“Who’s he?” Al demanded.
Raulin awoke to the wizard standing over him. Annoyed, he sat up. “He’s a half-elf, like Anla.”
“Yes, but who is he and why is he here?”
“We rescued him and Anla last night while you were passed out. Now you have two baerds in your group to deal with.”
“Where were you last night?” Al turned to see Anla standing next to him, peering curiously up into his eyes. “You seem to like action lately, I was surprised you stayed behind.”
“I…um. I thought it might be a good idea to wait a little while longer.”
“Oh, why was that, Al? Did you think Raulin was being too rash?” Raulin smirked at the barely contained tartness in her voice.
“No, I just thought, well…since you didn’t have the same kind of training that I did, it might be wise to give you the chance to learn more about your magic.”
“And how would you know that was going to happen?”
“Well, he was there and I assumed that he was going to teach you things.”
By this point both Tel and Sakilei were awake and watching the argument. “That’s quite an assumption to make, that they would allow that. Or that I wouldn’t be under the same spell they had me under when I left.”
“Look,” he said, “I was tired. I haven’t been feeling myself lately and I didn’t think I was going to be an asset to the rescue. So, I went to bed and hoped they’d find you.”
Anla said nothing for a few moments. “All right,” she said. “It still hurts that you didn’t help, but if you’re not feeling well, then I hope the sleep helped and that you’ll feel better.”
Al didn’t say anything in return, opting instead to begin breakfast for the group, sifting through Tel’s pack of foodstuffs and utensils for a rice porridge.
Raulin scowled behind his mask. He had been expecting something dramatic and satisfying to come from that confrontation. Al had abandoned her, after all she had done for him. Worse, he hadn’t seen what was about to happen to her if they hadn’t intervened. “Buying time” she had said. She had believed they were coming for her. They had, but not Al. And now there he sat, shucking peas and measuring rice for breakfast, without any consequences for his despicable lack of action.
He was thinking like the wizard. He should forget about it and let things fall where they may. But, the anger was growing and he needed a distraction, so he took off deeper into the woods and found a nice little spot to do his morning exercises.
It was in the middle of the move called “the barrel roll”, where he planked and slowly turned over, that he noticed Anla was watching him. “Mezzem,” he said. shaking slightly at the hold. “Anything I can help you with?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head to get out of her thoughts. She looked up. “You do pick the nicest places to do that.”
“Most of the time it’s in a hotel room. If I can enjoy a place by myself, then I do.”
“Oh, do you want me to leave? You found the closest water source, so I brought Sakilei’s clothes to clean. They’re, um, rather soaked through with blood.”
“That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. He’s cleaned off?”
“Yes. I gave him a sort-of bath with a cloth. His hair was a mess.”
“Ah,” he said, sinking to a squat with a leg extended. “You two are close, then?”
She dunked Sakilei’s shirt into the stream. “I wouldn’t say that. He’s a bit rough.”
“Oh. I thought that, since you two were of the same background, you’d have a lot in common.”
“He’s…he takes after the elven half a bit more than I do. Besides, I think he finds me annoying.”
“Hmm,” was all he said, pleased that there was nothing between them, but obviously not willing to admit that.
He was about to switch from his stretches to his knife practice when Anla asked, “What do you want from me?”
He stopped short. “Pardon?”
She continued to lay out the clothes to dry. “You kissed me the other day. I thought it would be best to ask what you wanted, to clear the air.”
To love you, he thought. To protect you and share life with you. “For you to be happy,” he said, snapping into the first position with his knives.
“It’s usually not the case. A kiss from a man means ‘I want more’.”
“Not always. I didn’t expect anything else from you; I just wanted to kiss you. I’m sorry if that was unwanted or misunderstood. It was…more like an artistic brush stroke than anything else, I suppose. I meant what I said about it being the only thing I could think of to make the moment better.”
She nodded and seemed to be thinking, so he continued his exercises, slashing the air in front of him with his knives in a choreographed manner he could do in his sleep, which was exactly the point of it. He’d often engage in quick fights with both armed and unarmed adversaries, only to finish ten or fifteen seconds later with no strong recollection of what had transpired.
“I think the best way to describe my feelings on people is in survival terms,” she began. He stopped to listen, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. “I’ve lived so long on the streets that I look at things as hunger or satiety, fear or safety, coldness or warmth. It’s the latter I use to describe relationships. People are usually cold to me, at least in the beginning. My family was warm. Riyan, my friend I’ve mentioned, was warm. None of those people expected anything more from me than conversation and a hug, maybe to actually share actual warmth while we slept.
“I had two beaus which for me was more a coupling for convenience. They protected me and gave me a steady source of food and a roof over my head. In turn, they paraded me around and got what men want from women from me. We were warm in the beginning, but then they would kiss me and I knew it meant something was expected and not requested. And then we grew cold. It was a tallying session; lay down for me and you’ll get what you need for the next few days.
“Tel, Al, and you, especially you, have been warm for me. And I consider it truly a blessing that I can travel with three men I feel warm with, and safe. I don’t want to lose that, not with what we have.”
“Was it cold? The kiss?” he asked. “Or the one in the carriage in New Wextif?”
“No, but I don’t know if it was warm, either.”
He felt a tight pain in his chest. She didn’t feel the same way. But, she had only balked at his last move, not the other interactions from before the kiss.
He approached her, slowly, and stopped a few feet from her, kneeling down to her eye level. “I said what I meant about how I wanted you to be happy, so I’d like to propose something. I want you to change us if, and only if, you want to. We’ll go back to the way things were, but if you decide one day that a kiss is a warm thing, then kiss me.”
“That’s fair,” she said, looking relieved.
He nodded and went back to his routine. It was an inch in the mile he wished to travel with her, but it was at least forward movement.
“So, what happened last night really?”
“What do you mean?”
He knew his slashes grew more enthusiastic, but didn’t hide it. “As I said last night, you can ask him. I’m not going to get in the middle.”
“But you’re unhappy with him. In fact, you’re angry. You woke up angry with him.”
“His excuse wasn’t truthful, then?”
“I’m sure it was a truth.”
“But not what he told you.” He slowed enough to give her a steady look. “All right, you don’t want to get into the middle. I’m headed back to camp. I’ll see you there.”
A heavenly aroma filled Raulin’s nostrils not too long after. He finished his routine quickly, donned his shirt and mask, and didn’t take his time to getting back to the fire. Bacon, he had decided. Sakilei must have taken all the perishables from the bounty hunters’ camp. His next few meals were going to be good.
“Does he always wear that mask?” Sakilei asked when Raulin took his seat next to him.
“Only when I don’t want people to see my face.”
“He thinks it gives him an air of mystery,” Al said. “It doesn’t. It just makes him stand out in crowds. Oh, maybe he does it for the attention.”
Raulin watched Al’s face, to see if he was joking. He wasn’t. Things were two steps back again. “I think it’s a smart idea,” Sakilei said. “Keep your identity hidden, do your night business then by day look like a normal man.”
“See, he gets it,” Raulin said. He extended his hand and they shook. “Raulin Kemor, trirec.”
“But he’s not Merakian,” Al added.
“Yes, thanks for that, Wizard.”
“Sakilei Towinei, baerd.”
They dropped hands and Raulin began tucking into his meal. “Everything good thus far?” he asked.
“Yes. I have a few questions.”
“Ask. We’ll answer the ones we can.”
“Do you often sleep without a guard posted?”
Raulin nodded thoughtfully as he chewed. “I think we were rather exhausted last night and therefore I forgot to set an assignment. We usually do.”
“I wanted to be sure since I didn’t think you had. I set the daych spell around the camp last night and removed it this morning.”
“Oh,” Anla said, holding out the syllable. “I see. I can use the same spell that I used on the coin to set a ward around camp. If anything crosses it, it’ll make a loud sound.”
“It was part of my duties before I went to bed.” He ripped off a piece of bacon, chewed, and said, “How is he still alive?” He pointed to Telbarisk, who was still blowing on his porridge. “I’ve never seen anyone shot with an arrow dead on escape without any wound.”
“Tel is a kiluid,” Raulin explained. “They are masters of nature, more or less. He was able to use the wind to slow the bolt from the crossbow down.”
“I was also able to move the arrow a little because it is wood,” Tel said. “With both I could move out of the way of the younger man and the bolt in time.”
“That sounds a bit like what some of my people could do.”
“I’ve never heard of the Towinei,” Anla said. “Where are they?”
“West, far west. Grewedi, or where the humans call Makinfry.”
“So, what will you do then? Do you want to go home to them or…?”
Sakilei finished his meal and set his bowl down. “I haven’t had much time to think about it.”
“You could travel with us until you figure out your plans.”
“Absolutely not,” Al said.
Not surprised at the wizard’s response in the least, Raulin immediately retorted, “Vote. Aye?” He, Anla, and Tel raised their hands. “Nay?” Al raised his hand. “The ayes have it.”
“I didn’t have a chance to state my case,” Al said. “He’s not part of the quartet, meaning he could…”
“I think we understand your argument in totality, Wizard, we just don’t agree. Or care.”
“What are your plans?” Sakilei asked.
“I have a contract to do in the upcoming weeks and miles. We’ll be traveling south for it, camping mostly and staying in hotels and inns when we can.”
“Contract? You need to kill someone?”
He pulled out his journal and thumbed to the page for Kikiyan. “No, this is a theft. Do you have any issues with that?”
Sakilei shook his head. “What you do is your business, unless you want help. Does Anladet help?”
“Anladet helps whenever she can,” she answered for herself. “But that’s my choice.”
“If applicable, I pay well for assistance.”
Al snorted and took everyone’s bowl to wash. As he reached the tree break, Raulin yelled, “I noticed you didn’t mind taking payment when you helped, Wizard,” as he left for the same stream Anla had washed Sakilei’s clothes in.
“I don’t think I like him too much. He doesn’t like me, either,” Sakilei said.
“I wouldn’t take it personally. He’s had issues with Anladet and I. The only one he doesn’t mind is Tel.”
“That I can understand. I like the big guy; he’s quiet.”
“I mangi dan,” he said, scooping his hand and touching his fingertips to his chest before giving a slight bow.
“Anladet taught you our language?”
He shook his head. “There are elves on Ervaskin. Much taller, and their language is different a little, but mostly the same.”
“Huh,” he said, taking off his knit cap and wiping his head. “The world is much larger than I know.”
Sakilei and Tel spoke to each other on the road in Elvish, Raulin taking point as they walked west back towards Siasard. It was an annoying amount of days he had to add to his schedule, but any time was worth it to have Anla back with them.
She and Al were conversing about something behind him as if nothing had happened. As it were, Al didn’t know much about Ashven and Anla was filling him in on what she knew. He was listening attentively.
“That right there,” she said, pointing to a tree. “That’s a sassafras tree. My people like to make a drink with it that’s pretty refreshing. It smells nice.”
Al went over to sniff the tree. “I don’t think I like it, but it is pungent.”
“Not everyone liked it. So, how was your night alone last night?”
“Quiet. I went to bed early. You?”
“Eventful. It took me a while to fall asleep, I’ll have to admit. You know, I think you could have helped. There were a couple of men that were separate from the group. You could have knocked them out easily.”
“Probably,” he said. “It wasn’t really so much that I didn’t think I was useless.”
Here, Raulin slowed down so he was just a few yards ahead of them. He wanted to hear where the conversation was going.
“It would have been easy to slip in, Al. Tel camouflaged both Raulin and he very well. I never saw them until they were feet away. Maybe you didn’t know he could do that, though.”
“He did that back when we were escaping the hunters sent after us after Raulin killed the count in Carvek. No, I just thought it would be best if you spent a few days with them.”
“What?” she asked quietly.
He stopped to explain and both Raulin and Anla followed suit. “Your magic is powerful. Anyone who has powerful magic should know what it’s like to be under that magic. As I explained to Raulin, wizards at Amandorlam have to undergo training that involves having their magic used on them. That way, they always know what it’s like to be used by their magic as well as using it. You’ve never gone through that and I don’t think you understand the ramifications of what you do. There’s no cost for you, therefore you don’t think about using your magic. You don’t take into account what it’s like for someone to be used by you.
“You being kidnapped was the best thing for you. Now you know what it’s like for me, for us, when you use your spells for your gain.”
Anla stood there for one brief moment before she cocked her arm back and slapped him across the face. “How could you?” she asked as he held his hand to his face, still tilted down from the blow. “How could you leave me to them? You wanted me to learn a lesson so badly that you were willing to risk my safety, my life, so that you could finally feel safe from me? When have I ever made you feel so scared that you felt the need to do that?”
He actually looked confused, though it was hard to tell whether he was unsure of why she had slapped him or of why he had done what he had done. Maybe the words she had just said had actually gotten through to him.
“It must be so nice, strolling through life with everything handed to you. A rich upbringing. An education with everything planned and tested. Even your miserable life in Whitney was at least better than having to eat rotten food and drink water from puddles, sleep in alleys and hope someone didn’t rob what little I had. I lived that life because I refused to use my magic to make my life easier at the cost of their freedom. There were days when I starved, when I was so cold that I didn’t know if I was going to wake up the next day, because I held so strongly to that conviction.
“So, if you think I’d go through that only to play games with you now, you have no idea who I am. And I don’t think I can speak to you anymore until you learn that.”
She turned and left Al behind, walking next to Raulin. She was still shaking from the anger when he realized that, even though he had wanted her to know what Al had said, he was disappointed to see her so unhappy. He was unsure if it was the right time, but he reached out and squeezed her arm. Anla’s shoulders collapsed and he pulled her into a brief, but understanding hug.