I would just like to say, for those curious, that I find violence execrable. Occasionally my temperament can be found slipping into less than docile tones, but when push comes to shove…I don’t fight. Ever. Whether in self-defense, whether out of anger…I just cannot bring myself to raise a hand.
This might inspire in your minds a number of assumptions labeling me as a “craven idiot” or a “sanctimonious hypocrite”. Normally, I’d let you think what you will about me. It isn’t as if I have much right to change anyone’s minds in that regard. But in this particular instance I feel like I have to say something. It isn’t so much an excuse as an explanation.
After the incident with the mercenaries had passed, Elmiryn and I resumed our trek through the mountains. She gave me a handkerchief to wipe the blood from my face and I rubbed it away, eagerly scrubbing at the bits that had dried onto my skin until it was pink and stinging. When I saw the flakes of red fluttering away with the wind, something in me clenched and panicked. We had to stop for about ten minutes as I went off to the side and wretched. My skin burned and my bones ached. Inside, my feline counterpart was snarling, and my hand itched with the memory of striking flesh.
The moment had been so quick.
I remember the fear. The palpitations of my heart which threatened to tear out of my chest as the mercenary brought his sword down–there was that insistent spitting and hissing in my head as She grew frenzied in her confined state–
“Cut him, slash him! Idiot!”
Then the pain, the white hot sensation that split my terrified mind in two. Blood flowed into my gaze, and I squeezed both eyes shut as my body became weak. The world grew distant. I felt cold and restrained.
Then She roared.
It was my own mortification that managed to wrestle her back into place before she could do any further harm. The sight of that man’s face, the feel of his blood dripping from my fingertips. It was like a nightmare. One far too real. I flashed briefly to a cold lonely shack draped in snow–salty tears on my tongue–a room stained in red–
The situation that arose afterward perhaps helped me compose myself, if only for that moment.
During the rest of the day, there wasn’t much conversation, and I couldn’t bring myself to read anymore of Tobias’s book. Night fell. We found shelter in a small den and had jerky and bread for dinner. I could barely eat anything. As the day drew to a close, my mind wandered elsewhere, and I found myself remembering things I didn’t want to. Images came in a swirl of hot ash, and my ears tickled with the sound of a deep baritone voice echoing deep within me.
As any middle-classed child in any society, I had gone to school. The equivalent of what some cultures may call a ‘teacher’ or ‘mentor’, was what us Ailurans called a ‘Navi’.
…My Navi, Leander, hated me.
He was a big broad man with great gnashing teeth, a goatee, and small ears that seemed pinned back. You could hardly ever see them beneath his great mane of wheat-blond hair, which was swept back. I liked to whisper things behind his back, because I was certain he couldn’t hear me–He, who was too damn big and tall to understand reality from my perspective–a child’s.
If he’s been my size, he’d know about the gaze of spiders, or the scent of irises in the cold of winter. He’d never hidden under a bed, I’d decided, and been afraid of the sounds coming from his mother when a young Tom had come visiting. I doubted he even knew just how much blood could cover the ground after a big battle, how bodies piled over one another in horrific abandonment, or the things dying soldiers whispered in their fading delerium.
He, who was too damn big and tall to understand that all soldiers suffered just the same.
So during lessons depicting tales of valor and honor and other such propagandic nonsense, I’d whisper my own ideas under my breath. There was greater satisfaction in sending these thoughts out into the air versus voicing them in my head. It was as if saying them made them real, and by being real, they were also true.
“Ailurans don’t thirst for battle, we hate it. Ailurans don’t lust for blood, we gag on it. Ailurans don’t deserve power, we deserve peace.”
One moment came to me, like a well-lit scene on an actor’s stage. I was nine years old, with longer hair. During one of Leander’s lessons, he went on spinning a tale of how the Unnamed One battled against the evil Champion of Fiamma, the human warrior Legend. I grew annoyed at the biased story, having read more neutral accounts myself from outside books I had, ones that made more sense than anything my illustrious Navi said. I began muttering under my breath again. “The Champion was not a ‘champion’ so much as a ‘defender’. He was no more affiliated with the Fiamma then Leander was. He was hardly evil.” I breathed this, and all at once…I found I simply couldn’t breath.
Leander had me by the throat, before my classmates, up in the air and flailing wildly. In his amber eyes, I could see a fury burning. In my culture, it is said that a true Ailuran warrior need never shift for the Beast within him to be known. Fixed with those terrible eyes, I believed it. With all my heart.
He bared his teeth at me, then looked at the class. “This,” he boomed, “Is a race traitor. This blight on Aelurus’s fame belittles her gifts and sympathizes with well-known enemies.” He gave me a rough shake. I became frightfully aware of how easily he could break my neck. “Doubtless,” he continued, “You have heard her hissing beneath her breath, like the filthy serpent she is–mocking our race’s history and our most glorious patrons. She is a shame to her family.” He looked at me, and I could see his face had shifted now, smooth like water, to become more feline-like. His slitted eyes narrowed and he flared his wet nose. “You don’t think I’ve heard your trash all these days? Heard you speaking blasphemies behind my back? Do you wonder why I’ve let you continue for so long, traitorous snake?”
My fingers dug into his arm in panic and a whine came from deep within me. His claws were digging into my skin. Inside, She yowled.
Leander brought me close to his face, and the harsh growl that emitted from his throat nearly made me kick away from him. “Because,” he breathed, “Somewhere beneath all your misguided posturing, your other self knows you are wrong, and the day it comes to correct you will be the day blood clouds your eyes. You turn NO minds here. If anything…you only harm yourself.”
He dropped me to the ground and I remained there gasping. I looked to my classmates, shame on my face and my cheeks wet with tears I hadn’t realized fell. None looked at me. All attention was on Leander as he continued his lesson without a hitch. Numbly I returned to my seat.
This is what I thought about as I stared into the fire Elmiryn had made.
I saw her through the glow of embers and wavering heat, her eyes colored a different shade that made me want to pull my legs to my chest and hug them tightly. The den we were had once been the home of an animal. There were some bones off in the back, and I could smell the dry marrow from where I sat. Outside, the winds howled.
Elmiryn was sharpening a stick with her knife. She had a blank look on her face, and though her eyes were directed towards the stick itself, she didn’t seem to focus on it. She had treated her hand without asking my help–simply cleaned it with her bottled water, stitched it up, then wrapped it. The way she worked on the stick made it seem like her injury barely fazed her.
The fire between us crackled and spat. The stone walls and the sandy ground were painted in its warm glow, but the effect of the dancing flames was unsettling–nothing seemed to sit and remain in one place. I wanted everything still, as I was.
I took the heel of my palm and dug it into my right eye. The cut above my brow had all ready healed and left no mark, but the horror of having my own blood blind me still caused my eye to tickle as if something was in it that wasn’t supposed to be. My mind flashed back to that terrifying moment, but I shook the memory away. I didn’t want to dwell on the experience. It led to darker things and I didn’t want to feel such thorny recollections.
But then Elmiryn’s voice broke the silence.
I looked at her and tried to relax. My heart began to pound when I found her eyes looking my way. “Yes…Elle?” I was finding it a little difficult to remember to use her silly nickname. It felt incongruous in my mouth.
“What happened exactly…during the fight from before?” she asked slowly.
I blinked at her. “You don’t remember?”
“I remember feelings. Sensations. There’s a few choice moments in my head that I can vaguely recall but for the most part…” Her voice was flat. The sharp melody that was uniquely hers wasn’t so much gone as just…tucked away, beneath a blank expression and concentrated stare. Her eyes reminded me of glass.
I went to rub my eye again and found that my hand shook. “Do we really need to talk about it….I mean…must we?” I didn’t like the tinge of desperation in my voice. Shamefully I looked away, toward the mouth of the den where I could see faint light from the burgeoning moon illuminating the Earth.
“You were scared.” Elmiryn stated, resuming her stick sharpening. “Don’t you think it might make you feel better to talk about it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Elmiryn.” I closed my eyes and corrected myself. “Elle.”
“It’s important,” the warrior pressed, her voice hardening. “A conflict like this can be good in pointing out issues in a group. Put simply, we’ve definitely got issues.”
“Why bother?” I snapped acerbically. Even as the words left my mouth I wished I hadn’t said them. I wasn’t a contrarian, by nature.
“Because you’ve got to learn how to defend yourself,” Elmiryn said, a steel edge to her voice that wasn’t quite contempt, but it wasn’t very forgiving either. “And I’ve got to get used to having someone to protect. We’ve got to help each other out and be prepared for an instance in which we get separated.”
“And what? You propose planning for the unplannable? The variables that could arise in any given situation are just too much to factor in to any general strategy.” Okay, so maybe I was something of a contrarian.
“Not so.” Elmiryn answered. I could feel her eyes on me again. “If you could throw a proper punch, than you could incapacitate any enemy threatening you. I’m a decent fighter, but I’m not omnipotent.” She quirked an eyebrow and her lips curled into a teasing smile. “I mean, if you go punching people in the ears all the time, then hell, we’re both screwed.”
I crossed my arms and huffed, my eyes narrowing, “Well it worked well enough on you!” A growl crept into my voice.
“But on someone else? Someone who hasn’t got their back turned to you, who’s maybe wearing a helmet, and has a big, big axe?”
“I told you I can’t fight.”
“And that’s fine. But you’ll need to learn. Otherwise it’s unrealistic for you to journey with me. Come on, Nyx. Don’t tell me you didn’t think about that!”
“Well you didn’t exactly perform so resplendently yourself.” There was a brief pause. I elaborated, but not before a brief eye-roll. “Resplendent; brilliant or splendid.”
“Okay, okay…now that you’ve sufficiently recovered from your…ah…shock, I guess you’d call it…why don’t you tell me what happened today in detail.”
“You want me to re-tell what happened? You know, half the time I was trying not to be cleaved in two, right?”
“I know you remember more than I do. Go ahead and start.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. Then I recalled what she had told me before about her curse, and one of the things it affected. Was her memory really so faint? Chagrined and anxious, I recounted the conflict, as best as I could. She nodded to some things. To others, her eyes seemed to grow more distant. These moments made me nervous.
“Who would want you harmed?” I asked.
“They didn’t want me harmed, they wanted me to go with them,” she corrected in a tone that was a little too placid for me.
“Elmiryn!” I snapped, feeling my anxiety break over. I buried my hands in my messy locks and pulled hard, trying to reign in my frustration, then took a deep breath. Recounting the ordeal from earlier that day really made me uneasy. How could I handle being at Elmiryn’s side if I couldn’t handle this one thing? “Who would want you kidnapped…” I asked as I exhaled the breath I had been holding.
The warrior was undoing her long braid. She took a moment before answering, her gaze lowered to the ground. Then a light smirk lit her face and she said with closed eyes, “I am wanted for performing illegal witchcraft.”
I stared at her. “Black…black magic? You??”
“I’ve been accused of it. But I think you’ve been with me long enough to know I don’t know an ounce of the stuff.”
“But that’s a serious offense! Whatever society you go to, black magic is abhorrent! Just where exactly was the offense brought up!?”
I paled. My gaze flickered to where her sword lay next to her, the jeweled pommel winking at me in the firelight. “Elmiryn…Elle…when you say you got that sword from…from someone…else…”
She gazed at me levelly. Then took her sword up into her lap. With her hair down about her shoulders, she looked…feminine. In a way that was awkward, but not altogether bad. Elmiryn began to stroke the scabbard where the blade was sheathed and said with a hint of laughter in her voice, “I got it from a Fiamman soldier.”
“Why didn’t I recognize it,” I muttered rapidly to myself, a sense of panic overcoming me as I shifted where I sat. My limbs and spine tingled. I looked to the mouth of the den, my mind thinking the word, “RUN.” All day, in my anxious state, my skin had felt hot and stretched. The creature in me was clawing at the surface, angry at me.
“Weak-minded, poor excuse for a–”
“I guess I don’t have to tell you that there’ll be more of those kinds of men looking for me, then,” Elmiryn said. Her voice seemed to be returning to its usual alacrity, but it did nothing to make me feel better. “Fiammans are pretty dogged about carrying out the law.”
“Why didn’t you tell me the Fiamman kingdom has a bounty on your head!?” I screamed shrilly, finally jerking up to my feet. I was shaking harder than ever. My fists clenched to the point that my nails threatened to break the skin. “And for something so serious! They’ll hunt you to the ends of the Earth!”
“So I guess you aren’t the only outcast.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better!” I jabbed a finger into my chest. “And for the record, no one is hunting me!”
The woman’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Nyx, you don’t need to shout, I’m right here.”
“I think I have every reason to shout! You weren’t honest with me! Surely you were aware of that little thing called the Fiamman-Ailuran war, which, by the way, is STILL going on!! Did you know, that just for being near you, they’ll skin me alive? They want me dead on principle. It doesn’t even matter that I’m Marked! Did that ever go through your addled mind!?”
“They’ll kill me just for BEING with you, don’t you get it!? I’m dead! Is your discernment so impaired that you couldn’t even figure that out!? You couldn’t protect me against some amateur mercenaries–just what in the nine hells do you think you’ll do when they send professionals after you? Assassins, wizards, PALADINS–”
“Nyx!” Elmiryn was on her feet. She was blinking rapidly at me as an uncertain frown came over her features. She held up her hands. “Would you just rela–”
“I’m not going to relax. I can’t now–knowing that my death’ll come following around a flagged felon on a suicidal quest! They’ll kill me, or you’ll kill me, or maybe I should just kill myself and save everyone the trouble! Oh sweet Aelurus how did I get into this mess!? I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for any of it! I was starving. I just wanted chicken for one night, but instead I get you–”
In my rant I had gone to my things, picking them up in a sort of rabid fervor. I was speaking so fast that there was hardly breath left in my lungs, but I knew what I had to do. I just needed to run. I was a fast runner, who could catch me? I could fade away and things would be okay again. Everything about me was hurting, and the pain was making me clumsy, but in a strange way it drove me. If I ran, I could outrun the pain, outrun the nonsense and the confusion and the death that was surely going to catch me here…
But a vice-like grip around the back of my neck literally made me stop in my tracks. I was half-way out of the den when my tongue stilled in my mouth and my body went limp. Elmiryn pressed me down to the ground into a kneeling position, using all her strength. She didn’t need to. My breath slowed until my chest rose and fell in an almost sleepy rhythm.
“Relax, Nyx.” Elmiryn murmured over me after a minute.
She stayed there for a moment longer, her cold hands holding me in place, before she released me and stood to her feet. I rose slowly and rubbed the back of my neck, the calm still over me as I gazed at her wonder. “How’d you know to do that?” I mumbled. “That…I haven’t had someone do that to me since I was a child.”
Elmiryn shrugged and went to sit next to the fire again. “I heard somewhere that if you managed to hold an Ailuran firmly by the nape of their neck, they’ll sort of go limp and calm. I wasn’t sure if it’d work.” She crossed her legs and looked up at me. “Your eyes went cat and you were kind of…panting…like you were close to losing it. I wasn’t sure if that was the case but you seemed pretty out of it anyway.”
“My eyes shifted?”
“Yes. Y’know…I’ve been meaning to ask you. You said that shifting hurts for you. Because of that Mark. But you don’t seem to notice if your hands or eyes change. Why is that?”
I blinked at her, then looked at my bandaged hands. I never really had given it any thought. Of all things for the body to shift, the eyes and hands were always the easiest. But given my curse, wouldn’t even that hurt me?
“I don’t know.” I said finally. With legs that felt heavy and stiff, I went to sit back in my previous spot near the fire, laying my bag onto the ground gently.
Elmiryn gestured toward it with her chin. “If you don’t mind my asking, what have you got in there?”
I glanced at her, then picked up the bag. “This…it just has a lot of little trinkets. Nothing special, or particularly important. Well, I mean–to me they’re important.” I emptied the bag and laid the contents out before me in a neat line. Elmiryn came to sit closer to me as I explained each item.
“This,” I said pointing at a small jade figurine of a nude woman with a cat’s head, “Is my goddess Aelurus, blessed in one of our temples. It serves no other real purpose aside from protection and comfort…I’m beginning to wonder if it even works for me anymore.”
Next to it was a dented tea strainer. It was rusting in some places.
Elmiryn pointed at it. “And why do you have this?”
“Uh,” I rubbed the back of my neck and my cheeks burned. “I traded for that when I was younger. An elf merchant had come by our village and he had so many weird things. This one caught my eye.”
“But why did you want it?”
“It makes a whistling sound when you twirl it through the air…” I mumbled incoherently.
Elmiryn seemed to get the gist of what I said and giggled. I continued, a little sullen. “This is a pebble I took from Ebon Lake, near my home…this is a whistle I got as a gift from my mother–it doesn’t work anymore…this is an amulet of the three suns I bought a little bit before I was Marked, and this…” I faltered as I came to the last item.
The warrior looked at me intently. “Nyx?”
“This belonged to my little brother,” I finished quietly, picking up a simple gold ring. “He died. The government had auctioned the ring off after they burned him. I stole it back.”
“I’m sorry,” Elmiryn said automatically.
I put my things away, all but the book. Gingerly I picked it up and stared at the cover.
My companion shifted next to me. “What is that book about?”
“Huh?” I looked at Elmiryn. I’d been lost in my own thoughts.
“That book,” she said pointing at it. “What’s it about? You never said.”
I rubbed the back of my neck again. “I’m not entirely sure…it has poems, some loose stories, and random thoughts scribbled in…but it all seems to be about a man.”
“Is it about the man you spoke to?”
“Yes…well, no. I don’t know. I think so. Sort of.”
Elmiryn offered a bemused smile. “Well which is it?”
“The person the poems and stories talk about is never described in detail. Just the things he does. He’s only referred to as ‘Earth’. There are others too, but it mostly follows that one man. He sounds like a Legend.”
“Can you read me something?”
I gave her a startled look. “Read you something?”
She propped the side of her head on her fist and her smile curled more at the corners. “Is that too hard?”
“Well of course it isn’t,” I snapped. I flipped open the book to where I had left off. My cheeks colored and I cleared my throat as I began to speak.
“We three of the Earth, Wind, and Flame stood on the precipice overlooking a city whose white glow diffused–”
“Whose white glow diffused like a sigh into the dark chilly air. Said I to Flame, ‘Doth thou hear the singing, dear friend? It comes from that place there, nestled and warm in its light.’
“‘Aye,’ said Flame, whose bronze hands drew her curved sabers without pause. ‘I am fain for a chance to test my new companions,’ Fain; eager or ready. Whoever the writer is used an older and more formal form of speech, much of the time.” I explained before Elmiryn could ask again. “I’d say he speaks this way all the time, but I’m guessing this was written recently as even the writer can’t seem to keep the speech pattern throughout. He comes across as something of an amateur.”
I continued reading, eager to find what happened next. It was nice to have something else to focus on. “‘I prithee, Flame,’ Wind sighed, ‘Douse your passion. We have come with a goal, and that does not include the death of an innocent.’
“‘This being is no innocent,’ Flame spat, ‘If my sentiment be conjecture, then so be yours. I’d rather be at the ready then allow myself to be cozened like a babe.’
“‘Let us go, anon,’ I interjected before the argument could escalate. From our places up high, we traversed down low, into that wondrous valley of sight and sound. The city, was in fact, not a city, but mountains of books that pulsed and hummed with their own ethereal power–of which all Three of us felt. Flame was humbled, Wind was stilled, and I…I trembled.
“A shadow fell over us, and as one we looked up to see that great winged-being descend from his perch from the highest mountain of collected thoughts…”
I continued reading, even as the fire grew faint and the den dark. I didn’t stop until I realized that Elmiryn had fallen asleep next to me. It didn’t annoy me. I covered her with a blanket, but didn’t go to sleep right away. Instead I gazed up at the crescent moon near the entrance of the den.
Reading and speaking with Elmiryn had indeed calmed me a great deal. It made me remember simpler times, when I’d read a book to Atalo before bed. I felt secure in my skin–safe in my state. But one thought continued to nag me…
If life were more than base propaganda and less than effulgent fantasy, then why did I feel like the moral to a story?