I curled in the sheets of a massive bed that wasn’t mine. I heard patters on the window. Fat drops of water abused the panes with such gusto that my eye creaked open. I heard people laugh outside. At first it was hard for my sleepy head to grasp why, but then it became clear.
I sat up and tried to blink the sleep from my eyes.
It was raining at Gamath.
I kicked the sheets away and placed my bare feet on the wooden floor, my face turned long with wonder at the sight of the speckled glass. The view revealed to me indefinite forms that danced and shifted. I stood, my legs affected by my fleeting dreams. I swayed a little as I crossed the room, and the partial light lanced my sensitive eyes. Forced to squint, I tried to shield my face with a hand, and it was through parted fingers that I saw a phantom drift toward the window.
They wore only a soaked white nightgown and their auburn hair was left to hang in wet locks about their angular face. Even through the changing mosaic of rain, I could make out wide cerulean eyes that didn’t blink or falter in their stare.
“Elmiryn,” I called, hoping she heard me through the glass.
She reached a hand up and placed it on the window. Her lips moved and I could hear her voice through the rain, but couldn’t make out what she said. I shook my head and stepped closer, where I leaned on the window sill for support. My breath fogged the glass. “What did you say?”
The woman laughed and shook her head. She gestured for me to come outside and began to walk away.
I tapped on the glass and tried to call her back, but then decided I was being silly about it. Rain wouldn’t kill me. I ran to get my shoes and was about to rush out the door when something occurred to me.
Elmiryn was standing outside in nothing but her nightgown. Wet from head to toe.
Red-faced and thoroughly bothered, I went to the innkeeper’s wardrobe where I was lucky to find cloaks both for myself and Elmiryn. The inn itself was quiet when I left the bedroom, but outside children and adults alike were celebrating in the rain. I didn’t pause long to watch them, instead I put on one cloak and made my way around the building to the back, where I found Elmiryn sitting on a barrel with her arms crossed over her chest and her head tilted back. Her eyes were wide open, despite the rain, and she had a long smile on her face.
“Elle, where’s your sense!?” I cried as I tossed the heavy cloak onto her lap. She didn’t jump or look even remotely startled. Her eyes lingered on the sky before she looked at me, the turn of her head a smooth line of motion that outlined her lack of concern.
“Hm?” Was her only response. She sounded like she wanted to laugh.
“The cloak, Elle,” I said, my jaw tense as my eyes rapidly shifted focus from the left to the right side of her face. I tried very hard to keep my head up, but I could see the pink of her chest through the white fabric. Despite the cold, heat burned up my neck. “Put it on. You’re indecent and there’s children around!”
Elmiryn blinked and took the cloak in her hands. She stared at it for a moment before putting it on. “Right. I didn’t stop to think about that.” Then she looked at me and her eyes squinted a fraction. “Hey. Now that I think about it, you actually got out of bed on your own!”
I tapped my boots in a puddle, an irritated scowl on my face. “I’m not so languorous that something that basic is beyond my capacity.” I opened my mouth, ready to explain what I meant in simpler words when Elmiryn raised a hand to stop me.
“No, no. I think I got the gist of that one, thanks.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “So you figured out that you can infer definitions?”
“…I can what?”
“I’m just teasing, Nyx,” Elmiryn giggled.
Silence fell between us. My eyes wandered, where they met with jovial faces. They drifted to the buildings, whose weeping eaves and washed walls were freed of the oppressive ash that had covered them in a gloomy blanket. My gaze rose skyward, and a single word drifted into my head in a river’s whisper only to fade into the hiss of the rain.
I looked at Elmiryn and found that her eyes were already on me. “Did you just realize?” She said. Her eyes were warmed by understanding.
At once, I was struck with how frail she appeared. Her hair had turned dark and wavy by the moisture, robbed of its well-kept beauty to something bedraggled and wild. Her nose and cheeks were a fair pink. Swallowed by the large dark cloak, she appeared smaller to me with the strength of her arms concealed. The cover seemed to make her just realize the effects of the rain and cold. Her shoulders hunched a fraction of an inch, and now and again her body gave itself away by a twitch or a small shudder. With the rainwater making trails down her bare legs, I saw that the cloak was too little, too late.
I stepped closer and grabbed the woman gently by the shoulders. “Come on, Elle. Let’s go warm by the fire. You can’t get sick.”
She grabbed me by the front and pulled me a little closer. Her touch, unlike last night, was more a suggestion then a forceful demand, still I found myself following until her face was pressed against the side of mine. Elmiryn felt cold, and the shivers she tried to conceal could no longer hide in our proximity.
“Elle…” I sighed as my arms wrapped around her shoulders. I willed my warmth to become hers.
I could hear the smile in her voice as the woman whispered into my ear. The feathery feeling it caused made my hands flex against her back, and I bit my lip.
“Nyx…” she whispered. “…Her sisters. The guardian’s sisters have come back to her.”
She warmed near the fire, her head cradled against her shoulder as we sat near the fireplace in the innkeeper’s bedroom. There was a disinterest in the slack features of her face, the slow blink of her eyes, the deep rhythm of her breathing. Heavy wool blankets draped her shoulders, courtesy of Opal. I sat on the chair to the right of her and watched her out of the corner of my eye. My legs were crossed and my head rested on my interlaced hands.
Elmiryn didn’t say anything else after we had returned to the safety of the inn, nor did she say anything when Opal had to shoo the local children out from underfoot. Outside, the rain had become torrential. It chased away the festivities, and by noon, all at Gamath were indoors.
The streets were flooded with streams. Doors were kept shut and blocked with rolled sheets to keep the water out. Concern in me grew over whether this weather would continue. Even in this valley, I could see the city being submerged beneath the heavenly shower. Were the clouds still angry? Or was this overwhelming joy?
Elmiryn’s voice seemed elsewhere. I looked at her, brows pressed together. “Yes, Elle?”
“I’m still cold.”
I straightened in my seat and turned, some intention in my muscles that preceded the cognizance of my mind. But the instinctual action halted the moment I became aware of myself, and my motive was lost. I remained leaned toward her, and my hands hovered useless over her shoulder and back. Elmiryn lifted her head to look at me. Her face looked vaguely puzzled. Her eyes traced my features, but had a glassy look about them. “Is it okay? To still feel cold?” she asked with a frown.
My hands clenched before they gently rested against her. I tentatively began to rub her back.
The fabric beneath my hand was a separation between myself and Elmiryn, a thing that prevented true contact but did nothing to diminish the intimacy of the action. The woman had told me herself that she desired nothing of my deference or propriety. A week ago, I would have been much more hard pressed to honor such a feeling, but at that moment it didn’t take much to accept her wish for companionship. Just as I could forget myself and berate Elmiryn for her recklessness, I rationalized it was entirely acceptable to wish to comfort her in times of need–and I was learning when those times were. Upon meeting her, I found the woman to be indomitable. Now, in the space of a smile, the echo of a laugh, a touch of her hand, my view of her had changed.
The issue was not so much Elmiryn, but in comprehending my own responses to these curious stimuli–the heated flesh, the salivation, the short breath, the knot in the pit of my gut. My hand made slow circles, fingers splayed, and my fingertips burned knowing that I would not stop, despite the knowledge that the fabric did nothing…
Nothing to diminish the intimacy.
Then, guided by the moment, with the silence drawn to the point of breaking, I pulled the woman to me and hugged her around the shoulders, where her head came to rest on my chest. Her hair was still damp, and her ears and nose still pink. Our seats were close enough that she was able to hug my torso for support. Despite our difference in size, it wasn’t awkward.
…And she said nothing. Reacted in no other way than to go along with my embrace as if she had no choice, and cared nothing for it. This dispassion perturbed me. I knew she was only partially with me, and I feared where her other half had gone in the gloomy labyrinth that I tasted of her mind. I squeezed her, and needed for her to react. “Elmiryn.”
“Haven’t you ever felt like your insides were cold?” she said suddenly, like a machine startled to life. “As if the heat of the world can’t penetrate the shallow layers of your skin? I tried remembering how warm the townsfolk looked despite the rain, but I can’t remember their smiles any more.” The woman chuckled low. She went on rambling and I didn’t stop her, only tried to keep myself from hugging her tighter. “There was fire in his eyes,” she said, a hint of fascination in her voice. “I don’t remember how it looked, but I felt it. And I shot him in the back. The arrow lunged instead of hopped that time–the first time, I think my hand forgot it belonged to me and just let go. I remember him groaning, the men grunting, and I thought it was such a disgrace. …But hey, the bastard’s blood won’t be in the streets anymore. Fire’s gone, but he’s dead.” She sighed. “I wonder if I’ll ever meet a man who can stand upright and kill me. Maybe I’ll feel like I’m in ice, soon. I can’t think of anything colder…or is it possible to go further?”
When she finished my eyes squinted as much as I felt confused. I shifted to look down at Elmiryn’s head. “I don’t understand at all.”
“No?” She sounded unconcerned.
“What do you mean, ‘A man who could stand upright and kill me?'” If I could, I’d ask for her to explain everything, but I figured I’d get my answers bit by bit. It seemed as much as she could handle, at the moment.
She shifted a little, and her chair squeaked. “Hmm,” she said. “I was thinking of a large man, who went around on all fours. The son of a bitch was angry at me. But it’s okay. He’s dead. Got him, yesterday.”
I tensed. “You mean a therian?”
“No. He wore furs. I mean he looked like an animal. It doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”
“But Elmiryn, who’s dead! You can’t just tell me–” I stopped, as I finally understood. I closed my eyes, and my expression turned weary. “Elle, I want you to listen to me. You didn’t kill a man. You killed a bear.”
I expected her to argue with me. Her silence did indeed carry a sense of resistance to it, but she didn’t say a word. I opened my eyes and said again, “It wasn’t a man, it was a bear. I even heard some of the others you were hunting with tell me so.”
“Was it the gargoyle?”
I shook my head, my chin brushing over her damp hair. I decided to ignore the bizarreness of the question. “Elle, just believe me. It wasn’t a man. It just wasn’t.”
She remained quiet. Then nodded. “All right…” she murmured.
She shifted her face toward my body and breathed in deep. “Hey Nyx…guess what?”
“What?” I managed to ask that in a steady voice.
Elmiryn’s hug tightened around me. “You sound like a musical instrument.” She made as if to lift her head, and I turned my face to give her room. But what she did instead paralyzed me. Elmiryn indeed raised her head up, but without pulling away from me. She trailed her lips up my neck to my ear, all hot breath–none of the supposed cold she claimed she harbored inside. She said quietly in my ear, “I can feel your voice in my head, as much as I can feel your heartbeat. Can you tell me what I’m thinking?”
My body tensed, and when my sensibilities returned to me, I placed my hands at her shoulders as if to push her back. But then Elmiryn sat back enough to look me in the eyes, and the distant look was gone. She was fixed on me. Or some aspect of me. It was a growing suspicion of mine that when the woman stared at me as she did then–intense and hungry–she didn’t actually see the whole of me…or she did, but saw me in a different light than she should, just as one might gain a new understanding of a sculpture or building by changing their view point.
I heard myself speak.
“…You want something I have.”
The woman, her cerulean eyes lit with warm half-moons from the fire, took my face in her hands and pressed her lips to mine. I didn’t cry out, only widened my eyes and straightened with a deep intake of breath, like I had just been dunked in freezing water.
Her mouth was articulate in touch, and expressed its desire by its eager press and dominating manner. I was left no room to question, anymore than I was allowed the night before while held aloft by Elmiryn’s powerful grip. My hands clenched and seemed to consider the situation at hand…only to acquiesce and take light hold at the crooks of Elmiryn’s arms. Something clandestine uncoiled itself from the center of my chest, and my eyes slipped shut.
My lips moved against Elmiryn’s as if in a stutter. She pressed forward, the frailty that had shrouded her giving way to unabashed eagerness. Elmiryn parted just enough to hiss into my open mouth, “Give me your Meaning.” I only distantly wondered as to what she meant. She didn’t give me much time to mull over her demand–only pressed her mouth harder to mine and pressed forward so much I was forced to lean back. I grabbed at her to keep from falling, and her arms encircled me again, pulling me closer.
Her hands roved my back as her tongue found its way into my mouth–no pause to see if I would object. It hardly seemed a concern of hers, and just as I suspected her intense stare saw something inconceivable in my features, her desire seemed driven by a motive other than simple gratification. I started to genuinely feel afraid she would smother me until I suffocated. I could hardly breathe with her long tongue exploring every cavity of my mouth.
I suppose she became unsatisfied with the separation of cloth that guarded my back, for her hands slipped underneath my tunic and trailed their way up my skin. The moment her fingers touched the lines of my Mark, I froze, the sensation from the night before striking me. Though part of my back was covered by my bandages, not all of it was, and these parts Elmiryn explored eagerly. I would have told her to stop, would have pushed her back…but with every pass of her hand, the sensation in me grew. I heard a humming in my head, as though my bones resonated. My skin grew hot. In a singular fashion–not a wave–my body felt as though it were about to break apart into dust.
I arched my body with a choked sound and broke our kiss, as my head craned back as far as it could go. My eyes rolled, eyelids twitched and tears slipped down the sides of my face. At first, I imagine Elmiryn must have thought the arching of my back as an encouraging response. She bit at my neck, near my throat where I tried to speak, but couldn’t. When I started to thrash and convulse, the situation finally seemed to reach her. She pulled away from me, and her embrace turned from one of a lover’s, to that of a person struggling with the insane. Her hands came out from under my tunic to better hold me.
“Nyx!?” she cried.
I was, again, aware of every inch of myself. It was as though I vibrated down to the smallest part, and the heat that claimed me burned so much it stung. I fought to continue breathing. I managed shallow gasps.
Then I felt something familiar, but just as terrible, slip through the sensations that gripped me. My joints ached, and my muscles started to shift. Meat and sinew slid at the cost of my nerves. My bones elongated. Something between a cry and a groan came from deep inside me, and I fought as hard as I could to remain in control of my body. The greatest difficulty came in that I wasn’t shifting correctly. My right arm, my left hand, both my shins, and my shoulders were the only parts of myself that called for change. When I shapeshift, the process starts at my chest, then spreads in a symmetrical pattern. This confused change was harder for my mind to pin down and stop. I closed my eyes to concentrate on regaining control.
…It amazes me, looking back, how I was capable of forgetting about my counterpart. How could I sit on my laurels and not anticipate her return from whatever sleep she had slipped into since the guardian’s cave?
I knew I was winning my fight when I was able to scream.
The heat began to recede. The pain and aches in my muscles and bones faded as they returned to normal. With the humming gone from my head, I could hear Elmiryn panting over me. I sucked in air desperately, like I had just come up from water. With my head feeling as though it weighed a ton, I strained to sit upright again. My eyes opened, slow and heavy.
…Terror struck me.
“What happened?” I cried, blinking and trying to open my eyes as wide as possible. Not even a sliver of light shone through the left side. My right eye strained as if it could pick up the slack left by its sibling. “Why can’t I see out of one eye!?”
Elmiryn frowned deeply. Her ruddy hair was a curtain around her face. “You can’t see out of it at all?” she asked.
“No! I can’t at all!” I rubbed at my eye. Squeezed it shut and opened it again. I wailed.
I pushed out of Elmiryn’s embrace, our limbs a confused tangle after the way I had struggled in her arms. Clumsily, I managed to free myself, and gazed with my one good eye to see that Den, Opal, and a few others were crowded at the open door of the room. They stared at me in confusion…and perhaps a little fear.
“What happened?” Den asked with a step forward. He seemed out of breath, as though he came running.
Elmiryn gave a shrug and glanced back at him. “She hasn’t got her eye anymore.”
I looked at her in confusion. I felt near hysterics. “What do you mean??” I cried.
Opal looked at her father before she spoke. Her voice was small and shaky. “Ah…your…your eye. It’s different from the other one. It’s…um…” her voice trailed and she turned away, as if the sight was too repulsive for her.