The Broken Tower
The alligator snarled, drawing its jaws open with a menacing hiss. As Garrett dangled the bloody flank, taking care to hold it far away from his body, the beast snapped up abruptly, surging up with a speed that belied its squat form. He skittered back with a nervous yelp as the meat was wrenched from his grasp.
He took a deep breath, remembering what she had said, then puffed out his chest and pointed authoritatively at the creature.
“Hey — you… Handbag! Manners! You know she doesn’t like it when you cop an attitude.”
The gator responded only with a baleful stare, exhaling sharply as it trundled off. Garrett turned away quickly. Watching the beast tear into meat made him queasy — were it not for Arunani’s quick action and Orryn’s familiarity with the denizens of this place, a similar fate surely would have befallen him during their time in the swamp.
Unfortunately, his quick about-face put him directly in front of the druid’s companion. If Handbag’s manners made him queasy, Humbert’s feeding habits actively incited vomit. Before Orryn had tamed the monster, Garrett had never considered how centipedes ate, much less giant ones.
Now he wished he had never found out. It was fine when they were small — what did they eat? Flies, bugs, spiders, probably. Not so with an eight-foot centipede. Birds — small or otherwise, rabbits, deer — probably even dogs. All gone, disappearing into those great, slavering pincers. Dozens of squirming, wriggling legs, dripping with venom and black ichor. This time it appeared to be some sort of wading bird — though not for much longer. He shivered and turned to walk back to the camp.
“Sundered shadows — shit, Thatcher, you scared the living daylights out of me!”
Perched on a nearby stump was the unmoving, unblinking form of Kip Thatcher, peering curiously at Humbert’s feeding frenzy. The odious little man was one of the peasants rescued by Orryn during his escape from the tower’s oubliette. Considering the dangers of the locale, and the urgency of their mission in the Broken Tower, they’d decided to corral the civilians here. But until the Order concluded their business, they were stuck protecting the skags.
Including Thatcher. The rest of their charges endured Orryn’s proselytizing with indifference, but Thatcher had taken to it with an unexpected fervor.
Apparently, even so much as to come watch the druid’s pet monster feast. Garrett snapped his fingers in front of the transfixed Thatcher, trying to jolt him out of his trance-like state. The little man’s eyes drifted lazily upwards, meeting Garrett’s own with a casual disinterest.
“Summat the problem, Garrett?”
“What are you doing out here? Outside the camp? You know Arunani wanted to keep the civilians out of harm’s way.”
“Watchin’. Learnin’. You ought to watch, too.” Garrett’s stomach churned at the thought.
“Well…” he trailed off awkwardly, noticing the way Thatcher’s eyes slid back to the gruesome scene behind him. “Hurry back when you’re done. Orryn will have my head if something happens to you.”
Thatcher nodded slowly. “Lady’s grace be with you. May you walk ever in her shadow.” Garrett shook his head. Zealots.
As he made his way back to the camp, doing his best to avoid the deepest puddles, he let his mind wander. He hoped the party would return soon, so they could quit this cursed swamp. Near the outskirts of the hamlet, he gathered some firewood from the pile, where he had unsuccessfully attempted to dry it.
That was the problem with this place. Wet, cold, and dark. He’d never get the brackish smell out of his boots.
Then his ears caught an unexpected noise. Clamour — excited voices! He quickened his step, entering the hamlet proper.
Finally, they’d returned! In the center, surrounded by the milling forms of the civilians, he saw the stout, brawny form of Berûk. Off to the side was the tall, shrouded visage of Orryn.
But where was she? Where was Arunani? She should be with them, where she always was, sporting a shy smile and a few more notches on that bow.
He scanned the campsite, heart in his throat. After a few anxious seconds, he found her slender form, skulking near the back, hood drawn.
He made a beeline for her, but was intercepted.
“Ah, Lightfingers! There you are!” Berûk, gregarious as ever, raised a hand in greeting. “I was beginning to think you’d run out on us! I was just telling Tanner here — I died again in there. Blasted assassin got me right here,” he said, gesturing to a fresh scar in the hollow of his throat.
“I see it didn’t take, as per usual,” Garrett said, distractedly.
He traded pleasantries with Berûk, all the while watching Arunani as she skirted the corners of the camp. She dropped her gear, had a few words with Loreley, but remained worryingly aloof.
Why? What had happened? They’d been so close. So achingly, painfully close, in the weeks and months leading up to their journey. Something was wrong — he knew it. He could see it in the stiffness of her stride, and the way she wouldn’t meet his gaze. All the walls were back, high as they’d ever been. But why?
As she circled the camp again, someone else — Freydis, he thought — flagged Arunani down. He saw her smile, exchange a few words. She turned, and in the moonlight, he saw her face.
Garrett knew her face better than he knew his own. It haunted him both in dream and the waking world alike — the last thing in his mind’s eye before slipping off to sleep, and the first when he woke. She was his talisman, his ward against the terrors that so often stalked his dreams, remnants of that cursed, eldritch labyrinth. He had died for that face once before. And he knew he would again, someday.
And it wasn’t the same face he remembered, not quite. The differences were minute — she looked leaner, her cheekbones more pronounced. There were fine crows-feet framing her eyes where there had been none before. As she turned, gesturing in the starlight, a lonely strand of hair slipped out from under her cowl, and it was streaked with gray.
Time worked its will slowly on elves and half-elves alike, to be sure, but she was noticeably older — years, decades even.
Forgotten, the firewood dropped from his numb, unfeeling fingers. It clattered to the ground, falling in a heap around his feet. Startled at the sound, she turned toward him. He caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were filled with an overwhelming mix of emotions. Fear. Panic. Regret.
She tucked the stray hair into her cowl and turned away. —
“Copper for your thoughts?”
Berûk’s voice snapped Garrett out of his reflection. He turned to face the dwarf riding alongside him, squat legs dangling comically around the horse’s barrel-like torso.
Berûk’s expression, however, was serious.
“Really, Garrett. I expected you to lighten up once we left that blasted swamp behind.” “Just a lot on my mind, is all.”
Garrett held out an open palm, clearing his throat.
The dwarf made a disgusted noise. “Hanseath’s balls, you greedy bastard! It’s just an expression. Fine,” he rummaged around in his belt pouch for a moment before flicking Garrett a gold piece. “Now talk, before I start to get testy.”
Garrett inspected the coin. Very old, covered in worn filigree. Weighty.
“Awfully generous, aren’t you?”
“Well, we certainly found enough of them down there. And I’m curious.”
Garrett’s eyes found the front of the column, where Arunani led their ever-larger group. “What happened in there, Berûk?”
“Many things, and few of them good. Team of ratcatchers came at us, armed with foul magics. An assassin got me, like I said — “
“What happened to her?”
Berûk followed his gaze forward, to where Arunani rode. They watched as the ranger’s
hawk companion, Caesura, fluttered down, landing on an outstretched arm. The dwarf was silent for a long moment.
“We got caught… pinned down in a corridor. Ghosts were coming out of the walls, floors.” The dwarf turned to face him, and Garrett saw, with surprise, that the dwarf was uneasy. “Do you remember when I was… touched… by that wraith back at Castle Blackfeather?”
“It sapped my strength, robbed me of my vigor. It’s taken me time, but I’ve been able to build that back up, regain what I lost. This specter was… different. It sucked the life out of her, years at a time. It was only on her for a moment before we drove it back, but when it was gone, she was… older than before.” Berûk was uncharacteristically pensive. “Strength can be rebuilt, but time… you can’t get that back.”
They rode for several minutes in uncomfortable silence.
“She won’t speak to me. Barely at all,” Garrett blurted out.
“I’ve noticed that. You and her… you’ve been tight, the last few months.”
“Close. We’ve been close. At least we were, before… before you all left for the Broken Tower. Now, it’s like we never were. It’s like we were never even friends.”
For a moment, Garrett was scared to look over, terrified that the dwarf would laugh, poke fun at him. But when he found the courage to face his friend, he saw that Berûk’s face was twisted in a thoughtful frown.
“Garrett, you know that I’m not much for the talking. For the tip-toeing around feelings, and other,” he fumbled, scratching his beard for a moment, “manners… uh… rules, and such. I’m a simple man. I like simple solutions. When I look at the two of you, it seems… complicated. Far more complicated than it has to be. Just… have at it, already. The rest of the problems will solve themselves in time. I’m tired of watching the two of you circle each other like wary cats. Just pounce already!”
Garrett’s cheeks heated at the thought. Arunani, above him, dark hair falling in sheets around her face. Pale skin, soft underneath the plates of her armor. Long, lithe fingers, playing, dancing across his skin. He shivered involuntarily.
“But what do I know about women?” Berûk cackled. “And the ranger especially — nothing but aggravation if you ask me. The druid might know something, though. Let’s ask him!”
The dwarf snapped at his reins, and with a whinny, the horse surged forward. “No, it’s really okay, I…” he sighed. Berûk was already in motion.
A ways up the column, Orryn sat cross-legged in a cart pulled by their remaining oxen. His muscled half-orc form much too large for a standard horse, he elected to ride in the cart rather than slow the caravan down on foot. As the two riders approached, Garrett noted the druid’s posture. He was bent down, scribbling on a bit of parchment held carefully in his hulking wooden hands. Simulacra, granted to replace his own hands after their unfortunate removal. A gift from his vaunted Dark Lady, Orryn claimed, but it didn’t seem a very good one to Garrett. He could never charm a lock or a deck of cards with those stiff, clumsy fingers. However, he reasoned, that was not the druid’s chosen path.
“Orryn!” Berûk bellowed as their horses approached the cart.
Startled at the sudden noise, the druid’s head jerked up. The thin stick of charcoal he was writing with splintered in his hands, coating the parchment in a fine layer of black dust. Garrett peered over at it, curious. Looked to be a recipe of some sort.
“Druid, you’re wise in the way of women, right?” Berûk inquired, grinning. “Well no, I — ”
“There’s no reason to be modest, my friend!”
“Really, Berûk, I — ”
“Tell us your secrets, wise one!”
“Come now, you’re simply — ”
“Lay bare your mysteries, O Oracle — so that we may lay bare their… bosoms… and other parts,” Berûk made a grand gesture, but trailed off lamely.
Orryn gave him a bemused look. “Now, I don’t know anything about… bosoms, per say. But you’ve made it painfully apparent that neither do you. Berûk, you’re welcome to go to Loreley for information on the art of seduction, if that’s what you want.”
“Good luck,” Garrett said snidely.
Berûk threw a half-hearted punch at the thief, but Garrett dodged nimbly back.
Orryn uncurled his massive form, stretching his arms out as a barrier between the two.
“Hey now — there’s no need for any of that! Berûk,” he cast a warning glare at the dwarf, who grumbled under his breath, but subsided.
Satisfied, Orryn slouched back into the wagon, but soon turned his gaze back to Garrett.
“But somehow, I don’t believe that’s the reason you rode up here. I think you have a real question. You’re here about the ranger, aren’t you?”
Garrett’s mouth was suddenly very dry. “How… how can you — ”
Berûk let loose a hearty guffaw.
“Give me a little credit, Garrett.” The half-orc smiled wryly. “If this numbskull can read the tension, I can too. I see more than you think. The two of you barely speak, can scarcely sit at the same fire, even when the Order gathers for a meal.”
“Two wary cats! Like I said!” Berûk crowed.
Orryn raised an eyebrow. “That’s… oddly insightful coming from you, Berûk.” Garrett shook his head. “Gods, is it really so obvious?”
“Bollocks.” He looked up again to the head of the column, where Arunani rode, bow slung loosely over the horn of her saddle. “What now, then? How do I show her that I still — ” the words caught in his throat. “That I still care about her? That the aging doesn’t change the way I feel.”
“Well, I stand by my earlier suggestion.” Berûk said, digging an apple from his pack and crunching into it. “Get physical. Words didn’t make this problem, words en’t gonna solve it.”
“There is… some truth in that,” Orryn said slowly. “But not in the way that you think. Garrett,” the half-orc’s gaze was piercing, “she’s vulnerable. You have to understand that. Hurt her now, and she’ll never forgive you.”
Garrett swallowed. The lump in his throat was painful.
“Her? Vulnerable? Hah! I don’t believe that for a second,” Berûk guffawed. “She’s too stubborn for that. Ice queen. And tacky.”
Orryn turned to face the dwarf, his brow furrowed in irritation. “You’re not very bright, are you?”
“I’m plenty, bright, ‘Death’s Touch’! Leastaways, I don’t accidentally poison my friends, yeah?”
Orryn’s skin flushed to a dark grey.
“It was only one time,” he said, exasperated. “You’ll never let me live that down, will you?”
“Not a chance.”
The three companions proceeded, following the long road back to Raven’s Roost. But Garrett’s thoughts were heavy with the thought of Arunani. How to approach her? They’d danced around each other for too long. It was time. If this adventure continued the way it had, he might never get another chance.
As the band gathered around the fire for the night, Garrett kept a watchful eye on Arunani. She was hard to pin down on nights like this. With the Order growing ever- larger, and the constant stream of civilians and refugees that accompanied their caravan, mealtimes had become a hectic, spirited affair. Orryn’s cooking had come a long way, but with so many mouths to feed, he’d been forced to take on several assistants.
As Garrett watched from his perch atop one of the wagons, the druid beckoned Arunani over, exchanged several words, then gestured over in his direction. She did a double- take, then shook her head vigorously. She gestured frantically as she argued with the druid, but after several moments appeared to relent.
Garrett watched as she approached, studiously avoiding eye contact.
“Come on. Orryn says the food stores are running low. He needs a brace of rabbits for the stew. You can work a sling, right?” Her words were clipped, her demeanor aloof.
Garrett shook his head. “Never learned. Not really a city thing.”
She studied him for a long moment, her expression incredulous. Garrett felt himself shrink back at her gaze. How was he supposed to reach out? To make his feelings known with her so… sharp.
“Fine,” she said abruptly. “I’ve got a few in my pack. Start collecting stones. About this big,” she gestured, forming a circle about the size of a large walnut, “and smooth. As smooth as you can find. Check the ravine on the east side of camp. There’s a gravel pit there that should suffice.”
Garrett made his way there without question, stealing glances over his shoulder as he walked. The gravel pit, as it were, appeared to be the site of a mostly dry riverbed. There was a small creek, trickling through the bottom. He knelt and began to search. Though the river stones were smooth, shaped over time, few were the right shape — too large, too small, some too flat or oblong.
After a minute or two, the ranger joined him in his search, her lithe hands working quickly, casting aside any stones she deemed unsuitable. The only sound was the cracking of rock against rock.
“Aru?” She froze.
“Excuse my ignorance, but — why are we bothering with a sling when you could simply… shoot game with your bow?”
He watched carefully as he spoke. The tension drained out of her shoulders ever-so- slightly. As she answered, she continued searching, dropping usable stones into a small burlap sack.
“Two reasons. One, to conserve ammunition. If I’m firing at a target as small and as fast as a rabbit, I’m bound to miss a few shots. In rocky terrain like this,” she held up a chunk of stone for emphasis, “those arrows will splinter when they hit a rock face. I prefer to not waste ammunition, especially when we’re out, away from the city.”
She continued on, as though she hadn’t heard him. “Second — with an animal as small as a rabbit, an arrow, especially a broadhead like this,” she pulled one from the quiver, displaying the heavy, steel-forged tip, “pulling the head out leaves a fairly sizable wound. Can ruin the meat, if you’re not careful. Cleaner to kill with a blunt impact.”
After her explanation, she lapsed again into silence. It was easy to get her to speak, but impossible to get her to talk.
After several more minutes of searching, she rose to her feet suddenly. “Okay. That should be plenty.”
Garrett looked up at her. She steadfastly refused to meet his eyes. Sighing, he straightened and approached her, bag held out in entreaty.
“Should I… do you… want these?” he asked dumbly. She took the bag silently. As she did, her hand brushed his, sending a ripple of anxiety through his body. To have her standing so close, and yet…
“Do they look… you know…?”
She peered in the bag, then pulled one free, testing its heft. A strand of chocolate-brown hair slipped from her cowl, falling down around her face.
“These should work fine. Thank you, Garrett.”
He wanted so badly to reach out, touch it, tuck it behind her ear. To linger there, rest his hand along the perfect curve of her neck.
He reached out tentatively.
Arunani retreated swiftly, lurching backwards out of his reach.
“Aru, I — ”
“I can’t.” He saw that she was shaking. “Garrett, I — I can’t have this conversation. Not right now. Not… not like this.”
She continued backing away. One step, then two. She met his eyes for the first time in days. They were filled with terror, pure and unrestrained.
Arunani, wait, I — ” he took a step forward.
With one desperate, panic-stricken glance, she turned and fled, scrambling up the rocky embankment with a speed he knew he couldn’t match. In a moment, she was gone.
“Wait,” he said sadly.
The clouds parted, and the moon shone down on him, alone.
Sighing, Garrett let the pack drop from his shoulder, massaging the ever-present ache where the strap had ground its way into his shoulder, day after day.
At long last, they’d arrived back in Raven’s Roost. The final week on the road had been grueling. Their slog through the swamp was replaced by a nerve-wracking ascent through the mountain passes, then again with the unstable gravel of the foothills. A day or two out from the city, those at last gave way to flat grassland. The constant travel had taken its toll on him — fear, danger, and paranoia, not to mention the physical exertion.
Arunani’s silence hadn’t helped. After his disastrous attempt at conversation, she had withdrawn — significantly. She spent the majority of the journey scouting ahead of the caravan, sending Caesura back with her findings. She returned only occasionally to resupply, and when she did, she gave him a wide berth.
As he kicked his boots off, rubbing his sore feet, he was interrupted by a knock at his open doorframe.
“Something I can do for you, Mack?”
The illusionist had taken steps toward cleaning himself up — washed the dirt from his face, replaced his road-worn robe with a newer, cleaner one.
“Garrett! Berûk, Loreley, Freydis and I are planning to hit the town. No brothels here, shame, but I suppose it can’t hurt to drink myself stupid and find some serving-girl or kitchen-boy with a self-respect low enough to take a tumble with yours truly, eh?”
“After the month we’ve had, I reckon you deserve a little fun.” “You care to join us?”
Garrett was silent for a moment, considering the offer. A night out with his friends, a chance to drink, share in the celebration that they were alive — still alive after all the things they’d seen and done. Tempting.
Mack’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “No. Can’t seem to find her, actually.”
“I’ll pass on this one, Mack. I’ve got some things to take care of. Next time, though.”
Mack stared, suspicious. “Well,” he said, straightening his robes. “Your loss! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t!”
“You do realize that leaves me room to do just about anything I’d like, right?” He asked drolly.
But when he looked up, the illusionist was already gone. —
Garrett paced the halls of the empty headquarters. Mack had been right — Aru was nowhere to be found. He had thought it might be different — easier, when they were off the road. Easier to make things right.
All the same, he couldn’t do anything if she wasn’t here. He was getting anxious, cooped up all alone in this empty house. He snatched his coat, stomped back into his boots. What was the harm in going out, just for a bit?
A few streets down, he found a baker’s still open despite the late hour. That was something he always missed immensely on the road. Weeks of hard tack and iron ration was enough to drive a man to the brink. A few silver got him a fresh loaf, wrapped in brown wax paper. He lifted the package to his nostrils, feeling the welcome heat of the bread against his face. A handful of copper bought him a bottle of mulled wine at a nearby tavern.
It was a meager offering, but who wouldn’t be charmed by fresh bread and mulled wine after the arduous travel and close brushes with death?
How, then, to approach the ranger? He felt that Orryn’s advice had merit — Arunani was certainly vulnerable, that much was obvious. But how to broach the subject without making her feel threatened? She spooked easily, when it came to matters of the heart.
He supposed that was something that came of being hurt.
Dodging a spray of mud from a passing carriage, he turn onto the avenue where the Order had made its base of operations. A multi-storied building, it loomed above the other houses on the street, a large banner above the front door.
He circled around the side, climbing stairs two at a time. He needed time — time to think, time to prepare. What to say, how to say it. Shifting his packages carefully into one hand, he unlatched the kitchen door and stepped inside.
He froze. Arunani stood, silhouetted against the glow of the wood-burning stove. She was clad in a plain linen tunic, and her hair was wet. She was beautiful, and he had no time at all to think.
The kitchen door closed with a dull thud behind him. She whirled, startled by the noise. “Oh. Garrett. It’s you.” Her shoulders slumped. Relief? Or resignation?
So, he did the only thing he could think of.
“Bread?” He held the packages out apologetically.
As he stepped forward into the firelight, he noticed something peculiar. Her hair was… different. The few times he’d seen it since the expedition to the tower, it had been streaked through with gray. It seemed to have returned to its natural color. Or at least… close to it. It was difficult to tell in the low light.
“I thought you had gone — with the rest?” She asked hesitantly.
“No, I didn’t feel like celebrating. Not tonight, anyway.” He laughed. “Besides, I’m dead tired.”
“That I can agree with. How they have the energy for drinking and carousing is beyond my ken.”
“Same to me. So,” he said, setting the packages down on the table between them. “Would you care for some bread? Freshly baked.”
She stepped forward, her posture wary. With one hand, she fingered at the collar of her tunic — searching for the cowl of a cloak that wasn’t there, perhaps? Nonetheless, she stepped forward, peering down into the wrapping paper.
She seemed… careful to keep the table between them. Disheartening, but progress all the same. He ripped off a hunk of bread and held it out to her. She accepted it, took a tentative bite, then a much larger one. He smiled. Perfect.
Over the next few minutes, they fell upon the bread wordlessly, devouring the entire loaf.
As he discarded the wrapping paper, she emitted several unintelligible words, incomprehensible through a full mouth.
She covered her mouth daintily, then swallowed. “I said ‘that’s good bread.’”
“I know, right? I always find it’s the thing I crave the most, out there on the road. Back at my guild hall in the Capital, we were just downwind of a bakery. The smell always drove me crazy. I used to go there, first thing after every job, buy a whole basket so the whole crew could have some. We used to…”
He trailed off, uncertain. He didn’t usually talk about his time in the Roofsiders, or the unfortunate way they’d met their end. When he looked up, she wore a curious smile.
“Anyway, Aru, the reason I stayed back… to tell you the whole truth… I was thinking we needed to talk.”
The change in her demeanor was immediate. The smile melted from her face, and she took a step backward away from the table.
“Talk? What about?”
He sighed. “Look, Aru, the same conversation I’ve been trying to have since the Order came back from that tower. Every time I try to bring it up, you run away from me.”
“Fine, then. Let’s talk. Say your piece, Garrett.” Her voice was subdued. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
He took a deep breath. “Things are… different, now. You’re different. But that doesn’t mean that this — whatever it is that we have — it doesn’t mean that — ”
“Different… like bad?”
“No, not bad. Just different. That thing in the tower, it aged you. I… I can see that. You dyed your hair. But are we really just going to move on, pretend that nothing has changed?”
“So… what? You… you think I’m hideous?” She asked timidly. “Aru, that’s not what I said.”
“If that’s the way it is, then… then…” Her eyes darted back and forth, like a frightened animal searching for some avenue of escape. “Look, I… I need to go.”
“Aru, I still — ”
She muttered something in elvish, too quick for him to make out, and made a sweeping gesture with her hand. A thick mist exploded out, filling the chamber, obscuring his vision.
The only response was the slamming of the kitchen door and the hissing of the stove, mostly quenched by the sudden fog.
By the time the spell dissipated, there was naught but an empty kitchen and a cold hearth.
He pushed the door open, stepped out into the street. No sign of Arunani. Even in the city, his home turf, he had little chance of tracking her.
Her swore and kicked a clod of mud, which splattered into a nearby wall. How the hell was he going to find her now? If she didn’t want to be found, she wouldn’t be.
Unless he didn’t need to search at all.
He took a long pull from the bottle, legs dangling over the edge of the headquarters’ roof. The mulled wine burned a pleasant path down to his stomach. It was cold this time of year in Raven’s Roost, but he’d drunk enough of the spiced beverage to feel the chill only dully.
It took remarkably poor judgement, he thought, to drink alone on the roof in the middle of a cold winter night. But given the circumstances, he felt he was due a little irresponsibility.
After Arunani’s flight, he had a brilliant idea. Or at least it had seemed brilliant at the time. Before he had known how damned cold it was during the night.
Tracking her would have been an exercise in futility, one he did not relish. Luckily, he had no need to — he already knew her destination.
Home. The headquarters of their little band. After all, where else would she go? They had no one else but each other, not anymore.
He knew she used her room’s window to come and go surreptitiously — a practice he’d engaged in more than once. So that meant the only thing to do was wait.
So he sat. He drank. And he thought. About what he needed to say.
It was hours from dawn when he finally saw her, creeping around the corner a few blocks away. She glanced from side to side, padded down the street. But she didn’t look up. Few people ever did. He hoisted himself up, concealed himself in a patch of shadows near the chimney.
Moments later, Arunani crested the roof, using the same drainpipe he’d climbed hours before. She slunk to the window, unaware of his presence.
She pulled at the latch. The window did not open.
She pulled again, but the pane didn’t budge.
He cleared his throat. She visibly started.
“I couldn’t help but notice — you left your window unlocked. So I took the liberty of,” he waggled his lockpicks, “securing it.”
Her shoulders sunk. She turned to face him, and he saw that she wore a pained expression. “What are you doing up here, Garrett?”
“Why, I’m waiting for you, of course.” He smiled gormlessly. “You left so suddenly, after all.”
“Did you consider that maybe I left for a reason? That maybe I didn’t want to have this conversation?”
“Why?! Why do you always run away from me?” He realized, perhaps belatedly, that the wine may have kept him warm, but it had done little to help his temper.
“Why do you always have to follow me?” She snapped back, turning to leave again. “Fine, then! Run away, if you must, if that makes you feel better!” The words came
ripping out of him. “But I’ll never stop following you, not until it kills me. Even then!
I’ve died twice, and didn’t seem to stick. I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth, until you give me a reason not to. Because I’m in love with you.”
There. He’d finally said it.
She whirled to face him, fury in her eyes. “Don’t patronize me, Garrett. I’m not someone to be coddled! Maybe you felt that way before the Broken Tower, but…” she turned away, and he could see the tears coming. “Look at me! I’m hideous! I’m old and ugly, and you could never love me like this!”
“What, don’t I get a say?” He asked, incredulous.
She crossed her arms and said nothing.
“Arunani, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
She shot him a hurt look. “Don’t try to stroke my ego, Garrett. Maybe that was true when we met, but not anymore.”
He took a step forward. “You were. You are. You always will be — of that I have no doubt.”
There was a slight quivering in her upper lip. “Why — why do you have to keep saying that? I know it can’t be true.”
He took another step forward, and she flinched. “Why won’t you believe me?” “Because I… you… you wouldn’t understand.”
“Fine.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I… need to show you something.”
Hands shaking, he pulled at the knotting of his neckcloth. His fingers were too numb. Fine. He shed his coat first, letting the garment fall around his feet. Spread out as it was, it resembled some limp, dead thing. Like the skin of a some monstrous snake. The gloves came next, then the bracers. As he rooted around under his shoulder for the clasp on his breastplate, Arunani turned her face away.
“Look, Garrett, you know I’m not exactly shy about this sort of thing, but this is not the time, nor the place to show off your naked body.”
He shook his head. “Look Aru, you don’t… you don’t understand, not yet. Just… be patient with me. Please?”
That would have to be enough. He found the clasp at last, pulled the buckle free. He shed the oyster-shell of the armor, letting it clatter to the roof-tiles below.
He paused, thumbing briefly at the top button. Enough waiting.
His fingers finally found purchase in the knot of the neckcloth. After a few tugs, it came free. First one button, then another.
For a moment he simply stood, shirt hanging unbuttoned. Then he pulled the tails from his belt, cast it aside as he had everything else, revealing his scar.
An angry, gnarled thing, it was a wound that defied imagination. A full hand across, its epicenter lay halfway up his ribs on his left side. Long healed, the scar tissue resembled a whirlpool, swirling in to a central point a half-inch deep. It was streaked with black and red, remnants of the creature’s paralytic venom, excreted from a maw with grinding teeth. The creature’s tentacles had left their mark as well — long, spiraling grooves, carved into muscle. It climbed up his chest, arm, and shoulder, even the lower half of his neck, all streaked with the same red and black.
There was a gasp, and Arunani took a step back.
“Gods — what happened to you, Garrett? What did this to you?”
“Truthfully, I… I don’t remember it all that clearly.” He rubbed absently at the scar. “I’ve told you before, about the labyrinth. An eldritch maze — I was lost there for a time, I don’t know how long. Weeks, maybe. I was delirious when I finally made it out — starved, raving. It was something in that place — it captured me, paralyzed me. With some sort of venom — like a jellyfish. Dragged me in with its tentacles, and began to chew. And all I could do was lay there… for days. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t even scream.” As he spoke, he closed his eyes, raised his face to the sky. Felt the cold air on his face.
When he opened them again, Arunani was studying him intently.
“So? How’d you get free? Some daring, creative plan? Just like always?”
He shook his head. “Not this time. It’s all a bit of a blur, really. Either some generous god took pity on me, or something nastier came along and ate the thing that was… feeding on me.”
Arunani took a step closer, giving the scar a closer inspection. She met his eyes again, and they were filled with sorrow.
“I’m sorry, Garrett. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
He shrugged and smiled wryly. “We all have our trials. It used to bother me. But I’ve… come to terms with it. I keep it hidden because it draws attention, but I’m not ashamed of it. Not the way I used to be.
She furrowed her brow, withdrawing. “Come now, I see what you’re trying to do. This is hardly the same!”
“It is! Maybe not exactly, but it is the same. The kind of life we lead, Aru — it leaves its mark. We all have our scars. Maybe it’s easy for me to cover mine up, but I can never erase them. And for that matter… nor would I want to. It’s just… a part of me, now.”
She said nothing, but her eyes were on his, staring keenly. She chewed her lip.
“Look, Arunani,” he said, taking a careful step forward. She didn’t back away. “I trust you more than I trust anyone else. And I know…” he trailed off, uncertain. “What I’m trying to say is — if you can love me, with this,” he reached down to grab her hand, placed it gently on his scar. “Can you trust me to love you? Young, old, beautiful, hideous — I’ll love you all the same. Trust me?”
She smiled, and he could see tears welling up again. “How could I not trust you, Garrett? You’re my whole world.”
She stepped into him, tracing the scar up, across his chest, up to his neck.
“I guess… I guess I was just afraid. That if I let you see me, too close, too soon — that you’d leave me, and…”
“Never,” he croaked.
“I thought that if kept running, I’d never have to hear you break my heart.” She drew back, looked into his eyes. Her expression was serious.
“I’ve… I’ve loved before, Garrett. It didn’t end well. Within my people, the honor of the clan comes before everything. He was forced to try to slay me, for his honor — for their honor. Caesura clawed his eyes out, and I left the Gwaelom forever.”
“I’d choose you over my honor, every time.”
“Shush. I’m not done. I didn’t love again, not until you. Until that gods-damned, fearless smile. The one you gave me before killing that dragon — and yourself. And then you were gone. Love has always felt like a curse to me, Garrett. We’re so frail.”
“It seems to me that we have a chance, Arunani. Let’s not squander it.” She rested a hand against his heart.
“Garrett, you’re shivering.”
And so he was. Whether it was the cold, or anticipation, he couldn’t tell. She stepped close, took him by the hand. She was there, so close — he could feel her breath on his face.
“You can’t stay out here, you’ll catch a cold. Unfortunately,” she gazed meaningfully back towards her own window, “it seems my room is locked. Come on,” she turned, pulled him towards the window of his room. “We need to warm you up.”
She popped the latch open, gestured for him to enter. He did, and she followed silently.
It was dark inside, bereft of moonlight. There was a slight click as she closed the window behind her, then silence.
“Arunani, I — ”
He heard one step, two, then her lips were on his.