“Oh, Heaven, it is mysterious, it is awful to consider that we not only carry a future Ghost within us; but are, in very deed, Ghosts!” – Thomas Carlyle
We tromped through the tall grass, and blades of moisture and morning chill clung to our flanks. I had my things again–my boots were securely fastened, my small bag of trinkets was pulled nervously on both shoulders by the thin straps of cloth I had stitched in myself. I had added to my collection the pewter arrowhead Elmiryn had shot at me. I considered throwing it away. The memory of that moment tied my guts into knots, and I preferred having my insides settled and ordered.
Then it occured to me that the little item was special. There were the obvious reasons of course: the arrowhead had saved my life in a sensational manner, the little item marked the first time in over a year that I found myself in the company of anyone, and as superficial as it sounded, it just plain looked interesting. But beyond those lines of reasoning rested other things. They were mystifying, and a little unsettling. If I thought about it long enough, I was certain I could figure out the greater motives that guided me to keep the trinket…but I didn’t want to. It tied my guts into knots.
There was a heaviness in the silence around us as Elmiryn and I walked.
Questions, like the feeble fragments of startled dandelions, drifted between me and that straightened back before me, lost and at the mercy of the cool wind that upped and carried them elsewhere. Elmiryn intimidated me still, despite my assertions regarding her lack of inherent evil or intent to do harm, for there rested something haphazard and unsettling in her regard to life and peace and will. Pale irises beneath the morning suns lit up aspirations that both bewildered and concerned me.
At first I felt afraid of the possible situations I may be cast therein; but then (I think it was just a little past Toah and the place we bivouacked, near the area where the poison oak and buck eye trees seemed weaved passionately together) I tried to imagine what Elmiryn had faced herself, alone, and felt my stomach twist in that loathsome way. With a dry swallow, I let my mind wander to less mystifying things.
Somehow my existence–lonely and dangerous and desperate–had been something I deemed only for myself, as if my dry petite hand could lay a claim to a way of living and shun all others skittering towards it. It seemed too cruel a thing to allow such a life for anyone else but me. As melodramatic as it sounded, I wanted that pain to be mine alone.
But beyond my unreasonable sentiments, I sensed something further amiss, and it was that untouchable something that kept drawing my gaze to the tall woman warrior, even as we stopped at the line of trees where the grassy hills and dense wood had given way to a rocky ravine and light mists of water. Elmiryn tilted her head back, her eyes turning lidded as she took in a deep intake of breath. She sighed, in what appeared to be satisfaction, and turned to look at me with an upbeat grin. “This leads to a lake. That stream we saw before must empty out there too.” she said.
I shrugged, looking at her. “You mean to fish?” I asked.
Elmiryn gazed back at me and placed her free hand on her hip. “You aren’t going to help me?”
Startled, I mumbled something along the lines of, “I don’t think I can.”
“You hate water.” She said flatly.
I glared at her. “No.”
“So what’s the problem? You’re really going to tell me you can’t fish either? Can you even hunt at all?”
My cheeks turned red, and I crossed my arms and slouched. “If I could, do you think I’d be stealing from farmers?”
Elmiryn shrugged. “Point taken,” she conceded.
Then she put her arm around my shoulders and steered me forward, parallel with the ravine, and made a tutting sound befitting a long-suffering mother. “I guess I’ll have to teach you then,” she sighed.
“You don’t have to teach me everything, y’know…” I said contumaciously, and my eyes flashed up through my uneven bangs even as I felt her laughter reverberate through me. For some reason this made my blush worse; I could feel the heat spread from my face and creep down my neck and back like fire. Stiffly, I shrugged out of her touch and tromped ahead. My bag bounced and jangled behind me.
Elmiryn continued to walk at a more leisurely pace, silent at first, before she started to hum a song. This was different from before. It was the same in nature, but more complex. A melody of humor and frivolity that’s arrangement beckoned at my tense back like a playful call.
Odd as it sounds, it made my ears warm.
I glanced back at her, wary, but Elmiryn didn’t quit. She only smiled when she saw that she had my attention. Before I knew it, I had slowed my pace so that I walked along side her again. The tension had sloughed off like an extra weight, and I sucked lightly at my teeth to keep the corners of my mouth from turning upward.
Earlier I had thought it bizarre that someone like Elmiryn would know such jocose music. Now I felt it only too appropriate.
The ravine marked an invisible line along the land, so that beyond it a sparse collection of thick old trees and many wild bushes and weeds ruled–not a dense army of any one thing. Out there, it felt like there was more space, and light came easier to the ruddy Earth. Elmiryn stopped humming and the only thing that seemed to fill the silence was the conversation of leaves and the giggles and hisses from the stream of water carving through the rock.
Ahead, I thought saw the familiar glint of a body of water.
“Y’know, I guess it’d be good to try and get to know each other, seeing as how we’re going to be stuck together for a while.” Elmiryn said suddenly, as if the thought had just occurred to her.
I gazed at her sidelong, but didn’t say anything.
Bemusedly, she looked my way. “Don’t you think so, Nyx?”
“Yes.” I said, after a moment of thought.
The taller woman smiled, almost languidly. “Good to know you agree.”
But the conversation, if one could even call it that, stopped there, and I grew nervous wondering what it was Elmiryn was thinking.
The ravine fed into a fair-sized lake where large bugs skimmed and danced across the surface. It was large enough that if two people stood on either side of it, they’d have to really shout to be heard. The center of it was dark, and around the shallower waters tall slim plants I couldn’t name stood proud over the surface. The smells of algae and fish tickled my nose. Elmiryn went ahead of me and sat down on the rocky shore, where she began to take her boots off. I went to her and sat, setting my bag on the dry log next to me.
“How are you going to fish?” I asked. I hugged my knees when Elmiryn glanced at me, and for some reason my blush came back.
With both boots off and her pants rolled up, the woman stood. Her hair draped free over her shoulders as she stooped to pick up her bow and arrows. She gave a grin as if that were all the answer I needed, and then proceeded out into the water. When the lake was up to her knees, she readied an arrow and stood still, only her head moving as she searched for any sign of fish.
She didn’t fire a shot for a long time.
My stomach growled at me from beneath my gambeson and I slouched, grumpy, as I watched her. With the time passed, I found myself emboldened enough by boredom to ask her a question. “Are you one of those folk heroes who are altruistic just for the sake of it, or was there an impetus to this quest of yours?”
Elmiryn paused in her quiet hunt to slowly turn and squint at me from over her shoulder. “Say what?”
I resisted rolling my eyes. At the risk of sounding pompous, I really hated having to simplify things I said. “What I was asking was: why are you after this…um…demon? Meznik, you said he was called. Are you doing it for yourself or some noble sense of duty?”
Elmiryn shook her head, and a dubious grin spread her lips. “My, my. You’re quite the speaker now!”
“I’m asking a fair question, I think.”
She sighed and swiped at her nose with her arm. Her gaze had fallen downward, and I got the impression she was focusing on her reflection in the water.
“He cursed me,” she finally said. Her normally melodic voice became somewhat subdued, and I strained to hear her. “It’s hard to explain to you.”
“You’re the one who said we should talk and get to know each other.”
“So why not try and explain to me this curse of yours? Maybe it’ll affect me.”
“No. It has nothing to do with you. Not really.”
“Then what is it?”
Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed and I saw her ready her bow again. Some part of me tensed, afraid that I was being too pushy about the topic. But when she suddenly let loose the arrow, I realized that she had only seen a fish. Blood appeared through the murk, and soon I saw the fish float to the surface. “Verisimilitude. Know what that means?” she asked.
I frowned at her. I tried not to sound surprised when I answered. “Something that has merely the appearance of truth.”
“Hey, you’re pretty good at my language!” She exclaimed, with a brief smile in my direction. A warmth blossomed in my chest, and I barely was able to conceal my pleased grin. So maybe she wasn’t beyond appreciating a good education.
Elmiryn stooped and grabbed the fish, then pulled the arrow out of its side. When she turned to me and tossed the fish onto the rocks, she smiled sadly. “That is my curse, Nyx. Verisimilitude. …Or something. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”
The fish slapped against the smooth rocks, blood and guts coming out of its wound, and my eyes went wide with delight at the sight of it. Though I preferred cooking my meat to some degree, fish I had no problem with eating raw.
“Go ahead and start cutting the fish,” Elmiryn said, “My knife is there with my bag. Don’t start eating without me though.”
I smiled eagerly, and the conversation we were having fled my mind as I washed my hands and set to work. But soon the question came bubbling up my throat as I pondered over what the other woman said. “How is verisimilitude your curse?” I asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Another strike. Another fish. Elmiryn paused to toss it back toward me before she shrugged and said, “Every sentient creature has the ability to believe in themselves and their experiences. He took that away from me. Among other things. I mean to get it back.”
“You don’t…believe in yourself?” I said, pausing in my actions to give Elmiryn a nonplussed look.
She laughed and shook her head. “Not like self-confidence. Something more important than that…” she wiped her face on her arm again and looked skyward, tapping the end of an arrow on her chin. “What I mean is the ability to believe that you impress on the world something…uh…lasting, I guess. Like memories. We all have memories–some more vivid than others, but memories all the same. Then there’s the feeling that we’re noticed and acknowledged. A sense of…um…” Elmiryn looked at me uncertainly, and I stopped what I was doing all together, transfixed. She pointed at herself and squinted her eyes. “It’s like when you know who you are and what you’re place in the world is.”
“A sense of self?” I offered with an awkward shrug.
Elmiryn nodded. “Yeah. As in, you look in the mirror and you’re certain that what you’re seeing is correct. ‘Oh look, there’s my hair, styled just the way it is supposed to be. And the look in my eyes matches just the kind of emotion I’m feeling. And I look just as old as I feel.’ Y’know, that sort of thing.”
I thought about it for a moment, and felt an understanding settle in. I looked back as Elmiryn began to continue. I got the sense she was talking less to me and more to herself.
“Meznik took away my belief of the past and therefor took away my hope for the future.” She said, arms now lowered at her sides as she stared ahead blankly. “All I have is the present moment–the current feelings and current sensations–because all in the past becomes fiction, and my passion and trust in it fades. But even the present feels a little hollow. So…I guess…I…I don’t feel real. I feel like all the things that make up who I am could break and give way to apathy. I mean, why care about a world you don’t believe in anymore?” she said all this quietly, her voice almost overpowered by the sound of the water coming into the lake. It was like she just realized what her curse meant for her.
She remained quiet for what felt like a long time, and it seemed like I was supposed to say something, but I wasn’t sure what.
But suddenly Elmiryn was smiling again, and she resumed her watch for fish along the water. There was an eagerness about her–the way her gaze roved, the tense readyness of her arms. Her eyes were lit bright and intense by the reflection of the suns in the water. “I guess that’s why I’d like you to come with me. To be my anchor. To remind me of who I was, so that…”
I frowned at her, suddenly nervous of this responsibility I now had. “So that what?” I prompted.
The warrior fired another arrow. The water splashed and rippled before blood billowed in a dark cloud toward the surface.
“So that I don’t turn into something else.”