I was afraid for the deer.
Which was odd, because…well, I was hungry. How can I be afraid of killing something I wanted to eat? I pondered this riddle as I crouched low, behind some feathery tufts of grass. Was it empathy? Did the deer’s size somehow increase the value of its life? Was it the emotion of its soft gaze, the gentleness with which it stepped over the Earth, the beautiful gleam of its coat in the morning light?
Elmiryn had no such doubts as she notched an arrow and readied her bow, her gaze sharp and searing even beneath the shade of the alder tree. She didn’t have her armor on–she left all that at our camp–and without them, her arms and shoulders seemed bare. Her hair, usually in a braid, was pulled back into a low ponytail. Defiant strands framed her face, brushing along the ridge of her cheek and teasing the line of her definitive jaw. I could see the strain of her muscles as she pulled her bow taut, eyes fixed on her target as if nothing else in the world mattered.
…As if I didn’t matter.
Her usual shirt was discarded for another, much like the sleeveless piece I wore beneath my gambeson. Though it made my face burn, I couldn’t stop looking at her. As ridiculous as it sounded, I couldn’t get over how I hadn’t noticed all those muscles. All that strength. The muscles weren’t bulging in the way that one would think them grotesque or unattractive. They were just…robust, giving the woman a definitive shape that spoke of power as much as beauty. Now I could understand how it was Elmiryn could hold the weight of my entire body with one arm. Her strength was prodigious, and the certainty with which she carried herself made me feel…made me feel…
Earlier that morning, we had come down the other side of the mountain. From where we stood up high, we could see as far as to the ocean. Gamath was easy to recognize–for the area surrounding it was a chalky white and dismal gray. Where we were, we still had a ways before we would reach the town. I couldn’t say I was eager to go.
While my thoughts drifted to our destination, Elmiryn let loose the arrow, the sound of its departure making me jump as if it had been aimed at me instead. There was that soft thud as the deer was lost in a cloud of dust…then stillness. I held my breath, my body tensed as I crouched as low behind the grass as I could while peeking over the blades. Elmiryn stood from where she was crouched next to me.
She gave me a smirk. “Nyx. I got it. You don’t need to duck anymore.”
I gave her a sharp look, something along the lines of disgust and awe welling up inside me. I hadn’t even wanted to go with her. I would have been fine at our camp just reading, but the warrior had insisted I join her. I didn’t get what purpose my presence accomplished, witnessing this. I eat meat, and have killed prey with my bare hands before…or rather my claws…but it seemed different from the traumatic shot Elmiryn had delivered.
We stood over the prone body of the deer–a young doe–and I saw where the arrow had struck. In the animal’s back, near the spine. Only a small trickle of blood seeped from the wound where the shaft stuck out like a marker. The feline in me perked at the scent of a fresh kill. Her feelings conflicted with my own as the smell of blood and musty fur tickled my senses and elicited a growl from my stomach.
“She knows how to get food,” I could feel the Beast think. Words were beyond her, but the emotions that came through were unmistakable. Her paws padded along my mind as she impatiently paced. “This warrior is good. This warrior is better than us. And she gives us food.”
“Help me drag this thing back to camp,” Elmiryn said, kneeling.
I did, the ability to speak lost as my small hands gripped the lifeless limbs of the doe. We made it back alright. Flashes of ripping into the corpse with my claws and teeth flashed through my head as I set the body down, but I swallowed and fought the images to the back of my mind.
Elmiryn finally noticed my discomfort.
“What’s wrong? Does meat disagree with you?” She asked as she inspected the corpse more closely. The corners of her lips twitched in a suspicious manner.
“No,” I managed to say. “I just…well, it’s been a while since I’ve found myself in the presence of such a large kill. It’s getting to me a little.” I turned and crossed my arms high on my chest, taking a few steps away.
“I can cut this up elsewhere if it’ll make you feel better.”
I shook my head, my shoulders hunching around my ears. “It won’t matter. I’d smell it wherever you went. The scent’s on me, the scent’s on you…”
“How haven’t you come across this sort of thing while you were out there wandering on your own?”
I looked back at her over my shoulder, a light frown on my face. “I’m not sure. I have bad luck–so serendipitously finding a dead animal, even one that’s been dead for days, just never seemed to happen.” Then I added without much pause, “Serendipity: when one makes a fortunate discovery.”
Elmiryn made an “o” with her lips. She straightened clapping the dirt off her hands. “Well, we can use just about all of the deer. You’ve got a healthy appetite, and so do I. Whatever we don’t eat we can save for later or give to the people at Gamath. I suspect we’ll be there by nightfall.”
She went to her bag and pulled out two knives in their sheaths. When she pulled them out I saw that the shape of the blades seemed less like they were meant for combat, and more like they were intended for culinary use.
The warrior’s sharp blue eyes lit onto my face, and she brandished one of them at the dead deer. The blade was short, but the handle was long. “I suggest,” Elmiryn said as she knelt down onto the ground. “That you either take a walk or try and distract yourself. I’m about to start skinning this thing right now.”
I shifted uneasily. When I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I told you it won’t matter if I leave.”
“So distract yourself then.”
Elmiryn thought, tapping the handle of the skinning knife on her chin. “Let’s play a game.”
I gave her a deadpan look. “While you’re carving an animal corpse?”
“You tell me about yourself. Using single words.”
“Five syllable words,” Elmiryn added with a grin. Her angular face seemed a little flushed and for a brief moment I wondered if she were drunk again. Did she have a flask somewhere that I didn’t know about…?
“Elmiryn I can’t–”
“Of course you can. I bet you can come up with a word for how you’re feeling right now.”
The woman gave a jovial laugh. “See?”
I placed my hands on my hips and shifted my weight to one foot. My mouth was a crooked line. “I really don’t think it’ll work.”
Elmiryn looked at me. Then shrugged. “Okay. If you say so.” That was when she filleted the deer from the gut to the chin.
The beast in me snarled at the sight of red life spilling onto the dirt, the tumble of dark purplish organs, the gleam of the exposed rib cage. The smell that hit me literally made me reel. I spun back around, horrified. “Disquietude! Fe-feelings of anxiety that c-cause one to become tense!!” Even I could note the lower pitch of my voice, the growl that tinged my words.
“That’s four syllables.” Elmiryn said calmly. I couldn’t see her expression, but I could imagine her smiling. Why did she find these things funny?
“Fine! Pestiferousness; something akin to evil or general annoyance.”
“Good!” I could hear a slop and felt my muscles pull. I lurched forward a couple of yards before I came to fall to my knees near some bushes.
“Okay,” Elmiryn said, grunting a little as she worked. “I’ll make it easier on you. Give me four syllable words.”
“Paralytic!” I bit out, my hands digging into the dirt. “A person affected with paralysis!”
“Now tell me something about who you are.”
“Cantankerous. Disagreeable to deal with.”
“Oh I wouldn’t say you’re that.”
I slammed my fists into the dirt. “Right NOW I am!”
“Alright, alright! …Next.”
I pulled at the front of my gambeson, fishing for something. Anything. “Eruditeness.” I said finally. “Great knowledge.”
I could hear Elmiryn pause. “…Being a little gracious, aren’t we?”
My entire body coiled as I turned to shout, “Well if you’re going to bother me about accuracy–!”
“Maybe we should get you on a topic less likely to rile you up. What about music?”
I swallowed and shook my head. “I don’t know anything about music.”
“Think of a song and describe it to me.”
The only song I could think of was one that Elmiryn was given to humming occasionally…and I didn’t even know the name of it. Still, I put all my focus on the memory of her humming it at the lake where we had fished–trying to dredge up the melodic notes by sheer will. I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my hands over my ears, trying to block out the sound of the deer being skinned.
“Chimerical. Something fanciful.” I didn’t wait to hear her say anything else. I continued, rambling words as they came to me. “Convivial; Something festive. Euphonious…a…a pleasant sound. Mollifying…to…to…pacify…”
Without warning, my focus gave birth to an elaborate mental image.
I myself made it elaborate, out of desire for distraction, but as silly as it may sound, I surprised myself. I imagined a giant tree with branches of music, outstretching and flourishing at the tips with vibrant leaves that defied strophic confinement. The bark, the sap, the break of light through the canopy, sang to me in no uncertain terms. There was a firmness behind the rhythm and motion of falling leaves and creaking boughs–guiding my thoughts away from downward leading roads and filling my heart with lighter-than-air ideals. I felt myself sinking into the positive energy as somehow the song in my head enveloped my body, like a warm blanket. My face pressed to the grass and my arms went limp beneath the shade of comfort. All around me, a voice much like Elmiryn’s echoed the mysterious song. I could feel the beast in me recline, the press of her recumbent form like a weight dragging me down…down…down…
“Nyx! Hey! Wake up! …Wake up!”
Bloody hands shaking me. The smell made my eyes open, though it still took some effort.
When my vision came into focus, I saw that Elmiryn was peering into my face, a smudge of blood on her chin and an expression I couldn’t quite place. Her eyes were wide and shiny, and her lips were parted by the harsh breaths that escaped between them. Her eyebrows were raised to a degree I hadn’t quite seen them go before, and they wrinkled her forehead unattractively.
“Wassamatter?” I mumbled, reaching up a hand to her forehead. Those worry-wrinkles of hers were really bothering me. I knew the woman was older than me, but it just didn’t suit her.
“You weren’t breathing.” She said shakily. The warrior grabbed my hand away from her face, gripping it so tightly it hurt. I winced and looked at her. “You weren’t breathing, Nyx,” she continued. Her voice was frail. “And I checked. I didn’t imagine it. You fell over and you weren’t breathing and then…” her sentence trailed away.
“Elmiryn, what are you talking about? I was just doing the game, thinking about a song like you told me!” I pulled my hand out of hers and sat up.
…When had I laid down?
“I’m fine,” I said. I turned my face away for a brief moment to pick grass out of my hair. When I looked at her again, Elmiryn’s face seemed blank, but the muscles in her cheeks and brow twitched occasionally as if they were being forced into the position they were in.
Then it really registered…
This idea was staggering, as in the short time I had known her, the warrior had shown herself to be a great number of things. Among them, one of my chief impressions was of something inexplicably beyond mortal terror. Was she a hiccuping, puerile drinker? Oh, yes. A remorseless woman of combat? Mm, hmm. A cheeky, and blithe conversationalist? Spot on. A person whose countenance could be drained of blood at any sign of trouble?
…It just didn’t fit.
And I kept thinking this, even as I reached for her wrist, giving it a firm squeeze. “Elmiryn. It’s okay. I’M okay. Honest.” I was using the same calming tones I had that night in Dame, but they didn’t seem to work. I saw them fall short of the fear that shone in Elmiryn’s eyes. Surprisingly, it seemed to make it worse.
My heart gave a small pull, and I reached forward, grabbing her by the nape of her neck and pulling her close to press my forehead to hers. “I’m alright, Elle,” I breathed. My eyes were wide and though I didn’t mean to, I must have come across as a little pleading.
The skin of her wrist was sticky and stained red, and I was sure she had smeared some of the deer’s blood onto my gambeson, but at the moment I wasn’t concerned with it. The feline in me was quiet. I felt oddly disjointed…but I couldn’t tell if it were due to my counterpart’s reticence or Elmiryn’s unsettling behavior.
Elmiryn looked at me, her cerulean eyes narrowing. “What song were you thinking of?” she asked in a whisper.
I blinked at her. “I don’t know what it’s called.”
Her face seemed to lengthen by some unknown worry, and she grabbed my shoulder with her other hand. I could feel her tremble. “What song were you thinking of, Nyx?” she asked again, her voice regaining a little strength.
Those eyes bore into mine as she waited for me to answer and I bated my breath, self-conscious under the attention. “It’s one of the songs you like to hum. It was the only thing I could think of…” I murmured.
Elmiryn sat back, her gaze widening. The separation left me feeling cold.
I watched her, uncertain of what to do. Her eyes were rolling back and forth in their sockets as she thought furiously about something. Her brows furrowed deep. Her forehead wrinkled again.
“What about the deer?” I asked after a moment.
“Forget the deer right now,” She snapped with a severe look in my direction. The woman raised a stained finger, her hair even less tame than it had been before as some rebellious strands fell into her piercing stare. Something about the late morning light on the side of her face and the intensity of her expression struck me as intensely beautiful and I was made to lean back and whisper, “Wow…”
Elmiryn didn’t notice. “You listen to me,” she said, pointing to herself. She then made a negative gesture with her finger. “Don’t you EVER think about that song. EVER.”
I scowled at her. “Why? What for?”
“Because it’s evil,” she said with a flat sense of finality.
“The song’s evil?” I repeated incredulously. “Okay…honestly, Elmiryn. I have NO idea what you think may have happened, but I’m sure it doesn’t have a thing to do with the song. You were singing it to me after all, and nothing happened before!”
Elmiryn shook her head. “That isn’t how it works. That isn’t how it catches you.” She stood to her feet, her head still shaking, and went back to the deer corpse. “That just isn’t how it works…” she said again.
Elmiryn resumed her task and I sat and watched her, rooted to the spot. Words built up in my throat, yet I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, because somehow they didn’t seem to measure up to the situation at hand. I couldn’t deny I was feeling out of sorts, but I didn’t understand the sudden fear that had taken over my seemingly stalwart companion. I tried to recall the images I had seen when thinking of Elmiryn’s song, but all I could remember was a faint outline of a tree, nothing more.
As Elmiryn cut up the deer, her actions lacked confidence–just as much as my mind lacked its previous blood-lust and hunger. The scene seemed surreal. Inside, my feline half lay quiet and drowsy. She didn’t even perk up when Elmiryn began to fry some of the meat in her frying pan.
I remained that way throughout the meal. Neither I nor Elmiryn ate much. We wrapped up the leftovers and left the deer skin to hang in a tree.
The rest of the day was spent in silence as we made our way to Gamath.
…I tried not to think of how easily my preconceptions had been torn down within the span of 24 hours.