The weather was so dreary it would put out all the fires of hell in a mere instant, if hell were a thing which actually existed on the face of the planet, demon-riddled burning pits and all. Inside the Capital, however, the atmosphere was as heated as inns get when they are filled with intoxicated patrons, drunkenly groping the waitresses and the innkeeper silently ignoring such violations as long as the perpetrators carried enough coin in their purses to spend on yet another pitcher of ale.
the Capital wasn’t anywhere near the actual capital by far. It existed on the side of the Gold Road, in the luscious green emptiness between Torth and Angêl. Vast unpopulated areas were the land of Genesia’s trademark, save the coastal region, where the capital of Ilyria ever expanded its territory with urban settlement after urban settlement, some of which the result of bold entrepreneurs who held firm beliefs in the industry of tourism, baptising their inns “beach resorts” as a marketing strategy.
Here on the Gold Road, however, the Capital was the largest establishment, and the only one, if you did not count Percy the farmer who offered rooms to travelling merchants with well-endowed daughters only, that served food and provided some semblance of shelter, and so it became that its regulars deemed themselves the royalty of the road, all of them quite capital folk indeed.
Gellert, the innkeeper, worked his way to the back corner, where stood the only table that had not been moved around that night. He prodded a large blond fellow with his elbow. The man continued poking fun at his latest sexual conquest undisturbed. Gellert sighed, moved two chairs out of the way, and put down the pitcher he was carrying in front of his customer, who still sat huddled under the hood of his cloak, unchanged from when he had first sat down two hours ago. He tossed Gellert a silver coin, waved at him to keep the change, and put his feet up on the chair across the table. Gellert glanced at the muddy boots, but anyone who paid silver for a pitcher of ale, could leave the place filthy as a rat hole for all he cared, and this one made a habit of it.
The blonde giant had finished his not so witty commentary at the expense of the girl next to him, and gleefully slapped the bum of a passing waitress. She looked over her shoulder, startled, but smiled half-heartedly before continuing, eyes rolling to the ceiling, on her way. The stranger in the corner disapprovingly stared, from under his hood, at the Giant, who seemed to feel the eyes piercing his back. He turned around and an unpleasant sensation crept over him when he found himself staring straight into the shadow under the dark green fabric of the cloak. Wood cracked loudly as a young lad lost his balance and the chair on which he was dancing crashed into the table on which he had placed it on a dare. Laughter ensued, the Giant snapped out of his hypnotic anxiety and stepped towards the cloaked stranger.
“Ferdan”, he introduced himself, hand outstretched. The stranger did not respond. Ferdan coughed and glanced at his feet.
“These women, ey”, he laughed as he clapped the stranger on the shoulder, “always begging for our attention”.
The stranger drank his ale, unfazed.
“You know how it is for us, men”, Ferdan added almost apologetically. “Here, have a drink with me.” He beckoned Gellert.
The stranger got up. Ferdan thought he was surprisingly small for someone with so intimidating an aura. A hand moved up to the rim of the hood and slowly pulled it back to reveal a thick braid of red hair. Green-specked chestnut eyes looked up at a startled, wide-eyed, open-mouthed Ferdan.
“My eyes are not that far down”, she said, as she caught his eyes sliding down her body. “Surprised?”
Ferdan was mind-boggled. A number of thoughts, most shocked, some mocking, and plenty dirty, raced through his mind. He seemed too confused to utter any of them, and his state of inebriety didn’t help.
“She’s here to do her job,” she pointed at the waitress Ferdan had earlier slapped on the behind, “not for your attention.”
“Saer,” Gellert interrupted her loudly from behind the bar, “leave it.”
“Does he pay well, G?” Saerlith asked, scowling.
Gellert moved towards them, his eyes fixed on her. Saerlith sighed and strapped her purse to her belt. “Fine!” she shouted as she picked up her bow and quiver and turned around to move towards the door.
Gellert put his hand on her shoulder, while he turned to Ferdan. “Maybe she” he nodded at the girl beside Ferdan, “would like to share the tales of your inadequate size and lack of stamina with the rest of the group.”
Saerlith grinned, the girl giggled involuntarily, Ferdan smacked his pint down on the nearest table with a loud ‘right, that’s it!’ before storming towards the stairs and up to his room.
“Not a regular?” Saerlith asked.
“Not a regular”, smiled Gellert. “Not staying?”
“I’m not that drunk, G.”
“You know you are, Saer”, Gellert teased.
Saerlith gave Gellert a friendly punch on the arm, and disappeared into the stormy night.
Saerlith moved her hands around to look for her clothes, but they touched nothing but straw. Grunting, she lifted her head slightly and opened her eyes. She quickly closed them again, as the bright morning light instantly worsened her headache. This was the mother of all hangovers. Gellert shouldn’t let her drink that much in such short time. She wondered how hard she would punch him if he ever tried to stop her from drinking exactly as much and as quickly as she wanted to. Pretty hard, probably.
She slowly pushed herself up onto her knees, her hand covering her eyes to protect them from the light. She carefully peered through her fingers to look for her things. Clothes, weapons, money. Luckily, everything was still there. She sighed in relief. The night she got so drunk someone had managed to get away with everything but her cloak, was not an evening she would happily repeat. She slowly got dressed, moaning every so often at the throbbing pain in her head and the sore state of her muscles from spending the night in an apparently uncomfortable position on a thin layer of straw. She looked around the wooden shed and was surprised she had managed to find such a solid hideout for the night. Of course Gellert would have let her stay, but Saerlith found needing other people’s aid at the last minute a sign of bad preparation and sheer helplessness. Bad preparation was not necessarily a problem. In fact, if anything, she was quite often extremely badly prepared for anything. Saerlith liked to decide most things as she went, on the go, on the fly, though the latter sounded rather ridiculous to her. Try as she might, she had never been able to fly, and she recalled dropping straight down from many a tree and rooftop during the year-long period of her childhood that she had frequently attempted exactly that, right after her mother had asked her why she always made everything up on the fly. Her mother was a careful person, very set in her ways. Someone who never closed the door behind her in the morning without a strict routine, some sort of plan for the day. Someone who had always told her daughter she couldn’t simply do whatever she wanted all of the time. Saerlith had made a point of proving her wrong over the past few years. It wasn’t, therefore, necessarily bad preparation. It was more of an insurance for adventure and a blissful lack of obligation. The choice not to prepare for any particular occurrences throughout life, however, meant a dire necessity for resourcefulness and an uncanny ability to, under any circumstances, take care of one’s own. Taking the easy opportunity to spend the night in a warm bed in the Capital as a courtesy of Gellert, was not nearly as bad-ass as Saerlith liked to believe she actually was, and so she had drunkenly wandered through the rain until she had stumbled upon an abandoned shed a mile ahead. Sleeping off a hangover in an abandoned shed was undoubtedly the best mixture of graceful and roguish a person could wish for in such a situation.
Saerlith gathered her things and, once outside, leaned against the wall of the shed for a while. Her knees were still somewhat weak and her head felt heavy. Sunlight washed over her like warm, comforting bath water. Come to think of it, a bath was probably not entirely a bad idea. She took off her boots. The still wet grass tickled her feet as she walked barefoot towards the Gold Road. The river wasn’t far.
Aaron sat against a big oak and hung his head. It had been two days since he had eaten. Though the woods near the Gold Road were excellent hunting grounds, Aaron lacked skill in the field. Never in his life had he managed to catch as much as a measly rabbit. It had made him an outcast in his community for as long as he could remember. His village had always thrived on the sale of hides, leather and fine meat, and try as he might, Aaron had never found a way to fit in, or make himself even remotely useful. He had tried his hand at blacksmithing, but many a burn and bruise later, had decided he was absolutely unfit for the job. He had helped out at Soltan’s kitchen in the tavern, but he burnt the food so often, Soltan’s profits had nearly turned to grave losses, and he had been not so gently dismissed from his duties.
To make matters worse, there appeared to be few travellers along the road, and even if there had been any easy targets for petty theft, so far Aaron had not come across any place where he would have been able to trade his stolen money for food, and perhaps a bed. He had no other choice but to continue towards Angêl and hope for an inn and the mercy of its keeper along the way, or else reach the city completely starved and penniless. Sitting around would not benefit him. It would merely prolong his starvation.
He hesitated when he moved to get up. He thought he heard something. He listened carefully, but heard nothing but the sound of the peacefully flowing river. He shook his head. Just his imagination. He rose behind the tree, and there it was again; the sound of something splashing in the water. Fish? Maybe he could catch one this time. He crawled towards the bushes near the clearing on the river bed. His hands pushed aside some branches and he peered towards the water. Aaron surpressed a loud gasp.
Saerlith knelt naked on the river bank, washing the mud and straw from her clothes. The sun, the wet grass under her feet and her hands in the cool water had driven out her headache. She recalled washing her family’s clothes in the creek near her village, or in wooden buckets on the kitchen floor when the weather did not permit going outside, and thoroughly resenting the task. It had always felt like a waste of her precious time. She could have been out exploring or learning card tricks from Joa at the tavern. She could have been free and having fun, living adventures and learning things her parents had always deemed unimportant and unrewarding. Now that she was free from demeaning responsibilities towards anyone but herself, however, Saerlith had come to appreciate the quiet, unburdened state of her own mind during such routine chores.
Saerlith sat on the ground, her feet splashing in the river, while she wrung most of the water from her garments. She spread them carefully on the ground to dry in the sun, before diving headfirst into the stream. Gasping for air, she came back up. She peddled around contently, like children in a shallow creek. She undid her braid and plucked the straw from her hair as she combed through it with her fingers. Under water, her hair swirled around her like mist danced in rays of sunlight on autumn mornings. Saerlith disliked sticking her head out above the surface. Her hair would stick to her head and face in long, sloppy tresses. Not nearly as elegant, she thought, and not nearly as wild.
After she had soaked for a while, she climbed out of the water and lay down on the grass, beside her things. She stretched out her arm and picked up her dagger. It gleamed in the sunlight while she played around with it, turning it between her fingers, caressing the edge of the blade. She placed the point between her breasts and traced an invisible line towards her navel.
Aaron felt uneasy looking at the naked woman lying in the grass. He focused on her purse that lay unguarded among her clothes. From the corner of his eye he could see her playing with her dagger. Maybe she would fall asleep, lying in the warm sun like that. Then he could grab her purse and buy himself a meal at the next opportunity. Aaron became aware that his eyes had once again wandered to the naked body as he felt a pang of uninvited excitement when the woman traced her dagger down from her chest. He closed his eyes. It was wrong to watch her. He would wait for sounds of snoring. Who was he kidding? Women don’t snore. Maybe he could quietly work his way around, back to the road, and approach the river from there. He could pretend to be startled by her presence, merely looking for a place to swim, and use the confusion to steal her purse. He would be gone before she noticed her purse was too.
Saerlith’s hand stopped moving abruptly. She couldn’t shake the feeling someone was nearby, and worse: watching her. She quickly sat up and looked around. Her eyes searched across the river and in the direction of the road, before she looked over her shoulder. Somehow she suddenly knew someone was behind her. All she saw was a row of low bushes. Still, she was absolutely sure she was right. She hesitated, but then plunged her hand into a bush and grabbed something. Someone. She pulled him from his shelter. Aaron staggered and fell to her feet. Saerlith screamed and quickly wrapped herself in her cloak. She pointed her dagger at him. He looked up at her, his eyes full of fear.
“Who the fuck are you and why were you watching me?” Saerlith yelled.
“I… Sorry, I…” Aaron stammered.
“You what, you piece of shit?” She shouted angrily. She tugged in the corner of her cloak so it wouldn’t fall when she let go.
“I.. I’m Aaron. I didn’t mean to..”
Saerlith bent down and grabbed Aaron by the collar. “Are you a filthy rapist, Aaron?” she hissed at him.
“Did you get a good hard-on watching me? Were you waiting for the right moment to force your cock in me? Waiting for me to put my weapon away, maybe?” she continued mercilessly. She threw him on his back.
Aaron clambered to his feet. “No, for Ara’s sake, no! I’m not a rapist! I was here for that!” He pointed towards her purse. Shame, fear, and anger coloured his cheeks red as strawberries.
Saerlith relaxed visibly. “What makes you think you could either rape or rob me?”
Aaron looked a little offended.
“I mean, look at you,” Saerlith continued, “you’re a weakling. You couldn’t poke me with a stick if you tried.”
“Could too!” Aaron argued.
“I will give you my purse if you give it a successful shot, right now.” Saerlith raised an eyebrow in anticipation. Aaron stared at the ground. Saerlith laughed. “Damn, Aaron, that’s pathetic”, she mocked.
“Whatever”, he said as he sank to the ground in defeat. “I just want to eat.”
“So that means you have to go around stealing people’s shit?”
“Can you not? I’d do it differently if I had another way, you know”, Aaron sulked.
“There’s always another way, baby”, Saerlith said as she dropped her cloak and lay back down. Aaron quickly averted his eyes.
“Aren’t you the gentleman”, Saerlith gloated. “There’s an inn a mile south. Gellert will probably cook you up something if you do his dishes.”
Aaron gave her an uncomprehending look, realised why he had been looking away and hid his eyes behind his hand.
“I’m going to stay here for a while. You better go”, Saerlith stated matter-of-factly.
“Yeah,” Aaron said quietly as he got up, “thanks.” He set of towards the road.
“Almost like he’s never seen a naked broad before”, Saerlith muttered to herself.
Gellert smiled widely at Saerlith as she opened the inn door late in the afternoon. She sat down on a stool and flung a rabbit and two pheasants up on the bar.
“Almost lost this one to a fox.” She nodded to the rabbit. “Drink?”
Gellert put a cup of wine in front of her.
“Ah, the good stuff”, Saerlith grinned.
“That it?” Gellert asked, eyeing her catch.
“Deer got away”, she shrugged.
“Losing your touch, are you?” he teased.
“Kidding, G.” Saerlith sipped her wine. “I ran into Mia outside and she took it ’round back. Your kitchen floor is probably getting drenched in guts and blood as we speak.”
“You should come around more often, Saer. Stew’s always best when you’re around.” Gellert winked at her.
“You know I don’t stay put.”
“Why though?” Gellert asked. “This is a darn fine place to hang around at for a while.”
“Genesia’s full of darn good places, G. I’d like to get a look at all of them.” She emptied her cup, and expectingly held it up for a refill.
Gellert poured her more of the cerise liquid.
“How old are you Saer, twenty?” he asked curiously.
“Three”, she answered after a big gulp of wine.
Gellert raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you be better of finding a nice chap to devote yourself to by now?”
Saerlith stared him in the eye intensely over the rim of her cup. “I resent that statement.”
“Why?” Gellert replied, inspecting one of the dead pheasants on the counter.
“You and your ‘why’!” exclaimed Saerlith. “I’ll ask you why. Why should I devote myself to someone other than myself?”
Gellert did not answer. He knew these talks all too well. Every time Saerlith came around, she at one point or another spiraled into sporadic rants about the value of normality, the restrictions of the status quo, and the nature of freedom. He was never able to adequately articulate why her points were ludicrous, so he refrained from entering into the debate.
“Besides,” Saerlith continued undisturbed by Gellert’s silence, “all they want is my curves anyway.” She patted herself on the hip. She waited for Gellert to take a sip of his own cup.
“And who says I wouldn’t rather devote all their deliciousness to a woman? How would you and Mia like to go on a little adventure some time?” she winked.
Saerlith chuckled as Gellert spontaneously spit his wine back into his cup at the proposal. He regained his composure quickly.
“Maybe he would like to give it a go.” He nodded at the corner where Saerlith had sat the night before.
Saerlith looked over her shoulder and smiled widely. “Well now, look who it is…”
“You know him?” Gellert asked surprised.
“Intimidated him for a bit this morning”, Saerlith grinned.
Aaron noticed the two were paying attention to him. He had made himself as small and invisible as possible when Saerlith had walke through the door. He hadn’t expected to see her here and was ashamed of what had occurred that morning; both the fact that he had been so afraid of a woman, and fact that he had stumbled upon her when she was in such a state of undress. He had foolishly hoped that she wouldn’t notice him.
“Save me a bed, G. I’m leaving tomorrow”, Saerlith shouted as she marched towards Aaron, her stare fixed on his downcast eyes.
“You’re in my seat”, she pointed out as she towered over the table.
Aaron quickly gathered his things. “Sorry…” he muttered as he hastily stood up to make room for her.
“By Ara, Aaron! Grow a spine”, Saerlith mocked. “Sit.”
Aaron sat back down, insecure and startled. He held his breath as Saerlith made herself comfortable on the chair across the table.
“Get him some soup, will you G?” Saerlith shouted without taking her eyes off Aaron.
Aaron was utterly confused. Here was the woman he had planned on stealing from, who had just this morning briefly thought he was out to rape her, buying him soup and seemingly preparing for some casual conversation.
“Gee Aaron, relax, I don’t bite”, Saerlith tried to ease his all too apparent nerves.
“Why are you being nice to me?” Aaron asked quietly. He didn’t feel she was being particularly kind and gentle. After all, her tone was still one of mockery and badly masked irritation, even though she did just provide him with a meal. Then again, she had no reason to be friendly to him at all. Aaron thought he had gotten the undoubtedly correct impression that Saerlith was not a force to be meddled with, and comparing to the harsh, ridiculing fashion in which she had treated him before, he found her now to be the epitome of caring.
“Pity”, Saerlith admitted.
Aaron bowed his head in shame. Pity. Pity and resentment were the only things people seemed to ever feel towards him. He had never been any good at anything. A sorry excuse for a man, a sorry excuse for a thief.
“You’re a decent guy, I think”, she added.
Aaron looked at her, surprised at this uncommonly positive assessment of his character.
“What?” she responded to his questioning gaze. “I saw how scared you were, and how ashamed.” She had seen it, she had felt it.
Aaron averted his eyes again. He had rarely felt this uncomfortable and had no idea how to respond. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to wait for an eventual reply, or just keep on talking so he didn’t have to come up with one.
“Bad people aren’t scared or ashamed when they attempt to rob someone”, Saerlith continued, and Aaron felt grateful. Yes, this was far easier than having to respond.
“So I wonder,” Saerlith continued, “what makes a decent person feel like they have no choice but to do bad things.” She looked at him inquisitively. If Saerlith was anything, it was curious about human nature. She had always had a strangely accurate insight into people’s feelings and had learned early on that the world and its inhabitants, and especially their motives, weren’t as black and white as everybody liked to think. It was probably easy, she thought, to put everything into neatly shaped boxes. After all, they had always tried to make her fit into one. They continued to burst to pieces around her like popping bubbles of soap, and that was why, she suspected, so many people had rather cast her out than deal with who she really felt she was. She had never fit in, and she thought Aaron never must have either.
Aaron didn’t really feel like throwing the extended version of his history at her. He was hungry and tired, and even though Saerlith was being exceptionally nice considering their earlier encounter, he did not trust her. Gellert arrived with the soup, and Aaron was happy to be able to occupy himself with eating. It would hopefully distract from his reluctance to tell the tale of his sad, gloomy existence.
Saerlith gently took Gellert by the arm as he turned back towards the kitchen and pulled him closer.
“Make the room for two, okay?” she said softly.
Gellert nodded in agreement. Always the tough shell, he thought, but a core squishy and soft as her buttox. She would probably slap him once or twice if she ever knew he spent time thinking about her bum in absolutely any context.
“We can talk about it tomorrow”, Saerlith said to Aaron. “I’ll let you eat.”
“Sorry I planned to steal from you”, Aaron said inbetween two spoonfuls of soup as Saerlith got up to help out Mia in the kitchen.
“Sorry I called you a rapist”, she replied equally appologetically.
Aaron stared at the double bed. He had come to spend the rest of the evening with Saerlith, drinking and jesting. He had played common tunes on a passer-through’s flute, and Saerlith had sang, or what passed for it, of the mysterious travelling folk of Ara’s Plain.
Saerlith had entered the room first and was already undressing for the night. She turned around, fidgetting with her belt.
“Problem, Aaron?” she asked when she saw him staring uncomfortably at the bed.
“I’ll take the floor, I don’t mind”, he replied.
“Don’t be silly,” Saerlith laughed, “it’s huge. I promise I won’t try anything.”
Aaron chuckled involuntarily. Saerlith had proven remarkably at ease in most situations, and possessed an uncanny ability to draw people out of their shell and make them feel comfortable. Aaron was never really comfortable anywhere, especially not among crowds, but tonight she had gotten him up on his feet, playing and dancing, even talking briefly to the odd stranger.
“If you’re sure you don’t mind…” he smiled a bit insecurely. He thought he better keep his trousers on.
Saerlith sank back against the pillows and stared at the ceiling for a while.
“So why do you do it, Aaron?” she asked without looking at him.
It took a moment before Aaron realised what she was referring to. Oh, the stealing…
“I’m no good at anything, so I left my home. Can’t hold down a job because I have no skills, but I am not prepared to die either.”
Saerlith did not respond to this extremely short version of things.
“People don’t like me,” Aaron continued, “because I don’t really relate to them. Because I botch everything they ask me to do. I’m pretty much just a screw up, Saer.”
“Only Gellert calls me Saer”, Saerlith remarked.
“And don’t you dare call him G. I call him G.”
“Continue”, Saerlith said a bit amused. She liked poking at Aaron’s insecurity.
“There’s nothing else. That’s it.” Aaron concluded.
“Stick with me A. I’m leaving for Angêl tomorrow. Come along, learn a thing or two.” She knew it hardly sounded like a suggestion. There was probably a lot more to Aaron than he would let on, or maybe even realised. She thought he deserved for at least one person in his life to tolerate him enough for him to feel like he could stick around for a while.
“Thanks” Aaron said.
He would have to be careful. If only she knew what he really was. She would not be so keen on letting him tag along. She would probably have him arrested and taken straight to Ilyria. The Academy would not be so kind on him.