Vol.2, Ch.4, P.9
The curtains of night were fast fallen. With not a seam in the cloud-cloaked skies to welcome in the moonlight, the townscape was left awash in grainy eigengrau, cut only by the occasional wick-light.
All the district folk had disappeared to their midnight nests. A brisk chill ran through the chirping air. I stood amidst the clean quietude, having left the children’s home, and leant on the bannister by the road. It overlooked a plaza below, a space as gaping as it was lonely.
“Well?” rang a voice beside me, one belonging to the remedy-giving girl. “What business welcomes a Man in this unwelcome place?”
It was only after she’d soothed and settled the children down that this girl thought to bring me out for a talk. But of course she would. Doubtless she expected no Man to appear at her moment of need—more unexpected again that he would sooner be an aid than an adversary.
“The name’s Rolf, first off,” I began my answer. “As for business—I was come bearing tidings for the jarl.”
“Hm. Fair enough,” she seemed to brush off. “‘Lise’ be mine. You’ve a pair of helpful hands. My thanks.”
Not upon the lithe person of this “Lise” was there a wisp of fright for the presence of Men. Why, for one such Man did she even deign to thank for helping a spasmodic child.
“That boy…” I broached, recalling that very episode. “The white-coath’s got him, has it?”
“It has,” Lise sighed. “He’s amongst many who were poisoned… not more than a winter ago.”
“White-coath”—a ghastliness afflicting both Men and Nafílim alike, the symptoms of which were all exhibited by the poor boy.
As for the cause, I hazarded a grim guess.
“…Drank from the forest headwaters, I wager.”
“You wager well. Yes… Mennish realmers made it a miasma,” confirmed Lise, before leering slowly up at me. “Remember you the waters? Fresh and cool?”
Deep in her sidelong stare sparked embers of spite.
‘…Why, we once had it done t’great effect, ‘fore your arrival…!’
…And Ebbe’s wiles.
A ploy to poison the headwaters within the woods, one I was swift to strike down. Only, just as he had hinted, its effectiveness was well-attested. The boy was palpable proof of it, a living and ailing victim. Though, for how much longer…
I ground my teeth. Once again has this war reaped from fields far from its waging. By its wantonness did innocents now suffer anew…
…and children along with them.
I let out a sigh of my own. “Can’t say I do; the poisoning well-happened before my coming to this land. Though… I admit, I’ve known of the deed for some time. And I’m yet a soldier of Londosius, all told. Thus the sin stains me no less heavily.”
“Mm…” The flames faded from Lise’s look. “Light enough upon my scale, I say. So long as the deed wasn’t yours, if true.”
“…Quite the generous scale you have.”
“You prefer a stricter one?”
Her words seemed a cold dagger, quicker on the cut than on the coddle for the moping, maudlin Man before her.
“Nay…” I relented. “It judges me just fine.”
“Be glad. Had any more heavily your sin slanted the scale, I’d happily hew the weight from you.”
Such was no middling attempt at intimidation. Hers were hands well-whetted for war-waging. And bloodied besides, perhaps—from felling Men. That much I discerned merely from her portance.
But of her heart, I then wished to discern further. Thus, through the dark, I threw my entire gaze upon her visage. And as I did, a cleft in the clouds softly courted in a shaft of moonshine.
One alighting perfectly upon Lise.
Amidst the luminance came a blush of warm beige about her skin, a complexion unique to the Nafílim. The fine and fair features of her face, the bright emerald of her eyes, the lily-rosiness of her lips, the gossamer-gold of her hip-length locks—all lovely to behold, but what bewildered me was not that.
No, not at all.
For the sight of her face was one I once well-thought to be my last.
The Battle of Erbelde three years past.
Having undone the dam choking the tributary—a Nafílim construction and counter-stratagem that saw the swelling of the Erbelde’s main waters—I successfully made my return to the Mareschal Tiselius’ regiment. And after reporting to her the weakness in the enemy’s designs, victory seemed all but clenched. Thus was the brunt of our forces ordered to drive our foes to their retreat, whilst the rest of us followed Tiselius in exiting the enemy garrison.
Then and there, just as we neared the gates and regrouped with a regiment of stationed knights, we were waylaid from the shadows by a horde of Nafílim, one of whom I found myself fighting to fatal peril.
My opponent: a girl of a Nafíl, younger still than my then-seventeen year-old self. But in her hands was wielded undeniable prowess, daggers of deftness and speedy death. Certainly a Goliath to an ungraced.
I can hear it, even now: the thrice-striking thunders of a gong, as blood issued from the slash-wound sailing across my bosom. And then…
‘…The curtains look to be closing…’
‘…‘Twas a play too-brief…’
‘…Now’s a fine time to exit stage… wouldn’t you say…?’
‘…Will we meet again…?’
‘…The playwrights willing…’
…then, did she disappear from my sight.
In facing such a foe did I first know mortal fear.
“…I know you.”
Simple words said with the very same voice from that memory.
A memory, just as fresh in the mind of the girl before me. The passing of three winters now found her a blossomed young lady, betwixt sixteen and eighteen in her years. Indeed, though her facets were now well-refined, she was unmistakably the same storm-child with whom I measured blades on that fateful battlefield.
“And I, you,” I echoed. “We meet again.”
To which Lise answered with a long look upon my person, her first cutting sign of caution since my appearance.
“Again the curtains rise,” she remarked, “to herald the one Man of my defeat.”
“Hm?” I cocked a brow. “If memory serves, the defeat was mine—miserably so.”
“Huh?” Lise cocked both of hers. “There’s nonsense on your lips!”
“Nay, I’ve proof enough. Here, look—” I insisted, before shedding off my shirt to show Lise the scar of her making.
“Wh…?” she gasped. “W-why do you bare yourself!?”
“This here. See it?” I looked down upon myself. “A scar by your blade.”
“W-which!?” Lise looked away. “Fewer stars line the skies than do the scars on your skin!”
I pointed at my chest. “This one, the starkest of them. A long, straight lin—”
“Fine! Yes-yes! I see it! Clothe yourself already!”
Upon her face fast came a fluster of another hue. A blunder on my part, perhaps, to bare myself so boldly. Warriors that we were, I had well-thought it proper to display the trophy of her triumph hewn into my very flesh.
“Apologies,” I said, slipping my shirt back on. “I meant to say: you proved quite the sharp opponent.”
“Hmph…” Lise crossed her arms. “A silly lie, that. From the lips of one sharper still, who so outsped my ambush.”
Ambush, indeed. Just the mere recollection of it sent shivers down my spine.
Instinct had saved me then. A wordless sense that something sinister—or “bestial”, more like—was shooting straight into our ranks. And it was instinct again that had forced my hand: a draw of the sword, the swing of its blade.
At the end of the edge was none other than a Nafílim girl: Lise, caught in the instant before her blades could catch me, her paling having halted mine. Truth be told, had I hesitated even for an instant, that day, that battle, surely would’ve been my last.
“I’m haunted even now,” said my former foe, looking to have recollected the same. “Tell me. What gift gave you sight enough to see my strike?”
“The gift was yours: the raging, bestial sort. I but sensed it, is all.”
“B…!?” Lise’s eyes flared wide and greenly. “And yours be a gift for rudeness, I sense!”
Had she hissed, she very well might’ve seemed the incensed cat. I was convinced: my choosing of words had yet to grow beyond the grace of a gutter-churl’s.
“Ah… A-apologies,” I scratched my head. “It was a compliment, truly.”
“What frau finds flattery in ‘raging beast’, you bumble-wit!”
“One who’s a warrior besides. Am I wrong?”
“No! And yes!”
It would seem we are as cogs uncouplable, Lise and I. Regardless, such was my reunion with an old opponent, with whom I once exchanged swings and thrusts swift enough to sunder the winds.
But between us now were stilled breezes and broken moonlight.
A miracle of a re-meeting well-earning my joy.