The stillness was disturbed only by the melancholy wind that moved the ashen ground to shift.
I was the defiler, there. The clumsy heathen, whose ragged breath and befuddled feet made a mess of things. All around me was dead. I was a perversity whose future was mirrored in the gray stunted world. My trail was marked by the clouds of ash that came up into the air. These phantoms drifted a yard or two, before they blanketed the corpses of animals. Milky eyes glared at me accusingly as I made my way.
Blood stained me. The quilted weave of my gambeson was tainted, the rips that marred it like wounds themselves. I could even feel a breeze in my left boot. The sole had begun to separate at the tip.
My muscles loathed me, and quivered beneath the strains of my commands. When exhaustion sought to overcome me, I would kneel in the desolation and try to catch my breath. My eyes tunneled, and sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. In my arms, Elmiryn’s lanky body barely seemed to fit into my grip. Her head was cradled against my bosom, eyes shut and her breath faint. Her eyelids were red and raw, and her skin an evil complexion that suggested something unnatural. I thought I felt a film on the tips of fingers when I shifted her in my embrace, but my attention was divided and the feeling too faint.
All the while, in my head, things that were not mine prodded me. In realities separate from anything I had known, I felt the fires of the forge and tamed metal; I breathed cool waters, and made communion with the land; I drank deep poisons of debauchery, and tasted flesh without discretion. Some of these things, these memories, were Elmiryn’s, I knew…but I made an effort not to pay it any mind. I pushed these images away as best I could, forcing my own recollections to the forefront of my mind–primarily that of the recent days. Those other memories, the shadowy plays that performed in my head in aberrance, were a threat to me and thus revolted me.
My head seemed barely capable handling two personas, how could I stand the memories of others, however feeble?
Every time I felt myself too enthralled with a particular thought, every time I felt myself come too close to empathizing with something foreign, I moved. Forced myself forward in sloppy standard, like a drunkard startled out of his settlement. It worked, to some degree. I didn’t drown in what wasn’t mine. But still, things slipped through, and I kept returning to nagging details…
Elmiryn was a soldier of the Fiamman army. That armor, those weapons, the architecture of the buildings I saw in her past. It was unmistakable. She had been an agent of the imperialist kingdom and committed adultery.
That alone was hardly startling. Elmiryn seemed the sort for it, and I imagined she would have had no qualms to confessing that sort of thing in a crowded room. The fact that made my hands curl, that made my jaw tight and my mouth dry…was that she had done it with a princess. A serious offense, even in my culture, where promiscuity was culled only by the desire to exact power.
My chest tightened when the abstruse maelstrom of feelings settled heavy in my gut.
Elmiryn had once told me she had been a fool in the past. I now believed her.
…But I was grateful for the choices she made. I could admit this only in my head, as it repelled me in many ways to congratulate her for her poor choices. In life, just as the stories I read, I saw the world ripple in a reactionary chain that ended in our current moments. There were times when the exact source of such end truths were shrouded by confusion or concealment, but the answer was as tangible as the first seed planted into the earth. It isn’t so much that I believe in fate…but the certainty of variables, too numerous to name.
The bottom line was this: If Elmiryn hadn’t made the choices she had, we would never have met, and she never would have saved me. I would be dead. Or alone and listless. An equal, if not, worse fate.
It was her need for self-gratification that restored some sense of meaning in my life. Funny that.
This dizzying rejoinder to my proprietous criticism made me not want to think anymore. Before I knew it, cobbles were once again beneath my feet, and I made fast cuts through the shadows of buildings.
At some point, I became aware that I was staring deep into the grain of the main doors of the tavern. As if on cue, my knees buckled then, and the other things I had been carrying–Elmiryn’s bow and scabbard–fell to the ground. Elmiryn’s limp body almost tumbled out of my grasp. I clung to her, reminded of a doll I once hugged tight when frightened.
I looked up towards the large paned windows, and saw the faces of many peer down at me. I froze, momentarily forgetting what I was even doing there. Then I remembered, and made to speak.
“…help…” My voice was reedy and dry.
None of the peasants moved at first. Then the door opened and a barefoot man with a scraggly face and overgrown amber hair peered down at me from swollen-red eyes.
“Where’s Sedwick and Baldwin?” he asked in a hollow voice.
I looked up at him and blinked slowly. I forced my voice to an audible volume. It cracked as I answered, “Sedwick is with the guardian. …Baldwin…he…he didn’t make it. But the river has been restored! All will be well again!”
The man said nothing. A muscle in his cheek moved and he looked back at his companions, who crowded behind him in the doorway. He looked forward again, toward the sky, then down at me. “Why has no rain come? Why are the skies still gray?”
“I have something that will prove I’m telling the truth.” I reached in my pocket slowly. “The guardian gave it to me. All I need is a bucket.”
The man stared me down. It seemed an eternity before he turned and murmured something to someone behind him. A moment later a wooden bucket was dumped unceremoniously in front of me. The man crossed his arms and those behind him pushed a little to get a better view of me.
I swallowed and dropped the pebbles into the bucket, one at a time.
They hit the bottom with sharp ‘clacks’.
Then there was the sound of running water. The man and I both blinked, equally startled by the sound, and leaned forward to look down into the shadow of the bucket. It didn’t even take half a minute before water flowed over the bucket’s lips. My pants got wet around the knees. I gazed in wonder at the magical display.
Still, the man and those behind him didn’t smile. Instead, murmurs broke out. The amber-haired leader knelt down and gestured toward the water. “Drink.” His eyes were starved and hungry, and his face had become like hard-edged stone. I quailed beneath his stare, but I did as he bid, silently praying that nothing happened to me.
I touched my lips to the flowing water, and drank. My body tingled and flushed. The sensation surprised me, and made me choke a little, but I didn’t stop. I felt lighter, warmer, stronger. My gulps became desperate.
When I thought I’d had enough, I pulled away and looked at the man with a look of wonder. He looked at me expectantly–waiting to see if something happened.
But with the seconds that passed, his suspicion lessened. Instead, the hunger on his face intensified, and without a word or gesture, he dove at the bucket. I cried out as a mad scramble happened. The peasants fell over themselves through the doorway, and their bodies squeezed and pressed past the wood as they gibbered like beasts. I held Elmiryn closer to me and stood out of the way, my feet tripping over themselves in my haste.
The ground before the door was submerged beneath the clear, clean water that gushed forth. Little streams weaved through the cobbles. The peasants lapped at it, like dogs, on hands and knees and moaned at the taste of it. I knelt and shifted Elmiryn so as to free one hand. I tried to cup some water, and when I felt a little pool in my palm, I trickled it into her mouth.
My heart sunk when she didn’t respond.
When the rush had subsided, the amber-haired man approached me, his raw eyes brighter. He swallowed and looked me over once, then turned and looked over his shoulder where the adults seemed enough in control of themselves to allow the children to drink. He looked back at me.
“It’s true.” He said, voice stronger than when he first spoke. “The river has been restored. This curse has been lifted.”
I nodded my head, my gaze shy. “Yes.”
“What’s happened to your friend?”
“I…I don’t know. The guardian said she should wake up. But I don’t know when.”
The man nodded. He turned and called out a girl’s name. A young maiden with a square face and long mousy hair stepped forward. Her eyes shone as the man’s did.
He looked back at me. “My name is Den. I was left in charge when Sedwick left. This is my daughter, Opal. She’ll take you to a room where you and your friend can stay undisturbed.” Den leaned down and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t do much,” I mumbled. “Elmiryn was the one who risked everything.”
The man gestured toward the bucket. “I wouldn’t say that.” He nodded at Opal and walked away.
The girl, dressed in a long robin blue dress that covered everything from her arms to her neck, bowed low. I tensed and made a clumsy effort to stand. “No! Don’t do that, I’m not worth bowing to.”
Opal looked at me, startled, then straightened. She cleared her throat and made a sign for me to follow her. I did, and we entered the inn. The peasants now grabbed glasses from the bar, and I knew they were going to take some of the water to the sick upstairs.
As we made our way up the staircase, Opal slowed a little and looked at me nervously. “…Is Baldwin okay?”
At the question, I closed my eyes and bowed my head.
Her face paled a little and she seemed to pinch her mouth together. She walked faster, then, and stopped at a door halfway down the hall. “This room’s our smallest, but no one’s staying in it. I’ll clear out some of the supplies we’ve left there so you can have more room.”
I shook my head. “No, really that’s fine, you don’t have to–”
“Please,” she said as she opened the door. Her eyes were a little misty when she looked at me.
I shuffled through the doorway and mumbled my thanks. The bed was in the far right corner. Eager to free my arms, I laid Elmiryn down onto the plain blankets. When I straightened again, I could feel the blood rush through my biceps and forearms. My fingers tingled and I felt like a leaf whose only anchor to the Earth had been lost. I tumbled into the nearest chair and put my head in my hands with a shaky sigh.
A hand on my back made me look up.
“Do you need anything?” Opal asked.
I glanced at Elmiryn, then down at my clothes. I fingered the bloodied hole where Sedwick’s spear had plunged into my chest. The memory made me shiver.
“Some new clothes would be nice…” I said in a low voice.
Later, I found myself in a linen tunic with jute twine tied around my waist. Black breeches stopped just past my knees, where the rest of my legs were covered by the white hosen I wore underneath. Originally, I had been offered a dress, but politely refused. I had gotten too used to the attire of men, and where I came from, only women of power could afford the luxury of dresses.
Opal noticed my boots and without my asking, brought me new ones. Slim, charcoal suede with laces. At first I protested, but the girl was persistent. She took my left boot and pulled at the hole with her fingers. “The sole’s have been worn thin–and look! It’s separating! I can’t let you leave with this pair, I just can’t. Please, don’t trouble yourself. The owner is more than happy to let you take these.”
Resigned, I did.
The girl also brought the rest of our belongings into the room, after clearing it of the small crates, oil bottles, and bolts of tarp. When her tasks were done, a man who identified himself as a healer entered our room, accompanied with Den. He checked Elmiryn’s pulse, her breathing, and took a look at her eyes–even pulled back her lips to inspect her gums. After all this, he sat back, stared at her for a moment, then pinched her arm, hard.
I made to stop him, a flash of indignation flowing through me, but then I realized what he was doing. He was trying to get a reaction. He then pulled out a small vial from his side pouch and uncorked it. He waved it slowly beneath Elmiryn’s nose before he pursed his lips and sighed. “She isn’t responding. But as far as I can see, it’s like she’s just asleep. Most of my supplies have been used up, and I don’t have all of my tools with me. I’m afraid I can’t do anything right now, but I’ll check on her tomorrow.”
Den and I nodded after we glanced at each other. “Thank you, sir.”
The hours slipped late into the night. Outside, I could hear celebrations. Word was that messengers had already been sent to the neighboring cities to spread the good news. I remained in the little bedroom, refusing the offer to join in the merrymaking. They wanted me to share my tale of the cave. I balked at the idea.
Instead, I remained seated in the leather bound chair next to Elmiryn, compelled by some sense of duty. I had a bucket of soapy water and a brush with me, which I used to scrub the blood from my gambeson. Most of it came off, but some of the stains wouldn’t wash out completely. With a sigh, I let it dry out on the windowsill.
I stared out the window to the city. Gamath was a collection of looming shadows. I tried to imagine it filled with people, with noise and ruckus and lights. The image was hard to form. All I could imagine were dark streets tainted by a wandering madness. My gaze shifted and my eyes fell on Elmiryn’s face.
I reached a hand to her, and brushed my thumb along her forehead. She lay quiet as death.
Exhaustion claimed me. I fell asleep, curled in the chair and fought against the feelings of guilt that came riding on the laughter of the townsfolk.
That following morning, I bathed, ate, and spent the remainder of the day reading. The healer returned to check Elmiryn, but again said there was nothing he could do. I fell asleep in the same chair as the night before last. The next day, it was the same thing, except that some of the peasant children came to sit with me. There were six of them, mostly boys beneath the age of ten I assumed. Opal offered to shoo them out, but I shook my head, asking only that I not be left alone with them.
They asked me about what happened with the guardian, but I mumbled my unwillingness to talk about that just yet. Opal redirected their attention by asking what my book was about, and before I knew it, I was reading Tobias’ story aloud.
“Wind, mighty wind, with lungs filled with laughter, blew back his enemies and nary lost a breath. Arrows shot at him were lost in a sensuous dance of current and power, where their steel-eyed anger were turned to fly twice as fast toward their owners. The pirates cowered on the deck, and many perished beneath the heavy hail of death. Mariatu, leader of the spiteful men, barked a command to his lessers. His voice was lost in the vigor that was Wind’s incredible howl.
An arrow struck across Mariatu’s face and he fell, bloody and downed by his own bravado.
It was at that time that the Oleus Lamar, the dread ship of the Southern Seas, overturned with Wind’s powerful suggestion.
Njord, god of wind and father to the seafaring life, whistled with pleasure at his Champion’s deed. Atargatis, goddess of the ocean and mother to the seafaring life, swirled with displeasure–“
“Why would she be mad?” a boy asked loudly.
I looked at him blankly, only to find my expression mirrored by all those in the room. “What–?”
“Atargatis. Why is she mad? The pirates were bad, right?”
My eyes fluttered. “Um. …Well, she’s described as the ‘mother of the seafaring life’. I think her love for sailors was indiscriminate.”
“I mean she didn’t care. As a mother, she loved her children, good or bad. Njord didn’t share that feeling. That was why he sent Wind to–”
“What’s Wind’s real name?”
Disgruntled by the new interruption, I tried to keep my displeasure from my voice. “He is only called Wind. They don’t call him by anything else–”
“But Wind isn’t a real name.” I was surprised to find this one came from Opal. I think something in my look gave me away, as her expression turned thoroughly embarrassed.
“I didn’t write the book! I just–”
“Maybe if you leave the funny words out, we can understand it better,” A bucktoothed boy offered snottily.
My lips thinned.
I looked back at the book and pretended to read loudly. “Rocks fall. Everyone dies.” I snapped the book shut. “Sorry, that’s the end.”
The boys gazed at me, taken aback. “But they were out to sea! How could–!?”
“I guess the writer ran out of big words.” I offered dryly.
That was when Elmiryn moved.
An odd moan, held in by her tensed jaw dispelled the idea that it had just been a twitch of her arm. I inhaled sharply and rose to my feet, my hand quick to find place at the woman’s forehead. She burned under my touch, and seemed to writhe in her sheets as if suffering by some horrid dream. I looked to Opal and she gave a cursory nod of the head before she proceeded to shoo the children from the room. As the last of them went, I held Elmiryn by the shoulders and gave her a small shake.
“Elmiryn…Elmiryn! Wake up!”