It was a two-day journey to the town known as Dame, and in that time I discovered three things: if a tree branch squeaks, I probably shouldn’t rest on it; Elmiryn has no concept of personal space; and apparently, I talk in my sleep.
“You were muttering something about rats.”
“I was not.”
“You were asleep. How do you know?”
“I find myself a bit concerned over the fact that you were close enough to make out what I was muttering.”
“So you’re saying I’m right.”
“No. I’m saying you have alarming ideas of what’s permissible between two people who hardly know each other.”
“You can’t remember what you were dreaming. Are you really going to argue with me?”
I settled for looking sullen and avoided Elmiryn’s gaze. “My hazy mutterings aside, what made you think hovering over me like you were would be interpreted as anything else but creepy?”
I sat at the base of an old poplar tree, where I picked twigs and dirt from my tangled mess of hair. The bandages wrapped around my hands were smudged with the pollen from the catkins. I tried to wipe it off, but it seemed to only set it deeper into the sweat stained fabric.
Elmiryn stood over me, her arms crossed and the corners of her lips turned upwards at the ends.
“You were crying,” she said with a twitch of her mouth.
I glanced at her with sullen eyes. “I must have been thinking of something else.”
“You fell out of the tree. It was kinda like you were trying to get away from them.”
I grit my teeth but made it a point not to look up at her again. “No. The branch broke. And it broke because I jumped when I saw you were hovering over me.”
Elmiryn shook her head with a chuckle and palmed her face. “Nyx, you wouldn’t wake up when I was calling you from the ground. How else was I going to wake you? Throw a rock?” Then she looked upwards as if something occured to her, and the smile that had been only a concept became fully realized. ”…Hey, wait a minute. You think I’m unsettling? As in, ‘Gee, I hope she makes a go for my pants’, or as in, ‘I think this crazy wench is going to shiv my hide’?”
The way she said this had a tone of absurdity that I’m sure she entirely meant for. It caught me completely off guard. I looked up at her with cheeks tinged pink and my mouth open, ready to speak. It was an instinctual reaction after being posed a question. …But nothing worth saying came to me until I could see the mischievous glint wink in her morning-lit eyes.
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut. I felt like a bug beneath a magnifying glass. “By the four winds, what is the matter with you?” I grumbled. My hands went to rub my temples. I could feel a headache coming on. “Do you like making me as flustered as possible?”
I heard Elmiryn sit on the ground and opened my eyes to gaze at her warily. When our eyes met she tilted her head to the side. “You make it so easy.” she said. There was a note of fascination in her voice that made me squint my eyes a little. ”I mean, you’re the first one of your kind I’ve met that doesn’t know how to hunt or fight, and…well…” her voice trailed and she seemed to reconsider her next choice of words.
I braced myself. Any sentence that trailed off like that had something unpleasant to unveil. I let my hands drop to my lap, where I sprinkled away the dirt I had between my fingers. “Well what?” I prompted uneasily.
“You speak funny.” She shrugged after she said this.
I just stared. “…Pardon?”
She held her hands up, but there was no sense of urgency in the action. Elmiryn wasn’t concerned with insulting me, it seemed. “Easy. I don’t mean it in a bad way.” Her eyes trailed from my face to my hair, then my hands. She looked at me again and her expression went soft. “Where did you learn my language?”
“…Reading.” I paused and fiddled with the collar of my gambeson. “Before I was Marked I read a lot to pass the time. Human literature had…um…lots of nice stories.”
“Self-taught. That’s amazing.”
“Are you trying to distract me from the fact that you just spooked me off the high branch of a tree?” I gave her the driest look I could manage.
Elmiryn didn’t wither. Instead, she seemed to brighten at my passive aggression. “No, honestly, Nyx. I mean it.” I pursed my lips as I stood and walked a few steps away. She made as if to grab at my ankles, but then refrained.
“C’mon, look at me,” she said–not asked. “I really mean it. So will you accept that I’m sorry?”
I crossed my arms and tapped my fingers thoughtfully. “…Yes. But I think it’s clear we’ve got to establish some things if I’m going to travel with you.”
“Okay, great. What do you want established?” Elmiryn leaned back on her hands and grinned up at me. I consciously avoided looking at her.
“First of all, quit remarking about how I’m not like such-and-such or like so-and-so. Having my short-comings pointed out to me all the time is driving me mad.”
“Second, I’d appreciate it if you’d quit staring at me. It’s making me nervous.”
“And third, you’ve got to give me my space. That means no messing with my things and no putting your hands on me just for the sake of it. Okay?”
“Yeah. You got it.”
“…Have you got anything you’d like to tell me?”
Elmiryn held up a finger. “Just one thing.”
I was already wary. “What’s that?”
“If you’re going to use fancy words, you’ve got to tell me what they mean.”
“Sure, why not? But you can’t give me the wrong definition. If you do, I might pull a sword on someone who was otherwise just telling me how well my pants compliment my ass. Granted, anyone who told me that would still have my blade at their throat, but the worst I’d do is slap their rump with the broadside of my sword.”
A crooked grin spread over my lips. “Sweet Aelurus…conciliation really comes naturally to you, doesn’t it?”
“Well see, if I knew what that meant…”
Despite myself I giggled. Whenever Elmiryn spoke, it always seemed on the verge of laughing somehow—sometimes I was certain because of me, but other times I wasn’t so sure. My guess was that she was aware of something I wasn’t. Perhaps because of her condition. Certainly, with every restless pass of her eyes, I believed more and more in her curse.
Since our time at the lake, all conversation between the two of us had been purely chit-chat: general observations about our surroundings, the weather, what it was we’d do for food, where we’d sleep, etc…. Now, as we entered the flat golden valley and could see Dame in the distance, our polite ease seemed to be slipping into something else. Something less inhibited.
I found I welcomed it.
“What are your plans in Dame?” I asked Elmiryn as I pulled absently at the straps of my bag.
She glanced at me and smirked. “To ask some questions. Get information about the territory and what is going on here. I suspect that Meznik’s come to this land. If he has, I’m certain he’s already done something to cause trouble. That’s what I’m expecting to learn about.”
“Will it take us closer to him?”
“Hopefully. I’m working against him, so anything of his I can undo is something in my favor, but what I’m really seeking is a way to get to Meznik himself. He’s an astral demon and exists on a different level than you or I. That means that taking a sword to him is about as effective as trying to cut shadows.”
I swiped absently at a daisy on the ground with my foot. “What sort of things did you do before you met me?”
“Oh…those are long stories. Complicated too. I get impatient telling them,” her voice changed, dropping a note.
I glanced at her, through my bangs. “Can you tell me one thing, at least? If my job is to help you remember who you are and what you stand for, then maybe I should get an idea of the woman you were before Meznik?”
Elmiryn smiled, but the curl of her lip seemed a hair’s breath away from a snarl. “I was a fool.” she said, and the conversation ended there.
The gate to Dame was guarded by two men, and I could see between the crenelations of the town wall there were archers keeping sight of all who came near. Elmiryn walked ahead of me and approached one of the armed guards, an amiable smile on her face. “Hail,” she said.
“Hail,” the man returned, his squinted eyes shifting to rest on me. I tried hard to seem unobtrusive, turning my gaze elsewhere.
“We’d like to enter your fine town,” Elmiryn said, nodding toward the gate. “Will you grant us passage?”
“Your business?” the guard asked.
“Food, drink, a place to rest…we won’t even be here long. One night, at the most.”
“Who’s your friend?”
I tensed and kept my head down. Better to seem bashful and timid than to let him see my eyes. It had, of course, occurred to me that perhaps he had seen them already, but I still I didn’t lift my gaze. Perhaps it was a childish logic. Pretend hard enough and the world would pretend with you.
I could hear Elmiryn shrug, the metal of her shoulder guards hissing. “She’s my ward.” There was a sense of finality to her words, as though any more questions on the matter were unneeded–and unwelcome.
The guard took a moment to consider. Then he said, “You’ll have to check your weapons at the garrison. Those aren’t allowed within town walls. You can retrieve them when you leave.” then he gave a whistle and a second later the gate doors opened inward.
I followed Elmiryn as she passed through. As we proceeded further into town I breathed in deep, taking in the scents. I could smell the smoke and ash from hearth fires, dung from horses, the hay used to feed them, roasting meat and stewing vegetables, freshly dyed cloth, and potpourri. Thatched homes, many of them two-stories, were set neatly side by side in what appeared to be a planned arrangement. Importance seemed to shape the town in an orderly way of business—a trait most trading hot spots shared. Everyone there was so well dressed. Dame was a prosperous town.
I fingered the hole in my collar and decided I’d take Elmiryn up on her offer to mend it.
The both of us entered the garrison, a cold stone building that smelled of steel and sweat. As Elmiryn checked her weapons, she glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
“You aren’t a turtle, Nyx,” she said.
“I realize that,” I returned, looking up at her. When we left the garrison I continued in a low voice, “If our first encounter was any indication, this area hates my kind. I was actually on my way to leave for someplace safer when we met.”
Elmiryn smiled in a way that made me nervous. “And instead, you met me.”
“Yeah,” I said, glancing at her.
“Go on, lift your head. My job is to keep you safe. If you’ve got to hide all the time, then I must not be doing a good job, right?”
With a sigh, I laboriously straightened out, my eyes gazing straight ahead. “I like being inconspicuous. Just about everything about me is easy to forget except for my eyes.” I fussed with my bangs, irritated over the fact that one side was so long it tickled my nose, yet the other side had grown only an inch from my hairline. I vowed never to get ‘creative’ with a pair of garden shears again.
“I wouldn’t say you’re easy to forget,” Elmiryn said, clasping her hands behind her back.
I looked at her, skeptical. “Oh?”
She shrugged, and gestured at a group of young girls hovering near a merchants cart. They were cooing over foreign fabrics and giggling at the merchant’s extravagant attempts at getting them to buy his product. “Take those girls for instance. For me, they blend into the background. They are common and easy to ignore.”
“Is that because of your curse?”
“I think the curse just makes it worse. I’d have passed them by without a second look even if I didn’t have this problem.”
“I know you’ve told me what it’s like for you, or tried to, but somehow I can’t even imagine it,” I said, crossing my arms high on my chest and tilting my chin down just slightly. I felt a little exposed walking with my head up like I was. “Has your perceptions changed greatly?”
The woman chuckled. “Well of course they have! I can’t rely on what I see as I once did.”
I gazed at her in wonder. “So it’s like your blind…”
Elmiryn blinked. Then she smiled and a stronger laugh came up her throat, deep and raw. “I guess I am,” she said. She gave me a nudge, “But it’ll help having someone to lead me, won’t it?”
I glanced at my arm as if she slapped a manacle there. I felt like I was in over my head. Wishing to change the subject, I pointed down the way at a shop sign squeaking on its hinges. It read, “The Red Shield,” and offered a helpful picture for the reading impaired. “Look. There’s an inn,” I said lamely.
The warrior turned her head and nodded. “Good. Let’s see if we can stay the night there.”
Brown ale wasn’t her favorite choice of drink, but the nutty, bitter-sweet taste seared through her conscious like a sensual streak from a painter’s brush. The taste filled her, and after she swished the drink sufficiently in her mouth, she swallowed it down and took the mug to her lips for another gulp.
The inn was clouded with tobacco smoke and dust, the patrons there conversing amiably amongst themselves with little regard to those around them. A trusting town. She had almost become used to the shifting glances of skittish customers, the barely contained snarls, the flatulence, dirty faces, and visible weapons. She leaned against the bar, eyes slightly squinted as she regarded a fragile sight at risk of falling away.
Nyx sat on a high stool next to her, slouched and with her back to the room. She was hunched over a bowl of stew, curls of steam brushing the sides of her face as she chewed on a large chunk of beef. The bulge in her cheek tempted Elmiryn to poke it, but she restrained herself with a small grin.
They had secured a room without trouble. Two beds, but a small space. The woman didn’t plan on turning in soon.
With one elbow on the counter behind her, Elmiryn swirled the liquid in her mug with a frown. Not the best drink she’d had, but so long as it did what she hoped it would, it didn’t matter.
Sometimes she imagined, when she allowed herself too, that the world before her stood only because she let it. If she wished, a simple push was all that would be needed to send the theatrical backdrop tumbling. The woman wondered what would lie behind the flimsy perceptions. Would there be black nothing, or a radiant truth?
She felt so…small…
When she felt the depth of the room suddenly stop at her nose, Elmiryn closed her eyes and pressed herself further back into the counter, so that the edge dug into her spine. It felt like her face were against a wall. She took two deep breaths and reminded herself that this was an impossibility, and her belief could easily be disproved by simply stretching out her hand. So she did so, and felt it press against nothing; no backdrop, no curtain, no wall, just…nothing. She didn’t open her eyes or drop her arm, but instead let her other senses take over. The sounds of people yards away, the tremble of the floor from footsteps, the brush of air against her face…
“Elmiryn? Something the matter?” Nyx. The girl’s stool squeaked as she turned to regard her. It was sweet, that concern. She let the girl’s voice echo in her head.
“She’s not just a picture, Elmiryn. She’s a living, thinking being.”
A ghost from the past came to haunt her through the present, but she could recall nothing of who they really were, and so, let the warning slip through the sieve of her attention. Wasn’t it funny, how she could banish these melancholy shards of hushed voices and vague portraits and feel banished from life herself?
Almost as if by will, the warrior made herself feel the room expand. She heard the sound of chairs and silverware scraping ahead of her; felt the thud of goblets and fists against the counter, as well as the circulation of air that teased her face as the inn’s door opened and closed. She took another swig of her ale and felt all right again. Warm even.
Elmiryn let her arm drop.
“Don’t worry, Nyx,” she said, eyes still closed. “Just listen—we’re bound to hear something.”
“I’m not used to these places.” the youth answered.
“To be honest, neither am I,” Elmiryn said. “This place is very tame.”
A small snort. “Oh, I bet you’d love a good bar fight. …Hey, why are you keeping your eyes closed?”
Settled in a zone of comfort, Elmiryn resisted a chuckle at Nyx’s dry comment and gently let out a, “Shhhh,” in answer of her question. She then turned her full attention to the conversations around her.
“…see the new baker’s wife? Boy, I’d love to fill her bun with my…!”
“…been word of a forgetful girl up north, who seems to be looking for…”
“…a marriage next week…!”
“…storms are getting worse. So odd. They aren’t even in season…!”
“…some new parchment going around. People can’t stop buying it…”
“…past the mountains. Word has it that the Medwin River has become poisoned. The people of Gamath are suffering…”
Elmiryn’s eyes snapped open and she looked to her right, where two men sat two tables away, grim looks on their faces. She took another second to listen to them—to watch their lips move—just to make sure she got it right.
“I hear they are having great trouble. The storm passed them by without a drop of rain.” The eldest man said, turning his cup idly. “They’ve been resorting to using fruit to keeping hydrated, but the supply is running low and they lack good meat. Most of the plants in that area have been killed by the river, and the animals have turned rabid. It’s horrifying how quickly that place has come to smell of death.” He shook his head, liver-spotted face pale and drawn.
“Won’t Tiesmire help?” the other man asked, younger and with a bushy beard.
“King Brice is taking advantage of the whole thing. Tiesmire’s economy has flourished since this tragedy began. No ‘competitors’ to rob them of trade.”
“Has anyone gone to speak to the river’s guardian?”
“The last one that went never came back. No one knows what happened to him.”
“Perhaps they just need someone more skilled.”
The two men looked up with a start, their eyes resting on Elmiryn’s beaming face. “Hullo. Care to tell me more about this issue?”
The gray-haired man frowned at her sharply. “Who’re you?” he grunted.
The warrior pulled out a chair and sat next to the stranger, her elbows resting on the table. She felt Nyx reluctantly sit on her other side. Elmiryn felt pleased that she didn’t need to tell her to join. “I’m the one who’s going to help Gamath. My name is Elmiryn. I’d like it if you could tell me what you know.”
“But you’re a—”
“Warrior. Yes. You’re right. Do we need drinks?”
“No, no we aren’t interested in—”
Elmiryn snapped her fingers and called over her shoulder.“Inn keeper, can we get four drinks here?”
Nyx began to protest, her tawny eyes going wide. “Oh—no, no, no! I don’t want one!”
The warrior waved off her protests with a crooked smile. Oh yes, the ale was doing its duty. “You’re old enough.” she said jovially to her companion.
The Ailuran grit her teeth. “That’s not what I meant!”
Elmiryn leaned in and muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “It isn’t a big deal. I’ll take your drink if you don’t want it!”
“You’re kidding,” Nyx deadpanned.
“You’re an Ailuran…” the bearded man said, his gaze going narrow.
Nyx paled, and even out of the corner of her eye, Elmiryn could see the girl’s muscles go tense. “No, no. She’s a turnip,” the warrior said, without skipping a beat. All at the table blinked at her. Smiling goofily, she rubbed at her face and said through light chuckles, “She’s my ward. Completely harmless. Doesn’t have the slightest idea how to throw a punch let alone kill a person.”
“No Ailuran is harmless,” The bearded man argued obstinately. “I’ve seen them in battle. They killed my friends without a thought!”
Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow at him. “You really don’t believe me?”
He slammed his fist onto the table, making Nyx jerk as though she were about to launch into a run. Elmiryn snatched the front of her gambeson and gave her a sharp look. The youth looked at her, equally startled by this sudden action. She fixed the woman with a bewildered stare. Elmiryn slowly let the girl go, and made a point of raising her eyebrows.
“Trust me, damn it,” she wanted to say.
“Of course I don’t believe you!” the man snarled, going red. “I’m shocked you were even allowed to bring that thing into the town!” He pointed a shaking finger at Nyx. People around them were beginning to watch.
The warrior shrugged and leaned back. The world shifted as she did so, and a giggle built up in her throat before she brought up her palm in a quick strike upside Nyx’s head. The girl snapped forward from the harsh contact as a loud yelp escaped her lips. Nearly all the tavern stopped and stared now as Nyx rubbed the spot she had been hit, a look of dumbfounded anger on her face.
“That hurt!” she snapped irately.
Elmiryn snickered and raised her hand as if to say to the men, “See?”
With a bang, Nyx stood, her breath coming quick through her nostrils. With a sneer she stormed out of the inn, but not before the warrior noted a glistening at the corners of her eyes. Elmiryn gazed after her, suddenly sorry for what she did.
The woman looked disdainfully at her empty mug and thought, “…If only I’d had two more of these. That may have turned out better then!”
The bearded man shook his head, clearly impressed. “Gods…I’ll admit. I’ve never seen one of her kind take an insult like that so lightly. She behaved more like an embarrassed child!”
“It doesn’t matter about her,” the older man said firmly. He looked at Elmiryn with furrowed brow. “If you want to know about Gamath I’ll tell you all that I know, but I really don’t think you can do anything. The situation is just too terrible.”
The warrior rested her chin on her laced hands and smiled at the man sweetly.
“I’m all ears.”