Pieces, disordinate as a smashed pathway leading home. He saw, he knew, in the rhythm that spoke to him in the lengths of moments that passed between the far away caterwauling and obnoxious humor. Here. Seated. In a chair that held his level of control like a measured cup of fine wine, the man did not move. Not even as the shadows grew along the plainly furnished room. Not even as the creaks of shuffling feet outside begged rest. Then begged wakefulness. Then begged more rest.
Hakeem rubbed his chin at the display before him, indifferent to all but what he saw. The world did not weigh on him–did not drag, did not pull. Things washed away in the darkest reaches of his eyes where the waning candle light could not reach. Time marched on. The musty dark curtains soon blocked the morning suns, who laid a weak sliver across his pondering countenance.
He had spent the entire night, eyes fixed to blades, rope, a flask of oil, a grindstone, blankets, a bow and quiver, a change of clothes. There were small pieces of burnt meat in a wrap, and in the inside of the large bag he had found these items, he’d found bread crumbs.
Pieces, disordinate as a slashed painting.
He was in the last available room at the Cannon’s Punch. With the items spread out on the stained white bedsheet, the dark-skinned man gave each a dedicated amount of attention. He was finally at his last. Carefully, he sat on the edge of his seat so that his knees pressed into the bed cushion, and picked up the long sword with both hands, open palmed, at either end.
It was a Fiamman long sword. The jeweled pommel and the style of the crescent guard were unique to them. The blade was military issue, if he recalled correctly from his last visit to the kingdom. Etched into the guard was a phrase in old tongue that he did not recognize. He was certain Quincy would know the meaning of it.
Hakeem tested the sword’s weight, lifting his hands, then dropping them softly. He tilted it one side, than the other. It was heavier at the hilt, but extremely light by combat standards. The blade was well cared for, judging by the shine and sharp edge. He but touched it lightly with his thumb and found himself nicked. The sword did not like his foreign hands.
Hakeem gave a rumble of approval as he set the blade down again.
The guard was lightly scratched. The user had found themselves at odds with others quite often. When the man eyed the hilt, he noted the soft change of the metal’s color towards the end. This sword was old–so old that even the sweat from the user’s hand had begun to affect the metal. It was the unavoidable fate of a frequently used sword, no matter how well cared for. The true interest for Hakeem, however, came in the shape of the stain.
It told Hakeem that the user turned the blade and held it along their arm.
The cross-guard did not prevent this, but it would force the person to hold the flat of the blade against their skin. Hakeem stood from his chair and took up the blade by the hilt, the way the user would have held it. The hold, despite the lightness of the blade, required a great amount of wrist strength. The man turned his head, eyes narrowed as he saw how the blade extended far from his elbow.
The person would have to hold their arm up and out. What character of person would choose to fight in this way?
The smallest hint of a smirk appeared on Hakeem’s lips.
…The kind that waltzed out of a room filled with hostiles with nary a scratch.
Hakeem went to the center of the room. He swung his arm back and forth, slowly. His dark eyes were trained on the sword tip and the light traces it made through the air. His gaze burned with the after-image from the light that caught the blade. Hakeem swung his arm faster, letting it travel loosely. His eyes narrowed at the after-image that now burned his eye.
A tree–devoid of leaves.
When several more swings produced nothing he could recognize, the man decided that the sword was on to him. It was loyal to its mistress. He placed his feet beneath his shoulders and smiled fully. A very good weapon–a shame it wasn’t his.
Hakeem returned to swinging his arm back and forth slowly. He closed his eyes, eyelids still lit with the bizarre after-image, and focused on the force that went through him as he moved. With the shock of a blow being absorbed by the reinforcement of his arm, Hakeem realized the potential the blade had for serving as a makeshift shield. The metal was strong enough for it. Such a hold required bracers to prevent from accidental injury, but it was indeed possible. However, he still felt the offensive potential of such a grip.
Testing this theory, Hakeem slid his right foot back. With the sword held behind him, he let out a sharp kai, then snapped his elbow forward in a wide, high arc. Intrigued by the results, the man adjusted his grip to hold the blade against the underside of his arm instead, an action that barely took a second, so that the sword faced parallel with the floor. He swung again, and this time, rotated his wrist forward mid-swing, so that the blade swung free. It whistled through the air and he imagined the shocked look of his opponent as the sword tip slashed the exposed neck.
He loosened his grip toward the end of the arc, then with a light jump of the hand, turned his hand to hold the hilt the traditional way. He swung again, the other way. An unexpected follow-up. His execution was sloppy, and took too long to switch back to standard sword handling, but he imagined the original owner had mastered that switch years ago.
There was something bloodthirsty about using an offensive item for defensive purposes.
The person was strong, highly trained, and had a taste for danger. They didn’t mind a gamble, and thrived on their opponents being unprepared or disadvantaged by surprise.
Pieces, disordinate as raindrops to glass…but it began to come together in a single stream–a single picture–a certain path.
“I have garnered more about you from these items, than I ever would have speaking to you,” he thought.
The owner was a self-sufficient person, and very resilient, considering their belongings. There was nothing of sentimental value, only necessities. This could have been due to a coldness in the heart–but somehow, he didn’t feel this was the case.
Exhaling, Hakeem straightened and brought his feet together. He held the sword up to his eyes. Nice as the single-handed handling was, he imagined another blade was perhaps necessary. He didn’t see the fighting style being used when the opponent was dancing cautiously out of reach. It was meant for extreme close combat, when the swing of a long sword could not be executed satisfactorily, if at all. The man turned and eyed the array of items on the bed. The other blades were common tools–for skinning game, for woodcutting, for medicinal use–but one blade, six-inches long, glinted at him in the narrow shaft of sunlight that slipped through the curtains of the eastern window.
The dagger was meant for combat use, judging by the point of the blade. The user could draw it, and while holding the long sword against their arm, could fence with the other.
There weren’t many that would employ such a combat style, least of all in the Fiamman military. Part of their strength was in their no nonsense fighting and their unity. There was only one unit Hakeem could think of that would tolerate such an individualistic method.
Feared the world over, the dragoons were the Fiamman army’s greatest offensive force. They tackled impossible objectives and were masters of horseback fighting, long range assault, and close-quarter combat. They were versatile, ruthless, and as he heard it…unruly. One of the more notorious troops Hakeem had heard of was led by a woman, daughter to a general and an aristocrat. He could not recall the woman’s name, and this annoyed him.
He vaguely recalled hearing snatches of talk among the well-traveled. The Fiamman king had put a bounty out on one of their own military leaders, a person of a respectable rank and notorious reputation. There was no doubt in his mind, now that the evidence was gripped in his hand, that the woman he had seen was that same person. Fiammans were not known to travel far from their kingdom without good reason.
Taking up the dagger, the man tossed it lightly in the air. He tested the weight. A little heavy, for his tastes, but this woman would need something with the mass to back up the force she’d likely use for her offensive maneuvers. Hakeem turned to the side, tossed the dagger once more, and just as it came down, withdrew his hand at the last second.
The dagger, as though stunned by this betrayal, did not stick neatly into the floorboards, but rather, let its tip smash into the ground like a man’s nose before it hopped up once more to swivel and fall to its side. Hakeem rubbed his chin and shouldered the Fiamman sword–careful to keep the blade away from his neck.
Swords as loyal as this one was not likely to respond well to macharomancy.
He counted on the dagger to let its guard down more. The blade was not nearly as old as the sword, and as far as blades went…daggers weren’t the brightest.
Hakeem went to the window and threw the curtains aside with his free hand. Then he returned to the spot where the dagger had fallen, and knelt down. He brushed the dagger aside and shifted to allow the sunlight to fall onto the mark in the wood.
The man scowled deeply.
“Nauthiz…” he breathed.
A bold line with a light downward slash through the center. The dagger was not native to Fiamma, though Hakeem could’ve guessed it by the square pommel. Nauthiz was a runic symbol used in divinations to the far Northwest.
“Your owner…needs something?” Hakeem frowned. “Or has she already found it? Is it not enough?” He closed his eyes, grumbling. The after-image of the tree still remained. Hakeem’s eyes flew open and he straightened. “Tai’undu! That woman actually wants…no but that’s impossible! Why would she possibly want to go there?”
Hakeem grabbed the dagger and stood, his body now tense with his new revelation. He replaced the dagger and sword back on the bed. Despite not having slept since the day before, the man knew exhaustion would not visit him until this new task was done. He minded the time. He and Quincy were under a limit, and there was much more at stake than just reputation. His new conclusions only brought further questions, and they did nothing to shed light on the strange therian girl. Who was she? Why was she with the Fiamman? What were they really after?
Hakeem set aside his findings. Perhaps Quincy would be able to interpret them better. She always caught what he didn’t see.
It was time to seek the bar waitress who had claimed to know one of Gamath’s citizens. He needed to learn more about the Fiamman woman, as well as her companion, before he could set out. Hakeem put the items away, save for the bow and quiver, which he shouldered.
Without a backward glance he left the room, bag in hand.
…Hakeem didn’t know if time was on their side anymore.
I squinted in the dim tunnel. My feet slid disconcertingly, and I placed both hands on either wall beside me. Down below, I heard someone shout, and there was the dull sound of something hitting the ground. My heart clenched, and I froze.
“Sweet Aelurus, what was that?” I breathed, feeling the blood drain from my face. I looked back over my shoulder, my first thought being to flee. But I could not leave Elmiryn. I took a deep breath and crept forward, trying to comfort myself. “Elmiryn is alright. Whatever happened, she must have taken care of it!”
I came to where the tunnel turned into a lit chamber. Scarcely breathing, I peered around the corner. My stomach dropped. Elmiryn was on the floor, mouth open, her eyes rolling in their sockets as she looked around in a clear daze. I saw the shaggy dog trot to her, whining, its wet nose quivering as it pressed against the woman’s ear.
Then I heard someone whispering.
Creeping out further, my eyes fell on a young girl, with wavy wheat blond hair and large green eyes crouched on the ground feet away, her body turned adjacent to us. She wore a soft-blue dress with a low v-neck that revealed a white top, laced with black ribbon down the middle. Her sleeves flared and pooled in her lap. At the front, the skirt cut open at the waist, where I saw that the girl had on brown shorts and high brown boots. The girl had her hands at either side of her head, and she looked at Elmiryn with an expression of anguish, rocking back and forth. I caught snatches of what she said, and my fear grew, along with my befuddlement.
“Slash and parry. You can’t…you can’t just cut through them. They aren’t…they live. They just want…And the men. What about the men! What about–” The girl sobbed and shook her head. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and fat tears leaked out from the corners. “Saelin! Watch your back you idiot!”
Trembling I crept out into full view, hands held out before me. I can’t recall if I meant to show that I wanted no trouble, or if I was trying to be prepared for it. Either way, I moved forward, feeling my heart ready to leap from my chest. My eyes fell on the frying pan on the other side of the girl. The dog glanced at me, ears perked. I saw its lips twitch and I half expected it to begin growling.
The girl’s eyes popped open, and upon seeing me, she began to scream. The sound split my skull, and I winced and crouched as though lowering myself could somehow avoid the sound. The youth scrambled backwards, her flared sleeves and the tail of her dress trailing through the dirt.
“I’m sorry!” She shrieked through tears. She stepped on her skirt more than once, and seemed to go mad in her attempts to flee more quickly. “I’m sorry–I’m really sorry! Please don’t hurt me–”
I shook my head, my expression anxious and confused. “I–I don’t know–I mean, I don’t want to hurt–”
Elmiryn began to speak. Muttering something. She started to shift and I went to help her up.
“Elmiryn are you okay!? What happened?” I asked, eyes flickering back to the young girl. She had made it to the other side of the chamber, where she pressed her back to the wall. Her pink face glistened with her tears, and she continued to babble under her breath.
“Where are we?” Elmiryn asked with a great exhalation as she sat upright. She squinted and frowned as though her head hurt her.
“A cave. We followed the dog.” I gestured toward the dog with my hand. The woman followed my pointing and blinked.
She reached for her sword. “What on Halward’s plane is that?”
I stopped her in alarm. “No, no! Stop! It’s the ‘Mangy Beast’. Our meal ticket, as you put it before. We’ve been following it all day!”
“Yes, Elle! We have!” I scowled at the woman and took her face in my hands. “What did that girl do to you?”
“I didn’t do anything!” The girl interjected from her place. She was hyperventilating. “I mean I did, I did, I did–but it was such an accident! A REALLY big one. M’sorry, M’sorry!! It’ll go back. It’ll all go back–I don’t know when but it will!”
“What’ll go back? What in the nine hells are you going on about!?” I snapped. My sudden ferocity came riding on my intense horror. Elmiryn was behaving strangely, more than usual, and the girl’s cries didn’t help. Elmiryn’s mind was already in such a delicate balance. What if the girl–whatever she had done–had tipped it beyond the point of return?
“What did you do?” I screamed, feeling my eyes burn in frustration.
The dog snarled, lips curled back as it leapt before me. Its hackles were raised and its dark eyes flashed a warning my way. I didn’t realize it, but I had shifted as though I were about to leap forward. I settled back quickly, my breath catching in my throat from the aggression the dog radiated. Elmiryn grabbed my arm.
“Damn…that thing looks like it could eat you,” she murmured with a twitchy grin.
“I gathered that, thank you,” I returned acerbically, my wide eyes on the dog. The Mangy Beast had settled back already, ears still perked, but its fur had settled and its tail was still.
I looked at Elmiryn out of the corner of my eye, my body trembling worse now. I imagined I looked like I were in an earthquake. “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”
“Sleepy,” she replied, dull in voice. “And still a bit confused. Did I drink that much last night?”
“We’re a few miles north of Tiesmire. This girl says she did something to you.”
Elmiryn glanced at me, grumbled something unintelligble, than stood. Her shoulders sagged, but her eyes flashed as she gazed across the chamber to the girl. “Like what?” she asked quietly.
The girl looked as though she were about to start screaming again. Her oval-shaped face drew long and her chest rose and fell rapidly. With great effort, she began to speak. “I-I-I t-took your memory. By accident! By accident!” She pointed at her head. “It’s–It’s just bits and pieces! I thought you were one of the bad men! They’ve been chasing me all month! But then our eyes met–it was such an accident–and I took some of your memory! I can’t control it!” The girl let out a shuddering sob, her large eyes squinting and letting two more tears leak down her face. “I mean it! When Argos came down the tunnel and told me someone was coming, I didn’t have time to grab–”
“Wait, wait,” I interjected. I closed my eyes in disbelief. “Did you just say, ‘Argos told me’? You mean the dog told you?”
I looked as the girl faltered. “I…I mean…well, yes. The dog. My dog. Argos. He told me.”
“How?” Elmiryn asked next. She crossed her arms over her chest. She seemed like she were about to start laughing.
The girl began to twist her right sleeve. She looked at us both. I frowned as I realized something.
The whole time, the youth had avoided looking straight into our eyes. Rather, she looked at our shoulders, or our shoes. It made her look as if she were blind.
The girl started to speak, and though her voice was tired and hoarse, she had calmed down enough to stop stuttering. “I’m a journeyman enchantress. I’ve trained all my life to master magic of perception and thought.” She sat up and gestured at Argos, a warm smile blossoming on her still blotchy face. “The study of animal minds is a path all its own in enchantment. I don’t specialize in it, but I’ve always had an affinity for it. Argos is my chosen familiar. I’ve had him since he was a puppy.”
I stood to my feet, mouth partially open.
The girl paused and her face turned pensive. She looked towards Elmiryn. “I saw your memories, Elmiryn. You’re a Fiamman soldier. You were following Argos hoping that I’d pay you somehow. I don’t have much…but…” The girl shook her head, frowning. “You’re different. Your memories aren’t right. They feel like they’re going to break apart if I stop paying attention to them. It’s unnatural! Something has happened to you, hasn’t it?”
Elmiryn looked to me. Her face was blank, but in her eyes I saw her ask me what to do. I looked at the girl. With a sigh, I nodded. She knew enough already. There was not much to hold back.
“I’m cursed,” Elmiryn said. The remark seemed far too casual. I gripped Elmiryn’s arm and the woman’s head bowed a degree. Her voice grew quieter. “Things I see seem unreal, and my memories are weak.”
The girl made to stand. She dusted herself off with quivering hands and straightened. She gazed at the wall just above us. “Nyx. You’re an Ailuran, an outcast from your people. Elmiryn cares for you, very much. You try to help her as best you can, don’t you?”
I gave the girl a startled look. “Um…Yes. I do.” I wasn’t sure where this was going.
The blond smiled, one that rivaled Elmiryn’s in width and vibrance. “I’m so glad!” The girl bent over and patted her bare knees. “Argos!”
The dog woofed and with its tail wagging, practically bounded to the girl. The youth ruffled his fur and cooed. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop to listen to you! You were trying to tell me weren’t you?”
She looked up at us again. “Y’see, I can communicate with him. He’s a dog, so he doesn’t think in words, even though he understands them. I have to actually focus on him to get his whole meaning. When he came down, all I let him tell me was that ‘strong people were coming’, and then I panicked!” She giggled. “It’s been a very hard few weeks, so you can imagine how I felt!”
Elmiryn cleared her throat. “Ah…this is all very interesting…but I feel it’s a little unfair, you knowing our names and us not knowing yours. Care to enlighten us?”
The girl bit her lip and straightened. She looked at us both, or rather at our chests, and wrung her hands. The dog barked, its body hopping up to lightly paw at the girl’s thigh. This seemed to decide it for her, and she shrugged with a nervous laugh.
“Yes, yes, you’re right of course! It isn’t as if their magic users…so what’s the harm? I’m being so rude!” She spoke to the dog. I struggled to keep my face straight as Elmiryn had to clamp a hand around her mouth to contain herself. It felt a little mean, but seeing her talk to it was sort of humorous.
The girl drew herself up, then gave a low bow. Her wheat colored hair swept forward to conceal her face. “My name is Lethia Artaud, apprentice to Syria, the Enchantress of Albias.”
I sputtered. “Syria!?”
Elmiryn turned and frowned at me. “Who’s she?”
I looked at her excitedly. “One of the most well-respected magic users in the world! She’s rivaled only by Gaduman of the East, but he…well…went insane. I’ve read some of Syria’s work. Her theories on cognitive matrices in the animus were incredible!”
Lethia blushed and looked at her shoes. “She wrote that when I was four years old. I was her subject of study.”
I probably should have guessed this, but I was so surprised that it didn’t occur to me. I ran my hand through my hair and gave an excited laugh. “You were? What was it like when she conducted the simulations?”
“I…can’t remember.” Lethia gestured vaguely at her head as she went to the log. Behind it was a pack, which she began to rifle through. “Syria says that the mark of any true Enchantress is in her memory function. The inherent magical power can greatly affect how it works. In my case, it’s completely sporadic…and dangerous. I can steal others memories, but…”
Lethia froze. Elmiryn slapped a head to her head and cursed. Then she went quiet too. I looked at them both, alarmed. “What happened, Elle?”
The seconds ticked by. Neither moved. Unnerved, I reached out and lightly touched the woman’s back. “…Elmiryn?”
Elmiryn took in a shuddering breath, as though she’d been underwater for a long time. She swayed and I steadied her, my expression turning fearful. She placed a hand on her chest, and looked around with glassy eyes.
Lethia had slumped to her knees. In her small hands, she held a funny pair of wire lenses. The round-cut glasses were tinted dark. She didn’t move right away, but when she did, she put on her glasses with slow, uncertain hands. They completely concealed her eyes.
When she looked our way, she squealed and fell backward. “Who–Who’re you two?”
I stared at her, flabbergasted. “You don’t remember?”
Elmiryn stared at the girl, then at me. “I’m…missing something, aren’t I? Is that the Mangy Beast’s owner?” Then her body tensed, and she went to grab her sword. “Shit, did you see where the bastard went that tried to hit me with a frying pan!?” Lethia let out a hysterical shriek. Argos let out a great heaving sigh.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!”