by Jonny Capps
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #2099568
A woman searches for her identity in a world that's designed for her failure.
| She ran. That was all that she could think to do.|
The stench of the sewer system that she was running through crawled into her nose and festered, like an unwanted growth of pungent meat and aged deification. Northclimb had not preformed sewage maintenance any time recently, and it had gotten to the point where the entire city smelled of the foulness to a certain extent. She had thought that this would make her time in the sewer easier, since her nose had become accustomed to the stench. She was wrong; the smell was almost overpowering. Still, if she had any chance of coming out of this with any semblance of an identity remaining, she would need to get through this.
She did her best to avoid the blackened water, sticking to the edges of the tunnel as much as possible. While they had never been proven true (since no one in their right mind entered the sewer system any longer), the stories that she'd heard of what lived in the bowels were the things of nightmares. She doubted the stories had any truth to them, but it was better to be safe than digested.
They were no longer chasing her. She had lost them about half a mile from the sewer's entrance, but she could still hear the sounds of them in her head, chasing her. There had been eight of them this time, each more repugnant than the last. They had come to her, assuming (as most men did) that she would be glad to have them and, when she had refused them, they had begun to mock her, calling her things like “nameless” and “street crust”. Those were likely the worst things that they could think to call her. Had she not been so used to hearing those insults already, they might have offended her. Unfortunately for her, she'd grown a hardened skin to such terms. When she had begun to leave the area, the group of eight had begun to chase her, each one screaming that they would give her a name, if only she would lay with them. Many others had made that offer before, and recanted. After the last time that she had been fooled, she had promised herself that it would never happen again. Now she was running, running toward a fool's errand, because it was the only hope that she had left.
A sound to her left made her startle slightly, causing her to lose her footing. The tip of her right boot grazed the water, and she dropped to her knees to avoid any further contact. Looking toward the sound, her fear subsided when she saw that it was only a firemander, crawling away from her to avoid any further disturbance. Despite the blazing warning color of their skin, firemanders were virtually harmless, provided one avoided being bitten by them. She knew about the bites, having treated several victims herself. She also knew that the only likely way to be bitten is if one is foolish enough to attempt picking one up. She may have no name at the moment, but she was not a fool. Rising to her feet, she started toward her destination once more, walking this time. She was tired from running, tired of running, tired of settling, tired of living this life. There needed to be something more.
She had been walking for at least another hour before she noticed a light in the distance. With a smile, she picked up her pace. Others had warned her to not attempt this quest, since none had completed it alive. It would be better for her to find a name in another way, through marriage or as a concubine, or even at a brothel somewhere. There was nothing and no one to be found in Northclimb, however, especially for a widow who had lost her name in tragedy. No brothel would have her, and no man would wed her without a brothel's endorsement. Since this was the only way to leave Northclimb without a name, it was her only option.
As she drew closer to the light, her anxiety began to take grow stronger. What if she was not ready for this journey? Had she not only chose to come here on an impulse, to avoid the eight? She had not been trained to go on quests; she had only ever known her place, as Aarythe had commanded, so she had been taught. What if this was folly? No one completes the quest, and it was naive to think that she would be different. She ought to simply turn around, and resign herself to having no name until one of the cretins who promised her one actually held to their word.
She was considering turning around and heading back the way she came when a noise from the water made her reconsider. The low grumble from the stagnant filth caused fingers of ice to dig into her spine, and they refused to release. As the fine hair on her arms began to dance, she saw something else: dozens of firemanders. They ignored her completely, as firemanders were prone to do, choosing instead to flee from the water in panicked masses, scurrying up the sides of the sewer and along the edges, away from the area as quickly as imaginable. Breathing in deeply, she examined the water. She was greeted by the same sight that she'd seen since she'd entered: it was not moving, there were no extraneous ripples, but that meant nothing. Something had made the noise, and she was not about to remain in place to discover what it was. Her decision was made quickly: she began to run again, heading, as before, toward the light.
She could see the grate from which the light was pouring up ahead of her, when she heard the grumbling sound again. This time, it was louder, closer, and she could see the water begin to ripple. She dove forward, reaching the grate. It was locked, covered on the opposite side by an ornate curtain. Panicked, she began to bang on the grate in desperation.
“Let me in,” she screamed as loudly as she could through her panting breaths.
“Please,” she begged. “help me!”
“I do not want to be eaten!” she was shocked to hear herself say.
After what felt an eternity, she heard rustling from the other side. “I came down here, so I wouldn't be disturbed,” came a female voice from the other side, in a bitter and hushed tone, as if the speaker were talking to themselves.
“Who is this?” the woman asked, from the other side of the curtain.
She froze when she heard the question. How could she answer that? She had no name and, according to her culture under the laws of Aarythe, no identity.
“I am a woman,” she replied as quickly as possible, “and I believe I'm in danger!”
“Oh,” the voice replied. “Well, I suppose that's a good enough answer.”
As she saw the curtain being pulled aside and the door through the grate unlocked, she heard something behind her breaking through the water, and the air was filled with a horrific hissing. Neglecting to take a moment to thank the woman for granting her entrance, she dove through the grate, landing on a soft carpet. Rolling onto her back, she was witness to the beast which had been following her: a large, albino serpent glared at her host, flicking it's tongue and hissing aggressively. The woman appeared to be unimpressed.
“Shoo,” the woman commanded the snake. “Go on, get out of here! No one is impressed with your bravado!”
To her shock, the snake shut it's mouth almost immediately, and turned away, returning to the sewer water. The woman closed the grate door, pulled the curtain back into place, and turned to face her, chuckling.
“He does like to scare people sometimes, and he gets so few opportunities,” the woman laughed as she stepped away from the grate and toward the carpet. “If you know how to speak to him, though, he's virtually harmless.”
“Is he--” she stuttered as she struggled to sit up, “--is he like a pet?”
“Oh, no, dearest,” the woman replied. “He's no one's pet at all. We simply have a healthy respect for one another.”
She nodded, and began to stand up. Her host approached her, offering a hand to aid in the process. The gentle smile which had been on her face faded, replaced instead by a concerned grimace. “Oh, darling,” the woman sighed “you are filthy.”
“I'm sorry,” she hung her head in embarrassment. “I have been running through the sewer.”
“That you have, indeed,” the woman muttered, examining the hand which had been offered “along with running from and through other things, if I'm not mistaken.”
The room where she was standing stood in juxtaposition to what she had just run through in the sewers. It smelled of fine fragrances, and warm light, provided by two hanging lamps, bathed the room with comfort. This room was unlike any that she had ever been in before, and she felt as though she never wanted to leave. That is, until her eyes fell on a mirror. Then, she wanted to run from the room, sobbing with embarrassment.
It had been days since she had seen her own reflection, a couple more since she'd been able to afford a conventional washing. Her auburn hair appeared almost black now, hanging in greasy strands around her face, clinging to her filthy skin where the two touched. The natural alabaster of her skin was indistinguishable under the layers of grim which covered it. Only a disgusting reflection could been seen through the areas where streams of sweat had washed away the top layers of her perverse makeover. Her clothing hardly remained intact, with her threadbare top clinging to the sweat of her torso, it's original shade now clouded with the days of stains and grime. Her leather pants had, at one point, been fashionable and expensive, crafted from the skin of a bull, and textured finely by tailors in Capital Upward. Now, they were worthless, being torn in the most inconvenient areas, and caked with whatever she had run through, and some elements that had been thrown at her by unsympathetic voyeurs. She looked with shame at her boots, covered in dirt, leaving their mark on the ornate carpeting. Her emerald eyes, now clouded with exhaustion, would have filled with tears, but her state of dehydration denied her even that privilege.
“I'm sorry,” she said, turning to her host, who was now hunched over a washing basin, scrubbing her hands. “Had I known--”
“Think nothing of it,” the woman cut her off, without turning to look at her. “Do you know who I am?”
“You are Aimee,' she replied “the Named Woman.”
“I have been called crueler things,” the woman replied, as she dried her hands on a white cloth, next to the basin. “You are correct, though: that is who I am.”
“I have come to you for--”
“What you have come for can wait,” Aimee said, finally turning to see her. “First, you should wash.”
Aimee motioned to a door near where she was standing. Turning toward it, she began to walk, the excitement of bathing causing her to begin pealing off her clothing, even before she had reached the room. She had not been expecting a bath, and that opportunity alone nearly made the trek through the sewers worthwhile.
Stand up straight, the matron commands
no man wants a slouch
Smile wide, she also demands
he would not want a grouch
In the training, you must trust
if you're to have no shame
If he sees you as what he wants
he will give you a name
Fighting's for men; lay down the stick
do not start a fight
Defend the man only with words
this your only right
Clean and care
Lay with, Bare
Bathe and feed
Your duties, there
Stand up straight, the matron commands
earn you name somehow
The bathing experience was the must luxurious thing that she could have imagined. When she had first begun to fill the tub, the water that had come from the faucet was the clearest that she had seen, outside of Capital Upward. The faucet must have been connected to a singular, unseen, reservoir, for she could not imagine any water so fresh coming from anywhere near Northclimb. She did not contemplate this long; the moment that she saw the purity of the water, she placed her mouth beneath the faucet and drank from it, closing her eyes and allowing the water to splash over her face, rubbing the overflow into her dried skin. Once she had drunken her fill, she stepped away from the tub, walked to where the heating stones were being warmed atop a small fire, and selected a few to place under the tub. After placing them there, she neglected to wait for the water to warm before climbing into the nearly-full tub. The water was chilly, as she had expected, but it did not matter to her. She sank into the depths of the tub, allowing the water to cover her, washing away the filth of her past life.
The water had gone from cold to hot and back again thrice, before she finished her bath. She had also flushed and refilled the tub twice, since the water had become blackened by the grime on her body. As she stepped from the tub, she looked down at her body and smiled. Her skin had returned to the creamy, fair, hue that she was familiar with, rather than the stretched and cracked leather that it was when she had entered the washroom. While her body was still covered in scrapes, scratches, and scars, none of them stood out like savage embellishments. She longed to examine herself in front of the mirror once again, simply to take note of the differences, but her clothing was nowhere to be found. Cautiously, she pried open the door and stuck her head out, concealing her nudity on the other side.
“Excuse me,” she called out timidly. “Is there clothing for me to wear?”
“You enter my house, filthy as a tunnel snake, and think nothing of throwing yourself onto my carpet,” Aimee's voice chided her playfully, from out of sight “yet, now that you are perfectly clean, you are loath to touch the carpet again, because of societal modesty?”
She felt her cheeks redden impulsively. “...a bit?” she admitted hesitantly. “I did not wish to embarrass you.”
“I have seen naked women before,” Aimee said, stepping into view of the door and smiling at her. “Thousands of times, in fact, if you count the instances when I stood before the mirror in my own flesh. I have clothing for you, yes, but you ought to examine yourself before you dress. Come out of the room. You will not shock me, I swear to it.”
She set her jaw and took a deep breath. Opening the door wide, she stepped out, pausing for a moment, while her host examined her.
Aimee's deep red lips curled into a generous smile and her blue eyes sparkled. “You clean up wonderfully,” she giggled. She then motioned toward the mirror: “Here, have a look for yourself.”
Stepping to the mirror, she remembered who she was before all of this had begun. There she stood, cleaned and worthy of being a woman with a name again. Her eyes were clear once more, and her slowly drying hair was returning to her natural burnt rose. Her body didn't seem as malnourished as it had every right to be. Bending sideways, she could see her ribs, but she had always been able to do that to some extent. Her breasts, while not exactly ample, were still firm, not sunken and deflated. She turned from side to side in front of the mirror, admiring herself from each angle, forgetting that Aimee was even in the room. It had been a long time since she had looked this clean, and she wanted to savor each moment of it.
Aimee lay a hand on her shoulder, and she stopped spinning to look at her. Aimee's dimpled smile filled her with such relief, and all she could do was leap into her arms, holding her tightly, fearing that if she were to let go, this dream would end, and she would wake in the streets once more. This time, she did not have dehydration to blame: her eyes filled to overflowing, and she began to sob.
She felt Aimee guiding her head to rest on Aimee's shoulder, holding her soothingly. She felt the soft silk of Aimee's dress against her skin, Aimee's graceful arms wrapping around her, and she could feel Aimee's breathing. She suddenly knew that she was safe. No one would chase her here, none would threaten her, no men would offer her a name, than take that offer away, once she had given them what they wanted. She never wanted to leave.
After a too-short eternity, Aimee released her, and she wiped her own tears from her eyes. “You've come a long way to find me,” Aimee said, sympathetically. “When you first came, you introduced yourself only as a woman. I take that to mean that you have lost your name? '
She nodded, perhaps a bit too anxiously. That had been what had happened, of course, and she should have been prepared for Aimee to know that. Still, her knowing it quite so precisely had been unnerving.
Aimee nodded. “Come,” she motioned to the rug, “sit. Let us discuss what has happened.”
The council gathered around her. She could feel their judgmental eyes baring down on her, as they looked. She had hung her head in an effort to avoid their stares, but she could still feel them, perhaps more so with her head bowed.
“Your name was Gem Landsong,” the head of the council said “the wife of Vyktor Landsong. That is no longer your name. Can you tell us why?”
“A woman cannot carry the name of a dead man,” she mumbled. “My husband was murdered.”
The council nodded their assent.
“According to the law of the Great Aarythe, His name is holy, you are now betrothed to the man who killed your husband, Declan Seling,” the council head continued. “That cannot be the case here. Will you tell us why?”
Gem sighed. How was she to answer this question? Could she tell them how Declan had broken into their home and killed her husband in his sleep, over some imagined rivalry? Could she then explain that he had proceeded to wake her, presenting himself to her as a worthy replacement for the man that she had grown to love, expecting her praise? She surely could not then tell how she, when Declan was turned away from her, had driven a dagger into his back in blind rage, killing him. They would expect an apology, at very least, and she could not give that. While she had drowned her husband's lifeless corpse with her tears, truth be told, she only wish Delan alive, so that she could kill him again, this time more slowly, so that he would have time to realize that she was killing him. He would face her this time, and she would see the shock and terror in his eyes. He would scream and thrash, but she would hold his throat shut, watching with satisfaction as the life fled from him. He would die, knowing that he was being killed by his own trophy. She could not tell the council that, but she suspected that they knew this already.
“Declan Seling is dead,” she answered. “A woman cannot carry the name of a dead man.”
“Declan Seling was murdered,” another member of the counsel corrected her. “Murdered at your hand. Do you deny this?”
Gem stood her ground, even though her knees were shaking under the weight of their questions. She raised her head to the counsel. “I do not,” she said, as strongly as she could. She could not deny it, nor did she want to. She also could not tell the counsel that she was more proud of that action than anything she had done before.
“The woman confesses to her crimes,” a third member of the council observed.
“A price must be paid,” said a fourth.
The head of the council held up his hand for quiet. “It shall be,” he informed them. “The woman has confessed her errors freely, aware that blood must be paid with blood.”
The blood that was paid was my husband's, Gem thought as she awaited the council's judgment. I only took what was owed before you had a chance to. Were I a man, this council would not have met, and justice would have been considered served.
“The council is not without mercy,” the head continued. “The woman's husband was taken from her by the man whom she murdered. While this is not an excusable action, it is understandable. The blood debt for Vyktor Landsong is considered paid through the death of Declan Seling. Likewise, the debt for Declan Seling is considered paid through the death on Landsong. It would have been better, however, if the woman had brought the matter to the council, rather than exacting the revenge murder herself. As a result, the woman's execution, which the law of Aarythe commands, will be replaced by the stripping of her name.”
That pronouncement was like flushing cold water through her veins. Her entire body went numb, and she gasped for air. Without her name, she could do nothing: she could not purchase or sell, she could not work a job, she could not even leave the area. She would be forced to live off the generosity of strangers, which was uncommon in Northclimb, until she found someone who would give her a new name. All of Northclimb would know who she was and what she had done. She was not likely to find a proper suitor, let alone one that she would want to be named by. She had expected a sentence of death, and while she would not have wanted that, it would almost have been merciful, especially in a town like Northclimb.
She forced herself to bow before the council. “I thank the council for their judgment,” she forced herself to say. “Blessed be Aarythe.”
“Blessed be Aarythe,” the council echoed her words.
“Go forth, and commit no further offenses,” the head decreed.
A nameless woman thanked the council again, turned, and left Gem Landsong, dead in the council chamber. She still had her life, but without a name, what was she to do with it?
Aimee listened as she ran a brush through her tangled hair. “So,” she said, after having heard the story “because you are a woman, they stripped of your right to exist within society?”
She nodded reluctantly. “Blessed be Aarythe,” she muttered, trying her best not to sound bitter.
“I have often wondered what a masculine deity knows about being a woman,” Aimee chuckled. “Still, that is a conversation for another time. Am I right to assume that you would have a name again? A name that is your own, free of restraint?”
“What did people call you before you were selected for marriage?”
“Do you mean at the hostel, where I was raised? The other girls called me Lightfoot, because of the way that I moved and danced. They said that I was quick, like the wind, and movements were smooth and fluid like silk. The Matron of the home never called me anything but “girl”, which was what she called all of the girls, and we were expected to know specifically whom she was referring to. She told us that we didn't deserve names until we had learned our behavior perfectly, and we were selected by a man.” She sighed. “Lightfoot was an all right name, I guess, for a child. I do not think that I would want it as an adult, though.”
Aimee nodded. “Well, I need to call you something,” she said, putting the finishing touches on her hair brushing. “Since Gem Landsong was your name once, but your name no longer, we cannot return to that. You are a new woman, anyway, so it only makes sense for you to have a new woman's name.”
“How can that be?” she asked, rotating her hips a bit to get a better view of Aimee, seated behind her. “A name must come from Aarythe, and it can only be known when a man chooses a wife. How did you come to earn a name, without the partnership of a man?”
“That is something that you must find on your own,” Aimee said, laying a hand on her bare shoulder, and running her fingers down the skin of her arm. “The quest is difficult: it is long, treacherous, and will certainly kill you. Should you complete it, though, you will have a name to call your own. Now, you are a fawn, but you will come out of the other side as a doe.”
She was filled with hope and excitement as much as caution and fear. The quest of the woman who found her name was one of the most well-known legends in all the land. She had heard it first, as an adult, in Capital Upward, but the details were so scattered and varied that many had relegated the tale to myth. Now, she sat with Aimee, and the reality of the story seemed to be holding true.
“I am a fawn,” she repeated to herself. “May I use that, as a name, through my journey?”
Aimee nodded, smiling widely. “I believe that would be fitting.”
Fawn took to her new title almost immediately. She loved having a name again, even if it was a temporary one. She stepped out of the back of Aimee's home, feeling like a new woman. That feeling would pass, she knew that it would, but right now it felt as though she had an identity again.
Stretched out before her was the barren wasteland of Hotstone desert. Over her shoulder, she could see Northclimb, silhouetted through the sandy winds that were constantly swirling through the desert. Aimee had dressed her well for her journey, proving her with tight pants, made from a rough and coarse fabric which irritated her skin a bit, that would protect her legs and an armless blouse which hugged her torso. She wore a bandana on her head, tied around her hair, to prevent it from getting too tangled in the chaotic environment. On one shoulder, she carried a satchel, which carried provisions, and in her hand she held a bowstaff.
Fawn had spent a number of weeks with Aimee, during which time, she had learned more than she ever had at the hostel where she had been raised. Aimee had introduced her to the bowstaff, insisting that if a woman is going to be in danger, a woman has the right to defend themselves. The techniques that Aimee had shown her were not unlike the dancing lessons that Fawn had taken as a youth, and she adjusted to the inclusion of the bow well enough. Nightly meditations had brought her into a deeper, more intimate, understanding of herself. She felt the truth of herself becoming more real and personal than she had ever known.
Of course, none of this would allow for better acceptance in the culture. To truly have an identity and a successful life within that, she would need to earn a name for herself, as Aimee had. To do that, Aimee had told her, she would need to cross the Hotstone on foot, making her way to Capital Upward, where her strength would be validated. Fawn had thought to ask her what the point of that was, but she had not felt comfortable questioning her mentor, since that was what she had come to see Aimee as. Looking out across Hotstone now, she wondered if, perhaps, she should have questioned the verdict a bit more than she had.
Cross the desert, Aimee had told her. That is the first step to discovering who you are.
I will die, Fawn should have said. She likely would, now that she had come to think of it more clearly, but she had already made the commitment, so she felt as though this was something that she had to do, in order to not disappoint Aimee. Lowering her head and raising the scarf that was tied around her neck to cover her mouth, she began to hike.
The winds were brutal, and the sun that beat down on her was intense, more so with each step. She had walked about half a mile when she first stopped to recover a bottle from her pack, drinking from it's contents. The fluids flowed through her body, invigorating her, as only pure water could. She did not want to stop drinking from the bottle, but she knew that her fluids were in limited supply, and she still had a long way to go. Reluctantly, she dropped the bottle back into her pack, and pressed on again.
“We need to go to Northclimb,” Victyr said one day, over a breakfast of ostrich egg, caramelized boar flank, and citrus milk. “The opportunities there are enumerable. It's a city on the rise, or it will be, and I would like to be part of that.”
Gem set down her citrus milk, and frowned at her husband. “You are in a place of prestige here, in Capital Upward, as one of the most trusted land-dealers in the city,” she said, questioning his suggestion. “My apothecary, while not as successful as your estate, is earning a fair return. Why would you wish to risk all of that, leave the safety and class which is provided to you here, in order to move to an area like Northclimb? Even if it is a city on the rise, which has yet to be proven, it has not risen yet. Your social status would weaken, even by living there.”
Victyr laughed his obnoxious, yet charming, chuckle as he cut into his lank of boar. “I need adventure,” he admitted, shoving a piece of the meat into his mouth. “Selling land of Capital Upward has become too easy. It's not as though I haven't been successful, nor that I wouldn't continue to be so. I simply would like to try this new challenge, if only to see if I'm able to do it.”
Cutting off a piece of her egg, Gem dipped it into the bowel of fruit gel before putting it into her mouth. “Northclimb is on the other side of the Hotstone,” she continued after she had swallowed. How do you intend to get there; will you fly? Nothing lives in Hotstone, save for crazed nomadic tribesmen and fireworms.”
“There is a caravan, headed across in a week's time,” Victyr replied, his mouth full of meat. “We could be on it. We could be on the caravan, headed for new adventure.”
Gem sighed, taking a drink from her glass, letting her face fall. “I am a woman, and I am yours,” she said reluctantly. “You have given me a name, and I am committed to you. It is my privilege to support--”
Victyr's chuckle cut her off. He rose from seat and walked to her. Gently, he placed his hand against her cheek, and she closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of his touch. “I did not ask you for rhetoric,” he said, his voice soft as silk. “I ask you for your blessing. You are more than woman to me: you are my partner and my love. I may have given you a name, but you have given me a world. I could do nothing without you.”
Gem looked up into the darkened swirls of his eyes, and saw her own reflection, staring back at her. Rising from her seat, she wrapped her arms around him, and he pulled her close. Their bodies rubbed against one another, as their lips united. The taste of boar was in his mouth, but the thrill of passion danced on his tongue. It took only a moment in his arms for Gem to realize that her decision had been made. She would follow Victyr anywhere, not because she was required to, but because she loved him.
Fawn had spent days in Hotstone before she saw or heard anything that even resembled another creature. The trek was the most difficult thing that she had attempted in her entire life already, even without the distraction of predators who viewed her as an easy target. Aimee had given her ample supplies and a navigation stone which would guide her to the Capital Upward, but she had either neglected or omitted the warning about the brutality that awaited Fawn during the night. The sun would go down, removing all heat from the environment. That, alone, would have been inconvenient, but the winds did not slow with the sun's absence. Aimee had given her tools to make a fire, but she had warned her not to do so in the desert. Instead, at night, Fawn would bury herself in the sand nearly completely, pull the mask over her face, and try to sleep until the sun returned. After the first night, she had considered shifting her time table, so that she would walk during the night and sleep during the day. On the third day, she experienced something that made her reconsider that notion.
The sounds of muffled grunting and digging through the coarse sand was barely audible over the roar of the wind. As such, Fawn nearly tripped over the creature. When she did notice it, she gasped and stepped back as it turned it's face toward her and snarled. At the sound of the great beast's rage, Fawn's eyes began to sparkle, and she brought her hand to her mouth to hide her amusement. It was perhaps one of the most adorable things that she had ever seen. The creature was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Covering it's tiny body was a light coat of tan fur, almost the same color as the sand itself, but speckled with flecks of brown, as if someone had sneezed upon it, making the creature distinctive. It's huge (relatively speaking) ears extended laterally from it's head in moon-shaped crescents, and it's large, beady eyes glowed in dark green opalescence. It's snout protruded from it's face sharply, and Fawn could see it's nostrils constricting and contracting alternately each time it took a breath, as it's whiskers embraced the chaotic nature of the wind.
Fawn bent down to be closer to the still-snarling creature and smiled. “Hello,” she greeted it cheerfully. “What are you doing out here?”
She extended the palm of her hand toward the creature, flat against the desert ground.
The creature ceased to growl, and it began to examine the offered hand suspiciously. It cocked it's head to the side, and looked at Fawn as if to say why are you being friendly? I'm a big dangerous beast, can't you see that?
Fawn couldn't help but giggle. “I'm not frightened by you,” she insisted. Reaching into her pack with her non-extended hand, she retrieved a water bottle. While maintaining eye-contact with the creature, she leaked a few drops of fluid into the palm of her hand, offering the moisture to the terrifying monster.
That seemed to get the creature's attention. It cautiously approached Fawn's palm and, once it had determined that the water was clean, the creature opened it's mouth, uncurling a long, dark tongue. Fawn couldn't stop smiling as she watched the creature lapping up the few drops of water. Once it had finished the drink, the creature raced into Fawn's hand, and curled into a ball. Fawn lifted her hand, and examined the small, softly pulsing body.
“I think you've earned a name, just from being so cute,” she whispered, so as not to disturb it. “I'm going to call you Thunder, because of your ferocious roar.”
Thunder purred contentedly, as Fawn placed her (she had decided that Thunder was a female, but she had no idea about the truth of it's gender) gently in one of the pockets of her pants. Picking up her pack once more, Fawn continued the trek.
“So, this journey that I'm partake in,” Fawn queried, as she thrust the end of her bowstaff at Aimee, awaiting the parry expectantly. “It will be dangerous, obviously. How can I be assured survival?”
“You can't be,” Aimee replied, as she stepped back, out of the staff's reach. “The odds against your survival are innumerable. You will likely die.”
From her position, Aimee took hold of the staff's shaft. With a smooth step, she pulled the length of the staff away from Fawn, using Fawn's weight as momentum to spin her to the ground. Fawn fell gracefully, rolled, and sprang to her feet as quickly as possible.
“Are you sending me to my death?” Fawn asked, as she bent backwards to avoid Aimee's thrust. “Is there something that I have missed?”
“You have not,” Aimee replied. “With any luck, you will die.”
Fawn wasn't sure that she understood that statement, but if she had learned anything in the few days that she had stayed with Aimee, it was to never try deciphering an explanation.
Fawn had not been walking long when Thunder leaped from her pocket, and dashed onto her shoulder. The sudden movement startled Fawn, and she nearly yelped. Her slight astonishment paled in comparison to the fear that she saw when she turned to look at Thunder. Her entire tiny body quaked, and the small talons of her paws dug sharply into Fawn's shoulder. Fawn moved her hand gently toward Thunder, careful not to startle her, and took her from her shoulder. Thunder neither resisted nor stopped shaking. She simply continued to stare out into the desert with fear in her large, opalescent eyes.
“It's all right,” Fawn whispered to Thunder, while petting him soothingly, “there's nothing to be afraid of.”
Fawn peered out in the same direction that Thunder had been looking, attempting to see if what she had just assured her companion of was actually truth. She could see nothing through the violent winds and sand gusts. Squinting, she tried to see between the grains. Something that Aimee had told her stuck in her mind: “Some of the dangers in the desert have not yet been cataloged”. What could have so suddenly made Thunder as terrified as she was?
The air was suddenly torn apart by an atrocious roar. Fawn froze in shock, and a sudden fear locked her knees. She heard large hooves stampeding toward her. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to pull the bowstaff from her back, holding it across her chest defensively. Thunder recovered enough sense to dart from her hand to her should, where she squatted anxiously, holding on with her dagger-like talons.
The attacking beast was on the two with savage speed. Fawn dove out of it's way at the last moment, throwing herself to the desert floor. Springing to her feet, Fawn had only a moment to assess the creature before she was forced to avoid another attack. She understood now why she had not been able to see it until it was nearly on top of her. The scaled texture of the beast's hide was the exact shade of the sand in the desert.
The creature opened it's enormous mouth, and a long, serpentine tongue sprang from it. Fawn dodged the tongue artfully, staying just out of it's reach. The air around her was filled with the pungent smell of decay and filth. Fawn swallowed a vomitous belch as she analyzed the creature as quickly as she could, searching for a vulnerable place to strike. None could be easily spotted, but the examination did warn her of an oncoming attack from the creature's sharply talon of a tail. Fawn parried the blow with her staff, saving herself from impalement. A few drops of the creature's venom was deposited on the staff, and Fawn watched in horror as it quickly dissolved the wood, breaking her weapon in two.
Fawn recovered her bearings, and jumped back away from the creature, retreating a few yards. Holding the two ends of the broken bow as if they were batons, Fawn observed the creature as it repositioned itself. It's disgusting tongue flicked the empty air in front of it, and Fawn noticed that the creature had no obvious eyes. It seemed to be observing the area through it's tongue, as it flapped about momentarily, canvasing the area. Fawn would have appreciated a few more seconds for analysis, but the creature seemed to have caught her scent. It's gigantic paws turned toward her and, before she had time to think, it roared loudly and lunged at her.
Fawn ducked out of the way quickly, but not fast enough. One of the creature's paws caught her, sending her sprawling into the sand. Thunder burst forth with a terrified squeal, jumping from Fawn's shoulder, running to her breast, where the she positioned herself, growling at the beast. Fawn attempted to stand up again, but one of the creature's paws was quickly on top of her, pinning her to the ground. She felt the creature's claws trapping her beneath the dry roughness and, as the creature opened it's mouth to roar once again, Fawn felt life fleeing from her, and she could almost feel her body dissolving in the acidic abyss of this monster's gullet.
“With any luck,” Aimee said “you will die.”
Fawn closed her eyes, preparing herself mentally for the end of her life. At least she had tried.
She lay on her back, feeling used and taken advantage of. The smell of his sweat still permeated her nostrils, and she could still feel his hulking breaths attacking her, even though he was no longer in the bed with her. Clutching the sheets to her chest did little to hide her nudity, but her shame canvased her body like a filthy, torn wedding gown.
She ought to be grateful for what he was giving her. He had offered her a name, if only she slept with him. She was the lucky one in this arrangement. No other man would even bother to look at a nameless woman who was disassociated with a brothel, especially one who had committed murder. What this man had done for her was akin to charity.
She could hear him bathing himself in the washroom. He was a brute, if she were honest with herself. He stood almost seven feet from the ground, towering over her petite five feet. His massive arms rippled with muscles that she had only learned of in text, and his dark, soulless eyes held no warmth. His nose was large and flat, brandishing a disheveled mustache of untrimmed chaos. When he spoke, it was in uneducated, common words and barbaric grunts. His voice was gruff, and when it spoke, she felt as though he was yelling at her.
She could not see herself ever loving him. He would never replace Vycter. Still, love was a rare thing of fables and stories, and it did not have to exist in a marriage. He would give her a name, and that would be all that she needed. She ought to be grateful for that.
He walked from the washroom, as naked as he had been when he had entered. His manhood hung unashamedly between his legs, and she winced at the memory of their copulation. He had not been gentle and affection had been a foreign concept. She had felt more like a small animal having a spear thrust into it repeatedly than a lover. She pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind, and she forced herself to smile up at her new husband. He grimaced back at her without humor.
“Why are you still here?” he asked gruffly, thrusting his chin at the door to the outside. “I gave you ample time to leave; get out of my bed.”
The smile faded from her face, replaced with one of confusion. “I am to be your wife,” she pleaded. “You promised to give me a name.”
The man's laughter cut through her like a dagger, thrust into her gut. “I will do no such thing,” he mocked. “I will also not pay the price for a prostitute, when a woman without a name will lay with me, on the promise that I will provide her with one. It's difficult to find a nameless woman who isn't aligned with a brothel, so when I found you, I was relieved. I've not had a woman in almost two weeks, and you were close enough. Now our time is over. Leave my home.”
The horror of what was happening danced icicles over her spine. The bedsheet slipped from her hands, leaving her exposed, naked, and quaking with shock. “You--” she gasped “--you used me!”
“That is nothing compared to what I will do to you if you do not leave my home,” he growled menacingly. “Get out of my home.”
Having all choice taken from her, she slid out of his bed and gathered her discarded clothing, much of which had been torn during the disrobing process. The tears froze in her eyes as he continued berating her, telling her that no one would believe her if she went to the authorities, she would get nothing from him, and she should count herself lucky that he was allowing her to leave alive, without bruises. He cackled as she left the room, thanking her sarcastically for their time together. Self-loathing and regret occupied her mind, causing her to consider ways to exit this life.
This was not the life that she wanted.
A sudden burst of heat above her startled Fawn out of the state of situational acceptance that she had been feeling only a moment before. She opened her eyes, frowning with confusion, and was startled to see that the creature who had been attacking her seemed to be rapidly losing interest in using her as an entree. The paw which she had been pinned under was lifted, and she dove away from the creature as quickly as she could. Her escape was not prevented, since the monster seemed to be preoccupied, repositioning itself to face the new threat. Fawn found Thunder, still clinging tenaciously to her chest, and she cupped her in her hands as she stood. Cautiously, she turned to see what was going on.
The screaming panic which had occupied her mind quieted enough for Fawn to notice the screaming and whooping coming from parties outside of her head. Five individuals, wearing strange, hooded clothing and holding strange mechanisms, were surrounding the beast. Fawn watched with fascination as one of the figures jumped toward the beast aggressively, jeering at the beast mockingly, agitating it with the nozzle of the mechanism. She was fascinated by the construction of the device: each of the five individuals seemed to be carrying the same type of nozzle, which was attached by a hose to a large apparatus that they wore on their backs. With surprise, she witnessed the nozzle spring to life, spewing flame from the far end toward the beast. The beast roared loudly, and retreated from the flame. Unfortunately for the creature, the five individuals had surrounded it, and it's retreat was blocked by another spouting of flame.
Fawn was so distracted by the scene developing before her that she didn't notice a sixth party approaching her. She jumped when a hand was laid on her shoulder, and spun on the holder aggressively. The approaching party, a young woman with dark features, held her hands up passively, showing that she was not a threat.
“Don't be afraid,” she said reassuringly. “My name's Aja, and I was only checking to make sure that you were all right.”
“Am I alive?” Fawn asked, feeling foolish for asking that. It was simply the first thing that was in her head.
Aja smiled at her soothingly. “You are,” she said in a gentle tone. “You are very fortunate to be so, but I admire that you are. Not many people would survive a one-on-one battle with a Vylonce.”
Fawn's attention returned to the creature, who was now being attacked by three of the five combatants, each showering it with flame as it screamed loudly and thrashed it's tail about, hoping to catch one of it's attackers. “Is that what this creature is?” she asked.
Aja stepped up to stand beside her, and she nodded. “It is,” she confirmed, laying a hand gently on Fawn's shoulder. Fawn flinched at the touch, but the warmth of the Aja's hand was not unpleasant.
“How is it that you came into the desert alone, without knowledge of the voylonce?” Aja asked her. “This is a violent world; were you separated from your caravan?”
Fawn shook her head. “I am alone,” she admitted. “No caravan would have a woman with no name in their number. I'm going to Capital Upward to find my name.”
Aja's hand slipped from her shoulder, and Fawn momentarily thought that she had revealed too much. Perhaps, now that Aja knew that she had no name, Fawn would be abandoned. Aja stepped before her, gripping her by the arms, and looked her over with a curious intensity. Fawn was beginning to become curious as to what Aja was looking for, when the woman released her arms and stepped back, nodding.
“You should come with me,” Aja informed her, motioning for Fawn to follow. Looking to where Aja was motioning, Fawn saw and followed eagerly.
Fawn lay perfectly motionless, after the men had attended to her needs. The gown that they had draped over her was soft, constructed from a fabric which Fawn didn't recognize. In the places where it touched her dehydrated skin, she felt something magical, as if the gown were replenishing her deficiencies, simply by it's presence on her body.
She was not accustomed to men caring for her but, when she had lain down, Aja had assured her that they were the best suited to deal with the situation, as it was. They had touched and palpated her muscles, in her back and her limbs, rubbing sweet-scented oils into her skin. Her clothing had been discarded, with the promise that they would be replaced, and she had been naked as the men massaged her. At first, she had been uncomfortable with that but, once the men began the process, she had gradually forgotten about the nudity as the relaxation overpowered her shame.
The men had left only a few moments ago, and Fawn lay in the robe that they had draped across her. The smells of the oil that had been used during the massage soothed her mental tension, as much as the actual process had soothed her muscles. Fawn became so lost in the euphoria which was currently permeating her senses that she didn't notice when Aja entered the tent. When Aja coughed to announce her presence, Fawn resisted the pull back to reality, but only for a moment. Forcing herself to sit up, she smiled at the exotic woman who had introduced her to this paradise. Aja, now dressed in a soft blue silken dress, underneath a burgundy scarf, smiled back at her.
“You are lucky that we found you when we did,” Aja informed her. “The sands of Hot Stone can often have a toxic effect on those, ill-prepared for the dangers. Have you never crossed Hot Stone before?”
“I did once,” Fawn informed her. “I traveled from Capital Upwards to Northern Climb with a caravan.”
Fawn frowned as she reconsidered her statement: “That doesn't count as crossing Hot Stone, though, does it?”
“The caravan leader would have been informed and prepared for the toxins in the sand,” Aja informed her. “They would have taken precautions to protect the people in their party from them. The dangers arise when an individual wanders through the sands alone.”
Aja moved to the bed which Fawn was sitting on, and began to circle it. “Shavir seems to have done a good job of ridding your body of the contaminants,” she said, as she examined Fawn. “You are clean once more.”
“I cannot remember feeling as well as I do right now,” Fawn replied, lying back once more. “My husband died a short time ago, and since then, I have not been permitted to feel good. I loved my husband, you see, and I --”
Aja held her hand up to stop Fawn's recitation of her experience. “I know that you have a story, and I am sure that it is worth hearing,” she said. “Right now is not the time for the sharing of tales, though. Now is a time of recovery and rest.”
“I hope that it's also time for answers,” Fawn said, sitting up once more, and feeling as though perhaps she were risking too much by asking questions. “The first among them is, who are your people? How did you come to find me so quickly, and in my exact moment of need?”
Aja nodded. She crossed the tent, her dress hugging her slender form, outlining the contours of her body. Once she had reached it, Aja took a seat, across from the bed where Fawn sat.
“We are quiet names,” Aja replied, as if she were reading a text that she had read multiple times before. “Our names are silent, our actions are quiet, but our results will be loud. We are abandoned names. Our love has been shaven, our home forsaken, but our history is secure. We are --”
“Please stop,” Fawn held up her hand. “I was not asking for your mission statement, I only wanted to know what your people were called.”
Aja's eyes became anxious and shifty. “We don't actually have a name,” she admitted, shyly. “I was born from this family, have grown and traveled with this family, and whenever I am asked for my family-name, I've been taught to recite the verse. I suppose Quiet Names would be a good classification for our family. None but those who are born into the family had names before they came to us.”
Fawn quickly began to analyze ways for an individual to lose their name. For a woman to have a name and lose it, her husband would have to die, or she would have to bring great shame onto him, as through adultery. For a man to lose his name, it was a much trickier process. He would have to be caught in treason against the ruler, or commit a crime of such horrific magnitude that their name would forever live in infamy. For a woman to find a name, she needed to be wed. A man was born with a name and, should he lose it, he could not recover it.
If what Aja told her was true, that would mean that Quiet Names was composed from a number of the most notorious and reviled men in history. This fact alone made the group seem less attractive. Fawn considered asking Aja about that, but thought better of it. This small society seemed to be treating her well, and she didn't want to endanger that. Besides, who was she to judge another for something that she herself had suffered through, simply because they didn't share a gender? The men who had touched her had not seemed to be ill of intent. She had felt peace and strength generated from their interactions, as opposed to the repulsion and hatred that she had felt from the touch of many men who still had their names. That, alone, was a paradox which was worth exploring.
“Those men,” she said cautiously “the ones who were touching me. Are they the leaders here? In the world I come from, I cannot imagine a man doing anything so plebeian, especially to a woman.”
Aja shrugged. “I know nothing of the world from which you have come,” she admitted. “Here, in our family, we have no real headship. We each do our job, whether we are man or woman. That is simply the way of things here.”
Fawn was surprised, and slightly horrified by that response. “The Great Aarethye teaches us that there are clear roles for men and women, and that they should not overlap,” she exclaimed. “Is that not the way of things? How do you justify your practices with the teachings? Surely, your people worship Aarethye!”
Aja's eyes lowered, as in embarrassment or shame. “We do,” she admitted in a slight voice that made Fawn feel as though she should apologize for speaking so harshly. “Our teachers have studied the texts and learned many things from the translations. I am not a teacher; I know only that which I have been taught. All that I can say is that we worship both the male and the female aspects of the deity. I have been taught that equality and balance are stressed in the holy texts more than gender roles or male dominance.”
Fawn considered this. It brought her back to a statement that Aimee had made: “What does a male deity know of being female?” She had never extensively studied the holy texts or their conjugations, and perhaps she had missed something. If Aarethye were truly the high deity, over all, then it would make sense that he would be able to relate to either gender.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she spotted a movement in the pocket of Aja's robe. Aja reached into it, and pulled something out. When Fawn saw what was produced, she squealed with glee, despite herself. Thunder leaped from Aja's palm, and darted to Fawn, excitedly jumping from the ground to the table, scampering up Fawn's arm, placing herself on Fawn's shoulder. Once there, she playfully nipped Fawn's ear. Fawn giggled, happily.
Aja smiled in response to the happy reunion. Standing from her seat, she turned to leave the tent. “Take your time leaving the tent,” she said. “There is no rush, since evening will soon be upon us, and our company will not be moving until the morning. Clean clothing and food will be delivered to you, and you are welcome to travel with us. We will be passing near Capital Upwards in a day or two. That was where you were going, was it not? You are seeking your name?”
“I am,” Fawn nodded, reaching to her shoulder, and cupping Thunder in her palm. “Or, I was, anyway.”
Aja stopped and turned. “Have your plans since changed?” she asked, frowning with curiosity.
Aimee had told Fawn that she would die in Hot Stone. After all the training that Aimee had provided, Fawn had still wondered what she had meant. Thinking on that now, Fawn realized that she was not the same woman who had left Northern Climb. She was not the same woman who had run away from conflict. She was stronger now, and more confident. There was much that she still wanted to learn, but there was one thing that she had no doubt of.
“My name is Fawn,” she stated, petting Thunder affectionately, as she cooed softly in her palm. “I no longer need to discover that.”
Aja's face broke into a bright smile, and she nodded in agreement before exiting the tent. Fawn lay back on the bed, sighing contentedly. Thunder raced up her arm, sitting on her chest, while Fawn smiled at her with pleasure. She no longer needed Capital Upwards to give her a name. She had earned one, and any who disputed that would answer to her. She was prepared to defend her accomplishment.
Her name was Fawn.