Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 1.2

ELMIRYN________________________

She felt so small.

Small and quiet.

Against a plane of havoc wrought thinking, she dashed lithely between rows and shelves of contemplations, concentrating wholly on herself—her one true sense gone—breaking beneath the weight of silence.

Okay.

Not REALLY silence.

Just…none-speaking, none-moving, none-acting, none-changing. Static, punctuated by the rainfall. Gods crying. Who were they crying for?

Aw, who cares

Elmiryn sat beneath the cover of the maple tree. Her spine was protected from the harsh surface of the bark by her leather bustier. Beneath she wore an opaque-white cotton shirt that helped keep out the cold. The sleeves stopped a little past her steel shoulder guards. Going up her arm were emerald thick gloves, fingerless. Over these were leather braces with steel plates to match the guards.

The area simmered and hissed with the sound of the rain as it poured through the canopy. Where she sat, she still was victim to some of the rain, but here it was not so bad. Here, she could whittle her little stick in peace, with eyes glazed, thinking…thinking…thinking…

…Thinking this stupid knife was dull.

Then came the heavy footfalls. Elmiryn’s back stiffened and she leaned forward to gaze about with sharp cerulean eyes. The corners of her lips twitched, but her mouth seemed uncertain of itself. She sheathed her knife and rose to her feet, retrieving her bow and quiver from against the tree trunk. Quiet as a bog that crept through swamp, she went forward—over the roots and rocks and damp leaves.

Then she saw.

A vague shape, one that shifted and displaced the darkness, moved rapid through the forest; but its speed came from panic, and panic made it clumsy and careless. Whoever it was stumbled and nearly fell face first into the dirt. Elmiryn ventured closer and she strained to see. Water seeped into her eyes and left them dry and wanting, but she resisted the urge to blink.

A girl. It was just a girl.

The rain began to let up. Elmiryn could hear better—there was the tramp of boots as others gave chase. The warrior could see the amorphous shadow of the ragtag mob of farmers even from where she remained still, hidden behind a tree. “What are they doing?” She wondered with a soft frown. “It’s raining, and there isn’t moonlight to guide them… Why are they chasing this girl? What makes any of this worth it?”

Elmiryn looked back to where the youth had been only to see that she had resumed her fevered run.

With furrowed brow, the woman followed, running parallel with her quarry. Though clearly out of it, the girl was unusually quick. Interest piqued, Elmiryn picked up her pace so as not to be left behind.

The girl came to a small cliff where a rock, placed there by time, jutted out like a little plateau. She peered over the edge, her shoulders bunched, hands and fingers tensed in an unusual fashion.

Elmiryn again stopped just far enough away that the girl could not hear or see her. Her clear eyes, lit with an intensity, narrowed as the warrior tried to make sense of this peculiar scene. There was something about how the girl moved, how the others chased her that painted this entire situation as unique…or maybe…

…Maybe it was just that ridiculous haircut she had?

The warrior’s thoughts were interrupted by a hoarse yell.

“There’s the beast!”

Elmiryn’s eyes snapped onto the group of men charging toward the small girl. “Farmers,” she thought with a roll of her eyes, “They have no tact…”

She looked back at the youth to see what she would do. Fight or flight. If the woman’s suspicions were correct, the girl would fight back or jump over the edge of the plateau. To Elmiryn’s surprise, the girl held her hands up and fell to her knees. “Please!” she begged, her voice hoarse. “Please, I was starving! I’m sorry! I meant no harm!”

Jeers from the men. One particularly large man, apparently the leader, brandished his axe. “Filthy animal!” he thundered. He raised his weapon with both hands. The girl, startled, scrambled to her feet and retreated to the edge where she swayed.

Elmiryn’s lips, which had twitched and quirked with her observations, finally seemed to make a decision of what to do:

She smiled, showing all teeth…


Back to Chapter 1.1 | Forward to Chapter 1.3

Chapter 2.3

NYX____________________________

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.”

“Done.”

“Second, I’d appreciate it if you’d quit staring at me. It’s making me nervous.”

“Alright.”

“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.”

“Good.”

“Great.”

“Fantastic.”

“Lovely.”

“…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.”

“…That’s it?”

“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?”

“I suppose…”

“So?”

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.”

ELMIRYN________________________

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.”


Back to Chapter 2.2 | Forward to Chapter 2.4

Chapter 2.4

NYX____________________________

That wretched cocksure witch made me want to scream.

How dare she.

How DARE she?

No debt was worth that humiliation, I thought to myself. The nerve, doing that to me in front of those men, as if it didn’t matter? If she made any attempts to explain the issue later, I certainly wasn’t going to indulge her. No clever reasoning could ever forgive the blatant violation of trust. And what of her expectations from me? How did she expect me to take my duty to her seriously after having my pride stepped on like a belly-scraping roach?

Hypocritical bitch.

My skin tingled and my clothes felt tight. Heat flashed over me. Anger and fury played games with my misplaced pride, calling up the ghostly vestiges of self-respect I’d once had.  It seemed to appear from nothing, like sparks from flint, and if I’d thought about the situation more, I’d have seen the gross hypocrisy that existed not just in Elmiryn, but in myself.  I was a Marked therian.  What respect did I deserve from anyone?  But I’d been away from others for a long time, and to have my trust violated in such a way made anger a slow thing to cool.

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply—taking in the human scents around me. Things to hold onto while my other self writhed. I leaned back against the inn behind me and wondered why it was I separated my current state from my bestial one. ‘Her’, versus ‘me’. Us. Like two things could ever really ever occupy such an uncertain shell. Bitterly, I thought of how my animal counterpart would have stood up for herself given the great insult I suffered. My shoulders deflated with a sigh, and I shook my head, allowing my eyes to open.

“If She were in charge, I wouldn’t be here to begin with.” And this confession seemed enough to quell the stirring creature into silence.

All around, the smells and sounds of town life called to me, draped over me; it was warm like blanket—one that wasn’t mine. I stood awkwardly for a moment before deciding a small walk wouldn’t hurt. Ruffling my uneven mop, I stepped out onto the street. I could hear Elmiryn in my head, saying with amusement, “Good. That’s the first step. What do you do next?”

Gods, she was already becoming a voice in my head.  How pathetic was I?

A group of teenagers stampeded past me, knocking me around in their haste to get by. As they continued out of view, I muttered shakily, “You try not to get run over.”

“That can be quite a task in this busy little town, miss,” a new voice said.

My head turned, and between the passing bodies I made out one man whose gaze locked with mine. Instinctively, I shrunk in on myself and took a step back. I didn’t look away, though. He had already seen my eyes—seen the otherness that colored them. Better to see what he did and react appropriately.

But the man only smiled, his mature countenance wrinkling with mirth at my reaction. Dark eyes peered from beneath a barely connected unibrow—a trait that on anyone else would have seemed brutish or unkempt, but somehow rested regally on him. He extended a hand to me and I could see the blisters in his palm. My suspicion increased and I took a deep breath through my nose. I managed to make out his scent from those around me. Citrus, oil, and earth mixed together with the common scents of a warrior; the scent of leather, metal, and sweat.

“Don’t be afraid, kitten. This lanky oaf means you no harm,” he said. His voice was calm and deep. I was reminded of my mother’s heartbeat when I slept beside her. Reluctantly I came closer.

“What do you want?” I asked, my eyes wide and wary.

“You seem upset,” the stranger said, brushing his overgrown coal-gray hair away from his face. He was seated on a thick honey-colored wicker basket, which was turned over and strained beneath the weight of his long body. His legs were bent as if he were ready to spring away at any moment, and the cloth of his crimson aketon was tinged a darker shade in some places. “I saw you come in with your friend,” the man continued, nodding toward the direction of the gate, “And next I know it you’re outside that inn with the most puckered face I ever laid eyes on.” He shook his head, looking at me sympathetically. “She did something brash, didn’t she?”

I crossed my arms and frowned at him. “Do you know her?”

The dark man chuckled. “Personally? Oh, heavens no. But her eyes say a lot. Sharp eyes, yes, but eyes that wander—like she’s looking for something. A little aimless. Careless in their own way. You could say I was just waiting to see you come out of that inn by yourself.”

“And of me? What did you gather from seeing me?”

“That’s a trap, young girl. I won’t go tripping that anytime soon. Too many men have stuck their foots in their mouths from a question like that.”

I shook my head and waved him off. “This is silly. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.” I started to walk away.

“I bet your life makes it hard to speak casually with anyone, kitten. But you should know that not everyone in this region wants your kind dead.”

I turned and glared at him, my eyes searing. “Shh!” I hissed. I went back to him and said through tight lips, “Most haven’t noticed what I am, and I’d like to keep it that way! And stop calling me kitten, for gods sakes. I hardly know you!”

“Sorry,” the man said. He held out his hand, “I’m Tobias. Not from around here, as you can probably guess.”

I didn’t take his hand. “Leave me alone,” I snapped. I stalked back toward the inn, deciding that finishing my bowl of stew seemed a lot nicer than dealing with odd men.

“I’ve got something I think you’d like. Something that might take your mind off things when they get hard.” he called after me, his voice carrying easily through the bustle that surrounded us.

Against my better judgment, I stopped. I looked back at him over my shoulder, trying to seem indifferent despite my curiosity. Tobias smiled, his large upper-teeth a little crooked but otherwise endearing in an honest, openhearted sort of way. He reached behind him, rummaging through things I couldn’t see, and a moment later he straightened again with a worn, leather-bound book in his hands. I frowned and turned fully as he stood and crossed the stream of passerby to hand it to me. He towered over all he passed.

The man stopped just short of arm’s length and held out the book. I thought for a moment before I took it gingerly from him, half-expecting him to grab me as soon as I did so, but he didn’t move. Instead, Tobias only gave a satisfied nod and went back to where he had sat and picked up a traveler’s bag from behind the basket.

“There. I hope you enjoy that,” he said, returning to me. He shouldered his bag.

I blinked at him. “Why give me this? What is it?”

“Poetry, thoughts, small stories. It has a little of everything,” Tobias said with a shrug.

“That’s it? This is what you planned on doing all along?”

“You sound disappointed.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I just…I mean…why?

The man quickly tapped his long finger on my head before I could react. “Because you seemed like the grounded, intellectual sort. Or perhaps, a person who could be one.” He winked before walking away. I stared after him, mouth slightly agape.

“When you tire of the book,” he called over his shoulder, “Trade it for another! It’s the only way things like that should be shared.” And after that, even my keen eyes couldn’t make him out of the smear of the crowd—colors and scents melding together in a great and formless herd as the suns crept closer to the horizon. I looked at the book in my hand skeptically. There was no title to it.

I went to the basket and sat down. It didn’t sag nearly as much as it did with the man. Nervously I looked around me before I opened the book and began to read.

‘There was not enough in me to speak lest I drown. Any other dawn and this man would have been as brave as a minute—knowing nothing more than that moment’s charge of exhilaration and fulfillment by the sweep of his sword…’

ELMIRYN________________________

There is no barring imagination from reality when walls shift and waver, and humor makes a home in bruises and dust. She delighted in the weight of her limbs. Lyrical language and capricious phrases darted about her head in a game of tag. Her tongue tingled with want of speaking these nonsensical fragments, but Elmiryn refrained, aware she lacked an audience.

When she came outside of the inn, the air was cool and the sky had shifted to a glorious velvet. The merchants were long since packed and gone, only a small crowd of folk wandering here to there, taking care of things before they were expected to retreat for the night. The warrior spotted Nyx across the way, sitting on a basket with her head bowed down and what appeared to be a book in her hands. She cantered towards her.

“Hullo there, my kitten in cutie’s clothing. What is that you’ve got?” Elmiryn chirped. She bent over and tilted her head to one side, her body swaying. “Is it because of what you are that you can read out here with so little light?” the woman asked.

Nyx sighed and stopped reading, her tawny eyes rolling up to glower at her companion.

Elmiryn pouted. “You’re still mad at me,” she grumbled asininely.

“That’s very astute of you, considering your head’s drowned in ale.” Nyx looked back at her book. “Step back, please. I’ve got a sensitive nose and you’re making my eyes water.”

Elmiryn knelt down with a flop before the girl and blew wisps of hair away from her forehead. “My head isn’t swimming just with ale, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s also swimming with information!

“Lovely. I can just imagine what that would look like,” was the dry response.

“We’re going to Gamath.”

“Fine. Go to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Elmiryn shifted so that she could stare up into Nyx’s face. She blinked a lot, trying to get a fix on the girl’s face, which just didn’t seem to sit still.

The youth looked up at her in annoyance. “What?” she snapped.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” the woman said, cerulean eyes lidded. She leaned forward unsteadily, her neck straining as she tried to look at Nyx full on. The girl sat back with a curl of her lip. “C’mon…please don’t be mad,” Elmiryn beseeched. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Honest!”

The girl frowned at her. “Sweet Aelurus, you’re just like a child!

“Sweet as a babe when drunk, my mother says,” Elmiryn said proudly. “It’s also been said that I’m more attractive when tipsy. I’d say I’m beyond that state, right? So what would you make of me now, Nyx? Am I…desirable?” The woman waggled her brows.

Nyx stared. Her cheeks became flushed, so much so that even Elmiryn noticed it in the poor light.

“Hey, it’s working!” The warrior said, her voice strained as she held back a giggle. “And to think, I didn’t expect that line to go anywhere!”

“It hasn’t!” Nyx huffed. She stood to her feet and began to stomp away. “Gods, I can’t believe you! I thought there was some level of respectability in you, but here you are acting like a callow, fatuous nincompoop!”

“Wait! Come back! I’m still apologizing!” Elmiryn stumbled to her feet, limbs in seeming rebellion; but as she fixed her eyes on Nyx, she shifted her weight and followed through with her momentum, her mind caught up with her desires and she found herself moving purposefully in a calculated line. The woman managed to stop before the girl, successfully cutting her off. Nyx stared at her in surprise.

Elmiryn held up her hands, her breath heavy. “Now wait! Just wait!

“No.” Nyx said vehemently, the muscles in her face strained. “You’re acting like a buffoon, and I’d rather not talk to you like this. It’s shameful.”

“Shameful.” Elmiryn’s face fell.  She rubbed the back of her neck and looked down at the ground. “How is it that you take words and give them so much meaning? Am I really so blind…that it has to be brought to my attention all the time?”

The Ailuran faltered. “…Sorry?”

The woman looked up at the girl, her wavering gaze somehow brighter by the drink in her system. The space between them seemed so great, and there was something vibrant, but flat about Nyx that made Elmiryn’s eyes water. She slowly stretched out a hand toward the girl, and when the youth didn’t pull away, she stroked her cold cheek.

Elmiryn trusted the contact.

“I like drinking. It isn’t a very admirable habit, but I do it when I can.” Elmiryn’s face went blank and she took back her hand. “I think differently like this. Sometimes what I come up with isn’t the brightest of ideas…but there’s sincerity here,” Elmiryn pointed emphatically at her head and looked at Nyx pleadingly. “I’m sorry. I’m. Sorry. It won’t happen again. I swear on my mother’s life.”

Nyx flinched and hurriedly took the woman’s shoulder. “No, no, no! Never do that. Ever. Not for me. The way you’re acting it’s as if you’re afraid I’d leave. I still have my debt to you, remember?”

“Your debt.” Elmiryn rubbed at her eye and placed a hand on her hip. Her nose tickled, and she wiped at it a little more forcefully then necessary. “That’s right. You’re still indebted to me. For saving your life.”

The youth nodded, now watching Elmiryn carefully. “Yes,” she said slowly. “That’s right.” She indicated gingerly toward the inn. “Let’s get inside. We should rest if we’re to set out tomorrow…”

She led Elmiryn by the arm toward the inn, where they entered. The company inside had dwindled to those that were staying the night. The stairs that led to the second floor were at the back across from the bar. Nyx pulled the warrior along to their room.

Elmiryn cherished this. The sudden care that rested in her companion’s touch. There were dying embers of anger in the girl’s eyes, but a softness was coming over them that the warrior wanted desperately to believe in. She wouldn’t say it, but Nyx was sobering. Perhaps because the woman rarely found herself in the company of such a person, or because any individual she found herself with in the past had never been expected to remain past morning.

“Nyx,” Elmiryn whispered as they entered their room—two beds on either side of the modest space, their things at the foot of each. “I lied earlier today. I did.” The warrior muttered as she was led to her bed, where she sat on the edge ungracefully. The world was getting too heavy. It didn’t swing or sway in an ideal way, but a way that made the woman wish to close her eyes and fall to nothing.

Elmiryn was beginning to feel small again.

Nyx placed her book on her bed and knelt down onto the floor, where she began to untie her companion’s boots. “What is it, Elmiryn,” she asked, distracted with her task.

“There’s some more conditions. Besides the one I told you. You’ve really gotta know.”

The girl looked up at her, her eyebrow raised. “Yes? What are they?”

“Stay with me. As much as you can. Please.”

Nyx frowned at her. “Elmiryn, I am with you. I told you, I won’t leave.” She tugged off one boot and set on the other.

Elmiryn shook her head, brows pressed together as she leaned down. “No. I mean stay with me. You don’t leave my side unless you’ve got to, okay? You’re my anchor. You’re my anchor now, and if staying with me means getting angry and calling me an unfair bitch in front of other people, then so be it—but don’t you go. Please promise me.”

The youth gazed up at her with a look that Elmiryn couldn’t quite pin. “All right… Okay, Elmiryn. I…I promise.” she said quietly.

Nyx pulled off the last boot and the woman shook her head, a smirk now flashing on her face. “And that’s another thing…” she began, voice low and thick as she laid back onto the bed.

“What?” the girl asked, pulling the sheets over her.

“Call me Elle. Having someone like you calling me by my full name just makes me feel old.” Elmiryn’s eyes closed for a moment. Then they snapped open again. “…And y’know, it really isn’t fair that I can’t call you a cute pet name. Your name’s already short. So unfair. That is just really unfair! …And hey, wait a second! You didn’t tell me what callow and fatuous meant!”

Nyx offered an exasperated smile and patted Elmiryn’s arm.

“Good night, Elle…”


Back to Chapter 2.3 | Forward to Chapter 3.1

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!?”


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