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Chapter 1.1


 

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…quietly…quietly…

i see you all.

but so apart

am i

spread apart:picked apart:far apart

am i

NYX____________________________

On a tower of metal and light, I saw the span of a great and perilous land.  Overhead, three small suns raged in the sky.  I was a shard of night beneath cold steel and rusted iron.

The wind rushed to me the scents of damp rosewood, fertile soil, pearled barley, bay leaf, musty fur, and chimney smoke.  Miscellany of a simpler life.  I crouched on the platform and the lids of my tawny eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun-lit Earth. The village of Toah lay in the valley below; it was a small and peaceful place, nestled like a babe amid those cold forests. Children played kickball near the horse stables and the women washed their laundry in the nearby stream.

Clouds rolled forth from the horizon reaching hopefully Westward as the storm before me fell over the village and claimed daylight in its smoky fingers.

With bandaged hands and sure boots, I climbed down the watchtower. This place would suit me fine. The rainfall would cover my trail and mask my scent, leaving the villagers ignorant as they cowered from the downpour. If I was good about it, a jug of mead would very well be part of the meal. My mouth watered at the thought of biting into the hen’s neck—snapping it—the hot blood splashing over my parched tongue as I tore it apart. The thought of all I would be tasting almost made me fall out of the tower.

But my fatigue was making it harder to keep from slipping.

My feldgrau gambeson bunched as I fell from the last foothold and landed onto the uneven dirt, the shock of a twenty-five foot drop piercing up through the soles of my boots. A cloud rose at my feet—scents came with it—the typical wildlife smells: sparrows, local cats, rats, spit from a small boy who drank cider, as well as the faded smell of a drunkard’s piss. To Toah, this tower was a place of congregation and socializing. I took a risk climbing it, but I had to see what I was to expect. My luck had not been good to me, and I didn’t want to take the chance of running into a large dog or, worse, a small militia.

I brushed my dark hair away from my face and stood upright. I last cut my hair with a pair of shears found in a garden shed…but I had gotten clumsy and my bangs were now at an uneven slope, so that only one eye was covered and the other completely exposed. I couldn’t wait for the hair to grow out so that I could mend my mistake. Even in a practical sense, it was annoying to march about the way I looked.

My brown cotton pants were baggy, and the seat of them molted with wear. My boots were dusty and worn, and the soles threatened to separate all together. I looked like a pauper, and that was all I could hope for, as people tended to ignore me. But I couldn’t take all the credit for my appearance. My clothes had once been my mother’s clothes. I came to acquire them when she passed away not long ago. It wasn’t until the recent year that I could fit into them…and I did so awkwardly.

I could still smell her in the fabric.

I was tired from walking all day, and didn’t wish to be seen by anyone, so I slinked off into the cover of the woods to find a berry bush and a soft patch of ground to rest on. I waited until the suns were out of sight before I came back again.

____________________________

Darkness. The new moon. I knew this even with the cloud cover.

I took off my boots and hid them near the berry bush, along with my other meager belongings. I had to take them off, or I’d tear through them.

Contrary to your assumptions, I am not a human.

Amid the bay trees, under the blanket of shadow that fell with Night’s passing, I shifted.

Now you can take that word and dissect it. Pick it apart however you like. Peek under the definition and garner whatever idea you’d like from it. Did I shift position? Did I shift demeanor? Did I shift motive?

No. I shifted. I changed. I transformed. I, being one thing, became another. …Or was always the ‘one thing’, and had only made it possible to gain a better perspective on the matter.

But shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier? …But something resisted this thought, and in me came up a feeling that tasted of anguish.

My skin rippled and tingled as—beneath—my muscles shifted and bones snapped and curved to their new places. The transformation always began in the torso and spread its way out all at once, debilitating me completely before it was done. The nerves screamed. The muscles felt like they were tearing, ripping, shredding themselves as I shifted. I bit the inside of my cheek. Fur sprouted along my body. From my tailbone sprouted a tail, which forced its way through a discreet opening in the seat of my pants. Blood pounded in my ears and hot-cold flashes ravaged me until all fell quiet. When I stirred I was on the ground. My clawed hands sought placement in the dirt and I pushed myself up from the ground like a drunkard stirring from sleep.

I tried to clear my head. Changing always left me face-down in the dirt. I tried not to think about the aches that lingered as I reoriented myself using my new senses.

Though dazed, my mind already perceived the world through a different view; eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull, but I could see better in the dark now, and farther into the distance; my ears had become large and pointed on either side of my head, and they twitched at the slightest bit of sound; my nose processed my surroundings, not missing a single smell; my whiskers, which sprouted from my fleshy chops, tickled with the changes of the wind; even my tongue was privy to relating information to my brain as I tasted the dampness of the air. Soon it would rain, and by soon, I meant in a matter of seconds. Sure enough, droplets of water began to fall from the heavens through the forest canopy.

I loved water. I tilted my furry head back and spread my mouth wide, and fat drops splashed onto my tongue. I was in what my kind referred to as the waxing crescent form—or ‘near-human’. As I was, a person in the distance would perhaps only make out a very hairy person with bad posture.

The ignorant would call me a ‘cat person’…but anyone who knew better would know that I was part of the Ailuran race. For my part, I tried to be quiet, cautious, and unassuming. For a little over a year, I worked hard to be in control of myself at all times—and in my solitude had gotten quite good at it. I knew when it was necessary to tap into my other self. The feline half. Not many of my kind knew how to do that.

Then again, not many had to.

My transformation complete, I slunk near the ground and my fingertips lightly touched the Earth. I panted a little. I felt excited. It wasn’t often that I allowed myself to change other than the full moon. I flitted amain, down the slopes that dipped into the heart of the valley. By the time I entered the field surrounding the village, the rain came down in sheets. The water tried to repel me, and it pounded against my down-turned shoulders and furry head. The heavens overhead thundered and howled with a strong wind. I flattened my ears and bared my teeth.

I would not be deterred.

I came upon the village empty; all the denizens had retreated into their stone-wood homes, and warm glows seeped through the cracks of shut-up windows. With a cursory glance around me, I crossed the village square to the storehouse on the Western side. It was a medium sized wooden barn with no windows and only one way in. The double doors were bolted shut with a menacing padlock. I took my right hand’s pinky, extended its thin sharp claw, and inserted it into the keyhole. After a moment’s work, the lock opened and I pushed my way inside.

Over the years, through curious circumstances and a certain tendency toward rebellion, I had learned the various arts of thievery. As a child,  I had crept past town guards to go swimming at night in the local lake; had snatched back toys my brothers had taken from me in a fit of sibling rivalry; infiltrated areas where adults spoke of dire things children were not supposed to know. These days, my shady skills were used for more serious affairs. …Like basic survival.

Bags of grain lined the floor and shelves inside the storehouse. I could smell the different kinds even without reading their markings. I plucked up two empty bags from a nearby rack and went to the grain sack that smelled of rice. With a scoop left on the rack, I shoveled enough into my bag to last a week. Deftly I tied it and slung the rice over my shoulder and went back out into the rain.  I locked the barn again. With luck, the villagers would never even notice what really had happened.

My mouth watered at what I knew would come next. My claws extended in anticipation as I stalked toward the hen house, the empty bag I held in my other hand swayed like an unfulfilled promise with the motion of my arm. Inside the little shack, the hens clucked and tutted. They probably sensed my intentions.

I went to the locked door and meant to open it, as I had done at the food store. But there was a gasp, barely audible over the rain, that made me halt in my actions.

With bared teeth I whirled around, arms up and crouched low, ready to spring away. A man in a heavy cloak stared at me, his face hidden by the dark of his hood.

What was he doing?

No one was supposed to be out. No one. Yet, there was my unhap. I had shifted in order to sneak better, to use my claws, to see better in the dark…but my new form made hunger my master, and my distraction coupled with the rain had prevented me from noticing anyone was near. He could’ve been out to search for something precious he lost, maybe to fetch a tool he needed inside, or to double check that the hen house was properly locked. No matter what the reason was, I knew…

I had to run.

My clawed feet dug deep into the mud, and I tore off into a panicked run. I vaulted over the wooden fence. Behind, I could hear the man let out a hoarse yell as he slopped through the mud to get help. Inside me, the animal half of my soul growled low at the denial of meat. In the state I was in, my human nature still reigned supreme, but I could better hear the discontent of the feline beast within me. She was not a brave or ferocious warrior…but she was hungry, and well aware that the man could’ve been taken care of with a powerful swipe from our paws.

I wasn’t prepared for that.

I used my speed and agility to get me to the forest beyond Toah. I was on the other side of the village and would need to sneak my way back to the berry bush where I had left my other things. When I was deep enough in that I felt safe, I shifted back. Maintaining the waxing crescent form for a long period of time required a strong will. Without it, I would shift to my full form. I needed to keep quiet and focused—I needed to revert back to my “sapien” form.

The change back hurt just as much as it did the other way. I felt spent and nauseous, my limbs rebelling against me as I tried to rise to my feet. At first I only fell. The bag of grain I had spilled onto the wet earth. Normally after a shift, I would rest, fatigued.  Did I run far enough ahead that I could afford a few seconds to catch my breath?  No, I could not stop.

I forced myself up again, my body wet and my limbs feeble. I tried to keep steady as my vision lurched and I careened further into the forest.

I seemed to go on for some time, in a daze, trying to find a place that smelled of safety and comfort…but there was no such place. Try as I might, the angry call of those I wronged chased me quick and fierce like a monster all its own.

I plunged further into the darkness.


Forward to Chapter 1.2

Chapter 1.3

NYX____________________________

I was dead.

Dead.

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Or on my way to it. Being cleaved in half was synonymous with my demise, I thought. If I were to look up my end like it were an idiom in a scholar’s text, I was certain I’d find, “To be axed; To be hacked; To be chopped, etc.” Fear charged through me quick, like a viper strike. This was not as I had felt before. That was a stumbling, ignorant fear of the consequences. This, however, was fear for my life.

Aelurus, if I had fur, I’d have been a round ridiculous thing right then.

It made me angry too, I was surprised to find. I was cornered…by farmers. A fat thick man who probably never swung that damned axe on his own at home was about to take the sharp edge of it and whack it into my brain. That was unfair. I imagined something a little more…dignified. As dignified a way to go as anyone in my position—rueful as it were—could hope to have. Maybe dragged to death by a soldier’s horse, or torn to pieces by werewolves, or crushed beneath a glacial avalanche…during summer

But to be hacked to death by a peasant over grain and some scared hens?

The great oaf in question grinned victoriously amid the folds of his sweaty face. I was surprised he kept pace with the others. He wheezed and rasped as he tensed his arms, prepared to swing down the axe. I stood precariously at the edge of the plateau, aware of the other men that stood behind the fat farmer, blocking my only escape. My last hope, it seemed was to—

But that idea never finished.

I sailed through the air, and my wet hair whipped out a trail of rainwater as I spun right over the edge of the plateau. The fat farmer let out a squawk of surprise—as did I. I crashed into the Earth at a funny angle, and the breath rushed from my lungs. I tumbled like a rag doll down yet another slope, this one steeper than the one I had descended when heading to Toah. So steep, that I may as well have been falling through air. I burst through bushes in an explosion of leaves, and felt my limbs painfully clip tree trunks as I continued to roll. Finally, I came to the end of the slope and stopped face down.

Ye gods.

Everything hurt. My eyes rolled in their sockets and I tried to focus my gaze to make the world stop spinning. I spat the leaves and dirt out of my mouth and turned my head away from the ground only to see an arrow had been shot through my collar. I stared. It had narrowly missed my neck had gone completely through the fabric. The force of the arrow hitting must have been what sent me over the edge. Did one of the of farmers fire it? I tried to move to remove it, but screamed when I found my left shoulder was dislocated.

Therians, the species my race belonged to, had a heightened rate of healing, but for this I was going to have to do it myself.

With a grimace I rolled onto my back, in the opposite direction the side the arrow was on, and with my other hand, bent my dislocated arm. I laid it on my stomach; then with several quick breaths shoved my left arm upward at the elbow, using all the strength given to me by the One Goddess. It popped back in. No, that wasn’t the proper way to do it, in case you’re wondering—but I was on my own, with men after me—and at any rate, therians could take a lot and still walk away fine.

But to be honest, the pain still made me want to pass out.

Weakly, I snapped the arrow shaft and reached back behind my collar to grab the arrowhead. I stared at it. Pewter. I let my hand fall against my chest. My body felt cold. The damp ground made my clothes wet. My face, hands, and feet itched. They had been slashed and cut, but were all ready scabbing over.

I gazed upward at the forest canopy and imagined what it would be like if moonlight shined through. Cool, bless-ed moonlight. I imagined its silver kiss on my weary skin, where I could indulge in the idea that Aelurus would take pity on her wayward daughter. My eyes started to drift shut. This damp, cold place, where drops of water pelted my sham of a body was not something I cared to stay conscious in anymore…

Then someone lifted me up. My eyes opened blearily. I was thrown over a shoulder—an uncomfortable one that dug into my gut. The feeling made me alert again. I stared down at the ground as it steadily retreated from me. I could hardly believe it. I was going up.

My mind took a second to register the grunts coming from the person carrying me. I looked at their back and noted the curves, the criss and cross of thick woven strings through the back of a bustier, the tight-fitted leather pants that griped with the movement of determined legs…

Was a woman carrying me?

…Up a tree?

I squirmed, suddenly worried I was being spirited away by some lunatic who had drank one too many enchanted potions. My shoulder still hurt, but I didn’t want to be in the hands of someone else. My protests turned to all-out struggles when the person didn’t release me.

The person, whoever they were, only gripped me tighter and said, “Idiot. Keep still. I’m saving you.”

I didn’t listen. I took my uninjured arm and struck my elbow hard against the back of the woman’s head. She sighed, but it seemed more like she were hissing through gritted teeth.

Then she shrugged me off.

By that time, we were at least twenty feet up a great old oak. As I fell through the air and saw how far I was from the ground, I thought blithely, “Wow. She’s a fast climber.” Then my fall stopped. My body jerked and I winced at the pain that shot through my still-injured shoulder. I could feel an iron grip close around my right ankle. I looked up in a daze.

Past the length of my body, I could see an auburn haired woman with light eyes smirk down at me. She held onto a piece of rope that was tied to a thick branch not far up. “Just kidding,” she said. Her voice was melodic and like steel…just as the instruments to the south of Fanaea.

“Now hold still,” the woman continued in a quieter voice, “And keep quiet. If you haven’t noticed, your friends are coming.”

I blinked up at her and slowly looked back toward the ground. I strained my ears. Sure enough, I could hear the farmers approaching, hear them grumbling amongst themselves sullenly. Not very subtle, these men, but I was so focused on the woman I hadn’t even noticed their approach.

They came closer and closer. If I was dizzy before, I was even more so now. My head felt so thick with blood and pressure that I thought it would explode. One man came beneath the tree, and his eyes swept around him. My heart thumped. He looked up.

The woman’s grip on my ankle tightened, if possible. She didn’t need to warn me. The feline within knew better than to move when in hiding, even if a threat looked her dead on. I froze, even holding my breath, and closed my eyes.

It seemed to pay off. He passed on.

After another five minutes, the men conferred somewhere nearby.

“She’s gone.” One said insipidly.

“We’ll never find her in this dark!” Another complained.

“What was it that hit her? Was it an arrow?”

“Do you think she died?”

“If so, we have no business left out here…”

“But that beast must be dealt with! She threatened our livelihood!” Ah. The fat farmer.

“It was just some grain, Humphrey. Hardly worth catching a cold over.”

“And if she comes back?”

“Didn’t you see her? That Ailuran was afraid. She won’t be coming back so soon.” Not ever, if possible.

“Let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s. My unmentionables are frozen…”

When their footsteps faded away, I let out a sigh of relief. Then I felt myself rise. “Swing and grab that branch there.” the woman said above me. Her bicep bulged from the effort it took to hold me up the way she was. I looked around and saw the branch she spoke of.

Warily I looked at her. “You won’t drop me?” I asked, my words thick from the strain of being upside-down.

The woman seemed amused by this idea. “You think I would?” she asked in a jocular tone. “And even if I did, don’t cats always land on their feet?”

I wasn’t really in the mood for jokes.

Her other hand was occupied so she couldn’t continue climbing until she wasn’t holding me anymore. If I didn’t try and grab hold of something, she’d eventually have to drop me.

Carefully, I stuck the arrowhead I was holding in my teeth, then I swung, holding out both my arms when I came close to the branch. The pain in my left shoulder had dulled to a dim ache. I grabbed hold of the branch, and the woman let go of me. My fingernails scraped against the bark for a frightening moment before finding purchase. I managed to pull myself up further and swing my left leg over. Exhausted, I took the arrowhead from my mouth. I was glad to have the blood rushing from my head. My eyes fell shut against the odd feeling this caused.

I was so tired…

Then I felt the branch quiver and my eyes opened to see the woman sitting across from me, closer to the trunk, her gaze a little too focused for my liking. She toyed with the rope in her hands, twirling the end of it around her long finger. My shoulders bunched like hackles raised, and I bowed my head with a guarded look. If I were a cat, my ears would have turned and flattened and my tail would have been lashing. “Who are you…” I asked in a low voice.

“Elmiryn,” the woman said with a wide smile. Strands fell from her long braid and framed her angular face. She seemed like a maiden…but she wasn’t. I breathed in deep. She smelled of steel—metallic and sharp. She didn’t have her weapon, but she may have hidden it somewhere in order to deal with me. I could also tell she had spent some time in the forests as I could smell the maple, bay, and oak trees on her skin like the scents were a natural part of her. The Earth was a part of her.

It was almost like she were wild.

“For an Ailuran, you’re awfully weird.” Elmiryn said, humor in her voice as she leaned back against the tree. Her long mouth shaped into a smile that teased.

I glared at her. “What would your kind know about that?”

“I’ve fought Ailurans. They’re prideful. Fiery. They would never kneel before farmers.”

I dug my fingers into the bark and leaned forward. “And what sort of warrior are you? Firing arrows at helpless creatures the way you did?”

“You’re hardly helpless,” the woman returned with raised brow. She sighed and placed her hands behind her head. She was being rather lax around me…or did she just think she could take me on? “I’m a good shot,” Elmiryn continued, “I saw my opportunity to help you and took it. If I didn’t send you over the plateau, what would you have done?” There was something smug about her tone, and it irritated me.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t even remember what my original plan had been. “No human makes that kind of shot in the dark. I just don’t believe you.” I snarled. I sat back roughly with arms crossed and turned my gaze elsewhere. This was body language. The cat inside of me was saying, “I dislike you. I don’t want to bother with you right now. You are beneath me.” But without the tail and ears this was hard to convey. She wouldn’t have picked up on it anyway.

Her voice was quiet when she asked, “You don’t believe I saved your life, or you don’t believe I’m that good a shot?”

I pursed my lips and found I could only glare at her from the corner of my eye. I DIDN’T believe she was that good a shot…but I DID believe she had saved my life, however unintentional. The question was, what would she do now? “You must’ve had a reason to want to bother with someone like me,” I said.

The woman shrugged, her eyes still gazing intensely at me. “I was curious.” her smile turned into a smirk.

“About what?”

“Why didn’t you defend yourself?”

I looked away. “That’s a silly question. I was outnumbered.”

“Therians are naturally stronger than humans,” she countered. Something about her voice turned hard. “They’re one of the strongest creatures on this Earth. Any idiot knows that. You could’ve held your own if you wanted to. Maybe even shifted just your hands to claws to keep them at bay…but you didn’t. Why not?”

I looked at her again, my eyes wide with incredulity. “Because I’m not like that, alright? Where do you get off speaking like you know everything!?” Why did any of this matter to her?

“Because that’s just how I understand things,” She responded. Her voice returned to its curious humor. “You can’t shame me for working off my prejudices–everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they wanna keep from getting overwhelmed. Heck, you’re doing it too. You don’t trust me, because in your experience, people like me must’ve done you or the people around you harm. That’s fine. But look,” she patted the tree branch and smiled jauntily. “Here we both are. You aren’t running away, and I’m not hurting you. Between the both of us is a need to understand. So let’s get to it. The first question is–and I get to ask since I saved your life, and all–is why didn’t you fight?”

I pursed my lips and ruffled my hair with both hands. My nose itched and on the tip of my tongue danced a curse, but this woman’s logic, as frustrating as it was, made it difficult to argue. Sullenly I muttered, “I can’t fight.”

Elmiryn leaned forward and tilted her head. “Can’t or won’t?” she asked. She came near enough that I could feel her breath against my skin. I leaned back, and my body turned rigid. Who was she to go invading my space? My throat tensed and my fingers clenched. The beast in me didn’t like being challenged like that.

After a long moment I managed to bite out, “I can’t.” Then I took several deep breaths to keep my other half, my feline self, in check. This woman seemed to push my buttons on purpose.

When I regained calm, I bowed my head. The anger drained away, replaced instead by shame. “I don’t know how to fight at all…” I sighed.

The warrior remained quiet. Then came four words that would change my life forever. As cliche as that sounds, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment for as long as I live.

“I’m on a quest,” She said in a candid chirp that sounded completely incongruous with the message that entered my ears. “An evil demon by the name of Meznik has been terrorizing the kingdoms and I mean to stop him.” She shifted on the tree branch a little, as if just mentioning her task made her anxious to complete it.

I looked up at her, bewildered.

…No, more like flabbergasted.

What did this have to do with me? And who went around announcing that sort of information in the first place?

She continued, and her smirk returned in a triumphant tilt. “It gets awfully boring on my own…so I just had an idea. Why don’t you come with me?”

Shocked silence was the only response I could give.

Elmiryn gestured at me vaguely with her chin, “You’re an Ailuran in need of food and protection, and I’m a warrior in need of some company. Who knows? Maybe I could teach you a few things?”

I shook my head, my face puckered in some expression that resembled disbelief. “You want me to go with you?? To…to seek out trouble and place myself in danger while you go around chasing astral demons!? Have you lost your mind? I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to be in the position to get myself killed! I just want to live my life in peace!” My tone was almost panicked. She couldn’t be serious?

“Oh.” was the woman’s only response. She sagged, deflated. Somehow, I didn’t trust this switch in demeanor. I gazed at her with apprehension. Elmiryn blew some strands out of her eyes and shrugged one shoulder. “Okay. That’s perfectly fine. You’re entitled to do as you wish. I just thought this might be a good way for you to repay your…ah…” and here she paused, smiling cattily, “Debt to me. For saving your life.”

“Debt?” I echoed, incredulous. But a part of me squirmed…

Those light eyes—frigid cerulean—fell on my face and I shrank unconsciously. “I was just under the impression that Ailurans honored all debts,” she said in an affable tone that belied her fierce gaze.

My face fell. She was right, of course. My people were honorable, above all things. I may have been a coward, but I was an honorable coward, damn all my luck…

I slumped, defeated. “You…You won’t expect me to help you, will you? I’m not mincing my words when I say I cannot fight, I cannot defend myself, and I have no courage whatsoever.” I said this in a tired voice. What was I going to do? Refuse? There was something peculiar about this woman warrior. Her simple gaze was enough to make me nervous.

“Now let’s not get so hasty.” She said with a raised a hand. “I’ve seen bravery come from the most unlikely places.”

I smiled at her for the first time. It was a sad smile. “Not here, I assure you.” I rubbed at my face and sighed. “I should also let you know…I’m an outcast. I’ve been…been Marked.”

Marked. I could barely get the word out of my throat.

Ailurans dealt with criminals two ways: death…or the Mark. Death was preferable. The Mark was a curse—a brand burned into the criminal’s skin by magic. The design of it varied on the crime itself. The curse that was set upon the individual made shape-shifting an agony, and prevented them from stepping into any Ailuran establishments—like temples. Others of my kind could sense it on me. They hated me for it. Other therians and other species tended to target outcasts like me, because they were such easy prey—also because they knew that the Mark was a serious punishment, and anyone with it could be a murderer. A distasteful attribute in any culture.

“Did you kill anyone?” Elmiryn asked, her gaze probing. I looked at her, startled. It seemed to be the only question that mattered to her. Did she believe then, that everything else was tolerable so long as I answered her correctly? If I told her…If I said to her…

“No.” When I spoke it was with a frail voice—but I gazed straight into her eyes. Like daring a fearsome monster to attack. “I’ve never killed a person—not in my entire life. …Directly or indirectly.” I added the last part hastily. Conspirators were apt to getting the Mark as well.

She nodded, her face suddenly somber.

Despite myself, I was surprised to find that I desperately wanted her to accept me.

Then, Elmiryn smiled, a long satisfied smile. “Well, I don’t really see what the problem is then.” she said.

I smiled back at her uncertainly.

What had I gotten myself into?

“What’s your name?” She asked, tossing the end of the rope she still held so that it stretched out to the bottom of the tree.

I hesitated a moment before answering.

“Nyx.” I said in a small voice.

She held out her hand to me and smiled, this time more warmly. “Give me your hand, Nyx…it’s time to rest. We’ve got a lot of walking to do tomorrow.” The rain had almost completely stopped. Water no longer poured through the canopy—instead there was a light mist that tickled my nose. Did she have a camp? Blankets? Some place dry and warm to sleep? And what about my boots and other belongings?

I swallowed and gave her my hand.

Elmiryn didn’t move. Instead, she squeezed and looked at me quizzically. “Can I ask just one more thing, though?”

I blinked at her. “I…suppose,” I said slowly.

She gestured at me with her chin, her eyes on my head as her lip curled in light disdain. “Who the hell did you pay to cut your hair?” When I didn’t answer right away, she shrugged one shoulder and offered off-hand, “I can beat them up if you’d like.”

I gave her a deadpan look.

Aelurus, just what in the heavens had I gotten myself into?


Back to Chapter 1.2 | Forward to Chapter 2.1

Chapter 2.1

NYX____________________________

She split the rays of the early suns with her well-cut figure–hands planted at the base of her hips and her shoulders squared against trailing storm winds. She had taken her hair out of her braid, and the auburn locks lifted with the breeze. With my arms hugged around my head, I peeked with sleep-winked eyes from beneath them.  Her shadowed face split into a grin.

“Morning,” Elmiryn said.

I groaned and curled in on myself, hiding my face. “Already?” I whined in a low voice.

The woman warrior sighed and I heard her walk a few steps away, probably to put on her bracers and shoulder guards. “Wake up, Nyx. I won’t have you wasting precious daylight, y’know. If I’ve gotta drag you, I’ll drag you.”

I stiffened at this declaration and jerked myself upright, my eyes trained on her as she adjusted her gloves.

“Besides,” Elmiryn added as she went to pick up her other things, laid neatly out on a blanket. “We need to get out of here before the farmers wake up. They might still feel the need to look around the area with daylight on their side. I don’t want to hurt peasants if I don’t have to.”

She tightened the straps of her shoulder guards and gave them a firm pat to see if they were well secure. Satisfied, she looked back at me and quirked an eyebrow. “Well? Come on. We need to get your things. I imagine you don’t want to walk around barefoot all day.”

I rubbed at my eyes and stood, somewhat unsteady, and gave my shoulders a roll. The arm I dislocated didn’t ache anymore. I picked up the arrowhead I had saved from the night before, which I placed near my head while I slept, and held it between my teeth as I grabbed the blanket Elmiryn had let me use.  With a sigh, I folded it awkwardly.

I snuck some looks at my new companion as I did so. She was strapping a belt around her waist, with two blades holstered on it–one a six-inch knife on her right hip, the other a long sword.  From what I could tell from the shape of the sheath, the blade wasn’t very pointed–that told me it was a sword meant to be swung, not to stab with.  It also had a red-jeweled pommel and a gilded cross guard–the crescent moon variety that faced the direction of the blade, of which a phrase was etched in an ancient language.  My mind tickled with recognition at the design, and I paused in my actions with a frown.

Elmiryn caught me staring and followed my line of sight. She smirked. “I got it through combat,” she said, bending to pick up her own blanket. “I liked the sword, so I took it. The other guy didn’t need it anymore.” She looked at me again, an edge to her gaze, as if daring me to question further.

I blinked at her, and looked down. She thought I knew where the sword was from. I wanted to ask her, but feared what would happen if I did. I handed her the blanket and she took it, along with hers, and placed it in her satchel. She came up again and turned, tossing me an apple.

Startled, I caught it.

“That’ll have to do until we find some food later. Right now, let’s go get your things before the village wakes up.” she said. Elmiryn shouldered her bow and quiver, grabbed her satchel, and began walking away.

I looked at the apple, then her. I rubbed it on my gambeson–trying not to think about the futility of that action considering the cleanliness of my clothes in general–and bit into it. Juice dribbled down my chin. After a few quick strides I had caught up with the woman and we walked in silence.

Dawn. A creeping warmth on a cold land. I thought about these things when dream and reality hazed together in my head. Light was peeking past the hills and splintered through the leaves in shafts. Mist carried the rosen glow about our shadowed forms as we marched over the damp leaves and tender roots. My breath came in light fogs before my face. The hark of a bluejay made my ears perk. It felt incongruous in this sleepy setting.

I didn’t walk quite alongside Elmiryn, but rather, just a little behind. I didn’t want her to think I was calling myself her equal. She was a warrior, a strong one, and had clearly experienced enough in life to walk as surely as she did now. But of what class was she? Was she a noble on a quest for enlightenment? Was she a soldier following orders from her king? Was she a simple peasant, a common person, making a name for herself through brave deeds and other such heroic acts in the hopes that she could escape the banality of normal existence?

…Was…Was she like me?

This last thought brought me no comfort. Instead, it made me nervous. The apple in my hand dwindled like my certainty as I gazed at Elmiryn’s back. I didn’t want to mingle with thieves, murderers, or charlatans. I stole, yes, but only from those who could afford a loss. I only resorted to theft out of necessity, not greed.

I told myself these things often at night.

I scrunched up my nose and frowned down at my apple. I had finished it–even eaten half of the core. I tossed the thing away, thinking firmly, “And what would an evil person be doing saving kittens and fighting demons?”

The answer eluded me.

“Hey, Nyx. As much as I like having you staring at me like the answer to life is hidden in my backside, d’ya think maybe you could lead? You’re the only one who knows where your things are.”

I gave a start and looked at Elmiryn, who stared back at me with an expectant look. Blushing, I mumbled an apology and went ahead of her.

My back tensed as I felt her gaze on my back. Did she have to stare? …Oh, well I suppose it was only fair. I peeked a glance at her over my shoulder and our eyes met. Nervously I looked forward again. Elmiryn started to hum. I felt like she were teasing me for my skittishness.  The tune was a curious one, and at first I was a little perplexed that someone like her would know it.

It was too innocent and frivolous to come from such a source, I thought with pursed lips.  I hadn’t even seen the woman draw her sword, and I was certain she could incapacitate me permanently with one strike–TWO if she wanted to draw it out with some flourish. But she had as much reason to trust me as I did her…right?

“Your clothes are enchanted, aren’t they?” Elmiryn asked me suddenly.

I looked back at her, then turned forward to properly duck beneath a low branch of a bay tree. “Yes,” I said.

My mother’s clothes were specially made by an Ailuran tailor, who knew the spell roughly known as, “Second Skin.”  It allowed a therian to shift into any form, and not tear or lose his clothes in the process.  Whatever shape I took, my clothes would fit to my body perfectly.  It was practically a necessity in therian cultures to have clothes blessed with Second Skin.  The lives of shape-shifters had many risks and dangers, the kind that other sentient creatures couldn’t possibly comprehend.  They were expensive, and in the case of the poor, were treasured items that were passed down from generation to generation.

I thought of my mother, and felt a surge of audacity channel through my veins.  “You put a hole through my gambeson,” I said in a churlish tone.

…The fact that Elmiryn saved my life by doing so, not withstanding.

I could hear the smile in her voice when she asked, “Well, considering the state of your clothes I didn’t really think a–”

“It belonged to my dead mother.” The amount of force I put into those words surprised even me. I stopped and glared back at Elmiryn, my hands clenched at my sides. Inside my chest, my heart pounded hard against my ribs–but my fear was overshadowed by anger.  There were certain things that I  just couldn’t ignore.

To my astonishment, Elmiryn actually winced at my harsh look. Then her face went blank and she looked away. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you…or your mother.” She rubbed the back of her neck and gestured at me with her chin–a habit of hers it seemed. “I’m no tailor, but I’ve some needle and thread with me. I can sew it up if you’d like. That won’t mess with the enchantment, right?”

I stared at her. She knew how to sew? I guess even warriors cared whether their clothes were torn… “It won’t.” I said. I really was establishing myself as quite the lengthy speaker, wasn’t I?

She smiled and nodded. “Okay, then.”

I gazed at her for a moment longer, then continued walking. I felt more certain of myself somehow, and the tension in my back eased.

…Evil people don’t care about dead mothers.


Back to Chapter 1.3 | Forward to Chapter 2.2

Chapter 2.2

“Oh, Heaven, it is mysterious, it is awful to consider that we not only carry a future Ghost within us; but are, in very deed, Ghosts!” – Thomas Carlyle

NYX____________________________

We tromped through the tall grass, and blades of moisture and morning chill clung to our flanks. I had my things again–my boots were securely fastened, my small bag of trinkets was pulled nervously on both shoulders by the thin straps of cloth I had stitched in myself.  I had added to my collection the pewter arrowhead Elmiryn had shot at me.  I considered throwing it away.  The memory of that moment tied my guts into knots, and I preferred having my insides settled and ordered.

Then it occured to me that the little item was special.  There were the obvious reasons of course:  the arrowhead had saved my life in a sensational manner, the little item marked the first time in over a year that I found myself in the company of anyone, and as superficial as it sounded, it just plain looked interesting.  But beyond those lines of reasoning rested other things.  They were mystifying, and a little unsettling.  If I thought about it long enough, I was certain I could figure out the greater motives that guided me to keep the trinket…but I didn’t want to.  It tied my guts into knots.

There was a heaviness in the silence around us as Elmiryn and I walked.

Questions, like the feeble fragments of startled dandelions, drifted between me and that straightened back before me, lost and at the mercy of the cool wind that upped and carried them elsewhere. Elmiryn intimidated me still, despite my assertions regarding her lack of inherent evil or intent to do harm, for there rested something haphazard and unsettling in her regard to life and peace and will. Pale irises beneath the morning suns lit up aspirations that both bewildered and concerned me.

At first I felt afraid of the possible situations I may be cast therein; but then (I think it was just a little past Toah and the place we bivouacked, near the area where the poison oak and buck eye trees seemed weaved passionately together) I tried to imagine what Elmiryn had faced herself, alone, and felt my stomach twist in that loathsome way. With a dry swallow, I let my mind wander to less mystifying things.

Somehow my existence–lonely and dangerous and desperate–had been something I deemed only for myself, as if my dry petite hand could lay a claim to a way of living and shun all others skittering towards it. It seemed too cruel a thing to allow such a life for anyone else but me. As melodramatic as it sounded, I wanted that pain to be mine alone.

But beyond my unreasonable sentiments, I sensed something further amiss, and it was that untouchable something that kept drawing my gaze to the tall woman warrior, even as we stopped at the line of trees where the grassy hills and dense wood had given way to a rocky ravine and light mists of water. Elmiryn tilted her head back, her eyes turning lidded as she took in a deep intake of breath. She sighed, in what appeared to be satisfaction, and turned to look at me with an upbeat grin. “This leads to a lake. That stream we saw before must empty out there too.” she said.

I shrugged, looking at her. “You mean to fish?” I asked.

Elmiryn gazed back at me and placed her free hand on her hip. “You aren’t going to help me?”

Startled, I mumbled something along the lines of, “I don’t think I can.”

“You hate water.” She said flatly.

I glared at her.  “No.”

“So what’s the problem? You’re really going to tell me you can’t fish either? Can you even hunt at all?”

My cheeks turned red, and I crossed my arms and slouched. “If I could, do you think I’d be stealing from farmers?”

Elmiryn shrugged. “Point taken,” she conceded.

Then she put her arm around my shoulders and steered me forward, parallel with the ravine, and made a tutting sound befitting a long-suffering mother. “I guess I’ll have to teach you then,” she sighed.

“You don’t have to teach me everything, y’know…” I said contumaciously, and my eyes flashed up through my uneven bangs even as I felt her laughter reverberate through me. For some reason this made my blush worse; I could feel the heat spread from my face and creep down my neck and back like fire. Stiffly, I shrugged out of her touch and tromped ahead.  My bag bounced and jangled behind me.

Elmiryn continued to walk at a more leisurely pace, silent at first, before she started to hum a song.  This was different from before.  It was the same in nature, but more complex.  A melody of humor and frivolity that’s arrangement beckoned at my tense back like a playful call.

Odd as it sounds, it made my ears warm.

I glanced back at her, wary, but Elmiryn didn’t quit.  She only smiled when she saw that she had my attention.  Before I knew it, I had slowed my pace so that I walked along side her again.  The tension had sloughed off like an extra weight, and I sucked lightly at my teeth to keep the corners of my mouth from turning upward.

Earlier I had thought it bizarre that someone like Elmiryn would know such jocose music.  Now I felt it only too appropriate.

The ravine marked an invisible line along the land, so that beyond it a sparse collection of thick old trees and many wild bushes and weeds ruled–not a dense army of any one thing. Out there, it felt like there was more space, and light came easier to the ruddy Earth. Elmiryn stopped humming and the only thing that seemed to fill the silence was the conversation of leaves and the giggles and hisses from the stream of water carving through the rock.

Ahead, I thought saw the familiar glint of a body of water.

“Y’know, I guess it’d be good to try and get to know each other, seeing as how we’re going to be stuck together for a while.” Elmiryn said suddenly, as if the thought had just occurred to her.

I gazed at her sidelong, but didn’t say anything.

Bemusedly, she looked my way. “Don’t you think so, Nyx?”

“Yes.” I said, after a moment of thought.

The taller woman smiled, almost languidly. “Good to know you agree.”

But the conversation, if one could even call it that, stopped there, and I grew nervous wondering what it was Elmiryn was thinking.

The ravine fed into a fair-sized lake where large bugs skimmed and danced across the surface. It was large enough that if two people stood on either side of it, they’d have to really shout to be heard. The center of it was dark, and around the shallower waters tall slim plants I couldn’t name stood proud over the surface. The smells of algae and fish tickled my nose. Elmiryn went ahead of me and sat down on the rocky shore, where she began to take her boots off. I went to her and sat, setting my bag on the dry log next to me.

“How are you going to fish?” I asked. I hugged my knees when Elmiryn glanced at me, and for some reason my blush came back.

With both boots off and her pants rolled up, the woman stood.  Her hair draped free over her shoulders as she stooped to pick up her bow and arrows. She gave a grin as if that were all the answer I needed, and then proceeded out into the water. When the lake was up to her knees, she readied an arrow and stood still, only her head moving as she searched for any sign of fish.

She didn’t fire a shot for a long time.

My stomach growled at me from beneath my gambeson and I slouched, grumpy, as I watched her.  With the time passed, I found myself emboldened enough by boredom to ask her a question. “Are you one of those folk heroes who are altruistic just for the sake of it, or was there an impetus to this quest of yours?”

Elmiryn paused in her quiet hunt to slowly turn and squint at me from over her shoulder. “Say what?

I resisted rolling my eyes.  At the risk of sounding pompous, I really hated having to simplify things I said.  “What I was asking was: why are you after this…um…demon? Meznik, you said he was called. Are you doing it for yourself or some noble sense of duty?”

Elmiryn shook her head, and a dubious grin spread her lips. “My, my. You’re quite the speaker now!”

“I’m asking a fair question, I think.”

She sighed and swiped at her nose with her arm. Her gaze had fallen downward, and I got the impression she was focusing on her reflection in the water.

“He cursed me,” she finally said. Her normally melodic voice became somewhat subdued, and I strained to hear her. “It’s hard to explain to you.”

“You’re the one who said we should talk and get to know each other.”

“I know.”

“So why not try and explain to me this curse of yours? Maybe it’ll affect me.”

“No. It has nothing to do with you. Not really.”

“Then what is it?”

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed and I saw her ready her bow again. Some part of me tensed, afraid that I was being too pushy about the topic. But when she suddenly let loose the arrow, I realized that she had only seen a fish.  Blood appeared through the murk, and soon I saw the fish float to the surface. “Verisimilitude. Know what that means?” she asked.

I frowned at her.  I tried not to sound surprised when I answered. “Something that has merely the appearance of truth.”

“Hey, you’re pretty good at my language!” She exclaimed, with a brief smile in my direction. A warmth blossomed in my chest, and I barely was able to conceal my pleased grin. So maybe she wasn’t beyond appreciating a good education.

Elmiryn stooped and grabbed the fish, then pulled the arrow out of its side. When she turned to me and tossed the fish onto the rocks, she smiled sadly. “That is my curse, Nyx. Verisimilitude. …Or something.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”

The fish slapped against the smooth rocks, blood and guts coming out of its wound, and my eyes went wide with delight at the sight of it. Though I preferred cooking my meat to some degree, fish I had no problem with eating raw.

“Go ahead and start cutting the fish,” Elmiryn said, “My knife is there with my bag. Don’t start eating without me though.”

I smiled eagerly, and the conversation we were having fled my mind as I washed my hands and set to work. But soon the question came bubbling up my throat as I pondered over what the other woman said. “How is verisimilitude your curse?” I asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Another strike. Another fish. Elmiryn paused to toss it back toward me before she shrugged and said, “Every sentient creature has the ability to believe in themselves and their experiences. He took that away from me. Among other things. I mean to get it back.”

“You don’t…believe in yourself?” I said, pausing in my actions to give Elmiryn a nonplussed look.

She laughed and shook her head. “Not like self-confidence. Something more important than that…” she wiped her face on her arm again and looked skyward, tapping the end of an arrow on her chin. “What I mean is the ability to believe that you impress on the world something…uh…lasting, I guess.  Like memories.  We all have memories–some more vivid than others, but memories all the same.  Then there’s the feeling that we’re noticed and acknowledged.  A sense of…um…” Elmiryn looked at me uncertainly, and I stopped what I was doing all together, transfixed.  She pointed at herself and squinted her eyes.  “It’s like when you know who you are and what you’re place in the world is.”

“A sense of self?” I offered with an awkward shrug.

Elmiryn nodded.  “Yeah.  As in, you look in the mirror and you’re certain that what you’re seeing is correct.  ‘Oh look, there’s my hair, styled just the way it is supposed to be.  And the look in my eyes matches just the kind of emotion I’m feeling.  And I look just as old as I feel.’  Y’know, that sort of thing.”

I thought about it for a moment, and felt an understanding settle in.  I looked back as Elmiryn began to continue.  I got the sense she was talking less to me and more to herself.

“Meznik took away my belief of the past and therefor took away my hope for the future.” She said, arms now lowered at her sides as she stared ahead blankly. “All I have is the present moment–the current feelings and current sensations–because all in the past becomes fiction, and my passion and trust in it fades.  But even the present feels a little hollow.  So…I guess…I…I don’t feel real. I feel like all the things that make up who I am could break and give way to apathy.  I mean, why care about a world you don’t believe in anymore?” she said all this quietly, her voice almost overpowered by the sound of the water coming into the lake. It was like she just realized what her curse meant for her.

She remained quiet for what felt like a long time, and it seemed like I was supposed to say something, but I wasn’t sure what.

But suddenly Elmiryn was smiling again, and she resumed her watch for fish along the water.  There was an eagerness about her–the way her gaze roved, the tense readyness of her arms.  Her eyes were lit bright and intense by the reflection of the suns in the water. “I guess that’s why I’d like you to come with me. To be my anchor. To remind me of who I was, so that…”

I frowned at her, suddenly nervous of this responsibility I now had. “So that what?” I prompted.

The warrior fired another arrow.  The water splashed and rippled before blood billowed in a dark cloud toward the surface.

“So that I don’t turn into something else.”


Back to Chapter 2.1 | Forward to Chapter 2.3

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.”


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