An Argument in a World Full of Wonders’, Omi Wilde

Illustrations © 2018 Toeken



 [ Swords, © 2018, Toeken ] The child sits on a rock and weaves a daisy chain. She’s reading aloud from one of the leather-bound books that make up the majority of her possessions, her voice ringing bright and loud. The two women—one broad and past middle age and the other slightly younger, taller and slimmer but no less battle-scarred—bicker as they work side by side, packing up their campsite.

“Well, she seems in good spirits,” Amet says, with a nod to the child and, her voice dropping even quieter—Hella, not for the first time, marvels at the inversely proportionate relationship between volume and venom—“for a child sacrifice.”

Hella sighs, “We’ve been over this. We’re just—”

“Delivery boys? As if being mercenaries wasn’t sinking low enough!” Amet’s dishwashing is always fast and loud but today it sounds like a symphony composed exclusively of cymbalists.

“Skilled professionals for hire, at very affordable rates,” Hella corrects her patiently. “And we’re just doing our job, just like any other. The Brothers have paid us to escort the girl to her destination and that’s what we’re going to do. It’s not like we haven’t made orphans of plenty of kids like her and I haven’t heard you say a word about it. Here we are just playing honour guard to the little thing and you’ve got complaints.”

“It is different. And you know it.”

“Yeah, it’s different ’cause it’s better paying! It’s a bloody miracle and if it weren’t for this job we’d never earn enough for the airship fare in time. You want to miss Alex’s wedding?”

Amet doesn’t answer and packs up the last of the dishes with the lovely lines of her face set stubborn and tight. Hella, having gotten the last word in, finishes strapping the saddlebags on.

The child—who is, according to the monks who entrusted her to Hella and Amet’s professional care, nameless—runs up and reaches with spindly arms to drape a flower crown on Hella’s greying close-cropped head. Hella swallows hard and avoids Amet’s eyes. She gently swings the child up onto the horse behind Amet, and then expertly mounts her own horse.

The argument is resumed in whispered bits and pieces once the child is lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the horses.

Hella, knowing that Amet will pounce on her sentimentality but also unwilling to take the flower crown off, adopts the best defence, and hastily accuses Amet of being disrespectful of the girl’s culture.

Amet snorts. And not the gentle warm snort of laughter Hella is usually treated to, no, this is in the same icily dismissive category as the snort she saves for clients who try to weasel out of their fees.

Hella is stung but she’s already committed to this line of attack. “Anyway,” she says, fighting dirty like she always does, “she’s been well fed and taken care of. Hell, the old boys in that monastery even taught her to read, which is a fair sight better than that noble family of yours did for you.”

Amet whirls around—but then turns back to the road and doesn’t say anything at all. Snaps her mouth shut like a turtle. Which, from long experience, Hella knows is because whatever retort Amet thought of was too scorchingly vicious and she decided to let Hella live.

It doesn’t take Hella long to think of it herself and when she does she laughs. “Yeah, yeah, what do I know? I’m just the misbegotten bastard of a second-rate war lord, cast out to fend for myself when I was littler than that one, wouldn’t know a proper standard of childcare if it bit me in the arse, and unlike you I still can’t read, is that it?”

“I didn’t say that,” Amet says primly, but her eyes soften.

“Uh huh, but you thought somethin’ like it, dearheart,” Hella says, her weathered features cracking into a grin. “And yet it seems like I did just fine raising Alex, hmm?”

“Yes, you did,” Amet admits, and the corners of her mouth tug up and then quickly smooth in her patented blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile. Hella never blinks.

“We did,” Hella counters, and adds, “I miss him too but we’re rather too old to raise another little one.”

“Oh, so you think it’s just an empty nest that’s bothering me, not that we’re delivering a helpless innocent to be devoured by some monster?”

Amet’s voice has gone quiet again and Hella sighs and braces herself for the renewed ice storm.

Except then Amet’s voice drops even lower and she says, continuing to look straight ahead, “Company. At your two o’ clock.”

Hella’s spine stiffens and her hand slides to her sword hilt. Her eyes shift cautiously to her right and she counts four bulky shapes in the deeper shadows of the woods. She purses her lips, “Hmmph.”

Amet whispers teasingly out of the corner of her mouth, “Blasted mercenaries.”

Hella nods and her eyes crinkle at their own private self-deprecatory joke.

They continue to canter forward down the broad dirt road, deliberately casual as both grip their swords. Hella edges her horse into the lead and Amet angles her body just slightly to shield the child.

Amet says what they’re both thinking, “We’re a little bit screwed if they’ve got archers, dearest.”

But they don’t. Instead it’s clear that they’re amateurs; they all rush forward at once, waving swords and clubs clumsily. There are more of them, though, than Hella had thought—seven in total. Hella and Amet are both expert swordswomen and mounted while their opponents are untrained and on foot, but Amet is hampered by the child and even by Hella’s standards seven against two isn’t good odds.

Except it’s not against two, it’s against three.

As Amet and Hella meet their attackers, slashing and parrying desperately, the child wakes up, and Hella—whirling in the saddle to stab the buttock of one of the brigands attacking Amet—sees her blink and then simply and quickly launch herself from Amet’s grasp and onto the back of another attacker. The man screams high and piercing as the child, grinning, gouges her thumbs into his eye sockets.

After that the fight is over quickly.

Amet is poised and precise, her lineage and its martial excellence clearly readable in each efficient clean strike. Hella is a renowned expert in every shamelessly dishonourable tactic in the book, from the basics of kicking sand into her opponents’ faces to sudden rolls and dodges that leave two of them skewering each other when they had thought to flank her. But the child—the child is an even dirtier fighter and she has a decided element of surprise on her side. She’s wielding two small but superbly sharp blades—where they came from Hella doesn’t know ’cause she could have sworn she made a proper inspection of the child’s property—and has become a child shaped maelstrom of flashing metal and spurting blood.

When it’s over Hella clasps a hand to the child’s shoulder. “Well done,” she says warmly. “You’re a little fiend, aren’t you?”

The child is panting hard but her face when she turns it up to Hella is, disconcertingly, just the same sweet, skinny, big brown-eyed picture of innocence that’s got Amet so fiercely protective. Hella glances up at Amet, bemused, as the child beams with pleasure at the praise and kneels to clean her blades. As she does so, she admits soberly, “Brother Selin would say my technique was sloppy.”

Hella and Amet exchange glances. “So,” Amet says slowly, “Brother Selin trained you in fighting, did he?”

“Mmhm,” the child says, placidly. “All the Brothers taught us fosterlings something. Brother Selin was my favourite. He taught Improvisational Tactics, and,” she adds, grinning at Hella, “he’d’ve liked you.”

Hella grins back and Amet, watching her beloved, rolls her eyes fondly.

The child continues, a little resentfully, “He didn’t make me his candidate though, even though he always said I was his favourite. It was Brother Nalle who did, because I’m the best at Enunciation and Emotion. That’s not bragging,” she adds quickly, “cuz he said so himself when he nominated me.”

“Okaay…” Hella says, and again she and Amet exchange glances. They both, in silent sync, start searching the bodies and gathering anything useful from them, mostly just for the motions of normalcy.

They stay silent and absorbed in their own parallel thoughts for the rest of the day, riding at an easy canter.

They reach the entrance to the Thorn Wood when the afternoon light is still warm and golden. By wordless agreement, they don’t continue but instead make camp in the last of the golden hay fields.

The child seems to notice their somber mood and attempts to cheer them up by reading a story from one of her books to them. Her reading is, indeed, as suggested by Brother Nalle’s praise, wonderfully clear and dramatic and the story is full of thrilling heroics and jaunty villains. When the story is done she looks up hopefully and Amet and Hella both applaud dutifully. She grins, well pleased with herself, and curls up to sleep by the fire.

As they clean up after dinner, Hella makes an attempt at jocularity, “Well she seems quite able to defend herself, eh? Doesn’t need any mother hens clucking over her.” Which goes over like a lead weight.

Amet snaps, “Capable of defending herself against bandits, sure. But it’s not bandits that live in that wood, is it?”

Hella says, “We don’t rightly know what lives in that wood.” And in response to Amet’s snort, “Yeah, I know what the rumours say, but that could be all scared superstitions and fairy tales to keep the kiddos from wandering.”

Amet shoots Hella a look and asks incredulously, “You’re going to say that? You? After all the things we’ve seen?”

Hella’s shoulders bunch up unhappily and she doesn’t respond, just wraps her arms around Amet.

Amet sags into the embrace and mutters, “It’s just not right,” into Hella’s hair.

“I know, honey, I know. This whole job freaks me out too. But what can we do? It ain’t like the child seems unwilling. And we do need the money.”

Amet bites back her impulse to say that the child is too young to know anything—knowing already the exact thrust of Hella’s answering argument about how young they both were when they started making their own decisions and dangerous ones at that. She breathes in deep and admits, “I know we do. And don’t think I don’t want to see Alex get married just as much as you do!”

They lapse into silence and unroll their bedroll before the fire.

Amet takes first watch as always and sits with her hand on her sword, staring into the fire, listening to her beloved’s thunderous snores. Deliberately, she closes her eyes and allows her breathing to align with Hella’s. Wills herself to sleep. Maybe the child is willing, maybe so—or maybe she’s scared and too scared to show it. Maybe she’d be gone in the morning and that would be that.

At dawn, when Hella and Amet wake together, the child is still there and has helped herself to a very large meal out of their ration packs. Amet bites her lip and doesn’t meet Hella’s glare of mock outrage. She also doesn’t reopen the argument.

They turn their horses loose to graze what green they can find in the summer burnt fields beside the road. The path into the wood is too narrow and overgrown with brambles to ride. The horses are battle steeds bonded to their riders—Hella would salute and wish all the best to any thief who could lay a hand on them. She leads the way at first but the child quickly skips ahead, swinging her satchel of books and humming.

The woods are dark and tangled and dense and the path grows faint in places and forks and doubles back on itself but the Brothers’ directions were thorough and precise and by midday they round one last twist in the path and reach their destination. It’s a mossy, shadowed clearing deep in the heart of the forest. At its centre lies a glimmering dark lake.

“So. This is it, eh?,” Hella asks the child.

“Mmhmm.”

Hella shoots the facial equivalent of a shrug, a question, and a helpless entreaty all at once to Amet, who kneels down before the child.

“You’re quite sure you’re alright then? You’re… Child, this is where you want to be, right?” Amet asks.

“Oh yes,” the child says. And then adds, “Oh! I’m sorry, I was supposed to give you this,” and she presses a small round clay token into Hella’s hand. “It’s to let the Brothers know that you fulfilled the terms of your contract, so they’ll give you the second half of your payment.”

“Oh. Yeah, yeah, that’s great. Thanks,” Hella says and awkwardly reaches out to ruffle the child’s thick halo of hair.

Amet asks the child, “May I hug you goodbye, little one?”

“Oh! Yes, please.” The child’s smile is bright and happy. Amet’s smile is crumpled in a way that pierces Hella’s heart through. Hella turns away and Amet follows.

They get all the way back to the edge of the forest without speaking. As one they both pause, still in the shadows of the trees, and look out into the bright sunlit fields.

Hella says, “Well.”

Amet nods.

“Job done.”

“Yes.”

Neither makes any move towards where their horses graze.

“Oh! Wolf take me!” Hella swears, patting her pockets, “I think I must have dropped my knife. My favourite folding knife that you gave me. Can’t lose that. We’ll just have to retrace our steps until I find it.”

“Thank you, dear,” Amet says to Hella’s broad back as she follows her lead back into the heart of the forest. Hella pretends not to hear and ostentatiously peers around and scuffs through the undergrowth.

The woods were dark even before, when tiny slivers of noonday sun still lanced through the heavy canopy but now, as they near where they left the child, true dark is settling down around them. Hella has long since dropped the pretense of looking for her knife and they both have their heads down focusing only on forcing their tired and aching bodies to keep up a steady jog.

When they round the final corner, a pleasant, positively homey scene greets them. The child has made camp by the water’s edge and illuminated by the light of a crackling campfire, they can see her cheerfully cooking a rack of fish and a rabbit. Hella blinks and a sigh of relief escapes her, which she quickly turns into a sarcastic huff. “Well. She looks in terrible peril, doesn’t she? Could definitely give herself a tummy-ache if she eats all that at once.”

For a heartbeat, Hella thinks that Amet, the light of her life, has actually growled at her. And not in a come-hither-you-sexy-beast way, either. Before Hella can even muster her shock into proper outrage, Amet’s hand grips hers so tight it hurts and she realizes her error. The growl didn’t come from Amet, it came from the lake.

 [ Something, © 2018, Toeken ] The surface of the water ripples and distorts. Something emerges dripping and covered in green lichen and water weeds. Water sluices off of its massive monstrous grey stone body as it rises up towering above the child.

Amet and Hella’s eyes meet and their hands pull their swords free even as their eyes agree that this is ridiculous, hopeless, no sword will make that thing bleed. Their gaze returns to the child and—the child scrambles to her feet and gives a neat, respectful bow, just as she’d given to Amet and Hella when they were introduced. The child’s clear high voice floats to their ears and she says, “Greetings Elder Brother, I am yours to name.”

The monster’s voice rumbles like a landslide and gurgles like a whirlpool and neither Hella or Amet can understand its response but the child laughs and nods. The monster lowers itself to sit on the bank and reaches one enormous finger gently out to the child. The child swings herself up and its hand becomes a cradle that the child cheerfully settles herself in. She pulls a book out of her bag and begins to read; her voice carrying sweet and clear to Hella and Amet standing frozen in the shadows, swords still drawn and bodies tensed for combat. As they watch, the warm glow of the fire lights the stony expanse of the monster’s face haloing both it and the child. They watch and watch and watch and then, finally, they tear themselves away and turn back down the trail.

Hella’s voice is shaking with adrenaline and relief but she tries her damndest to sound insufferably smug as she asks, “What have I always told you? The world is full of wonders.” And her smirk, for all the wrinkles and jowls and scars, is exactly the same as thirty-odd years ago. Amet laughs, with tears in her eyes and, exactly as she did thirty-odd years ago, punches Hella in the arm.

Hella pulls the clay token from her bag and flips it through her fingers, crowing triumphantly, “We’re gonna see that boy of ours married!” Amet begins to sing a wedding march and both laughing now, they link arms and keep walking. Behind them, the fire burns low and the deepening dark blankets both monster and child.


© 2018, Omi Wilde

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