Chapter Eight: A Temporary Truce over Neutral Ground, and Fish
Sable was Asher's antithesis, far from clinging to a face of wet rock as efficiently as possible to minimize bits of the city from being swept away by wind or water. Rather, it basked, baking in the shelter created by the two peninsulas of Jigsaw’s northern coast. Shallow, bleached bluffs made up this part of the coast, their soft sandy rock wrested into odd formations by erosion, and the village was built comfortably nestled along them, with natural stairs built into the stone offering quick but precarious navigation from one strata of cafes, homes, inns and shops to another. Bridges and walkways skirted above the shorter buildings, and the salty air blowing in from the bay echoed with the thumps of footsteps on the raised wood of these paths in a satisfyingly-percussive manner. That moist salt air meant that the walkways were in constant need of maintenance, and Sable employed a small crew for just that purpose. Expanses of farmland rolled away from the coast in sheets of wheat, beans, potatoes, corn and fruit trees, providing much of the sustenance for those who lived further north, where what could be grown in large quantities was restricted by space, the land and the weather. The main road running deeper into the country lay, flat and dusty, through these farms.
“Nice, eh?” Shard called back as Mittens slowed again, this time to a trot. “We can stop here for a quick rest and lunch. We may want to buy enough supplies to get us to Analerna, as well. If we travel around to approach the city from the south, it will likely take another full day yet before we reach South Sable, and Analerna is just a few hours’ journey north from there.”
The side road that branched off from the main one was sparsely traveled for an afternoon on a weekend, but it quickly became difficult to progress very far toward the town before being stopped by curious travelers inquiring about their unusual mount. It was simple to explain that it was a sort of golem made from fabric, and most people understood the idea of golems, even if not the actual magical engineering involved in animating nonliving material. Still, when they were stopped for five minutes by a little boy telling his mother that he wanted one, they decided to go into the town without Mittens. They dismounted and took up the rest of the distance on foot, and Mittens bounded into the grass and rolled in the sunshine and waited for Gryphon, who had wandered off to hunt.
“Now if I can make it the afternoon without being asked to lick someone’s arthritic knee, we should be set,” Shard mused quietly, casting his big, curious eyes warily down the road. “I’m not sure if anyone in Sable would have heard of me or if they would connect the sight of a shadeling to the rumors. In this case I must be grateful for most shadelings’ inclination to keep to themselves, as I probably owe to that the fact that most people wouldn’t know a shadeling if they saw one.”
“It seems to me,” Eidolyn stated, “That eventually you’re going to have to do something about those awful rumors. You can’t skirt around in the shadows forever.” Actually, knowing Shard, it was all too easy to visualize just that, an aging shadeling reaping the scant benefits of anonymity, not all that different from the other shadelings he derided. “Just imagine if you could go anywhere you want! Imagine if you didn’t have to steal things, and imagine if you could live in a town and actually converse with people on a regular basis! You wouldn’t have to move out of the tree if you didn’t want to, of course,” she hastily amended. “It’s a very nice tree.”
“You’ll find that sensational rumors are a more difficult beast to slay than anything with scales, claws and fangs.” Shard observed the disheartened frown Eidolyn cast at the dusty road at her feet, and added consolingly, “It’s a nice sentiment, though.”
Entering the town proper brought the smell of coffee riding on the salty air. There were many coffee houses in Sable for reasons no one was able to pin down with any certainty. The narrow, loosely-cobbled streets dipped up and down with the contours of the hilly coast, the gaps in the stones full of an earthy mix of old dried leaves, dirt and a colorful mélange of what the wind and water had eroded off the landscape in the past season or two. Everything that rose above the ground was worn down and tarnished, but clean, showing its age but wearing it well. It was the architectural equivalent of a little, clean old man that made one hopeful for their own old age. There were no open-air stalls; there wasn’t enough room to set up a kiosk, let alone room for prospective customers to wander, and as Eidolyn eventually learned, any outdoor market in Sable had to be set up beyond the town’s borders. For this reason, many of the shops in Sable had collapsible storefronts that could be folded aside in pleasant weather, creating the illusion of an open-air shop. There was so little room in the streets for anything but people that many of the rock walls had insets carved into them that were used as shelters for storage.
Eidolyn and Shard, both new to the streets of Sable, wandered for some time in the everyday din until they became cheerfully lost, eventually deciding to stop in a cafe announced by the black iron sign hanging over the door to be called “The Rollicking Mollusk” that smelled of smoky, cheap food designed explicitly, and only to taste good at the cost of health or aesthetic appearance, a fireplace that only got cleaned once a year and ancient furniture whose grime and dust had become an integral part of what kept it structurally intact. From further down the street exuded the strains of musical instruments that were played out of habit when there was any room to sit, bare calloused hands thumping on drums and sticks slicing vigorously away at violin strings, and hands and voices clapping and singing in accompaniment with no regard for rhythm or what the words to the song being played might actually be.
“Looks dirty. Tastes dirty.” Shard wrinkled his nose. “I think, though I may be mistaken, that it actually sounds dirty.”
“Take it from a gardener: dirt makes the world go around,” Eidolyn smiled. And, whatever was cooking inside smelled delicious! She yanked him inside onto an uneven floor of wooden planks that seemed to have been laid haphazardly over the rock when the pub was built. She’d always wanted to see an establishment like this, and a genuine one: wise travelers know that cozy, dingy pubs frequented by locals are imitated far more often than immaculate higher-end establishments that appealed to wealthy tourists. “Besides, there’s enough of it in your tree house.”
“I’ll grant you that, but that’s my dirt,” he countered. “I know where it’s been.”
They seated themselves at a small table against the wall, remaining there for some time awkwardly wondering how one went about getting served until they realized that customers were actually meant to go through the back of the restaurant into the kitchen and directly tell the cooks what they wanted, most of which was already prepared waiting in pots and on grills caked with grease. The menu only contained a handful of items, and so serving each customer took as much time as it took the cook to confirm their order.
“Think we can trust the water?” Shard whispered, eying the grills toward the back as if they were the gnashing teeth of a rapacious beast.
“Hush.” Eidolyn said it, but wondered herself about the wisdom of letting customers see the kitchen before realizing that the food didn’t look much more attractive than what it was cooked in. It did, however, smell fantastic. The sort of food that the Rollicking Mollusk served was described as travelers’ food: dense, substantial fare that would fuel a rambling soul for the entirety of the day, and possibly part of the next.
“What’s this, then?” Shard gestured to an oily lump glistening saltily on the grate.
“Fish,” the lanky cook barked cheerily, then added, “I think.”
It looked a sight better than most of the rest of their options. “Two please, my good man.”
“You want the secret sauce? It’s tangy!”
“Secret?” Eidolyn asked. “Can’t you tell us what it is?”
The cook squinted with a consoling smile. “Not exactly. None of us are sure either. Just found it in a big vat in the cellar when we bought the place from the last guys.”
“That is secret, I’ll give you that, but we’ll decline. For today,” Eidolyn nodded politely.
“Suit yourself. Enjoy your meal.”
Eidolyn realized to her mild amusement that they’d already taken the grease-stained wooden plates with a portion of what had been purported to be fish, and a shallow bowl of dark brothy soup that slopped about under a thin, oily veneer. Goodness, even the soup was greasy. But it was a new experience, and the establishment had to be as busy as it was for a reason, didn't it? “Thank you.”
On returning to their seats, they found them occupied by other customers, and so settled near the hearth and found their lunch to be very satisfactory. They had a very satisfactory handful of bites, in fact. Despite the questionable appearance, Eidolyn couldn't deny the approval on her tongue and in her heart as her fork scaled the foothills of the greasy peak of protein.
“Oh. Ugh.” Shard spent more energy pretending that what sat sizzling enticingly on his plate was at odds with any of his principles in life, and he did so poorly, and Eidolyn did not see the point of a facade of being above cheap travelers' fare when his own cupboards often were stocked with little more exotic than an onion and pickles.
“Oh, do quit that, Shard,” Eidolyn smiled. “You can't even lie convincingly to a plate of fish. Just enjoy it!” It would probably be the fullest meal they would be able to avail themselves of for some time.
“Hey! Hey, hey! Small kingdom, Shard!”
The voice that only made it to their ears over the din of the clientele because it had spoken Shard's name was utterly unfamiliar, but as its source approached, the white and blue uniform, not nearly so crisp and angular as they were usually seen nearly sent Shard into a coughing fit. Eidolyn's bite of almost-too-hot fish nearly was deposited back onto the plate, but in the name of decency, she sent the searing morsel painfully down instead.
Shard spoke first. “Oh, gods. You're...”
“Stagjorgen.” The uniform of Lord Pelgrin's guardsmen, despite being disheveled from travel and sullied by a splash of soup on the left breast, stood out against the crowd starkly. To abate the panic caused by its appearance, Eidolyn reminded herself that this was just one of them, and there was little he could do alone, with all of these people around them. And besides, his next action was to shrug and say, “Ah, I'm off duty. If he's not paying me to chase you, why in the gods' name would I do it anyway? S' dangerous.”
“Stagjorgen,” Shard pronounced carefully. “That's...”
“My parents were from Threed.” Unsolicited, Stagjorgen leaned into the ashen bricks of the hearth, smearing black onto the back of his uniform, and it was then that Eidolyn realized that he was, at least, moderately drunk. “I got to say, that little trick locking us all in the guest house! That was a right good gag.” Shard bristled and yelped at the sudden intrusion on his already strained private space as Stagjorgen, putting his arm around his shoulder, jerked him to his side and called out to the patrons of the restaurant. “'Ey! 'Ey! This guy-- this guy is one crafty little bugger! Crafty like a spring fox!”
While Shard scrabbled at the shattered remains of his composure, Eidolyn decided to take advantage of their inebriated foe's condition. “I say, Stagjorgen. I suppose you know all about what Lord Pelgrin's up to, lately...”
“Ah, nah. No one tells me anything.” At least he let go of Shard as he leaned forward, ranting. “Get paid to stand around in expensive boots, I am, and sometimes, nod at tourists and chase Shard! 'Ey ey! Did I tell you what a lark this guy is? Shard, let me buy ya something. What do you like?”
Shard's glance at the door was an indicator as to just how away the things that he liked were from his current location.
“Hey. No hard feelings. Not sure what you're out here for,” Stagjorgen said as he staggered off, “But none of the guys will hear about it from me. Be seeing you.”
“Shame we couldn't get anything useful from him,” Eidolyn said as soon as the man had left.
“Just a grunt, really. I didn't think he had anything useful to say, but he seemed a decent sort of fellow, if somewhat dull. I doubt Lord Pelgrin's men are selected for their intelligence.”
Anyone too smart would catch on to more than Pelgrin would like to reveal. Just stupid enough to be able to protect what they couldn't understand. And very probably, Lord Pelgrin's grip of charisma and good will was just as potent as his magic, and extended far beyond the blissful, rugged people of Asher. He was even deceiving the royal court; a simple man like Stagjorgen, receiving a bountiful wage and comfortable accommodations for his work, probably stuffed his doubts and misgivings back into his pockets along with his shiny gold.
They managed to finish their lunch shortly before Shard suddenly froze and shuddered.
“What’s the matter?” Eidolyn whispered, lowering her soup bowl.
“Shadelings. Out the window,” he hissed from the corner of his mouth. “Gods, what are they doing out here?” Discarding his half-consumed plate under an unoccupied chair, he pressed against the outer wall.
“Could be they’re not here for you,” Eidolyn attempted, maneuvering closer to the window as Shard motioned for her to get a better look at his pursuers.
But Shard rolled his eyes, his tail flipping anxiously against the wall. “Oh yes, it’s entirely possible that they came out of centuries of isolation because they heard about how good the fish is.”
There seemed to be just three of them, though it wasn’t clear, as they were partially lost in the crowds. Eidolyn held up three fingers and shrugged, ignoring his retort as the shadelings paced confusedly outside the pub like hungry wolves that had wandered into a taxidermist’s shop.
“Look, Elder Feinlore!” one young shadeling gasped, holding aloft an object. “People can’t sit down here, so they take their food and put it on the end of a stick! They’ve even got soup on a stick! The ingenuity of it!”
“Perhaps we’ve misjudged these non-neutrals,” another spoke to their balding, tight-faced elder, more as a question.
But the elder waved off the sentiment. “Quiet, Jasker and Piebalm!” Then, raising his voice: “Shard! We have seen your ambulatory fabric cat, and we know that you are nearby!”
“Audacity! Impudence! I can’t believe they’d go this far,” Shard muttered, seeming torn between remaining hidden and going out to lecture them himself.
“To be fair,” Eidolyn pointed out, “They’re only doing exactly what they’d warned you they’d do.”
“Well. That’s some consolation. I shall remember that if I am captured in order to abate my indignant rage. Let’s escape, shall we?”
After concluding the sarcastic tirade, Shard slid along the wall, easing someone’s cloak from a nearby brass hanger and wrapping it round himself, apparently too frantic to take into account the fact that his bare feet were still visible and his tail bulged out behind him against the rough fabric, attracting even more stares from all the wrong sorts as they shuffled back toward the kitchen.
At that moment, the shadelings paused reluctantly at the open door.
“But see, look,” spoke the younger shadeling from the back. His hair was a more brilliant silver and clung thinly around his face from either side of his horn. “Water on a stick! Frozen, and tastes like downberry!”
Another exuberant young shadeling, this one with a stouter build, a stronger chin and locks on a more grayish side that hung in tiny curls that seemed almost to be trying to scale his short, stubby horn and hung to just above his shoulders, competed for the elder’s attention. “Elder Feinlore! Look, look! Someone’s actually made a compendium of witty things to say to a person who’s upsetting you, to upset them back! Can you believe the creativity of these people!”
The elder waved his robed arms fitfully and reared back when he unintentionally hit a passerby. Recoiling, the elder wiped his robe of nothing at all, but what shadelings refer to as shauneigr, an immaterial and invisible something caused by contact with outsiders, and a discomfort in any decent shadeling. “Stop it, all of you! Stop! I never should have given you money,” he snapped with a final shake of the linen sleeves. “He must be in here. Find him, but disturb nothing and no one.”
Leaping on the chance, the shadeling flipped through the book and recited boldly, “’You kiss your mum with that mouth?’” He grinned with accomplishment, then frowned. “I’m not sure I get what that means.”
The elder Feinlore’s brow wrinkled like the rim of a drawstring bag. Shadelings are creatures of immense longevity, but advancing years take them roughly and suddenly at the age of fifteen hundred. Soul Yeder, approaching the end of his second millennium, could be said by one lacking proper reverence to resemble an overcooked game foul with a beard. Elder Feinlore, himself, had begun to notice excess sprigs of white hair poking exploratorily from his butterfly-wing ears, which had lost their youthful waxy pink sheen, and though his horn still glowed a relaxed lavender, it flickered and pulsed lazily, causing him no end of worry despite the fact that he was only twelve hundred. “Never mind,” he groaned, suddenly feeling twice that age. Still, chasing Shard had given him a rare purpose these past several years, and it was no small amount of cautious shame that he realized just how little he'd actually done until then. Twelve hundred years is an awful long time of doing nothing. And after the apprehension of Shard, what would become of him then? “Feh. Just be sure the renegade does not escape!”
By this time, Shard and Eidolyn had rushed past the cooks in the kitchen in search of an exit.
“Hah!” The cook welcomed with pink-cheeked, sweaty cheer. “Back for more? Changed your mind about the sauce?”
“Back door!” Shard snapped, casting his gaze behind him nervously.
The cook’s smile seemed to fall down, sizzling, onto the grill. “Back what?”
“I wasn't aware that ‘back door’ was a term that demanded elaboration.”
Behind them, a muddled din of confusion made its way through the dining room like water creeping over the floor from a ruptured barrel.
“Uh. Huh,” the cook rumbled. “Back door’s no good.”
A voice eagerly belted out behind them, carrying the heavy awkwardness of someone reciting something for the first time. “That’s what she said! … I don’t get it.”
Glowering back at his inferior, Elder Feinlore advanced cautiously, more because of the kitchen’s food than its occupants. He seemed genuinely nervous that the protein matter sizzling on the grill might still have life left in it to leap up into his robes, down his neck, or worst yet, down his throat. “There will be no more renegade shadelings from this day forth. Swear neutrality, and surrender peacefully. Jasker, Piebald, if you please—before we disrupt things any further.”
Nervously, the fitter and abler shadelings amongst them produced two sets of rune-inscribed shackles—Eidolyn guessed correctly that they were made to block magic. Stumbling back, even Shard seemed shocked at the measures they came prepared to take. “Chains?” he inquired shakily. “My fellows, we are all meant to be civilized people here, are we not?”
“We are NOT civilized!” Elder Feinlore spat indignantly. “Civilized people, by all appearance, live by stupid novelty toys, food mounted on dowels and comeback joke books!”
The cook, shuffling toward the back where bags and boxes of ingredients stewed, seemed to want to sink into the barrel of pickles behind him. “Uh… can I get anyone anything?”
A thousand possible responses hung in the air over the conflicting parties clashing in the room for just a fraction of a second before the small round window over a trough full of soiled dishes burst inward in a shower of dusty glass, and something began shoving its way through. At first Eidolyn thought that it seemed someone was trying to shove a pile of colorful laundry through the portal, but eventually as the fabric bulged through the window, a plate-sized ebony button became visible, scraping against the wooden sill, still continuing on until another giant button and a grinning felt mouth had invaded the crowded kitchen. Finally, a pair of mismatched fabric ears sprung up above Mittens’ eyes, knocking over a barrel of wine.
Barrels of wine are always the first thing in a tavern kitchen to get knocked over in the event that any sort of ruckus takes place within it, no matter what their placement, for reasons yet undetermined. As with any fascinating discovery in physics and probability, the military applications of this curiosity were quickly considered before being abandoned as the cost in time and resources of turning any battlefield into a tavern kitchen could not be easily justified.
A wave of shock overtook the kitchen as the thread and cloth monstrosity, grinning broadly, continued to push itself into the room until its entire head hung over them in the dim, dusty light. It was the final straw when the old knotted wood of the wall groaned and the shadelings’ naive imaginations inflated the sound into a long feline yowl, and they all fled to regroup and have a sober, quiet reconsideration of their perceptions of the world. The cook remained to ensure that the food did not burn; those in the hospitality industry are not easily shocked.
Mittens turned expectantly to Shard and Eidolyn (upsetting the next most often spilled item in a kitchen, a large sack of flour) as Eidolyn cheered, “Good job, Mittens! Let’s get out while we’ve got the chance!”
But as they made for the back door around the precarious storage shelves, the cook stopped them, exuding the stern air of someone who’s already had enough but is expecting more. “I told ya, the back door’s no good. There’s great big stacks of supplies out back against the door. Now listen, I don’t want any trouble so I’d prefer you just get out the way you come.”
The cook found himself ignored as Shard asked as Mittens backed its head out the window, spilling more supplies into the trough of dirty dishes and the puddle of wine soaking into the floorboards, “Mittens, can you push everything blocking the door out of the way?”
Plaintively, the cook resigned himself to standing aside. “Gods, why me?”
It’s well known that when heroes come into a town, the owner of any establishment not directly supporting them becomes a hapless bystander. There’s not much that can be done about this, and large towns and small villages alike incorporate into training regimens for new employees what to do in event of everything from a local tyrant coming to flush out fleeing rebels to if a dark, homely man in a cloak is seen minding himself in the corner of a tavern.
Shard laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it consolingly. “I suggest getting out of hospitality and into relaying vague prophecies to traveling heroes in front of a campfire in a cave. Not much money to be had in it, but the peace and quiet can’t be topped.”
Mittens completed the complicated task of backing out the window, and the light streamed back into the kitchen and its hapless master baffled at Shard and Eidolyn, bathed in a dusty golden halo as they approached the barricaded door. Momentarily, a heavy shuffling issued from behind the door, in gritty little outbursts of the sound of rough burlap and weather-worn wood scraping against the ground. Eidolyn supposed that, despite Mittens’ size, it was a difficult task, given how light he was. Finally, a few sudden thumps punctuated the end of the noise from outside and Mittens signaled his task’s completion by nodding through the window.
Eidolyn pushed the door open and a fresh breeze fluttered into the kitchen for, unbeknownst to her, the first time in decades. Colonies of creatures, some exclusive to that very kitchen, who reveled in shadows and cracks and stagnant films of gunk recoiled in confusion and retreated deeper into their native recesses as Eidolyn rushed outside, followed by Shard after he slipped a few coins to the exasperated cook.
“Should cover damages,” Shard nodded with hurried amiableness. “Keep the wine at ground level from now on and keep that door unblocked.”
“Yes, uh…” The cook sized up Shard's boggling proportions and cautiously attempted, “Sir?”
For a moment, Shard considered snatching the money back again, but regathered his pride and slapped the coins into the cook’s calloused palm and sprinted from the building behind Eidolyn.
Shard and Eidolyn mounted Mittens hurriedly, and the giant cat shoved itself through the alley until he found a promontory low enough to leap onto without bucking its riders. Pulling himself up over the Rollicking Mollusk, becoming level with a dense block of buildings that leaned like soggy cakes over the narrow street below he did so quickly enough that all most onlookers were able to spot was a plush patchwork tail flicking over their heads. Clotheslines strung between the upper levels of buildings sagged, tugging at their upper floors and gutters that skirted the outer walls like some diabolical mechanism.
There was barely room to walk on those elevated streets, and in all, the whole town looked like the world record for collateral damage resulting from a single sneeze waiting to happen.
Mittens, sending cold butterflies into a complicated mating dance along Eidolyn’s spine, took a series of leaps between three coffee shops and a cobbler, arriving back at ground level on the roof of a shop specializing in dental appliances made from dragon bone.
Gingerly, Mittens lowered himself to the ground, not far from the shore and the outskirts of Sable, where the buildings were far enough apart for them to slip through the alleys, largely unseen, and out of the town completely. The sudden decrease in loud music, boisterous shouting and laughing and sales pitches of town criers made Eidolyn's ears ring over the hissing of the sea washing over the craggy beach.
“Shame our respite was cut short,” Shard admitted. “I might have enjoyed Sable, given the chance.”
That would have to come some other day. With the feeling that the three shadelings were the very same ones that beset their magic upon her earlier in Shard's home, Eidolyn found herself understanding Shard's fear very well. “We shall have to go through the swamp, won’t we? What about Gryphon?”
“He’ll be fine enough on his own. We don’t stand much chance of escaping the shadelings in the Gibbering Hills, and though I reckon I could best them, I don’t wish to fight against them if I can avoid it. Hopefully Gryphon will find us, and if not he’ll be waiting for us in Analerna munching on a bone and wondering what took us so long.”
Eidolyn nodded. She didn’t look forward to the swamp, and there was the matter of their provisions. Having not had to deal with much real peril yet, the prospect of going without food or fresh water for two days seemed more pressing. Those mundane threats didn’t get much mention in heroic ballads. ‘Verily he didst quaff of his own urine and feast upon larvae and tree roots’ didn’t carry much glamor. Sighing, she realized Shard probably had something in mind. “We’d better camp for the night before we get into the swamp,” she reminded him.
“Of course; we’ll take our rest under the first cover we find. Mind, though, that may be the drier forests at the edge of the swamp, yet some distance away.”
Eidolyn cast her gaze at the land ahead of them. The closer they approached the main body of the country, the more the land swept downward, gently easing travelers into the slightly lowered center of the kingdom, which acted as a culvert for both rainwater and people toward the tiny Zorn Valley and the Inter-City which, consequently, never stopped smelling like rain and was perpetually saturated and soggy. It’s an exaggeration that only magic fires can be lit in the damp Inter-City, but upon visiting there, tourists are inclined to believe the local joke.
But that was a long way off. With the northern coast still visible, it glided along the calm bay waters, a model of erosion at work at a glance as dagger-edge cliffs crumbled away to craggy seafront, then secluded pebble beaches and finally to welcome, hospitable sandy beaches in the west, where the Silver Mountains herded hot air from the Sandy Sea north and thrashed the salt air into storms far more operatic than the gritty practical storms that occasionally pestered Asher. Analerna was stuck in the middle like a blemish between the eyebrows of a beautiful face. It was a fashionable blemish though, one which made the beauty without all the more profound and was itself a curiosity whose charm Eidolyn was not nearly the first to be drawn in by. The world's need for balance in all things means that someone usually ends up happy in the end, even if it’s the wholesale merchants that sold both sides their weapons or the hapless bystander that got a book deal out of a nation-shattering tragedy, as once-upon-a-times and the-ends cycle endlessly bleed together over the interminable pastoral centuries and things never tip one way far enough and for long enough for people as a whole to become dissatisfied with the cosmic workings of their home. Analerna is simply bittersweet, though, the geographical equivalent of a wry, cynical smirk.
“Do you have a plan for getting help from Analerna?” Eidolyn asked.
“Plans are a waste of time,” Shard returned briskly. “We currently lack the knowledge to build a fail-safe plan. We shall continue on and formulate as we learn.”
“What?” Eidolyn tried to lean forward over his shoulder, but Mittens’ hurried canter prevented it. “You can go ahead and say that you have no idea what you're getting us into, Shard. I've already come to grips with it.”
“Semantics. Whatever the plan, it will all come down to how well we can convince him that a return trip is worth the while. I could alter his memory, I suppose, to make him believe whatever I like, or even that he did do whatever I assert he did, but that spell… well, they say that anyone who casts that spell and never does again probably misacted with the best of intentions, and anyone who casts it more than once is probably a villain.”
“Is that true?”
“True enough, and I intend to keep it that way.”
They traveled on for some hours, eventually drifting to the west, so as the cool crispness of the early evening settled over them, the braughnauthene hung over their shoulders in the east, illuminating the swamp rising on the horizon an ironic gold and sending stoic pinks and purples arcing aloofly over them.
Eidolyn had never seen the sky looking so vast and indifferent to the world below it.
Their lengthening shadow seemed to be yanked into a thread by the looming swamp by the time they reached the first stands of trees. An anticipatory silence hung over everything as the brightest stars blinked on, twinkling as their light passed through the world’s ever-shifting magical field, refracted by elven songs, curses placed upon middle sons and illumination spells cast by first-level magicians reviewing their repertoire and deciding it was either that or the ‘purify oatmeal’ spell. Mittens lowered itself onto the grass and Shard and Eidolyn both dismounted in the indigo shadows of the stand of trees. Behind them, the basket hopped down and was half swallowed by the long grass.
“We can build a fire here,” Shard said. “We shall be safe this close to the swamp, and its embers will keep anything that prefers to make its traversing by night from being startled and attacking us.”
The grass, now become a plush blackish-green void, the shadows of its blades drawn over the hills like the hair of a mountain-sized shaggy beast, welcomed them as they seated themselves between two ancient trees that had virtually become one entity thanks to encompassing vines that had crawled up both, obscuring the point at which one tree ended and the other began. Behind the curtain of forest, Shard gathered up a circle of dirt and stones and began building a fire with tree bark and some dried leaves, protected by the stand of trees from being swept away into dust by the winds. Mittens settled down, encircling them in a soft, shallow wall, the muted colors of his stitched hide resembling the stained glass of an unlit church in the moonlight, his tail curled around their campsite as the modest, wet smoke from Shard’s fire teased the tree branches above and tossed and turned on its way up to the stars.
“So,” Shard said decisively. “Food.” Now seated against Mittens’ pink and green felt belly, he brought his rucksack over beside him and slid it open. Across from him through the flickering dull red flames from the damp wood, Eidolyn watched him draw forth and set aside their leather and horn canteen several pieces of fruit, half a loaf of bread and some cod stockfish. “Oh dear.” Finally, he eased a bit of oily, half-crumbled cheese from the bottom and set it funereally atop the bread and wiped the remains from his fingers onto the grass. “A toothsome array, is it not?”
“Shard, when did you have time to buy food?”
Breaking the bread with ritual care, Shard replied without looking up. “I acquired it on our way into Sable.”
“Oh, you stole it!” she sighed. She should have guessed. “Well, nothing to be done about it now. I don’t like it, but I am hungry, after all.” And, when she thought about it, they were now more in need than was the shopkeepers who originally owned the goods. No, no! She mustn’t let herself think like that so easily! Shard was probably easily able to pay for the food if not for his misgivings about speaking to other people. Though, any money he was carrying probably was stolen, too. She’d find a way around his tendencies yet.
Despite this, they ate until they were satisfied, but not full, and packed away a little bread and stockfish for later. Even as they did, Shard warned that the Swamp of Dire Poets tended to make one lose their appetite. They ate all the fruit, because, as Shard explained, “I once brought an apple into the Swamp of Dire Poets and it had shriveled into a stony little pip by the time I’d come out.”
This was hardly reassuring to Eidolyn, so she came around to Shard’s side of the fire to enjoy the comfort of Mittens’ plush body, which moved gently as if it were breathing. They wiled away the lingering minutes while there was still a faint glow of sunlight left, and she lost track of at what point the soft, slow rocking of Mittens’ belly lulled her to sleep.
Elsewhere, things at a disadvantage in the sunlight began skulking, but there, on that night, all was peaceful. As Eidolyn drifted to sleep, so still that she supposed Shard imagined her to be asleep already, she was aware of him moving to the opposite side of Mittens, out of her sight.
Eidolyn dreamed that night, of gliding over the streets of Sable. Then she imagined she was Mittens frolicking in the sea and growing too waterlogged to jump out of the water. She became herself again just in time to watch barrels of pickles and wine wash up on the shore. The truth is that most dreams, for most people, aren’t even of equal importance to what we forget to get or do when we enter a room. Sometimes flashes of wolves in leisure wear, landscapes of paper or bars of songs we’ve never heard before eke by, but they’re never meant to. Sudden sensations that we’re falling that jolt us awake are the work of the patrons of dreams, noddies, warding us off when we get close to discovering them dropping off a nightly delivery of dreams.
The deeper parts of her mind were exposed enough to notice that things she knew, didn’t know, and had been denied knowledge of fit together, and those gaps in her knowledge might become obvious with the context of what she was aware of, like cutting out the distinctive shape from a picture. Shard’s word’s from that night echoed and warped themselves. For an instant, lonely artifacts of truth detached themselves from the words of Shard and Pelgrin and smashed together like rogue atoms attempting to fuse together or at least generate something altogether new in a quantum explosion of causality and logic.
Falling! “Ah!” Mittens’ soft hide caught her from her non-fall as she started awake.
Shard was gone. The grass was already growing damp so, not seeing Shard anywhere by the smoldering light of the dwindling fire and noticing that Mittens was unconcerned by this fact, accepted it in a half-awake haze and climbed onto Mittens for the remainder of the night. Nearby, the basket sat still, either sleeping or, unable to sleep, sitting idle with nothing to do. Streamers of mist hung over the hills, intertwined with the trees, slowly evaporating as the braughnauthene began to rise again in the west, newly regenerated with the power of light. The morning air was cool and clear, shocking Eidolyn from the last bit of slumber as the rustle of feathers and fur before her demanded her attention.
“Oh, that’s cute,” Gryphon chuckled.
Eidolyn had fallen asleep on Mittens’ side. Shard, evidently having come back some time afterward, was resting further down his flank, curled up and holding his arms to his chest—until he heard Gryphon’s voice, at which point he jolted up and dapperly withdrew his comb from his shirt (he was wearing different clothes than the ones he was wearing the day before) and began grooming himself.
“Ah, Gryphon, good to see you along. Knew you’d be by eventually.” Shard preened and combed and straightened and washed with water from their canteen.
“Shard,” Eidolyn reminded him gently as she sat up and slid down to the dewy grass. “We are likely to get messy in the swamp anyway.”
“I’m in denial,” Shard returned pointedly and went back to curling his bangs symmetrically around his horn.
They explained to Gryphon their difficulty in Sable.
“In its divine form, a shadeling would easily be able to overtake Mittens, even at a full sprint, which is very awkward for him to maintain with more than one rider,” Shard elaborated as he washed his face and applied a bit of cologne. “I don’t know if they know where we’re headed, but the swamp will serve to both hide us and to slow them down. Mittens should be able to walk over the mud even with us riding, and if we’re lucky we’ll be in sight of South Sable by evening.”
“Well done, well done,” Gryphon nodded, recovering into a hover as Mittens, getting to his feet, tossed the beast from his head. “You’ve fought this all frough I see. I see you won’t be needing ol’ Gryphon. I’ll see you in South Sable, ‘ave fun in the muck!”
“You’re coming with us.”
“Coming wiff ya, my tail! Whaddaya want me for?”
“If we get lost, you can fly above the canopy and guide us.”
There was nothing for it, in Gryphon’s mind. He couldn’t have sweet Eidolyn go in there on her lonesome with just Shard to protect her. Ahead, mist still roiled out of the swamp in the waning shadows of the very early morning, forming clouds that rolled from the swamp like steaming breath. It wasn’t so much that night lingered in the swamp, but that a hot, humid twilight seemed to persist there at all times. The stands of trees they now were sheltered by gradually thickened toward the west, seeming to encroach on their camp from all sides.
“Awright,” Gryphon consented. “But no water.”
From on Mittens’ back, they began to approach the swamp with Gryphon riding at the back, curled up with his tail swaying alongside Mittens’. The basket dug its legs into Mittens' plush hide harder than ever; clearly whatever soul was inside was able to recognize the threat-- or, at least, didn't want to get muddy either.
As long as they didn’t change direction, Shard reasoned with some confidence, navigating the swamp should be simple. However, once they were in the far-reaching, creeping shadow of the canopy it was like they’d passed into another world, and Eidolyn actually looked behind them to verify that the sunlit plains actually remained there. Clouds of insects hung in the sparse rays of light that made it through the dense leaves and gossamer curtains of moss, things burbled and slithered and stank and squelched, thriving utterly. You couldn’t be native to the Swamp of Dire Poets and just barely get by. It was thriving or nothing.
They surveyed the uneven mess of shallow ponds, mud pits and the rare bumpy island of dry ground for the most desirable path, but a featureless evil seemed so prevalent everywhere so that the driest, brightest path in any direction seemed to Eidolyn like a trap.
“They say all this unpleasantness around Analerna is from the city itself and the sheer force of the evil that kind of boils off it in the sun. Centuries ago, this swamp wasn’t here.”
“And what was the Howling Woods?” Gryphon called up. “Just ‘The Woods?’” It wasn’t a terribly funny joke, but there, all jokes but those cloaked in the thickest armor of cynicism were immediately strangled by the foul humidity.
They took care to maintain a perfectly westerly course as possible, difficult with the braughnauthene blocked out most of the time. The death and rot that hung in the air, seeming to want to take them in with it, thickened as they progressed so that each breach was sour and ferrous. They eventually were forced to correct their course several times when an ancient felled tree, with its roots still gripping stringy clods of dirt exposed to the air presented an earthen wall in front of them. On its way down, the tree had vengefully brought down a number of its smaller fellows with it and created a maze of dead wood and groping roots rotting in the mire.
It made little difference to Mittens himself, only a thin patina of grime forming on his paws from even the most formidable terrain they’d passed, but repeated corrections as they found their travel halted by obstructions took their toll.
“I’d... oh dear. I'd hoped we could go a little longer than this without getting lost,” Shard murmured, sounding utterly disarmed.
“How can we be lost? We’ve just moved around a bit.” A bubble of gas from something rotting under the mud made its way to the surface and belched tauntingly at them.
“Can you point which way we came from?”
Eidolyn thought there may have been some desperate hope embedded in the otherwise sarcastic question. Sighing, she looked futilely around her as Shard prodded Mittens on through the labyrinth of brush.
“You’d think,” Shard whimpered, “Someone would have put up signs by now.”
“You think they’d stay standing up?”
“Point taken.” He frantically veered Mittens through the half-snapped gnarled limbs of a fallen tree in an attempt to break through their prison quickly, Eidolyn ducking down just in time to avoid being struck by a branch. “Come on, Mittens, get us out of this!”
It was unclear how or why at the time, but whatever kept Mittens above the mud instantly wavered, and his back end plunged downward into the mud, sending up a paralyzing cloud of stink. Gryphon squawked and flapped up into the treetops and rained down twigs and leaves for a few moments before regaining his composure and perching, disheveled and his hackles raised angrily, on the dead tree. The sound of Mittens sinking downward was horrible, easily rising above their panicked cries, and in the chaos, the poor basket, still laden with the rest of their supplies, scrabbled toward the dry safety of Mittens' head like an agitated spider whose web has been destroyed. Finally, Mittens, grin wider than ever, used its front paws as leverage against a half-buried trunk and eased its hind end back above the sucking depths. The sound would have been nauseating if not for the relief that came with it.
“Good gods,” Shard sighed as Mittens brought them to safety. “It seems that the blasted sinkholes still cause a problem. Thank you, Mittens, well done. You’ve saved my taffeta… and us.”
They’d at least gotten clear of the natural maze. Eidolyn had been unable to resist horrible fantasies that they might be stuck there for all time, covered in gloppy mud and mosquitoes. She called up, “Gryphon, while you’re up there, you’ll be a dear and find west for us, won’t you?”
“Anyfing fer you, darlin’!” Gryphon's voice sounded terribly distant through all the haze and drooping trees.
Allowing himself a sigh, Shard looked back. “You’re unharmed, then?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” She sat back, feeling her heartbeat return to its normal pace, enjoying the aftermath of the panic that made the stink of the swamp not matter so much. Where Mittens had wrenched himself free of the mud sinkhole it left behind a great pit, striped with different preterite layers of decomposition that would easily bury a person of average size. Gradually, rivulets of grimy water saturated the walls of the hole and with an agonizing sucking sound, the reluctant sound of a defeated beast unable to capture its prey, the sinkhole began to fill in again.
As she averted her gaze and tightened her grip on Mittens to put out of her mind images of a living bog trying to slurp them down to a muddy doom, she shuddered at the feel of exposed stuffing, and a quick inspection confirmed her fear: perhaps from a jutting root or branch, Mittens’ right side had a sizeable gash along it reaching from just behind its front leg to more than halfway along its belly. She drew in a steady gasp as she sight of bulging, mud-splattered cotton stuffing, for the first time, made her feel sick. “Shard?”
“Yes? Oh. Oh dear.” Shard frowned, but not intensely. It was a regretful frown, one he shared with Mittens as he shifted to sit sideways on Mittens’ back and beginning to remove his shirt. Eidolyn supposed she should look away, but he did it in such a businesslike fashion that to do so suddenly seemed silly. Shard next removed all the jewelry from his person—a complicated task while seated atop a plush cat standing over a mud-pit, and produced a wild tangle of baubles piled on top of his shirt. Removing a round pendant last, he popped open a latch in its face to reveal a spool of sturdy thread, removing a thick bone needle from the length of one of the charms that he kept attached to his belt. “Hmm. Just the thing.”
He bundled up his trinkets inside his shirt, tied it off tightly and shoved it into Eidolyn’s lap. “Won’t be a minute.”
Shard sighed, took the thread between his teeth and held the needle firmly in one hand, and slid from Mittens’ flank into the mud, sinking thigh deep and sending splatters up his torso. He sneered down at the mud derisively, and Eidolyn thought she saw the mud bubble a halfhearted apology. Taking the thread with his free hand, he called up, “Mittens, you’ll have to crouch down so I can reach you. There’s a good lad.”
Placing the needle in his teeth, he clasped his hands together as if trying to prevent something in his palms from escaping. However, as he concentrated, his hands began to tremble. Gritting his teeth, he squeezed his palms ever tighter until flecks of white appeared between his fingers, just before his hands were forced apart by a growing bundle of cottony stuffing. It soon became large enough that the ball of pure white obscured Shard's face. The ball went right into Mittens' injured side, where he spread it around evenly.
Then, Shard threaded the needle with learned flourish and set about the task of closing the wound in the cloth.
“Shard?” Eidolyn watched him shift awkwardly in the grip of the mud, now nearing the top of his legs. “Are you all right?”
“Furrfecry!” Shard called up as snappily as he could through the length of thread held between his teeth, not looking up from his meticulous task.
“You don’t mind getting dirty.”
“Uff horse I nind,” came the reply. He then made a failed attempt to elaborate on that point, finally spitting out the end of the thread. He yanked the thread through Mittens’ side one more time and the wound pulled shut. “But Mittens is my dear companion. And I am also fantastic.”
“So modest,” Eidolyn sighed, as Shard tied off the mending thread into a stout little knot.
“Modesty is the exclusive luxury of those who need to show it least. Ugh!” The mud suddenly swallowed Shard past his hips. “Oh, that’s unpleasant. But, job’s done. A little help, Mittens?”
Mittens batted a branch over to Shard to help him out, and once Shard had grabbed hold, the giant plush cat, who had never heard of the Laws of Motion, took the branch between its felt teeth and yanked Shard out while remaining dry on the surface of the mud. Once atop Mittens’ back again, Shard recited a quick spell and the mud instantly dried into dust and crumbled off. “There. Almost as good as new. It’ll never be quite the same, but what can one do?”
That small disaster set a cacophonous tone for the next leg of the journey. Mud crept with a life of its own into their clothes, under their nails, in their hair, behind their ears, and into their minds. After several hours, Eidolyn struggled to remember a world that was not saturated in stinking mud stringy with rot. They all took particular care of Gryphon's wings; he was needed to keep their sense of direction by flying over the trees in order to make sure they were proceeding in a straight line.
After a time, even though the thought of food made her ill, Shard insisted that they stop to rest and eat once they came across a large hill that was relatively dry. Eidolyn felt more irritated and cranky from the conditions than tired and hungry, but that was in comparison to her condition earlier. “Can your magic help us now that you’ve rested?”
“Not much,” Shard admitted. “Magic can do a lot, but there isn’t a spell for everything. The best I can do is use a spell to get this grime off, should it contain any imperceptible, tiny beasties that could further compromise our health. Yes, I think that should be a good idea. I must look a disaster!” he sighed. He attempted to groom his silvery hair but only succeeded in spreading the grime around more easily. “Never opting for a path through a swamp again; I’d rather face an army of shadelings and a ream of formal notices!” For a moment he fetched his hand mirror from his bag on Mittens’ back, but then shoved it back resentfully without using it. “No! No, I can’t bear to look!”
“There, darling.” Gryphon patted Shard’s bare back and left a big muddy pawprint. “Mud washes off and ‘ey, it could be worse! Least yer shirt’s still clean.”
“Hah!” Shard, seeming to well up with his usual exuberance abruptly, shook the beast’s mane jovially as Eidolyn unpacked the remainder of their food from the basket, which hadn't moved from its perch on Mittens' back. At least the basket had kept the food from getting dirty, but it still was inexplicably soggy and, she reflected as she tried an apple, flavored with a sour aftertaste.
“Well, at least we’re all still breathing. Those who are meant to, that is,” he added with a nod to Mittens.
“And just think how nice it will be to finally have a bath when we get to South Sable!” Eidolyn smiled. Come to think of it, the modest South Sable probably would not have the sort of enchanted baths Shard did, which heated any water placed into them, more likely having inn staff versed in a small repertoire of practical spells, such as ones for heating bathwater. They might even simply heat their water over a fire, like she’d once been accustomed to.
Eidolyn was so content in her fantasies of dry, safe cleanliness that for a moment, when she saw the very precise lines of shelves barely visible in the distance, she was convinced they were a product of her fevered fantasies of civilization. But when they remained after a few cursory blinks and a squint for good measure, she found herself pulled to her feet by the strength of her curiosity. Before she could think to announce to her friends that she was investigating something, her feet pulled her forward.
Gryphon followed her first. They both realized what was sitting impartially before them at approximately the same time.
Eidolyn was almost afraid to speak the name, for fear of it causing them to disappear before she could investigate closer. “Is that...”
“It is,” Shard gulped with a shudder.
Recap: After Shard willingly surrenders himself to Windemir in order to gain his trust, he promptly frees himself and is saved from being captured by fellow shadelings by the town eccentric, Higgins Appleshanks. Returning to Eidolyn, they set out for Analerna with Gryphon and Mittens.