As we walked towards the woods, I jumped feeling something move under my cloak, running across the back of my shoulders. Yelping, I reached up and grabbed the offending creature, holding it up to see…a mouse? No, a rat…so familiar…my familiar? I vaguely remembered summoning him shortly before I’d left, so desperate for company. There were those who would talk to me in the monastery, others I’d come to know, but seeing them only made me think of Elyan, memories of them almost all tied to him. I didn’t want to hear what they would say, what they would tell me to try to make me feel better. They meant well, I knew, but promises that my heart could mend seemed as bitter lies. They didn’t understand, but of course they couldn’t. They were worth something, had friends who cared about them, lovers who wouldn’t betray them, those who would never leave them….
The rat squeaked in my grasp, looking curiously at me. Come to think of it, I had thought I’d seen rats on the boat scurrying around me, one trying to fend the others off, but I’d thought I’d been hallucinating. I guess….I hadn’t…. I loosened my hold on the rat and he crawled out of my hand, shaking a little before trotting up my arm and coming to rest once more on my shoulder. I wasn’t sure what to think of having a companion, even one so small. Had I had a choice over my familiar? Probably, but I couldn’t recall deciding. A rat seemed appropriate though. Small, hated by most, of questionable use…what other creature would accompany me? I almost smiled faintly as I raised my hand, petting the top of his little head. Sir Edward, I would call him. As if hearing me think his name, Sir Edward squeaked and looked up at me with wide eyes, his little face undeniably endearing.
I let my hand fall to my side as I continued to follow the others, anxiety tearing into me with each step. I’d intended to go my own way by now, spare them my miserable presence, but just as they’d regulated, I’d realized I couldn’t possibly survive out here alone. Those at the gate preyed on us because we were smaller than most and no one seemed to expect even the strongest who’d embarked to return. I couldn’t survive without them and the others? They couldn’t possibly need me. I’d used up so much of their healing magic that could have been better spent on my companions or the elf’s horse still bleeding terribly from the battle. I’d hurt our assailants, yes, but so had they and without nearly falling. Each step was another chance for them to tell me to go away, stop dragging them down on a journey so dangerous. I just…had to prove somehow I was worth keeping, or feign as much. If I were good at anything…but my magic was limited and my spells didn’t always work as I’d intended. I’d practiced with my bow endlessly, hour after hour, day after day, but targets didn’t try to rend you in two. Didn’t nearly succeed…..
I brought my hand up to my shoulder, flinching when my fingers brushed where that blackguard’s sword had plunged straight through me. A little further to one side and I wouldn’t be here at all. The wound was gone, healed by my companions’ magic, but still my skin seemed to recall the injury, lurking discomfort just shy of pain. So strange that such an injury could so swiftly be “undone” in a way. My fingers tightened in my shirt, bitterness rising in my heart. Why should I have been saved when Elyan hadn’t? Didn’t we have those who could heal? It wasn’t right! Why should I live?! I would have screamed if it wouldn’t have been the death of us all, footsteps and voices often ringing from the distance. My hands shook and my body ached, crying out for a reprieve from the consuming loneliness that pervaded my existence. I needed it, could think of nothing else in my growing despair, though again I had none of what I sought. Music, music had staved off the worst of it before. Barely, but it had. Though my lyre would alert those around us of our presence. Who was to say there didn’t already know we were here? Surely not all groups would immediately attack us. Or if they did, what did it matter? These people, no more companions than those we’d just fought. They would cast me aside any moment now. Why not take them with me? But they might not…they seemed kinder than most. Why save me to kill me? Though people have done stranger things. I didn’t know….
Tears slid down my cheeks and I held my bag close to my chest again, feeling the outline of my lyre within. It offered but little comfort, the reminder of Elyan bittersweet. I couldn’t decide if using music to help me cope was just that or if I was moving on. The very notion of the latter seemed an insult to him, to even start that so soon as if he had meant nothing to me. The same music I had used to get over my previous heartbreak, but without it, I had nothing.
Sir Edward squeaked softly on my shoulder, laying his tiny hands on my cheek as he gazed up at me with his wide, dark eyes. I thought I felt concern from him, confusion, unsure of what was wrong, why I was so upset. I nuzzled his small body, raising one of my hands to pet him with my fingertips. It was all I could do to keep walking, following Archimonde deeper and deeper into the woods.
The sun was low in they sky before he found a place he deemed suitable to rest at. In the dim light I saw the mauled corpses of a couple travelers not so different from ourselves. Beside them lay a giant bear the size of at least ten men. Would we have met the same fate, I wondered, if we had arrived here first? The others dragged the bodies away so as not to attract more monsters, people reduced to hazards to be discarded. There was no place for sentiment, least of all for our “fellow competitors,” and I wondered if whatever it was that was making the monsters so hostile didn’t affect us as well or if in truth we were always like this.
We huddled in the cave, soon illuminated by a small fire Archimonde set. I’d hoped my aching muscles would find relief in the rest, but my craving wouldn’t cease. I found myself rocking in the back of the cave, scratching at my skin when Archimonde sat beside me, summoning a lyre to his small hands. Without a thought, I fumbled for my bag, withdrawing my lyre, my fingers poised on the strings. Closing my eyes, my hands moved of their own accord, creating a gentle, flowing tune. Another lyre joined mine with the most beautiful song I’d ever heard, though there was too an air of sadness and desperation to it. I opened my eyes to see Elyan leaning against the cave wall with my lyre in his hands, a look of peace on his face.
“Everything will be okay, Arly,” Elyan said, tears welling in my eyes hearing the nickname he alone used. “You already have everything you need. Leave the shadows of this dusk behind and take hope in the coming dawn.”
I wanted to say there was no coming dawn without him, but I couldn’t seem to voice as much. Clambering over to him, I wiggled under his arm and wrapped my arms around his waist, resting my face on his chest. My eyes slid shut again as I listened to his song, matching my own even breathing, but…not his? Still….he was completely still and so cold.
My eyes flew open and I sat up with a start, looking around to see pale light filtering into the cave, Elyan nowhere to be seen. Archimonde was cheerily talking to Takeio, the wizard we abducted yesterday looking wearily between them. Archimonde informed him that he was to be Takeio’s manservant and that he was to put on and take off his armour every morning and evening and walk beside him at all times. He looked offended at the proposition, but had no choice but to accept. Archimonde moved to untie him and I trained my bow on the wizard, lest he decide to cast a spell. He muttered something about his spellbook he’d left at the ruins they’d been camping at. I knew they needed their books for their magic, whatever notes they might have scribbled down about what they’d felt or been thinking about the first time they’d used a spell, but surely after years of study they could remember a couple spells without reference. I mumbled a comment about wizards that seemed to offend the human, Aspen, I think she introduced herself as, though I thought she was a sorceress as well. Some of her spells had seemed strange and I’d thought that was simply because they were spells I couldn’t cast.
Shrugging, I picked up my lyre, holding it close, my only reprieve in this place. I began trying to replicate the song I heard Elyan play, though I couldn’t seem to muster the same sound or find quite the right notes for that elusive melody. Even as we walked, I continued to play, concerns of others overhearing me lost to my need to hear that song again, his song. He must have played it for me for a reason, for I could recall no other time I might have heard the song.
Hearing something rustle in the trees, I stopped, though I couldn’t see anything. Sir Edward began shrieking, trying to turn my face. A flash of green suddenly struck out at Takeio, barely missing him. An enormous snake recoiled, hanging from the trees fifteen feet above us. Sir Edward dove into my hood, hiding behind my neck as I readied my bow. I had to prove I was worth more than a corpse, somehow. I wasn’t strong enough to slay it alone, but if I could be at least a little useful, maybe they wouldn’t get rid of me.
Archimonde walked up by it, waving his arms and…hissing at it? The snake shook its head and slithered off again into the trees. Why…? Wasn’t our purpose here to slay these creatures? My face flushed and I blinked back tears, pulling my hood a little lower over my face. Of course I messed up. How foolish to expect I could do anything else. I was no warrior, no champion, just a stupid girl lost in the woods.
The others said nothing and we walked on, my fingers idly running along the strings of my lyre as I scanned the trees for any sign of the snake. I expected the others to tear the lyre from my hands at any moment for the hideous racket I produced, though I couldn’t help but continue. A burden, an annoyance…I hadn’t even the will or sense to walk in silence if I was to disturb them with my presence. It was only a matter of time before I was cast aside.
Sir Edward squeaked occasionally, frantically hitting my cheek as he pointed out every lizard and garden snake we passed. After perhaps half an hour, he found the serpent lurking in the trees, watching us, but making no move to close the distance between us. I pet him crouched in my hood again, trying to reassure him he was safe, even if that snake was large enough to easily eat even me whole. If it edged towards us, we would slay it. Slightly mollified, Sir Edward hid in my hood for the next hour or so until the serpent stopped following us.
The shadows were growing long again before we found the ruins this wizard and his companions had been staying at. The dwarf, Trombor, handily took care of the traps, though only about half of the ruins still stood. We passed two statues of angry looking half elves, the wizard explaining they were that blackguard’s other sons, the first victims of a basilisk attack, along with his own rat familiar. He hurried to a small room mostly intact, his shoulders slumping as he stood in the doorway. Glancing around him, I saw the room was empty. Someone must have raided it in the two days he was gone, taking not only the money and goods they’d stolen, but his spellbook as well. The culmination of his years of study just…gone. His familiar too was gone, in a way. Not irreparably, with the right magic, but for now. It was his own fault, choosing to take advantage of others, killing for their own gain. If things had gone differently, if they had taken me instead of the other way around, I knew he wouldn’t have done anything to stop that blackguard from making more half elven sons, but…to see him now…
I shook my head. What hadn’t I lost? What precious little had I ever had to lose? Let him weep and know the pain that was living. Why should he be spared as none of the rest of us were? He could work to regain what he’d lost as we did. There was no place for sentiment here. He was no different than that serpent waiting to strike.
Archimonde, Trombor, and the halfling, Tayla, moved the statues around, giggling as they repositioned them together. I raised a brow, wondering if out situation wasn’t as dire as I’d thought, though the dull ache in my shoulder maintained it was. Maybe I didn’t have as much to prove as I’d thought? I didn’t know…I could ask how long they planned on letting me tag along or what I had to do for them to tolerate me, but I was afraid of the answer.
I found a corner to sit in and played my lyre, determined to mimic the song I heard before it vanished from my memory, but even by the time everyone was lying down for the evening, I still hadn’t managed to quite recreate it. The some was similar, but something was just…off. There was a beauty his playing possessed my clumsy hands simply couldn’t muster. Sighing, I set my lyre aside, falling asleep to the sound of Aspen and Trombor softly talking by the fire, the first to take watch this evening.
I was roused suddenly by Aspen, looking up to see an enormous wolf biting into Trombor. I scrambled to grab my quiver and bow, firing into open gouges the others had already made. The wolf slumped to the ground soon and Archimonde wasted no time skinning the beast and collecting a sample of blood for what purpose I couldn’t guess. Knowing it was nearly time for my own watch, I retrieved my lyre, idly playing. Too much adrenaline to sleep, but I was too tired to focus enough to play Elyan’s song. Archimonde joined me when he was finished, our duet nothing so perfect as I’d dreamed, but still some of the weight of my sorrows seemed to slide off my shoulders for a time. A hint, a tiny reminder that there was still light in the world.
Sir Edward jumped up on my shoulder and began slapping my face again. Sighing, I expected to see another lizard, only to find a centipede as large as that serpent skittering down the crumbling wall behind me, maybe sixteen feet in length. Takeio’s eyes widened and he squawked I think happily, jumping up and tearing into the centipede with his beak. Grabbing my bow, we roused the others again, carving into the enormous insect until it was a twitching pile of legs on the ground. Takeio continued to contently bite legs about the size of my arms off, crunching them loudly in his beak. Shuddering, I retrieved my arrows, what were would to be a valuable resource here, and sat back with my lyre. I ran my trembling hands over the strings, wondering if I would ever again get a night of rest here.