It took another hour to get the mess sorted. Lethia was doubly frightened without her stolen knowledge of who we were, and Elmiryn just couldn’t believe that the wailing youth had “the guts” to actually try and cave her head in. Argos–to my great astonishment–was my biggest aid, for Lethia would listen to no one but him. The moment I saw this, it became difficult to refer to him as “it” or “the animal” anymore, even if it all sat awkwardly in my mouth. When Lethia had calmed enough to sit hiccuping on the log, and Elmiryn had put away her sword and quit peeking underneath small slabs of rock (as though her assailant had the power to turn wafer thin), we all sat down for a reasonable talk.
I went on to explain our arrival, and how Lethia had initially taken Elmiryn’s memory after mistaking her for “one of the bad men.” Again, with Argos’ aid, the matter was cleared up in its entirety, and I sagged visibly in my spot seated across from Lethia’s log.
Elmiryn patted my shoulder, grinning. “It’s a good thing your memory wasn’t taken, or else we’d all be in serious trouble.”
I shuddered at the thought.
Lethia sniffled and wiped at her swollen red eyes behind her shaded glasses. “I’m sorry for all this trouble you two. I guess what I was trying to say, before I…y’know…forgot…was that I have really horrible memory. It’s because of the power inside me, my mistress says. That’s why it isn’t the same as when a normal person forgets something. Every moment of my life, the power shifts, and where it rests in my mind is where it blots out information.”
My brows pushed together in pity. “So…there’s always something you can’t remember?”
Lethia nodded. “I mean…I don’t know what it is until I try to remember it, of course, but that’s basically how it works. Sometimes the power breaks up, and I forget lots of little things. Other times, it gathers in one place, and I forget a large chunk of my life. That’s only happened a few times, as I’ve been told. Those times, I forgot…incredible things.” The girl’s face grew red, even to the tips of her ears, which poked out from her curtain of hair. “L-Like how to…breathe. How…to talk.” She reached beneath her spectacles to wipe at her eyes again.
My hand flew to my mouth. “Sweet Aelurus, how horrible!”
“If it weren’t for Argos, I wouldn’t have survived this long.” Lethia gave a weak smile and scratched him behind the ear. Argos groaned appreciatively, a smile on his furry face. “He catches all my food, protects me, and finds the safest places to hide. We weren’t going to stay here long. He says the bad men will know to look for us near water. But, he said we could afford it for a little while, since we’re ahead of them. We lost them in the Witch’s Alley–the mountain pass that leads to Dolmensk.”
“What were you doing all the way up there?” Elmiryn asked brusquely. Her arms were folded and her expression was guarded. I gave her a reproachful look.
Lethia looked at her, nonplussed. “Looking for help. I heard that many adventurers go to Dolmensk to brag and boast…but none of them wanted to listen to me! Then the bad men chased me out.”
“Wait, wait…who are the ‘bad men’? Why are they chasing you?”
The girl became interested in her boots. “Because there’s a bounty on my head,” she mumbled.
I started forward, my mouth dropping. “On you!? Why? What for?” Elmiryn just let out a laugh and turned her face to the side. Her body shook with her humor. I gave her a whap on the arm. “It isn’t funny, Elle!”
Lethia shifted, her face scrunching up with anxiety. “I…” Her chin crumpled. She took a shaky breath as a tear slipped from her right eye. I felt my chest give a great pull as the girl suddenly fell apart again…but this time in grief. “I’ve been so scared!” She exclaimed, taking large gasps in some floundering attempt to remain in control of her emotions. “I’ve been so tired of running…Syria’s all I have! I can’t possibly live without her. What if one day I forget who I am completely? What if one day I forget how to breathe??”
She gave a shiver, then bowed forward and gripped her head with both hands. Argos tried to comfort her with a warm lick of his tongue, but the girl appeared inconsolable.
I sighed and went to kneel in front of her. Gripping Lethia’s hand gently in my own, something solidified for me–an uncertain sympathy that had hovered in the shadows, waiting for the unmistakable connection that would validate all its impressions. The girl was an unfortunate youth, alone and at the mercy of her own mind. Given my situation–given Elmiryn’s–I could hold back my compassion no more. I tried to ignore my fears from before. Surely, the incident at the tavern had no bearing in this situation?
I leaned forward to look Lethia in the eye. “Lethia…why is there a bounty on your head?”
The girl sobbed and wiped at her mouth with a trembling hand. She turned her face away, then said quietly. “My mistress…was charged with black magic. The authorities took her away, to Holzoff’s Tower–the prison for our region. She…She could’ve killed them all. But she didn’t. Because she’s good. She helps people–people like me–people like you!” She looked at Elmiryn next, and her face seemed to light up with some great hope. “Syria specializes in memory and brain function. Certainly she can help solve your problem!”
Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder. “I doubt that.”
I frowned at her. “Elle! What about the river guardian? Didn’t she tell us to look for answers in other places? Perhaps this person can help us find it!”
The woman smiled, but it held no warmth. “And what? Forget about her other instructions to seek the sage on the Indabe? And how do you expect to help Syria when she’s incarcerated? Are we supposed to clear her name like a couple of gob-flapping politicians? You, a Marked outcast, and me, an ex-soldier wanted for the same fucking crime?”
My face grew hot, and I glared daggers…but she was right. I looked at Lethia apologetically. “Lethia…she has a point. There isn’t much we can do for your mistress.”
The girl frowned, and she gripped my hand back tightly. “I’ve talked to all the scholars and politicians I could before they put the bounty on me. They all believe she’s guilty.”
I scowled at her. “So…you want us to–”
“I’ve been looking for adventurers for a reason! Syria has already lost in the courts. What I want to do, is set her free!”
“I said no.”
“You aren’t even considering the possible benefits that might come–”
“What I’m considering are the things you seem to have forgotten. Like, y’know, the snake at the Canon’s Punch, or the fact that I have a bounty on my head.”
“I agree with you that it would be too risky to try and do as the girl wants, but for heaven’s sake–she’s just a child! Maybe we can help her–”
“She’s hardly younger than you are, AND she’s a magic user. Let her sort it out. Maybe her Mangy Beast can do something for her.”
“I can’t believe how callous you’re being!”
“I thought you’d be happy to see me use my common sense for once.”
“Technically, there was never anything wrong with your common sense. The issue was always the information your common sense was left to sort out!”
“So I’m not crazy, just damaged.”
“Why are you being like this?”
“Fuck, y’know what? I don’t know!” Elmiryn whirled around, a vicious grin on her face that spoke more of frustration than actual humor. And this bothered her. For such things, in her eyes should not bother at all.
…What did it matter that Nyx went and held the girl’s hand?
They had left the chamber and returned to the outside, Elmiryn having made the determination to get as far away from Lethia as possible. It was nothing against the girl. She thought Lethia was funny in an ass-backwards sort of way. And she didn’t want to say it, but something of the youth’s general appearance created such an incredible image in her head that the woman was certain she was reminded of someone, only she didn’t know who.
Immediately upon the suns lighting her skin, Elmiryn felt as though she were watched. The woman glared upward at the sky, feeling the light betray her somehow. She gazed skyward, one hand up to shield her eyes.
“Maybe I’m like this because that kid tried to bash my head in? Maybe because we didn’t get anything for following her mutt all the way back to her little hideout? Maybe because I’m still hung over, the scar on my hand’s itching me, or I’m as hungry as a starved fat noble?” The woman shrugged, and a genuine chuckle came up her throat. She tried to stifle it, but this only seemed to make it worse. “Or I don’t know. Hell I don’t know. I feel like the butt of a cosmic joke at the moment.”
“So you’re laughing at yourself?” Nyx’s lips jerked upwards as she said this, but she pressed them straight. Elmiryn wasn’t fooled.
The woman placed a hand on her hip and shifted her weight to one foot. She smiled jauntily. “It’s a good thing, isn’t it? Being able to laugh at myself?” Then she bowed her head. “Just like there really is a self to laugh at.”
Her companion crossed her arms over her chest, taking one pinky to scratch at her right eyebrow. “Elle, the force of your personality leaves little question in my mind that there IS an Elmiryn for me–I mean–” the girl blushed and smiled sheepishly. “For us to…laugh at,” she tried to cover her mouth to hide her smile, but the sound of her deep-throated chuckles soon proved that the humor was infectious. Within seconds, both women were out of breath.
“We followed a dog–” Elmiryn started, her free hand now gripping her ribs as the other leaned onto her knee.
“For miles it seems–” Nyx continued, red in the face and wiping at the corners of her eyes.
“An’–an’ all we got–!”
“Was a bigger headache!” Nyx doubled over, shaking even harder. She started to gasp out something, and Elmiryn, discovering that it was actually becoming increasingly painful to laugh (perhaps the dog really had broken something in there) tried to calm herself.
Nyx finally seemed able to speak when her wave of laughter subsided. “I can’t…ah gods…ah why–why are we even laughing? It isn’t that funny!”
“Sure it is!”
“Ugh…your queer sense of humor is starting to rub off on me, I think.”
Elmiryn hid her face behind her hand and took deep breaths. She heard Nyx begin to calm as well. When the woman lowered her hand, she turned and took a few steps with eyes toward the stream. Her eyes trailed the glittering water. “Is it…really bad?” The woman began to say, eyes squinted against the glare of the stream. “To leave the girl? Would I have done that…a week ago?”
Nyx sighed behind her. “You’re going to have to decide, Elmiryn…what kind of woman you want preserved. You asked me to help keep you from turning into something else. But…maybe you should ask yourself what you’re afraid of becoming?”
The woman turned her eyes to the ground. She didn’t want to see what a Nyx-Filled-With-Insight looked like.
There was the sound of heavy pounding. Elmiryn turned to see Argos sprinting towards them. Nyx, unnerved by the sight of the massive dog barreling towards them, hurried to hide behind Elmiryn. The woman grinned at how fast she moved. Argos cleared the distance in less than two seconds, sliding to an incredible stop that left great gouges in the grass and dirt next to them. Nyx squealed a little.
Coming much slower behind him, was Lethia, dressed in a large brown winter coat with shiny silver buttons and a high collar. Her dark spectacles bounced on the slim bridge of her nose, and she panted as though she’d never ran in her life.
“Oh, please wait…please!”
When she caught up to them, she leaned over onto her knees to catch her breath. Her hair tangled in the breeze, and her pack, now bursting with her belongings, slipped off her shoulder to the ground.
Nyx turned to regard her fully. “Are you alright?” Her voice was filled with concern. Elmiryn bit the inside of her cheek.
Lethia raised a hand, signaling she still needed a moment. When she straightened, she pushed her glasses higher up on her nose and gave a nod. “I’m fine…I just…” Her brows pushed together and she bit her lip. “Um…I know you said you didn’t want to help me free Syria, but is it alright if I still travel with you? At least for a little while? You said you were going north, didn’t you?”
Nyx glanced at Elmiryn, who sucked at her teeth. “Why are you going back north? Isn’t that where they’ll be looking for you?” The woman said, a note of criticism in her voice.
Lethia drew herself up. She balled her fists at her sides and glared at Elmiryn. “I haven’t got a choice. I can’t live without Syria and they’re going to execute her in a week. I’ll figure something out on my own. I’m still an enchantress.”
“Have you ever given thought to the possibility that maybe your mistress really did do those things? Maybe you should just get on with your life.”
The youth started forward. She tore her glasses off her face, and both Nyx and Elmiryn gave a start. Lethia did not look Elmiryn in the eyes, but her gaze still flashed in indignation. She bore holes into the woman’s shoulder. “The boys the authorities found were fileted open from the navel to their chins. Symbols were burned into their bodies, and their genitalia caught off. Their skin sloughed away when their families tried to prepare them for burial. I don’t know what sort of magic that is, but MY mistress is a good woman. She would never do those horrible things. She took me in when my parents died, and she’s given me everything I have now. I will never abandon her.”
Lethia’s eyes flickered higher, towards Elmiryn’s nose. The woman, out of stubborn pride, would not look away, but her back tensed and her hands curled to fists. The girl continued in a shaky whisper. “If I concentrate, I can take something specific from a person’s mind. Just like I can forget how to walk one day, I can make someone else forget the same. Don’t mistake my loyalty for weakness. You’re a soldier. You should know the difference.”
Then Lethia stepped back and placed her glasses back on.
Elmiryn stared at her as though seeing her for the first time. The girl was trembling from the adrenaline, and Argos took to sitting next to her. His fur was puffed and his teeth bared as he looked up at Elmiryn. Nyx gripped the woman’s arm tightly, and she glanced at her companion who eyed her anxiously.
“Um…” The warrior rubbed the back of her neck. Then with a sigh, she extended her hand. “I’m sorry. You’re right. You know your mistress better than I do, and you’re a brave girl.” The woman grinned. “Really brave. Or really stupid. Either way, you seem alright.”
Lethia took her hand. Her face screwed up. “…Thanks?”
“Look, if you want to come with us for some of the way, then I guess it couldn’t hurt. Hell, you’re going that way anyway, it’s not like we could completely avoid the trouble.”
“Oh good! Thank you so much!” Lethia clapped her hands together and giggled in relief. Argos woofed and gave a short wag of his tail.
“But kid, if you’re coming with us, you have to keep up.”
Lethia nodded energetically. “Yes, ok!”
“How long can you run?”
Nyx gave a groan. “Oh Elle, no…”
The youth scratched her head. “Uh…”
Elmiryn looked from the tunnel entrance and back. The corners of her lips twitched. “Lemme guess. You can’t remember?”
“Er, no. No I can’t.”
“Well let’s hope you can keep up with a soldier and a therian,” she turned and nodded at the dog. “Or maybe Argos can carry you.”
The dog snorted and his dark eyes seemed to glare at Elmiryn from beneath his shaggy brow.
“Have you got any food?” The woman asked, though she already guessed the answer.
“Uh, a little bit left. Actually, Argos was supposed to go hunting when he brought you two instead.”
Elmiryn, with a smirk, threw her hands up into the air and turned to start walking, just as her stomach gave a loud growl.
“Of course he did!”