Hoan saw us looking, and his expression grew tense. In a low, nervous voice he warned us, “do nothing, kees. Just continue walking.”
He didn’t know paladins all that well, now did he?
Aylwyn shook the reins with a quick little snap, and Wyntaf turned and charged out into the water, splashing down until the water got too deep, then began to swim towards the opposite bank and the fleeing woman. She saw Aylwyn coming to her rescue and began to desperately swim towards Wyntaf. I was worried that they might all be swept downstream by the current, but with as flat as this part of the plainsland was, the water was moving pretty slowly.
Unfortunately, the elven woman couldn’t swim nearly as fast as she could run, and the wolf splashed in after her, far too close behind her for comfort! As Aylwyn urged Wyntaf on faster, I tried hard to think of something–anything!–that might even the odds a little.
Right as the wolf closed to almost close enough to snap at her legs, the woman pulled up to a treading-water position, turned, and made a side-armed throwing motion with one arm. It was too far away for me to see what it was she threw at the wolf, (a stone from the riverbed maybe?) but I sure heard the crack as it hit it square in the head. The beast yelped and thrashed around in the water while the woman resumed swimming with all haste. It took a few moments for the wolf to recover, but soon enough it was up and swimming again, closing the distance.
Wyntaf was closing too, but it was hard to say if they’d make it in time. I turned to look at Hoan, who appeared to be fuming. “What’s wrong?”
“Did I not just say that nothing good comes out of Tedem Sìr? And then she came out, and your wife goes to meet her!”
“She’s trying to save her!”
“She should not be. Do you never listen? This is not the human lands. This is not even your world!”
“A person’s still a person,” I said. Some things are simply universal. Then a thought struck me. “I need to borrow your bow.”
“The hunting bow you have.” I pointed to a bow case strapped to his remount, with a quiver beside it.
Hoan scoffed. “You think to hit that wolf, and miss the woman, the horse, and the other woman, at this distance? Even I would not care to make such a shot, and you are no child of the tree.”
“Of course I couldn’t make a shot like that. But I don’t intend to hit!”
“What do you mean?”
I reached down and drew the boot dagger I carried. (For this trip I’d replaced my usual steel one with a blade of fine bronze.) “Cut a slit in the shaft, and it will whistle in flight. Shoot close enough to the wolf, and the sound will distract him. It’s a trick the bards use in performances.”
He gave me an “are you an idiot?” look and shook his head. “I will not allow this.”
“I will not allow it. I am your guide; how can I guide one who does not listen? But in this, at least, I can keep you from making it worse.”
If he was going to stand firm on that… what could I do? Try to take the bow by force somehow? That wouldn’t end well even if it worked; alienating your guide in the middle of unknown lands is never a smart idea. So all I could do is stand there and watch.
I turned my full attention back to the drama on the river just in time to see Aylwyn closing quickly, but the wolf was almost there too. She held out her right hand out in the way she does to call for her sword of flames, and I grinned. If I couldn’t participate, at least I got to watch her be awesome!
…but no sword came.
I saw her bearing falter for a brief moment, almost like a person stumbling; clearly she wasn’t expecting her power to fail her like that. But then she recovered her composure and held out her left hand, and the sword ignited into existence.
She quickly handed it off from one hand to the other, then swept it downward into the water between the woman and her pursuer. A small plume of steam puffed up out of the river, and I heard the wolf yelp. It turned and tried to snap its jaws at Wyntaf, but Aylwyn swiped the sword forward and slashed the wolf across the back. It let out a much louder yelp this time and turned away, splashing off.
Aylwyn released her sword, and it burned out into wisps of smoke like always. Then she turned and held out a hand to the elven woman, to help haul her up onto Wyntaf’s back for the swim back to me and Hoan.
Our guide wore an exasperated expression as Wyntaf waded up out of the water a minute or so later, but he held his tongue as Aylwyn and the rescued woman dismounted.
She was of medium height, maybe 5 foot 5 or so, and very slender, with almost nothing in the way of feminine curves, almost boyish, but her face was definitely that of an adult woman. Her eyes were a bright green, and when she looked at me it sent a shiver down my spine; there was a depth there beyond anything I’d ever seen, even in other elves. Whoever this woman was, maybe Hoan was right to be nervous about her. Her long, dark brown hair, matted and stringy from the water, hung down her back almost to her waist. It steadily dripped down the simple rawhide dress she wore, which almost looked like something out of a movie about Native Americans.
(And that’s a lot heavier than cloth, a part of my mind noted. If she managed to swim in something like that, she’s either stronger than she looks, or she used magic!)
The woman gave a polite nod of the head to Aylwyn, and said something grateful-sounding in Elvish. Aylwyn looked at Hoan. “What did she say?”
“I apologize, Lady Paladin. Anything I said would make things worse.”
The woman heard the exchange. “You speak not our tongue, honored visitors? I will make the endeavor to speak yours then.” I could mostly understand her, but her word choice was different from the Silva I was used to, and her accent was even heavier than Hoan’s. In addition to the slurring and the b/v confusion, there was an odd rhythmic quality to her speech, where she would slightly stretch out the vowels of some syllables seemingly at random and shorten others, making her sound almost like a bird.
Hoan looked like he had something to say to that, but the woman looked him in the eye and chirped out something quick and sharp in Elvish that was obviously a rebuke of some sort, and he shrank back half a step and shut his mouth.
“I am Karilil,” she said, turning to address us. “May I know the name of she who has saved me?”
“Aylwyn,” she replied, looking at Karilil curiously.
“Ah! You are the one they call the Ruiner of Shadows? Your fame has reached even these far lands. What brings you so far from the realm of humans? Hunting some dark threat doubtless!”
She shook her head. “In fact I am not here for my own reasons, but to accompany my husband, Anthony Stark, who has business at the court of Queen Alasea.”
Hoan stiffened when Aylwyn told her of our plans so freely. I wasn’t sure why; it’s not like our intentions were some sort of secret or anything. But he didn’t say anything.
“Many happinesses, then,” Karilil beamed. “May you find joy in our lands!”
While the two of them talked, I went to our trunk, opening it and rooting around inside until I found a couple of heavy cotton towels. They were an expensive luxury, as both cotton and the terrycloth-like weave of the towels were difficult and time-consuming to produce by hand, but so worth it, especially when traveling! I offered one to each woman. Aylwyn took it, smiling at me as she began to unfold it, but Karilil held hers, looking at it with some confusion.
“This is… a garment? To replace the wetted ones we wear? I thank you, but how is it worn?”
Aylwyn shook her head. “It is for drying,” she explained, rubbing the towel over her head and arms to demonstrate.
Karilil smiled as understanding dawned. “This holds the water!” She thought for a moment, then spoke a few words of magic, and water began to flow off of her body, hair, and clothes, and also Aylwyn’s, and into the towels they held. About 10 seconds later, the two women were as dry as Hoan and myself, holding two very wet towels.
So not fair that I could never take advantage of a spell like that!
Aylwyn blinked a few times at the unexpected magic, then nodded. “Yes, it is to… hold the water.”
“I thank you with gratitude, Anthony Stark,” Karilil said, handing the wet towel back to me. I took it, trying to not look too bemused.
“Might I ask you what happened there?” Aylwyn asked her.
She gave her a confused look at the question. “I was pursued by a wolf,” she said plainly.
“Yes,” Aylwyn mused. “A wolf so single-minded in its pursuit that it did not turn aside even when confronted by a warrior on horseback. A wolf who took a blow from my sword and was turned away with only a minor wound.”
A wolf who somehow balked her when she called for the sword the first time, though she didn’t mention that out loud. She was right, though; something was very wrong there!
Karilil’s brow furrowed as Aylwyn spoke. “That is… as it should not be? The winter wolves of Tedem Sìr are fierce and powerful beasts. It was truly ill fortune to draw the pursuit of one, and the greatest of happinesses when you came to my aid!”
Aylwyn frowned, but when it became apparent that no useful explanation was forthcoming, she asked, “what will you do now?”
“I am bound for Tyla Harbor,” she said. “It should not be a long journey. And you, you go to the Summer Court in Ilona?” When Aylwyn nodded, she said, “then I take my leave. But first,” she reached down to her side, and produced what appeared to be a necklace, a long, fine silver chain. “I thank you for saving my life, Aylwyn,” she said, offering it to her. I saw something hanging from the chain, a small silver pendant, oval-shaped and flat, polished to a mirror shine.
“I regret having nothing better to offer than this simple amulet, a minor token that has the virtue of revealing the truth hidden beneath outward appearances.”
Aylwyn looked a bit hesitant, but when Karilil stepped up and pressed the amulet into her hand, she took it. “I thank you,” she said, trying not to look too surprised.
“And I you, Aylwyn, and Anthony Stark. I hope that upon meeting again, it would be in a moment less perilous.” Yeah, the way she said it, it really did come across that garbled in the finer details.
With that, she turned and walked away, heading downriver, the way we had come from.
Hoan waited until she was well out of sight before blowing up at my wife. “What in all the thirteen limbs of the Tree of the World caused you to do something so foolhardy?!?”
She gave him a blank look. “Helping a person in need is foolhardy?”
“Yes, it is, when that person is Melina-Karilil the Trickster, renowned throughout both the Winter and the Summer for the pain she brings upon those who have dealings with her!”
Aylwyn stiffened visibly. “What did you say?”
“I said you should do nothing, and not involve yourself in her affairs. I said that first of all, and you should have listened. Why was the wolf behaving so oddly, you asked? Because it is her thrall! You were too beguiled by the appearance to see the truth!”
Wait. Truth and appearances? “Isn’t that what Karilil said the amulet does?” I asked.
Hoan sighed at me. “Do you truly wish to trust the gift of a Trickster?”
If only he knew! Trickster-ing was sort of my thing, afterall.
Aylwyn slumped slightly as she realized what had happened. “Then I should not keep this.” She raised her arm, as if to throw the amulet in the river.
Hoan actually blanched at that, reaching out to grasp her arm. “No! Do you wish to make it worse?”
“How would I do that?”
“By trying to act against the Trickster. Trust me, I am your guide because I know this land and you do not. The only thing you can do that will not play into her hands in some way is to do as I said from the start, and ignore her entirely.
“Do not cast the amulet away. Do not wear it. Do not attempt to divine its secrets. Keep it, but ignore it, and continue on with the journey as if this entire meeting had never happened. As your guide, I must advise you to do this.”
Aylwyn didn’t look at all pleased by that, but she didn’t argue further. She looked down at the amulet she held, and I saw a little shiver go through her, which made me squirm uncomfortably. Seeing her visibly unnerved by this was really disquieting!
She ran her free hand slowly over her hip, and her robe somehow grew a pocket which she slipped the amulet into, before reversing the gesture to seal the pocket away.
I was seriously going to have to ask her about how her robe works sometime! It was obviously more than a simple garment; I’d seen her turn it into plate armor before, I’d seen it grow a hood to protect her from rain, and now this?
When she had done this, Hoan relaxed for the first time since this encounter began. “Va, let us be gone from this place.”
Both of us agreed without reservation.
* * *
We made camp that evening a bit early. We came to a small grove of trees along the riverbank, and Hoan declared it a good place to stop for the night. Aylwyn and I set up our tent, but she didn’t go inside. Instead she just sat beside the riverbank, staring out across the water at the forest on the other side.
She’d been quiet most of the day, following Hoan’s rant about not listening to him. I sat down beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders and cuddling up. She turned to me with an uncertain look on her face, a sort of vulnerability I’d never seen from her before. “Do you think I did the wrong thing, helping Karilil?”
That kind of weirded me out, to be perfectly honest. She had always been the moral compass of our relationship; she was literally an angel afterall! Second-guessing yourself when something doesn’t go right is supposed to be my thing, not hers!
“From what I’ve heard of tricksters, they don’t tend to do real harm,” I said, trying to reassure her. “It might bring some difficulty upon us somehow, but… it’s not going to be anything we can’t handle.”
“You’re right,” she said after a moment, smiling at me. “I am not wearing the amulet, and I have sealed it away as Hoan recommended. What could truly go wrong?”
As the sun started to sink lower, the air around us began to briefly light up as a handful of lightning bugs began to lazily fly around the grove.
“What are those called?” I asked her, trying to shift things to a lighter subject.
“Ember beetles,” she said, “because they glow briefly, then fade, like embers from a flame.” She squeezed my hand gently, and I returned the squeeze, which made her smile. “Looking at the ember beetles brings a certain sense of peace and calmness, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” I agreed, cuddling with her and enjoying the quiet, idyllic moment… right up until my brain just had to ruin things by thinking about it too much.
I had shared some aspects of my culture with her over the last few years, and even more with Sarah, but there was just so much of it that there were a lot of things I’d never gotten around to telling anyone about. And if I translated those words just a little bit differently, I got a line that she could not possibly have the context to make: watching fireflies brings a sense of serenity.
What could truly go wrong indeed?