I was dead.
Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.
Or on my way to it. Being cleaved in half was synonymous with my demise, I thought. If I were to look up my end like it were an idiom in a scholar’s text, I was certain I’d find, “To be axed; To be hacked; To be chopped, etc.” Fear charged through me quick, like a viper strike. This was not as I had felt before. That was a stumbling, ignorant fear of the consequences. This, however, was fear for my life.
Aelurus, if I had fur, I’d have been a round ridiculous thing right then.
It made me angry too, I was surprised to find. I was cornered…by farmers. A fat thick man who probably never swung that damned axe on his own at home was about to take the sharp edge of it and whack it into my brain. That was unfair. I imagined something a little more…dignified. As dignified a way to go as anyone in my position—rueful as it were—could hope to have. Maybe dragged to death by a soldier’s horse, or torn to pieces by werewolves, or crushed beneath a glacial avalanche…during summer…
But to be hacked to death by a peasant over grain and some scared hens?
The great oaf in question grinned victoriously amid the folds of his sweaty face. I was surprised he kept pace with the others. He wheezed and rasped as he tensed his arms, prepared to swing down the axe. I stood precariously at the edge of the plateau, aware of the other men that stood behind the fat farmer, blocking my only escape. My last hope, it seemed was to—
But that idea never finished.
I sailed through the air, and my wet hair whipped out a trail of rainwater as I spun right over the edge of the plateau. The fat farmer let out a squawk of surprise—as did I. I crashed into the Earth at a funny angle, and the breath rushed from my lungs. I tumbled like a rag doll down yet another slope, this one steeper than the one I had descended when heading to Toah. So steep, that I may as well have been falling through air. I burst through bushes in an explosion of leaves, and felt my limbs painfully clip tree trunks as I continued to roll. Finally, I came to the end of the slope and stopped face down.
Everything hurt. My eyes rolled in their sockets and I tried to focus my gaze to make the world stop spinning. I spat the leaves and dirt out of my mouth and turned my head away from the ground only to see an arrow had been shot through my collar. I stared. It had narrowly missed my neck had gone completely through the fabric. The force of the arrow hitting must have been what sent me over the edge. Did one of the of farmers fire it? I tried to move to remove it, but screamed when I found my left shoulder was dislocated.
Therians, the species my race belonged to, had a heightened rate of healing, but for this I was going to have to do it myself.
With a grimace I rolled onto my back, in the opposite direction the side the arrow was on, and with my other hand, bent my dislocated arm. I laid it on my stomach; then with several quick breaths shoved my left arm upward at the elbow, using all the strength given to me by the One Goddess. It popped back in. No, that wasn’t the proper way to do it, in case you’re wondering—but I was on my own, with men after me—and at any rate, therians could take a lot and still walk away fine.
But to be honest, the pain still made me want to pass out.
Weakly, I snapped the arrow shaft and reached back behind my collar to grab the arrowhead. I stared at it. Pewter. I let my hand fall against my chest. My body felt cold. The damp ground made my clothes wet. My face, hands, and feet itched. They had been slashed and cut, but were all ready scabbing over.
I gazed upward at the forest canopy and imagined what it would be like if moonlight shined through. Cool, bless-ed moonlight. I imagined its silver kiss on my weary skin, where I could indulge in the idea that Aelurus would take pity on her wayward daughter. My eyes started to drift shut. This damp, cold place, where drops of water pelted my sham of a body was not something I cared to stay conscious in anymore…
Then someone lifted me up. My eyes opened blearily. I was thrown over a shoulder—an uncomfortable one that dug into my gut. The feeling made me alert again. I stared down at the ground as it steadily retreated from me. I could hardly believe it. I was going up.
My mind took a second to register the grunts coming from the person carrying me. I looked at their back and noted the curves, the criss and cross of thick woven strings through the back of a bustier, the tight-fitted leather pants that griped with the movement of determined legs…
Was a woman carrying me?
…Up a tree?
I squirmed, suddenly worried I was being spirited away by some lunatic who had drank one too many enchanted potions. My shoulder still hurt, but I didn’t want to be in the hands of someone else. My protests turned to all-out struggles when the person didn’t release me.
The person, whoever they were, only gripped me tighter and said, “Idiot. Keep still. I’m saving you.”
I didn’t listen. I took my uninjured arm and struck my elbow hard against the back of the woman’s head. She sighed, but it seemed more like she were hissing through gritted teeth.
Then she shrugged me off.
By that time, we were at least twenty feet up a great old oak. As I fell through the air and saw how far I was from the ground, I thought blithely, “Wow. She’s a fast climber.” Then my fall stopped. My body jerked and I winced at the pain that shot through my still-injured shoulder. I could feel an iron grip close around my right ankle. I looked up in a daze.
Past the length of my body, I could see an auburn haired woman with light eyes smirk down at me. She held onto a piece of rope that was tied to a thick branch not far up. “Just kidding,” she said. Her voice was melodic and like steel…just as the instruments to the south of Fanaea.
“Now hold still,” the woman continued in a quieter voice, “And keep quiet. If you haven’t noticed, your friends are coming.”
I blinked up at her and slowly looked back toward the ground. I strained my ears. Sure enough, I could hear the farmers approaching, hear them grumbling amongst themselves sullenly. Not very subtle, these men, but I was so focused on the woman I hadn’t even noticed their approach.
They came closer and closer. If I was dizzy before, I was even more so now. My head felt so thick with blood and pressure that I thought it would explode. One man came beneath the tree, and his eyes swept around him. My heart thumped. He looked up.
The woman’s grip on my ankle tightened, if possible. She didn’t need to warn me. The feline within knew better than to move when in hiding, even if a threat looked her dead on. I froze, even holding my breath, and closed my eyes.
It seemed to pay off. He passed on.
After another five minutes, the men conferred somewhere nearby.
“She’s gone.” One said insipidly.
“We’ll never find her in this dark!” Another complained.
“What was it that hit her? Was it an arrow?”
“Do you think she died?”
“If so, we have no business left out here…”
“But that beast must be dealt with! She threatened our livelihood!” Ah. The fat farmer.
“It was just some grain, Humphrey. Hardly worth catching a cold over.”
“And if she comes back?”
“Didn’t you see her? That Ailuran was afraid. She won’t be coming back so soon.” Not ever, if possible.
“Yes, let’s. My unmentionables are frozen…”
When their footsteps faded away, I let out a sigh of relief. Then I felt myself rise. “Swing and grab that branch there.” the woman said above me. Her bicep bulged from the effort it took to hold me up the way she was. I looked around and saw the branch she spoke of.
Warily I looked at her. “You won’t drop me?” I asked, my words thick from the strain of being upside-down.
The woman seemed amused by this idea. “You think I would?” she asked in a jocular tone. “And even if I did, don’t cats always land on their feet?”
I wasn’t really in the mood for jokes.
Her other hand was occupied so she couldn’t continue climbing until she wasn’t holding me anymore. If I didn’t try and grab hold of something, she’d eventually have to drop me.
Carefully, I stuck the arrowhead I was holding in my teeth, then I swung, holding out both my arms when I came close to the branch. The pain in my left shoulder had dulled to a dim ache. I grabbed hold of the branch, and the woman let go of me. My fingernails scraped against the bark for a frightening moment before finding purchase. I managed to pull myself up further and swing my left leg over. Exhausted, I took the arrowhead from my mouth. I was glad to have the blood rushing from my head. My eyes fell shut against the odd feeling this caused.
I was so tired…
Then I felt the branch quiver and my eyes opened to see the woman sitting across from me, closer to the trunk, her gaze a little too focused for my liking. She toyed with the rope in her hands, twirling the end of it around her long finger. My shoulders bunched like hackles raised, and I bowed my head with a guarded look. If I were a cat, my ears would have turned and flattened and my tail would have been lashing. “Who are you…” I asked in a low voice.
“Elmiryn,” the woman said with a wide smile. Strands fell from her long braid and framed her angular face. She seemed like a maiden…but she wasn’t. I breathed in deep. She smelled of steel—metallic and sharp. She didn’t have her weapon, but she may have hidden it somewhere in order to deal with me. I could also tell she had spent some time in the forests as I could smell the maple, bay, and oak trees on her skin like the scents were a natural part of her. The Earth was a part of her.
It was almost like she were wild.
“For an Ailuran, you’re awfully weird.” Elmiryn said, humor in her voice as she leaned back against the tree. Her long mouth shaped into a smile that teased.
I glared at her. “What would your kind know about that?”
“I’ve fought Ailurans. They’re prideful. Fiery. They would never kneel before farmers.”
I dug my fingers into the bark and leaned forward. “And what sort of warrior are you? Firing arrows at helpless creatures the way you did?”
“You’re hardly helpless,” the woman returned with raised brow. She sighed and placed her hands behind her head. She was being rather lax around me…or did she just think she could take me on? “I’m a good shot,” Elmiryn continued, “I saw my opportunity to help you and took it. If I didn’t send you over the plateau, what would you have done?” There was something smug about her tone, and it irritated me.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t even remember what my original plan had been. “No human makes that kind of shot in the dark. I just don’t believe you.” I snarled. I sat back roughly with arms crossed and turned my gaze elsewhere. This was body language. The cat inside of me was saying, “I dislike you. I don’t want to bother with you right now. You are beneath me.” But without the tail and ears this was hard to convey. She wouldn’t have picked up on it anyway.
Her voice was quiet when she asked, “You don’t believe I saved your life, or you don’t believe I’m that good a shot?”
I pursed my lips and found I could only glare at her from the corner of my eye. I DIDN’T believe she was that good a shot…but I DID believe she had saved my life, however unintentional. The question was, what would she do now? “You must’ve had a reason to want to bother with someone like me,” I said.
The woman shrugged, her eyes still gazing intensely at me. “I was curious.” her smile turned into a smirk.
“Why didn’t you defend yourself?”
I looked away. “That’s a silly question. I was outnumbered.”
“Therians are naturally stronger than humans,” she countered. Something about her voice turned hard. “They’re one of the strongest creatures on this Earth. Any idiot knows that. You could’ve held your own if you wanted to. Maybe even shifted just your hands to claws to keep them at bay…but you didn’t. Why not?”
I looked at her again, my eyes wide with incredulity. “Because I’m not like that, alright? Where do you get off speaking like you know everything!?” Why did any of this matter to her?
“Because that’s just how I understand things,” She responded. Her voice returned to its curious humor. “You can’t shame me for working off my prejudices–everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they wanna keep from getting overwhelmed. Heck, you’re doing it too. You don’t trust me, because in your experience, people like me must’ve done you or the people around you harm. That’s fine. But look,” she patted the tree branch and smiled jauntily. “Here we both are. You aren’t running away, and I’m not hurting you. Between the both of us is a need to understand. So let’s get to it. The first question is–and I get to ask since I saved your life, and all–is why didn’t you fight?”
I pursed my lips and ruffled my hair with both hands. My nose itched and on the tip of my tongue danced a curse, but this woman’s logic, as frustrating as it was, made it difficult to argue. Sullenly I muttered, “I can’t fight.”
Elmiryn leaned forward and tilted her head. “Can’t or won’t?” she asked. She came near enough that I could feel her breath against my skin. I leaned back, and my body turned rigid. Who was she to go invading my space? My throat tensed and my fingers clenched. The beast in me didn’t like being challenged like that.
After a long moment I managed to bite out, “I can’t.” Then I took several deep breaths to keep my other half, my feline self, in check. This woman seemed to push my buttons on purpose.
When I regained calm, I bowed my head. The anger drained away, replaced instead by shame. “I don’t know how to fight at all…” I sighed.
The warrior remained quiet. Then came four words that would change my life forever. As cliche as that sounds, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment for as long as I live.
“I’m on a quest,” She said in a candid chirp that sounded completely incongruous with the message that entered my ears. “An evil demon by the name of Meznik has been terrorizing the kingdoms and I mean to stop him.” She shifted on the tree branch a little, as if just mentioning her task made her anxious to complete it.
I looked up at her, bewildered.
…No, more like flabbergasted.
What did this have to do with me? And who went around announcing that sort of information in the first place?
She continued, and her smirk returned in a triumphant tilt. “It gets awfully boring on my own…so I just had an idea. Why don’t you come with me?”
Shocked silence was the only response I could give.
Elmiryn gestured at me vaguely with her chin, “You’re an Ailuran in need of food and protection, and I’m a warrior in need of some company. Who knows? Maybe I could teach you a few things?”
I shook my head, my face puckered in some expression that resembled disbelief. “You want me to go with you?? To…to seek out trouble and place myself in danger while you go around chasing astral demons!? Have you lost your mind? I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to be in the position to get myself killed! I just want to live my life in peace!” My tone was almost panicked. She couldn’t be serious?
“Oh.” was the woman’s only response. She sagged, deflated. Somehow, I didn’t trust this switch in demeanor. I gazed at her with apprehension. Elmiryn blew some strands out of her eyes and shrugged one shoulder. “Okay. That’s perfectly fine. You’re entitled to do as you wish. I just thought this might be a good way for you to repay your…ah…” and here she paused, smiling cattily, “Debt to me. For saving your life.”
“Debt?” I echoed, incredulous. But a part of me squirmed…
Those light eyes—frigid cerulean—fell on my face and I shrank unconsciously. “I was just under the impression that Ailurans honored all debts,” she said in an affable tone that belied her fierce gaze.
My face fell. She was right, of course. My people were honorable, above all things. I may have been a coward, but I was an honorable coward, damn all my luck…
I slumped, defeated. “You…You won’t expect me to help you, will you? I’m not mincing my words when I say I cannot fight, I cannot defend myself, and I have no courage whatsoever.” I said this in a tired voice. What was I going to do? Refuse? There was something peculiar about this woman warrior. Her simple gaze was enough to make me nervous.
“Now let’s not get so hasty.” She said with a raised a hand. “I’ve seen bravery come from the most unlikely places.”
I smiled at her for the first time. It was a sad smile. “Not here, I assure you.” I rubbed at my face and sighed. “I should also let you know…I’m an outcast. I’ve been…been Marked.”
Marked. I could barely get the word out of my throat.
Ailurans dealt with criminals two ways: death…or the Mark. Death was preferable. The Mark was a curse—a brand burned into the criminal’s skin by magic. The design of it varied on the crime itself. The curse that was set upon the individual made shape-shifting an agony, and prevented them from stepping into any Ailuran establishments—like temples. Others of my kind could sense it on me. They hated me for it. Other therians and other species tended to target outcasts like me, because they were such easy prey—also because they knew that the Mark was a serious punishment, and anyone with it could be a murderer. A distasteful attribute in any culture.
“Did you kill anyone?” Elmiryn asked, her gaze probing. I looked at her, startled. It seemed to be the only question that mattered to her. Did she believe then, that everything else was tolerable so long as I answered her correctly? If I told her…If I said to her…
“No.” When I spoke it was with a frail voice—but I gazed straight into her eyes. Like daring a fearsome monster to attack. “I’ve never killed a person—not in my entire life. …Directly or indirectly.” I added the last part hastily. Conspirators were apt to getting the Mark as well.
She nodded, her face suddenly somber.
Despite myself, I was surprised to find that I desperately wanted her to accept me.
Then, Elmiryn smiled, a long satisfied smile. “Well, I don’t really see what the problem is then.” she said.
I smiled back at her uncertainly.
What had I gotten myself into?
“What’s your name?” She asked, tossing the end of the rope she still held so that it stretched out to the bottom of the tree.
I hesitated a moment before answering.
“Nyx.” I said in a small voice.
She held out her hand to me and smiled, this time more warmly. “Give me your hand, Nyx…it’s time to rest. We’ve got a lot of walking to do tomorrow.” The rain had almost completely stopped. Water no longer poured through the canopy—instead there was a light mist that tickled my nose. Did she have a camp? Blankets? Some place dry and warm to sleep? And what about my boots and other belongings?
I swallowed and gave her my hand.
Elmiryn didn’t move. Instead, she squeezed and looked at me quizzically. “Can I ask just one more thing, though?”
I blinked at her. “I…suppose,” I said slowly.
She gestured at me with her chin, her eyes on my head as her lip curled in light disdain. “Who the hell did you pay to cut your hair?” When I didn’t answer right away, she shrugged one shoulder and offered off-hand, “I can beat them up if you’d like.”
I gave her a deadpan look.
Aelurus, just what in the heavens had I gotten myself into?