What a mess, what a hurricane, what a muddy pit of a mind. She couldn’t tell ass from elbow, and she tried so hard to. What at one point seemed a nose, turned out to be a knee; and what at one point seemed a foot, turned out to be her mouth. She got her name mixed up too, in a jumble of fonts that were and weren’t there, which tumbled and swirled by image and sound in a black backdrop that seemed as infinite as her frustration. Seeing and not seeing. Feeling and not feeling. Being and not being…
She was completely and utterly lost.
At first, she believed in embers and the cry of steel beneath a hammer, but then she felt cold instead of heat, and tasted blood instead of sweat. At first she believed she were a man (ah, what a luxury it is to piss upright!) but that came under reasonable doubt when her concept of a body was lost to a memory of amorphous flesh that swam through liquid. Beneath these obnoxious collections of understandings, she recognized something pale and stale buried beneath it all. Ideas to do with royalty and war. Soiled innocence and malignant horror.
But those weak things were set aside. Surely, the truth of who she was and what she was about rested in the strongest memories?
And the most intriguing of them all came together in tentative lines that streaked her vision.
Her heart adopted a need for haste. She jogged and felt her feet sink into the ground with each step. Her sight was hampered by the curtain of white that surrounded her. But through the haze, a phantom danced, not far ahead. She was afraid she’d lose it. She shouted hoarsely through the screeching wind.
“Atalo! Reten na och!” Atalo! Wait for me!
Without the slightest warning, something stabbed into her back, something that managed to tear through the layers of her winter clothes. A thick arm wrapped around her neck and she heard a man mutter a prayer before he gripped her by the shoulder and flung her into the snowbank. She crashed onto hard packed ice. Her breath rushed past her lips, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe in.
As she lay there and watched the tips of aspen trees dance as ghosts, she thought she saw the black stains of confusion that had plagued her seep into the fabric of reality. In these stains, she saw that terrible place where she had lost herself. Things squeaked through the little hole in her memory; names, songs, people who weren’t people but just crudely sketched caricatures of another time and place. She pressed her eyes shut to block it out.
When she opened them again, she saw through the storm’s veil, and peered up to see a warrior dressed in white furs stare down at her imperiously. He carried a small blade with him, stained with her blood. An Ailuran Cerrite, a hunter of criminals. She thought she recognized that face beneath the cowl’s shadow.
…Duncan? Her peer? Her…comrade? She tried to tap into her memory, because something of that didn’t sound right, but discovered an unnerving void.
That was when Atalo screamed and attacked Duncan. He came charging from the side, wielding a sharp rock as a makeshift weapon, but the Cerrite was fast. He deftly leaned to the side and dodged her brother’s wild swipe before he grabbed the youth by the front of his clothes and pulled him roughly to the ground.
But she was already up on her feet, already half-crawling out of the snowbank when the Cerrite raised his blade for a killing strike. She was only partially aware of the fact that her veins burned, or that her head pounded. Her first concern was in saving her brother from his own foolhardiness.
With little grace, she lunged at Duncan’s broad back, and her petite hands wrapped themselves around the Ailuran’s large hand. She tried vainly to pry the warrior’s fingers from his weapon. The man gave a low rumble and threw back his head, where it connected with her nose. Blood poured forth and she fell to the snow, dazed and with a ringing in her ears she didn’t notice before.
There was a shout, and a series of muffled slaps that ended in a wet crunch. She heard Atalo groan. Soon, her white world was blessed with the image of her little brother. His broad face was turned pink and his tawny eyes squinted from his exertion. He knelt by her and cupped her face.
“Koah…” Sister… “Koah!”
“Koen,” Brother, “Cajeck…ni aji…üle boeneh?” Idiot…what were…you thinking?
“Cerrite magat…eh? Koah, ni dana?” But the Cerrite…eh? Sister, what’s wrong?
Her eyes had rolled shut. She took deep breaths and felt the cold air rasp down her dry throat. Her lungs felt starved. Pain stabbed down her arms, and she thought her veins would tear open. Atalo took her by the shoulders and shook her, his young voice turned shrill with fear.
“Koah! Koah! …Elmiryn!!“
“Elmiryn wake up!”
That was her voice saying those things, but her lips weren’t moving…and she didn’t think to say that either. What was going on?
The pain faded, as did the cold. The wind’s howl petered out to a whisper that tickled the back of her mind. She felt hands shake her, and tried to open her eyes. All she saw was blurry. Streaks of color. Like a bad painting. There was a figure hovering over her. She couldn’t see their face.
“Atalo?” she rasped–but the voice she heard, she didn’t recognize.
The shaking stopped. She thought she heard a sharp intake of breath.
“…What did you say?” There. Again. Someone used her voice. The person near her, maybe?
Her sight sharpened, and she saw a sky fitted with cobwebs and a boy that looked much like a girl. Tawny eyes blinked at her. Was it…him?
She reached a hand upward and took a lock of dark hair between her fingers. She half-expected the strands to smudge and smear on her fingers, like charcoal. Üle okém ia-gouta, koen. “Your hair’s long, brother…” She heard a raspy voice that wasn’t hers speak the words she thought of in a different language. She grabbed her throat harshly, felt her throat hum as she spoke, “What is this…? Where am I?” She fought to push herself up. The world rolled, and she felt nausea curl in her chest like a demon waiting to spring. “Atalo!” she shouted.
The other person, not her brother, she knew this now, pressed her back at the shoulders. “Elmiryn, stop–“
The grip on her tightened. Her mind whispered that this was reminiscent of something. From the dark of uncertain memories, she recalled a man’s faint outline. His face was nondescript, but his armor, she recognized. Recognized it because she had worn the same armor. This man had hovered over her, had pressed down on her. Peer. Comrade. A name tickled her lips.
His exact relationship to her she couldn’t recall, but she remembered that he had tried this before. To sneak into her quarters at night when she was asleep. She didn’t think he’d actually do it again, after the last time, but this fact hardly mattered. He was here now, the brute, and he was keeping her from her brother.
She twisted and leaned her right shoulder far back, so that Duncan’s hand slipped at the abrupt shift in weight. She closed her grip around his wrist and, with a staying hand on his shoulder, turned it and twisted it backwards. She put as much pressure as she could muster on the joint, and used the leverage she exacted to sit upright. The man squealed.
But did Duncan ever squeal? Come to think of it, he seemed a little short, didn’t he? Where were the white furs? The armor? And there was still that bothersome detail about the voice…
“El-Elmiryn!” Her captive cried. Their face was screwed up. Was that anger? Fear? “Atalo is dead! He was my brother! Those memories in your head aren’t yours! They’re mine!“
She tensed. “No, that’s imposs–”
“Atalo and I were fleeing from the Cerrite for criminal evasion! They wanted to send him to war, but I took him and fled!” Large eyes, tawny eyes. They bored into hers. Tears shone, unshed. “Magat, tet koen lunam!!”
She let go. Stared. Strained her eyes to make sense of the moving picture in front of her. A person. An Ailuran. A girl, not a boy–yes of course, why was that ever in question before? The fair lips, the long lashes, the gentle jaw line. The hair, complexion, and eyes were the same as Atalo’s…but it wasn’t him…of course not…it was…
“Nyx.” Elmiryn leaned forward unsteadily. She reached out a hand, perhaps too eagerly, because Nyx flinched away. The redhead didn’t let this action stop her, though she took note of it (frowned at it), and let her hand swipe gently through the air before the girl’s face. There was something two-dimensional about the Ailuran, and Elmiryn was half afraid that the room only extended as far as her arm–that the walls were an elaborate illusion someone had created to confuse her.
“I didn’t know…you…I mean…” She squinted. “You looked like him. Then I thought you were–“
“Duncan.” Nyx finished. Her voice was clipped when she said it, but the tension that had gripped her seemed to lessen a little. “I know who you’re talking about. He was in the Fiamman army with you.”
Elmiryn shifted in the bed. Her eyes fluttered as she felt the room give a nasty lurch. The colors smudged. The walls seemed unstable. She covered her face with her hands and groaned. “…What happened? Where am I?” She pulled her hands away from her face to stare at them. They seemed a little large didn’t they? Or was the bed too big? No, no, the blankets were too thick. They were going to crush her legs. Elmiryn kicked away the sheets and hugged her knees to her chest.
She felt so small.
“We’re at the tavern.” Nyx explained. “You’ve been unconscious almost three days.” There was a pause, and the girl added in a mumble. “I waited for you to wake up.”
The woman closed her eyes.
“…You might have to wait a little longer.”