Sliver of Light-Chapter 3

Chapter 3 ~ Fliss

Damp green needled branches swayed in an eager breeze, unaffected by the morning memory of winter chill. The hilltop ascended a days walk to its peak from the shore, where the white waves teased daring sealovers. Crag and snarl broke through the mist in irregular groups. It was said that any seafarer with their life and boat intact after traversing the gnashing rocks had the blessings of Nirana herself. Recollection joyous and bitter broke upon the shore of his heart, tamed by the chance of hope.

Amustere’s reflection upon the journey through Garon’s Teeth was necessary, though unnerving, he reasoned as he arranged sheaves of hay into a pile. He jammed his fork into the ground and leaned upon it, brow furrowed. One did not disregard the past out of discomfort or loss, but why had he not reflected so during the winter? Time had not prompted such nostalgia, tending to the wintertime needs of his new cabin and the upkeep of his own living. Oh… sure enough, the food stores had kept, but his burning fuel had not.

He had tracked four months of out door to cut what wood was not petrified by the merciless snow. Which, he sighed, had fallen on nearly every day for the entire season. He was glad to see it melted and gone, and he enjoyed the thought of fresh market vegetables from Traviel. Rickers, the sassiest of his cows, had grown bored of hay. So spoke his brown eyed glower.

“No fresh veg, just water, mead and a few jugs of juice. Frozen, of course,” Amustere told him. Rickers glared as though the long winter and uninteresting feed were his fault. A moment of repose communicated a unkind notion from the red coated beasts’ mannerism. He stuffed the hay into the irritable cow’s feeding trap and remarked, “Be glad you’re not eating stock, you snarky, gorgeous hunk of fur. Someone, not me, would dine well on your hin — ”

The distinct sensation of separation brought his temper to a standstill. He dropped the next handful of hay absently and focused his attention on the composition of the energy he had felt. Something had broken through… no, not broken, but prodded and accessed the encoded circle that had laid undisturbed for the lifetime of a Briskwillow sapling. The intruder was unharmed, and Amustere could count on one hand the individuals who might perform such a feat with the correct authority, and so set off toward his cabin in a rushed jog. He did not know this one.

He was so rushed that he nearly neglected his waystone. He took no weapons, just his shoulder bag, wits and a few medicinal herbs. He snatched up a wide brimmed sun hat and tipped it down over his eyes, then left the cabin. It was then that the first of several sealing barriers crumbled. The visitor knew what they were about, but what did they hope to achieve? He set off diagonally through the low lying fields where no path had been made.

This individual is either talented or hurried. Perhaps both, he thought, eyes on the lazuline sky. Arcing lines of energy linked to the barriers wavered, dimmed and resurged. Flintwell forest had for many years proved an excellent enclosure by virtue of its large tree canopy and scattering of underground mineral deposits. He thought, the latticed weave of natural energies also had its uses, but for how much longer now?

Amustere exited Breezeglory field and Traviel territory, exclusively. Flintwell’s neck achingly tall canopy yawned over his head and diffused the splash of midday sunlight into a pool of azure shade. He felt another tug, this one a jolt, impatient and uncertain. A thunderous report sounded ahead, followed by an echoing rumble. The few birds not frightened by the cacophony resumed their song. All was not well, as a warning wafted from branch to leaf. Amustere was not about to relax, but even so was startled by the breakage of the last seal. It was accompanied by an unmistakable explosion characterized by large sections of worked stone that took wing in every direction. Behind him he could see but not hear the splash of a chunk of stone into the chopped, spring-bright waves of the ocean. Amustere hunkered down and ran.

Flintwell’s labyrinth of thorn bushes discouraged all but the most determined of travellers, but where were the thorns? Retreated? Amustere surmised that they had been diverted, or even poisoned by some means. Not a week ago the way was impassable thanks to the lancing vine-spikes against which hardened leather was barely proof. The path forward was also straightened, as though the trees had rearranged themselves. They had, but by whose skill?

It does not matter now, and may not ever, Amustere thought, thinking of Verity’s stern regard of situations practical. The intruder has not flown through the sky, so they must be near, he reasoned. Yet the presence was weak, something he did not expect.

It was in the third clearing that he saw them, a young woman prostrated over a boulder pushed up to his knee out of the earth. Also, a calf-high dog, slender of body but long of coat: White splotched with caramel and chocolate tones between the shoulder blades, atop each ear and aside the haunch. The little one’s silk fine hair formed a dress at haunch and feathers along perked, triangular ears. Dark, intelligent eyes tracked him as he approached. There was no bark, but a sample of his scent on the air. This was considered and then accepted as Amustere made his way toward the girl.

“I see by her breathing she’s not dead,” he remarked. He observed the young woman and said, “But she’s not protesting, either, is she? It worries me more when they’re quiet.”

The young woman was healthy, of complexion and figure, though the thick white fabric of her ankle length dress obscured much of her body. Her hair was silver, exceedingly long and a tangled mess of twigs and leaves which had been loosed in the unsealing. Amustere noticed a trace of blood in in her upturned palm and alarm gripped him. He wiped away the crimson swatch and found the cut to be sealed, entirely seamless. He sighed, harried, and stood as she groaned.

“Excuse me, are you alright?”

Her head rocked, and her eyelids parted to expose silver pupils, metallic and scintillating with multi-hued reflections of light. However, she laid eyes upon him and did not register any reaction. Gingerly he knelt, gripped the back of her head and laid a diagnostic hand upon her neck. She had bruises all over, but of gravest concern was the jostle her head had received. He said, “Goodness, child, you’ve sustained quite a blow. No blood, either, I’ve a wonder about that…”

“Ahye… I… ahm…” she muttered and squirmed.

“Would y’ hold still? Please? Now… that’s… hold still, stubborn girl!”

“I shoula… whu?” The little dog climbed onto her chest and began to lick her neck. She gasped and coughed in another attempted to speak.

“She’s in no state for your concern, leave her be,” Amustere ordered, and the little one jumped down and curled up beside the rock with an eye and ear oriented upon him. He observed, “Curious condition you’re in, prostrated on sacred grounds shaking like a frightened bird.”

“Hnn… whu?”

Amustere’s heart was assaulted by the painful nostalgia of the young woman’s vulnerability. The inside of her palm had darkened to a cobalt blue, and that concerned him. He studied the discolouration. “This is no type of bruising I’ve ever seen. Is there nothing you can tell me about it?” Except that it was not there a moment ago…

She clenched her hand spasmodically, a single glance sending a ripple of panic through her mind. She tried to cry out but no sound left her throat. Amustere grabbed her shoulders and made reassuring noises.

“Now, now, hold still… please, hush,” he said, “and breathe.” The little dog was up and alert to her frantic manner. Panic flailed in the girl’s eyes and he fixed his gaze and repeated, “Breathe. Inhale, that’s right. Now again. Inhale… exhale… inhale, yes, you’ve got it. Tell me how you feel. Come on, anything.”

She tried to answer him and found that she could not, so she shook her head. Instantly the pain redoubled, joined by a spire of agony in her hand. Her hand clenched sharply and Amustere passed his over it, easing the body’s reaction enough that she could relax it.

“Better?”

Her ragged breathing deepened and slowed. She mouthed, ‘Yes.’

“Good. I’m Amustere Goldfinch. I live a stone’s throw from Traviel. I mind these lands and tend a few cows for the Afterwillow family. Won’t you do me a kindness and give me your name?” She opened her mouth and gasped in fear. Amustere smiled and presented a broad, flat leaf to her lips. “Strange as it is, I see that your tongue is bound. You must chew this long as you can bear to. It’ll ease the pain an’ loose the bond.”

She opened her mouth to follow his instruction, face screwed up in discomfort.

“Clear your mind. I say, clear your mind. If you’re not calm I’ll not know where to start disentangling the weave. Do you understand?”

She nodded, but was fitful and impatient.

Shards you’re stubborn. Stay still and don’t… now, don’t swallow that. Spit it out. Oh, you need a hand. Just spit into mine.” He wiped his hand on a cloth which he folded and tucked into his jacket pocket.

She blushed and said, “Thank you.”

Amustere smiled a hint, but it was as though the sun had broken through the forest canopy. She looked up at the forest roof as if to be sure it had not. He said, “Hasty, aren’t you? I’ve not done anything and you’re burbling thanks of all kinds. No, don’t fuss about that. You are very welcome. Now, won’t you tell me your name?”

She let out a gasp of pain as he gently raised her hand and examined it again. “Agh,” she sucked air, “Fliss Me — ”

Amustere laid a finger upon her lips, and when he was sure she understood, removed it. He said, “ ‘Starwise’ will do. A pleasure to meet you.”

“You… can see my mark?”

Aye child, I can see your mark. And so help me if you breathe a word of it to anyone in this kingdom it will be your silver thread, not mine.”

The little one bustled about the routine of checking for threats, then curled up in Fliss’ lap and stared up at her tense face. Amustere was absorbed in thought, she observed, though the pain did seem to subside, just as he promised it would. Experimentally she caressed the little one’s neck and chin.

“And her name?”

“Trinket.”

He regarded Trinket with a canny look and then asked, “If you’re talking quick as this then you’re no doubt feeling less pain. Are you now?”

“Much less now. Thank you, I… wonder, will you tell me — ”

“Nothing just now. This is no place to converse. Take my hand. Come on. I’ll help you to stand, if you think you can. Can you?” Amustere offered a hand and she did take it, but wobbled on her feet and would have fallen had he not caught her. He chided, “You’ve utterly no patience. Lie back.”

“I’ve no patience? You asked me — ”

“Oh, do hush now. You must save your energy.”

Irritated, she obeyed and he fished a crystal flask from the bag at his side. Its top popped with a pleasing sound and aroma. Fliss’ mouth watered and clumsily she wiped her lips. He commanded, “Drink this.”

As she did he continued to chide her. “Had I a mirror you’d get a sight of the great rap on your skull. Why you didn’t split your head open is a mystery to me.”

“Don’t,” Fliss said.

“I’ve no care to, but your life is beyond care. It’s sacred. And now you’ve no word for me now your tongue is loosed? Grace of the eternal-bright you may have, but sensibility it seems you’ve none.”

Fliss gasped indelicately and jammed the stopper into the flask to punctuate her ire. In spite of her discomfort, she gave a strained laugh. “Try my patience, won’t you! But… ah. Nothing’s gone right since I landed here. Can’t think. I shouldn’t… shards. I can’t talk.”

“You’ve not lost any hearing, I checked, but you’ve bruised your head on the inside. I can see the knots of energy… it’s called a concussion. Sleep now and the top of the Pillars might be the next thing you see.”

“R-really?” Fliss wanted to ask her own questions, but talking was difficult and so was staying conscious.

“Aye. I’ll stand all the ire you can muster if you will just stay awake. Now, Traviel is close, but my cabin’s closer’n I’ll get you help there. What do you say?”

Fliss studied him, then exhaled and relented her mistrust. “I think I’ve nothing — but, oh shards. Thank you.”

With his aid they began to make way to the agreed destination. According to Fliss she was sent by her uncle to study ancient Starwise meeting sites. She explained that he was a scholar of the subject and that she was apprenticing under him. Amustere believed part of it, but did not comment, even when asked. As they travelled, he concealed their presence from a foreboding darkness in earnest about the decimated temple.

“Amus — are you listening?”

He wasn’t, but at the sound of his name, he asked automatically, “Do you need a rest?”

She confessed that she did, even though they had not made very good distance. Amustere knew the area well and chose a spot close enough to a stream that allowed him to keep an eye on his patient. While she drank from his crystalline canteen again she began to ponder about their circumstances.

He knew about the shrine. So…why did, why didn’t he — oh, she thought, then grimaced as fatigue jumbled her thoughts. This time her eyelids shut and remained closed.

“Oh no, Fliss?” He shook her unresponsive body and quickly made a determination. Lifting her over his shoulders, he gave Trinket an apologetic look and said, “I hope you know to follow on your own. I can’t carry you both.”

Unbeknownst to Fliss and Trinket, Amustere knew the territory around this shrine and pond so well because he frequented the land, clearing the foot-paths for his routines and errands. Flintwell forest was, in fact, under his stewardship in cooperation with several others. One of these, Diver Seasmoke, encountered Amustere as he began to tire.

“Busy, I see,” he stated. Diver stood a head and a half shorter than Amustere who was in turn another half shorter than most everyone else. Yellow skinned with white lines that outlined the length of his frog-like limbs, Diver stood out among his kin as a rare poisonous kind of Alruna. Trinket gave him a cursory sniff, and maintained her distance. Diver, likewise, showed decidedly remote interest in her.

“Me? Not at all,” Amustere panted as sweat dripped into his eyes.

“Then you’ll not mind my — ” started the fellow in a baritone, white doublet and reddish jacket wet but clean. “No, I suppose you won’t.”

“I’d be so blessed to have her return and not shred me to — whoops!” Amustere gasped, balance escaping his mastery for a moment. Nimbly Diver caught and lifted her easily in his arms. Amustere frowned and said, “I had her.”

“Indeed.” Diver blinked in place of a nod and grated, “We’ll get her to safety. Tell me your story as we go.”

“There’s no kindness as that of an Alruna disarmed,” Amustere grunted, rubbing his sore arms.

“No need for manners or other niceties,” Diver countered flatly. “What dams have you brooked lately?”

“Has all time frozen? Was yesterday the passing of the mark?” Amustere gave no hint of reaction, but spoke seriously. “Have a care, Diver, is all I ask. Some patience, perhaps. What know you that I do not?”

“I know you need me.”

“Feh,” Amus huffed. “Then I must be grateful to you.”

“I need no gratitude, but I accept yours for fear of giving offence,” Diver chirped laughter. “You’ve no sense in your head.”

“And you’re a fine one to judge,” Amustere replied.

“A vile accusation, I am the judge of no soul on Canor.” They traversed the even terrain in silence for a time until Diver observed, “I could swear that she is the very image of — ”

“Not another word.”

“At least you noticed, then. Just over this hill, is it?”

Amustere’s abode was modest by any standard; a single room with no separating walls or dividing barriers. The pitched roof consisted of hardwood sheathing and nailed red-orange brightwood shingles skillfully sealed and maintained. White painted walls needed a fresh coat, awash with a pale green along the top and bottom of each side. Fat, smooth leaf vines arced down from thick branches hanging overhead, welcome protection from the sun.

Limestone brick formed an impressive barrier for less agile company. Diver, however, leapt effortlessly over the moss patched half-height wall and darted onto the narrow patio. The weight of Fliss’ unconscious figure seemed a trifle for the young Alruna. While Amustere chased his breath up the moderate incline, Diver pulled open the front door and gentled Fliss onto Amustere’s bed.

He glanced over her with yellow, slitted pupil eyes and ran long fingers over her head. Trinket hopped up on the bed and demonstrated no concern about the newcomer. Diver said, gently, “There is no softness. She will recover.” Trinket sniffed his fingers as he took something from his pocket. “A gift. Will you stay still for me, beauteous one?”

She understood very well and was compliant. An orange-green woven length, like a necklace, tied nicely around her neck, looped by design and Diver’s nimble fingers. Done, Trinket lay down beside Fliss, head between forepaws with chocolate dark eyes on the door. Amustere entered the building and leaned against the wall which served as his kitchen.

Diver remarked diffidently, “She is in no danger right now. Let her rest.”

“I had a mere moment to let you past the breach, and this is your manner?” Amustere panted.

“You heard me?”

“Aye. Something you did,” he asked, a retort, then closed the front door.

Diver shrugged. “Perhaps. Was the seal yours?”

“It was.”

Diver was silent, and though it was his habit, Amustere registered the brooding in his eyes. A rumble rose in his throat as he said, “I had not known it. I have been remiss. What will you do about it now that she knows?”

“How she learned of it I cannot ask. Nor have I any means to advise her.”

Diver blinked, genuinely flabbergasted. “What do you say? How is that possible?”

Amustere shook his head minimally and intoned, “Abbot Pricewine will have your answers, if you will beseech him. My bond is my regret.”

“I see. Very well. I will do that,” he agreed, then said with a concerned tone, “Amus, you have not shown me this despair before. Why do so now?”

“Years without word, and you treading on my bootheels at the very instant of alarm? Did we not fight a war?”

“A war that was lost. Aye. Churlish you may be, but good on your word, as I,” Diver admonished. “Where is your gratitude?”

“Only so headstrong a woman could create ‘such ripples’, as you would say. I’ve not given thought to gratitude, or much else. What curiosity teases my weary mind,” he said as if he was unsure about whether it would, or if it should. Thoughtfully, Amustere brought a full glass of water to Diver, who sipped at it slowly. He pulled a stool to the foot of the bed and sat on it. He noted, “Many apologies, my friend. I will tell you what I can: The taint in her hand is of its kind. The nature of it you will have to divine with your own wits and resources.”

“Its kind? Then it is a seal, but… you suggest more. I will ponder that,” Diver said. A rapid rumble stirred in his throat and faded before he spoke again: “What will you do? Surely you’ve a means of untangling the mess?”

Amustere drummed the thin-backed carved chair with this thick thumbs. “You think far too highly of my talent, watercrest. Were I to try there would be no ocean deep in which we would find adequate shelter.”

Diver stroked Trinket’s muzzle delicately and stated, “That is unfortunate. You impressed me with the repose of a man in command of his station.”

“Did I? That is unfortunate,” he agreed, then frowned and pinched the hem of her dress. “Peculiar! Now it is as though she fell into something and scrambled out. Her bangs turn colour, too.”

Diver rubbed the thick cottony fabric between fingers, but found no residue, “I don’t see spatter from splashing. I know of no cobalt pools.”

“None? You’d not even imagine something of the like? Might you?”

“Why? Well, I might,” Diver mused, but supposed, “probably not.”

“By the Pillars, Diver. Come the fall I’d have been in the Eastern corridor. Fresh fruit and young ladies frolicking in the sun in their fine hand crafted fashions. Ah! Courting the young men and dancing all the night. A dream to behold, and Verity’s birthland, you see.”

“And she paid your skirt chasing no mind?”

“A skirt chased is not the same as one caught,” he replied with false mirth. “But I’d not the heart. One caught was plenty.”

“You are a fine weaver and passable actor. I’ve not seen you sully her memory in the least. You risk your thread for women time and again and for what?” Darkness clouded Amustere’s guarded expression but Diver did not relent. “Your court may lie in ruins, but the nobility within you burns ever bright.”

“Oh it does, does it? As a pyre? Or would you rather a collapsed tower?”

Diver demurred. “My welcome is overstayed, I see. It is time for me to go.”

“On that point we agree, friend.”

Diver stood, stroked Trinket’s neck. “A message waits to be delivered. A butterfly’s wing in motion.”

“Oh? To whom?”

Diver blinked both sets of eyelids for effect, ignorance feigned or sincere, Amustere could not discern which. He shook his head and glanced through the window at the recently dimmed sunlight. “You — however — are a fine actor. Feh. You are running late. Town post closes at sunset.”

Diver bolted down the water and patted his knee. “Better travel fast then. See you before soon, again, Goldfinch.”

“Before too soon. Good hunting, Seasmoke,” he said, attentive to the heavy click of the Alruna’s warboots.

Diver paused at the door and rotated his torso so he could lay eyes on Fliss’ rescuer. “Have some faith in yourself. A way there is, and you will find it.”

“As you say. Stay out of trouble,” he returned flatly. Diver seemed to smile but made no reply. The click of the crude — and cheap — mechanical door prompted Amustere to gather enough firewood and food for two, should Fliss awaken in time for supper.

Berry turnpike, truffle stew and salted potatoes. Amustere thought she might enjoy that, but she did not rouse. So, he set aside a portion of the turnpike and potatoes that would keep well until the morrow. Trinket displayed great interest in the preparation of supper, hawkishly staring at his feet for any sign of droppage. When they ate, she seemed to be sated with a small sample of each, but Amustere supposed she required very little anyway, being rather a small dog.

Nestled in the hollow of Fliss’ shoulder, curled plume tail over black nose, Trinket slept soundly. Amustere hung a hammock between a tree and the corner of his cabin, and slept as the habit had, in the outdoors during the spring. Unexpectedly wearied by his adventure, he passed out before the moon could complete its tale.

@~%~~

In the morning Fliss still did not wake, though her fever had broken. The cobalt tint had spread through her hand to the back and toward the knuckles. There was no waiting for her; Amustere left half a jug of water and a cup for her inevitable thirst. He started his day by feeding the cows, apologetic to each of them. Rickers complained as usual, but he paid it no mind, as he preferred daily rigours to the anxiousness that unsettled his stomach. Did Rainwall know, and what would he do? How likely was it that his weave of Passive Ignorance confounded Rainwalls’ forces, after all?

Amustere tended his garden and exhumed a host of tenacious weeds. Afterwards, he returned to his cabin and noticed that Trinket was making the appearance of repose beside the still sleeping Fliss. It was obvious to Amustere that she was aware of her distress. He looked at Trinket and said, “You and I have not much time to prepare for what comes. Even if I had some notion of the portent — or the scale of it, I doubt the knowledge would prove of much value. Little friend, I advise you to rest while you can.”

The day trudged forward and midday loosed a chill that promised uncomfortable travel and a damp night. It also demanded that he sate his appetite. So he did, and afterwards he let the cows out into the field where the unseasonable winds tore at dead trees along the fence parameter. Amustere determined to do something about it, but felt the rousing of Fliss. When Fliss awoke her mind was veiled by fatigue and unfamiliar surroundings. Through the kitchen window, which was visible easily from the expensive, feather packed mattress, she could tell it was well past noon. Trinket perked at the instant of Fliss’ stirring, fervently and happily sniffing her nose and partially open mouth with a huff. Around her neck was a rope of woven strings, colourful and pleasing to the eye.

“I am sorry to have put you in so much danger, stardrop,” Fliss apologized and stroked Trinket’s head, shoulders and chin. She ran a hand over the back of her head and slipped her fingers between thick strands of hair to feel own scalp. There was a bump near the top, and a healed cut just above her neck. Was it Amos… no, Amustere’s doing? Then her eye was drawn again to the weaving of string that Trinket wore around her neck. She thought, This is a promise band. Where is the Alruna who wove it?

She inhaled as a twinge of pain assaulted her, and noted the coolness of the air. It also smelt of blushroot and alder; the sweet and bitter aromas were powerfully nostalgic, and Fliss was reminded of home. The ache subsided quickly, but left an annoying feeling of disorientation. It too, faded as she reflected on the past.

“Blessed, he is a rogue, but I’ve no mind about it now. We needs must investigate,” she murmured to Trinket with a sour chuckle and shuffled forward to swung her legs over the bedside. Her dress hung from a bedpost and with a start she observed the change in the hem colour. Her bangs also darkened the topmost part of her vision. Fliss donned the dress and walked over to a mirror which stood upon a narrow dresser.

Did you see the Alruna who helped me? she projected and tugged at the darkened tips of her hair.

Yes, but I do not know him. He is kind, I can tell you that, and I trust him, but forget him! I am so happy you’re awake! And alive! Trinket danced in an excited circle and her curled plume tail wafted over her back end. Fliss picked her up and held her with unaffected left hand.

Never mind, then. We’ll watch out for him together, Fliss decided. The cobalt tint certainly was not uncomfortable, even coloured from the back of her hand to palm. Trinket seemed disinterested in the change, Fliss noticed, and ran her fingers over the large silver star woven along the right side. Even the point at the collar had —

“Turned colour? A shade of mystery that is, and a puzzling aspect of our encounter. Good afternoon, Fliss.”

Flustered, Fliss whirled toward Amustere who stood in the doorway. “Good afternoon,” she replied cautiously. “This dress is as good as armour.”

“It is comely for a battle garment.”

“Thank you,” Fliss replied and her lips flattened as she set Trinket down. Guarded, she asked, “Where is the Alruna who gave this to me?”

Amustere dropped a dozen split logs into a wooden bin beside the fireplace and walked to a cupboard. From it he retrieved a covered plate which he placed on the modest table in the center of the room. A fork and knife clattered next to the clean bisque. He said, “Long gone. Here. Lil’ bit of berry turnpike and roasted potatoes for your meal.”

“Thank you. Do you know him?”

Amustere was filling a glass for her of a medicine and fruit mix, which he explained would reduce the numbness in her hand. “I do. He is a pond farmer for the Afterwillow clan. And that is all I will say.”

“If you insist,” she replied, tone metered. “We will meet in time, when it is due.”

Amustere lifted a hand to negate, thought better of the remark and lowered it. At ease, he said, “You had best eat while it’s still cold.”

“Aye, I will.” It was made to be noticed, she thought, and stroked Trinket’s neck and the woven gift around it. She ate sparingly, and asked the questions she had not been able at their first meeting. “What kind of musician seals a shrine with a weave so skilled?”

“It wasn’t a shrine. You going to be asking many more questions? The day waits for no man, and I’ve many chores.”

She nodded. “Nor does curiosity wait. From you or from another it will be met.”

He stood, took up an axe from a hanging post beside the bed, walked halfway to the cabin’s back door, then looked over his shoulder. He said, “Then you had best eat well. Your impatient curiosity may be well met. By me. In the east field. With the cows.”

He departed without another word and Fliss finished her meal in silence. Her satchel and its contents hung on the bedpost, undisturbed. Fliss considered rooting through it, but felt she had no cause to mistrust him. She took a moment to scratch Trinket’s pink belly and white chest, and pondered on recent proceedings. Amustere was foremost among them; he had plenty chance to take advantage of her, but had not dared to remark upon more than her dress.

This was to Fliss’ liking, as the dress was meant to distract from her natural charms with its nigh shapeless form. Her task was difficult enough, but even moreso when Starwise were so rare in Greatshale. The were the rumours of Rainwall’s tyrannical reign fact or fancy? How could the Alruna be so scarce as to be nigh extinct when one had promised his friendship to her? Amustere was enigmatic, but not by nature. She needed to know more.

Fliss cleared her plate and then washed the dishes before she invited Trinket to join her out in the eastern field. The sun blazed over copper patches of dirt when it was not blocked by grey clouds burgeoning with rain. The distinctive echo of woodcutting echoed over ankle high grass. Fliss wound a path through a half-dozen cows to Amustere, able to track the sound handily amongst the loose grouping of animals. Just outside of the fence, he had cut back several dangling branches and decayed deadwood trees.

He seemed to sense her arrival, and demanded between sweeping blows, “So what’s the lady want to know?”

“You’re retired.”

“From my craft, but not from life,” he countered.

“Even so, I’ve no knowledge of your name, and I’ve not heard of your talents. Who are you?”

“In the Halls of Iridian, Cordian the Eternal Keeper of Records wards information from those who would misuse it,” Amustere said. “Does your uncle not care for your safety?”

“He can do so much. You could not prevent this,” she replied and raised her tainted hand.

“That is a broad assumption,” he said. “You are quite unperturbed by the taint.”

“You assume to know me. You do not.”

“My abject apologies. You are right,” said Amustere, undaunted. “I will share with you a little of me: The world keeps many secrets that are not in the Fa-Shae libraries. My eyes did not prepare me for what I would read there. Were yours always so dark?”

A plain answer just once. I would like that, she thought caustically, glancing down at her dress abreeze in the wind. “No, but you know more of it than I.”

“You resort to puns, girl?”

Fliss had no heart for humour, and said as much. “No. Why did you protect that crown?”

“I would ask you why you sought it.”

She squinted at him, then laid a hand on her temple as an ache came and went. “I had to.”

“That is not a satisfying answer, but I believe you are bound as I am,” he said. The winds shoved Fliss’ dress and snaked through Amustere’s thick hair. He was as stocky as he was plain speaking, and persisted in oblique and cryptic language. Amustere shared a look she found difficult to interpret except for the fatigue in his eyes.

“And how am I?” she demanded.

“Pretty. Cobalt’s a nice look. You’ll likely have it all the same in a fortnight.”

She made a high pitched sound, but swiftly reigned in her temper. “My hair?”

“Aye, that, and your skin not long after. I’ve no like in saying it, but I have a sense that this is grave.”

“Do you believe that I could die?” Chunks of bark scattered at her and she raised her uninjured arm to protect her face.

“From that? No my dear, sewn to a star, you’ll not die. The sun would blacken and the moon would ash before your mortality was threatened.”

“Your poetic words are full of deception. What does it mean, this curse in my blood?” Fliss’ shoulders raised, hands clenched.

Amustere set the axe head on the ground and leaned upon the long handle. The sun hovered over the trees and the light of embers arced over treetops. He shook his head, morose, and said, “We ought to travel to Drawsdale for your answer.”

“And your daughter?”

His head lowered. She thought she heard sobs as the wind picked up to whip and tear leaves from the trees he tended. At length, he looked up and said, “Alive, somewhere.”

“Then you are much blessed, Amustere.”

He wiped his eyes, streaming from the cool breeze. Or so he said. Then: “So this is how it works. Are you to tell me what I will not admit, or is your insight greater than mortal intelligence?” Fliss did not answer. Amustere’s jaw set and he growled, “Can you tell me that serving this cause will return her to me?”

“I cannot choose for you, and so it would be fruitless to do more than have hope. What will you do?” Fliss studied Amustere’s eyes when she looked up from Trinket. She narrowed hers and asked him, “Can you turn your eyes to the future that you might forgive the past?”

He turned swiftly and she flinched, or he thought she would, but she was not intimidated by his anger. His cheeks, puffed by emotion, deflated. He spoke softly. “Is it mine to forgive?”

“A fool’s question.”

He spread his arms wide and said, “So begs the fool.”

“Oh,” was the reply, sceptical, or flippant. Perhaps both. Fliss’ lips flattened again. “Then we are both in need of answers.”

“Perhaps that is just.”

“Perhaps.” She took a breath and then asked, “Who can I see in Drawsdale who will tell me what you cannot?”

Amustere lifted the tool and chopped into a rust-barked deadwood tree which collapsed forward with a terrific crash. Then he frowned and said, “The scholar Grindshell might.”

“Then I will leave tomorrow morning,” she said plainly. Trinket yawned, and Fliss beckoned her up. Trinket leapt as high as her thighs and she caught and bundled her in arm.

I don’t want to leave. You need to rest, Trinket told her.

I don’t want to leave yet either, she replied. I need to be certain I can trust this man. He is my only link to the truth, and survival.

Amustere was pensive, and demanded, “Why? You’d make the trip to Traviel before sunset.”

“And to Drawsdale from there?”

“Two, maybe three days, depending how you ride. Fliss, you are a confounding girl.”

Annoyed by the distraction of her tainted right hand, she pulled stray strands of hair away from her face with it. “I owe you a supper.”

“Do you?”

“You’d not have it?”

Amustere focused on the axe head that had jammed in a splintered log unexpectedly, and pretended to be more vexed with it than her. “I’d… suppose,” he grunted, “that you’ll have your,” and heaved, “besharded way.” After three tugs and a good sharp twist, the axe blade was freed. He sighed, “I am a hungry man and will accept with gratitude.”

“Then be clean at the table.”

To Be Continued

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