An Ailuran at their fittest could kill a human with one well-placed strike. No offense, but you aren’t at your fittest. You didn’t even hit him in the right place. Warriors typically strike their opponents at the temple, to better shatter the skull and destroy the brain. If that doesn’t work, then the damaged temple vein would be enough to kill them later if not treated,” she gripped the man’s chin, and gave it a harsh jerk to the side, eliciting a squeak from her friend, “The other place they would’ve struck would’ve been the jaw. Hit it right and either the jaw is dislocated or broken.”

Elmiryn looked at Nyx and shrugged, her hand resting on the man’s arm. “You don’t have to worry.  You hit nothing vital, and your attack was all claw–you went through him like butter, but that doesn’t provide the force necessary to snap the neck.”

Beneath her touch, the woman felt the mercenary stir. It wasn’t quite shifting, more like a jerk. Eyes flashing, the woman turned lighting quick and with a steadying hand on the man’s armored chest, she raised her knife for a fatal strike.

As her hand came down, she felt Nyx’s hand stop her. The girl may not have been at her fittest, but she was still incredibly strong. Despite Elmiryn’s protesting pull, she didn’t let go. Bewildered and somewhat angry, the warrior turned to glare at her. “What are you doing!?”

“What are you!?” Nyx shouted back incredulously.

Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid. “I was going to kill him. What does it look like?” Beneath her, the man gasped, shifting under her hand. The woman turned her attention back to him, striking quick, and gripped the man by the throat with her fingers pressed in around the esophagus. She could feel his heartbeat, quick, under her fingertips. He gripped her arm, but he was weak and under her control. Her lips curled into a sneer.

Nyx’s grip tightened painfully. “Stop it.” she hissed.

Elmiryn looked at her again, teeth bared. “Why are you protecting him!? He was trying to kill you!”

“But the fight is over! Let him go back to find his sons!”

“And let this snake try another fast one on us!?”

“What the HELL are you talking about?”

“He just tried to pull some stunt just now. I swear, he has a knife hidden somewhere.” Elmiryn looked at the man, her eyes like blades themselves. “You do, don’t you?” she growled, increasing the pressure on his throat. The man gurgled, his face turning a deep red.

Then Nyx punched her in the ear. The blow hurt, but not much. It was enough, however, to send Elmiryn off the man and onto her side on the ground. Flabbergasted, the warrior held her ear and looked at the Ailuran as if she had gone mad. “You’ve really lost it, haven’t you!?”

Nyx stood over her, shaking her head. Her eyes held in them a bewilderment to match Elmiryn’s, but in them was also a strange combination of fear and resolution. “I can’t let you kill him, Elmiryn,” the words barely seemed to make it out of her mouth. She was shaking so much.

The warrior blinked up at her. Odd how tall the girl seemed all of a sudden.

The Ailuran turned her gaze away from her and looked to the mercenary, who was coughing and blubbering pitifully. Slowly she went to him, and he let out a yelp as she knelt by him. “Sit still, unless you want me to hit you again,” her voice was grave as she said this. Any other time this threat would’ve been laughed away, but the man blanched and sat frozen as he looked fearfully at Nyx.

The girl patted him down, even taking off the man’s armor to check beneath it. Elmiryn realized that she was searching for the hidden weapon she had claimed was there.

“His boots,” she said, pointing.

Her mind pulsed with the absurdity of this–if the man had taken the blade from his boots, he would’ve had to sit up to reach it.  She had kept him down the whole time.  Still, she felt like she had to argue her point to the ends of the earth.  Otherwise…

Nyx gave her a brief look, then took off the man’s boots. It was such a weird scene, this small girl stripping this grown man of his things while he looked at her in terror. It was easy to disconnect from, and Elmiryn did just that. The feelings she had been experiencing slowly faded into nothing, and she watched the events unfold with better clarity, like a person at a play. It was only when Nyx spoke to her that she made a concentrated effort to reconnect to what was happening.

“There’s nothing Elle.” The girl looked at her and Elmiryn stared back.

“Nothing?” she asked.

“Nothing.” Nyx looked at the man. “Go.”

The man fled, haphazardly collecting as much of his things as he could. Elmiryn frowned and looked down at the ground. “But…I was certain…”

“What evidence did you really have? I mean really?” There was an edge to Nyx’s voice.

Elmiryn looked up at her in confusion. The moment the man had stirred was already becoming hard to visually recall. The images in her head were blurred and bland. She touched a hand to her ear again, which was throbbing. “It just…seemed that way,” she muttered.

“It seemed?” Nyx echoed. “You were just working off an assumption then!?”

The woman clenched a fist. “In such situations sometimes that’s all a person has! I couldn’t sit and debate whether or not I was right when–”

“But that’s the problem Elmiryn! It didn’t even SEEM like he was going to kill us! I was watching him, same as you were!  How could you read the situation in such a dangerous way?  You’re a skilled fighter, can’t you tell the difference!?”

“But he really looked like he was going to do it!” Elmiryn argued stubbornly. She shook her head. “It…it really did look like he was...trying to…”

A pause. Neither of them moved.

Then Elmiryn gave a derisive snort. “Fuck, Nyx. Who on Halward’s Plane strikes a person in the ear like that!?”


Back to Chapter 3.1 | Forward to Chapter 3.3

Chapter 3.3

NYX____________________________

I would just like to say, for those curious, that I find violence execrable. Occasionally my temperament can be found slipping into less than docile tones, but when push comes to shove…I don’t fight. Ever. Whether in self-defense, whether out of anger…I just cannot bring myself to raise a hand.

This might inspire in your minds a number of assumptions labeling me as a “craven idiot” or a “sanctimonious hypocrite”. Normally, I’d let you think what you will about me. It isn’t as if I have much right to change anyone’s minds in that regard. But in this particular instance I feel like I have to say something. It isn’t so much an excuse as an explanation.

After the incident with the mercenaries had passed, Elmiryn and I resumed our trek through the mountains. She gave me a handkerchief to wipe the blood from my face and I rubbed it away, eagerly scrubbing at the bits that had dried onto my skin until it was pink and stinging. When I saw the flakes of red fluttering away with the wind, something in me clenched and panicked. We had to stop for about ten minutes as I went off to the side and wretched. My skin burned and my bones ached. Inside, my feline counterpart was snarling, and my hand itched with the memory of striking flesh.

The moment had been so quick.

I remember the fear. The palpitations of my heart which threatened to tear out of my chest as the mercenary brought his sword down–there was that insistent spitting and hissing in my head as She grew frenzied in her confined state–

Cut him, slash him! Idiot!

Then the pain, the white hot sensation that split my terrified mind in two. Blood flowed into my gaze, and I squeezed both eyes shut as my body became weak.  The world grew distant.  I felt cold and restrained.

Then She roared.

It was my own mortification that managed to wrestle her back into place before she could do any further harm. The sight of that man’s face, the feel of his blood dripping from my fingertips.  It was like a nightmare.  One far too real.  I flashed briefly to a cold lonely shack draped in snow–salty tears on my tongue–a room stained in red–

The situation that arose afterward perhaps helped me compose myself, if only for that moment.

During the rest of the day, there wasn’t much conversation, and I couldn’t bring myself to read anymore of Tobias’s book. Night fell. We found shelter in a small den and had jerky and bread for dinner. I could barely eat anything. As the day drew to a close, my mind wandered elsewhere, and I found myself remembering things I didn’t want to. Images came in a swirl of hot ash, and my ears tickled with the sound of a deep baritone voice echoing deep within me.

As any middle-classed child in any society, I had gone to school. The equivalent of what some cultures may call a ‘teacher’ or ‘mentor’, was what us Ailurans called a ‘Navi’.

…My Navi, Leander, hated me.

He was a big broad man with great gnashing teeth, a goatee, and small ears that seemed pinned back. You could hardly ever see them beneath his great mane of wheat-blond hair, which was swept back.  I liked to whisper things behind his back, because I was certain he couldn’t hear me–He, who was too damn big and tall to understand reality from my perspective–a child’s.

If he’s been my size, he’d know about the gaze of spiders, or the scent of irises in the cold of winter. He’d never hidden under a bed, I’d decided, and been afraid of the sounds coming from his mother when a young Tom had come visiting. I doubted he even knew just how much blood could cover the ground after a big battle, how bodies piled over one another in horrific abandonment, or the things dying soldiers whispered in their fading delerium.

He, who was too damn big and tall to understand that all soldiers suffered just the same.

So during lessons depicting tales of valor and honor and other such propagandic nonsense, I’d whisper my own ideas under my breath. There was greater satisfaction in sending these thoughts out into the air versus voicing them in my head. It was as if saying them made them real, and by being real, they were also true.

“Ailurans don’t thirst for battle, we hate it. Ailurans don’t lust for blood, we gag on it. Ailurans don’t deserve power, we deserve peace.”

One moment came to me, like a well-lit scene on an actor’s stage.  I was nine years old, with longer hair.  During one of Leander’s lessons, he went on spinning a tale of how the Unnamed One battled against the evil Champion of Fiamma, the human warrior Legend. I grew annoyed at the biased story, having read more neutral accounts myself from outside books I had, ones that made more sense than anything my illustrious Navi said. I began muttering under my breath again. “The Champion was not a ‘champion’ so much as a ‘defender’. He was no more affiliated with the Fiamma then Leander was. He was hardly evil.” I breathed this, and all at once…I found I simply couldn’t breath.

Leander had me by the throat, before my classmates, up in the air and flailing wildly. In his amber eyes, I could see a fury burning. In my culture, it is said that a true Ailuran warrior need never shift for the Beast within him to be known. Fixed with those terrible eyes, I believed it. With all my heart.

He bared his teeth at me, then looked at the class. “This,” he boomed, “Is a race traitor. This blight on Aelurus’s fame belittles her gifts and sympathizes with well-known enemies.” He gave me a rough shake. I became frightfully aware of how easily he could break my neck. “Doubtless,” he continued, “You have heard her hissing beneath her breath, like the filthy serpent she is–mocking our race’s history and our most glorious patrons. She is a shame to her family.” He looked at me, and I could see his face had shifted now, smooth like water, to become more feline-like. His slitted eyes narrowed and he flared his wet nose. “You don’t think I’ve heard your trash all these days? Heard you speaking blasphemies behind my back? Do you wonder why I’ve let you continue for so long, traitorous snake?”

He squeezed.

My fingers dug into his arm in panic and a whine came from deep within me.  His claws were digging into my skin.  Inside, She yowled.

Leander brought me close to his face, and the harsh growl that emitted from his throat nearly made me kick away from him. “Because,” he breathed, “Somewhere beneath all your misguided posturing, your other self knows you are wrong, and the day it comes to correct you will be the day blood clouds your eyes. You turn NO minds here. If anything…you only harm yourself.”

He dropped me to the ground and I remained there gasping. I looked to my classmates, shame on my face and my cheeks wet with tears I hadn’t realized fell. None looked at me. All attention was on Leander as he continued his lesson without a hitch. Numbly I returned to my seat.

This is what I thought about as I stared into the fire Elmiryn had made.

I saw her through the glow of embers and wavering heat, her eyes colored a different shade that made me want to pull my legs to my chest and hug them tightly. The den we were had once been the home of an animal. There were some bones off in the back, and I could smell the dry marrow from where I sat. Outside, the winds howled.

Elmiryn was sharpening a stick with her knife. She had a blank look on her face, and though her eyes were directed towards the stick itself, she didn’t seem to focus on it. She had treated her hand without asking my help–simply cleaned it with her bottled water, stitched it up, then wrapped it. The way she worked on the stick made it seem like her injury barely fazed her.

The fire between us crackled and spat. The stone walls and the sandy ground were painted in its warm glow, but the effect of the dancing flames was unsettling–nothing seemed to sit and remain in one place. I wanted everything still, as I was.

I took the heel of my palm and dug it into my right eye. The cut above my brow had all ready healed and left no mark, but the horror of having my own blood blind me still caused my eye to tickle as if something was in it that wasn’t supposed to be. My mind flashed back to that terrifying moment, but I shook the memory away. I didn’t want to dwell on the experience.  It led to darker things and I didn’t want to feel such thorny recollections.

But then Elmiryn’s voice broke the silence.

“Hey…Nyx.”

I looked at her and tried to relax. My heart began to pound when I found her eyes looking my way. “Yes…Elle?” I was finding it a little difficult to remember to use her silly nickname. It felt incongruous in my mouth.

“What happened exactly…during the fight from before?” she asked slowly.

I blinked at her. “You don’t remember?”

“I remember feelings. Sensations. There’s a few choice moments in my head that I can vaguely recall but for the most part…” Her voice was flat. The sharp melody that was uniquely hers wasn’t so much gone as just…tucked away, beneath a blank expression and concentrated stare. Her eyes reminded me of glass.

I went to rub my eye again and found that my hand shook. “Do we really need to talk about it….I mean…must we?” I didn’t like the tinge of desperation in my voice. Shamefully I looked away, toward the mouth of the den where I could see faint light from the burgeoning moon illuminating the Earth.

“You were scared.” Elmiryn stated, resuming her stick sharpening. “Don’t you think it might make you feel better to talk about it?”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Elmiryn.” I closed my eyes and corrected myself. “Elle.”

“It’s important,” the warrior pressed, her voice hardening. “A conflict like this can be good in pointing out issues in a group.  Put simply, we’ve definitely got issues.”

“Why bother?”  I snapped acerbically.  Even as the words left my mouth I wished I hadn’t said them.  I wasn’t a contrarian, by nature.

“Because you’ve got to learn how to defend yourself,” Elmiryn said, a steel edge to her voice that wasn’t quite contempt, but it wasn’t very forgiving either. “And I’ve got to get used to having someone to protect.  We’ve got to help each other out and be prepared for an instance in which we get separated.”

“And what?  You propose planning for the unplannable?  The variables that could arise in any given situation are just too much to factor in to any general strategy.”  Okay, so maybe I was something of a contrarian.

“Not so.” Elmiryn answered. I could feel her eyes on me again.  “If you could throw a proper punch, than you could incapacitate any enemy threatening you.  I’m a decent fighter, but I’m not omnipotent.” She quirked an eyebrow and her lips curled into a teasing smile.  “I mean, if you go punching people in the ears all the time, then hell, we’re both screwed.”

I crossed my arms and huffed, my eyes narrowing, “Well it worked well enough on you!” A growl crept into my voice.

“But on someone else?  Someone who hasn’t got their back turned to you, who’s maybe wearing a helmet, and has a big, big axe?”

“I told you I can’t fight.”

“And that’s fine.  But you’ll need to learn.  Otherwise it’s unrealistic for you to journey with me.  Come on, Nyx.  Don’t tell me you didn’t think about that!”

“Well you didn’t exactly perform so resplendently yourself.” There was a brief pause.  I elaborated, but not before a brief eye-roll. “Resplendent; brilliant or splendid.”

“Okay, okay…now that you’ve sufficiently recovered from your…ah…shock, I guess you’d call it…why don’t you tell me what happened today in detail.”

“You want me to re-tell what happened?  You know, half the time I was trying not to be cleaved in two, right?”

“I know you remember more than I do.  Go ahead and start.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded.  Then I recalled what she had told me before about her curse, and one of the things it affected.  Was her memory really so faint?  Chagrined and anxious, I recounted the conflict, as best as I could.  She nodded to some things.  To others, her eyes seemed to grow more distant.  These moments made me nervous.

“Who would want you harmed?” I asked.

“They didn’t want me harmed, they wanted me to go with them,” she corrected in a tone that was a little too placid for me.

“Elmiryn!” I snapped, feeling my anxiety break over. I buried my hands in my messy locks and pulled hard, trying to reign in my frustration, then took a deep breath. Recounting the ordeal from earlier that day really made me uneasy. How could I handle being at Elmiryn’s side if I couldn’t handle this one thing? “Who would want you kidnapped…” I asked as I exhaled the breath I had been holding.

The warrior was undoing her long braid.  She took a moment before answering, her gaze lowered to the ground. Then a light smirk lit her face and she said with closed eyes, “I am wanted for performing illegal witchcraft.”

I stared at her. “Black…black magic? You??”

“I’ve been accused of it. But I think you’ve been with me long enough to know I don’t know an ounce of the stuff.”

“But that’s a serious offense! Whatever society you go to, black magic is abhorrent! Just where exactly was the offense brought up!?”

“…Fiamma.”

I paled. My gaze flickered to where her sword lay next to her, the jeweled pommel winking at me in the firelight. “Elmiryn…Elle…when you say you got that sword from…from someone…else…”

She gazed at me levelly.  Then took her sword up into her lap.  With her hair down about her shoulders, she looked…feminine.  In a way that was awkward, but not altogether bad.  Elmiryn began to stroke the scabbard where the blade was sheathed and said with a hint of laughter in her voice, “I got it from a Fiamman soldier.”

“Why didn’t I recognize it,” I muttered rapidly to myself, a sense of panic overcoming me as I shifted where I sat. My limbs and spine tingled. I looked to the mouth of the den, my mind thinking the word, “RUN.” All day, in my anxious state, my skin had felt hot and stretched. The creature in me was clawing at the surface, angry at me.

Weak-minded, poor excuse for a–

“I guess I don’t have to tell you that there’ll be more of those kinds of men looking for me, then,” Elmiryn said. Her voice seemed to be returning to its usual alacrity, but it did nothing to make me feel better. “Fiammans are pretty dogged about carrying out the law.”

“Why didn’t you tell me the Fiamman kingdom has a bounty on your head!?” I screamed shrilly, finally jerking up to my feet. I was shaking harder than ever. My fists clenched to the point that my nails threatened to break the skin. “And for something so serious! They’ll hunt you to the ends of the Earth!”

“So I guess you aren’t the only outcast.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better!” I jabbed a finger into my chest. “And for the record, no one is hunting me!”

The woman’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Nyx, you don’t need to shout, I’m right here.”

“I think I have every reason to shout! You weren’t honest with me! Surely you were aware of that little thing called the Fiamman-Ailuran war, which, by the way, is STILL going on!! Did you know, that just for being near you, they’ll skin me alive?  They want me dead on principle.  It doesn’t even matter that I’m Marked!  Did that ever go through your addled mind!?”

“Nyx–”

“They’ll kill me just for BEING with you, don’t you get it!? I’m dead! Is your discernment so impaired that you couldn’t even figure that out!? You couldn’t protect me against some amateur mercenaries–just what in the nine hells do you think you’ll do when they send professionals after you? Assassins, wizards, PALADINS–”

“Nyx!” Elmiryn was on her feet. She was blinking rapidly at me as an uncertain frown came over her features. She held up her hands. “Would you just rela–”

“I’m not going to relax. I can’t now–knowing that my death’ll come following around a flagged felon on a suicidal quest! They’ll kill me, or you’ll kill me, or maybe I should just kill myself and save everyone the trouble! Oh sweet Aelurus how did I get into this mess!? I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for any of it!  I was starving. I just wanted chicken for one night, but instead I get you–

In my rant I had gone to my things, picking them up in a sort of rabid fervor. I was speaking so fast that there was hardly breath left in my lungs, but I knew what I had to do. I just needed to run. I was a fast runner, who could catch me? I could fade away and things would be okay again. Everything about me was hurting, and the pain was making me clumsy, but in a strange way it drove me. If I ran, I could outrun the pain, outrun the nonsense and the confusion and the death that was surely going to catch me here…

But a vice-like grip around the back of my neck literally made me stop in my tracks. I was half-way out of the den when my tongue stilled in my mouth and my body went limp. Elmiryn pressed me down to the ground into a kneeling position, using all her strength.  She didn’t need to.  My breath slowed until my chest rose and fell in an almost sleepy rhythm.

“Relax, Nyx.” Elmiryn murmured over me after a minute.

She stayed there for a moment longer, her cold hands holding me in place, before she released me and stood to her feet. I rose slowly and rubbed the back of my neck, the calm still over me as I gazed at her wonder. “How’d you know to do that?” I mumbled. “That…I haven’t had someone do that to me since I was a child.”

Elmiryn shrugged and went to sit next to the fire again. “I heard somewhere that if you managed to hold an Ailuran firmly by the nape of their neck, they’ll sort of go limp and calm. I wasn’t sure if it’d work.” She crossed her legs and looked up at me. “Your eyes went cat and you were kind of…panting…like you were close to losing it. I wasn’t sure if that was the case but you seemed pretty out of it anyway.”

“My eyes shifted?”

“Yes. Y’know…I’ve been meaning to ask you. You said that shifting hurts for you. Because of that Mark. But you don’t seem to notice if your hands or eyes change. Why is that?”

I blinked at her, then looked at my bandaged hands. I never really had given it any thought. Of all things for the body to shift, the eyes and hands were always the easiest. But given my curse, wouldn’t even that hurt me?

“I don’t know.” I said finally. With legs that felt heavy and stiff, I went to sit back in my previous spot near the fire, laying my bag onto the ground gently.

Elmiryn gestured toward it with her chin. “If you don’t mind my asking, what have you got in there?”

I glanced at her, then picked up the bag. “This…it just has a lot of little trinkets. Nothing special, or particularly important.  Well, I mean–to me they’re important.” I emptied the bag and laid the contents out before me in a neat line. Elmiryn came to sit closer to me as I explained each item.

“This,” I said pointing at a small jade figurine of a nude woman with a cat’s head, “Is my goddess Aelurus, blessed in one of our temples. It serves no other real purpose aside from protection and comfort…I’m beginning to wonder if it even works for me anymore.”

Next to it was a dented tea strainer. It was rusting in some places.

Elmiryn pointed at it. “And why do you have this?”

“Uh,” I rubbed the back of my neck and my cheeks burned. “I traded for that when I was younger. An elf merchant had come by our village and he had so many weird things. This one caught my eye.”

“But why did you want it?”

“It makes a whistling sound when you twirl it through the air…” I mumbled incoherently.

Elmiryn seemed to get the gist of what I said and giggled.  I continued, a little sullen. “This is a pebble I took from Ebon Lake, near my home…this is a whistle I got as a gift from my mother–it doesn’t work anymore…this is an amulet of the three suns I bought a little bit before I was Marked, and this…” I faltered as I came to the last item.

The warrior looked at me intently. “Nyx?”

“This belonged to my little brother,” I finished quietly, picking up a simple gold ring. “He died.  The government had auctioned the ring off after they burned him.  I stole it back.”

“I’m sorry,” Elmiryn said automatically.

I put my things away, all but the book. Gingerly I picked it up and stared at the cover.

My companion shifted next to me. “What is that book about?”

“Huh?” I looked at Elmiryn.  I’d been lost in my own thoughts.

“That book,” she said pointing at it. “What’s it about? You never said.”

I rubbed the back of my neck again. “I’m not entirely sure…it has poems, some loose stories, and random thoughts scribbled in…but it all seems to be about a man.”

“Is it about the man you spoke to?”

“Yes…well, no. I don’t know. I think so. Sort of.”

Elmiryn offered a bemused smile. “Well which is it?”

“The person the poems and stories talk about is never described in detail. Just the things he does. He’s only referred to as ‘Earth’. There are others too, but it mostly follows that one man. He sounds like a Legend.”

“Can you read me something?”

I gave her a startled look. “Read you something?”

She propped the side of her head on her fist and her smile curled more at the corners. “Is that too hard?”

“Well of course it isn’t,” I snapped. I flipped open the book to where I had left off. My cheeks colored and I cleared my throat as I began to speak.

We three of the Earth, Wind, and Flame stood on the precipice overlooking a city whose white glow diffused–

“Diffused?”

“Spread out.”

“Ah.”

Whose white glow diffused like a sigh into the dark chilly air. Said I to Flame, ‘Doth thou hear the singing, dear friend? It comes from that place there, nestled and warm in its light.’

‘Aye,’ said Flame, whose bronze hands drew her curved sabers without pause. ‘I am fain for a chance to test my new companions,’ Fain; eager or ready. Whoever the writer is used an older and more formal form of speech, much of the time.” I explained before Elmiryn could ask again. “I’d say he speaks this way all the time, but I’m guessing this was written recently as even the writer can’t seem to keep the speech pattern throughout. He comes across as something of an amateur.”

“Oh.”

I continued reading, eager to find what happened next. It was nice to have something else to focus on. “‘I prithee, Flame,’ Wind sighed, ‘Douse your passion. We have come with a goal, and that does not include the death of an innocent.’

‘This being is no innocent,’ Flame spat, ‘If my sentiment be conjecture, then so be yours. I’d rather be at the ready then allow myself to be cozened like a babe.’

‘Let us go, anon,’ I interjected before the argument could escalate. From our places up high, we traversed down low, into that wondrous valley of sight and sound. The city, was in fact, not a city, but mountains of books that pulsed and hummed with their own ethereal power–of which all Three of us felt. Flame was humbled, Wind was stilled, and I…I trembled.

A shadow fell over us, and as one we looked up to see that great winged-being descend from his perch from the highest mountain of collected thoughts…

I continued reading, even as the fire grew faint and the den dark.  I didn’t stop until I realized that Elmiryn had fallen asleep next to me.  It didn’t annoy me.  I covered her with a blanket, but didn’t go to sleep right away.  Instead I gazed up at the crescent moon near the entrance of the den.

Reading and speaking with Elmiryn had indeed calmed me a great deal.  It made me remember simpler times, when I’d read a book to Atalo before bed.  I felt secure in my skin–safe in my state.  But one thought continued to nag me…

If life were more than base propaganda and less than effulgent fantasy, then why did I feel like the moral to a story?


Back to Chapter 3.2 | Forward to Chapter 3.4

Chapter 3.4

NYX____________________________

I was afraid for the deer.

Which was odd, because…well, I was hungry. How can I be afraid of killing something I wanted to eat? I pondered this riddle as I crouched low, behind some feathery tufts of grass. Was it empathy? Did the deer’s size somehow increase the value of its life? Was it the emotion of its soft gaze, the gentleness with which it stepped over the Earth, the beautiful gleam of its coat in the morning light?

Elmiryn had no such doubts as she notched an arrow and readied her bow, her gaze sharp and searing even beneath the shade of the alder tree. She didn’t have her armor on–she left all that at our camp–and without them, her arms and shoulders seemed bare. Her hair, usually in a braid, was pulled back into a low ponytail. Defiant strands framed her face, brushing along the ridge of her cheek and teasing the line of her definitive jaw. I could see the strain of her muscles as she pulled her bow taut, eyes fixed on her target as if nothing else in the world mattered.

…As if I didn’t matter.

Her usual shirt was discarded for another, much like the sleeveless piece I wore beneath my gambeson. Though it made my face burn, I couldn’t stop looking at her. As ridiculous as it sounded, I couldn’t get over how I hadn’t noticed all those muscles.  All that strength. The muscles weren’t bulging in the way that one would think them grotesque or unattractive.  They were just…robust, giving the woman a definitive shape that spoke of power as much as beauty.  Now I could understand how it was Elmiryn could hold the weight of my entire body with one arm. Her strength was prodigious, and the certainty with which she carried herself made me feel…made me feel

…Terrified.

Earlier that morning, we had come down the other side of the mountain. From where we stood up high, we could see as far as to the ocean. Gamath was easy to recognize–for the area surrounding it was a chalky white and dismal gray. Where we were, we still had a ways before we would reach the town. I couldn’t say I was eager to go.

While my thoughts drifted to our destination, Elmiryn let loose the arrow, the sound of its departure making me jump as if it had been aimed at me instead. There was that soft thud as the deer was lost in a cloud of dust…then stillness. I held my breath, my body tensed as I crouched as low behind the grass as I could while peeking over the blades. Elmiryn stood from where she was crouched next to me.

She gave me a smirk. “Nyx. I got it. You don’t need to duck anymore.”

I gave her a sharp look, something along the lines of disgust and awe welling up inside me. I hadn’t even wanted to go with her. I would have been fine at our camp just reading, but the warrior had insisted I join her. I didn’t get what purpose my presence accomplished, witnessing this.  I eat meat, and have killed prey with my bare hands before…or rather my claws…but it seemed different from the traumatic shot Elmiryn had delivered.

We stood over the prone body of the deer–a young doe–and I saw where the arrow had struck. In the animal’s back, near the spine. Only a small trickle of blood seeped from the wound where the shaft stuck out like a marker. The feline in me perked at the scent of a fresh kill. Her feelings conflicted with my own as the smell of blood and musty fur tickled my senses and elicited a growl from my stomach.

She knows how to get food,” I could feel the Beast think.  Words were beyond her, but the emotions that came through were unmistakable.  Her paws padded along my mind as she impatiently paced. “This warrior is good. This warrior is better than us. And she gives us food.

“Help me drag this thing back to camp,” Elmiryn said, kneeling.

I did, the ability to speak lost as my small hands gripped the lifeless limbs of the doe. We made it back alright. Flashes of ripping into the corpse with my claws and teeth flashed through my head as I set the body down, but I swallowed and fought the images to the back of my mind.

Elmiryn finally noticed my discomfort.

“What’s wrong? Does meat disagree with you?” She asked as she inspected the corpse more closely. The corners of her lips twitched in a suspicious manner.

“No,” I managed to say. “I just…well, it’s been a while since I’ve found myself in the presence of such a large kill. It’s getting to me a little.” I turned and crossed my arms high on my chest, taking a few steps away.

“I can cut this up elsewhere if it’ll make you feel better.”

I shook my head, my shoulders hunching around my ears. “It won’t matter. I’d smell it wherever you went. The scent’s on me, the scent’s on you…”

“How haven’t you come across this sort of thing while you were out there wandering on your own?”

I looked back at her over my shoulder, a light frown on my face. “I’m not sure. I have bad luck–so serendipitously finding a dead animal, even one that’s been dead for days, just never seemed to happen.” Then I added without much pause, “Serendipity: when one makes a fortunate discovery.”

Elmiryn made an “o” with her lips. She straightened clapping the dirt off her hands. “Well, we can use just about all of the deer. You’ve got a healthy appetite, and so do I. Whatever we don’t eat we can save for later or give to the people at Gamath. I suspect we’ll be there by nightfall.”

She went to her bag and pulled out two knives in their sheaths. When she pulled them out I saw that the shape of the blades seemed less like they were meant for combat, and more like they were intended for culinary use.

The warrior’s sharp blue eyes lit onto my face, and she brandished one of them at the dead deer. The blade was short, but the handle was long. “I suggest,” Elmiryn said as she knelt down onto the ground. “That you either take a walk or try and distract yourself. I’m about to start skinning this thing right now.”

I shifted uneasily. When I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I told you it won’t matter if I leave.”

“So distract yourself then.”

“How?”

Elmiryn thought, tapping the handle of the skinning knife on her chin. “Let’s play a game.”

I gave her a deadpan look. “While you’re carving an animal corpse?”

“You tell me about yourself. Using single words.”

“…Pardon?”

Five syllable words,” Elmiryn added with a grin. Her angular face seemed a little flushed and for a brief moment I wondered if she were drunk again.  Did she have a flask somewhere that I didn’t know about…?

“Elmiryn I can’t–”

“Of course you can. I bet you can come up with a word for how you’re feeling right now.”

“Yeah. Exasperation!

The woman gave a jovial laugh.  “See?”

I placed my hands on my hips and shifted my weight to one foot.  My mouth was a crooked line.  “I really don’t think it’ll work.”

Elmiryn looked at me. Then shrugged. “Okay. If you say so.” That was when she filleted the deer from the gut to the chin.

The beast in me snarled at the sight of red life spilling onto the dirt, the tumble of dark purplish organs, the gleam of the exposed rib cage. The smell that hit me literally made me reel. I spun back around, horrified. “Disquietude! Fe-feelings of anxiety that c-cause one to become tense!!” Even I could note the lower pitch of my voice, the growl that tinged my words.

“That’s four syllables.” Elmiryn said calmly. I couldn’t see her expression, but I could imagine her smiling. Why did she find these things funny?

Fine! Pestiferousness; something akin to evil or general annoyance.

“Good!” I could hear a slop and felt my muscles pull. I lurched forward a couple of yards before I came to fall to my knees near some bushes.

“Okay,” Elmiryn said, grunting a little as she worked. “I’ll make it easier on you. Give me four syllable words.”

“Paralytic!” I bit out, my hands digging into the dirt. “A person affected with paralysis!”

“Now tell me something about who you are.

“Cantankerous. Disagreeable to deal with.”

“Oh I wouldn’t say you’re that.”

I slammed my fists into the dirt.  “Right NOW I am!”

“Alright, alright! …Next.”

I pulled at the front of my gambeson, fishing for something.  Anything.  “Eruditeness.”  I said finally. “Great knowledge.”

I could hear Elmiryn pause. “…Being a little gracious, aren’t we?”

My entire body coiled as I turned to shout, “Well if you’re going to bother me about accuracy–!

“Maybe we should get you on a topic less likely to rile you up. What about music?”

I swallowed and shook my head.  “I don’t know anything about music.”

“Think of a song and describe it to me.”

The only song I could think of was one that Elmiryn was given to humming occasionally…and I didn’t even know the name of it. Still, I put all my focus on the memory of her humming it at the lake where we had fished–trying to dredge up the melodic notes by sheer will. I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my hands over my ears, trying to block out the sound of the deer being skinned.

“Chimerical. Something fanciful.” I didn’t wait to hear her say anything else. I continued, rambling words as they came to me. “Convivial; Something festive. Euphonious…a…a pleasant sound. Mollifying…to…to…pacify…”

Without warning, my focus gave birth to an elaborate mental image.

I myself made it elaborate, out of desire for distraction, but as silly as it may sound, I surprised myself. I imagined a giant tree with branches of music, outstretching and flourishing at the tips with vibrant leaves that defied strophic confinement. The bark, the sap, the break of light through the canopy, sang to me in no uncertain terms. There was a firmness behind the rhythm and motion of falling leaves and creaking boughs–guiding my thoughts away from downward leading roads and filling my heart with lighter-than-air ideals. I felt myself sinking into the positive energy as somehow the song in my head enveloped my body, like a warm blanket. My face pressed to the grass and my arms went limp beneath the shade of comfort. All around me, a voice much like Elmiryn’s echoed the mysterious song. I could feel the beast in me recline, the press of her recumbent form like a weight dragging me down…downdown…

“Nyx! Hey! Wake up! …Wake up!

Bloody hands shaking me. The smell made my eyes open, though it still took some effort.

When my vision came into focus, I saw that Elmiryn was peering into my face, a smudge of blood on her chin and an expression I couldn’t quite place. Her eyes were wide and shiny, and her lips were parted by the harsh breaths that escaped between them. Her eyebrows were raised to a degree I hadn’t quite seen them go before, and they wrinkled her forehead unattractively.

“Wassamatter?” I mumbled, reaching up a hand to her forehead. Those worry-wrinkles of hers were really bothering me. I knew the woman was older than me, but it just didn’t suit her.

“You weren’t breathing.” She said shakily. The warrior grabbed my hand away from her face, gripping it so tightly it hurt. I winced and looked at her. “You weren’t breathing, Nyx,” she continued. Her voice was frail. “And I checked. I didn’t imagine it. You fell over and you weren’t breathing and then…” her sentence trailed away.

“Elmiryn, what are you talking about? I was just doing the game, thinking about a song like you told me!” I pulled my hand out of hers and sat up.

…When had I laid down?

“I’m fine,” I said. I turned my face away for a brief moment to pick grass out of my hair. When I looked at her again, Elmiryn’s face seemed blank, but the muscles in her cheeks and brow twitched occasionally as if they were being forced into the position they were in.

Then it really registered…

Elmiryn…was scared.

This idea was staggering, as in the short time I had known her, the warrior had shown herself to be a great number of things. Among them, one of my chief impressions was of something inexplicably beyond mortal terror. Was she a hiccuping, puerile drinker? Oh, yes. A remorseless woman of combat? Mm, hmm. A cheeky, and blithe conversationalist? Spot on. A person whose countenance could be drained of blood at any sign of trouble?

…It just didn’t fit.

And I kept thinking this, even as I reached for her wrist, giving it a firm squeeze. “Elmiryn. It’s okay. I’M okay. Honest.” I was using the same calming tones I had that night in Dame, but they didn’t seem to work. I saw them fall short of the fear that shone in Elmiryn’s eyes. Surprisingly, it seemed to make it worse.

My heart gave a small pull, and I reached forward, grabbing her by the nape of her neck and pulling her close to press my forehead to hers. “I’m alright, Elle,” I breathed. My eyes were wide and though I didn’t mean to, I must have come across as a little pleading.

The skin of her wrist was sticky and stained red, and I was sure she had smeared some of the deer’s blood onto my gambeson, but at the moment I wasn’t concerned with it. The feline in me was quiet. I felt oddly disjointed…but I couldn’t tell if it were due to my counterpart’s reticence or Elmiryn’s unsettling behavior.

Elmiryn looked at me, her cerulean eyes narrowing. “What song were you thinking of?” she asked in a whisper.

I blinked at her. “I don’t know what it’s called.”

Her face seemed to lengthen by some unknown worry, and she grabbed my shoulder with her other hand. I could feel her tremble. “What song were you thinking of, Nyx?” she asked again, her voice regaining a little strength.

Those eyes bore into mine as she waited for me to answer and I bated my breath, self-conscious under the attention. “It’s one of the songs you like to hum. It was the only thing I could think of…” I murmured.

Elmiryn sat back, her gaze widening. The separation left me feeling cold.

I watched her, uncertain of what to do. Her eyes were rolling back and forth in their sockets as she thought furiously about something. Her brows furrowed deep. Her forehead wrinkled again.

“What about the deer?” I asked after a moment.

“Forget the deer right now,” She snapped with a severe look in my direction. The woman raised a stained finger, her hair even less tame than it had been before as some rebellious strands fell into her piercing stare. Something about the late morning light on the side of her face and the intensity of her expression struck me as intensely beautiful and I was made to lean back and whisper, “Wow…”

Elmiryn didn’t notice. “You listen to me,” she said, pointing to herself. She then made a negative gesture with her finger. “Don’t you EVER think about that song. EVER.”

I scowled at her. “Why? What for?”

“Because it’s evil,” she said with a flat sense of finality.

“The song’s evil?” I repeated incredulously. “Okay…honestly, Elmiryn. I have NO idea what you think may have happened, but I’m sure it doesn’t have a thing to do with the song. You were singing it to me after all, and nothing happened before!”

Elmiryn shook her head. “That isn’t how it works.  That isn’t how it catches you.” She stood to her feet, her head still shaking, and went back to the deer corpse. “That just isn’t how it works…” she said again.

Elmiryn resumed her task and I sat and watched her, rooted to the spot. Words built up in my throat, yet I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, because somehow they didn’t seem to measure up to the situation at hand. I couldn’t deny I was feeling out of sorts, but I didn’t understand the sudden fear that had taken over my seemingly stalwart companion. I tried to recall the images I had seen when thinking of Elmiryn’s song, but all I could remember was a faint outline of a tree, nothing more.

As Elmiryn cut up the deer, her actions lacked confidence–just as much as my mind lacked its previous blood-lust and hunger. The scene seemed surreal. Inside, my feline half lay quiet and drowsy. She didn’t even perk up when Elmiryn began to fry some of the meat in her frying pan.

I remained that way throughout the meal. Neither I nor Elmiryn ate much. We wrapped up the leftovers and left the deer skin to hang in a tree.

The rest of the day was spent in silence as we made our way to Gamath.

…I tried not to think of how easily my preconceptions had been torn down within the span of 24 hours.


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