Keri

Neither Melissa nor Keri paid much attention to Talya once she got out of the bath, other than to briefly notice how cold it was getting in the room. The temperature drop did confuse Keri, as she had expected the inn to be well prepared for the winter cold. But, the comment that Melissa had made, distracted her from particularities like poorly insulated rooms. Though no doubt she would want to reconsider that as soon as it was time for herself to leave the hot water.

Scooting a little closer to Melissa, so she did not have to talk above a whisper, she asked, “why did you say that thing about … animals?”

Melissa took her time to think over her answer. Keri could practically see the thoughts chase each other over the tall woman’s face.

“Teaching is animals self creating are,” she finally answered.

Keri puffed a breath that briefly created a thin cloud in the cold air.

“Self creating,” she mused out loud, or as loud as the whisper they were talking in anyway.

Melissa didn’t look like she was enjoying the direction the discussion was taking, but, Keri noticed with relief, she was not getting away from the bath and the discussion. She also waited for Keri to actually ask a question. This ability to simply wait was something Keri had noticed in Talya too. She distracted herself for a moment with wondering if there was a relation between that and their similar style of clothing.

Shaking herself mentally she dragged her attention back to the subject at hand. It was only Melissa’s discomfort with the subject that made her subconsciously want to turn to other, safe, topics. Keri normally would have listened to that internal voice to back off and ask her questions more obliquely, but here she knew she did not have the time to unearth the blonde woman’s secrets more carefully.

“When you say self creating do you mean … children?” she hazarded.

Melissa nodded, “With animals, two new life create. Plants also do. Goddess not creating.” she hesitated, “Plants animals are, you think?”

That startled a laugh out of Keri, “No. no. Plants are … Let me start again. I’ve been taught that plants can’t move and don’t need anything to grow except for soil and rain. Animals, they are able to move because they need to find something else to eat. Be it a plant or other animals.”

Seeing the expression on Melissa’s face Keri sighed. She had made her explanation too complicated again for the woman’s limited grasp of the eastern trade language.

Explaining a year’s worth of study of herb lore and animal health and natural dangers in words more suited to an eight year old took up a while. Keri began to worry that she’d run out of time talking about the topic that she began to understand was at the root of Melissa’s misunderstanding of, well, almost everything.

“Melissa,” she finally interrupted a question, “you said we are animals in your understanding.” She resisted the urge to explain that in every way that the bards thought about the subject they considered humans to be animals as well, even if it did not make many of the religions happy. “Do you mean to say that you … are not?”

Melissa did look sour at being asked that question. Apparently this was a big part of why the entire subject made her unhappy.

“Halfbreed am,” she said simply, as if it was all the answer that was required.

It was Keri’s turn to look nonplussed and Melissa’s to sigh mentally.

“Halfbreeds animal born are,” was said with obvious distaste. “Understand, not fully animal we are. But Sisters only goddess creates.” Melissa clarified. There was a hesitation at the final statement, Keri noticed, maybe a glossing over a complication, or something Melissa didn’t want to elaborate on.

Keri ignored it, partially out of respect for the woman’s desires and the feeling that the details were not all that important. Besides, the fact that Melissa was holding back on something was completely lost on the enormity of what she had just all but admitted to. That she was not human, or at least not fully human.

Keri did not know what to make of this. The concept of non-human intelligence was, quite literally, something out of myths. For generations now the oldest tales — dating back to before the Kingdom’s founding — that spoke freely of non-humans being involved in that founding had been dismissed as fancy-full embellishments to make the house of Kings appear more special to the commoners. Even as children’s tales they had not been told or sung for far longer than any bard could remember, and were only taught as part of the study of formal composition theory.

And with a few words Melissa had swept away all that certainty, leaving behind … nothing.

“If I hadn’t seen actual magic these past days,” she admitted, “I wouldn’t have been able to believe you when you say you’re not a human.”

“Not am!” Melissa said forcefully. Being human clearly was a bad thing in her mind.

“You guard the borders of your forest against humans, don’t you?” Keri guessed.

A terse nod was all the answer she got, and all the answer she really needed. Besides she was busy trying to work out for herself how she felt sitting naked in a hot bath within easy, even intimate, touching distance of somebody who claimed not being human. She needed to come to some kind of conclusion before she could decide how to move forward from here.

She already realised that she had no doubts that Melissa’s claim was true, and not some delusional fantasy from a deeply disturbed mind. All the little things where Melissa had shown herself to be just that little different now suddenly started to make sense in the light of this world changing revelation.

‘I can’t see her as a monster’, Keri further realised. ‘And it isn’t because she looks human either’. Melissa had shown herself, over the past days, to be courageous and supportive and, to use a word that was suddenly horribly inappropriate, humane. It was hard to see her as ‘other’ when compared that all that had transpired in the scramble for survival.

The fact also worked in Melissa’s favour that she had not heard a single story from the eastern lands about something like Melissa, or about anything non-human really that wasn’t equally mythical in those lands as it was in the Kingdom. Anything out there that was actually hostile to humans would have left stories behind that found their way eventually to the bardic conservatory where songs and stories were collected even from lands far further away than Melissa seemed to have come from.

‘I wanted a story that I could create an epic song out of,” Keri said to herself, feeling a little foolish both for having the wish to begin with and for resenting having it granted.

“So, you’re not a human. And you’re happy not to be,” Keri quickly amended her careless opening statement to prevent the blonde from getting exasperated again. “Does that mean there are many others? Non-humans I mean. And … how do they manage to hide from us? Or where are they all?”

Melissa blew out a bit of steam, “Not certain know. Sisters I mean. Goddess words they have. Share they not do.”

“But if you were to guess?”

Melissa thought a long time about answering that question before finally saying, “When world from old one lifted was, mostly humans escaped. That rumour is.”

“Thank you,” Keri said. She had a lot to think about and even more to research in the oldest sections of lore back in the conservatory. Talya had hinted at a similar mythology when she reluctantly explained a little about what she thought the darkness was that had been stalking them. With one coming from the north and another from the east it stood to reason that there should be echoes of the religious faith to be found in the oldest mythologies that were no longer be used for songs and stories but that were still carefully preserved in the archives.

She was about to repeat her question about where the non-humans had gone if by the oldest stories she knew of there had been some in plain sight that long ago, but the sound of people chatting and the front door opening and closing repeatedly interrupted her.

“We better get out of the bath,” she said reluctantly. “Unless you want to share it with others. Male others,” she clarified. “They will be delighted to see us.”

Keri debated internally about being more blunt about it. Not that the men coming in were likely to turn violent, but finding a nude woman in their bath would still raise the expectations of certain possibilities. She herself had not normally much of any problem dealing with those expectations. Had in fact on plenty of occasions given in to them, but right now she was not in the mood, and she was still feeling too tired and drained to try to dance that particular dance around the expectations. Melissa, she suspected, was even less likely to take kindly to propositions.

“Brandt and Oboru are like these males, yes?” Melissa wanted the confirmation that her equally overturned world view had now been aligned correctly with Keri’s.

Keri nodded.

“Trouble they are,” Melissa concluded. “Killing them I not want.”

Keri spat out a bit of water faintly smelling of sulphur that had got in her mouth when it fell open with her being submerged as deeply as she could and still keep half her head above water.

“No killing,” she cautioned Melissa. “Unless you see Brandt fight somebody.”

That wasn’t quite the way she wanted Melissa to learn human laws, but for right now it was the quickest short cut to morality for somebody who, Keri had come to realise, viewed humans only as invaders and people to kill.

Melissa nodded curtly and got up, wading to the opposite edge of the bath to where the towels and their clothes had been stashed on shelves.

Keri took the opportunity to study the tall woman. She’d seen her naked before of course, Melissa certainly seemed to lack the entire concept of nudity and body awareness, but now with the new knowledge she looked at her to see where she differed from humans.

There was some steam rising from Melissa’s body as the hot water that still clung to her rapidly lost its heat in the freezing air. It wasn’t enough to obscure her, not even to noticeably blur her visibility. Keri couldn’t see anything about Melissa’s body that set her apart from a regular human woman. All the expected curves where in place, if perhaps a bit on the low end of the human range. Without getting inexcusably rude, and getting justifiably hurt by Melissa, she could not check if the less immediately visible qualities were equally human.

What was obvious under the close, if brief, scrutiny she was giving Melissa was the heavy muscles and the faded scars that Keri had only ever seen on seasoned veterans, and never on another woman. Except, she realised, on Talya. Both women, one almost unnaturally tall, the other petite enough to be mistaken for a girl by the inattentive, had the muscles and scars of a soldier who had been endlessly trained and who had seen a lot of combat. If she ever were to lure Brandt in a bath with her, she expected to see the same kind of thing on him, though obviously more pronounced and masculine on him.

Before her staring by itself could become unacceptably rude, and because it hadn’t answered her question, in fact had made her doubt again Melissa’s claim of not being fully human, Keri stood up, letting the steaming water slough off her.

She gasped as the cold hit her. “Gah, it’s cold,” she exclaimed.

Melissa turned around and asked, “Your self you not can warm make?”

“Can you do that?” Melissa asked incredulously.

As answer Melissa held out her arm which was smooth where Keri’s arm she kept it next to was goose bumped. Keri could feel the heat radiating from the other woman’s body.

Not human, Keri thought to herself and hurriedly grabbed a towel.

“Well, humans can’t do that kind of thing,” Keri said, taking care to keep her chagrin out of her voice. “We get cold and if I keep standing around here much longer I think my toes will start to freeze.”

She decided to not care about the cost of additional laundry and tossed her towel on the ground to stand on after a cursory wiping off the worst of the water clinging to her torso. Not losing sensation in her feet as they slowly froze was more important than a handful of coppers.

“Tired I get,” Melissa offered. “For sky thumb length only I do.”

Keri had no idea what a sky thumb might be and was too busy towelling herself dry to ask. Probably some weird mistranslation for a short period of time, if what Melissa had told could make any sense. Knowing that Melissa would get cold shortly did not make her feel any better herself, though it did explain how she had ended up almost blue with cold the morning after that miserable night they had spent huddling under something that could not be called a tent by even the most generous of interpretations.

With a sigh of relieve Keri pulled her wool shift over her head. It itched a little but it would keep her warm like no other clothes she owned would. And, she had paid a great deal for the finest wool that could be bought for any price.

By the time Keri was fully dressed with a towel wrapped around her head to keep her damp hair from getting frozen in the draft leaking through the poorly joined thin wall panels and thick glass panes, Melissa was waiting for her. Bow in hand because she had flat out refused to part from her weapon no matter what the innkeeper tried to explain to her about town laws. Melissa could not be swayed, or be made to see reason. When it became clear that she would turn right around and marched back down the mountain if that was the alternative to giving up her bow Talya, of all people, had interfered. She had asked if Melissa needed to keep her arrows with her in the same way and, when that answer was a simple ‘no’, had asked the innkeeper what good a bow was without arrows. Especially when compared to arrows without a bow, or a dagger or even an eating knife, all of which they were allowed to keep with them. The innkeeper had admitted that the bow clearly was the lesser weapon that way. When he had continued to make an issue of it despite the logic Brandt had taken him aside and whispered to him for some time. Whatever he had said had almost caused the innkeeper’s eyes to pop out of their sockets, they were opened that wide in surprise. Combined with a sizeable surety for their conduct they finally been allowed to hire two of the, what the innkeeper had called ‘summer rooms’, and Melissa could keep her bow with her.

She had not parted from it at all before or since. Even in the bath it had been within easy grabbing distance at all time. Keri did not know much about bows, but enough to know that getting them wet could warp and ruin them. Melissa’s bow looked less like a bow and more like, well, nothing she had ever seen. And either Melissa didn’t care about it getting wet or was not worried about ruining it that way.

“Melissa,” Keri said softly, for she could now hear voices and heavy footsteps heading their way through the short corridor separating the bathing room from the inn proper, “don’t mention anything about what you just told me to anybody else. A lot of humans will not react … well … to hearing you are not human, or not fully human.”

“Tell not would,” the tall woman agreed. “Goddess tell to me you awared.”

“Just let me think a bit how we can best inform the others,” Keri offered.

“And awared? You probably meant made aware?”

Melissa shrugged. She clearly had heard the voices as well, maybe even earlier than Keri had. She was tense and her hand hovered near the grip of her combat knife, which she carried in a sheath at the small of her back, not one hanging from her belt like normal people.

Not wanting to get crowded in the bathing room, though how much better the corridor was compared to that was at best debatable, Keri opened the door. The first of the men she saw, a wealthy merchant by the look of his clothes, had his disappointment at seeing two women leaving the bath flash over his face before he schooled it back into a studied neutrality. Keri was glad they’d left in time. A man like that would not see guests but ‘bath attendants’ and make certain assumptions based on that, which would get awkward for her, and with Melissa thrown into the situation quite possibly could have turned ugly with the woman’s practically non-existent understanding of human behaviour and generally suspicious attitude. And with her first experience of baths and a roaring drunk merc, Keri could not exactly blame the blonde for overreacting. The merc had ended up being killed with terrifying efficiency. A merchant trying to paw the blonde would not survive any longer, but would bring down a lot more trouble on their heads even in death.

And Keri didn’t need to look at herself or at Melissa, to know that their appearance would send confusing signals at the least, to any reasonably rich man used to certain … deferences. She herself was dressed in her performing clothes, those being the only reasonably clean ones she had left while her travel gear was being cleaned. And while the wool shift she wore underneath looked decidedly odd, there was no way around the fact that she was wearing clothes intended to draw attention to her, and to the fact that she was a woman several steps below the respectability of the ladies he probably catered to.

Melissa was wearing something so out of the ordinary that no woman in the entire Kingdom owned something like it, never mind been willing to be seen in public dressed like that. It wasn’t the fact that she was wearing pants, out on the farms women often did for the many jobs where skirts would get in the way. It was simply that while not tight, Melissa’s clothes were far more form fitting than any woman would want to wear. Talya was wearing something very much like it, or she had been until the first day in town, after that she had dressed in something more conservative and proper for a woman of moderate standing, though Keri couldn’t tell where she had found those as she didn’t have a pack large enough to hold a bulky change of clothes and had not left the inn to buy clothes either, assuming she had even been able to find her way around the maze that was Glivenr.

‘At least she’s not wearing that gauze scarf shift she was wearing that first night’, Keri said to herself philosophically. ‘That really would have caused problems’.

Nodding politely to the men who made just enough room for them to pass without being forced to brush against them, a big advantage of staying in an upper class inn like this, Keri made her way down the corridor, Melissa following her like a silent, and tense, ghost.

“Let’s grab a table,” she said as they reached the other door. “Preferably one close to the hearth and big enough for five. They’ll be hungry from their afternoon spent running around in the cold.”

“We probably should have gotten out of out bath a little sooner,” Keri commented, after looking over the inn’s main room. It wasn’t crowded, not yet, but it certainly was filling up. A table near the fire was out of the question already.

Keri glanced at Melissa who had drawn up beside her, but the woman looked pained and was clearly not going to offer an opinion. She was more likely to turn around and flee in fact.

A harried looking innkeeper came running and obsequiously greeted a nobleman and his entourage. Keri quickly pulled Melissa out of the way before the noble, more more accurately his guard, push them aside.

“Of course my Lord, I kept the King’s Room for you as you requested this morning,” he said, bowing deeply.

“Yes my Lord, he did come and demand a private room. I told him, truthfully, that I have no rooms to let tonight.”

‘Well, there goes that plan,’ Keri said to herself, and headed to a smallish free table. There clearly was not going to be a private room tonight. Not that they really could afford the fee the innkeeper was likely to ask when the place was going to be as crowded as could be expected from the weather. And looking at the people coming in after them, the weather was indeed pretty bad. Most were still shaking off snow as they entered the inn room.

Keri had just ordered a pitcher of beer and a cheap dinner for five — which raised the eyebrows of the even more harried waitress — when Brandt and Oboru came in. They had shrugged out of their snow-caked coats but were still trailing water, and trying to keep their soaked hair out of their eyes.

Brandt was taller than just about everybody in the room, and Melissa was equally easy to spot, so it took him only a moment to locate them. Making his way through the crowd without drenching anybody on the way took a bit longer.

“You three made the right decision. Weather is awful,” Brandt announced as he sat down. “Wait, where’s Talya?”

Keri shrugged, “She got tired of being warm and announced she was going out. I’m guessing we’ll see her soon if the weather is as bad as you say it is.” she nodded at his cloak, which he had set against the wall and was still standing upright from all the snow.

Brandt scowled, “She’ll get lost in town and then we’ll have to try to find her In the snow. It’ll be waist high by morning.”

Keri grinned, “Have a little faith in her. She’ll find her way back just by following the crowd. Hard to miss that even in a snowstorm.”

Brandt made a huffing sound.

“What’s your problem with her anyway?” Keri asked.

He grimaced, “She’s not part of the team, doing what she wants instead of listening to me and follow the plan.”

Keri hid a grin at that chagrined admission. Melissa was not so polite. Which incidentally also reinforced Keri’s notion that the tall woman was a lot smarter than her poor grasp of the language suggested.

Deciding that a change of topic might be a good idea, Keri asked the men, “How was the fair this afternoon?”

Brandt briefly glanced at Oboru for confirmation before answering, “It was odd. I hadn’t noticed it yesterday, but a lot of people were nervous, I guess. I’d call it desperate but it wasn’t that strong. Just a general air that was a little off.”

Keri noticed that Brandt had dropped his lower class accent, that had always sounded a little studied to her and subconsciously had adopted the kind of upper class speech that was used by most customers in the inn. Fallen back into it, was her impression. It really seemed to be an afternoon for confirming things she already suspected about her companions. In Brandt’s case that he was likely some nobility, and had grown up in those circles rather than being a neglected bastard as she had first thought, and he had worked hard to suggest. She filed that thought away for later. Because if true the list of people Brandt could actually be had gotten a lot shorter.

What Brandt had said also was troubling. The Glivenr fair was actually one of the earliest autumn fairs in the country, due to the need to get off the mountain before winter arrived, and so both townsfolk and traders tended to be calm and, well, happy. A scared or nervous mood didn’t fit with what she expected. And there wasn’t a reason for it that she could think of either. There were no rumours of unrest of out-kingdom problems. The harvest had been, if not good, then certainly not worse than any other year. Certainly good enough that hunger wasn’t going to be an issue this winter either.

“Maybe the snowstorm tonight is not the first sign of winter setting in early this year?” she mused. She wasn’t convinced of that explanation though. She’d come down from Aeldburh this fall and had experienced no indications of early cold, not even in the high mountains she could see to her right as she travelled south.

Still, the snowstorm that was lashing the town was a bit on the early side. Not quite impossibly early but certainly a week or two ahead of schedule so to speak.

Brandt shrugged, “Can’t tell. It wasn’t like this a couple of weeks ago when we, I, left Glivenr for the forest road and Hillstead. Mood in the town was of eager anticipation of the fall fair.”

Keri was surprised and knew her expression showed it, “You planned to pick up another caravan? How’d you hoped to get them all around the forest and up the mountain before winter?”

Brandt shrugged, “that was the captain’s decision, but my guess would be he planned cutting through the Swartevelle hills and then high tail it out of Glivenr escorting a gem trader to Kingstown.”

That sounded rather dangerous to Keri, there was a reason why the trade road took the long way around those hills and added weeks of travel time to the journey, but, she guessed, with thirty mercenaries escorting a caravan the odds were small of any of the bandit groups hiding in the heavily forested hills actually trying to rob them.

“Well, with the winter apparently setting in early,” Keri began, then stopped as her thoughts caught up with her mouth. It was the second time in as many days that she said something without thinking about it. That really was becoming a bad and dangerous habit. And, she needed to only look at Brandt’s pained expression that she hadn’t checked her mouth soon enough and reminded him that several, and quite possibly all, of his former comrades were dead instead of escorting a trade caravan through dangerous bandit territory.

“Sorry,” was all she could say. Meaning it but hating how hollow it sounded.

“Not your fault,” Brandt muttered.

Both Oboru and Melissa looked at them with mild confusion for the shift to the unvoiced events that they either did not understand or were not even present for. Before either of them could ask for clarification both Talya and a waitress appeared at the table.

Talya brought with her a damp cold. The waitress plunked on the table a much more welcome pitcher of bread and a small pot with steaming hot vegetable and chicken in red wine stew. A cheap local dish that Keri had specifically asked for because it would hold even if the others had not arrived for another hour or two.

“Streets are getting close to impassable,” Talya announced. She picked up Brandt’s mug, sniffed at the beer and put it back down again, wrinkling her nose in an expression that had to be deliberately exaggerated seeing how controlled she normally was.

Brandt visibly reined in his irritation at the woman’s provocation and said, “Trash collectors are going to clean up the major streets as soon as the snow stops.”

“Well, from the way it looks it’ll still be snowing tomorrow morning.”

“I hope not,” Keri said. “Wintering here is expensive and I was planning to make it to Kingstown before the roads get too bad.”

“This snow, this cold, it’s not natural,” Oboru commented unexpectedly.

“Are you talking magic?” Brandt asked him. He wasn’t quite dismissive, but he clearly wasn’t quite ready to accept the reality of magic. Or perhaps, Keri decided, he was as uncertain as she was about the extent of what this magic could achieve now that they were forced to accept it was more than those sleight of hand tricksters trying to bilk the gullible.

“Weather magic is difficult and dangerous,” Oboru said with perfect seriousness and politely ignoring Brandt’s veiled disbelief. “I never cared to deal with it myself.”

Frowning in thought he added after a moment’s consideration, “if there was any magic to be found around here I’d be looking for a mage. A powerfully careless one.”

“Brown man right is,” Melissa said. “Air … hollow is. Cold from white mountain down flow, to hollow fill. All day worse getting feel I could.”

Talya paled. “Careless magic,” she said. “Sounds familiar?”

Everybody was silent, spoons and mugs frozen halfway up or down.

Finally Brandt shook himself, “let’s not see monsters in every shadow. We don’t know if any of this is even true. Early snow is far from uncommon here in the mountains.”

Oboru and Melissa shook their heads a little but kept quiet.

“Anyway,” Brandt continued, a little too loudly, “I should be able to visit the Magistrate’s office tomorrow. You’ll have to come with me Melissa, but we should be able to get your status sorted out.”

Foreseeing Melissa not understanding some, or all, of what Brandt just told, Keri set out to clarify it to her. Letting her own meal get cold while the others dug into theirs. It was somewhat easier not to resent this now she knew how much more alien all this city had to be to her.

Still, it would be nice, she thought, if the others would be more considerate and pick simpler words when talking to her.

The strum of a guitar cut through the chatter that, crowded as the room was, more resembled shouting than the quiet conversation found on normal evenings.

Keri perked up. She would recognise that guitar and those chords any time unless her hearing was gone completely with her dotage.

“Excuse me,” she said, picking up her bowl and bread. “I believe I have a prior engagement tonight.”

When everybody stared at her with various degrees of curiosity and blank confusion, she added, “Master Bard Lonwellyn is performing here tonight. He was one of my teachers at the conservatory. He also is one of the premier lore masters outside of the halls of lore in the conservatory.”

She didn’t add that the master was one of her dearest friends and that he, she knew, viewed her as one of his adopted children. That was personal and not something she cared to share with any but the very small circle of intimate friends she had found among the bards and travelling minstrels.

As far s Keri was concerned meeting him here was the first genuinely good thing that had happened since the past sevenday.

“Keri, love,” the master boomed out, “I did not expect you here. I thought you were on your way to Kingstown?”

Keri smiled, “Long story master.”

“So formal, Keri?” he said.

“It really is a long story Syts,” she amended. “And not one best told in this environment.”

He narrowed his eyes, looking her over sharply and taking in the signs of exhaustion and lingering fear, that a mere day and a half at rest had not been able to erase.

“Enough games then,” he said soberly. “Would you care to join me tonight?”

Keri nodded. “I would love to,” she said. “Though I must warn you that I have not had as much chance to practice as I like.”

He laughed softly, “then we shall improvise together. I am out here this season to remind me of what it means to make music for an audience less jaded than a noble’s court.”

Keri smiled softly, “Want me to get my travelling harp or my guitar? I’ve a room nearby so I can be back in a moment.”

“I think, love, that it would be good for both of us if you sung tonight and I accompany you.”

 

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