She stumbles through the blackness, hands held in front of her face to shelter herself from the unseen things in the dark. The barn is so quiet, completely quiet, save for faint rustles that let her know she is not alone. The noises remind her of her fear, keep her from collapsing where she stands.
Her outstretched palms hit against smooth, hard wood. Dizzy with hunger, she climbs over what is perhaps the door of a stall, wanders forwards. She has to keep moving. Bad things will happen if she stops moving. Her hands reach an obstacle, some sort of box fastened to a wall- scraping, scraping, her tired fingers find grain lodged into cracks of the container, a whole handful of grain that she hastily stuffs in her mouth, worried even now that someone will take it from her.
She scrunches herself up in the corner of the stall, trying to bury her toes into the safe, comforting muck and hay. Smaller and smaller. Struggling to chew the hard kernels, she spits them into her hands, trying to break them with her dirty fingernails, before losing patience and swallowing them whole. She imagines she is so insignificant that nobody will remember her. Maybe nobody would come to punish her if she didn’t do it- if she stayed here forever in the darkness and dirt, she could eat grain from the box and live here and be happy.
Something is there. Right there. She hears it moving now, she was so hungry she didn’t notice before. Her muscles tense, she leaps to her feet, eyes wide in the dark. Cautiously, she stretches her hands forwards. Her fingers catch in thick hair. A hot breath blows in her ear and her hands are gently stroking a horse’s nose. She thinks it is a horse, isn’t sure. It has been so long since she has touched a horse but she does not think she could forget. The thing nickers softly. She really thinks this is a horse. Safety tingles up her spine, across the lashes on her back, through her aching forehead, creeping its way into her bruised heart.
The horse nudges her shoulders until she nearly falls over, then shoves his silky nose against her face, smearing at her tears. She wraps her arms around his neck, crying and crying, all the tears that nobody cares about, that she has to hold back and bury deep inside her. The horse is strong and solid in the darkness, muscled side warm and soft and safe. So safe. Nobody can hurt her here. Still clinging to the horse, she shoves her fingers in the cracks of the box for more grain, swallowing another half handful and giving the rest to the horse, who licks it off her hand with velvety lips. She clutches his mane, almost asleep, so sleepy.
The horse begins to nudge her sleeve, insistent. She pats him and reaches to find whatever he is lipping, maybe grain got stuck to the cloth somehow, but when she reaches for her sleeve, she feels the binding on her wrist, the cold handle of a knife. Remembers the blade and what she has to do.
She is not safe, she is not free, she is here to do that thing she does not want to do and go back. There is no sun there. No grain to eat and her horse- who isn’t really hers, but she might as well call him that. Her horse cannot follow her. Nothing happy can, happy is not real there.
It isn’t real anywhere.
She stares at the horse who she cannot see in the dark. The horse nuzzles her head, but she has stopped crying, she can’t cry anymore,
Rasa doesn’t cry.
She shoves him away and scrabbles over the door of the stall, banging her shins, hurting her knees, out of the barn and into the enormous world that is full of blood and shadow and cruelty, where she is nothing and nobody but the knife in her hands and the scars on her back.
The bones in her wrists stand out sharply, poking against my hands as I hack at her bonds. The ropes are very tight, digging into her skin, and I shift closer, struggling to slice them. She flinches violently as I move, and I nearly cut her. Her breaths are jagged. She is too weak to pull away, but her panic is as obvious as the heat radiating from her fevered skin. Her eyes are pinned on my hands and the knife. I free her hands and ankles, step back. See her relax as I tuck the blade into my belt.
She pulls her legs against her chest, glazed eyes darting around. Shivering. Disoriented. She shakes her head frequently, as if in confusion, though she does not appear to be aware she is doing it. Her scars continue to draw my eyes. Far too many for one so young, deliberate-looking wounds that speak of terrible cruelty.
I think of the marks I glimpsed as I freed her. Burned brutally into her hand and back. The balor, a powerful general dispatched to destroy such a tiny, helpless village. Her fear. It makes little sense, if she is what I think she is. Why is she here of all places? Why is she so very young? But I know what that sygil represents, know what they use it for.
I don’t want to be right about this.
She is crying now, soft and muffled, eyes full of raw, shattered grief. I don’t know how to help her. Don’t know what I could possibly do that would not make everything so much worse. She notices me watching her, her face twists with blind panic. She presses herself against the ground, coughing- horrible hacking sounds that seem to rip her tiny frame in two. She doesn’t seem able to stop. Before I know what I am doing, I pull her to her feet, hold her skinny, scarred hands and try to calm her.
“Shhhh,” I murmur, desperately trying to reach her, “Shhhhh.”
She barely seems to notice I am here, she is choking now, she has too much smoke in her lungs and the icy air must be making it worse. I realise suddenly how very cold it is, how cold it must be for her. I need to make her warm. I have no cloak, but I unwrap my scarf from my neck with one hand, holding her up with the other. It is rumpled, damp with sweat. Clean enough. I hold the wool to her face, not wanting to smother her, loop it over her skinny shoulders. Gradually her coughing lessens, I can see her getting in breaths.
“Good girl, that’s a good girl. You’re alright, little one.”
She becomes slightly more alert as I secure the scarf, her eyes widen and she pushes me away. So afraid. I don’t want to think about why this instinct is so ingrained, don’t want to think about what happened to fill her with so much fear. She tries to stand on her own and collapses. I catch her, hold her against me. Her skin burns. She trembles, eyes slits, matted hair, breathing in ragged gulps.
I want to hug her tight and wipe the filth from her face and promise that no one will hurt her ever again. I want to chase down those monsters who scarred her skin and her soul and destroy them, make them pay in pain and blood for what they did.
I want to tell her she is safe now.
But I know she will never believe me.
I push open the door, step into the cottage. The threads of time stretch themselves taut and I see her in the moment before she reacts to my presence.
She is standing at the round glass window, leaning an elbow against the wall, still too frail to stand on her own. Her feet are bare. She stands with her weight in her toes, heels hovering just above the ground. Weak rays of winter sunlight shine through the glass. She seems so small framed in the light, even smaller than she really is, the lines of her bones sharp and pointy beneath her rumpled tunic and pants. Her hair sticks in all directions, sunlight filters through the fine dark strands. It’s always in her eyes. I wish I could braid it, but she barely let me cut the knots out. She doesn’t like to be touched.
Her hand is stretched out, fingers bright in the rays. Her eyes are half shut, she seems hesitant, cautious. As if the sun could vanish with a thought. It is as if she has barely seen the sun, doesn’t know what to make of it.
I realise this is likely.
Her hair and eyelashes glow. The sun splashes her nose, her sharp cheekbones, the palm of her hand, the knife scar across her cheek. Her brown eyes are stormy and sad and dark with ghosts.
The door shuts behind me with a muffled clunk. The threads snap, the moment shatters. Her head jerks towards me. She startles, scurries to the far wall of the cottage, face closed and fearful. That tiny whisper of her soul disappearing behind those eyes.
A bit of backstory
Jheri was a skilled mercenary of indeterminate years, known to the city as the person you hired when you wanted something underhanded done and were willing to fork over a lot of coin. A lithe silver dragonborn, she was attractive and mysterious, and would have surely had her pick of friends and lovers, despite her slightly criminal job description. But she seemed to keep mostly to herself. Other than a few words exchanged here and there with the shopkeeps whose stalls she frequented, she was usually alone. Until one day she appeared to buy bread in the market with a fragile-looking human child, who hid in her shadow and stared at the world with wary brown eyes.
The child was odd, everyone said. She had scars on her face. She growled when touched, flinched whenever someone smiled at her, and met people’s eyes with such intensity and ferocity that it made them nervous. She rarely spoke, and when she did it was haltingly, with an odd accent no one recognised. People who had overheard Jheri speak to her whispered that it wasn’t in the city’s tongue, and that the child had responded in snarls and hisses. Rumors swirled around her arrival in the city. She came from a village, somebody had heard, one of the many raided by demons. Jheri had gone to stop the raid. Some said she’d found the child alone, curled in the ashes of the burned huts, eyes glowing.
She was a witch, they speculated. Blood full of dark magic so she couldn’t be killed. Some swore otherwise, that Jheri was harboring the very demon who had razed the village. When these stories came too close to Jheri’s ears, she was quick to defend and dissuade. Nobody quite believed her. Mercenaries were sketchy types, easy liars. But nevertheless, they tried to keep their opinions closer to their chests, out of fear of Jheri’s sword.
The child didn’t seem to notice the way people looked at her, and if she did, she didn't care. She followed Jheri about her business like a breathing shadow, tense and quiet. Nobody ever saw her smile.
She crouches uncomfortably at the edge of the chair, ready to flee at any sign of danger. Peeks out at Jheri from behind strands of her hair.
Jheri pushes a clay cup across the table towards her. Cautiously, Rasa wraps her hands around it. Warm. Filled with white liquid, foamy on the top. She gives it a tentative sniff.
“Milk,” Jheri says. Rasa blinks, she doesn’t know what that is. “Drink it. It’ll help you get stronger.”
Obediently, Rasa sips at the liquid. Warm, sweet and sharp on her tongue. It makes her feel warmer. She remembers now, she has had it before, it brings back vague feelings of being very small, being carried, gazing up at huge furry animals.
She looks quickly up at Jheri, then back at the milk. Drinks it in quick gulping sips.
A little scene
Rasa squats near the hearth, the fire warm at her back. Rubbing her tunic’s embroidered sleeve, she stares up into the light cast by the lamp flame, watching Jheri. She is sharpening her sword, strong, taloned hands sending the sword flashing across the stone.
Snick. Snick. Snick.
Bits of steel fall through the flickering lamplight. Jheri’s eyes are slits, focused on the edge of the blade, she deftly strikes it against the stone, making her way up the sword’s length. Rasa watches, entranced. Jheri is strong and can do everything.
Jheri won’t hurt her with the blade, even when it’s sharp enough.
Jheri glances down at her, Rasa shifts her eyes away, bites her hand. A sword clinks to rest against the sharpening stone. Feet shuffle on the floorboards. Then Jheri is crouching in front of her, silver dust falling from her smock, silver shoulders shining in the firelight.
“Hey,” she touches Rasa’s face, brushes the hair out of her eyes. “What are you doing?” Rasa stills as Jheri touches her hair, it feels nice, Jheri is gentle. She wonders why Jheri is always so gentle. “Will you sleep? It’s very late, Rashenka.” Shyly, Rasa reaches out a hand and brushes metal from Jheri’s smock. She wants to stay with Jheri, she wants to watch. She doesn’t like sleeping. She edges closer to Jheri and looks at her pleadingly. Jheri takes her hand, “Alright, you don’t have to.” She gestures to the table, the sharpening stone. “Help me with my sword?”
Help Jheri. Rasa nods and nods again. Help Jheri. She scrambles up and into the chair. Jheri’s arms wrap around her shoulders, helping her hands grip the heavy sword in the right place. Rasa runs the blade over the stone, the leather grip soft in her hand, the edge of the blade sparkling with metal dust, watching Jheri’s hands cover her own.
She squirms in her chair, trying to see Jheri over her shoulder, “I- I am making it sharp?”
Jheri’s eyes are warm, “Yes.”
“I have something for you.” Jheri reaches for a blade sheathed beside her sword, draws it, arcs it through the air. Light glints off the metal. She holds it out to Rasa, smiles when she takes it. Rasa looks at the blade in her hands. It’s a sword, she realises, a small sword.
“You’re getting stronger, little one. A sword will protect you better when you fight.”
Rasa turns the blade, it is heavy. She glances at Jheri, shifts the sword to one of her hands. Is she really getting stronger? She tries to spin the blade like Jheri did, biting her lip in concentration, gloved palm wrapped tight around the leather grip. It is hard to hold right, hard to make move. But Jheri fights with a sword. She fought the demon with a sword.
Rasa touches the edge of the thin blade, the skin on her fingers breaking when it brushes the metal. She touches it again. Sets her teeth as it cuts her, watches her blood drip from the blade, the hurt makes her feel a little less empty. So sharp.
Jheri grabs her bleeding hand, holds it tightly for a moment, “Don’t.”
She crouches beside her and Rasa sucks her fingers, coppery blood in her mouth.
Jheri buckles the sword’s scabbard to Rasa’s belt. She takes the blade from her hand, tucks it into the scabbard. Stands. Wraps Rasa’s hand around the grip. Rasa feels the weight of the blade at her side, something twists in her chest. She reaches for Jheri, clings to the front of her cloak, tries to make Jheri understand with her eyes.
Jheri rubs Rasa’s hair, “Hey, Rasa.”
More random nonsense
I climb the rise in the chest-high snow and look back. She is scrambling through the tracks I made, the snow around her taller than her head, a small dark shape against the blindingly white drifts. She squints up at me and redoubles her efforts, throwing herself through the snow until she reaches me. She is panting, louder than she should be; I feel a slight increase in warmth as she leans against my side. Her hood has fallen off. She stares up at me with wide eyes and launches herself into the snow in front of us, nearly disappearing into it. I realize she’s attempting to clear a path for me.
I follow her and lift her out of the snow before she can get any further, swing her onto my back. She rests her chin on my shoulder and regards me seriously. Her breathing is still too heavy, her thin chest rapidly rises and falls against my shoulder blades.
“Are you cold?”
I pull her hood back up and plunge forward into the snow.
Fire flickers in the hearth, golden-red flames casting a dancing glow across the small cottage. Nearest the fireplace is a table. It is nicked and scarred, the worn wood bearing the marks of blades, the stains of ink, water, and polish. A dirty rag and a bowl of oil rest on the wood. Two clay mugs sit nearby, one half full of tea. It steams, still hot, adding the scent of jasmine to the air.
The wall adjacent to the fireplace is nearly covered in shelves of books. Their covers, inlaid with precious metals, sparkle in the flames. Several stacks of larger books sit near a rolled-up rug at the shelves’ base. The stained floorboards are soft with age, smooth grain broken only by a sturdy trapdoor set in the floor, directly in front of the hearth. Overhead, pale rafters stretch beneath the slope of the roof. They are bare, save for a red and brown blanket draped near the chimney, slightly crumpled, as if someone has been perching up there and left it behind.
The windows on either side of the heavy door are wooden, closed, shutters bolted. The window in the wall opposite the fireplace is glass, round, glinting in the double light from the fire and the snow outside. A simple bed is in the corner nearest, thick wool blankets rumpled. Opposite it, a chest of drawers and a small wooden trunk, the wood a soft golden color. The trunk has been left open. Inside, there is a stack of clothes, several daggers tossed on top. A pair of small, light boots.
The fire crackles. The warm air is cloaked in the faint scents of tea, wool, and metal. On the other side of the closed door, two sets of fresh footprints make their way down the snowy path. The first are large with faint impressions of claws, spaced far apart as if the creature is taking long strides. The second are much fainter, barely there. Someone light enough to barely make an impression in the packed, icy snow. The small boot prints are scuffed, as if walking quickly to keep up.
The footprints reach the snowy street and turn left. In the distance, two figures are visible. One tall and lithe, walking with purpose, a child hurrying at its side. The figures continue on, until they are lost in the mist.