Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller


Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story.




CHAPTER 2: DREAMS AND DECISIONS

Merlynn watched with mixed emotions as the blackelf fell face first into the dirt of the road without a sound.

Keen kicked her viciously in the ribs for good measure, but the blackelf didn't respond. Keen snorted. "This was your idea, Merlynn. What would you have me do with it? We can't defend ourselves against magic."

Merlynn sighed. "May we rest awhile?" she asked, unable to decide what to do. They were traveling through a fairly dense wood. It was quiet and peaceful save for the roar of the Gray River in the distance as it passed over some rapids. Once they reached the Rift they would be entering wild, dangerous country, and the road would be mostly uphill.

Keen frowned, but did not answer.

"We need to refill our water skins," Merlynn pointed out.

Keen sheathed her sword slowly, deliberately. "Very well. Jewels, come along with me."

Merlynn handed Jewels her water skin. The girl looked dreadfully unhappy, and Merlynn could hardly blame her. The blackelf's use of magic had badly shaken her, too.

Keen nudged the blackelf's limp body with her boot. "It may kill us, Merlynn, long before we reach the tunnels. Is that really what you want?" Without another word she turned and marched off towards the sound of the river, Jewels trailing awkwardly in her wake.

Merlynn watched them go. She'd rarely seen Keen so angry, and never before had that anger been directed at her. She was loath to let a stranger, a blackelf no less, come between their friendship.

She drew her dagger and kneeled beside the body. It would feel nothing. Keen was right. They had no way of protecting themselves from magic.

She pulled its head back by the braid of long black hair and prepared to slit its throat. The dagger flashed in the sunlight.

It could have killed her last night. But it hadn't. It had given her dagger back.

Her hand shook.

Never had she seen such eyes. Silver blue that seemed to see into her heart. Last night they had been filled with intelligence and determination. And despair. Such despair.

A drop of blood welled up on the blackelf's scalp from the gash left by the hilt of Keen's sword. Merlynn wiped it away with a finger. The blood was as red as any human's.

"Mother of Trees," she prayed. She was a healer. If she killed the blackelf now, she would be haunted by those eyes for the rest of her life. "Goddess help me. I can't do it."

Keen would be furious, and rightfully so. By letting the blackelf live, she might be condemning them all to die. It was a terrible risk, but she had been raised to believe that all life was sacred; all life, and who was she to play the Goddess by deciding who should live and who should die?

She said a quick prayer, begging Her protection, then gingerly felt the knot on the blackelf's skull. It was swelling rapidly, but she couldn't feel any fractures or broken bones. She ran her hands along the ribs where Keen had kicked her. Remarkably, these, too, seemed to be unbroken. Considering how small and delicate she appeared to be, the blackelf was astonishingly tough. She would be in pain, but Merlynn was fairly certain she would survive.

She checked the poultice on her back. It was still in place, but the scabs underneath had split open and were bleeding again. Merlynn smeared them with salve and reapplied the poultice. She retied the blackelf's wrists and ankles, wondering anew at her ebony skin and nails. Everything about the blackelf was as black as a starless sky at night. Except her eyes and teeth. Even the dark skinned humans from the outer isles were not so black. It seemed...unnatural.

Probably about as unnatural as white skin seemed to a blackelf, she reminded herself. Nevermind that they had murdered King Rustin. He'd been a cruel tyrant, and many people had hated him. There'd been many humans who would gladly have killed him if they'd had a chance. Just because the blackelves succeeded didn't mean they were all evil, no more so than all humans. Who knew what the king might have done to anger the blackelves on that fateful day?

Thornan the Black, afterall, had been well received by the blackelves, though that had been generations ago. He'd even been given the giant diamond that had been the object of his quest - the same diamond now mounted in the king's royal scepter back in Gideon. The diamond glowed in the hands of the rightful ruler of the land, a sign of the approval of the Gods.

Most bards attributed Thornan's success to the fact that he, too, had black skin, but everyone seemed to overlook the fact that the symbol of rightful human rulership had originally been crafted by blackelves. Of course, according to the legend, Thornan's quest had been given to him by the Gods through the oracle at Dragontooth Island. And where but in the blackelves' kingdom would anyone find such a huge and perfect diamond? While the scepter had not glowed since the Blackmace - Redax War generations ago, the priests and wizards before that time had all confirmed that the diamond's magic was divinely inspired. It was not some blackelf trick.

The blackelves had been generous enough to give Thornan the diamond. Or so the story went. They hadn't killed him. But other humans had tried to reach the blackelf caverns and none of them had ever returned. Thornan was the only one, at least that Merlynn knew of, and Jewels had never read of any others. Common sense told Merlynn that if such an accomplishment wasn't recorded in the books, then it had never happened. People who sought the blackelf kingdom never returned. And blackelves HAD killed King Rustin.

Merlynn flipped the edges of the blanket over the blackelf's back. It had been her own Priestess, Jenir, who arranged that meeting twenty years before. The Goddess had spoken to her, telling her that the time was nearing when humans and blackelves would have to make peace for benefit of both peoples. Continuing hatred, the Goddess said, would lead to the destruction of both.

It was well understood that the Lady's High Priestess would never lie about something so important, so despite his dislike for the idea, King Rustin journeyed with his Wizard, heir, advisors, and army to Westmine to treat with the blackelves. The tale of what happened thereafter was confused at best, but on one thing all agreed: the King was ambushed and murdered, and the rest of the humans were driven out of the mines without mercy. With the help of his wizard, Slanger, Prince Rukert escaped, but only just. On the day he was crowned King, he swore to avenge his father's death.

Rukert was as cold and cruel as his father, and under his rule, the Westmine tunnels had been reclaimed by bloody, bitter battle. Much of the kingdom's resources were devoted to the effort. Gold, silver, and precious metals once again flowed into the royal treasury, and the blackelves were driven back.

Westmine had been Rukert's main focus for many years, but then the oracle at Dragontooth isle delivered another prophesy. No one knew what the exact prophesy was, but it was widely rumored that six of the King's illegitimate children and the blackelf called Wraith were now wanted dead. Merlynn didn't know the names of all the Six, but some of the best assassins and mercenaries in Midlothia had been summoned to Gideon Castle in recent months. Some of the Six apparently belonged to wealthy, powerful, noble households, and as a result, there had been much bloodshed and violence throughout the kingdom. It was even said that King Rukert was mad with fear of a rebellion.

None of the assassins or mercenaries had been foolish enough to want to hunt down the blackelf called Wraith, and thus Keen had been appointed to the job. Merlynn did not expect to leave Westmine alive, but she had not been unhappy to leave Gideon with its upheaval and violence. She wondered if it would settle down again after the Six were killed.

She was wrapping the last bit of rope around the blackelf when Keen and Jewels returned. Keen saw what she was doing and scowled. Without a word she tossed the healer's waterskin into the dirt by her feet and stalked off down the track. Jewels hunched her shoulders miserably and followed with a backwards glance at Merlynn.

Merlynn smiled reassuringly and lifted the blackelf to her shoulder. Luckily the blackelf was as light as she appeared. The healer retrieved her waterskin and started after her companions.

Keen led them forward at a tremendous pace. Merlynn knew that this was her friend's way of punishing her for not killing the blackelf, so she walked without complaining. Jewels was the one who suffered the most from the grueling pace, but Keen, caught in her own anger, did not notice the girl's unspoken distress.

Jewels was an odd one. It was true what the girl said the day before, about how they couldn't know what it was like to be a proper lady. Keen was a warrior and Merlynn a healer. Their lives were very different from those who lived in wealth or were born of noble blood. They had a great deal more freedom, of a sort, than what Jewels had ever had.

And being so thin and clumsy must have been a terrible disadvantage to Jewels. There wasn't a person in the kingdom who hadn't heard the stories and jokes about Duke Blackmace's awkward daughter, Princess Elianna, who was said to trip over her own feet on the dance floor. Of course, Elianna was lucky. She was politically desirable, or so Merlynn supposed. She would find a suitable husband based on the fact that she was the daughter of the king's only brother, Duke Blackmace, the second most powerful man in East Midlothia.

Jewels, however, would probably not be so lucky. No wonder her father found it so easy to threaten her with marriage. Jewels undoubtedly knew the kind of men who would marry the awkward daughter of a lesser noble or wealthy merchant. Greedy men. Men who wanted what little power and dowry they could gain from the alliance. Someone horrible enough, at any rate, that she would rather die in the tunnels at Westmine than spend a life married to him.

**********

As the afternoon progressed they passed through the gentle wooded hills east of the Great Rift. The track was once the main road to West Midlothia before the Blackmace - Redax War, and it followed the Gray River into the mountains to Westmine. Here, the river divided the lands of Duke Redax and Duke Pikeman. The road followed the Pike border until it reached the Great Rift where it entered into wild, unclaimed territory. When the tall oak woods started giving way to ash and birch, and the soft dirt of the road turned to rough uneven gravel, Merlynn knew they were nearing the Rift.

The Rift split Midlothia from the icy northern sea and the eastern border of the Northern Territory all the way to the southern Bay of Black Gulls. It was marked by giant outcroppings of jutting rock, gaping rents in the earth, boiling pools of water, and otherwise inhospitable landscape.

The legends told of an ancient battle between the Gods and the Banished God (who had no name) when the earth shook and split in two. After the Banished God was safely imprisoned beneath Mount Dragonfire, Merlynn's Goddess, Galiae, the Mother of Trees, had healed the land, and the Great Rift marked the seam where the east and west were rejoined by her hand.

According to one story Merlynn heard, the earth still shook in the Rift at times as if in mockery of the ancient battle and the current split between the kingdoms of East and West Midlothia. East and West had been a single kingdom until the great civil war when the Blackmaces overthrew the Redax household and claimed the ruling scepter for their own.

At the end of that war, West Midlothia split from the East, refusing to acknowledge the "false Blackmace crown." In the many years since, communication between the two kingdoms had virtually ceased, and, in an act that Merlynn considered to be the epitome of hypocrisy, the West eventually crowned a king of their own. She shook her head. The scepter glowed for the true king of Midlothia, East and West. The Gods could not approve of a West King. Of course, they obviously did not approve of the East King, either. The scepter hadn't glowed since it had been taken from House Redax in the War.

The Blackmaces maintained their power through terror and force. Several attempts had been made to restore a Redax heir to the throne, but all had failed, and the perpetrators had been executed mercilessly. As a result, the Redax line had virtually been lost. The current Duke Redax, now an ancient old man with very little royal blood, had only two daughters. One had married Duke Blackmace in a politically scandalous move that very nearly resulted in an open war between the King and his brother. Merlynn had little or no love for her dreaded King Rukert, but she could understand his fury when his brother married the daughter of his greatest enemy.

The youngest daughter had married a lesser noble in the Bower's household. She'd had children, but Merlynn did not know how many. Having been raised in the Bower's forests, she'd heard many rumors concerning the woman's seductive ways, and no one could quite agree on just how many children she'd had, legitimately or illegitimately. A woodcutter once told her that the youngest Redax daughter was jealous of the attention showered upon her elder sister. Her sister had caused a scandal by marrying a Blackmace, so she tried to cause a scandal by having an affair with any wealthy young noble who would have her.

Merlynn shifted the blackelf to her other shoulder. "Jewels, do you know how many children the youngest Redax daughter has? You know, the one who married the Bower."

Jewels frowned, and fumbled with her backpack straps. "You mean Lady Aliora? She has seven, er...I think. Four sons and th-three daughters."

"Oh."

They continued walking in silence.

Suddenly Keen slowed and looked back at them in annoyance. "What in the name of the first wizard's balls made you ask a question like that?!"

Merlynn grinned. "Perhaps the Goddess put the thoughts in my head. I guess I'm just pondering the fate of the kingdom."

"Ugh. You should leave that to, what's his name? That Saldorus fellow who writes the books."

"Soldaris," Jewels corrected. "And he doesn't still write. He died a long time ago."

"Someone who died so long ago still has something to say?" Keen snorted. "Ha!"

"It's true," Jewels assured her. "Slanger was always delving into the ancient books in the l-library..."

"Who's Slanger?" Keen asked.

Jewels blushed. "Oh... j-just a wizard that f-father knew."

Merlynn frowned. "Slanger is the King's own wizard isn't he?"

"And he was delving in your father's library?!" Keen asked in surprise.

Jewels turned even redder. "W-well, father has s-some b-books that are very old...g-gifts...and some that he j-just bought because he knew they w-were valuable..."

Keen shuddered. "You know Jewels, the more I learn about you, the less I want to hear more. Does he have enough influence with this Slanger to get him to help him track you?"

"II d-don't think so. He never l-liked Slanger, I don't think. D-don't you s-suppose they would have f-found us by now if we were being t-tracked by a wizard?"

"Of course they would have," Merlynn said. Anyone who could afford to buy books that would be of interest to a wizard would be able to afford horses for a hunting party if he didn't already own some.

Keen kicked a stone and watched as it skittered down the path in front of them. "Yes, you're right. Otherwise they would have caught us long ago. It's not as if there was any doubt which direction we were heading out of the city."

"They probably gave up when they lost the hound," Merlynn suggested. "They couldn't have guessed we were heading all the way to Westmine."

"You're right," Keen agreed. "Still, it makes me nervous. Gods above...wizards and blackelves. What will be next?"

They continued steadily until well after the light faded and the blanket of night fell upon the quiet forest surrounding them. When Jewels finally began to stumble in weariness, Keen stopped to camp in an area of tall pines. The soft ground beneath the huge trees was relatively flat and devoid of rocks, and it wasn't long before they gratefully settled themselves in front of a warm fire to eat their supper and sleep.

************

She was drowning! Wraith struggled, choking. No, her arms and legs were bound...Someone was pouring water in her mouth. She swallowed and realized how thirsty she was. It tasted good, cool mountain water. It splashed on her face. But surely she had left the mountains? Too cold, the winter had been too cold. She sputtered and choked again. The water stopped.

"She cracked your head pretty good," Merlynn's soft voice said, and Wraith's memory came rushing back along with a searing headache.

She held her breath. She should be dead. She opened her eyes. It was night. Stars glimmered faintly between the tops of tall pine trees. She shuddered and suppressed the irrational terror welling up inside at the sight of so much nothingness overhead. For the thousandth time she wondered what those glittering points of light truly were. Did the humans know? They seemed so very far away.

She shifted her eyes to the trees. Trees were not nearly so frightening now that she was used to the dreadful noise they made when the wind was blowing. The trees shared the same feeling of age as the mountains. Some were very ancient. But the trees were more aware than the mountains, and Wraith found their joy in life refreshing. In their own way, they were as magnificent as the pillars of multicolored rock in the Queen's Royal Cavern.

"You like the trees, don't you?" Merlynn asked, her face suddenly entering Wraith's view. The healer was watching her, thoughtfully, sitting cross-legged by her side, waterskin still in hand.

Wraith was startled by the question. How could the human read her thoughts so clearly? Blackelves shared their thoughts as easily as water flowed downhill, but she did not think that humans could do the same. Why else would they speak aloud so much?

"I can tell," Merlynn smiled. "It's the Mother. Galiae. My Goddess. You can sense her, too."

No, Wraith thought. I feel only their age, their life, and peace.

Merlynn nodded. "It's the Goddess. They are her children. You understand, don't you? You understand me. You understand human speech, too, don't you?"

Wraith did not answer. She was suddenly, inexplicably, frightened. There was no maliciousness behind the healer's questions. There was no ill intent. There was only a sincere desire to understand, an honest curiosity and desire to interact with a new and strange being. It frightened Wraith more than any threat of death. She stared at the healer blankly, desperately trying to understand why it terrified her so.

Merlynn was confused by her reaction. "It's all right," she said. "I won't tell Keen." She smiled wryly.

Why was this happening, Wraith wondered? Was it another cruel joke of the gods? The gods played games with mortals, she knew, for their own perverse amusement. The trick to life, her old tutor always told her, was to learn to laugh with them.

Wraith had believed that, too. She'd protected herself with it, using it like a shield. She'd believed her tutor when he told her that the people did not hate her. She'd believed that her mother did not hate her. She'd been convinced that those who distrusted her and treated her poorly were merely obeying some perverse whim of the gods. She'd believed that once she proved her worth, she'd be accepted. So she'd fought to earn her place among the scouts and warriors of the Royal Guard, commanded by her brother. She'd hunted the many evils that stalked the Home. She'd defended the Home against the shags and the nameless horrors that others feared to face. Young though she was, the blackelf enemies knew her and feared her. She'd hoped to earn a place in Home despite her human blood.

But as soon as she turned of age, instead of being recognized as an adult citizen of Home - instead of receiving her rightful title of princess or given a paid position as a soldier - she'd been whipped and driven out. She then realized the true reason she'd been allowed to work so closely with the Guard. They'd hoped she would be killed. Her mother had hoped she would be killed.

It was her own brother and his Royal Guard who had whipped her and dragged her to the surface to live or die, Out-cast and scorned. It was then that Wraith had learned the meaning of betrayal. And she'd stopped laughing with the gods. She'd pray to them. She'd ask forgiveness of them. She'd ask them for help and thank them when they gave it. But she'd not laugh with them. Life was no longer worth laughing about.

And the compassion behind the healer's eyes, the kindness she longed to see directed at herself for so long, had to be another trick of her gods.

"What sort of gods do you worship?" Merlynn asked. "My healing powers are given to me by the Goddess, Galiae. Keen disagrees, but I think that the gods are the source of all magic and wonder. Certainly, the Goddess grants us healers our abilities. But where do you get yours? Can all blackelves use magic? Does it come from your gods?"

Wraith couldn't help herself. She smiled. This was the sort of question she had hoped to avoid by remaining silent.

Merlynn smiled back. "Why don't you speak? If you can understand me, why don't you answer?"

Because you are human, Wraith thought without searching for a truer answer.

"Because I'm human?" Merlynn echoed. "But I have no hatred for you or your people. And I will have none until I am given reason."

Wraith could sense that the healer was speaking the truth. She also knew that if Merlynn followed Keen into the tunnels in the mountains, she would be given plenty of reason to hate blackelves. Hate would feed hate and death would feed death. Blackelves would kill Merlynn and not care that she was a healer and had no hatred for them. She was human, and therefore she would die.

The smile faded from Merlynn's face. "So we are enemies, then," she said. "Just like Keen said."

Wraith looked away. Why did she want to deny it? There could never be friendship between humans and blackelves. Merlynn was human. Yet she had treated Wraith with more decency and kindness than even her own mother had.

"You don't like it, though, do you?" Merlynn whispered. She looked up at the stars and sighed. "Enemies by tradition. Isn't it always so? We're taught to hate, without real reason. It was a prophesy that sent Keen on this quest..."

"For gods' sakes, Merlynn," Keen grumbled sleepily, interrupting the healer, "Don't go telling it the local politics. If nothing else, it's probably a spy."

Merlynn chuckled. "I should have known you were awake," she said.

"Why?" Keen asked. "Because I wasn't snoring?"

"You said it, I didn't," Merlynn grinned.

"Leave it alone and get some sleep. It will be rough travel tomorrow."

"Whazzit?" Jewels asked muzzily.

"Nothing," Keen answered softly. "Go back to sleep. Just Merlynn talking to her pet."

"Oh," Jewels yawned. "Does it t-talk back yet?"

"She seems to think so," Keen muttered before Merlynn could answer.

"Oh? Do we know why it's so far from the m-mountains then?"

"I don't believe she's asked it that, yet," Keen said sourly. "Now, let's all get some sleep."

"I was having a d-dream about the p-prophesy," Jewels remarked. "I heard the w-words.... It said:

'Twice betrayed

But once revenged

Scepter goes to bastard hands

Mace, ax, pike, and bow,

To raise as one.'

And...And I think I kn-know what it means."

Keen groaned. "Go back to sleep, Jewels. Some silly woman on an island in the middle of nowhere inhales some noxious fumes, starts babbling mindless drivel, and the whole kingdom is thrown into turmoil. Let somebody else worry about it."

"No!" Jewels said, her voice no longer holding any trace of sleep. "That's what my father would say. Er...rather...well...I think....I think that, that this p-prophesy concerns all of us...and not just b-because of this quest. I mean, it concerns everybody...in this kingdom...all of us."

"Why?" Merlynn asked thoughtfully.

"Well, b-because. `Scepter goes to bastard hands', see, that's why the Six are being killed, so the scepter won't leave the K-King's hands. That's why he's afraid of rebellion, too. He's scared of losing the scepter and the throne. And then there's `Pike, ax, mace, and bow/ to raise as one.' Pike, ax, mace, and bow refer to the four D-Duchies, that's obvious. Duke Pikeman, Duke Redax, Duke Blackmace, and Duke Bowman, the Bower. But they've been f-fighting each other for centuries. And the k-kings have always encouraged it. But now, for some reason, the Gods are saying that they'll be united, `raised as one'. Why? Will there be a r-rebellion? But, but whatever the reason, surely it means war. Not just petty squabbles between dukes and barons. WAR. Like the Blackmace - R-Redax War. And, and I've read the stories about it. It was awful. It scares me, Keen. I d-don't want there to be war!"

"It's just a prophesy," Keen said quietly. "And you don't even know if your dream is accurate. You could be worrying over nothing. Your dream didn't say anything about this Wraith. Unless it's one of the King's illegitimate children, too, there's no reason for us to be on this quest, if that were the real prophesy. Anyway, that's all we're concerned with; this blackelf. If we kill it, we'll have done our part. It's up to the King and Dukes to worry about the rest."

"Don't say that!" Jewels said miserably.

But Wraith hardly heard her.

"Why not?" Keen asked.

But Wraith was not paying attention.

"Because! It's c-cruel! The Six... They haven't d-done anything! Some of them probably didn't even know who or wh-what they were until this stupid prophesy came out!"

Wraith shuddered, all the missing pieces of her origin falling into place with the certainty of a rock-fall. How true! How true! Wraith, the human King's daughter. Though she'd never been told who her human father was, she knew it now with absolute certainty. She was the human King's daughter. How very, very cruel! No wonder her mother hated humans so terribly! Surely the Gods are laughing, she thought. Laughing at Wraith, daughter of the blackelf Queen and the human King, with a claim of blood to two thrones and hated by both peoples. Would it not seem a merry jest to those to whom life and death meant nothing?

She did not hear Jewels crying. She heard only the laughter of the Gods until Merlynn touched her forehead.

"Sleep," the healer commanded. "I must help Jewels."

And Wraith slept.

********

She woke some hours later in the quiet darkness before dawn. The air was still and fresh. This was her favorite time of night, the time when she would brave the open spaces and wander the woods and fields marveling at the different creatures and plants. Her curiosity always overcame her fear when the wind was still.

She sat up and looked around her. They were camped in a semi-circular clearing to one side of the road. The clearing was surrounded by tall trees with needles. She could hear the roar of a river nearby.

Her stomach growled. She was very hungry. Her head ached, her back still felt raw, and for some reason her ribs throbbed painfully, but her greatest discomfort was caused by hunger. And this was the perfect time to catch fish. While Outerworld fish had the ability to see, they also had the disadvantage of sleeping whenever it got dark.

She glanced at the humans. Keen was snoring loudly, wrapped in a cloak with her back to the firepit. Jewels was sprawled on her back, her sleeping face still tear stained. Merlynn was asleep, sitting cross-legged again with the dagger across her knees, presumably to guard her.

Wraith frowned. It would be so easy to escape now. With a thought she summoned the Talent and freed her arms and legs from their binding ropes. She rubbed her painful wrists to restore their circulation and stood up, wrapping the blanket around her for warmth against the crisp air. She was still weak, and it required effort to stand, but food would help her immensely. With a backward glance to make sure Merlynn didn't wake, she headed off towards the sound of the river.

It wasn't far away, but Wraith was shaking with exhaustion by the time she slid down its banks to search for the dark forms of fish along its rocky bottom. She drank her fill of cool water and rested for a moment before making her way upstream. She hadn't gone far when she came upon a shallow pool with several fish. She left the blanket on the shore and waded in downstream from them. With the ease of long practice she grabbed the fish from behind as they slept and tossed them flopping on the riverbank.

When she's grabbed enough to satisfy her hunger, she waded back and crushed their heads with a rock. She'd prefer to eat them skinned and gutted, but she scraped off as many of the scales as she could and ate them that way instead.

Outerworld fish had a peculiar taste to them, but she had grown accustomed to it over time. Indeed, this was probably the best meal she'd had in many moons. She felt much better when she was finished. She got another drink from the river and washed the rest of the filth from her body. She then climbed upon a large boulder to think.

She sat hugging her knees with the blanket wrapped around her. She would have to find clothing. She would prefer her old blackelf silks made from the non-sticky threads of the trchnia spiders, but that would be too difficult to obtain. She would either have to steal cloth from the humans to make her own garments, or simply steal some human children's clothing as she had done before. She didn't like the idea of doing either, especially after what had happened in the town. The less she had to do with humans, the better.

A flock of deer moved through the trees in the distance. Wraith watched them in fascination. Home had nothing like them. They were so huge and yet so graceful. She knew their names from the Outerworld sagas preserved in the archives. Her tutor had forced her to memorize them as part of her studies. She often wondered if he had known what would happen to her when she turned of age; perhaps he had just had the wisdom to know it was possible.

Whatever the case, she was grateful to him for it. He had also taught her what he knew of human speech, which was surprisingly considerable. Of all her mother's people, Rachn was the only one that Wraith believed had ever truly cared for her. She'd thought that T'nar, her Captain in the Guard had cared for her, too, but he'd stood by her brother when.... no, she would not think of it. If not for Rachn though, she would never have survived Out. He'd tried to teach her what it was like. He'd told her as much as possible, because it was in her blood, he'd said, and she should know. But nothing could prepare her for the emptiness and space.

Everything in the Outerworld was so huge. The sagas had tried to convey that feeling, but they had failed miserably. She shivered, suddenly reminded that she was very, very small and very insignificant. She could laugh at the first time when she panicked at seeing water falling from the sky, and the terror she'd felt when she first heard the roaring of wind. But she could not shake her irrational fear of the emptiness above.

She missed the mountains. She missed their ancient stone and their protective walls. While the surface caves and human mine tunnels were shag holes in comparison to the grand splendor of Home with its carved walkways, fountains, and multi-colored halls, they were so much better than the Out. She'd been driven Out during the winter when the streams froze and she could no longer catch any fish. But winter should nearly be over now. She could return until it drove her away again.

And that was where the humans were taking her. If she managed to avoid Keen's anger, she might even be given the opportunity to repay her debt to Merlynn. She was loath to dishonor herself by not doing so. Human or not, nothing could change the fact that she owed the healer her life. It was just such an impossible situation! Her gods must be enjoying this tremendously, but she'd not give them the joy of watching her dishonor herself on top of everything else. She was bound to the healer.

With a sigh of resignation she made her way back to the small camp. The humans were still sleeping soundly as she retied the ropes around her ankles and used the Talent to rebind her wrists. She shook her head at the folly of it. Perhaps if she just explained her situation to them. But no, Keen would never believe her, or worse, would just kill her outright and call the debt repaid. She shook her head again and lay down on the cool earth to wait for the dawn.

It was not long before Merlynn shook her awake from a light doze. It was still dark, but the sky above was starting to turn gray.

"Good morning," Merlynn said. "Keen's warming up breakfast. You must be starved."

She helped Wraith into a sitting position with her back to the fire and untied the ropes around her wrists.

"Keen will kill you if you try to escape. Please understand that. No magic, either." Merlynn smiled to soften the words, but her eyes pleaded with her not to disobey.

Wraith did not respond, but hugged her knees and avoided meeting the healer's gaze.

Merlynn sighed and held out a bowl. "Rabbit stew."

Wraith took the bowl and sniffed it suspiciously. There was no telling what these humans might eat. It was certainly colorful. The Blackelf diet consisted mainly of raw fish and fungus, but none of it had any color whatsoever. The thought of eating something GREEN was almost enough to make her sick.

Surely the green things were plants. Plants were edible? Wraith realized that even though she'd survived longer in the Outerworld than any other blackelf in memory, she still knew very little about humans or their lifestyles. Maybe plants would taste like mushrooms. She sniffed the bowl again. It smelled like...well, it smelled decidedly unpleasant.

"Trust me," Keen said sourly. "If we were planning on killing you, we wouldn't bother with poison."

Wraith looked up in surprise and saw the warrior watching her. Keen's eyes sparkled in the firelight. She had a half smile on her scarred face. Wraith sensed little or no hatred from her, only a wary caution.

"I wouldn't insult Keen's cooking," Jewels warned from the other side of the fire. "She's the b-best of the three of us!"

Keen grinned, showing two broken teeth that looked vaguely like fangs.

Wraith wrinkled her nose and dipped a finger into the broth, tasting it. It tasted, well, once again, she didn't have the vocabulary to describe it. But then, she decided, since she was half human, it probably wouldn't kill her. She hoped.

Keen glanced at Merlynn in annoyance. "You'd think we were trying to torture it."

Merlynn laughed. "Well, I think it's safe to say that Blackelves don't normally eat rabbit stew. I wonder what they do eat?"

"Mushrooms," Jewels said. "Don't you think?"

"That would make sense," Merlynn agreed.

"I don't have any mushrooms," Keen said, settling down on a fallen log with her own bowl. "It'll just have to suffer."

"I'll eat whatever she d-doesn't," Jewels offered.

"It'll eat what it's given," Keen said firmly, glaring at Wraith.

Wraith bravely sipped the broth and made a face. It was ghastly. Even with Keen watching her, she didn't think she could force herself to eat it. Obviously, cooked human food was not going to be to her liking.

Keen stood up angrily and snatched the bowl from her hands. "Here Jewels, you're too skinny anyway," she said, handing her the bowl.

"Thank you," Jewels said meekly.

Keen hurumphed and snapped her fingers in Wraith's face. "Doesn't bother me if the damn thing starves to death."

Wraith bit her lip to keep from smiling. Maybe she'd leave a fish in Keen's pot tomorrow, just to make her wonder.

Merlynn, however, was concerned. But she was startled to see the laughter in Wraith's eyes, and held back whatever she was going to say. Instead, she sat down to eat her own bowl.

When the humans finished eating, they packed their bowls away in their packs, and Keen kicked dirt on the small fire. Merlynn apologetically tied a rope around Wraith's neck and rebound her wrists. She then secured the blanket around her body with another rope, for which Wraith was extremely grateful.

The light was just beginning to get painful when they started off down the trail in silence. When the sun crested the tops of the trees, Wraith began to stumble in blindness. It was too agonizing to keep her eyes open in the burning light.

Without a word, Merlynn heaved her over her shoulder and carried her.




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