Horizons of the Heart
Copyright© 2013 Melange
All Rights Reserved.
When Jaden wakes up, many questions demand answers. The group, still uncertain what to make of the situation, decides to do something about what Jaden and Oleander found in the harbour.
Flashback: A small group of Northern warriors conducts a clandestine meeting in a snowy wilderness. Stann sees something he has long since forgotten.
Chapter 17: Violet Tears
You can close your eyes, it's over now
Tell me have you ever been afraid like this?
It was often said that the men from the North didn’t feel cold, but that was wrong. They felt its bite as keenly as any other living being. The difference was that they didn’t fear the ice and the snow; it was an old friend.
Stann saw his breath steam into the frigid air. His helmet was cold against his head, despite the fur lining inside. He kept a watchful eye toward the fields to the east. Out here in the open, the snow was deep and formed white hills that were all but impassable until spring pulled them into the ground. Wind would blow the drifting snow around, but the high trees kept the old northern gale away.
It was risky, being so far into the borderlands. Four kingdoms pushed against this valley, though technically they were on the Albander side right now. That caused a lot of tenseness among his fellow warriors. The chances of them being seen by an Alband patrol was slimmer than his cousin’s fishing lines, far as they were from the nearest homestead, but it wouldn’t do to slack off. Between that, the cold, and the company, it was a credit to their courage that they stood fast. The strong arms of the North.
His eyes left the men, and went to his battle chief and the shaman, where they stood together with the leaders of other group. The rest of the pale-dressed strangers stood in a half circle formation, their hoods and armour covering up their faces. Stann didn’t mind being excluded from that talk. He knew he was a warrior, not a herald, and his place was among his battle brothers here. Maybe it was fate, however, that brought snippets of the words spoken on that cold breeze.
"I've brought you the next piece. It was buried under the glacier, right where you said it would be." The battle chief spoke of things Stann didn’t know about.
"Excellent. Your hard work is much appreciated. As requested, we will continue to decline their requests for assistance during your next campaign." The stranger had an accent Stann couldn’t place, but a subtle force behind the words, even carried on the wind, made him want to fall to his knees.
"Good, good." His chief nodded at the shaman, who handed one of the strangers the thing they had carried all the way down from the North. Stann hadn’t asked what they were bringing with them, as it was not his place. Maybe when his beard was longer, he would have earned a place next to the battle chief, but that was not tonight.
It was big, large as a shield, but thicker. The shaman was a strong man, but even he grunted a little with relief as the strangers accepted the bundle. That fateful wind howled once more, sending a piece of the blanket that wrapped it fluttering. Stann only caught a glimpse of the silver and stone in the moonlight, before the strangers turned around to leave.
The meeting was over.
It was times like these that Kellen appreciated the patience a healer would have to possess in dealing with some patients. When his cousin had returned with the bits of leather straps and a heavy slab of stone, the rune seeker had the raw material that he needed to fashion a talisman that would function as a focal point for the warding enchantment. Unattended spells would fade away, given time, unravelling without the flow of magic to keep them strong. The talisman would provide the spell a place to live, he had tried to explain to his redheaded patient, but he would still need to apply the enchantment properly.
“Is this really necessary?” Oleander complained again, sitting on her bed with the Northman towering above her even more than usually. “Mirena already looked at me, and she said that there wasn’t anything to heal.”
“That’s because you’re not hurt, little fox. But that curse that struck you in Tier is still there, somewhere, and until we know what we’re dealing with we want to make sure what happened to you downstairs won’t repeat itself,” Kellen explained in the deliberate tones of someone talking to a stubborn fool. This wasn’t entirely unwarranted, in his opinion.
“I feel fine,” she mumbled. Oleander didn’t want to experience that again, either, but she hated having people fuss over her. There had been quite enough of that the last weeks. “But go ahead, if it’ll make you happy.”
“Thank you,” Kellen snorted in a friendly way, and then focused on the task at hand.
The rune seeker recognised the signs. They were very similar to what had happened in Tier those weeks ago, when the short redhead had been struck down by the death idol of the Sons of Husk. Had he missed something that time? Had a part of the curse remained behind, hidden, when Mirena and he had fought it off? Then again, they hadn't fought it off, had they? They had just provided Oleander with the help she needed to do it herself.
The Olman girl had gotten better, very quickly, he remembered. He had been surprised at how fast she had regained her senses after a killing curse. Sure, she had been weak and drained for a few days afterwards, but there were no signs of anything lingering. No signs that he had been able to see, that is. That should have been the first warning, but Kellen hadn’t seen it. He hadn’t wanted to consider that Oleander might still be withering away on the inside.
Kellen placed his runestones in a protective pattern around where his little fox, his fake apprentice, sat with a bored expression. Some of the stones were much newer, the inscriptions still sharp and unworn. Spirit stones, his own creation, and recently shared with members of his tradition he had met during the convocation. Most would not be able to make much use of these new runes, but for anyone with some drops of Northern blood in their veins these would allow a new dimension of magic. He felt as if their tradition was on the threshold of something amazing.
His magic pulsed strongly through the stones, and converging on the simple necklace he had made for her. He could almost feel the flow of energy, but the only telltale sign was how the symbols on the flat stone medallions briefly lit up. The ward was as strong as he dared to make it. Too strong a ward would become offensive, rather than defensive, and could burn the one it intended to protect. Magic was often a two-edged sword like that. It was almost a living thing.
Kellen pushed away all distractions, letting the three glyphs around Oleander’s neck become his entire world. Water and earth magic, to bring quickening to fluids and form. Not healing, not exactly, but everyone was a child of the land. According to Northern myth, men were born out of the shores where the ocean met the earth, and when they died, their burnt ashes were brought on the winds to the realm of their ancestors. The cycle of elements. Storm and fire was the magic of death, earth and sea was that of life.
Kellen held old stones worn smooth in each hand, and bid strength back into Oleander.
It was warm and comforting, this place. There wasn’t much to see, mostly the vaguest colours in the corner of the mind, but there was everything to feel. A soft current that swirled past, loving arms that held close and smoothened hair. The gentle humming of a forgotten song. It was peaceful, and safe.
You need to swim back now. They’re waiting for you. But remember the place where there is a river in the sky.
The hands let go, and a floating sensation was followed by the return of light. The shapes were diffuse and formless, but Jaden’s eyes finally focused on the black bird sitting on the windowsill. It peered at her in that sidelong way of birds, and then pecked a few times at the glass separating them.
Jaden rolled her head away from the bright window, and saw the room. It was one of the rooms at the Old Hog, of that she was certain. The sparse furniture and heavy doors were obvious, but this wasn’t her room. None of her things were here. Her things.
A hand flew to her head, searching for a piece of silk that everything depended on. It was gone! When had she… Memories began to return. Falling, running, fighting. Pain and fear. All these feelings flashed across her mind in an instant. That brought her around enough to notice that she wasn’t alone.
"Welcome back," said the man with the bow, sitting on a stool in the corner.
Jaden simply stared for a long while, not knowing what to do. Rhyce was looking at her. He was seeing her without the veil. There was no way she could explain this.
"What do you want me to tell the others? That you're Lilya? That you ran away when I dozed off?" Rhyce leaned forward a bit, resting his elbows on his knees.
"What do you mean?" She blinked, still trying to process her situation.
"You have a reason for not showing yourself, and I respect that. So, what do you want to do?"
"I... I don't know." Jaden. "Wait, you knew about this?"
"Yes." Rhyce never wasted words unless he had to.
"Suspected something since that time you went missing in Etrana. First thought you were the skinwalker, since something was off, but you knew the countersign we had set up." It had been a terrible time, last year. The mistrust and fear had almost driven the group apart. It had also been the first time Jaden had been forced to manifest his spirit’s form, after meeting his friends. Last summer seemed an eternity ago. "The hunch grew stronger after Tier. I saw something in that fire, but didn't know what at the time. Confirmed my suspicions in Redwall."
Jaden covered her face with her hands. Shame and fear washed over her in great waves, threatening to drag her out into a dark ocean of despair.
"Do... do the others know?" She finally asked.
"They've seen you, yes." Rhyce answered, he had turned his head to look at the wall, allowing her that much dignity at least.
"Garda's fires," Jaden groaned, rolling over to the side. Black tresses fell down across her face, in a memory of her veil. "I can't see them like this."
"Are you any different from yesterday?"
"No, not really? But everything has changed now." Could it ever be the same again? She wasn’t sure what to feel about any of this. It had worked as long as she had managed to stay hidden, as long as they didn’t know. But now they did.
"You need to speak with them. Let them know you're still you." Rhyce didn’t seem to see how hard that was. Was anything ever hard for him? Jaden had never seen Rhyce struggle with any decision for the year or so she had known him. His path seemed as straight and clear as the arrows that left his bow.
"I'm not even sure of that myself," she mumbled, curling up a bit in the bed.
They stayed silent for a short while, before Rhyce got up and made to open the door.
"I'll send in Mirena on the pretence of checking to see if there's anything else she needs to heal," he said over his shoulder.
"What am I going to tell her?"
"As much as you can, as little as you want." A page from Rhyce’s book. “People will surprise you.”
The knight and the rune seeker found themselves with a moment to sit down for a cup of tea. The afternoon had been hectic to say the least, with them trying to tend to two patients with very different needs. A battle injury was easy enough to handle. Telum, a god of righteous defenders and honourable fighting, approved of helping a soldier back up on her feet. It was the spiritual part that was a bit out of their reach. They improvised as well as they could, though.
"What are your thoughts on Oleander?" Mirena asked, putting down her cup. They didn't serve tea at the Old Hog, so they had to go to the small corner tavern up the street. A change of scenery was nice, as well, and they were close enough if they were needed.
"I am convinced that this is the same spell that struck her in Tier. I can almost feel the taint of it, hiding underneath the surface." Kellen scowled, once more blaming himself for not paying more attention. Their work had been interrupted and left half-finished when the Sons of Husk had tracked them down in the golden city. Since the redhead had recovered so quickly, they had all but forgotten about it. He hoped that their mistake would not cost them.
"How sure are you about the talisman you created?" She asked, breaking off a piece of hard cheese to go with a slice of fruit.
"Reasonably so. At least as sure as we can be. It takes what we learned last time, and builds upon it. It's a little experimental, but should provide a good shield against a spiritual attack like the one you saw their ritualist leader use. It's the best we can do for now."
"I wish we had talked more with the Prelate of Rosehaven. The priesthood of Kuros know more about curses than I do," Mirena sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
"Your turn, then. How is your patient doing?" Kellen leaned forward, his hand almost completely enfolding his teacup.
"I'm inclined to say 'who is my patient', instead. The clothes are certainly Jaden's. Oleander seems convinced of the red neckerchief, but we can't say for sure until she wakes up and we can talk to her."
"'Her'," Kellen mused. "I met his sister earlier today, at the convocation."
"Yes, I heard you and Oleander say something. What was her name, again?"
"Lilya. She's apparently part of the military equivalent of the mystics' fortress. The similarities were striking, and even more so now. If I could explain how she could have ended up with a different set of clothes, and in our hands, I would be inclined to believe that the woman in our rooms is in fact Jaden's sister." The rune seeker made a rumbling, thoughtful noise, turning the cup in his hands.
"But that is just as unlikely as Jaden suddenly changing into a girl. I wonder what happened to him down in the harbour after Oleander went to get us?"
"Another good question we hopefully will get to ask once our elven friend wakes up." Kellen got up, and paid the barmaid for their tea and snacks.
"Whoever she is," Mirena nodded, following him out the door.
Stann followed the redhead’s pacing from his seat in the common room. She had been walking the length of the place ever since being thrown out of Rhyce’s room. The dog had taken to trotting alongside her, looking up expectantly every so often. He supposed it was a good enough mutt, in that back-alley pedigree way.
“I don’t understand why I couldn’t be the one to watch him!” Oleander complained. She had wanted to sit by Jaden’s side, but Mirena had told her to get some rest instead. Not much chance of that happening.
“Same reason you don’t put any injured man to guard the sicktent. If he passes out, there’s nobody to call for help should the other men needs it,” Stann drew from his warrior’s experience. He wasn’t a veteran of many campaigns like his father and uncle, but he had stood strong against the orcs of the western mountain enough times to have seen a little of what war had to offer. It was a lot different from the battles he and his friends found themselves in the middle of all the time.
“I keep telling you that I feel fine!” She stopped, arms wide open as if to show the world how healthy she was.
“And you’ll probably keep feeling fine until your heart bursts, or, uh, what did he say? You fill up with bees?” Or something awful like that, Stann was certain.
“Ugh. Don’t say that,” Oleander shivered at the mere mention. She didn’t like insects one bit. Carrick Field had been especially hard for her, he remembered. The Kynians represented a lot of her fears rolled into one chitinous whole.
“Why don’t you tell me about what went on down by the ships? I got left out too, you know,” Stann changed the subject with all the grace of a turning longboat. She was too worked up to notice, though.
“It was just a coincidence, really. We went down to the waterfront to get lunch,” she said, reminding the warrior of how the two youngest members of the group had been so excited about the sea the first time they had seen it. “Jay did some of his mystic stuff and said that the people there were moving cages of magic things. Why would they use cages, rather than boxes, right?”
“Unless they were transporting something that was alive?” Stann nodded, connecting the dots.
“Right. So, we snuck inside to check it out. I don’t know a lot about the legal side of things-“
“Just the ILlegal?”
“Shut up. But, I’m pretty sure there’s no magical creatures that you’re allowed to just ship around. I mean, aren’t they all sort of smart? At least smarter than animals?”
“Some can be pretty cunning. I remember when I brought two friends along to hunt a thundertusk we’ve seen north of Strom, by the great Rhuir mountain. That hateful boar eluded us for almost a week, almost leading us into an avalanche one time.” The part he always left out was how they never did catch that white boar. One day, Stann had sworn, he would return and finish the hunt.
“I know, Stann. You’ve told that one already. My point is, what they’re doing is closer to slavery right? So, when we got inside we started poking around.” Oleander left it hanging, both hands posed mid-air pantomiming lifting a lid.
“And they were! There was at least a dozen cages back there. They even had a dragonling!”
They both looked up when they heard the stair creak. Rhyce had probably done it on purpose to call attention to himself.
"Is he awake? Is it him?" Oleander all but grabbed Rhyce when the archer had set foot on the floor. "Can I see him?"
"Mirena should take another look first." Rhyce looked around for the knight.
"Why? Is he still hurt?" She hugged herself.
"I'll go see if they're coming back yet. They needed some fresh air," Stann offered, and headed out to get his cousin and friend.
"Come on, Rhyce," Oleander demanded. "Tell me what's going on here. Is it him or not?"
"That's not for me to say." The archer looked at the dog that sat by their feet, its large ears swinging as it tried to follow the conversation.
"What does that mean?" She wouldn’t let it go.
"That you'll have to be patient for a while longer," he turned away, leading the dog back to the waiting, scowling innkeeper.
Oleander just sat down on the chair that Stann had left pulled out, and looked at the stairs.
Jaden almost flinched when there was a knock on the door. She closed her eyes for a moment, squeezing them shut to keep the reality of the situation away for just a little longer. They had seen her. There was no getting away from that. Her heart began to race, despite her taking several calming breaths. Out of the corner of her eye, the black bird pecked once more on the window. It had come to the point of letting someone in, now. Jaden sat up with her back against the headboard. Like Lilya said, this was her life now. What was she going to do about it?
“It’s open, I think?” It was strange how different her voice sounded now. The veil had never changed the way she talked, but without its protection it would be that much more obvious why the pitch was higher than before. There had been little time to think about it down in the sewers, but now that she was back with her friends, it just made her position so much worse.
The door opened, showing both the knight and the redhead. Mirena had her hand on Oleander’s shoulder, whispering something that obviously didn’t make the younger woman happy. Oleander reluctantly let her friend enter alone, feeling shut out in more ways than one.
When Mirena had closed the door, she stood for a moment and just looked at Jaden. Her face was nearly unreadable, but having known the knight for more than a year, Jaden could pick up the traces of anxiety and hesitation.
“How do you feel,” Mirena finally asked, pulling up the stool next to the bed. Normally she would’ve sat on the bed instead. The subtle separation wasn’t lost on Jaden.
“Better, I guess? I’m still a little sore in my stomach and upper back, but that’s to be expected,” Jaden remembered being flung around like a rag doll by the behir manifestation. How she hadn’t died was either pure luck, or her opponent holding back. Luck was more likely.
“That’s good. Would you like to tell me about what happened?” Mirena maintained a polite façade, intently looking at Jaden as if searching for some signs only she could see.
“I… Yes, of course. When Ollie went to let you know what we had found, I decided to look around a little more. I managed to stumble upon a meeting between some suspicious merchants we had seen the other day, and…” Jaden paused. Did she really want to involve that nethermancer again? He was clearly powerful, but what could he do without his cult? Also, that man had been able to destroy a spirit. She couldn’t risk her friends going after Jeddhar, since the dark magician might be her only way back to being normal.
“Who did they meet?” Mirena asked, breaking Jaden out of her thoughts.
“Oh, it was some criminal. Smuggler, maybe? Anyway, when we… uh, I tried to run, I ended up having to fight some mercenary magicians. I managed to lose one some old tunnels underneath the city, but defeating the other almost killed me.”
“They had sorcerer enforcers?” Mirena raised an eyebrow. It was not unheard of – the Arcane Order allowed its members to take almost any assignment, but their services didn’t come cheap.
“Maybe, or local cultists. I wasn’t given much opportunity to talk with them, you see?” Jaden felt a sour taste in her mouth, even as the half-truths came so easy now. She missed her veil. It would hide the blush that was creeping up her cheeks.
Mirena nodded slightly, as if seeing something she had been looking for. The knight switched from the stool, and sat down next to Jaden on the bed, taking the mystic’s hand in her own.
"But that still does not explain why this has happened to you," Mirena wondered, seeking Jaden’s eyes.
"I... I know why I look the way I do." Jaden squeezed the hand. Her heart was beating so hard that all of Farcrest must have been able to hear it. But through all this, something warm kept reaching up from within, urging her on.
Mirena just waited. The struggle was clear on her friend’s face, so the knight would do what she did best: offer safety.
"It's... You have heard how mystics start to resemble their manifested form, eventually?" At Mirena's nod Jaden continued, every word bringing both pain and release. "That is why."
"You're doing this to yourself?" The knight couldn’t keep all of her surprise out of her voice, and immediately regretted her lack of composure.
"No! I didn't want this! I definitely didn't want this. But sometimes we don't get to make that choice, apparently. Sometimes we just… I…" Jaden felt a first tremor inside. She didn’t know how long she would be able to hold on.
Mirena gave the stranger friend a sympathetic smile. She knew more than she cared to about having choices made for her. Up until she joined the temple, her entire life had been a carefully conducted by her parents.
"So you hid it?"
"Yeah... I tried to ignore it, run from it, but it happened anyway. I tried so hard to just be... be normal, Rena. I just wanted to be myself. Was that too much to ask?" Jaden rubbed a hand against her eyes. Why did it feel a little wet?
"Did this happen suddenly?" Mirena pushed softly, trying to understand what had happened.
"Not really. It's been happening in leaps, but until recently it was pretty small changes that added up."
"I know we have been busy and distracted lately, but I can't imagine that all of us would fail to notice how this was happening to you."
"I hid the changes at first. Winter clothes, gloves." Jaden waved her covered fingers at Mirena. "Toward the end I had to resort to magic disguises."
"Were you that desperate to hide yourself from us?" Mirena felt a stab of sadness in her heart, how her friend didn’t feel as if he could trust them with his worries.
"... yes. I was... I'm so ashamed. Of everything. But I didn't know how to stop. One lie just led to another, and it was so easy to just continue hiding. From everyone. From myself." Another tremor. It was as if she was a tightly wound string that was beginning to fray.
"We're more than our reflections, Jaden. I'm not sure I understand everything you've been going through, but if you need help, or want to talk, I will be here." She put her other hand on his, holding it between her own.
"I... thank you, Rena."
"To consider, though, is something I heard Rhyce say once. ‘Trust is in need of the whole truth'."
Jaden looked at her for a while. She could feel the last grain of sand fall out of her glass.
"Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?" Mirena asked directly, sitting by the bed and holding her hand. Her green eyes didn’t judge or demand, but offered to accept.
Jaden opened her mouth to say 'no', but the word got stuck on something. An abandoned sense of guilt, perhaps. There had been so many lies and half-truths, that she almost didn't know where to begin, or even how to get out of the tangle.
With just three words: This is me.
"N... Mirena? It's my spirit form. You've seen it before, once. In Redwall." Jaden pulled off the glove on her right hand, and showed the knight the burn scar across her palm.
Mirena’s eyes went a little wide for a moment, while she took this in. Her fingers trailed the seared symbol of Telum that went along the hilt of her sword.
"You were the second demon. The one who took my sword." She frowned at Jaden, dropping her hands away, but then looked a little conflicted. "The one who saved Rhyce from that shed behind the mansion. We found two dead... men in there. It looked like he had been tortured while we dined with the baron not a hundred feet away."
Jaden nodded, tears finding a path across her dirty cheeks. Cracks in the dam.
"I'm so sorry, Rena. I never wanted to lie to you, to any of you, but I didn't have any other choice."
"Of course you had a choice, Jaden. Truth is always an option, as is trust." She took Jaden's hand in hers again. "You have a lot of work ahead of you to rebuild that trust with the others. We already had this talk the day after the battle of Redwall. Please trust us, to trust in you."
Jaden didn't know what to feel, so she felt everything. Keeping her mask for so long had held back these tears that now trickled freely. The string around her heart snapped as the first groan escaped her lips. She felt a pair of arms reach around and pull her into a tight hug. Mirena held her for a long time, before the sadness had run its course.
"Don't you... don't you think I'm an evil monster? Rena, a part of me is a demon." Jaden didn’t want to let go. It had been so long since she had allowed herself to feel like this.
"That is something I will have to think about, but right now I can't feel any ill intentions inside you, Jaden." Mirena spoke into Jaden's ear. "Evil isn't what you are, it's what you do. Being part demon doesn't make you bad, not any more than being part elf would."
"I'm not an elf," Jaden mumbled automatically.
"I know." Mirenas voice was reassuring.
They held each other in silence for a little while longer. Mirena was the first to squirm out of the embrace. She had her nose wrinkled, but managed to do even that in a ladylike fashion.
"You smell really bad, Jaden, and you're filthy."
"I'm sorry. I may have gotten you dirty as well." Jaden winced as she saw the two large stains she had left on the knight’s gown. It was probably not her favourite, but it was a shame to ruin it like that.
"That's alright. Friends share the burdens of life, after all. But really, if you feel up to it, we should get you into a bath. Your wounds are mostly healed, so it should be fine." Mirena had done as much as she could, but at some point she would have to trust that the person would heal on their own.
While Jaden got out of the bed, which would require new linens, Mirena opened the door. The archer was outside as expected. They exchanged a quick look, and Rhyce returned a slow nod.
“Please tell them everything,” she asked. “I need to find Jaden somewhere to take a bath.”
“’The whole truth’, indeed.” Rhyce wondered, but went down to join the others.
The Old Hog had in fact a bathing room, which was a surprise in of itself. The tavern-and-reluctant-inn didn't seem to have too many people using it however, and there was only one tub available in the small room hidden away in a back room behind the stairs.
While the keeper was heating the water, Mirena helped her friend out of the ruined rags that used to be Jaden’s clothes. Right now, it was all they could do to preserved modesty. There was probably not worth the effort to try to clean and mend them, however, since they no longer fit her anyway
"Rena, I can undress without your help. You don't need to be here when I wash myself." Jaden stepped away from Mirena’s hands, pulling her tattered shirt back up.
"I healed you as well as I could, Jaden, but you must still be quite sore." The knight could see how the mystic was slightly hunched over.
"I've had worse when I was training back home." The mountain didn’t give more than you could carry, but it certainly expected a lot out of its children. Bruises were medals, pain was praise.
"I certainly hope not, but I'll humour you: raise your arms above your head, and I'll leave you alone."
Jaden tried to do so, and felt like someone was pulling her in half. She couldn't hold back a painful grunt even before her elbows had reached above her shoulders.
"Ow," she moaned, and gingerly touched her sides.
"You had internal bleeding and torn muscles. Even with the blessing of healing, it's going to hurt for a few days." It would have been less, if not for that strange resistance. Mirena stepped forward and finished unbuttoning the ripped vest and shirt despite Jaden's weak protests. The rags went into a pile on the floor.
The knight looked around a bit, and wasn't surprised by the lack of soap. The inn provided a tub and water, and that was clearly enough for most guests. More than enough, given the state of one of their neighbours.
There was a rough thudding on the door, and the dwarven innkeeper told them to cover up, because he was coming in. Jaden had barely time to grab her shirt from the floor and tug it back into a modicum of modesty before the stocky man dragged two large pails of steaming water to the tub.
"'ere ye go, missy. Eh'll be back with t' rest in a jiffy," he craned his back a bit with a popping noise, and left to pour more steaming water.
"While he's doing that, I'll head back up to get some of my bathing oils. Make yourself comfortable meanwhile." Mirena squeezed Jaden's shoulder a bit, and left her alone.
Turgar managed another trip while the knight was away, and gave Jaden a suspicious look while emptying the last pail into the bathtub. The water spread a steamy heat throughout the small room.
"Jes don' do anythin' weird to me tub, aye?"
"What do you mean?" Jaden had only planned on washing, as far as she knew. She could barely even imagine what would constitute weird, bathing-wise. Now she was starting to regret trying to visualise this. Hopefully, the steam hid her red cheeks.
"Yu know, elvish things?"
"I'm not an elf," she replied automatically.
"So yu say," said the keeper with his eyes narrow under a bushy brow. He pointed at his eyes, then at her as he left the bathing room, dragging a couple of the empty pails along.
"That was strange," Jaden said as she dropped the shirt and sank into the steaming water. It felt good, loosening up stiff muscles. All the tension from earlier began to wash away. There was still everyone else to deal with, but for now it was just her and the warmth. She tried not to think about how the water pushed against her unfamiliar curves.
Mirena came back shortly thereafter with a cedar box filled with carefully wrapped flasks. With their lives the way they were, she had to assume that her belongings might end up being thrown out of a window at a moment's notice.
"Here we are. These should make this a much more pleas- Telum's teeth! What are you doing?" Mirena nearly dropped the box as she hurried up to the bathtub and tried to pull Jaden out of it.
"Ow! Rena, what's wrong?"
"The water is scalding!" The knight had a strong grip around Jaden’s upper arms, and had almost hauled her bodily out of the bathtub.
"Is it?" Jaden looked down. The water was indeed steaming a lot – rather a lot indeed, come to think about it – but it wasn't that hot, was it? It was warm. Very warm, in fact, but quite tolerable.
"Doesn't it hurt?" Mirena still held her halfway up, trying to see if Jaden was turning red from being burnt.
"No, it's fine," the mystic said with all honesty.
Mirena finally let go of Jaden's arms, allowing her to slide back into the tub. The knight dipped a finger into the water, and quickly pulled it back. It was painfully hot, and would likely hurt her if she was the one up to her belly in it.
"My salamander protects me from fire. Maybe this is something like that?" Jaden suggested.
"Perhaps. Let me add some unheated water to take it down a bit anyway. I won't be able to help you if I'm boiling my hands doing so." Mirena hefted one of the large pails that had been left for the guests to mix into their preferred temperature, the weight making her huff a little as she tilted it over the rim of the tub.
Jaden felt the heat fade away from the water. It was still warm, but some part of her recognised that it was now warm enough for a normal person, rather than hot enough to turn someone into soup.
Mirena took a washcloth and one of her scented soaps, and made an impressive ball of lather.
"Let's get you clean, dear."
Jaden leaned forward enough so that Mirena could gently scrub away all the dirt from her back, and was the filth out of her hair. It was a remarkably soothing experience, having someone’s hands massage her scalp. It reminded her of when she had been a little boy, and when her mother had done the same.
When Mirena went to get a bottle of floral oils from her collection, she made a point to really look at Jaden. Before there had been other distractions, but now her eyes went a little wider.
"Oh my! I didn’t realise that you were so... Please tell me you have better sense than Oleander and are wearing a corset or bodice," Mirena looked at her friend's chest meaningfully.
"What? Of course not!” Jaden sunk down enough so that the water covered the subject of their discussion. “… why? Is that really necessary?"
"You're at least as big as me, Jaden. It must hurt you to run like that." Mirena winced at the thought of bouncing around unsupported. Her armour did a wonderful work of keeping everything squished into place. But then, when she wore her steel she wasn't likely to move too quickly.
"It's not very comfortable, no," Jaden admitted reluctantly, remembering the running, climbing and falling she had done lately. Simply wearing a chemise wouldn't be enough anymore.
“By the way, did you already find some oils in here? I swear I can smell violets.” Mirena shrugged and dabbed her fingers with the tip of the flask, running them through the mystic’s hair.
The bath was over all too soon, and they would have to leave the safe and warm little room to face the cold air outside.
“Go see which of your clothes still fit your reasonably, so we know what we need to get you. You really can’t go around wearing a shirt with sleeves that long. Even if you don’t care about how ridiculous you look, you’re bound to snag on something or trip yourself up.” Mirena said as she dried Jaden’s long, black hair. It was even more wavy than usual after being wet.
“I’m telling you right now, you’re absolutely not getting me into a gown, Rena!” Jaden crossed her arms, and immediately dropped them down. It pushed things up. Just one more thing she couldn’t do anymore. Maybe she could take up stomping, like Ollie did?
“I wouldn’t dream of it, dear. Now head on up. I’ll go see how the others' talk went.”
Jaden put all her remaining clothes on her bed. Stann’s bed behind her was still a pile of blankets. She idly wondered where she would sleep now. All the inns in the city were packed full because of the Founding festival. They had to double up as usual to squeeze into the Old Hog. She held up her one remaining shirt. She hadn’t thought of replacing them, and since Tier it had seemed like she lost another one every week. It looked too big to be anything but a nightshirt. If she shortened the sleeves, it could probably be a dress. A very plain and ill-fitting dress.
The door closing behind her made her drop the shirt with a squeak.
Oleander stood there, holding something in her hand and staring at Jaden who only had the towel wrapped around herself. Fortunately Mirena had showed her how to do it high enough to stay modest. The redhead had a hard set to her jaw, however, even if the rest of her face was a study in casualness.
“Then it’s really you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. It’s me,” Jaden sighed, wanting to sit down, but not trusting the towel to stay up if she let it go.
"So, confession time: how did you change like that back at the harbour? That must've had something to do with how you hid the way you... look, now. Rhyce said that it, all this, wasn’t anything that had happened today."
"I told you, Ollie, it was a magic veil. A silk scarf,” Jaden added uncomfortably.
"Where is it now, then?" The redhead shifted her weight from one foot to the other, as if she was taking a step closer without moving.
"I... lost it." Jaden saw it flash before her eyes, the torn silk fluttering in the wind like the banner of a broken army.
"Uh-huh." Oleander took a bite out of the fruit she was holding. It was the same kind that brought out such bad memories in Jaden. "Did you even find it at that demon's place? You must've had it for longer than that, surely."
"I bought it back in Tier, after... after I messed everything up in the cellar, with the... idol." More memories. Oleander’s body on the floor. Fire. The demon unleashed.
"Don't remind me." Oleander shuddered.
"I'm so sorry about everything." Jaden felt like everything she did was making excuses and apologising. She had so much to apologise for. She sank down on the bed, leaning a little against the bedside table.
"So, you're going to be a girl now?" Oleander said, with a slightly accusatory undertone.
"Not if I can help it!" That hadn’t changed. She still clung to her promise. She had allowed herself to feel it once, only once, back in Redwall. It was scary how easy it was to fall into acceptance, if she just let go of herself. If she released control. Just like letting the spirit within come to the surface.
"Can you get another one of those magic things? So you can be yourself again, I mean?"
"Not unless I find two thousand crowns lying around. Nymph-made things are apparently extra expensive." Jaden looked away, rubbing her neck. She had just enough half of that, now, after their payment from the temple of Kuros.
Oleander whistled, impressed despite her small frown.
"Where did you find that kind of shiny in the first place?"
"I... uh... I traded in my sword." There was no reason not to let the truth out now. Maybe Oleander could see what it had meant to her?
"Your magic sword?" The redhead asked, both eyebrows shooting up.
"Hang on. You gave up your sword, a magical sword nonetheless, for a pretty silk scarf made by nymphs, to appear more masculine?" Oleander looked at her like she was growing a second head.
"When you put it like that..." Jaden made a face.
"You sold a rather, let's say, phallic symbol for something you call a 'veil', to be a real man?"
"Ollie, stop it..."
"You threw away your weapon for an accessory?" She just wouldn't stop taunting him.
"Ollie! Enough!" Jaden slammed her palm down on the small table and glared at her friend. "It's not funny. Nothing about this is funny. Please understand that!"
"Yeah, well neither is being lied to by your best friend, Jay!" Oleander snapped back, her voice climbing.
"You straight up lied to me for over a YEAR!" Oleander yelled, throwing the remains of her fruit in the bed. "Didn't you know... I lo... Rotting ravens, Jay!"
The redhead slammed the door as she stormed out. Jaden sat for a moment as the emotions struck her in waves. In the end, she just pulled up in a ball and cried.
All faces turned to look at Oleander when she stomped down the stairs. She was fuming. She had to be angry. That was the only way to stay functioning right now. She had to do something. Why were they still sitting around? There were things to get done out there! The other patrons of the Old Hog turned back to their drinking and mumbling, while Stann hesitantly pulled out a chair by their table.
“We were talking about what both of you have told us about that storage house,” he offered, along with a tankard of beer. Oleander angrily downed half of it in a series of frustrated gulps.
"Assuming that the two merchants you saw talking with the Marsander captain are involved in the local trading scene, we need to find out as much as we can about their operation," Kellen was ever the voice of reason and restraint, whenever possible.
"Can't we just go down there and wreck the entire building?" The redhead suggested an alternative plan. It sounded amazing to her.
"As awful as it sounds, it's possible that they are acting within their legal limits. I just don't know enough about trading agreements between Sorun and Alband to say for sure," Mirena said with some regret. She was the only one around the table without a tankard. Stann had two.
"But they're trading with intelligent creatures! That can't be right!" Oleander barely kept herself from shouting loud enough for everyone in the common room to hear.
"Slavery still exists in the former heart of the empire, Red. Etria and Marsantias still practice a form of indentured servitude to this day. While it is mainly to process the-" Kellen began to launch into his lecturing voice.
"But this is different! They're hurting and killing these poor things!"
"I know, and I agree. But the kingdom of Alband might not recognise their sentience. We need to find out more, and I think I know someone who might help us," Mirena broke in between the two before it would turn into an argument.
"Oh?" Stann wondered, putting down his second beer, wiping the foam from his upper lip.
"I’ve met a nobleman a few times, and he mentioned that his family has dabbled in the trading business over the years. He might know more about the laws regarding this. If we're going to make a difference, we need to act within the purviews of the law." Alband was as much a part of the Five Temples as Tier, after all, and it was Mirena’s duty as a knight to respect the laws of any country that allowed the five gods into their hearts.
"Kellen and I'll take Oleander and see if we can find that warehouse they saw," Stann caught on the train of thought. He was good with people, especially with the men who earned their keep by the sweat of their brows.
"I'm not sure if it's wise to make her move around too much yet," Kellen objected. He had been keeping an eye on his enchantment ever since Oleander sat down. It held firm for now, but if they ran into those mercenary magicians, things could change in a hurry. They might see it as a general protection ward, and try to pierce it in the initial exchange.
"Hey, I'm right here!" The redhead waved a hand in front of the rune seeker's eyes. "I feel fine. I just got a bit tired from that... thing, but I'm good now. I want to rescue that baby dragon."
"Dracone, little fox. There's a difference. You see-"
"Details!" She interrupted.
Stann was starting to grin a little at the sight of the small Olman woman repeatedly shutting up the large Northerner.
"That storage place should be easy to find," Rhyce offered his opinion. "Marsantias can't hold too many places here. Red should show me where they saw those suspect merchants in the city instead."
"So you can find the suppliers, rather than the transporters? I agree, that is a good plan," Mirena nodded. If they split up, they could cover more ground.
"Don't I have any say in this?" Oleander raised her voice a little.
"Of course you do," Mirena reassured the other woman. "Stann and Kellen can most likely find the storage building without you; Rhyce will have a much harder time finding those merchants on his own though, since he won't know what they look like."
"When you put it like that..." The redhead trailed off, anger being replaced by a little embarrassment. She was furious at Jaden for acting childish, and now she was falling into the same pit herself. Oleander mentally chastised herself. Save that anger for those who deserved it. She touched the new talisman around her neck to remind herself.
"Will it be safe to leave... Jaden here by her-, uh, by himself?" Kellen took the chance to speak now that Oleander wasn’t focused on him for the moment.
"I'll talk with Jaden, and see if I can figure something out," Mirena promised.
Sadness has a song of its own. It falls like raindrops from the black skies in our hearts, striking the unquiet sea of our soul with a sound of regret. In the room where she had been left, Jaden could hear that song so loudly. She didn’t even know why it hurt so much. Oleander and she had fought before. They fought all the time. But it was different now; there had a look of such betrayal in Oleander’s face before she ran off. How could that be all because of her keeping her changes secret? Why did it matter so much? Couldn’t Ollie see that it was Jaden who was the victim here?
There was a tap on the window again, making the song miss a note. In her tear-blurred, golden eyes, Jaden saw that the black bird had returned. There was something in its beak this time. Jaden didn’t know whether to laugh or cry again. How had that bird even found it?
“I’m sorry, little friend, but that thing is torn. It won’t work anymore.” Jaden let her head fall back on the bed. “Thank you for trying, though.”
The bird tapped the glass again, with the length of silk fluttering in the wind.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Was her life like that piece of silk? Once a beautiful lie, but now returned as the harbinger of truth? Would that weakness free her from the place her strength had held her captive? Maybe she was reading too much into what a bird did. There was a small smile on her lips. The song had gone silent for now.
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