Saturday, January 26, 2008

Chapter 29

XXIX

It was with a light breeze that Bactine burst out of the hut belonging to Namah. Dawn was in the air, and everything was more or less delightful, as far as she was concerned. The sun even had somehow edged its way through the miasma that generally surrounded the marsh and fell on Bactine’s face with radiance, as if drawn to further elevate her mood. Xylic followed behind, unusually cheerful despite his general self, and if one were to observe closely, it would be evident that he drew pleasure from the height of Bactine’s happiness.

Namah emerged last, even mildly elevated herself, as on one of those mornings when cheer is catching, although she was very careful to hide it in order to remain her own singular brand of dignified. It was she who then broke the natural sounds which encompassed them, including a small patch of chuckling birds and the rustle of leaves, filling the rend with the inferior and less expressive language of man.

If you get yourselves stuck in the swamp, I’m not coming to help you, she indifferently informed the two. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t even know you.

Following this speech, she went back into her hovel with scant pomp, leaving Bactine and Xylic alone.

In the fortnight past, Namah had perceived Bactine intently, and had tailored her education accordingly. Namah taught her only a few tricks, but they were the ones that she believed would work well for the girl in a pinch, although were so potent most of the defense spells would render her unconscious for a short duration following the initial burst. Namah had warned her of this repeatedly and to a great extent very tiresomely, but in the end she was content that the girl had ingested the most of what she needed to know.

So after less than three weeks, Bactine was not only able to heal the wounds on others, but able to regenerate and defend herself and those around her.

It was this that had Bactine in such high spirits on this particular morning, as she and Xylic set off towards the forest which led to the farmlands, which led to the city and ultimately her home.

The marshes weren’t overly hard to traverse, as most things aren’t overly hard when moods are high. She and Xylic made their way rather closely; he with a stick and she very near him, and she took his hand warmly which didn’t feel at all awkward as she kept it in her possession for the time being. He, for his part, relinquished his hand willingly to her.

They talked very lightly in the forest, as the close, woven trees around them returned the small laugh that might escape one or the other now and again. They were alone in a room, or a closet perhaps, that moved past as they walked, never really changing as it was always the trunks and branches and leaves. The day passed as a pleasant hour, and when the night came they slept peacefully and side by side, each given the brief blessing of contentment that deepens sleep and never lasts.

The next day, as they reached the edge of the farmlands and the city proper came into view, Bactine began to feel unrest, as if a bee were inside of her and she was a barrel, and it was flying about trying to find the exit. She said nothing of this to Xylic, not wanting to break the pleasant reverie of recent hours, but he perceived it in the particular furrow of her brow, regardless. As was his way at times, he only inquired passively by walking closer to her side.

At first, she merely tried to ignore it, but as she came closer and closer to the city she started to wonder if she was suffering from some sort of anxiety attack. Her breath was uneven, and she felt herself shiver, so she moved to lean herself against the nearest tree.

What is it? asked Xylic.

I I don’t think I want to go home, she said.

Xylic glanced at the city, and, as he didn’t defend home’s merits as it were, she wondered briefly if he shared her sentiment.

Then what do you want to do? he asked her.

She glanced up at him, and smiled despite herself. To her, Xylic was just funny. In every possible sense of the word, he was so. She was very sure she’d never meet anyone as odd if she should travel as far east or south as any map was penned. At the same time, however, he was remarkably endearing, especially now, when he was so openly asking her what she would rather do than go home.

The idea of doing anything else was silly, really. She missed her mother and Snowball, and her father, and possibly even the wash. It was just that the idea of going home strangely made her feel like a clamp was being slowly shut over her, or as if she were a firefly being closed into a glass jar for keeping. Forever.

Her breath fell distressed and uneven as she returned her gaze to Xylic, and then everything began to happen at once. He was looking at her with an intensity that she was fairly certain she’d never seen on his face before, and she suddenly knew, as the way intuition takes over at times like this, what he wanted to do. In her current mindset of trapped desperation she found she was rather drawn to him in return, if because she truly was or because he offered escape, she didn’t care. Suddenly the space between them was fiercely magnetic, and it was only through falling against each other that the tireless pull was relieved.

He sighed into her hair and held her against him with quiet desperation. For her it was warmth, all fluid and red, and almost as if she were looking inside of him again. She wanted to kiss him inevitably, and so they nearly did.

Bactine! called a voice. Is that you?

Bactine was fairly bleary at the prospect of conversing with or even noticing anyone except for Xylic at the moment, however, she worked very hard to focus her mind and pulled away from Xylic at the same time she recognized the caller.

Violet, she said, not altogether welcoming. There you are, she finished lamely.

You’re back already? Violet exclaimed. Your mother will be thrilled!

Then Violet stopped, considering.

Unless that means you’ve been expelled, she said to Bactine in a dubious manner.

Bactine smiled wryly.

No, I wasn’t expelled, she said. It was a unh accelerated course.

Oh, said Violet vacuously. Well, I should be going. I’ll see you soon!

Violet spared Xylic an openly flirtatious smile which garnered absolutely no reply and flounced away.

Suddenly awkwardness closed around them like a thick fog that clouds all senses. Xylic spoke first, uncharacteristically.

It’s late, he said. If we hurry, you can be on your front porch by sunset.

Being both relieved and anxious over the excuse he’d given both of them to pretend nothing had just happened, she straightened herself and walked on with Xylic ever nearby; towards the city and towards her home.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Chapter 28

XXVIII

As Sangwine fell, Al’bert watched him fall. He was disguised with a rustic cloak of ill-woven kersey wool, and it scratched him in the most distracting and irritating of ways, but that was all forgotten as he saw what must be come to pass. The boy (as Al’bert saw him, and always would see him) was motionless, and apparently unconscious as his blood flowed from him into a puddle on the floor of the cage. It was a lovely color, if one could disconnect, and at that moment he looked truly sanguinous, as was his namesake. The wound was probably mortal, Al’bert thought, and if it wasn’t, the poor care he’d receive at the hands of these human peasants would kill him by and by. To Al’bert’s chagrin and, in some small measure he didn’t want to dwell on, to his freedom, his mind fell open, as if some window was lifted in a stale corner of his thoughts and a pale, spring wind flighted through. How refreshing it was and terrifying at the same time. He pitied Sangwine; freedom came next, both his and Sangwine’s. Sangwine would no longer live the life of a domesticated bird left to degradedly fend for itself in the wilds, and Al’bert would be relieved of the leaning, heavy shoulder of Fang. The relief fell through him, and he saw that it was empty. He knew instinctively that Fang would require him to do worse things yet, and as it was Al’bert wasn’t entirely certain he could live with this. Sangwine was dying, and Al’bert realized he didn’t want him to die, though he should. There was something worth preserving in Sangwine, even if Al’bert didn’t quite know distinctly what it was, which he found to be rare and refreshing and somewhat like a vein of gold in an otherwise plain and ordinary rock.

No, even if he must die, Al’bert couldn’t let him die like this, lying amidst plebeian humankind with his blood red for all to see. He shut himself from his thoughts and pushed those who blocked his singular purpose aside with a brusque hand.

Stand aside, he commanded.

All turned to gape at what newcomer spoke with such supposed authority over the body of this fair and dying creature.

And who are you? demanded Gilden of Al’bert, looking something like a man protecting his own property.

I am his brother, Al’bert lied, staring down Gilden as if possessing true brotherly wrath. Al’bert assumed within himself that in some sort of roundabout way he was vaguely some sort of brother to Sangwine, and that made it quite easy to lie very convincingly about the matter. He decided he’d forget about that as quickly as it became convenient, but later.

Bring me bandages! exclaimed Al’bert, and several someones began scurrying around in various directions as he pulled at Sangwine’s clothes to inspect the damage. The pixie’s blades had sunk deeply into him, and cut a clean swath through his midsection. It looked horrible, and he cursed beneath his breath at the sharp heat of pixie blades, even though Fang had used the pixies as an effective tool to further his cause. Al’bert refused to think fully about what he was doing right now, for he was absolutely certain that if Fang caught wind of any part of it, Al’bert would be a dead man.

A few humans had procured bandages of varying types. Al’bert snatched the most promising and begin wrapping Sangwine to staunch the blood flowing from his side. Once that was done in a vaguely suitable manner, he instinctively pointed to the prettiest girl in the surrounding crowd.

You, he said, Carry his sword.

Rising, Al’bert took Sangwine into his arms and carried him forthwith out of the arena, saying clearly with his silently dark demeanor that Sangwine would never be back.

He took great pains to be certain he was well-hooded on the way to Sangwine’s room, even though he was nearly absolutely certain no one would recognize him or know just how horribly disloyal and treacherous he was. Most were simply so confused by the elf he was carrying, and the sword-bearing girl who followed close behind, that they didn’t think to look at him until they were long past.

Upon reaching the room of Sangwine, there was an awkward scene of finding his key upon his unconscious person, but by and by Al’bert had him reposed upon his bed as the girl watched in tense silence nearby. Al’bert took the sword from the girl and placed it upon a close-sitting table.

Go to the high terrace and ask in the apothecary after a healer, he said to her. Following her nod, he gave her a list of herbs, hoping within himself that humans had the sense of mind to keep all or most of them in stock. Assure them that no expense will be spared.

With that, the girl flitted away like a bird’s shadow, and Al’bert was left uncomfortably alone with his thoughts and a vigil over the defenseless body of the man he was supposed to be killing. He shifted his weight and fell wearily into a chair beside the bed, more from mental weariness than the physical sort. Regarding Sangwine, he felt wry.

Prince of Schloeffelonia, how far you wander from home, he began, feeling a certain empathy, as Al’bert’s own family was also everything he held dear. Fang, he wondered on. As he knew Fang, and had known Fang from the very beginnings, he understood Fang’s motives and how it had come to this. He understood one side, and he understood the other, but yet they were entirely different worlds. They were two sides of a coin that could never face each other without pulling apart the seams of reality.

You have no home, he addressed Sangwine. His voice stirred the leaden silence of the room and made him feel exposed, and so he spoke more quietly, Not anymore.

Al’bert stared out the window, mostly, until the girl returned. As she came, he rose instantly, eager to quit the guilt and anxiety of this room and find somewhere else where he could think clearly and of other, more pleasant things.

There is a healer, and she is coming, the girl said, handing him a bag of healing herbs and salves. He put it on the table straightaway along with a generous number of coins and turned to the girl.

Come and find me outside once she arrives, he said to her, then, sparing her a gentle, grateful glance and a few coins of tribute, he cloaked himself with thorough precision and left, closing the door very carefully.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Chapter 27

XXVII

Off in the distance, there was muted noise. It sounded like a cacophony of voices stuffed with cotton and sealed in a barrel. Sangwine wondered at that, idly, with a mind to ignore it and drift off into a dream where he was sitting on a stone bench beside a pond. Something nagged at him, though, pulling his sleeve like a child’s hand to a point and vaguely annoying yet hardly noticeable.

Noises; noises like the ocean, rising and falling in waves. It was soothing and he sighed on his bench beside the pond. Elsewhere, a petal fell from a flowering bough and landed on the still, smooth surface and ripples slowly drove outwards in all directions. They began small, then grew in size, reaching for the shore where Sangwine was sitting. He watched with calm curiosity as the first approached, struck the shore, then strangely passed through the air and ultimately through him.

Mr. Schloeffel! a voice yelled, and Sangwine regained consciousness with a start.

It’s Schlöffel, replied Sangwine blearily. He noted his porcelain mask was in a thousand pieces beside him.

That’s what I said, barked Gilden, Now get up. What’s wrong with you? It’s just a pixie.

Just a pixie? said Sangwine incredulously. He was ignored, however, as he was helped to his feet. His worst nightmare was still reality, and the pixie was staring at him through the cracks in his box, seething with murder and cruelty as only a pixie can. Sangwine leaned back reflexively and someone held him up.

We killed you, Prince of Schlöffel, rasped the pixie, its tiny fangs curled into a Cheshire grin.

Sangwine was yet further disarmed by being instantaneously recognized. Those gathered nearby were rapt with the bizarre, fantastical nature of the situation, and even Gilden was silent.

I saw you die, Prince, the pixie continued, appearing both angry, weirdly amused, and in Sangwine’s opinion downright possessed as he spoke. The dynamics between elves and pixies had never been friendly, as pixies were prone to mischief, and elves were prone to goodness. In the best of times they ignored each other. In the worst of times, this sort of thing happened. The pixie hesitated, then looked sly.

It was the faerie, wasn’t it? Did she save you in time, Prince of Schlöffel?

Sangwine didn’t reply, but heard Gilden mutter something about fairies being obsolete in modern society.

How fortunate for you that was, Prince, but she can not save you now.

At that, the pixie burst from his box, which hinges had been weakened unexpectedly and flew in a violently threatening bee-line at Sangwine’s head. Everyone in the ring, and there were quite a few in number, immediately dove in multiple directions away from the pixie and out of the cage by any means possible. Everyone, that is, except Sangwine, who was forced to dodge the flying gambit in order to preserve his face.

He fumbled for his sword and couldn’t manage to draw it before the pixie seared towards him again, slicing the air in half with his speed and nearly slicing Sangwine’s shoulder with his tiny (but razor-sharp as they are wont to be) hand-blades. Sangwine dodged again and again, each time nearly drawing his sword but feeling nowhere near fast enough to actually accomplish it.

Sangwine knew he was too slow. There was simply no way that he could gain advantage over the pixie with speed, and dodging like this wouldn’t work in his favor very long. He suddenly understood the plight of his opponents all of these months, and upon understanding, he knew that he had to do.

Why did you attack my army at Pixie Pass? Sangwine demanded of the pixie.

The pixie paused long enough for Sangwine to draw his sword.

You ask us why we should attack an army of elves? said the pixie, smiling fiercely. You ask when you know we hate elves?

He moved to attack again, but hesitated when Sangwine brandished his sword.

We had a treaty and you broke it, said Sangwine.

The treaty was forfeit, the pixie replied sourly, and then he attacked Sangwine again in a flurry of movement. Sangwine brusqued him off until he could manage to speak again without mortal danger.

My father would never have broken the treaty! Sangwine protested, at which the pixie laughed.

Of course he wouldn’t have, said the pixie. But we found your brother’s ideas far more intriguing.

Mortal combat ensued, and Sangwine calculated. He would have to get hurt, but it wasn’t really as easy as that. He had to decide where was the most desirable place to be pierced with blades, which is never a desirable thing, and he had to work up the courage to get stabbed, sliced, or gouged in the first place. He also had to make sure the plunge was correctly executed in order to give him the best advantage. Amidst a parried turn, his course was decided for him.

The pixie’s blades, in a sudden rush, sliced through his side. He didn’t feel a thing, really, and his focus was instantly narrowed into a tiny point in time and space. He curved, turned, twisted, and he threw his sword back, away from the pixie. However, his other hand snatched the distracted pixie from the air and he yanked it by the neck to his eye level. The pixie’s eyes showed fear, for once, which gave Sangwine a measure of satisfaction. A very large measure of satisfaction, really, seeing as how all of his friends in the army were dead because of this pixie and his ilk.

He plucked the small blades from the pixie’s hands and tossed them aside, and then he addressed him directly.

I am not going to kill you, he said very plainly. The pixie looked oddly irritated at Sangwine for his nobility, and he rolled his eyes.

Walking over to the box, he stuffed the pixie back in the box and closed it soundly.

Take him back to where he came from, ordered Sangwine.

It wasn’t really Sangwine’s place to order anyone around in this arena, however, they did it anyway, carting away the sullen pixie with intent obedience. As soon as the pixie and his box were out of sight, Sangwine felt the warmth on his side, on his hip, or flowing from his side, down his hip. It ached when he twisted, and he felt rather weak all of a sudden. Looking down he saw a great deal of blood from his waist to the ground, and trailing behind him across the cage. His vision wavered, and for the second time that night, Sangwine fainted in front of an audience.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Chapter 26

XXVI

Sangwine had fallen into a regular routine, practically. Gilden, the owner of the swordfighting arena as it were, was pleased yet still vaguely distrustful of Sangwine, entirely because he was an elf, and elves and humans rarely, if ever, reach any sort of eye-to-eye level of understanding. Sangwine had become a sort of peasant sensation, which although it brought him the due measure of ego-padding, it also disturbed him slightly for the reason that he could be discovered, although he hadn’t heard anything from or of Al’bert since that day he’d seen him on the street.

It was falling into a regular routine that bothered him the most. Each day was virtually the same. He went to the same haunts for his meals, fought, was distantly congratulated, and retired to his room, which was empty. The entire process itself was empty and awash with loneliness, regardless of the number of people who surrounded him or admired him. What pricked at him was that in the way that any individual adjusts him- or her-self to extenuating circumstances, he had grown comfortable with his life and its routine. Regardless, the thought of spending the rest of his life, or even another year like this made him severely depressed.

He grew restless, which was a familiar feeling. Even in his youth, but ever more as he’d grown to age, he’d had periods of restlessness, as if something wasn’t quite right but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. As if change was in the air and he needed to grasp it, see it, or merely note that it was there. The mountains that bordered Schloeffelonia had taunted him back then; He loved them, yet he wanted to see what was beyond instead of merely learning about it from books. Instead he’d prepared himself for a political sort of life, where he would parlay and negotiate and coddle the relations between his and the surrounding peoples in conjunction with his older brother being the king. As time wore on, it had become clear that Sangwine would have to work more and more fervently to maintain relations with other countries, since Fangline had been growing more and more unstable, and so he’d dug further into understanding the intricacies of history and relation.

Even when Fang had left entirely, Sangwine still hoped that he’d come back, prodigal and ready to take the throne. He never in his life expected the throne would be taken in the particular way it was. It all seemed like something that should have happened in another world. Fang rather easily could have had the throne, with very little effort on his part, through entirely legal means and without any bloodshed whatsoever.

Sangwine realized at that moment that Fang would have been miserable with the throne and the seat of Schloeffelonia in the established way. For whatever reason, he was a person who had to do things in his own manner, and the traditional trappings of their shared house were unbearable. There was a limit to the extent to which Sangwine could understand; not due to lack of trying, but because Sangwine was simply made from different stuff. For Sangwine, when he knew something was right, he had to do it. Acting otherwise brought him misery. For Fang, it seemed being forced to fit a round peg into a square hole brought him misery.

Neither could bear what the other required. In this way they were doomed from the beginning to be brothers in blood only.

This brought Sangwine the sort of aching sadness he felt in his bones. He’d always wanted more than the distant treaty they’d had in their youth wherein Fang was passably polite to him if Sangwine stayed out of his way. There were rare times, however, as if Fang possessed more than one personality, that he’d shown a touching kindness. Fang had an immense depth of kindness within him, Sangwine knew, but he had rarely seen it. One would think this would make it easy to forget it existed at all, but instead it had the entirely opposite effect.

He supposed it was the pendulum effect. As Fang was capable of intense depravity and destruction, he was also capable of a well’s depth of the opposite. His brother was never one to be bland, he supposed, but Sangwine was again struck with a sort of agonized wondering as to what would drive Fang to such extremes, when his extremes lead to the murder of his family.

He hated thinking about it. It made the bottom drop out of his combined emotions and thoughts and the deep muddy purple cloud of anguish overcame him again. Most of all, he was dreadfully lonely and useless.

This night he was fighting again, yet another opponent in a long string of opponents. It went on and on in his mind, and he decided he’d discontinue working in the ring fairly soon. Surely he could find something else to do. Perhaps he’d even leave this city and see what is even further north from here. He had no idea what was that way as it was off of any map he’d ever perused, and he didn’t have the adventuresome spirit about him at this particular time of his life to find out, but his dissatisfaction with the way things currently were seemed to be driving him slowly in that direction.

Tonight he stood in the ring, and waited. Part of him subdued the pleasure he got from the obvious sensation his exquisite poise caused in the audience, as it always did, because his training told him absorbing the praise of peasants was an exercise in folly. The masses as a whole lacked refined taste in their behemoth appreciations, and a man who took what they had to say about him to heart was a man built on a straw foundation. Besides, they didn’t know him. They didn’t know he was really a coward.

Sangwine stood there long enough to briefly wonder where his opponent was, when the door to the back slammed open and three men struggling with what seemed to be a box in a blanket came towards the ring. It was a rather smallish box, probably two feet by two feet by again two feet in size, but the three men were having a very hard time holding onto it, and as they reached the ring, they hoisted it over and one of the men fell on it in order to keep it under control.

One of the men glanced at Sangwine with something that looked like wonder and pity, and this caused one of Sangwine’s eyebrows to arch in repressed curiosity blended with trepidation. Nothing really could have prepared him for what awaited beneath the blanket, though, for when the third man swept the blanket aside, he could see through the slats in the box that what he was to swordfight tonight was a feral, mindless, bloodthirsty pixie.

Sangwine fainted.