Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chapter 21, 22

*** edited Ch 21 end and Ch 22 added ***


XXI

Bactine leaned over the cot where Xylic lay feverish, wiping his brow with a wet cloth, and brushing his unruly bangs from his forehead.

He’s gone gangrenous, you know, said Namah impartially, as she busied herself with something entirely useless. Bactine suspected it was needlepoint.

Yes, thank you for the update, replied Bactine irritably, her attention focused intently on Xylic. It’d been several days since Namah had suddenly stabbed Xylic, and he’d gradually grown weaker until today he flitted in and out of consciousness. That must have been a filthy knife.

At first, Bactine had the initial thought to leave and find help, but realizing that she couldn’t drag Xylic through the moor and forest back to civilization in time made her feel helpless, and she also suspected Namah wouldn’t let her leave, anyway. Actually, she suspected highly that Namah knew exactly what she was doing, which made Bactine sick to her stomach.

So from the initial stabbing, Namah had begun her lessons with Bactine, and Xylic was her test subject. Right after, as Xylic was bleeding all over the floor, Namah had handed Bactine cloth and instructed her how to dress a wound properly. It infuriated Bactine to no end that Namah seemed to have no empathy whatsoever for Xylic’s obviously pain-riddled plight. She wondered if that’s what happened to healers after so many years of seeing pain. Regardless, Bactine followed her instructions as perfectly as she could, entirely forgetting to be embarrassed as she removed Xylic’s cloak, jerkin and shirt in her concern for his well-being.

Namah had used a powerful magic on Xylic, which rendered him completely useless. She later told Bactine it was a spell which increased the pain tenfold, precisely for the purpose of keeping a wounded enemy subdued. When Bactine objected, Namah mentioned that Xylic had been ready to attack her with his weapons, and she was only a weak old woman, after all. Bactine didn’t believe there was anything weak about Namah, but reluctantly saw her point. Besides, Bactine realized she was entirely at the mercy of Namah, in order to save Xylic’s life.

Following the instruction on wound dressing, Namah began to teach her how to see inside of someone physically, in a mental way. She started with merely touching Xylic, and trying to sense him. Bactine would put her hand on him again and again, seeing nothing, until finally Namah hit her on the back of the head and demanded she concentrate. Something about that angered Bactine to no end, and that anger focused her like a razor.

She put her hand on him, and slid inside, through her hand, sensing him. The blood coursing through his veins with heat; the stolid heartbeat; the rush of air through his lungs, like the wind in the tops of pines. She drew back in shock, pulled her hand away, and caught her breath.

Namah smiled, although when Namah smiled, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

Later that night, when Namah was outside gathering some kind of horrible substance, Bactine busied herself with changing Xylic’s dressing. The coverings were pulled up to his shoulders, but his arms were outside, and he looked weak, as his brow was consistently covered in a sheen of sweat.

Does it hurt badly? asked Bactine quietly.

Yes, said Xylic. Bactine sighed, looking equal parts angry and compassionate in two different directions.

I’m going to figure out how to heal you, she said, and then added: Soon.

Well, either that or I’m going to die, he said, not seeming entirely opposed to the idea. She gripped his arm in protest, causing him to wince, and then she jumped, yanking her hand from his arm.

Oh, sorry! she said, blushing. She then fell into a furious reverie.

I hate her, she said, and then she thought.

I hate her, she said again, more resolved. Xylic was quiet and resigned. Bactine looked him over, then moved closer, being cautious about not gripping his arm.

I made a sort of breakthrough today, she told him. I was able to see inside of you.

Xylic looked curiously disturbed for a moment.

And what did you see? he asked after a time.

It wasn’t exactly anything I saw.., she said, It was what I felt.

Then what did you feel, he asked, putting a bit more emphasis on feel than was necessary. She glanced wryly at him.

Your heartbeat, she said.

You can feel that any time you’d like, he said, and he took her hand and placed it over his heart in order to illustrate.

It was not meant to be a meaningful action, but something about it touched Bactine. There he was, looking up at her from his wretched state, entirely put into such a state due to his charity in bringing her here, and she felt his heart beat, again and again. Again it beat, and the percussive, warm nature of it ran through her arm as she sunk into him without a thought, feeling him with another beat; feeling the coursing back and forth of the blood within him like the volley of sea grass courses with the tide beneath the ocean’s surface. She was caught; her eyes were locked with his, but her mind was in a million places; all of them belonging to him. Warmth and glow flowed through her hand into him, and she found it.

It was filthy, wretched, and disrupted the flow within him. The rest of his body wrung against it, pushing at it, slowly trying to overwhelm it and subdue it, eroding it away until the time when he could be whole again.

But the filth was growing.

Bactine didn’t know what to do, so she lifted her hand from his chest. His hand fell away from hers and he looked away.

I will heal you, Xylic, she said. I just don’t know how, yet.

He looked back to her and spoke.

When you do that, he said, meaning looking inside of him, It doesn’t hurt as much.

Do you want me to do it again? she asked.

Please…” he replied simply, after hesitation.

Bactine was relieved that there was at least something she could do, which was positive, in this sordid situation. She put her hands on him and thought deeply, and then he sighed.

It wasn’t long at all before Xylic fell asleep. Bactine sat in concentration, realizing the pain had deprived him of sleep for some time, at least of the deep sleep one requires for recovery. He hadn’t complained, she noted. At least, not much. Most of his complaint was channeled into some unpleasant and choice things he had to say about Namah, when she was out, of course.

She took this opportunity to clandestinely regard him in detail.

As he slept, he looked different. Normally he had a consistently brooding look upon his face, combined with a look that was sharp, causing anyone who thought to get more than a glance at him not to linger. He pushed everyone away with his countenance, like an invisible barrier. Now, though, his face was calm, peaceful, resilient. His features were fine; his mouth was delicate; his skin slightly golden, and his hair brilliant blonde. He was Bactine suddenly realized beautiful.

She wondered why she’d never noticed it before.

She continued looking inside of him for as long as she could manage it.

XXII

Namah entered plainly, and glanced to the pair near the end of the room. The young man was sleeping deeply, it looked like, and the young woman was asleep too, her arms folded over his chest, and her weight in a precarious-looking angle as her weight was balanced between stool she was sitting on and him.

Young love, said Namah to herself, taking on a silly grin.

Nothing better to teach the girl with, she thought to herself. Her eyes swept over them again, this time more calculating, and she moved towards them with her theories on her mind.

From the instant that fellow walked out of the moor to her front step, she had sensed something different about him, but if what she thought he was turned out to be correct, she wondered what he was doing here. She hadn’t seen one of his kind of many years.

As she approached them, she knew his features were just slightly too delicate to be human. However, she was a woman bent on proving her theories, and so she put her fingers into his unruly hair, feeling until there it was; his ear was long, and as her finger touched the point, he woke with a start.

He gave her a look so fierce and threatening that she recoiled, even though in a practical sense she knew fully well he was too weak to do anything but stare. His body was instantly stiff, and his whole arm was wrapped around the shoulders of the girl, as if in protection.

Namah dropped her hand to her side and fixed him with a stern look. He obviously didn’t want anyone to know what he was, but Namah couldn’t fathom why what would be. She found herself wondering why an elf would be an outcast, and integrated among humans. Why he would fear anyone should know? In the way he held the girl and shook slightly, Namah realized the girl didn’t know, and he didn’t want her to find out. So be it. She raised her chin slightly.

I will keep your secret, she deigned.

He gave her no reply.

But she will find out on her own, she continued. Very soon.

His glare shattered and he glanced upwards at the ceiling, his breath shallow. Namah watched this odd fellow curiously, with his changing moods and roiling storms. She felt compassion, although she resolved not to show it. Besides, it was somewhat amusing, the idea that this fellow was an elf and under this girl’s nose for, oh she judged it’d been quite some time they’d known each other, and the girl had no idea what he was. Either she was supremely dense, or he was a master at hiding it, or a little of both.

Namah considered.

I can make it so she doesn’t notice for now, she said to him, and lifted a magical hand.

The elf’s eyes widened, and she pondered their color. Sea-green. She hadn’t seen that color in a long time. She took the fact that he wasn’t glaring at her any longer as affirmation for her to continue, and so she did, weaving her hand and drawing it back.

A trail of white mist fell from Namah’s hand, shifted, and blew back and forth like dandelion seeds until it gradually fell upon Bactine. She sighed against Xylic’s chest and slept on.

Now, let her sleep so she can save your life in the morning, said Namah to the elf, and she turned swiftly away to focus entirely on her roots and globules.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chapter 20

XX

Al’bert sat at a table with Wiz, lazily considering what sort of step he should take next.

“You mentioned your Father,” said Wiz conversationally, stirring some kind of oddly steaming concoction in a mug on the table in front of him with a thin stick. Al’bert didn’t bother to ask what it might be because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Al’bert shifted languidly.

“I got a letter from him yesterday morning,” he said, although he was hesitant to relay the contents of the letter, since they brought him a small measure of disturbance.

“Hmn,” said Wiz indifferently, stirring away. The concoction began to spark.

Al’bert looked around at the dive they were currently in. It was a hole in the wall, and not the sort of place that Al’bert had suspected Sangwine to hang around in, but it was only in these lower parts of town that he’d heard any tell of someone who would even vaguely resemble the doomed Prince.

And what stories he had heard! Al’bert couldn’t help but find a sort of humorous delight in the prospect of Sangwine actually fighting for his keep. He’d always been such a stuffy, proper sort. How humiliating it must be. Al’bert smiled.

A young wench with auburn hair and hazel eyes passed by carrying a serving tray and wearing a lacy apron.

“Ah, miss,” called Al’bert, stopping her.

She looked at him.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

He handed her a small, folded parchment and said, “Maybe.”

She gave him a dubious glance, looked slightly annoyed, and went on her way. However, she did pocket the parchment.

The Wiz glanced at Al’bert, sparking concoction briefly forgotten.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” said Al’bert. “And is woman’s greatest weakness.”

“How did your father say things are in Schloeffelonia?” asked Wiz, who had begun poking his concoction with the thin stick instead of stirring it, as it had thickened exceedingly. Al’bert sincerely hoped he didn’t plan to ingest it.

“They’re… different,” said Al’bert cautiously. “Fang has decided it’s time the elven nation goes on the offensive.”

“That’s a different philosophy,” said Wiz.

“Quite,” said Al’bert, and to be honest, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. The wealth was there, yes, and he supposed with the elven mages at Fang’s disposal the power was there, too. However, Al’bert was a man of feelings, and something about this just felt wrong.

“Has the elven nation ever attacked anyone?” asked Wiz.

“Not that I know of,” said Al’bert. “So I suppose it should take everyone quite unawares.”

“Fang is an adroit fellow, isn’t he,” said Wiz casually as he turned the mug, and the concoction slid out onto the table, maintaining its gelatinous form. Now Al’bert was vaguely disturbed that Wiz might consume it with a fork and knife.

“Yes, he is,” said Al’bert distractedly. The Wiz snapped his fingers, and his forefinger began to glow. He then touched the top of the gelatinous mass with his finger, and it grew animated, folded into itself, then somehow gained an abstract posture. It seemed alive. The conversation died as Al’bert found himself transfixed.

The Wiz glanced at Al’bert and said, “It’s a golem; a lousy one. I never was very good with them.”

He sighed and then smashed it with a spoon.

Al’bert tried not to wince visibly. The clock struck ten, and he stood.

“If you’ll pardon me, I’ve some business to attend to.”

He cast Wiz a brief smile and left the table, exiting the dive to the derelict promenade outside. There was some greenery, roses, growing along a trellis, which were cast silver and blue in the wan moon’s light. It wasn’t exactly a balcony, but more of a high dais, where someone at least tried to bring beauty into this filthy human world. He leaned on a partial railing that surrounded the precipice and breathed, finding his breath was warm enough to create a puff of mist in the night air.

Fang had changed. His father’s letter disturbed him greatly. Fang required all the elven houses to contribute heavily to the war effort, which war Al’bert saw as pointless in the first place. Fang especially leaned on Al’bert’s family, since they were one of the wealthiest in the entire nation, and even though his father made it sound like they were having a fabulous time (most likely due to the possibility of interception), Al’bert could read between the lines. This wasn’t the first time Al’bert wondered if Fang had lost his grip on reason.

Regardless, he would do what he had to in order to keep his family in good standing. That was paramount in importance to the Fromages. Whatever else happened was not his concern, or his liability. He’d just keep telling himself that.

He heard a quiet noise behind him and turned to see the girl with auburn hair standing there, holding the parchment. She looked the very model of dubious.

Meet me on the balcony at ten?” she asked him, repeating the words of the parchment. “Honestly, that’s the lousiest come-on I’ve ever received.”

Al’bert grinned.

“Then why are you here?” he asked.

“The sheer depraved ineptitude drove me to pity,” she said flippantly, although he could tell there was humor underneath her chilly exterior. She was intrigued, and he knew it, even if she wasn’t consciously aware of it yet. She looked around, taking in the roses, the railing, and finally the vast expanse of night sky. He watched each move, expression, and sound she made, cataloguing each automatically, sorting them into subjects, analyzing them individually, putting them back together into a cohesive whole, and he did it all instinctively with split second timing.

This was his talent; taking love and turning it into a mathematical equation.

She stood by the railing and turned to him.

“So what did you want?” she asked him.

He hesitated, furthering the depth of his mystery. She watched him, and he gave her time to take in his good-looks, which at the moment he was shading with a tinge of enigmatic restlessness. Only a tinge, though.

“There’s someone I’m looking for,” he said. “And I think you might be able to help me.”

She said nothing, so he went on.

“An elf,” he said.

“You mean besides you,” she said.

He really wanted to say something sarcastic, but that wouldn’t have worked out the way he wanted, so instead he glanced at her, then looked away, his back to the railing. He took on a subtly tortured countenance and sighed into the night. He heard her move closer, out of curiosity. Her hand touched his arm, and at this he quirked a tiny smile for himself only, since he was looking away and supposedly full of angst.

“Are you alright?” she asked him.

He exhaled and turned to her, moving within the turn to decrease the space between them significantly and put his hand over hers in what should seem like a spontaneous, instinctive action, and fixed her with a meaningful gaze.

“It’s very important that I find him,” he said to her, and then he did it. It was almost like breathing, except within his mind. All he had to do is focus on someone intently, and then release however much of his will he wanted to in order to bring that person under his suggestion. With her, he wanted to use as little as possible, because she wasn’t too horribly dull. However, at the same time, he liked doing it; it was almost addictive. It felt good.

So with his voice there came a tiny twinge, and her breathing increased slightly. He took note.

He squeezed her hand more tightly and moved closer, treating it like an impulsive act, until he was close enough to kiss her.

“Have you met an elf recently?” he asked her quietly, although the timbre of his voice and the movements of his body were in another conversation entirely.

He gave her a sincere, open look, as if he felt this passionately about finding the elf. In actuality, he sort of wanted to take his time finding Sangwine, because finding him would mean figuring out what to do about the killing him problem.

“No,” she said, with an unsure voice, and captured by his sudden affection. “I don’t think so… well, there is this one fellow…”

“Yes?” he asked, and he gazed at her as a prompt to go on while he moved her hand from his arm to his chest.

“He’s beautiful,” she said thoughtfully, and then her eyes looked more solidly at Al’bert. “Like you…”

He smiled at that, making sure to give his smile a touch of humility. Not that he was.

“… except different,” she finished. That part gave Al’bert pause, and he found himself wondering what was so different. It slightly irritated him.

“Go on,” he said, sending her another twinge of glamour in his annoyance.

She sighed languidly, and then she went on.

“I didn’t think he might be an elf, but he was more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said, then added with a small pout, “He wouldn’t let me touch him.”

Al’bert’s eyebrows rose, and he took advantage of her faraway look to roll his eyes. Sangwine always was a complete and utter prude. Well, Al’bert didn’t plan on being so foolish.

“He must be mad,” said Al’bert to the girl. “To refuse the touch of a woman so beautiful.”

She looked at his expression for affirmation of his words, and he thought he probably pulled it off. In any case, he didn’t waste any time allowing the seams to show by leaning forward in order to kiss her.

She pulled back at the last instant with a sharp inhale.

“What are you doing?” she asked him suddenly. She looked affronted, but the degree of flush in her cheeks told him she’d be willingly in his arms within the next eight minutes. Seven and a half, if he was really on top of his game.

He abruptly pulled entirely away from her, allowing the chill night air to fill the space between them, and then he went to the railing. He’d play feast or famine. This lass just needed contrast to realize what it is she really wants.

“I don’t know,” he said in a distracted way, and then ran a hand through his hair. He noticed from the corner of his eye that she crossed her arms against the cold. “I’ve been on this quest for so long, sometimes it feels like I’ve lost all reason. Each day is the same, I try to find him, and every night ends with emptiness…”

He went on for a while like this, spouting lines of an angst-ridden man, half of the time not really sure what whatever he was saying meant, but it sounded good. After all, he delivered them like a tortured man opening his soul, and it worked quite well.

By the end of his speech, she was standing at his elbow looking very compassionate. He waited in anticipatory silence for her to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, and he knew it was all downhill from there. One last move.

He turned to face her, allowing the famine to end. She moved in and touched his chest, and then looked up into his face.

“I can help you,” she said. “I’ve spoken with him, I know his name; I know where he lives.”

He took her arms as a feigned impulse and gazed at her with hope, excitement, disbelief, and a couple of other assorted spices tossed in the mélange. Whatever.

“You will?” he asked, knowing full well the answer to this question thirty minutes ago.

She blushed at his proximity, but didn’t object at all as she nodded to him.

He released a breath and allowed them both to fall into the heady trance of anticipation that precedes a kiss. After waiting the precisely perfect amount of time, he kissed her, and was delighted to find she trembled slightly at his touch.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chapter 19

XIX

Suffice it to say Bactine didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. It wasn’t so bad, she thought to herself, because all of that mess only happened just a few hours before morning. The light would come soon enough, and even if Xylic didn’t return, she’d be able to see, anyway, and then she’d just go on.

Before she could go on, though, she smelled the smoke from a fire, and realized in the wan pre-dawn light that Xylic had built one nearby. Hesitant to approach him, but too curious not to, she did it anyway.

Sidling out from behind a tree, she saw that he’d gathered a remarkable amount of wood for the fire he was now kindling. Looking around, she wondered why he’d bothered to build a fire at all. It wasn’t cold, and she didn’t think he planned to do any cooking.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” he said, fully intent on tending the fire.

There was no more added to the conversation for at least an entire minute, which really made it feel like ten.

Bactine cleared her throat, thinking to say something, but was unclear as to what. Xylic talked instead.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

“I think so,” she replied.

“We should be there by this afternoon, and then I’ll leave once you’re settled,” he said, snuffing out the fire he was so carefully tending just a moment earlier. There was something stiffly casual about his behavior, as if it was forced, but he was doing a good job of nearly masking it. Bactine felt the best course would be to follow suit.

“That sounds good,” she said, instantly feeling like her reply was ridiculous and moronic. It had to be obvious to him that she wasn’t at ease. If it wasn’t before, it surely was now. She huffed and pulled her cloak more tightly around herself in the dawn’s chill.

Xylic rose, picked up their things, and walked. Bactine followed.

For the rest of the morning, they made a few painful attempts at small talk. The problem was, there were quite a lot of things they should have talked about, but neither one was courageous enough to broach the subject. Bactine recalled a few hours into the morning that they’d forgotten to eat breakfast, but she surely didn’t feel like eating, and he didn’t seem as if his mind was on food, either. At last, around noontime, they reached a moor.

It was the sort of moor where everything hangs limp in the lack of breeze, and there’s a constant miasma skulking for the first few feet from the soggy ground. Bactine’s boots and half of her skirt were entirely hidden, and she looked over at Xylic, who seemed to be hovering in the air, since anything beneath his knees was lost to the mists. He was looking at her, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing she was.

“How in the world are we supposed to keep from falling in the bog in this mist?” Bactine asked incredulously.

Xylic looked around, thinking deeply. He walked over to a nearby tree, and broke off a long branch, then proceeded to tear the small twigs from it, making a sort of staff. When he was pleased with whatever it was he was doing with that branch, he looked over at Bactine, seeming somewhat hesitant to continue.

“You’ll have to stay near me,” he said, as if he thought she would recoil at the idea.

“That’s fine,” she said, and moved near him immediately to show her vote of confidence.

It was nothing if not awkward, but she made a very strong attempt to act professional about the whole situation. Slowly they traversed the moor, as he used the staff to test the ground before them, and she stayed close behind so as not to stray into a sidelong dip. Eventually, through equal parts him and her, she was holding his arm as he used the other to search the fog. As there is only so long awkwardness can continue in the face of basic necessity, in due time she was completely comfortable holding onto him, and standing in such close quarters. He seemed to have lost his unease in the task at hand as well.

At last they reached something in the center of the moor, which seemed to be an area of more or less sturdy earth. Upon this piece of earth was a shack, built upon stilts and slightly leaning. There was a rope ladder which led from the ground to the front precipice, which in turn led to a door.

If you could call it a door. It was a piece of fabric strung across an opening.

Xylic and Bactine exchanged glances, quite aware of each other’s thoughts.

“Mum did say this particular teacher was…um… affordable,” Bactine mentioned.

She was fairly certain Xylic was about to offer his condolences, when the cry of a crow echoed in an absurdly loud manner from the direction of the shack, startling them both. Following this outcry, the heretofore unseen crow burst from behind the fabric door and flew to land at Xylic and Bactine’s feet. It looked at them both. Really looked.

Bactine was a little unnerved. She didn’t even know crows liked hanging around in bogs. In addition, the crow looked very intelligent, and she didn’t like that at all. It cocked it’s little bird head sideways. Xylic shifted.

“Shall we climb?” he offered.

Bactine looked down at her skirts and said, “After you.”

They both moved, and as they did, the crow hopped to intercept them, standing between them and the ladder. They moved again, and the crow blocked them again. Bactine glanced over at Xylic, and she saw something in his eyes. It was something comfortable, and something she knew. They both bolted in opposite directions, confusing the crow, who became frozen in indecision. They made swiftly for the ladder once there was no hope that a simple crow could overtake them and met there, breathless.

Sure, it was exciting, even if all they did was outsmart a bird.

At the top of the ladder, Bactine tried to figure out how to knock on a piece of fabric. Instead she chose the vocal route.

“Hello?” she ventured.

The fabric curtain shot aside immediately, and a very small, wiry old woman was standing there, coiled and tight, ready to spring forth and scratch the eyes out of the world’s face, should it become necessary.

“Who are you?” the old woman demanded.

Xylic and Bactine had both unconsciously leaned back at the old woman’s appearance, sort of like one leans away from being too close to a spitting cat. Bactine realized what she had done, and corrected herself so as to not hurt the old woman’s feelings, which were surely very tender beneath that coat of horrible, horrible venom.

“Bactine Gallagher,” said Bactine, in a quiet, weak voice.

“What took you so long?” the old woman demanded.

“Um,” began Bactine.

“Don’t stammer around me!” spat the old woman.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Bactine.

“Don’t call me ma’am, either! It makes me sound like a matron,” the old woman said. “I’m no matron, not yours, or anyone else’s. So don’t go asking for it!”

“Yes…” unfortunately Bactine had to trail off here, because she had no idea how to address this old woman.

“Call me Namah,” she said.

“Yes, Namah,” Bactine replied.

“Now, come in,” said Namah, holding the fabric door aside. She gave Xylic an appraising look, then added, “Both of you.”

Once they were inside, Namah seemed to grow quite a lot more hospitable. She offered them seats; there were only two, and she set herself to making tea. Namah was undoubtedly abrasive and harsh, but her tea smelled wonderful. She unceremoniously landed two mugs of tea on the table, spilling no small amount of contents on the table’s surface as she did so. Xylic and Bactine took them with polite fear.

“So,” said Namah. “What do you want?”

“I want to learn healing magic,” said Bactine, unsure, since she thought this had already been arranged. Namah seemed irritated by her reply. She began chopping something that looked like yams with a very big knife.

“Is that all?” said Namah, chopping vigorously.

Bactine wasn’t really sure how to reply to that.

“Healing magic. Is that all?” Namah stopped chopping and looked over at Bactine pointedly.

“I think so?” Bactine replied.

Namah turned to stand in front of both Bactine and Xylic, still holding the large knife in her hand. She gave Bactine a long, hard look, one of those looks that old people use to evaluate the worth of youth.

“Fine,” she said at last. “I’ll show you how to heal.”

With speed unexpected in anyone beyond the age of twenty, Namah curved with unstoppable spry and plunged her knife into the depths of Xylic’s left arm. He cried out and dropped the mug in his hand, which crashed to the ground and broke into several pieces at the same moment Bactine screamed in shock and disbelief at the blade buried to the hilt in Xylic. Namah yanked the knife free with a smattering of blood and Xylic moved in defense, reaching for his own blade at his side. The old woman threw the knife to the floor and held out her hands, rendering Xylic impotent with an unseen force and he fell, clutching the chair beside Bactine with his whole arm, his breath haggard and his brow wet. Bactine’s own mug of tea fell and rolled across the floor as she knocked over her own chair trying to hold Xylic in a mindless attempt at stopping whatever mad dream this was. She cast a wild, agonized glance at Namah.

“Now, heal him,” said Namah.

Chapter 18

XVIII

Sangwine continued the sword fights in the lower quarter, not only because it gave him what he wanted to survive, but because it gave him something to do. However, as a precautionary measure, he took to wearing a porcelain mask when he fought.

He realized this probably only made him more memorable, and didn’t quite hide what he was, but with his hair braided in a particularly ear-concealing fashion, he could be mistaken for… well. An extraordinarily pretty young human man. Maybe.

He also went so far as to ask the man running the fights to conceal his elfin nature, but didn’t go into details as to why. The man was remarkably curious, and even required a bribe to go along with it, but seeing as how Sangwine was bringing in a great deal of profits, he was more agreeable than he usually would have been.

If pressed, Sangwine would be forced to admit that he found the idea of being a mysterious masked swordsman rather attractive, because he had always been a person drawn to vaguely romantic ideas. He was a dreamer, as it were. Or at least, so his Aunt Ellinya would have said. Countless were the times in the past that she had to pull him back from his daydreams to focus on the task at hand. She was always patient, though.

Sangwine sighed.

Tonight he’d fought someone faster, who fought with two blades; one being a long rapier, the other something shorter and thicker for parrying and defense. He was glad they were finally putting some effort into giving him someone challenging to fight, although there wasn’t much to this one, either. The fellow was a roughly educated swordfighter. He’d never had any sort of formal training, Sangwine could tell. So as long as this man relied on his field education, there would always be holes in his technique. Sangwine found those holes, took advantage of them, and brought him swiftly to defeat.

The speed of a human can never match the speed of an elf, anyway.

So now he wound his solitary way to the room he’d let, this one being out of the way and discreet, but near the café he preferred, and found something new at his doorstep. It was a young woman.

“Hello,” she said. She had auburn hair and hazel eyes, and was in the very bloom of youth.

“Hello,” he replied. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” she said, smiling at him. Her hand moved in a way that drew attention to the dress she was wearing, which was a remarkably rich shade of red. “They said you like red,” she said.

How did they know I like red? Sangwine found himself wondering.

She was a lovely young woman, of course, but Sangwine would sooner wallow in a mud puddle as let a human touch him romantically.

“Well, yes, I do like red. Thank you,” he said oddly, and moved to unlock his door, which she was partially blocking with herself. He tried to be polite in the matter, but she seemed oblivious… or waiting for something. He really had no idea.

“Ah, pardon me, my… ah… lock is behind your arm,” he said.

She sighed languidly.

“You sword fight like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “What is your name?”

“I don’t have a name,” he replied enigmatically, still attempting to politely unlock his door, but failing. She ignored his unwillingness to part with his name and went on.

“The way you move… it’s so beautiful,” she said. “And deadly at the same time! It’s a devastating combination of grace and fire.”

He paused, somewhat interested in having his ego padded, and also curiously fascinated at how this human seemed to be waxing poetic in a very clumsy way in order to describe him. She gave him a look, and he remembered what she was here for.

“Thank you,” he said shortly. “Now, if you’ll kindly move, I’d like to-“

“Don’t you like girls?” she asked point-blank. He was aghast.

“Of course I do!” he said, affronted at the idea of his masculinity and orientation being questioned.

“You don’t think I’m pretty?” she asked. “Is that it?”

“You’re very pretty,” he replied, although he instantly felt condescending from the way he said it. “You’re just- it’s just…”

He really had nothing else to say about it, that he wanted to relay to this woman.

“What is your name?” she asked again.

He’d had about enough embarrassment for this night, and even though he was trying to spare the feelings of this obviously misled young woman, he resented being in this situation at all. If Fang hadn’t gone and ruined everything, he’d never be in this situation. He’d be at home, with his family, waiting to be paired with whatever high-bred elven maiden his family deemed quality enough for … well, that sounded lousy, too.

He exhaled and leaned a shoulder wearily against the doorframe.

“My name is Sangwine,” he told her. She smiled warmly at him.

“What a curious name,” she said.

“What’s yours?” he asked.

“Maisy,” she said.

“And you call my name odd?” he said to her.

“What?” she replied with a smile. “My name is boring. There’s a Maisy on every corner here, don’t you know that?”

“No…” he said.

“No, because you’re obviously not from around here, are you,” she said.

“I’m not,” he relented.

She studied him for a long moment, wherein he felt a measure of embarrassment and so moved to return his attention to unlocking his door. Her hand found his arm, to stop him.

“Don’t touch me,” he said.

She recoiled, and he felt a tinge of remorse for being harsh.

“…please,” he added posthumously, then quickly entered his room and shut the door.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chapter 17


XVII


That night Bactine had lots of dreams.

Maybe it was something about sleeping in that forest. Maybe the forest had special powers. She never was sure, but she had all kinds of dreams that night. But there was one that was quite a lot more memorable above all the others, and that’s because it was about him.

She’d just gotten done dreaming about a quixotic unicorn when she was plunged into a dream about sitting in a lecture. It wasn’t particularly exciting, until she saw him there, beside her. The lecture was dull. It was alchemy, which Bactine never cared for, thinking it was mostly for people of inept social ability. She was sitting beside him, he being Sangwine of course, and he was busily taking notes.

He would be that sort of person, she thought to herself wryly, not really even sure what she meant by that, and suddenly realized the lecturer was going to be evaluating her on her notes at the end of the class, which was almost over. She looked down at the blank page in front of her, and felt a surge of panic and shame at her failure.

Looking over at Sangwine, she remembered he’d helped her out countless times. In fact, she’d looked off of his work so many times it should be shameful, although she found no shame in it at all. For one, she enjoyed it, because it gave her a reason to have direct contact with him, and for another, it was endearing, because he always was willing to help her. Thirdly, it gave her the low-spark thrill of doing something only slightly naughty, and getting away with it. And besides, his hard working astute nature was, well… cute.

This time was a little different. Sangwine gave her what she needed, and then, as is the way with dreams, she suddenly recalled another entire facet of the story, and that was chemistry. Namely, it was the chemistry between the two of them.

It was wildly powerful, even though in the dream she wasn’t even remotely aware of it three seconds before, but had been building through a series of lectures for months and months. It had been strung tighter and tighter until there were only two options left; string it even tighter until it twists and breaks, or pluck it and let the sound blissfully resonate at last, completely blind to what might follow after.

In this case the lecturer droned on, the tables and parchments and quills grew dark and distant, and Sangwine was there beside her and their eyes met as she plucked the string; the resonance sounded, probably B-flat; the vibrations and richness of sound echoed through them both as they reached a singularity of understanding between them. It’s following this when two people kiss for the first time, after wanting to for a long time.

So that’s what she did; she kissed him, but it really wasn’t that easy. Firstly, she had all of the thoughts flying through her mind about kissing him, but not believing that she could really kiss him, but knowing she was because he was there, and she was obviously going to kiss him, but she still couldn’t believe it. Her thoughts proved to be very distracting. But when push comes to shove, in the kissing world, those thoughts fall away and the primary language of communication becomes abstract and expressive; an art form full of hues and contrasts and timbre. Especially in dreams, where nothing is tangible, but everything is touchable.

One moment she was moving but suspended in anticipation, and the next blithely tasting the cautious affection of his red mouth. There was something familiar about him; and she moved again, both torn with the want of more of this cool draught of water and the weakness of overwhelmed senses, and as he then moved in tandem with her, she was suddenly struck dumb and lost and breathless with a thousand motes of light.

Strawberries, almost. He tasted like them… almost. This blurred through her thoughts, more as a patch of random color than anything coherent. As he took matters into his own hands kiss-wise, in a divinely passionate way, she was driven to the very cusp of the proverbial losing-it-entirely, but before that could happen she pulled back with an audible gasp.

Her gasp echoed through the night air, and she suddenly realized she was awake, and she suddenly realized shortly after that that the person she had been kissing was Xylic.

“Oh cripes!” she exclaimed, practically leaping away from him. She flew to the nearest tree and pressed her back to it, sitting with her cloak wrapped around her, as if it would create more distance between them. He didn’t move very much, not compared to her. He only brought his hands to his face and let out a sort of slow exhale.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she found herself saying again and again, feeling a bizarre mixture of excitement, shock, and embarrassment. He sat up, and oddly he let his hood fall to his shoulders as he sat. It was rather dark, and Bactine couldn’t see much, but she found herself thinking for the first time he had hair in a fine color. An unusual color. She supposed she’d never seen anyone with hair that particular gold and sandy shade of blonde before. She wondered if that’s why he always wore the hood; to blend in instead of standing out. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew he was looking at her through the darkness. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell if he was so quiet because he was still half asleep, or if he was harboring the so-livid-I’m-calm anger.

“I was dreaming,” she said lamely.

“What were you dreaming about?” he asked somewhat quietly. She didn’t expect that reply, and stole a moment to think about it. She felt, for some reason, guilty about the prospect of telling him that she was dreaming about Sangwine.

“I was dreaming about… I don’t know,” she said, lying poorly. “I always forget my dreams the moment I wake up.”

There was a long pause.

“You’re lying,” he said.

Bactine blinked. Even if he knew she was lying, she didn’t expect to be outright called out for it. She was chagrined, but still a little disoriented from what had just happened between them. Some of those felt-but-not-seen motes of light still hung in the air, clinging stubbornly to the last vestiges of the short-term memory of the senses. If she let herself dwell on it, she would catch her breath, so she forced herself not to dwell on it.

She sighed, and decided she’d cooperate.

“Sangwine,” she said. “I dreamt I kissed Sangwine.”

He sat there for a moment, then stood. He raised his hood, and began to leave.

“Where are you going?” Bactine asked.

He seemed like he was going to say something, but he didn’t. He just left.

Bactine sat the rest of the night and wondered if he would come back.



Friday, November 9, 2007

Chapters 15, 16

XV

The next morning there was porridge for breakfast, and Bactine was pensive.

What if she doesn’t like me? What if I say all the wrong things? What if I’m not smart enough? Bactine fretted endlessly. Xylic paused, a spoonful of porridge halfway to his mouth.

Did you just say What if I’m not smart enough’? he asked.

Her face was a complicated mask of concern as she worried into her bowl of oatmeal.

If you’re not smart enough, I’d like to meet whoever is, he went on.

Oh, ha-ha, Xylic. Don’t humor me, Bactine replied, angsty and inconsolable.

I’m not, he replied simply.

Bactine sighed and shoved her bowl away in a fit of sulk.

Well, dear, here you go! said her mother, who burst through the door holding a rucksack full of Bactine’s things. She dropped it unceremoniously on the table, knocking over Bactine’s porridge in the process. Bactine didn’t care, for she was sulking and also fretting.

In fact, she didn’t seem to be paying attention at all. Her mother cast a concerned look at her, then looked over at Xylic, who shrugged. She gave Xylic a look, and he grinned wryly and stood up.

He took Bactine by the arm, not without force, took the rucksack with his other hand and said, We’re leaving, now.

Oh, Bactine, enjoy yourself, cried her mother, and she threw her arms around her daughter and kissed her. Be careful!

She waved as Xylic dragged Bactine out the door, who was more than a little surprised out of her funk.

Bye, Mum, she called. I’ll write, she added as an afterthought right before the door slammed shut.

Outside, the day was bright and promising. The sky was a particularly stunning shade of blue, and there was no lack of birds twirping in all directions.

What’s the matter with you? Xylic asked Bactine, as they hit the lane.

I don’t know. Self doubt? she replied. She gave him a critical look and said, Don’t you ever suffer from it?

This isn’t about me, he said.

It never is, she said accusingly.

What’s that supposed to mean? he asked.

Nothing, forget it, she said irritably, and withdrew into a spiky silence.

They passed the city and went beyond into farmland, and eventually, as the afternoon light began to fall and turn they came to a forest. Shadows pervaded the forest, and although Bactine was fond of forests, she wasn’t particularly fond of being in a strange forest at night.

Should we wait to go in until tomorrow? she asked him.

Nah, he said, not bothering to explain why.

They plunged into the forest. Trees passed, and there was a sense of being closed in. Overhead were the intertwining branches of the woode, lush with leaves of late summer. The weather certainly was pleasant. Overly pleasant. Mockingly pleasant. Bactine was irritable and listless in this forest. She couldn’t enjoy it at all.

She made a quiet, complaining sound to punctuate the sentence of her irritability.

Xylic stopped and dropped Bactine’s rucksack on the ground.

She noticed him and stopped too, allowing some curiosity to show through her annoyance. After he didn’t move for a moment, she ventured.

Er, what are you doing?

He gave her a sharp glance she’d never seen before.

We’re stopping here for the night, he said. Then he began to busy himself with clearing off a patch of ground and collecting wood for a small fire.

Suddenly, right now, all of the hundreds of times she’d asked him to tell her something about himself and he’d just sloughed her off came back to hit her at full force and she was positively livid over it. Here, again, just like every other time, he managed not to tell her a thing with his incessant side-stepping, and did it in such a way that she couldn’t pin down exactly what he was doing. She couldn’t accuse him, because he never outright refused to tell her anything. He just changed the subject. He was a master at changing the subject. She wondered if he thought she was that moronic to not know what he was doing. She wondered if he thought it was funny, and was having a joke at her expense. She wondered if he thought so little of her that she wasn’t allowed to know who he really was. Any one of those scenarios made her so furious she could do little but stand rigid and white knuckled as he seemed entirely embroiled in the ordinary task of starting a fire.

How could he be so obstinate to think about fires right now?

She flounced angrily to where he was carefully placing small sticks in a tee-pee shape and kicked them over.

He looked at her, his face denoting any of a number of things, none of them favorable.

Bactine hadn’t planned out what to do next, and felt kind of silly, but it didn’t matter because Xylic filled in the empty spaces as he stood and faced her. He really was kind of tallish.

What is the matter with you? he demanded of her, completely chagrined and at a loss for himself. This is something you’ve wanted for years, and something you deserve, and you’ve done nothing but complain all day, and frankly, you’re bloody annoying the crap out of me!

You? I annoy you? she returned sharply. You never tell me anything you’re thinking!

What does that have to do with anything? he replied defensively, and not quietly.

It has everything to do with everything! she cried, losing all sense of logic.

It does not! he shot back, his rapier wit at its dullest. She hesitated, confused briefly, but then he continued as his thoughts cleared slightly. I don’t have to tell you anything!

His retorts still weren’t very good. It didn’t matter, though. It outraged Bactine that he would say that, after all this time. He didn’t care at all! He was a a

You’re nothing but a selfish, beslubbering base-court joithead! she yelled, and turned on her heel to walk away, although where she would go in this forest was fairly dubious. However, she didn’t have to think about it for long because Xylic caught her by the wrist and pulled her back to face him.

What did you call me? he demanded down at her, his voice no longer raised, but positively simmering with anger and disbelief as he held her wrist in a way that denoted he wasn’t letting go anytime soon.

A selfish, beslubbering base-court joithead? she replied quietly, realizing that was really the opposite of what he was, seeing as how he had sacrificed whatever else it was he would have done with his time to take her on this path. Considering how much he had sacrificed for her in the past, and considering all the times he’d shown he’d only been thinking about her with the things he did. It all crashed home to her in one moment, and she felt miserable over it; like an ungrateful wretch.

Her face flushed deeply and she sighed. His anger seemed to pass slowly as a cloud, but he was intent on her and coiled tightly like a spring.

I’m sorry, she whispered.

He drew a ragged breath and released her.

XVI

Sangwine’s next fight was against a fellow named Handen, who sounded as if he was from the north country, not that Sangwine really knew anything at all about him except for his name. Gilden, the boss, had been pleased over Sangwine’s ability to defeat that insultingly lousy challenger before, and seemed to have realized that Sangwine could be a very lucrative business opportunity. Sangwine didn’t trust the fellow an inch. Then again, he didn’t trust any humans an inch.

However, the money was there, at least, and one had to do something to keep oneself.

Sangwine sat outside, in a chair, in a sort of outdoor café. It was a fairly pleasant place, in the more wealthy section of the city, which tended to run a bit more on the clean side. The quality of food also improved exponentially the further into the realm of wealthy neighborhoods he sojourned. He had a difficult time understanding why the poor tended to eat such horrible food. You can broil a fish or you can fry it; either way costs the same, so why opt for the lesser route? He was beginning to wonder if he’d ever understand the plebeian classes.

As he sat in the chair, his legs casually crossed, he vaguely noticed the numerous women who passed by. Most of them glanced at him more than twice. He had long since given up trying to be discreet. There was simply no way to do it.

The fight with Handen had gone a little differently, although overall it was mostly more of the same. He nearly laughed when he saw Handen. The humans decided a bigger fellow with a bigger sword was what Sangwine needed to challenge him. Yes, a bigger sword, which takes even longer to swing. Excellent deduction, human race.

Sangwine had obliged in drawing his weapon this time, and to be fair, the fellow was tremendous in size and musculature. If Sangwine had been missing a leg and blind, then maybe Handen would have had a chance. Even then, perhaps not. The man’s horrible wafting smell alone was nearly illustrative enough for Sangwine to know when to dodge. He hadn’t bothered to try to use his blade to parry; Sangwine knew he wouldn’t be able, by any stretch, to block anything swung from the arm of Handen. It would have cut him in two. Handen also wasn’t as clumsy with his sword, so Sangwine couldn’t rely on him to merely drop it.

Eventually, once Handen was sufficiently exhausted from trying to swing that ridiculously sized sword in Sangwine’s direction, Sangwine had knocked him off balance mid-strike and come from behind to lunge at the fallen man’s neck. Of course Sangwine didn’t cut him, but he rested the point of his sword against Handen’s neck and made it very clear he could. So again he claimed victory.

Following the fight, the bell hag had tried to fix Sangwine up with her granddaughter, at which suggestion Sangwine beat a very hasty retreat and ended up here, at this café.

He was fairly certain no one lingering around here would have seen him sword fighting in the lower part of town. Somehow he’d managed to keep his clothes unstained, even amidst the crowds, but it wasn’t easy, and then he wondered if he could find a room for let over this way. It was while in these deep thoughts that he saw Al’bert coming down the lane.

If Sangwine were to recount it, he’d definitely tell the listener that he thought something very regal and refined at this moment, but his real thoughts, the ones he never tells anyone, were something along the lines of Holy CRAP! .

Sangwine immediately scrambled from behind the table, and in a sudden lapse of the ridiculously clumsy, he knocked over his teacup, and it crashed to the ground. Unable to leave an unpaid bill, even at the threat of his life, or moreover, his pride, he searched frantically through his pockets and threw a silver on the table before bolting inside the café.

Once inside, he grabbed the nearest available person, which happened to be a serving girl, and placed her squarely in front of him. He found himself faced with surprise as he realized she, for one, did not smell terrible. There wasn’t time to reflect on this, though, because she was objecting to being manhandled by an elf.

What are you doing? she demanded, although she looked a little curious, too. Blimey, you’re an elf!

Yes, I am. And would you mind standing in front of me? he asked.

For how long? she asked, looking dubious.

Just a moment, quickly, he said, trying to be patient, but running out of time. Besides, he wanted to get a good look at Al’bert before he passed by from behind the serving girl.

He ducked only a little, for he didn’t have to much; the serving girl was fairly tall, and he clandestinely looked past her chestnut hair to the street beyond, where Al’bert was passing. She, he noted, played her part well, trying to appear as if she was standing planted in one place for a reason.

Al’bert was walking as he always did, as if he owned the world and the world just didn’t realize it yet. Le Comte du Fromage was flanked by an interesting mélange of characters, and Sangwine wondered where he’d picked up such odd help. They didn’t look friendly, he surmised as he ducked back a little further behind the girl. Al’bert was definitely one of the last people in the world Sangwine wanted to see. He didn’t want to know why he was here, either, but he heavily suspected it was because of him.

When he was sure Al’bert was gone, he let out a frazzled exhale. The girl turned to him right away, her interest piqued.

Soright, what was that all about, elf? she grinned at him.

Just an old friend I didn’t want to see, he lied, but not entirely. Then, feeling he should show some gratitude for her assistance, he went on. Ah Thanks.

She looked at him funny. He knew not what to do.

I mean to say, thank you, for, ah, hiding me, he said, more verbosely, thinking this might be more correct in this situation. From that person.

He didn’t understand why she looked like she wanted to laugh.

Am I doing something wrong? he asked, bewildered. She really did laugh this time.

You are really amusing, she said gregariously, and then she added, Are you lost?

No, he said, his brow furrowing.

Well, don’t get upset about it, she smiled at him. You just look lost.

I know exactly where I am, he said.

Lost and lost…” she said, enigmatically.

He really didn’t want to be analyzed.

Thank you again, he said. And I’m not sure what passes for compliments here, but you smell rather nice.

And then he left surreptitiously.