A person can be embodied in a sentence, a phrase, a word. There are the distinct smells associated with that person–the special expressions that flash across their face. Do they feel like leather, or rose petal? What is their laugh composed of? What colors drape their back? The bits and parcels of life we glue together, messily, account for a typical creature’s memory. What did people remember of me, then? Was I truly considered, animal and all? Or was my shadow a separate entity; my hidden self, a sister, too shy to show her face?
Elmiryn had already made that distinction in her mind, it seemed.
“She’s listening, isn’t she? Your Twin?” She asked, with eyes that peered over her shoulder. “She sees? She understands?”
“She…just hears.” I felt her digging at the back of my eyeballs in the hope of reclaiming one of them as she had the day before. “But her vision is secondhand, like a dream. I only say this from my own experience. I’m, um…not certain if her vision has become sharper, or if she has any access to my other senses. I just know she’s pushing to see.”
My mouth became a displeased curve. “How can we do this? How can we hope to do anything if she’ll have all the means to undermine our efforts?”
“And how not?”
“She just won’t.”
It occurred to me that it was stupid to bother asking–for if She could hear and even partially see, then what was the use in explaining, then? Still, I disliked not knowing. I wanted Elmiryn to be as a book, right then. To reveal her intentions, dark with mystery and possible danger.
We passed deciduous trees–my favorite sort–great large things with broad leaves that grew shorter and stouter the closer we ventured to the Torreth Mountains. Our progress was labored and slow, as we fought against thick underbrush and uneven terrain. There were places so thick with bushes and low-branched trees that we were forced to make great detours around, which, in my weariness, appeared to set us back at least a dozen yards.
Rest came to us in a small little spot devoid of foliage, where the forest canopy broke onto the clear blue sky. I stared upward, stricken by the rich bright shade of the day. Somehow, the wind seemed to breeze easier here, and I relished the cool air that took the heat from my neck and back. I leaned against the trunk of a lean poplar and sighed.
My eyes slipped shut, and I wondered which of these trees I could climb up and nap in. Then the sound of things snapping brought me out of my haze, and my eyes flew open to see Elmiryn with her favorite dagger out. She pulled at the grass and small ferns, leaves weeping onto the ground as roots growled and snapped out of their homes. She looked at me, then gestured at the trees. “Go ahead. Rest a bit. Have some breakfast too. This will take me a while.”
My brow wrinkled and I looked at Elmiryn warily from where I still leaned. Her complacency didn’t match the eagerness with which she attacked the undergrowth. Torn bits of grass sprinkled the churned, dark soil, and I took a step back as if daring Elmiryn to truly excuse me from her arduous task. When no protest or sly trick came at me, I turned and vaulted up the nearest oak I could find.
I felt bad, leaving Elmiryn to work alone–but perhaps it was in preparation for the coming night. I told myself that it would therefore be counter-productive to the night’s success should I aid her, let alone watch her. Feeling better by this line of logic, I took Tobias’s book out of my bag and began to read.
I flipped back toward the front end, the sewn parchment cracking like old bones at my hurried fingers. I had read all the complete tales there were to be found in the book. Now all that was left was to read were Tobias’s thoughts, his essays, and what I hoped, were intimate accounts of his own life.
But the first page I came to confused me, and I had to read the starting paragraph twice:
“Dawn. With relish. Had a man speak about the tragedy of a dying sun, and countered his churlishness with the radiance of a child. He spat on my robe. Had to get a scrub. The stain was of tobacco. Naomi would’ve killed him, but I think my unconquered positiveness worked toward a better victory.”
I wrinkled my nose and scratched my head. It indeed seemed a personal anecdote, as I’d hoped, but there was no greater explanation beyond that. Much of the book seemed comprised of that. There were vague thoughts, interrupted sentences, and even single words, of which entire pages were dedicated to. My skimming found six of these. “Patterns, Stars, Singed, Ink, and Breath.” But the one that caught my eye was:
The period at the end caught my attention. None of the other words had one. I tried to imagine the sort of state Tobias was in, to write this word alone on a page, and feel so compelled to have bothered with a period.
Excited by this bit of mystery, I held my chin and tapped the page.
It didn’t take much for my mind to travel to the story I had told last night–the tale of the Spider of the West. In it, a flower had erupted from her chest, a white, six-petaled flower that resembled a star. Though it was never explicitly named, my bet was that it was a lily. But again, I came to a wall. Just because the flower had been used in Tobias’ story did not make it particularly significant.
Such items were always meant to stand for something in literature…but there were enough metaphors and concepts surrounding the lily that I wasn’t certain which one Tobias had meant. The first, and most obvious possibility was of tarnished innocence or purity; the Spider’s blood had stained the beautiful white of the flower. The other two seemed related to the cycle of life. Having read a book or two on such things, I knew that lilies were related to the two most incredible stages of life: Death and Reincarnation. The latter I believed in, as Aelurus had been known to reward great individuals with a new, and harmonious life. But did Tobias believe in it? Where was he from? Was he worldly enough to adopt the ideas of others despite his origins?
“Elmiryn,” I called, eyes still on the scrawled word. “What did you think of the story last night?”
Her voice floated up to me. “What?”
“I asked, ‘What did you think of the story last night’?”
“Oh. I thought it was funny.”
My nose scrunched. “…Really? That heartbreaking story amused you?”
“Heartbreaking? Are you kidding? Do you really think the gods would bother themselves with judging some other deity’s lesser? Someone will wake her up. Just you wait and see.”
I had an incredulous little smile on my face as I looked up. “…Elle, it was just a story.”
“But you told me it was about that man…Tobias, was it?”
I shook my head, hand tugging at my ear as my eyes squinted. “You’re right, but I was only guessing! I hardly believe he actually did all of these things. It’s all just one big metaphor for events in his life…I think.“
“I dunno, Nyx…I remember hearing stories when I was younger, about a slave girl that made people hang in mid-air. My father used it as a way to scare me into behaving. He’d tell me, ‘Arachne will string you up with her silk if you don’t listen to me!’ That trick always worked.”
“But…Why would a Legend just walk up to me and give me a book? Why didn’t he go and help Gamath, if he’s supposed to be an agent of heaven?”
Elmiryn grunted, and I heard the snarl of roots freed. “He vowed to find his fledgeling. Simple. He didn’t sound like the sort of man to take that kind of vow lightly.” I heard her let out a huff. Then she added, “And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway? When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno. Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven. It was that sort of thing that killed so many of them. They got full of themselves, and the gods had to kill them–if the people hadn’t already. I don’t even know of an active Legend left alive anymore.”
“…So you’re saying that maybe Tobias–IF he were a Legend–would want to hang low? To not attract attention?”
“Yeah. Imagine how the man must’ve felt, having lost so much, only to see his comrades all fall in a short span of time? There used to be thousands of Legends, before they all died and disappeared within a decade. It was a sign. There were too damn many of them.”
“Too many…” My eyes glazed over.
If what Elmiryn were saying were true…then the word “Lilies” likely represented death. Perhaps Tobias had been depressed. The period after the word made sense now. It wasn’t reincarnation, it was death. The ultimate end.
I traced my fingers over the page and frowned. Even this revelation felt insufficient. Elmiryn had uncovered another possibility–one almost too fantastic to accept. I had no way of proving it or disproving it, and that made me frustrated.
“Hey, I’m done,” Elmiryn called.
I looked over. Frowned. “Uh…doing what?“
Elmiryn had made a circle of dirt. It was lumpy in places, but she had clearly tried to smooth it out–possibly with a big leaf. She placed her hands on her hips. “It’s a fighting circle.”
I nearly fell out of the tree. “Today? You mean to do that today!?“
She nodded, her eyes unblinking.
“But today is the day I shift.”
I visibly sagged. Of course she knew. But she was still insane. Still ridiculous for believing nothing bad would come of this. I could already feel Her inside me, pacing. The idea of fighting made her anxious. “Are you asking for a premature change?” I snapped.
“No, I’m asking for you to fight me when you’ll be less likely to over think things. Get down here.”
“I’m over thinking things right now. Namely, the word, ‘NO’, over and over.”
“If you’d like, I can make this your first lesson. Get down when I say to get down, or I’ll make it happen.”
The words slapped me. I leaned back from the force, felt my eyes burn with surprise and hurt. I hurried to climb down, my eyes on Elmiryn’s face all the while. “I don’t appreciate threats…” I mumbled as I went to join Elmiryn on the damp dirt.
She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t like making threats either, but if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. Your feelings can’t be coddled anymore than your body would. And you’re going to be eating dirt today, make no mistake.”
As I stepped onto the damp soil, I immediately felt stupid. Somehow–despite its hurried creation–the circle managed to look neater than I did. Me, with my muddied pants and boots, my wrinkled tunic, and my disheveled hair. I didn’t belong in it. I nearly took a step back when a look from Elmiryn froze me in place. It was similar to the look she had given Sedwick back in Gamath, when they were arguing. But this was more focused. What was just a threat, now blossomed into a promise.
“If you don’t mind,” she began, circling around me with hands behind her back, “I’d like to get a better sense of what you can do. So far, it seems you’re extremely good at dodging a punch. You’re agile, flexible, and have good reflexes. Before you met me, you stole food to stay alive. Am I right?”
“Yes.” I resisted the urge to add “Ma’am” to the end of that.
“But a girl who takes from peasants doesn’t get the level of skill you do. How’d you get it?”
I clenched my fists and stared forward. My mind rolled over memories so visceral, my body ached just bringing it up. I finally settled on an answer. “My older brother, Thad, was a warrior. He tried to teach me the basics of self-defense when I was younger.”
“But that isn’t all. It can’t be.”
I blinked and looked at her.
Elmiryn was adjacent to me, the side of her face a glow of sunlight. “I can’t recall the specifics of that day–you know my memory is a joke. But I still remember how well you moved when the mercenaries tried to kill you. For someone who told me she didn’t fight, for someone who told me she stole just enough to survive, it didn’t make sense. I don’t care that you’re an Ailuran–that you have 200 bones in your spine, heightened senses, and the strength of a fit wrestler even when at your weakest. Your story doesn’t match your reality. Tell me what else you did, how else you trained. You know I can hear when you’re lying.”
My mouth went dry. I didn’t want to talk about this. At least not so soon. Wasn’t it enough that she had seen my brother’s last moments? Seen my terrible Mark? I felt as though I’d been stripped of things so personal…and here, she demanded more. What more of myself did I have to kick out into the suns before I could rest my heart?
Slowly I began to speak. “I was part of…a rebel group. Against the war. It was spread out, over several villages, including my own. I never did any fighting. I never…never hurt anyone. I just wanted our leaders to stop killing us all over their mad agendas.”
“What did you do?”
“I was a spy. I’d listen in on important meetings, copy records and plans, and sometimes helped with the sabotage… This went on for some time. It was how I found out they were going to take Atalo away. He was on a list of young men to be collected for battle.”
“They never charged you for treason?”
“They never knew.”
Elmiryn nodded, then moved so that she stood in front of me. “I’m going to say this once, and only once,” her voice had lost all the melody I had grown accustomed to. All that was left was steel. “I will not take ‘no’ for an answer. You do as I say, and fast. You pay attention, or you’re going to regret it. We stop when I say we stop. And finally…” She smiled, “You will not leave this circle.”
Then we began.
Elmiryn started off by telling me I had no business carrying a weapon until I polished my evasive techniques and learned how to execute a proper counter-attack. This annoyed me, because I didn’t want to carry her silly sword anymore if I wasn’t even going to use it, but any opportunity for derisive thought was dashed away in the hours that came.
I thought there would be running, push-ups, me carrying most of the equipment; consistent, but paced, physical training. Not this. Not hours of avoiding pain, feeling it anyway, wondering if I’d made Elmiryn mad, getting mad at her, spitting sand from my mouth, and sweat-stung vision.
I was given only enough time to think: “It hurts; Here it comes,” or “I can’t do this.”
Then another thought came to me, when I was laid out on the ground, eyes lidded as they watched a wisp of a cloud trail by.
“Elmiryn is trying to break me.”
And she was. This realization, when I finally came to it, made my sinus’ ache and brought an itch to my limbs. She was trying to destroy my timidness, trying to kill the pacifist that had made a home in me.
As such, Elmiryn did not go easy on me, did not feel the need to curb her attacks or start off slowly. We practiced high attacks aimed at the head, mid-range attacks aimed at the stomach and waist, and attacks from behind. Three different counters to each, three different ways to evade. I didn’t catch on right away.
But to her credit, Elmiryn was patient in showing me the proper stances and movements. It was the only respite she offered, and I quickly learned to pay complete and utter attention at these moments…or else. The first lesson seemed simple enough.
“Keep your left arm in front of you, and the other near your chest. Look at your feet placement. Do they make an L-shape? Point the toe the other way–or else I can come in and just knock you over like a tree. Good… Now, when I come at you, keep in mind my momentum. When inertia takes me past you, strike that way. With it. Never go against the flow of a traveling object–especially when doing a counter. Too much resistance might cause you injury, and even lessen your attack. Keep in mind, unless you can leave me open or pull me off balance, then you can’t counter. You’re better off not letting your guard down and getting cocky. We’ll start off with attacks aimed at the head. Unless your opponent is skilled in hand-to-hand, chances are, he’ll aim for your body more. Easier target. But this–this is just to get you on your toes.”
When she felt satisfied with my positioning, she mirrored my stance and locked eyes with me. No more forewarning than that.
Perhaps Elmiryn believed greatly in my ability to evade, for she never stuck to one way of attacking. I never would’ve been able to imagine so many ways to throw a single punch. The target was the same each time–she was aiming for my head. But she came from the sides, from below, at one point even feinting with her knee. That time, I barely managed to block her right hook with a timid turn of my shoulder. She scolded me immediately, telling me that in turning my face and baring me her side, I was asking for a kidney blow.
“Again!” she barked.
I returned to my stance, my heart hammering. I missed the tenderness of the night before. This was my error. In that lapse of focus, Elmiryn pushed forward with her back foot, and feinted a strike with her right fist that I reacted to. I lifted my left arm to deflect it, my face contorting in sudden surprise. In that fraction of a second, her left fist came swinging in a fast arc toward my face. My vision was knocked askew, and my jaw screamed with pulsing pain. I went down, my vision blanking for a moment before it fuzzed back into view, spots and ripples making it difficult to even see the rich brown of the earth.
I resented Elmiryn, greatly.
As I pushed myself up shakily onto my hands, I had to pause to steady my breathing.
My lungs shuddered in my chest, ribs expanding a fraction, like a predator’s mouth. Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose, onto the soil, and I saw it mix with the blood that dripped from my lips. My front teeth had cut into the inside of my mouth. I gasped and pulled at my mind–away from the claws of my Twin, who thrashed and snarled.
After that, Elmiryn let me have one break, when the suns were high overhead, and their brilliance a spotlight through the canopy. I made to leave the circle when she jerked me back by my tunic. Her eyes flashed. I stepped back, muscles tensed for a blow that didn’t come. She brought me some water and some left over sheep’s meat from the other night. It tasted terrible, but I said nothing as there wasn’t much else of substance to eat besides bread and some fruit. Neither of us spoke for a time.
When I was down to my last bites of meat, Elmiryn spoke. Her voice was quiet, but it was the first time in several hours that the steel had gone from her words.
“I just want you safe, Nyx.” She didn’t look at me, just up at the sky. “I know you hate this, but you know we have to do it. And you have to get this fast–because I don’t know when the next danger will come. I have no idea.” She looked at me, her face blank. “You can’t shut me out, or else this will be for nothing. Are you mad? Then focus that energy into what we’re doing. Or else, this will be for nothing. Got it?”
I sighed. Rubbed at my eyes and found tears there. I swallowed and held them back. I thought about Thad and fought to make my voice as strong as possible. “Got it.”
And we resumed.
My momentary brush with danger aside, Elmiryn had perhaps been right in starting my training that day. I did feel angry. Angry for the pain Elmiryn made me feel, angry at my Twin for her brutish gibbering, angry at myself for not being stronger. I felt it burn my skin and pull at my being. It took away my exhaustion, my desire to hide, any possibility of pretense or civility. The dirt circle had become my cage, and in it, I felt myself fight, passionately, to purge the anger that built up with every blow, every surge of embarrassment and fear.
In the early evening, I had finally managed a counter or two, and the red on Elmiryn’s cheek showed it. She didn’t cry out or get angry. She smiled at me and nodded once. Then we kept at it. I was exhausted, and I could see she was too. Her skin was flushed, and sweat trailed through gleaming skin. Wisps of her hair came out of her braid, and she had discarded her top, leaving her chest bare save for the strip of cloth she used to wrap around her breasts. At that point, I wanted to do the same, but I remembered my Mark, and let out a low growl from the back of my throat. If she touched it, we could see a repeat of the day before.
Elmiryn stared at me when I did that, pausing mid-movement, and I paused to look at her too. She let me have another break, then.
Not long after, the forest became dark. Overhead, the sky was a deep violet. The birds had become quiet in the trees.
Heaving, Elmiryn and I stared at each other, feet away. “Elmiryn, it’s almost time.” I felt spent. Spent of all anger, spent of all energy. I fell to my knees and looked at her helplessly. “It’s almost time. Please tell me you had something in mind while we spent all day grunting and sweating.”
She nodded, and took a step back, out of the dirt circle. She took her right hand and made three deliberate gestures–tracing a circle, a slash, then a fast squiggle, like she were making a character from a language. I didn’t recognize it.
All around me, I felt the air press in. My heart clenched. “What did you do?” I squeaked. My hair stood on end. I went to the edge of the circle and she held out her hand, shaking her head.
“Relax,” Elmiryn breathed. “You don’t want to cross the line now, believe me.” She tapped her foot, and I had to lean down to see the line Elmiryn had drawn into the dirt. All that time, and I hadn’t noticed it.
“I’m trapped in here?” I said, my voice little more than a breath.
“Until I let you out.”
I nodded grimly, then looked skyward. The sky was almost completely dark. I looked at Elmiryn. “Could you do me a favor?” My voice was turning hollow and faint. Not by choice. My body began to feel sore, and my eyes drooped to a sleepy fraction.
“Sure,” she said.
I let out a little sigh. “Could you leave me alone for a bit?”
Elmiryn didn’t say anything. I thought I saw the corners of her lips twitch, but she nodded and walked away, without looking back. I waited for her to slip completely from my view before I proceeded to shed my clothes. There was no use in staying dressed when it came to Her. She didn’t like wearing clothes–not even clothes that shifted with her. Shivering in the cool night air, I folded my belongings as neatly as I could, then lightly tossed them out of the circle. I tried to swallow, and felt my throat constrict. Overhead, I watched as the sky turned dark, and the teeth of the universe glinted at me.
Then my body seized, and I sank to the ground with a choked wail.