It was a silent consensus by the both of us, that the eyes of others weren’t quite what we desired. We avoided the main roads that led to Gamath and made our own way, silent, each consumed by her own thoughts after our meeting with the river guardian and Sedwick. We traveled until the mud turned to firm soil, and the firm soil to shy grass, and the shy grass to unchecked meadow–so tall that the fields teased my fingers. The wind chilled us and made the earth sigh. When the three suns peeked beneath the reign of clouds–their smoldering gazes hot and searing in the clandestine evening–Elmiryn and I cut the fields to the inland forest. It sat dark in the shadow of the Torreth Mountains, and there was a mist in the air that clung to my skin and made me shiver.
But a part of me was glad.
We had returned to the wilderness, where insects made music beneath the bracken fern, and a nighthawk’s glowing eyes blinked at me from the high branches of an old whitebeam tree. I was given a moment, finally apart from my revulsion, to appreciate this beauty. I hadn’t realized how much Gamath had bothered me until I smelled the fresh soil and flowering fauna–heard the rustle of leaves and the shift of grass. For more than a year, the wilderness had been my home. No civilized place would have me.
“…And now,” I couldn’t help but think, “Not even nature will have me.”
“Feels better doesn’t it?” Elmiryn asked in a low voice. She led me through the forest with careful steps, and spared me a glance to see if she could find a hint of me in the growing shadows. I had to hold her elbow a little, as my lacking eyesight made grace difficult when busy roots sought to trip me.
“It does,” I answered, voice equally low. In truth, I wasn’t sure if we were keeping quiet due to some precaution, or because the forest seemed far too peaceful to speak in a normal volume.
“Excellent. I think I see a break in the trees.” Elmiryn hurried her pace. I tried my best to keep up.
We sidled past a set of young bushes and came into a man-made clearing. The ground had clearly been swept and cleared of brush, and in the center was a simple pit circled by rocks. The soil in the pit had turned black, and at the bottom was charred wood. Elmiryn knelt by it, looked into the shallow pit, then around the clearing. I looked around too, as well as I could with my one eye, but saw nothing of interest. It was too dim to see tracks, bones, or seeds. Finally the woman stood to her feet.
“I guess it’s fine. Whoever was here isn’t coming back or we would’ve found them.” She set her things onto the ground.
I followed suit. “Maybe it was a traveler from Dame?”
She shrugged. “I don’t care so long as it doesn’t mean trouble.”
We set up camp. Elmiryn managed to make a fire with the last glimpses of light. I went about roasting the slices of seasoned sheep’s meat on a pan I found in the bag she brought. She, meanwhile, prepared the bed rolls. They were both laid out beneath the branches of the largest tree at the clearing’s edge, so as to protect against any possible rain. She sat down and set about checking her things. It didn’t take long before her eyes were on her modest collection of knives.
My eye watched the sheep’s meat turn brown over the heat of the flames. Slowly, under some ghost of an idea, I raised my hand. It felt heavy and weak. I covered my eye and saw my world go dark. The reality of my situation struck me again and a sob punched from within my chest. I curled defensively against the sound.
“Nyx! You’re burning it!” I heard Elmiryn shout a few moments later.
I gasped and sat upright, my hand moving to reveal that the pan had dipped far into the flames. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?” I yelped as I pulled the pan out of the fire and vainly tried to put out the fiery sheep’s meat.
Elmiryn had moved from her place to sit next to me, a jug of water in hand. “Shit, shit…gods damn it, I only just smelled it now!” She poured enough on the meat to stop the fire. Then she looked at me and started to snicker. “Sorry…I was distracted. I was focusing on sharpening a dull knife.” She chuckled and covered her mouth with her hand.
I blinked at her. Then felt the corner of my lips pull upward. I could feel my throat tighten. “Elmiryn…what am I going to do? What are we going to do? …This’ll be like the blind leading the blind!” These last words found themselves interjected by sudden fits of nervous giggles that came from some unknown place within me. It built up, until I felt tears fall from the tip of my nose and my ribs ache from gasping out harsh laughter.
Elmiryn laughed too–even surpassed me, to the point that her humor turned to mute convulsions that had her bent over her crossed legs and her arms around her head. Somehow, even sitting up as I was became a difficult task as some hysteria took me over. I dropped the pan onto the ground and cried out into the night air through fast giggles, “Look at us! Two blighted fools knocked together out of poor luck, and we barrel onward towards complete chaos! We make no sense! None at all!” I leaned against Elmiryn’s body and shook her with both hands. “Listen to me! Oh, listen to me please!” I paused to let another bout of giggles fade away. “Sweet Aelurus…Elmiryn…my gods Elmiryn…it’s as if you’re a ghost and I’m just a twin hiding her sister!”
She managed to calm down enough to be able to speak. When she did so, she sat up and peered at me. “Hey…you’re right aren’t you?” Her smile turned shy and I thought I saw her cheeks flush. “That changes it a little, doesn’t it?”
I frowned at her, still chuckling. “How do you mean?”
Elmiryn had fallen quiet. She puckered her lips a little as she thought. “Well,” she began slowly. “They always say two eyes are better than one…” she snickered, a slip that almost set us both off again. With light eyes, she glanced at me, “But in this case, what does it matter if you can’t see a ghost?”
I sobered and pulled away from her. “Maybe…We…don’t count among the living? Maybe We’re just unbeing?”
Elmiryn sighed and shook her head. “Why do you do that?”
I shifted nervously. “Do what?”
“What you just said. Refer to yourself like you’re more than one.”
“You do it too, when you talk to me,” I returned, defensive.
“Well…isn’t it…isn’t it not supposed to make sense?” Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck. “When you stop and think about it, it does sound weird. Isn’t something in our minds just supposed to reject saying things like that so casually?”
“I don’t know, Elmiryn. When I was young, I always saw it that way. It wasn’t that anyone told me to think that way…I just…did.”
“…But it’s not the truth.”
“And when did a person’s belief require credibility to come to pass? Whole societies have bought into more ludicrous ideas!”
“More ludicrous than a soul being ripped in half? But…you’re right…and that’s what I don’t get. How does that kind of gut feeling turn out to be wrong? What does that say…about every other notion I’ve ever had?”
I gave her a severe look. When I spoke, my voice was sharp. “You can’t think that way. You’ll completely come apart if you do, so don’t you dare think that way! Why does this matter all of a sudden? It’s my problem–you’re just taking it too personally.”
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at me. And I felt my face burn hot. “I’m sorry,” I said hurriedly. “I…I don’t know why I got so upset.”
“No, no,” she said. A smile crept onto her face. “I sorta like it when you get a little worked up. At least it’s you being protective of me instead of the opposite. …Sort of.”
I brushed my fingers over my bandaged eye. I tried to imagine Her, trapped in the dark. My lips pursed as I thought, with bitter satisfaction, “At least I can still control what she sees.” I tried to envision how frustrated she would be, pacing as a caged animal, given only a window to a world still denied her. But then the blood drained from my face, and my mouth hung open as I launched to my feet. My heart pounded in my ears. I looked skyward. There was moonlight, but from our location I could not see the moon. It was perhaps concealed behind a cloud. Fervently I counted beneath my breath.
Elmiryn had gotten to her feet, and held me steady. “Nyx, what’s wrong?”
I looked at her, my face screwed up with worry, my mouth dry. I was such a fool! How could I forget something so important? “The full moon,” I said, breathless. “It’s tomorrow! Elmiryn, it’s the only time of the month she has full control. What if I can’t come back!?”
The woman looked skyward, then at me. “I’ll watch you. I think your Twin is a little afraid of me. If she tries anything, I’ll just trap her until you come back.”
“Oh gods, it won’t be that easy!”
“As far as I’m concerned, she’s taking you hostage that night. I can’t stop it, but I can make sure you return to me.” Elmiryn smiled and brushed my cheek. “I can’t go losing the voice in my head.”
I felt my face burn and I turned away. I gestured at the sheep’s meat. “Sorry about the food…” I mumbled.
I closed my eye. “Yes?”
“I have an idea on how to change your eye back to normal.”
I looked at her in surprise. “You do?”
“Yeah. Close your eye again.”
I gave her a wary look. “What will you do?”
“Nothing really. I just want to show you a trick of mine.”
“It won’t hurt you. I promise.” She smiled at me.
I sighed heavily. The shadow of her smile barely hid its ulterior motive, and her eyes had a hint of mischief to them.
But my eye slipped shut.
I felt her pull away the bandage, and I held my breath. The air felt cold against my left eyelid. There was another brush against my cheek–slower this time. “Nyx,” I heard Elmiryn say. “I’m going to show you what I do on those nights when my mind disconnects.” Her touch trailed from my cheek to briefly brush back my hair. She tucked the longer bangs behind my ear and blew softly at my face. “When I start to doubt what’s mine and what isn’t,” She said, “All I do is focus on what that part of me is feeling…are you focusing?”
“Yes.” Inwardly, I berated myself for sounding so meek.
I could hear the smile in Elmiryn’s voice. “Good.” She cupped the side of my face and lightly brushed her thumb over my eyelid. “If you can feel this part of you, then it’s yours. Believe that.”
I swallowed. I wondered at the conflicting desire to step forward and step back at the same time. I could feel the heat of the fire, displaced by the occasional breeze. Elmiryn was standing perhaps closer than necessary. I didn’t move. I didn’t want to find out how close she was…or how far. My body was becoming warm in a way entirely unrelated to the fire.
The logic of Elmiryn’s argument was sound. What I felt, was mine, and the sensation spread throughout me. A sort of possession. Elmiryn blew softly against my eyelid, where her hand trailed down to hold my chin. Her breath was warm…so warm that it left a light moisture where it fluttered. I swallowed and felt my throat constrict. Shortly after, her lips touched my skin lightly. She kissed the corner of my eye, then my cheek, before she pressed her face against mine. “Nyx, you know…I’m fond of you.”
I bowed my head a little. “Is this really the best time?”
She gave a huff of a laugh, and her breath startled my mess of hair. “When’s a good time?”
Elmiryn pulled away. My eyes slipped open and I looked at her sideways, brows pressed together. She lifted my face with a finger under my chin and tsked. “You try to hide, even when you’re in plain view.”
I gave a small shake of the head. “We can’t do this.”
“Why not? Is it because I’m missing a body part?”
I scowled and blinked. “N-No…I mean…I confess, I’ve never thought about being with a woman before. But it wasn’t unknown, where I came from.”
“It’s just our way of life. The men often leave home–it was rare to find a constant fatherly presence. The women stuck together and sometimes special relationships came out of it. Society didn’t care so long as they answered the call to bear children. …But…but really, Elmiryn, the issue is more than that.”
She crossed her arms. “Enlighten me.”
“There’s been so many surprises these past few days. So many startling revelations. It’s a lot to take. Can you accept that it’s a lot for me to take? I just got through calling you a friend, I’m…it leaves me a little breathless to think otherwise so soon.”
“…But you do.” There was a dare in her cerulean eyes.
My breath caught and I leaned back a little. “It’s inconceivable. I can’t think of a time in history when a therian and a human ever–”
She snorted. “What? You think a propagandist culture like yours would ever fess to inter-species relationships as something remotely good? As something that’s even physically possible?”
I sighed and shook my head. “No. They wouldn’t.” I gazed at Elmiryn somberly. “But there’s the obvious complications. Something of our curses adversely react when you touch my Mark. And…and…you’re so passionate.” I closed my eyes and ran my hands through my hair. “It’s more than I can take. Especially now. Tomorrow, I shift. I won’t be the same.” I sat heavily on the ground and pulled the pan toward me gloomily. “I might never be the same.”
Elmiryn squatted next to me. She fisted her cheek and leaned on her right knee. “You know, I wanted to ask. When you were young, did they ever explain why you are the way you are?”
I looked at her in confusion. “You mean why we transform?”
“Not just that. I mean your relationship with the world. I was taught that Halward was the father of the human race, and he created us to serve as channels for the energy of the universe. Fair folk and elementals cultivate energy. So what about therians?”
“In the case of Ailurans, we’re just descendants of Aelurus. Where as your species channel life, and other species cultivate it, we simply conduct and regulate. I don’t know what other therians say. Likely something similar.”
Elmiryn squinted one eye. “So does that make you more of a spiritual being?”
I bit my lip. “I think so.”
“So you’re like the river guardian? Is your spiritual ban to shift under the full moon?”
I gave her a startled look. “I–what? No! Of course not!”
“Then you’re telling me you have the choice to shift.”
I stared at her. My mouth hung partially open. Was that what I was saying?
“We have to change,” I whispered. “We have to. There’s no way we can’t.”
“But it’s a spiritual matter. If you can control your spirit, you can control your body. If you can control your body…can you still call yourself a therian? As far as I can tell, that’s the only thing that sets you apart from me.”
My jaw tensed. “Do you even hear yourself right now!? You’re calling an entire species weak-minded! If I never shifted again for the rest of my life, would that make me ‘better?’ Would that make me human?”
Elmiryn shook her head, unfazed by my indignation. “No.” She grinned. “It’d make you boring.” I turned to her, indignant, and she held up a finger, effectively stopping me. “Joking, Nyx. Joking. I never meant to call your species weak-minded, I’m just thinking aloud, all right?” She sat down on the ground and looked skyward. “…Maybe I’m a therian. I always did love the moon.” She gave me a sideways look. “That’d take care of at least one of your problems, wouldn’t it?” I felt a heat blossom deep in my abdomen, and the anger I felt drained to an unnameable sort of discomfort. The woman chuckled and idly wiped a hand across her brow. “Gods…What if I were a cat, like you?”
A smile spread itself across my face, and I tried to hide it by ducking my head and letting my hair fall forward. It was easy for me to envision Elmiryn as a cat. A wide variety of breeds existed within the Ailuran race. I tried to think what kind she would be. A lion? A tiger? A cheetah? My face grew hot, and my eyes spaced. She’d have a sleek coat, a powerful body, and to hear her purr would be–
I jerked upright, and my eyes went wide. I looked at Elmiryn and laughed nervously. “Yes?” I squeaked.
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at me. “Could you turn your face a little more towards me?”
“Huh?” I shifted so that my I faced her fully. “What is it?”
“You haven’t noticed?” The woman asked with a smirk.
“Noticed what?” I touched a hand to my left eye. “Elle, tell me!”
“You’re drooling.” Elmiryn snickered and bit a knuckle to keep from laughing outright.
I wished the ground would swallow me whole. I wiped hurriedly at my chin, where sure enough, drool dampened my palm.
Elmiryn sighed and hugged her bent knee. She leaned back and puckered her lips as if in thought. Then she added casually. “By the way, your eye is back to normal.”
I gave a start, my jaw dropping. “Really!?”
“Yeah. You’re seeing out of both eyes aren’t you?” I blinked. I was, but hadn’t thought about it. “Just check your reflection in one of my knives if you don’t believe me.”
I stood to do just that, my feet tripping over themselves in their haste. I picked up the biggest knife and scooted near the fire so that I could catch some of the light. I gasped. My eye was indeed completely back to normal.
“Told you,” I heard Elmiryn say. I looked at her just as she picked up one of the slices of sheep’s meat from the pan and took a bite. She grimaced and set the meat back down. “Really burnt,” she said around the food in her mouth. She spat it out in the bushes behind her.
I swallowed and put the knife back. I straightened slowly from setting the blade down, a little embarrassed to look back. When had my eye changed back? Why hadn’t it hurt? Did Elmiryn know the whole time, or did she just notice it herself?
…And how distracting was the woman that I couldn’t even take note of sight returning to me?
“Elle…thank you,” I said quietly to the trees.
“What did I do?” She said behind me.
I turned and peered at her. “You helped change my eye back.”
Her face drew long, like this statement surprised her. Then, in the usual sudden fashion, Elmiryn started to giggle. She covered her face with her hands. Something about this made me smile shyly. Once again, Elmiryn came across as strangely feminine, the way she pretended to conceal her amusement.
“Elle, why are you giggling?” I asked as a chuckle slipped into my words. I drifted nearer to the fire and sat down, cross-legged.
Elmiryn peeked at me through her fingers and grinned. “Nyx, I’ll be honest. I just wanted to get close enough to give you a kiss on the cheek, that’s all. Any other way, and you would’ve panicked on me.”
“Oh. Was that all you wanted?” I muttered. My collar felt hot. I tugged at it, and glowered at the trees.
Elmiryn dropped her hands from her face and breathed in deeply. “I wasn’t lying when I said I was fond of you,” she murmured.
I fiddled with the hem of my tunic. “Fond how?”
“Fond as in…I want to wake up to you in the morning.” She fixed her attention on me. I looked back at her, like a fish biting at a hook. I expected the eyes of an architect–the focused and objectifying stare that had leveled me that day in Gamath. My lips quivered, burning with the memory of her kiss.
…But to my surprise, those eyes were not there. Not there in the way that I knew they were hidden, tucked beneath a separate persona, not unlike my own special set of bestial eyes. What I was confronted with instead was softer. This gaze–cool eyes swathed in heat–held simple sincerity. My hand planted itself on the ground and I leaned my body in Elmiryn’s direction, my eyes widening in fascination.
This was a side of Elmiryn that had previously only revealed itself under the influence.
“I’ve seen you turned inside out…and you were good to me,” The woman continued, when my silence stretched on. She paused, then turned her gaze to the fire with a shrug of her shoulder. “Don’t read so much into it. I’m only being honest.”
“And yet still vague,” I returned with a frown. “Elmiryn, I won’t be one of your conquests.”
“No,” she said with a soft smile. “…You’ll be the thread that holds me together.”
I snorted and looked away. “And if the thread is poorly spun?”
I immediately regretted opening my mouth. Elmiryn sat upright like a bolt, her eyes at the widest I’d seen them. When she spoke it was a harsh whisper. “What did you just say?”
I looked at her, taken aback. “I–I–”
She crawled to me frantically, and I scrambled back in alarm. She caught up to me quickly and moved over my body. Elmiryn stopped when she hovered over my waist. The fire lit her from behind, and her face was illuminated by the soft touches of the moonlight. I blinked up at her, frozen in my anxiety. She reached a hand toward me, but stopped partway. The woman then shook her head and turned her face. I heard her mutter, “It isn’t yours,” before she stood up and walked past me. She didn’t pause to dust off her knees or hands, just sat on her bedroll and laid back. I remained where I was, my breath quiet, but short. I dared to move only when the fire started to die down.
I sat there and watched the weak flames lap at the black and disfigured wood. In the quiet that was given me, I reflected on the recent conversation–my meekness against Elmiryn’s self-confidence, the pain versus the humor, my anger versus…
And I paused.
Feeling low, I turned where I sat and looked at Elmiryn’s still form. She was under a blanket and on her side, feet towards me, with her arms tucked beneath her head. Intuitively, I knew she wasn’t asleep. I moved to her side and knelt. “Elmiryn.”
“Mmm?” She didn’t move her body, but I saw her eyes blink. Lightly I touched her shoulder.
“Elmiryn…I don’t know why you got upset, but I’m sorry. I–” My voice cracked. I took a deep breath and tried to resume as steadily as possible. “I’m just worried. What if I come apart, and no one is left to help you?” I wiped hurriedly at my eyes. Tears slipped between my fingers. “I don’t want to be the reason you…” My words left me. I bowed my head and tried to contain myself, and my body shook with the effort.
Elmiryn rolled onto her back, and her side brushed my knees. She reached a hand up and brushed back my hair. “Nyx…You forget.”
With a hiccup I looked at her and frowned. “What do you mean?”
Her smile reached me, even in the indefinite darkness. “It was my job to protect you, before it was your job to contain me.”
I looked at her, then laughed and buried my face in her stomach. She patted the back of my head, and I peeked at her shyly from beneath my mane of hair. She grinned at me through the valley of her breasts. “You’re a little off the mark, as you can see.”
I poked her side. “Oh, don’t start!” But I had a grin to match hers. The way the shadows draped us, and the privacy of the untamed forests protected us, I felt safe. From this angle, Elmiryn didn’t seem like the fearsome warrior I had met a week ago. It occurred to me then, that this was the first time since we had met that we spoke like this–in the dark. But the difference then, was that a stretch of branch and preconceptions separated us. I could hardly say that the mysteries surrounding our relationship were solved. But the waters I had previously eyed with trepidation were now up to my waist…and it was a relief to know that despite the horrors faced, I didn’t drown.
I licked my lips and sat up a little, my left hand planted on the other side of Elmiryn’s body so that our sides pressed intimately. The woman had laid her head back again, and her eyes had gone closed. “Elmiryn…” I breathed.
Her eyes opened a sliver, and I thought I saw her smirk. “Mmm?”
My heart pounded. I leaned over slow, and my arms shook with the effort of supporting me. I planted a light kiss on her brow and pulled back to whisper. “Probably against my better judgment…Elmiryn, I’m…I’m fond of you too!” I shook my head and let a wry smile spread across my face. “It’s against all of my common sense, actually,” I added with a giggle.
Elmiryn tsked. “Nyx, you know how to make a girl feel special.”
I just giggled again. Carefully, I laid at her side, and Elmiryn shifted so that she faced me, one arm tucked beneath her head.
“Well how can I make it better?” I asked quietly.
The woman scooted closer, and brushed her nose against mine. “You want to know what you can do?” she asked in a breath. She draped her arm over my side. “I can’t sleep. Could you…tell me a story?”
I blinked. “…Really?”
She snickered. “You sound disappointed.”
I hoped she couldn’t see the way my face flushed in the dark. “No, no…I…just don’t know any stories well enough to tell you.”
“Maybe you can tell me about that guy. Wind.”
“…What’s the matter?”
“I’m trying to remember what Tobias wrote.”
“Forget what he wrote. Tell me in your own words.”
Beneath the branches of tall trees, I told Elmiryn in hushed tones of the time mighty Wind had trapped the godless Spider of the West. Their conflict played out in the space between us, like a suspended breath, but rather than replace our dreams, it weaved into them. Spider, a Legend without a master, and Wind, a man without a home. Us beneath the arms of nature, hunted and hated, with the blessings of an immortal spirit and a compass that pointed northward.
The fate of a man, Sedwick, who lost so much to gain an opportunity beyond what anyone could have conceived, hovered in our minds…and who was to say it was a good or bad thing, what happened to him? Who was to say I was a monster, doomed to be alone? Who was to say Elmiryn was a ghost, doomed to fade away? Didn’t all of our misfortunes return us to our hopes, in the end? In stories of lives far apart, that echoed across lands and cultures, that whispered across hundreds of pages, and that haunted children’s dreams as much as our own…
Who was to say that a river, couldn’t have its tributaries?
we speak to fall.
but close at heart
from the start:till death apart
End of Part I