Betwixt and Between
Part One: Chapter One
"I sing above my vision, I sing above my face: a fat, old amphibian, speaker for the dead.
Gather 'round, ye animals, gather 'round this lake, take upon your vigil, wallow in the wake."
"Wait, so what is he? This Vagrant fellow?"
"Pardon?" Tavarez asked, blinking.
Emmat blinked, back, and clarified, "He doesn't seem like an Amphydae, but he obviously isn't an Ave, either, right? He doesn't fit either story-- so what is he?"
Tavarez quirked a smile. "Ah. The big question. You see, he didn't know. He'd lived with us Shifters for as long as he could remember, but he had no idea what kind he was."
"How can you not know?" Emmat snorted in disbelief.
"You'll see," Tavarez smiled further, and continued.
He stood in a forest, at the edge of a large cleared space, full of sparkles and glows, wisps of smoke, the babble of a small stream, and the murmur of voices, a sound he hadn't heard in three months. Together, it all made up a village. It was a small village, barely more than a hamlet, with six buildings, several small fields ready for harvest, and a communal barn, nestled deep within the forest he'd wandered aimlessly within for the past two weeks. For the first time in those three months since leaving the Caynvi town on the edge of the great plains, he'd assumed human shape, drawn to those lights and voices. There was the smell of sleep, chill, and dead leaves in the air; autumn had come, and the madness had left.
It was night, the sun set hours ago. This time, then, he would be Nightling. He looked from house to house, window to window, just a shadow in the trees trying to decide which family to approach. Smells and sounds wafted from each building-- four houses, a small temple, and a blacksmith's forge with rooms above it, for the blacksmith. There would be no work for him at the tiny temple, and the blacksmith, he could tell from where he stood, was not a clean man: he, and his rooms, stank. That left the homes, and the families therein.
The squall of a baby startled him, and he ruled out the house it came from immediately; he liked children well enough, but fussy babies distressed him if he couldn't figure out what made them fussy, which was often. The second house smelled of far too many people for such a small building, so there would be no room for him, and probably no work, as well. The third was small and shabby, with fewer people but much less to go around; he could not stay there, or none of them would have enough to eat.
The fourth, however, seemed perfect. He circled around the open space cleared for the village and its small set of fields towards it, getting a closer look before he approached. It stood on the stream, and as he drew closer, he saw that the blacksmith's shop had obscured the second half of the building: a water-powered mill. Nightling had never worked in a mill before, though he'd always been a little curious about how the rough grains of wheat turned into flour, and then bread. The mill itself was dark and quiet, but the little house attached-- doubling as a bakery, he guessed from the ends of large ovens on one side and the delicious smells wafting from it-- was lit up and noisy enough for a couple inhabitants. His stomach reminded him forcefully that it had been a very long time since he'd scrounged those late berries that morning.
Still, he waited, crouched downwind of the little building, watching the lit windows for figures, and trying to pick out what scent went with which figure. He wanted to know who he would be presenting himself to before he knocked on the miller's front door, and he could be patient. There was no chance he would fall asleep now, at least, not so soon after the madness.
After several minutes of patient watching, listening, and testing each scent the wind brought him, Nightling rose, brushed off his ragged but still serviceable clothing, and approached. He took a deep breath, pausing on the covered porch, and rapped his knuckles lightly on the sturdy, wooden door of the miller's cottage. There was a burst of quiet chatter within-- surprise from a young male voice, curiosity from a female voice, the deepest voice asking for quiet so he could answer the door-- and then light spilled out onto the porch. Nightling blinked in the light.
"Er, evenin'," the miller said-- he was a portly, long-footed Lipus, or hare-shifter, with sandy fur going white around the muzzle, big, hazel eyes and long, twitchy ears-- obviously surprised and confused to find a stranger on his doorstep. "Can I help ye?"
"If you please, sir," Nightling began diffidently, hands absently clasping and unclasping, "I'm looking for winter work, sir."
It was a common enough thing, an itinerant worker in search of a temporary or eventually permanent job, that the miller grunted his understanding. It was a rare enough thing, an itinerant worker without a fairly large group of other itinerant workers along with him, that the miller simultaneously gave him a suspicious look, ears skewing lopsidedly and giving him a somewhat humorous look, despite the penetrating gaze. Nightling had nothing to hide, no ulterior motive, and no desire to steal valuables or women, so he merely looked back with his innocent anxiety, shifting from foot to foot and trying to keep his hands from wringing themselves over and over.
Finally, the miller seemed to relax a little, either convinced of Nightling's trustworthiness, or just that he could keep close enough tabs on him to make sure he stayed trustworthy no matter what his intent. "Can't pay much," he warned.
"All I ask is a bed under your roof, and meals," Nightling replied immediately and with relief. That was all he ever asked; sometimes he was given more, sometimes less.
The miller looked a little surprised. "That all?"
"Huh. Well, can allus use 'nother hand come harvest-time," the miller mused. "Ever worked fields, boy?"
"Many times," Nightling nodded earnestly.
"Ever worked millrace? Baking?"
"Baking, yes; millrace, no. But I'm willing to learn."
The miller thought another moment, eyes going unfocused as he did so, and Nightling risked peeking past him. The two voices he'd heard before seemed to be a teenaged boy and a young woman, son and daughter, and both were standing in the room beyond-- the kitchen, it looked like-- and staring back at him. He hastily averted his eyes, and found his hands wringing each other again and forced them apart.
Nightling jumped a little and looked back up at the miller, who was focused again and had obviously come to a decision. "All right," he repeated. "We'll keep you for harvest, copper penny a day, then in the mill and bakery, two copper pennies a week. And a change of clothes," he added, frowning at the ragged state of his clothing. "You can sleep in the little room in the attic, it's a bit nippy when it snows, but we've got plenty of blankets."
"Thank you, sir," Nightling answered with a shy smile. It wasn't much pay, as he'd been warned, but it was more than he asked for.
"Ahern Rasha," the miller said-- his name, of course-- shooting out his hand, long-fingered and wiry. Nightling tentatively put his own into it, and found himself nearly being pumped off his feet by the powerful grip. "Got a name, boy?"
"Nightling," he said simply.
"Odd name," miller Ahern grunted. "Come on in, meet my family; bet you want some dinner."
"If it's not too much trouble--"
"No trouble 'tall!"
And Nightling found the implacable grip on his fingers tugging him inside, pointing out both daughter and son-- Yula and Bristel, respectively-- and then dropping warm bread and hot vegetable broth in front of him. Nightling then and there resigned himself to a meatless winter with a purely private sigh for the consequences of living with herbivores, and promptly set to filling his hungry stomach, trying to ignore the curious stare of Bristel, and the completely different look that Yula was giving him.
Song borrowed from Five for Fighting's "Two Frogs", on the Message for Albert album
Draclin'geyar are the Creative Property of Silver Midnight; Fleshshifters are the Creative Property of Drakiera