She shut the door and I heard the snap of the lock. I picked myself off the floor and wiped at my swollen eyes. Elmiryn turned to stare at me from across the room, and we both fell quiet as our gazes met. The firewood cracked and popped in the fireplace as a glowing piece fell away to the ash covered floor. My hands raised to touch the collar of my tunic before I once again became aware of the layout of the room. Not wanting the bed between us as I undressed, I gestured for the woman to come closer.
“You’ll see better with the firelight.” I said quietly.
Elmiryn came closer, a soft frown on her face as she moved around the bed to stand near me. She stopped a foot away and placed her hands on her hips.
I bowed my head and turned so that my back was to her. “It took them a little over a day to finish the design. The man who did it…I grew up with him. We were…friends. He was an apprentice learning the ways of the shamanites. He wasn’t allowed to stop or rest until the Mark was finished.” I pulled the tunic over my head. My arms felt weak and shook as I struggled to be freed from the fabric. The air felt unwelcoming to my shoulders, and goosebumps spread across my skin. When my tunic fell before my feet, I stopped and took a deep breath.
I couldn’t deny it, I still felt hesitant. All that was left to remove was the bandage that wrapped my breasts. It wasn’t too late to try and stop this. Unless the bandage was removed, the most important aspect of my brand would not be seen.
But my hands were already moving without my consent. They undid the bandage with fumbling fingers, and before I registered it, the wraps had fallen away. My arms crossed over my front and I squeezed my eyes shut.
I jumped when Elmiryn brushed her fingers across my back, from my left shoulder blade down to my right hip. The magic trappings that encased me in my curse seemed to pulse at her touch. It was something I hadn’t felt before. The best description I can offer for it, was as if my body wished to change. To say it was a chill, or a spread of warmth isn’t quite it. I felt as if something of my blood, my hair, my skin had trembled in the most microscopic sense.
But the moment was fast, and before I could make a remark on it, Elmiryn spoke.
“They designed this just for you, didn’t they?”
I nodded and swallowed. My throat felt tired from being so tense. “A reflection of my crimes.”
“Do you remember what they did to you?”
I smiled sardonically. “Of course. Aside from feeling many of the lines more than once, they had it on display before me so that I may know just what my punishment would entail.” With a deep breath, I began to explain. “There’s a woman, only partially shifted in a form that looks similar to Ekilluos. She looks like she’s running away from the viewer, but her body twists so that she turns to look over her shoulder. Her feline head is mangy and her claws are dripping with her own blood from the wounds she has inflicted on herself.” I paused to ease down the lump that tightened in my throat. My eyes began to burn again. “From her naked chest and back, you can see worms are squirming out of the wounds she has made. A sign of pestilence. Inherent evil. That was for inflicting harm on myself after Atalo’s death. Self-harm is considered a perversion of Aelurus’ gift of regenerative healing.”
“But–” Elmiryn began.
I cut her off. “Next, there should be a bearded serpent slithering from the woman’s open mouth. It’s wrapped around her throat and right arm. It faces downward, toward the ground. It’s for my defiance and, as they put it, my lies and treasonous words.”
“You don’t sound like you believe much in that charge, Nyx…” There was the scrape of wood as Elmiryn pulled a chair up to sit behind me. Her hands placed themselves at my hips and she pulled me a little closer. I bit my objection back and instead answered her remark.
“I don’t doubt that it was my misguided persuasions that led Atalo to his death.”
Elmiryn made a low sound with her throat. “Go on. Tell me what else is here.”
I sighed. “Elmiryn, you must know that I can recite each and every detail of my own Mark. Why do you need to test me?”
There was a squeak from the chair as the warrior leaned forward to peer at me from my side. Her eyebrow was raised high. “Believe it or not, I’m not trying to turn this into a game. I happen to have a problem with keeping pictures in my head. Remember?”
I blushed and nodded, feeling a little ashamed. Still, my shoulders bunched as I resumed my explanation. “The woman is wearing two earrings, both feathers. The one on the left is dark, the one on the right is light.”
“Lemme guess…the separation of your two selves, right?”
“I’m seeing something else, but I’m not sure if I have it right…”
“It should just be a gate.” I frowned. Elmiryn’s condition really had become worse if she had trouble identifying something as common as that. It only made me more frustrated that she had been reckless enough to go hunting while in such a state. “At the top are some words written in my native language. Hejka et Juek. Hejka et Ool. Hejka et Lunés. ‘Traitor to Blood. Traitor to Water. Traitor to Spirit.’ I betrayed my family, my people, and my goddess. …They made it a point to go over those lines several times.”
“There’s more. Beneath it, right?”
“Below that are words written in an archaic tongue. I…don’t know what it says exactly. Something required for the spell, I imagine.”
Elmiryn’s hands left my hips and I heard her sit back in her chair.
I turned to peer at her over my shoulder. “Are you satisfied?”
She looked up at me and shook her head. “No.” Half her face was lit, the other half in warm shadow. With her hair down, she looked feminine, just as that night in the mountains. “But I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do about it.”
I stooped to pick up my bandages, conscious not to stick my rear in Elmiryn’s face. “You mean about what you remember?” I felt guilt nettle me. I didn’t turn around or raise my eyes as I started to wrap the long bandage around my chest. I hated the idea that my pain had somehow become someone else’s. It almost made me want to apologize, but I refrained when I remembered that it was never my intention to share such things to begin with.
“No. I mean about what I can’t remember.”
This made me pause. She wanted to keep those memories? Did she really mean that, I wondered. And how could she?
“Was that…presumptuous?” she asked. Her voice was low and had a warm quality to it. It was subdued, but not in a way that suggested to me exhaustion or a sense of defeat. Instead, it only reminded me of the rapacious looks that came across Elmiryn’s eyes in the morning, when she thought I didn’t see her looking my way.
“You…you really don’t make any sense.” My fingers seemed to forget themselves. They fussed uselessly with the bandage’s ends, failing even to make a simple box knot.
“So set me straight.”
I turned on the spot and fixed Elmiryn with a half-hearted glare. “You are not so far-gone as to ask for what I’ve got, Elle. It was perhaps the–the luckiest thing that I ended up being chased by those farmers. If I hadn’t…I wouldn’t have met you…and…” I faltered mid-sentence. I finally managed to tie the knot correctly and moved to pick up my tunic from the floor.
As I came up, Elmiryn’s hand touched my shoulder gently. I peered at her with my tunic clutched to my chest. She frowned at me.
“I do consider myself lucky to have found you when I did, but regardless of whether or not I was there, had you not found those farmers, I think you would’ve been fine.” When my gaze fell away from hers, her light touch turned to an iron-like grip. “You would’ve been fine.” She repeated firmly.
“You know why I was nearly starved to death? Every village I went to chased me out. Near my home, outsiders have recognized who outcasts are. I had been kicked out of every known area of the Northwest before meeting you.” I pulled away from Elmiryn and put on my tunic. “I wasn’t going to survive long. I was starving. Just in the week that I’ve been with you, I think I’ve gotten healthier. But…but even if I had managed something to eat, I think–”
Elmiryn cut me off with a loud snort. She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms high on her chest. “Shit, you’re starting to get aggravating.”
I sputtered. “P-Pardon?”
The woman stood to her feet with a bang. She made a big show of stomping her feet and pushing her chair back with all her strength. She was taller than I was, and advanced on my quickly. The display startled me so much that it caused my legs to fail and I began to fall backward, but Elmiryn didn’t let me go down. She grabbed me by the front and lifted me up so that my toes barely scraped the ground.
“Enough of it, Nyx!” She hissed through her teeth. Her sharp eyes were like knives turned on me, and I trembled as I dangled in the air. I thought back to Leander, and fought the urge to struggle.
What she said next surprised me.
“You aren’t weak,” She said. Her words carried such strength and force, I could practically feel them bury into my gut. She gave me a shake. Elmiryn’s face started to turn pink at the cheeks, “You aren’t useless, you aren’t a coward! A WEAK person wouldn’t have survived in that cave. A USELESS person wouldn’t have tried to take care of me. A COWARDLY person wouldn’t have tried to save their brother from death at such a great risk to themselves. You wanna know what you fucking are? Undisciplined! But if you can keep pace with me, you’re certainly capable of more. So guess what?” She paused and had an expectant look on her face.
“…Wh-What?” I stuttered out. I had the most bewildered look on my face.
“We’re going to train together. I’ve been getting a little soft, and as my ward you’ve got to be able to defend yourself. So enough of this, ‘I can’t fight’ nonsense. Yer gonna learn to walk with a straight back, Nyx.” She dropped me to the ground and gave me a bit of a shove. “I swear to the heavens, if I hear you bitch one more time about how you aren’t good enough, I’ll hit you square in the mouth. And…” She faltered, and the flare and fire in her eyes died down. Then without warning, she smiled and started to chuckle. “And by the four winds, you’ll thank me for it!”
She turned and walked away, swept up in a fit of humor that managed to annoy and frighten me at the same time. Her laughter seemed to intensify as she left the room with her hand to her head.
Elmiryn had either suffered from some delusion created by her curse.
…Or she really meant every word she said.
I collapsed to the ground and blinked as a piece of ember managed to slip through the guard at the fireplace and land near my feet. I thought to snuff out the glowing bit with my boot, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. The piece cooled and turned black.
I wondered nervously what tomorrow would bring.