NaNoWriMo 2019 #5: Strangers in the Night

CampfireThe thirteen-year-old Tiane could kill six trained guards and burn down a building, but she couldn’t light a campfire. She threw down another broken set of sticks and punched the ground in frustration. A throb of pain in her wrist immediately made her regret the decision—the fall weather hadn’t frozen the ground yet, but it didn’t leave the earth soft and yielding, either.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground across from Tiane’s makeshift fire pit, Garyl folded his hands together and continued to assert himself as an unwanted guest in the girl’s quest for freedom.

“Why not…you know?” Garyl placed his hands in front of his mouth to form makeshift fangs and made a roaring sound.

Tiane rolled her eyes at the terrible pantomime. “Why don’t you go and bother somebody who wants you around? You left all the others to starve in the wilderness; why not me?”

“The others all took the path to Lorinth, and they’ve undoubtedly run across three academy wizards who have recovered their wits by now,” Garyl replied. “Those wizards will bring them to Headmistress Lytha, and even though I’d like to put a sword through her eye sometimes, I trust that she’ll take care of them. You, on the other hand, decided to strike out in the wilds on your own. That means you get to deal with me as I make sure you don’t get yourself killed.”

“Fine.” Tiane threw her arms into the air in exasperation. “Then at least make yourself useful and give us a fire before we freeze out here!”

The full moon had brought light with it, but no warmth. Tiane could hear the dull roar of the sea in the distances, and a northern wind seemed to blow ice through her very bones. For the first time in her life, she thought fondly of her sleeping mat in Falden’s fish-reeking shack.

“You really can’t do it, then?” Garyl asked.

“Can’t do what?”

“You almost burned me alive, and you did manage to light the fishery on fire. You’ve got fire in your blood but don’t have control over it yet, do you?”

Tiane curled up and rubbed her hands along the goosebumps that had formed on her forearms. “Lucky for you.”

“Lucky for both of us,” Garyl retorted.

He reached into a pouch beneath his red traveler’s cloak and produced a small wooden box. After placing the box on the ground, he opened it to reveal a stone that matched his own skin color, a metal bar, and some sort of gray moss. He tucked the moss beneath the kindling Tiane had gathered, tightened up the stones she had packed in a loose circle around the fire pit, and then raised steel to strike against the flint.

“Move to your right a little bit,” he said. “It will help block the wind.”

Tiane almost suggested that the troublemaker go place his head in a very uncomfortable position, but another shiver caused by the chilly night changed her mind. She pushed herself clockwise around the stones until the wind blew into her back. The discomfort made her grumpier until Garyl caught a spark on the moss. The spark grew almost immediately, and Tiane finally remembered what warmth felt like.

“Here,” Garyl said. He unfastened the brass clasp that held his cloak and placed it on the ground near Tiane. “It’s not the thickest of fabric, but you can use it to keep warm until I build us a shelter.”

Tiane’s forgotten fury spiked within her. She made a loud snorting noise, then spat on the cloak.

“Well, that’s not going to make it any warmer,” Garyl said is dismay.

“Don’t think I’m stupid,” Tiane said. “You’re trying to play knight in shining armor, like it’s so difficult for you out here. I saw what you did to me and to that shack. You could have snapped your fingers and lit us a fire. You could probably wave your hands and give me a mansion to sleep in.”

“You started the fire back there. How do you feel?”

Tiane said nothing, but feared that her face betrayed her. She felt exhausted, like her whole body was made of lead. Some of that almost certainly came from the cold and the fact that she hadn’t eaten a decent meal in months, but the exhaustion ran deeper than that. Just a few hours ago, she had been a vengeful goddess. She had breathed fire and made adults run as soon as they looked into her eyes. In one furious night, she realized dreams of power and vengeance that had danced through her head for most of her life. But even then, every time a burst of flame came out of her, every time something amazing and new happened, she felt a little more fatigued. By now, whenever she thought of what amazing feats she had accomplished, her fatigue far outweighed her exhilaration.

She couldn’t even muster a puff of smoke right now. She knew that to be true, because otherwise she would have lit her bothersome visitor on fire and roasted sparrows on his corpse for dinner.

Garyl seemed to know the thoughts that ran through her head, because he nodded. “Exactly,” he said. “You and I, we can break the laws of reality once in a while if we really want to. But it tires us out, and if we do it too often it starts to hurt. Out here, it helps to do things the hard way, just in case you need to keep your wits about you later on. Besides, I’ve got to make sure you fall asleep before I do so you don’t smash my head with a rock.”

“You should worry about more than just rocks,” Tiane said. “You should be terrified of me.” She locked eyes with Garyl and tried to focus her will as she had done before, but nothing seemed to happen. Whatever she had done before to make people flee before her eluded her.

“Don’t worry,” Garyl said darkly, “you don’t need any parlor tricks to make me afraid of you. But this is what I do when I’m frightened. No sense in running in fear when you can stop and study the person who scares you so much, is there?” Garyl hopped to his feet and stretched. “Now, give me an hour and I’ll have us some dinner and bedding for the night. Don’t go away.”

Garyl headed for a copse that lay a few hundred yards away. Tiant considered getting up and leaving, but the warmth of the fire convinced her otherwise. By the time Garyl returned, she had wrapped herself up in his cloak.

*          *          *

Fish and mushroom stew made a less than satisfying meal for Garyl, but Tiane took the time to savor every bite. The used loaves of stale bread that Garyl had in his pack for both bowls and spoons. After the meal, Tiane started nibbling on her impromptu dinnerware, testing the strength of her teeth against the ancient grain.

“I’d be careful with that if I were you,” Garyl said. “There are very few treasures greater than a healthy set of teeth.”

Tiane pulled back her upper lip to show a missing molar on the left side of her mouth. “Too late for that,” she said.

“Ah.” Garyl gave a rueful smile. “A fight?”

Tiane nodded. “When I was seven, before I met Falden. The cost of picking the wrong pocket on the streets of Blackwood City.”

“Blackwood City? Is that where you were born?”

Tiane shrugged. “Probably. Doesn’t everybody come from those crowded streets, one way or another?”

“And that person who roughed you up…I assume you didn’t breathe fire back in those days?”

Tiane’s crimson eyes flashed. “No, but maybe now I’ll go back and pay her a visit. I remember her well. Big woman, great right hook. Come to think of it, I’ve got a lot of people I should visit now.”

Garyl’s genial expression faded away, and a deep frown took over his face. “That’s what you want, then? You learn that you have magic inside you, and you decide to go through a list of old vendettas?”

“Why? What good is power if you can’t make the people who hurt you pay?”

Garyl groaned and put a hand to his forehead. “By the gods of the nine rings, that’s such a short-sighted thing to say. Here…look at this.” Garyl pulled back his own lips to show a set of straight, bright teeth. Moving his hands away from his face, he grinned. “That’s what power gets you if you play your cards right. Perfect teeth that lasted through the entire Dragon War, from beginning to end.” He took a bite out of his stale bread, broke it off cleanly, and then spat the food into the fire.

“The entire Dragon War? How old are you?”

“Old enough to prove that I’m very, very lucky.”

“And you’re apparently bored enough to check in on angry orphans…but not brave enough to deal with a filthy old crook when you have the chance.”

“Oh, I was going to tear that shack apart and kill Falden myself,” Garyl said. “I even looked forward to it. My heart gets racing when I find an excuse to slaughter, no matter how long I spend away from my people. But then I saw you, and I realized I needed to figure some things out first.”

“What sort of facts?” Tiane asked, feeling a surge of anger come out of nowhere. “You seem to know all about me, so tell me where all this came from. Two weeks ago I was too scared to look Falden in the eye. Now…rrrrgh.” She leaned forward, placing her hand on the edge of the campfire without feeling a burn. “Now I have an overwhelming urge to kill you!”

Tiane leapt over the fire and would have landed on top of Garyl had he not rolled backward and out of the way. He came up with his shield in hand, but his sword remained in its sheath. The girl’s fists struck out in a series of rapid but poorly aimed blows. Garyl dodged and positioned his shield carefully, blocking each incoming strike. After almost a minute, Tiane’s frenzy stopped. She dropped to her knees and stared in disbelief at her bloody knuckles.

“That’s another thing power and a long life can get you,” Garyl said. He set his shield down and knelt next to Tiane. “Nice thick callouses on your hands so you don’t bruise your knuckles in a fight.”

“So what did you figure out?” Tiane asked as though her outburst hadn’t happened.

“Very little just yet,” Garyl replied. “But I have some theories. Will you give me a chance to help you?”

Tiane stared into the night sky and gave no response.

“Come on,” Garyl said. “Give me a year. If I can’t figure things out, I’ll leave the shield behind and you can pummel me to death with your bare hands.”

Tiane folded her hands, considered the situation, and nodded once. “But you’re going to need a lot more stew.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Garyl reached out and patted Tiane’s hand. But he pulled away before she could feel the tremble in his own.

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