Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 7.1

NYX____________________________

The stillness was disturbed only by the melancholy wind that moved the ashen ground to shift.

I was the defiler, there. The clumsy heathen, whose ragged breath and befuddled feet made a mess of things. All around me was dead. I was a perversity whose future was mirrored in the gray stunted world. My trail was marked by the clouds of ash that came up into the air. These phantoms drifted a yard or two, before they blanketed the corpses of animals. Milky eyes glared at me accusingly as I made my way.

Blood stained me. The quilted weave of my gambeson was tainted, the rips that marred it like wounds themselves. I could even feel a breeze in my left boot. The sole had begun to separate at the tip.

My muscles loathed me, and quivered beneath the strains of my commands. When exhaustion sought to overcome me, I would kneel in the desolation and try to catch my breath. My eyes tunneled, and sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. In my arms, Elmiryn’s lanky body barely seemed to fit into my grip. Her head was cradled against my bosom, eyes shut and her breath faint. Her eyelids were red and raw, and her skin an evil complexion that suggested something unnatural.  I thought I felt a film on the tips of fingers when I shifted her in my embrace, but my attention was divided and the feeling too faint.

All the while, in my head, things that were not mine prodded me.  In realities separate from anything I had known, I felt the fires of the forge and tamed metal; I breathed cool waters, and made communion with the land; I drank deep poisons of debauchery, and tasted flesh without discretion.  Some of these things, these memories, were Elmiryn’s, I knew…but I made an effort not to pay it any mind.  I pushed these images away as best I could, forcing my own recollections to the forefront of my mind–primarily that of the recent days.  Those other memories, the shadowy plays that performed in my head in aberrance, were a threat to me and thus revolted me.

My head seemed barely capable handling two personas, how could I stand the memories of others, however feeble?

Every time I felt myself too enthralled with a particular thought, every time I felt myself come too close to empathizing with something foreign, I moved. Forced myself forward in sloppy standard, like a drunkard startled out of his settlement. It worked, to some degree. I didn’t drown in what wasn’t mine. But still, things slipped through, and I kept returning to nagging details…

Elmiryn was a soldier of the Fiamman army. That armor, those weapons, the architecture of the buildings I saw in her past. It was unmistakable. She had been an agent of the imperialist kingdom and committed adultery.

That alone was hardly startling.  Elmiryn seemed the sort for it, and I imagined she would have had no qualms to confessing that sort of thing in a crowded room. The fact that made my hands curl, that made my jaw tight and my mouth dry…was that she had done it with a princess. A serious offense, even in my culture, where promiscuity was culled only by the desire to exact power.

My chest tightened when the abstruse maelstrom of feelings settled heavy in my gut.

Elmiryn had once told me she had been a fool in the past. I now believed her.

…But I was grateful for the choices she made.  I could admit this only in my head, as it repelled me in many ways to congratulate her for her poor choices.  In life, just as the stories I read, I saw the world ripple in a reactionary chain that ended in our current moments.  There were times when the exact source of such end truths were shrouded by confusion or concealment, but the answer was as tangible as the first seed planted into the earth.  It isn’t so much that I believe in fate…but the certainty of variables, too numerous to name.

The bottom line was this:  If Elmiryn hadn’t made the choices she had, we would never have met, and she never would have saved me.  I would be dead.  Or alone and listless.  An equal, if not, worse fate.

It was her need for self-gratification that restored some sense of meaning in my life.  Funny that.

This dizzying rejoinder to my proprietous criticism made me not want to think anymore. Before I knew it, cobbles were once again beneath my feet, and I made fast cuts through the shadows of buildings.

At some point, I became aware that I was staring deep into the grain of the main doors of the tavern. As if on cue, my knees buckled then, and the other things I had been carrying–Elmiryn’s bow and scabbard–fell to the ground. Elmiryn’s limp body almost tumbled out of my grasp.  I clung to her, reminded of a doll I once hugged tight when frightened.

I looked up towards the large paned windows, and saw the faces of many peer down at me. I froze, momentarily forgetting what I was even doing there. Then I remembered, and made to speak.

“…help…” My voice was reedy and dry.

None of the peasants moved at first. Then the door opened and a barefoot man with a scraggly face and overgrown amber hair peered down at me from swollen-red eyes.

“Where’s Sedwick and Baldwin?” he asked in a hollow voice.

I looked up at him and blinked slowly. I forced my voice to an audible volume. It cracked as I answered, “Sedwick is with the guardian. …Baldwin…he…he didn’t make it.  But the river has been restored!  All will be well again!”

The man said nothing. A muscle in his cheek moved and he looked back at his companions, who crowded behind him in the doorway. He looked forward again, toward the sky, then down at me. “Why has no rain come? Why are the skies still gray?”

“I have something that will prove I’m telling the truth.” I reached in my pocket slowly. “The guardian gave it to me. All I need is a bucket.”

The man stared me down. It seemed an eternity before he turned and murmured something to someone behind him. A moment later a wooden bucket was dumped unceremoniously in front of me. The man crossed his arms and those behind him pushed a little to get a better view of me.

I swallowed and dropped the pebbles into the bucket, one at a time.

They hit the bottom with sharp ‘clacks’.

Then there was the sound of running water. The man and I both blinked, equally startled by the sound, and leaned forward to look down into the shadow of the bucket. It didn’t even take half a minute before water flowed over the bucket’s lips. My pants got wet around the knees.  I gazed in wonder at the magical display.

Still, the man and those behind him didn’t smile. Instead, murmurs broke out. The amber-haired leader knelt down and gestured toward the water. “Drink.” His eyes were starved and hungry, and his face had become like hard-edged stone. I quailed beneath his stare, but I did as he bid, silently praying that nothing happened to me.

I touched my lips to the flowing water, and drank. My body tingled and flushed. The sensation surprised me, and made me choke a little, but I didn’t stop. I felt lighter, warmer, stronger.  My gulps became desperate.

When I thought I’d had enough, I pulled away and looked at the man with a look of wonder. He looked at me expectantly–waiting to see if something happened.

But with the seconds that passed, his suspicion lessened. Instead, the hunger on his face intensified, and without a word or gesture, he dove at the bucket.  I cried out as a mad scramble happened. The peasants fell over themselves through the doorway, and their bodies squeezed and pressed past the wood as they gibbered like beasts.  I held Elmiryn closer to me and stood out of the way, my feet tripping over themselves in my haste.

The ground before the door was submerged beneath the clear, clean water that gushed forth. Little streams weaved through the cobbles. The peasants lapped at it, like dogs, on hands and knees and moaned at the taste of it. I knelt and shifted Elmiryn so as to free one hand. I tried to cup some water, and when I felt a little pool in my palm, I trickled it into her mouth.

My heart sunk when she didn’t respond.

When the rush had subsided, the amber-haired man approached me, his raw eyes brighter. He swallowed and looked me over once, then turned and looked over his shoulder where the adults seemed enough in control of themselves to allow the children to drink. He looked back at me.

“It’s true.” He said, voice stronger than when he first spoke. “The river has been restored.  This curse has been lifted.”

I nodded my head, my gaze shy. “Yes.”

“What’s happened to your friend?”

“I…I don’t know. The guardian said she should wake up. But I don’t know when.”

The man nodded. He turned and called out a girl’s name. A young maiden with a square face and long mousy hair stepped forward. Her eyes shone as the man’s did.

He looked back at me. “My name is Den. I was left in charge when Sedwick left. This is my daughter, Opal. She’ll take you to a room where you and your friend can stay undisturbed.” Den leaned down and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you.”

“I didn’t do much,” I mumbled. “Elmiryn was the one who risked everything.”

The man gestured toward the bucket. “I wouldn’t say that.” He nodded at Opal and walked away.

The girl, dressed in a long robin blue dress that covered everything from her arms to her neck, bowed low. I tensed and made a clumsy effort to stand. “No! Don’t do that, I’m not worth bowing to.”

Opal looked at me, startled, then straightened. She cleared her throat and made a sign for me to follow her. I did, and we entered the inn. The peasants now grabbed glasses from the bar, and I knew they were going to take some of the water to the sick upstairs.

As we made our way up the staircase, Opal slowed a little and looked at me nervously. “…Is Baldwin okay?”

At the question, I closed my eyes and bowed my head.

Her face paled a little and she seemed to pinch her mouth together. She walked faster, then, and stopped at a door halfway down the hall. “This room’s our smallest, but no one’s staying in it. I’ll clear out some of the supplies we’ve left there so you can have more room.”

I shook my head. “No, really that’s fine, you don’t have to–”

“Please,” she said as she opened the door. Her eyes were a little misty when she looked at me.

I shuffled through the doorway and mumbled my thanks. The bed was in the far right corner. Eager to free my arms, I laid Elmiryn down onto the plain blankets. When I straightened again, I could feel the blood rush through my biceps and forearms. My fingers tingled and I felt like a leaf whose only anchor to the Earth had been lost. I tumbled into the nearest chair and put my head in my hands with a shaky sigh.

A hand on my back made me look up.

“Do you need anything?” Opal asked.

I glanced at Elmiryn, then down at my clothes. I fingered the bloodied hole where Sedwick’s spear had plunged into my chest.  The memory made me shiver.

“Some new clothes would be nice…” I said in a low voice.

——–

Later, I found myself in a linen tunic with jute twine tied around my waist. Black breeches stopped just past my knees, where the rest of my legs were covered by the white hosen I wore underneath. Originally, I had been offered a dress, but politely refused. I had gotten too used to the attire of men, and where I came from, only women of power could afford the luxury of dresses.

Opal noticed my boots and without my asking, brought me new ones. Slim, charcoal suede with laces. At first I protested, but the girl was persistent. She took my left boot and pulled at the hole with her fingers. “The sole’s have been worn thin–and look! It’s separating! I can’t let you leave with this pair, I just can’t. Please, don’t trouble yourself. The owner is more than happy to let you take these.”

Resigned, I did.

The girl also brought the rest of our belongings into the room, after clearing it of the small crates, oil bottles, and bolts of tarp. When her tasks were done, a man who identified himself as a healer entered our room, accompanied with Den. He checked Elmiryn’s pulse, her breathing, and took a look at her eyes–even pulled back her lips to inspect her gums. After all this, he sat back, stared at her for a moment, then pinched her arm, hard.

I made to stop him, a flash of indignation flowing through me, but then I realized what he was doing.  He was trying to get a reaction.  He then pulled out a small vial from his side pouch and uncorked it. He waved it slowly beneath Elmiryn’s nose before he pursed his lips and sighed. “She isn’t responding. But as far as I can see, it’s like she’s just asleep. Most of my supplies have been used up, and I don’t have all of my tools with me. I’m afraid I can’t do anything right now, but I’ll check on her tomorrow.”

Den and I nodded after we glanced at each other. “Thank you, sir.”

The hours slipped late into the night. Outside, I could hear celebrations. Word was that messengers had already been sent to the neighboring cities to spread the good news. I remained in the little bedroom, refusing the offer to join in the merrymaking.  They wanted me to share my tale of the cave.  I balked at the idea.

Instead, I remained seated in the leather bound chair next to Elmiryn, compelled by some sense of duty. I had a bucket of soapy water and a brush with me, which I used to scrub the blood from my gambeson. Most of it came off, but some of the stains wouldn’t wash out completely. With a sigh, I let it dry out on the windowsill.

I stared out the window to the city. Gamath was a collection of looming shadows. I tried to imagine it filled with people, with noise and ruckus and lights. The image was hard to form. All I could imagine were dark streets tainted by a wandering madness. My gaze shifted and my eyes fell on Elmiryn’s face.

I reached a hand to her, and brushed my thumb along her forehead.  She lay quiet as death.

Exhaustion claimed me. I fell asleep, curled in the chair and fought against the feelings of guilt that came riding on the laughter of the townsfolk.

—-

That following morning, I bathed, ate, and spent the remainder of the day reading. The healer returned to check Elmiryn, but again said there was nothing he could do. I fell asleep in the same chair as the night before last. The next day, it was the same thing, except that some of the peasant children came to sit with me. There were six of them, mostly boys beneath the age of ten I assumed. Opal offered to shoo them out, but I shook my head, asking only that I not be left alone with them.

They asked me about what happened with the guardian, but I mumbled my unwillingness to talk about that just yet. Opal redirected their attention by asking what my book was about, and before I knew it, I was reading Tobias’ story aloud.

Wind, mighty wind, with lungs filled with laughter, blew back his enemies and nary lost a breath.  Arrows shot at him were lost in a sensuous dance of current and power, where their steel-eyed anger were turned to fly twice as fast toward their owners.  The pirates cowered on the deck, and many perished beneath the heavy hail of death.  Mariatu, leader of the spiteful men, barked a command to his lessers.  His voice was lost in the vigor that was Wind’s incredible howl.

An arrow struck across Mariatu’s face and he fell, bloody and downed by his own bravado.

It was at that time that the Oleus Lamar, the dread ship of the Southern Seas, overturned with Wind’s powerful suggestion.

Njord, god of wind and father to the seafaring life, whistled with pleasure at his Champion’s deed.  Atargatis, goddess of the ocean and mother to the seafaring life, swirled with displeasure–“

“Why would she be mad?” a boy asked loudly.

I looked at him blankly, only to find my expression mirrored by all those in the room.  “What–?”

“Atargatis.  Why is she mad?  The pirates were bad, right?”

My eyes fluttered.  “Um.  …Well, she’s described as the ‘mother of the seafaring life’.  I think her love for sailors was indiscriminate.”

“Indy-what?”

“I mean she didn’t care.  As a mother, she loved her children, good or bad.  Njord didn’t share that feeling.  That was why he sent Wind to–”

“What’s Wind’s real name?”

Disgruntled by the new interruption, I tried to keep my displeasure from my voice.  “He is only called Wind.  They don’t call him by anything else–”

“But Wind isn’t a real name.” I was surprised to find this one came from Opal.  I think something in my look gave me away, as her expression turned thoroughly embarrassed.

I didn’t write the book!  I just–”

“Maybe if you leave the funny words out, we can understand it better,” A bucktoothed boy offered snottily.

My lips thinned.

I looked back at the book and pretended to read loudly.  “Rocks fall.  Everyone dies.”  I snapped the book shut.  “Sorry, that’s the end.”

The boys gazed at me, taken aback.  “But they were out to sea!  How could–!?”

“I guess the writer ran out of big words.” I offered dryly.

That was when Elmiryn moved.

An odd moan, held in by her tensed jaw dispelled the idea that it had just been a twitch of her arm. I inhaled sharply and rose to my feet, my hand quick to find place at the woman’s forehead. She burned under my touch, and seemed to writhe in her sheets as if suffering by some horrid dream. I looked to Opal and she gave a cursory nod of the head before she proceeded to shoo the children from the room. As the last of them went, I held Elmiryn by the shoulders and gave her a small shake.

“Elmiryn…Elmiryn!  Wake up!


Back to Chapter 6.2 | Forward to Chapter 7.2

Chapter 7.2

ELMIRYN________________________

What a mess, what a hurricane, what a muddy pit of a mind.  She couldn’t tell ass from elbow, and she tried so hard to.  What at one point seemed a nose, turned out to be a knee; and what at one point seemed a foot, turned out to be her mouth.  She got her name mixed up too, in a jumble of fonts that were and weren’t there, which tumbled and swirled by image and sound in a black backdrop that seemed as infinite as her frustration.  Seeing and not seeing.  Feeling and not feeling.  Being and not being…

She was completely and utterly lost.

At first, she believed in embers and the cry of steel beneath a hammer, but then she felt cold instead of heat, and tasted blood instead of sweat.  At first she believed she were a man (ah, what a luxury it is to piss upright!) but that came under reasonable doubt when her concept of a body was lost to a memory of amorphous flesh that swam through liquid.  Beneath these obnoxious collections of understandings, she recognized something pale and stale buried beneath it all.  Ideas to do with royalty and war.  Soiled innocence and malignant horror.

But those weak things were set aside.  Surely, the truth of who she was and what she was about rested in the strongest memories?

And the most intriguing of them all came together in tentative lines that streaked her vision.

…Cold…

Her heart adopted a need for haste.  She jogged and felt her feet sink into the ground with each step.  Her sight was hampered by the curtain of white that surrounded her.  But through the haze, a phantom danced, not far ahead.  She was afraid she’d lose it.  She shouted hoarsely through the screeching wind.

“Atalo!  Reten na och!” Atalo! Wait for me!

Without the slightest warning, something stabbed into her back, something that managed to tear through the layers of her winter clothes.  A thick arm wrapped around her neck and she heard a man mutter a prayer before he gripped her by the shoulder and flung her into the snowbank.  She crashed onto hard packed ice.  Her breath rushed past her lips, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe in.

As she lay there and watched the tips of aspen trees dance as ghosts, she thought she saw the black stains of confusion that had plagued her seep into the fabric of reality.  In these stains, she saw that terrible place where she had lost herself.  Things squeaked through the little hole in her memory; names, songs, people who weren’t people but just crudely sketched caricatures of another time and place.  She pressed her eyes shut to block it out.

When she opened them again, she saw through the storm’s veil, and peered up to see a warrior dressed in white furs stare down at her imperiously.  He carried a small blade with him, stained with her blood.  An Ailuran Cerrite, a hunter of criminals.  She thought she recognized that face beneath the cowl’s shadow.

…Duncan?  Her peer?  Her…comrade?  She tried to tap into her memory, because something of that didn’t sound right, but discovered an unnerving void.

That was when Atalo screamed and attacked Duncan.  He came charging from the side, wielding a sharp rock as a makeshift weapon, but the Cerrite was fast.  He deftly leaned to the side and dodged her brother’s wild swipe before he grabbed the youth by the front of his clothes and pulled him roughly to the ground.

But she was already up on her feet, already half-crawling out of the snowbank when the Cerrite raised his blade for a killing strike. She was only partially aware of the fact that her veins burned, or that her head pounded.  Her first concern was in saving her brother from his own foolhardiness.

With little grace, she lunged at Duncan’s broad back, and her petite hands wrapped themselves around the Ailuran’s large hand.  She tried vainly to pry the warrior’s fingers from his weapon.  The man gave a low rumble and threw back his head, where it connected with her nose.  Blood poured forth and she fell to the snow, dazed and with a ringing in her ears she didn’t notice before.

There was a shout, and a series of muffled slaps that ended in a wet crunch.  She heard Atalo groan.  Soon, her white world was blessed with the image of her little brother.  His broad face was turned pink and his tawny eyes squinted from his exertion.  He knelt by her and cupped her face.

“Koah…” Sister… “Koah!”

“Koen,” Brother, “Cajeck…ni aji…üle boeneh?” Idiot…what were…you thinking?

“Cerrite magat…eh?  Koah, ni dana?” But the Cerrite…eh?  Sister, what’s wrong?

Her eyes had rolled shut.  She took deep breaths and felt the cold air rasp down her dry throat.  Her lungs felt starved.  Pain stabbed down her arms, and she thought her veins would tear open.  Atalo took her by the shoulders and shook her, his young voice turned shrill with fear.

“Koah!  Koah! …Elmiryn!!

Who?

“Elmiryn wake up!”

That was her voice saying those things, but her lips weren’t moving…and she didn’t think to say that either.  What was going on?

The pain faded, as did the cold.  The wind’s howl petered out to a whisper that tickled the back of her mind.  She felt hands shake her, and tried to open her eyes.  All she saw was blurry.  Streaks of color.  Like a bad painting.  There was a figure hovering over her.  She couldn’t see their face.

“Atalo?” she rasped–but the voice she heard, she didn’t recognize.

The shaking stopped.  She thought she heard a sharp intake of breath.

“…What did you say?”  There.  Again.  Someone used her voice.  The person near her, maybe?

Her sight sharpened, and she saw a sky fitted with cobwebs and a boy that looked much like a girl.  Tawny eyes blinked at her.  Was it…him?

“Elmiryn?”

She reached a hand upward and took a lock of dark hair between her fingers.  She half-expected the strands to smudge and smear on her fingers, like charcoal. Üle okém ia-gouta, koen. “Your hair’s long, brother…” She heard a raspy voice that wasn’t hers speak the words she thought of in a different language.  She grabbed her throat harshly, felt her throat hum as she spoke, “What is this…?  Where am I?”  She fought to push herself up.  The world rolled, and she felt nausea curl in her chest like a demon waiting to spring.  “Atalo!” she shouted.

The other person, not her brother, she knew this now, pressed her back at the shoulders.  “Elmiryn, stop–“

The grip on her tightened.  Her mind whispered that this was reminiscent of something.  From the dark of uncertain memories, she recalled a man’s faint outline.  His face was nondescript, but his armor, she recognized.  Recognized it because she had worn the same armor.  This man had hovered over her, had pressed down on her.  Peer.  Comrade.  A name tickled her lips.

“Duncan.”

His exact relationship to her she couldn’t recall, but she remembered that he had tried this before.  To sneak into her quarters at night when she was asleep.  She didn’t think he’d actually do it again, after the last time, but this fact hardly mattered.  He was here now, the brute, and he was keeping her from her brother.

She twisted and leaned her right shoulder far back, so that Duncan’s hand slipped at the abrupt shift in weight.  She closed her grip around his wrist and, with a staying hand on his shoulder, turned it and twisted it backwards.  She put as much pressure as she could muster on the joint, and used the leverage she exacted to sit upright.  The man squealed.

But did Duncan ever squeal?  Come to think of it, he seemed a little short, didn’t he?  Where were the white furs?  The armor?  And there was still that bothersome detail about the voice…

“El-Elmiryn!” Her captive cried.  Their face was screwed up.  Was that anger?  Fear?  “Atalo is dead! He was my brother!  Those memories in your head aren’t yours! They’re mine!

She tensed.  “No, that’s imposs–”

“Atalo and I were fleeing from the Cerrite for criminal evasion!  They wanted to send him to war, but I took him and fled!”  Large eyes, tawny eyes.  They bored into hers.  Tears shone, unshed.  “Magat, tet koen lunam!!”

She let go.  Stared.  Strained her eyes to make sense of the moving picture in front of her.  A person.  An Ailuran.  A girl, not a boy–yes of course, why was that ever in question before?  The fair lips, the long lashes, the gentle jaw line.  The hair, complexion, and eyes were the same as Atalo’s…but it wasn’t him…of course not…it was…

“Nyx.” Elmiryn leaned forward unsteadily.  She reached out a hand, perhaps too eagerly, because Nyx flinched away.  The redhead didn’t let this action stop her, though she took note of it (frowned at it), and let her hand swipe gently through the air before the girl’s face.  There was something two-dimensional about the Ailuran, and Elmiryn was half afraid that the room only extended as far as her arm–that the walls were an elaborate illusion someone had created to confuse her.

“I didn’t know…you…I mean…”  She squinted.  “You looked like him.  Then I thought you were–“

“Duncan.” Nyx finished.  Her voice was clipped when she said it, but the tension that had gripped her seemed to lessen a little.  “I know who you’re talking about.  He was in the Fiamman army with you.”

Elmiryn shifted in the bed.  Her eyes fluttered as she felt the room give a nasty lurch.  The colors smudged.  The walls seemed unstable.  She covered her face with her hands and groaned.  “…What happened?  Where am I?”  She pulled her hands away from her face to stare at them.  They seemed a little large didn’t they?  Or was the bed too big?  No, no, the blankets were too thick.  They were going to crush her legs.  Elmiryn kicked away the sheets and hugged her knees to her chest.

She felt so small.

“We’re at the tavern.” Nyx explained. “You’ve been unconscious almost three days.”  There was a pause, and the girl added in a mumble.  “I waited for you to wake up.”

The woman closed her eyes.

“…You might have to wait a little longer.”


Back to Chapter 7.1 | Forward to Chapter 7.3

Chapter 7.3

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn’s hands still tingled with the feeling of her companion’s throat in her hands, the pulse against her thumb, the light sheen of sweat that had made her palms cool when the air kissed it. Involuntarily, she imagined how the throat would hum under her hand if the girl could speak without impediment. Maybe it was indeed possible to catch sound by hand? To possess that voice and keep it as a pet, when the nights got cold and the hours long…it was such an enticing idea. Once it was in her possession, she could use it when she didn’t feel like being herself.

Then moral sensibilities, stunted, but still present, objected.

Nyx had carried her unconscious body more than a mile, and had remained at her side when she was comatose–what kind of repayment was strangulation?

But those memories…those precious, vivid memories. They were so real to Elmiryn, more so than the world she drifted through now. In them, she had felt connection; in them, she had a voice that carried sincerity.

At seeing that these things were no longer hers to have, she had hollered for wine, and drank half-a-bottle’s worth with little pause. Then she vomited it all up, because the thought entered her mind that the wine was all blood. She had tried to stand, and lost her balance. Nyx tried to keep her in bed but Elmiryn became agitated, wild-eyed, and asked why the covers were so dangerously heavy.

That first day, she refused to lay in the bed. Instead, she sat in the corner, on the floor, and alternated between drinking rum and water. Food was repulsive to her. She thought the steak they gave her had pulsed in her mouth, and the rice felt like ants on her tongue.

All the while her heart beat heavy in her chest, and whispered Atalo’s name. Elmiryn wondered if she were drinking to make the feeling buoyant and easy to grasp, or to drown it in poison. But the moments were already slipping from her–fading in that harrowing fashion her own memories had. She wanted them back. She wanted the realness, the emotion, the intensity back. Even if it made her like this–vulnerable, flustered, weak–Elmiryn wanted them back.

But those things weren’t hers, they were Nyx’s.

She tried to ignore the envy that burned her.

Then came an irresistible opportunity.

“Elle, you aren’t well enough for something this dangerous!” Nyx exclaimed.

Elmiryn faced the windows and fixated on the light from the candles reflected on the glass.  It was so early in the morning, the sun hadn’t risen yet.  Still, she could see campfires and torches winking in the distance.  People were returning. She fitted her shoulder guards and let a crooked smile appear on her face. “So you think,” she breathed.

“I don’t think, I know!” Nyx argued. Her voice was strained. She sounded on the verge of tears. “For heaven’s sake, look at you! You keep squinting like you can hardly make out what you’re seeing!” The redhead turned and made to leave.  She plucked up her bow and quiver as she went. Nyx blocked the doorway. She trembled, but still glared up at Elmiryn. Big, sweet eyes. Watery eyes. Drowning eyes. “Watch it, or you’ll go blind,” the warrior warned.

Nyx swallowed and asked in a whisper, “It’s gotten worse, hasn’t it?”

Elmiryn giggled a little. She moved her companion to the side with a light shove. “But Nyx. I thought you knew. Why do you have to ask me?”

The girl huffed–chased her down the stairs and babbled about irresponsibility and stubbornness. It was so odd, how Elmiryn’s entire world had become an elaborate presentation of untruths, while this one girl and her one voice still sung vibrant and clear.

When it was apparent that the warrior would not change her plans, Nyx sighed and said, “Oh sweet Aelurus…fine then! We’ll go–”

“No.” The bounce and jump of Elmiryn’s voice was absent. All that was left was steel. She looked Nyx in the eye and felt something gnaw at her. “You aren’t coming with me.”

The girl stared. “But…what if something happens to you? Didn’t you ask me to–”

“I know what I asked. Just…do me a favor, Nyx. Stay here. Rest. I’ll be back soon.”

——————–

She shifted her weight and heard the squeal of pebbles beneath the soles of her boots. Her eyes were pinned on her target–every twitch of the nose, every shift of its mangy fur, every wiggle of its stubby tail. A big man in furs. Elmiryn’s body tensed.

She wasn’t the one hunting. She was being hunted. Sought by an extension of heavenly retribution who was going to dig into her chest with a knife, straight to that glowing knot inside her–

Someone touched a cold hand to Elmiryn’s arm. She glanced at him sharply, her face tense and her eyes wide–because something told her things were not right, and yet her eyes failed to display otherwise. Crouched next to her beneath the eave of a building was a gargoyle. He looked at her with dark eyes that did not shine. The frown beneath the brim of his hat was severe and colored a cool slate gray from the morning twilight. Behind him, shadows shifted like ink disturbed.

“Is there something wrong?” it breathed.

Elmiryn shook her head. She asked, “What’re we looking at?”

The gargoyle’s frown deepened. The shadows moved again. “It’s a bear. Are you going to shoot it or not?”

She nodded and returned her attention to the creature before her. Her muscles eased and she let out a small sigh. That was right. That was the reason she was here.

In her head, Elmiryn began to sort it all out.

The bear must have ambled in from the forests to the west, where the Medwin River swathed through its territory. Madness had drawn it to the desolation.  A supernatural weight that lessened its grip on the land, now that the river had been restored. But the crazed creatures, the ones who survived the poisoned waters, still remained. They attacked anything that came near them and were too numerous to simply chase away.

Elmiryn had joined one of the hunting parties. The man next to her was not a gargoyle, he was just ugly; and the shadows behind him were the rest of hunting party, who had hung back to allow Elmiryn the first shot with her bow.

The warrior, in a veiled, backwards way, began to believe that Nyx had been right in protesting her participation in the hunts.

There she was, crouched and with her bow and arrow poised for a shot at a bear she had thought was a man. The group had moved as quietly as it could, and had stuck together as they avoided the open streets. The buildings they passed seemed to Elmiryn inhospitable and alien to sentient creation. They were encased in evil, lonely auras, that made her think of derelict caves and foreboding forests.

The bear had been an unpleasant surprise, but to their advantage, it was disoriented. On its great paws, it swayed side to side. It grumbled and panted as foam dripped from its dark lips, and it shifted now and again to wander in a confused line to another spot out in the street.

Elmiryn pulled her arrow far back, let the heel of her palm rest against her right jaw and tried to get her bearings.  She judged the bear was 600 yards away, and the wind was blowing strong in a westerly direction.  All she need was the bear to move in the right position for a fatal shot.

She waited.

…And waited.

Without warning, the arrow jumped from her fingers and sailed low, where it landed with an obnoxious clatter near the bear’s feet.  The large beast turned and growled.  She wasn’t sure, but it seemed like it’s eyes were fixed on them.  Elmiryn blinked and stared at her hand as if it betrayed her.  “I thought I had a better grip!” she mumbled.

When the beast, a roiling mass of 500 pound black fur, began to gallomph toward them, everyone turned to flee.  “Forget it, Elmiryn!” The gargoyle man sputtered as he stumbled into a run down the street with the others.  “We have to run!”

Elmiryn’s eyes widened and she made to grab him.  “No, no!  You idiots!  It didn’t know where we were!”

She watched them go, their limbs nearly blurred in their haste to get away.  She turned and crouched down, still as rock, and watched as the bear ran past her.  Its focus had shifted, and its pace had quickened.  The animal growled and panted heavily as it closed the gap between it and the hunters.

Safe from harm, the woman readied another bow.  With little time to aim or calculate wind interference, she let it loose, this time with more force than the last.  The arrow whistled away, just as the bear stood on its hindquarters to swipe at a hunter who had tripped on the ground.  With a thud, it landed near the center of the beast’s back.  The bear flinched and let out a brief sound of shock before it stumbled and fell over.  The hunter narrowly managed to dodge it.  Already set with another arrow, Elmiryn fired again, this time the projectile struck the beast in the side.

Encouraged by the new development, the other hunters attacked as well.  The ones with bows fired arrows at close range, while those armed with swords and spears stabbed at the downed bear.  Elmiryn approached them as the bear let out its dying cry.  “That was sloppy,” she groused.

“Well if you hadn’t have missed the first shot…” one hunter muttered.

Elmiryn squinted at her right hand.  “I really did think I had a solid grip.”  She sighed and shook her head, and let her hand drop to her side.  “That aside…I think a bear is good enough for one day.  You men figure out a way to take the corpse to the burning pits, and I’ll meet you back at the Inn.”

“What are you going to do?” gargoyle man asked.

The warrior smiled crookedly as she passed him.  “I’m going to take my head out of my ass.”

NYX____________________________

Nighttime.  I stared at Tobias’s book, but didn’t read.  Couldn’t.  Elmiryn was out, stumbling like a confused puppet on some warped sense, and I wasn’t there to make sure she was okay.  My stomach knotted itself as I thought about terrible scenarios.  How awful would it be to have the woman die after what she had just survived…after what we BOTH had just survived?  I scratched absently at my skin, and a shiver ran through me as I recalled the unnatural separation of flesh from the river guardian.

Tired of the upstairs room, I had come down to the owner’s quarters where I enjoyed the warmth of a newborn fire.  It winked at me from the fireplace.

Then there was a knock on the doorway, and I turned in my chair to see Elmiryn across the room.  Her smile quirked and her eyes turned questionable when her gaze lowered to the bed between us.  Gullible, I followed her line of sight before it occurred to me just what it was she was thinking.

I made an irritated noise with my tongue and pretended to continue reading my book.  “You’re incorrigible.”

“But the bed’s bigger,” she said.  Her boots made a sharp sound as she crossed the floor.  There was the scrape of wood on wood as she slid a chair over to sit next to me.  “I mean, that other room is stuffy, and more people are coming back to Gamath.  Maybe we could stay in here for a while?  I don’t think the townspeople would mind us sharing–”

I buried my face in my hands to hide my blush.  “Merciful gods, make this woman stop!

She chuckled in response and her chair squeaked as she leaned far back in her chair.  “Guess the turnip isn’t ready to be plucked.”

“Why do you call me that?” I asked in a weary voice.  I chanced a look at her past my hands, and she winked at me cheekily.

“I think it’s the shape of your face.  And the dust that sits in your hair.  It makes me think of turnips.”

“That…isn’t flattering.  At all.

“Why haven’t you asked someone here to cut your hair?”

“Opal offered, but her eagerness put me off.”

“She was eager because your haircut is–”

“Atrocious.  Yes, I know.”  I sat back in my chair again, and tossed Tobias’s book onto the bed.  There was no use pretending anymore.

“Did you really cut it with shears?”

I gave the slightest of nods. “Without a mirror.”

“Your hair used to be longer.” Elmiryn said.  Her voice was too subdued for my liking, so I decided to change the topic.

“The guardian wants us to return.  We should probably do so tomorrow.  The townsfolk can take care of the rest of the clean up.”  I stood to my feet, but didn’t move.  Without a place for my eyes, I found myself staring into the fire.

Elmiryn looked up at me. “Thank you,” she said.

I gave her a puzzled look.  I felt vulnerable so I crossed my arms over my chest. “For what?” I asked.

“For carrying me here. For watching over me.” She crossed her legs and looked down at her hands.  I only noticed now that they weren’t in their usual gloves.  She had also removed her shoulder guards.  I saw the scar in her palm and turned away. “I just realized,” she continued.  “I haven’t thanked you for all that you’ve done yet. So, thanks.”

“I don’t know how many more times I can say it.  I hardly did anything.  In a way, I was a liability.”

Rather than argue with me, like just about every other person I spoke to had attempted, Elmiryn only shrugged and made a flippant gesture with her hand.  “Okay.” she said.

I turned and frowned at her.  A question I had been burning to ask bubbled into my mouth, and I couldn’t restrain it.  “Do you know how long we’ll be on this mission of yours for?”

Elmiryn shrugged again. “I don’t know.”  Her eyes rolled to look up at me, but her head didn’t lift.

“Elle…” the name slipped from my lips without my meaning it to.  I paused as my throat began to constrict.  “If things once again become as dire as they had in the guardian’s cave, can we hope to beat it reasonably?  Together?  Or will my role be only to pick up the pieces?”

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth.  She let her head fall back and stared at the ceiling. “It depends on how much you’re willing to take.  Maybe your role really will be just to pick up the pieces.”  She turned her face toward me, and a lazy smile appeared. “Wouldn’t it be fun to put me back together again?  I’d be like a puzzle that has more than one answer.” She giggled, and slapped a hand to her face.

My gaze darkened.  “You had something to drink?”

She pinched her index and thumb together and looked at me sideways.  “Just a splash.  I can’t stand that wine, and their rum is terrible.”

I shook my head and turned to face Elmiryn fully.  When I opened my mouth to speak, I faltered a little.  “I–I can’t say I’m wholly interested in seeing someone destroy themselves little by little.”

Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow, and her smile faded a little.  “But if you’re there, maybe that won’t happen?”

“Elmiryn I…” my voice cracked.  I gripped my head, then pressed my fingers into my eyes.  The tips turned damp.  “You frustrate me, you confuse me…sometimes you even scare me.” I sniffled.  I didn’t want to make a scene by crying.  I knelt down on the floor, as I remembered etiquette.  As one of such low class, even to a flagged criminal as Elmiryn, some deference was due.  It made me uncomfortable how easily I had forgotten that in her presence over the last week.  I looked at her hands, now clenched loosely in her lap.

“Despite all that, I can’t deny that you’ve saved my life, ended my hunger…and took away my loneliness.”  I paused to wipe at my eyes.  “I’m a timorous whelp and my problems are far from superficial.  I’ve…I’ve been in situations like this before and I don’t know if I can stand–”

“I’m not Atalo, Nyx.”

I flinched and bowed my head. “I didn’t say you were!” My voice quailed.  I could feel my eyes burn, but I squeezed them shut to stop any tears from coming.  “I was going to say I’m not strong enough to see my friend get hurt over something so hopeless!”

“Your what?”  Elmiryn leaned toward me.  Her eyebrows were raised high.  “I think I may have heard wrong.”

I peered at her and mumbled sullenly.  “I consider you a friend.  Am I being presumptuous?” At her pause, I ruffled my hair in frustration.  “I mean, am I assuming too much?”

She shook her head and sat on the floor with me.  “No.  Not really.  I just think you hold too much of yourself back…and by the way, why are you on the floor?”

I gave her an exasperated look. “Better question…why are you joining me?”  Then I added to myself, “And why am I talking to you like you’re my–”

“Equal?  Because if I wanted a lackey, I would’ve bought one.”  Elmiryn thumped me on the shoulder and grinned.  Her teeth flashed from the light of the fire.  “Instead, I saved a friend.”

“This is…endearing…” I rubbed my neck and made a point of looking at the ground.  “Believe me it is, but there’s still the matter of this…’quest’ of yours.  And I have other concerns.”

“Ouch.” Elmiryn tsked and leaned back against the chair, where she propped her elbows onto the cushion.  “You know it’s something serious when someone uses the word, ‘concern’.”

I sat back as my knees began to ache from kneeling on the floorboards.  I heaved a sigh and blew my bangs out of my eyes.  “You know…when the guardian swallowed all of us…our memories were shared.” I stiffened a little and tried to continue in a steady voice.  “I know you must’ve seen things…as I have seen things.  Elmiryn…I know why the Fiamman kingdom wants you captured.  I know you used to be one of them.  That, the song you hummed that night…to that girl caused her to…”

“Cailean.”

I looked at her startled.

Elmiryn’s eyes had shifted to the fire, where their gaze had turned glassy.  Her face was slack and her body rested in an unusual fashion that made me think of a puppet propped onto a shelf.  She had one leg bent, the other tucked beneath.  Her hands were relaxed.  Her hair, normally pulled back and out of the way, was loose and came down in lazy waves around her shoulders.

“The princess’s name is Cailean, and she may as well be dead.”  Elmiryn squinted her eyes a little and whispered, “She had slime all over her skin.  I remember how it felt. It was thick.  Sticky.  Cold.  Made my skin feel like it was on pins and needles, like when your foot falls asleep.  I think that’s what woke me up.  I tried shifting and then that sensation hit me; on the side of my face, my chest, my thighs.  Every place the slime touched me seemed to fuck with my nerves.

“It was so early, the maids hadn’t come in yet to prepare Cailean for the day.  I remember trying to get up, and feeling like the world was backwards.  I thought the floor was going to give, so I jumped out of the nearest window.  I crashed onto the roof of the medici building and tumbled into the courtyard.  Some lady servants saw me and screamed.  I didn’t think they were screaming because of me.”  Elmiryn chuckled and covered her face with her hand.

When she continued, her humor was still present, like she were just telling a funny anecdote and recovering from a hearty laugh.  “I ran to my barracks, dressed, grabbed what I could, and fled.  It was the weird looks I got from everyone I passed that made me slow down.  I tried to get it straight in my head what was really happening.  Common sense kicked in, and I realized how nothing made sense.”

She stopped and ran a hand through her hair with a sigh.  I shifted where I sat, and fiddled with the twine around my waist before I asked in a quiet voice, “Then what did you do?”

I could see a muscle in Elmiryn’s cheek move and she swiped at her nose with a rough pass of her arm.  “Y’know, this is hard for me to get right.  I mean, all I can see in my head are these faint impressions…like ghosts, in my head.  I’m certain of some details, but others I’m not so sure.”  She rubbed her temples and frowned.  The crease in her brow appeared.  I thought back to that day I had tried to smooth it out, when Elmiryn feared I had died.  With a blush, I sat on my hands.

“I went to my mother,” Elmiryn mumbled.  Her eyes fell shut and her frown deepened.  “She told me she had just come back from the royal court, and that the king had ordered for my capture.  She said they accused me of casting a curse on the princess.”  A corner of her mouth turned upward.  “She was in hysterics.  She asked me if it was all true, and I think I might’ve started laughing.  That was when my father came in.  He threatened to turn me in himself, but I ran.  I would have fought him but…”  Her smirk grew, “I didn’t want to upset mother.”

“How did you escape?  With all of the kingdom after you, how did you possibly get away?”

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Some of my comrades found me first.  They didn’t believe any of it, so they helped me flee.”

I bit my lip.  “…And Meznik?”

The woman looked in my direction, but her eyes seemed to pass through me.  “That night, when it all started, I had a dream.  A man whose voice I’d never heard before asked me if I could see his face.  Everything was black.  When I said I couldn’t, he laughed and told me I wasn’t looking hard enough.  Then he told me his name…Meznik…and said I would have to run.  That was when I woke up.”

“How did you figure out you were cursed if Meznik didn’t tell you?”

Elmiryn looked away.  She seemed to fight yet another smile.  “Two days after I managed to escape Fiamma, I noticed something was wrong with my eyes.  It was little things at first.  I’d look at a bush and think it was rustling when it wasn’t.  I’d see my reflection and think there was something on my nose only to realize it was just shiny.  Then bigger things.  I started waking up feeling like nothing I did affected my surroundings.  I wondered if I really left footprints, or if they belonged to someone else.  Sometimes it even seemed like the birds weren’t startled when I went by.  Then I thought about Cailean, my mother, my father…and I realized I couldn’t remember what they looked like.  I knew who they were, and that they existed…but…”

I shook my head.  “I really don’t understand.  From what I’d seen of your memories, nothing you’d done would have warranted this…granted, you aren’t the most pious of individuals, but there are far worse out there.”  The words left my mouth and my mind didn’t bother to censor them.  When it occurred to me what I had just said, my body seized up and I made to stand.  “Elle, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that–!!”

Elmiryn surprised me when she grabbed me by the arm.  “Sure you did.  Just stop.”

The severity of her voice made me shake.  I sat back down but pulled in an attempt to escape her tight grip.  “Elmiryn, let go!”

Her eyes had sharpened, like sight had come back to her.  She fixed me with the hungry look I had become familiar with.  “Till now we’ve both avoided talking about what happened in our pasts.  I told you about what happened to me.  Now I think I should hear about what happened to you.”

The emotions I had tried to keep in check since the day had started began to spill over.  I sobbed and shook my head frantically, “Elle, please!  We can talk about it later, I don’t know if I can do this right now!”

“No.” Her tone was flat.  “I don’t know what it was like for you to feel my memories, but yours nearly tore my heart out of my chest.  I have to know Nyx.  What happened to Atalo?”  Her brows pressed together, and she let go of my arm.  “…And why did you get the Mark?  From what I saw, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

I hugged my head and rocked back and forth where I sat.  My chest felt tight and my skin felt cold.  “I can’t…”

I felt her hands on my back.  She leaned down and nuzzled my hair. “Please tell me,” she whispered.

I raised my head, my cheeks damp and my nose running.  Elmiryn was close enough that I could feel her breath on my skin.  There was that light smell of rum about her.  Her eyes were fixed on to mine, and something about them compelled me to speak.

With a swallow I started.  “Atalo and I fled, but the Cerrite, a criminal hunter, found us.  We defeated him, but I’d been stabbed with his blade and passed out.  Atalo dragged me to an abandoned shack a mile up the trail we followed.  It was used as an outpost, and he managed to find some supplies.”  I turned my face away, toward the fire.  The heat felt glorious on my skin.  In a dry whisper I continued.  “As it turned out, the Cerrite’s blade was poisoned, so my wound wasn’t healing.  I was caught in a fever.  Atalo tried to treat me, but the medicines he had were too mundane to handle the special poison that ran through me.  Time was running out, and soon the rest of the hunters would find us.  But not before…not before…”

My mouth, as if in rebellion, ceased to move.  Nearly a minute went by before Elmiryn grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a harsh shake.  “Nyx, what happened?”

I looked at her, my face slack.  I imagined her angry, disgusted, horrified.  I realized this would be the first time I would say any of this aloud, to anyone, and I feared the truth would cause the one friend I had in the world to turn away from me.  My tears returned with a vengeance and my body trembled.  “I’m weak.” I sobbed with a slow shake of the head.  “Elmiryn.  I’m just too weak!

“But what happened, Nyx!?”

I flinched at the steely tone of her voice.  In a mousy voice, I continued to speak.  “E-Ever since I was young, I had t-t-trouble dealing with my Other Self.  They said it was–was because I read too much outside literature.  Because I questioned our ways too much.  They always t-talked of our primal sides being one-half of a whole.  But I never saw it that way, n-not even when I was young.  I grew up at odds with Her and she stopped listening to me.  Because I never learned to control Her…She…She…” I hugged my head.  “She killed him!  She killed Atalo!”

Elmiryn grabbed me by the chin and forced me to look up at her.  Her eyes were wide.  “What do you mean?”

I shut my eyes and two fat tears rolled down my cheeks.  “In my feverish state…I…I lost control.  I shifted to Ekilluos, the form taken during war.  It was the first time I ever did.  Atalo…he was just a boy…he didn’t…couldn’t defend himself.  As therians, we can only take so much before our healing powers mean nothing.  She killed him, and it’s my fault because I was too weak to stop Her.”

Elmiryn let me go, and I crumpled.  A long silence sat between us, interrupted only by my occasional sobs.

When my tears had subsided, I found myself continuing to speak.  I started to feel detached, like the pain I felt was too much, so my heart began to shut down.  “When the hunters came, they found me sitting with what was left of Atalo.  I was half-dead and mad with grief.  I kept scratching at myself…drawing blood.  I wanted to crawl out of my skin.  I didn’t just want to die, I wanted to cease to exist.”  I heard Elmiryn shift but didn’t look up to see what she did.  I assumed she moved away from me.  I was certain of her disgust.

“Instead of killing me,” I rasped, “They took me prisoner and brought me back to my village.  They publicly charged me with treason, fratricide, and perverting Aelurus’ gifts.  Shortly after that, they gave me the Mark, and cast me out of the village.  I only snuck back to take some things with me.  That was when I found out my mother had died.”  I laid on my side and covered my face with my arm.  I started to feel sick.

Then Elmiryn finally spoke.  “I want to see it.”

I removed my arm and looked at her.  She hadn’t moved away from me.  Her face was turned to me, and her eyes were sharp.  “I want to see your Mark.”

I stiffened.  Automatically, I thought to argue, but exhaustion had set into me.  After what I had just revealed, what was the point?

“Shut the door and lock it.” I muttered.


Back to Chapter 7.2 | Forward to Chapter 7.4

Chapter 7.4

NYX____________________________

She shut the door and I heard the snap of the lock.  I picked myself off the floor and wiped at my swollen eyes.  Elmiryn turned to stare at me from across the room, and we both fell quiet as our gazes met.  The firewood cracked and popped in the fireplace as a glowing piece fell away to the ash covered floor.  My hands raised to touch the collar of my tunic before I once again became aware of the layout of the room.  Not wanting the bed between us as I undressed, I gestured for the woman to come closer.

“You’ll see better with the firelight.” I said quietly.

Elmiryn came closer, a soft frown on her face as she moved around the bed to stand near me.  She stopped a foot away and placed her hands on her hips.

I bowed my head and turned so that my back was to her.  “It took them a little over a day to finish the design.  The man who did it…I grew up with him.  We were…friends.  He was an apprentice learning the ways of the shamanites.  He wasn’t allowed to stop or rest until the Mark was finished.” I pulled the tunic over my head.  My arms felt weak and shook as I struggled to be freed from the fabric.  The air felt unwelcoming to my shoulders, and goosebumps spread across my skin.  When my tunic fell before my feet, I stopped and took a deep breath.

I couldn’t deny it, I still felt hesitant.  All that was left to remove was the bandage that wrapped my breasts.  It wasn’t too late to try and stop this.  Unless the bandage was removed, the most important aspect of my brand would not be seen.

But my hands were already moving without my consent.  They undid the bandage with fumbling fingers, and before I registered it, the wraps had fallen away.  My arms crossed over my front and I squeezed my eyes shut.

I jumped when Elmiryn brushed her fingers across my back, from my left shoulder blade down to my right hip.  The magic trappings that encased me in my curse seemed to pulse at her touch.  It was something I hadn’t felt before.  The best description I can offer for it, was as if my body wished to change.  To say it was a chill, or a spread of warmth isn’t quite it.  I felt as if something of my blood, my hair, my skin had trembled in the most microscopic sense.

But the moment was fast, and before I could make a remark on it, Elmiryn spoke.

“They designed this just for you, didn’t they?”

I nodded and swallowed.  My throat felt tired from being so tense.  “A reflection of my crimes.”

“Do you remember what they did to you?”

I smiled sardonically.  “Of course.  Aside from feeling many of the lines more than once, they had it on display before me so that I may know just what my punishment would entail.”  With a deep breath, I began to explain.  “There’s a woman, only partially shifted in a form that looks similar to Ekilluos.  She looks like she’s running away from the viewer, but her body twists so that she turns to look over her shoulder.  Her feline head is mangy and her claws are dripping with her own blood from the wounds she has inflicted on herself.” I paused to ease down the lump that tightened in my throat.  My eyes began to burn again.  “From her naked chest and back, you can see worms are squirming out of the wounds she has made.  A sign of pestilence.  Inherent evil.  That was for inflicting harm on myself after Atalo’s death.  Self-harm is considered a perversion of Aelurus’ gift of regenerative healing.”

“But–” Elmiryn began.

I cut her off.  “Next, there should be a bearded serpent slithering from the woman’s open mouth.  It’s wrapped around her throat and right arm.  It faces downward, toward the ground.  It’s for my defiance and, as they put it, my lies and treasonous words.”

“You don’t sound like you believe much in that charge, Nyx…”  There was the scrape of wood as Elmiryn pulled a chair up to sit behind me.  Her hands placed themselves at my hips and she pulled me a little closer.  I bit my objection back and instead answered her remark.

“I don’t doubt that it was my misguided persuasions that led Atalo to his death.”

Elmiryn made a low sound with her throat.  “Go on.  Tell me what else is here.”

I sighed.  “Elmiryn, you must know that I can recite each and every detail of my own Mark.  Why do you need to test me?”

There was a squeak from the chair as the warrior leaned forward to peer at me from my side.  Her eyebrow was raised high.  “Believe it or not, I’m not trying to turn this into a game.  I happen to have a problem with keeping pictures in my head.  Remember?”

I blushed and nodded, feeling a little ashamed.  Still, my shoulders bunched as I resumed my explanation.  “The woman is wearing two earrings, both feathers.  The one on the left is dark, the one on the right is light.”

“Lemme guess…the separation of your two selves, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’m seeing something else, but I’m not sure if I have it right…”

“It should just be a gate.”  I frowned.  Elmiryn’s condition really had become worse if she had trouble identifying something as common as that.  It only made me more frustrated that she had been reckless enough to go hunting while in such a state.  “At the top are some words written in my native language.  Hejka et Juek.  Hejka et Ool.  Hejka et Lunés. ‘Traitor to Blood.  Traitor to Water.  Traitor to Spirit.’  I betrayed my family, my people, and my goddess. …They made it a point to go over those lines several times.”

“There’s more.  Beneath it, right?”

“Below that are words written in an archaic tongue.  I…don’t know what it says exactly.  Something required for the spell, I imagine.”

Elmiryn’s hands left my hips and I heard her sit back in her chair.

I turned to peer at her over my shoulder.  “Are you satisfied?”

She looked up at me and shook her head. “No.”  Half her face was lit, the other half in warm shadow.  With her hair down, she looked feminine, just as that night in the mountains.  “But I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do about it.”

I stooped to pick up my bandages, conscious not to stick my rear in Elmiryn’s face.  “You mean about what you remember?” I felt guilt nettle me.  I didn’t turn around or raise my eyes as I started to wrap the long bandage around my chest.  I hated the idea that my pain had somehow become someone else’s.  It almost made me want to apologize, but I refrained when I remembered that it was never my intention to share such things to begin with.

“No.  I mean about what I can’t remember.”

This made me pause.  She wanted to keep those memories?  Did she really mean that, I wondered.  And how could she?

“Was that…presumptuous?” she asked.  Her voice was low and had a warm quality to it.  It was subdued, but not in a way that suggested to me exhaustion or a sense of defeat.  Instead, it only reminded me of the rapacious looks that came across Elmiryn’s eyes in the morning, when she thought I didn’t see her looking my way.

“You…you really don’t make any sense.”  My fingers seemed to forget themselves.  They fussed uselessly with the bandage’s ends, failing even to make a simple box knot.

“So set me straight.”

I turned on the spot and fixed Elmiryn with a half-hearted glare.  “You are not so far-gone as to ask for what I’ve got, Elle.  It was perhaps the–the luckiest thing that I ended up being chased by those farmers.  If I hadn’t…I wouldn’t have met you…and…”  I faltered mid-sentence.  I finally managed to tie the knot correctly and moved to pick up my tunic from the floor.

As I came up, Elmiryn’s hand touched my shoulder gently.  I peered at her with my tunic clutched to my chest.  She frowned at me.

“I do consider myself lucky to have found you when I did, but regardless of whether or not I was there, had you not found those farmers, I think you would’ve been fine.”  When my gaze fell away from hers, her light touch turned to an iron-like grip.  “You would’ve been fine.” She repeated firmly.

“You know why I was nearly starved to death?  Every village I went to chased me out.  Near my home, outsiders have recognized who outcasts are.  I had been kicked out of every known area of the Northwest before meeting you.”  I pulled away from Elmiryn and put on my tunic.  “I wasn’t going to survive long.  I was starving.  Just in the week that I’ve been with you, I think I’ve gotten healthier.  But…but even if I had managed something to eat, I think–”

Elmiryn cut me off with a loud snort.  She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms high on her chest.  “Shit, you’re starting to get aggravating.”

I sputtered. “P-Pardon?”

The woman stood to her feet with a bang.  She made a big show of stomping her feet and pushing her chair back with all her strength.  She was taller than I was, and advanced on my quickly.  The display startled me so much that it caused my legs to fail and I began to fall backward, but Elmiryn didn’t let me go down.  She grabbed me by the front and lifted me up so that my toes barely scraped the ground.

Enough of it, Nyx!” She hissed through her teeth.  Her sharp eyes were like knives turned on me, and I trembled as I dangled in the air.  I thought back to Leander, and fought the urge to struggle.

What she said next surprised me.

“You aren’t weak,” She said.  Her words carried such strength and force, I could practically feel them bury into my gut.  She gave me a shake.  Elmiryn’s face started to turn pink at the cheeks,  “You aren’t useless, you aren’t a coward!  A WEAK person wouldn’t have survived in that cave.  A USELESS person wouldn’t have tried to take care of me.  A COWARDLY person wouldn’t have tried to save their brother from death at such a great risk to themselves. You wanna know what you fucking are?  Undisciplined! But if you can keep pace with me, you’re certainly capable of more.  So guess what?”  She paused and had an expectant look on her face.

“…Wh-What?” I stuttered out.  I had the most bewildered look on my face.

“We’re going to train together.  I’ve been getting a little soft, and as my ward you’ve got to be able to defend yourself.  So enough of this, ‘I can’t fight’ nonsense.  Yer gonna learn to walk with a straight back, Nyx.” She dropped me to the ground and gave me a bit of a shove.  “I swear to the heavens, if I hear you bitch one more time about how you aren’t good enough, I’ll hit you square in the mouth.  And…” She faltered, and the flare and fire in her eyes died down.  Then without warning, she smiled and started to chuckle.  “And by the four winds, you’ll thank me for it!”

She turned and walked away, swept up in a fit of humor that managed to annoy and frighten me at the same time.  Her laughter seemed to intensify as she left the room with her hand to her head.

Elmiryn had either suffered from some delusion created by her curse.

…Or she really meant every word she said.

I collapsed to the ground and blinked as a piece of ember managed to slip through the guard at the fireplace and land near my feet.  I thought to snuff out the glowing bit with my boot, but I couldn’t bring myself to move.  The piece cooled and turned black.

I wondered nervously what tomorrow would bring.


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