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.
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.”
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…”
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.