Betwixt and Between
Part One: Chapter Two
"It was glorious of glories, a maple April day, with a pocket full of horseflies and eyes as bright as rays.
They said, Walk away, walk away if you can. But he took one leap out the village, and our caravan began."
Tavarez paused in his tale for a few throat-moistening sips of his drink, and Emmat took advantage of the pause to ask another question. "So he's just a migrant?"
"Not just a migrant," Tavarez corrected. "A very well-traveled, nearly legendary migrant."
"How can a simple traveling worker-- who's never even worked in a mill before-- be legendary?" Emmat asked, puzzled.
"By circling the planet three or four times over the past three hundred years, at least. Probably more."
"Three hundred?" Emmat exclaimed. "How old is he?"
"Certainly older than I am," Tavarez chuckled. "I first heard of this Vagrant from an old Ave who swore she had been in love with him in her youth. She remembered him quite clearly, from all his oddities and servile mannerisms to the color of his skin and the shape of his eyes, and had no qualms about talking about him. She was a widow, so there was no husband to glare for talk of previous lovers, and well-respected in the community, so there were no discrete whisperings of affairs and scandal. As it turns out, this lady Ave met him well before she was married, shared a somewhat stormy love affair over the span of half a year, and then he disappeared."
It seemed like a very typical situation, to Emmat, certainly not something he would have remembered once he'd left the lady behind. "I listened politely," Tavarez continued, "because that's what I do, and filed the story away in my head. It was interesting, and my nose itched that there had to be something more. Young men disappear on their lovers every day, but this didn't seem to be a normal young man."
"Why not?" Emmat asked.
The Rattai shrugged lightly, sipping his drink and flicking his whiskers. "Sudden changes of mood, even personality; wild shyness and incredibly submissive behavior; seemingly irrational fears of strange an unexpected things. Sound odd enough, to you? Certainly not your normal, charismatic, flighty young man who loves and leaves?"
Emmat had to admit, he was right.
"So. A few weeks later, when I'm speaking to a friendly, middle-aged farmer who tells me about a strange young man who stayed with him a few winters back, by the name of Nightling, by the exact same description-- odd personality and all-- I first pass it off as a coincidence. The description was uncanny, true, but it couldn't possibly have been the same traveler. It wasn't until the next week, when I stayed the night with an elderly Equita couple and their grown son and heard the name Vagrant again-- with the exact same description, mind you-- that I started to wonder, and decided I wanted to piece together the story of this strange, changeless wanderer."
Harvest had come and gone, and with it not only the bulk of the other migrant workers who had nowhere to stay but the mill Nightling had chosen for his own, but also the rest of the autumn's warmth. Ahern had been right about how chilly the attic was, but he'd also been true to his word and provided as many blankets as anyone could want onto the old, shedding featherbed there.
Not that Nightling really got to enjoy it by lying abed, once he woke in the morning. Now that he was no longer working in the fields, he helped with the baking in the morning, which meant he was up before dawn with the rest of the family. His afternoons were spent beginning to learning the run of the mill and helping out there, as much as he knew how. Ahern was a gruff but good employer, fair and distantly friendly, though rather low on patience with Nightling and his son Bristel, in equal measure. Nightling was less competent, but Bristel had a smart mouth and a lazy disposition to Nightling's quiet apologies and attempted diligence, so the rebukes evened out overall.
Yula tended the family's garden in the afternoon, and was under her father's watchful eye most of the rest of the time-- much to Nightling's relief. She was a very pretty maid, hare or human, and she wore her human shape whenever she thought he might see her, often with eye-catching ribbons and fitted bodices, and usually accompanied by lingering looks and secret smiles. Nightling didn't want to offend his hosts, but Yula seemed to be going out of her way to try and lure him into offense. At least summer and madness was very far away.
Thankfully, it was next to impossible to fall asleep while one was busy cutting down or threshing wheat, and so far he hadn't had any episodes of dreaming while kneading dough or feeding grain to the mill to be crushed. His night-time dreaming hadn't even sent him wandering around the village or forest yet. So far, life at the Rasha residence had been unusually peaceful, and Nightling was going to enjoy it for as long as it lasted.
Kneading dough, unfortunately, soon lost its novelty, and at the same time, lost the power to keep him awake. After a particularly cold night, when he hadn't gotten quite as much sleep as he would have liked, he found himself nodding over the loaf he'd been given to shape and set to rise. He shook himself awake again several times, unnoticed by the rest of the room, before dreams finally caught him unaware and staring sleepily out the window, and stole him into their own world.
He jerked his gaze back where it was supposed to be. The song, the ever-singing music that permeated the caverns, had distracted him again, sent him dreaming, but now he couldn't remember what he'd just been doing. "What?" he asked stupidly, disoriented.
Pain flickered across his forehead and he fell back into his chair, wincing and cringing back from the source of the sting: the lady Sphiridon, intimidating and ancient, all wispy white hair, sharp black eyes, and weathered skin. Lady Sphiridon, who stood over him with a dark frown pulling the corners of her mouth down. He shrank into himself, apologizing automatically, and she softened only slightly.
"What am I going to do with you?" she asked with exasperation-- a common question, and not one that he ever had an answer for. "You are the key to everything, but you don't seem to care...."
He didn't know what he was the key to, or why he should care, but he did at least try. His attention just kept wandering.... "I'm trying, ma'am," he said in a small voice, hoping that might placate her, because he was trying.
It didn't work. Her eyes grew hard again. "You are not trying very hard!" she snapped at him. "Now. Again!"
He remembered what he'd been doing, then, and with a faint sigh, picked up the recitation she'd asked him for. It made no sense, full of incomprehensible metaphor and inexplicable imagery, but he'd dutifully memorized it, as required. Lady Sphiridon asked him to memorize a lot, calling the strange poems and paragraphs various kinds of mantras, dogmas, or spells, but the mantras and dogmas must have belonged to a very strange religion, and the spells must have been somehow deactivated, because nothing happened when he spoke them. Nothing happened when she spoke them, either.
"Did you see anything?" she asked, after a long pause, when he finished.
"No," he answered cautiously, not sure what she meant. He saw her, was that it? Or did she mean the song-dreams? He couldn't remember those, now, so he couldn't tell her what he'd seen....
Lady Sphiridon leaned close over him, eyes narrow, and he leaned back as much as he could in a pointless attempt at escape. "Nothing at all?"
"Was I supposed to have?" he almost-whispered.
She threw up her hands, rocking back on her heels, and stormed out of the little cavern-room they had been ensconced in, tossing furious words over her shoulder: "Hopeless, worthless! Witless, blind, and deaf child!"
He put his head into his hands, wishing that, for once, he actually understood something....
Someone shook his shoulder. He looked up with a start to find a round, rabbity face inches from his own, big hazel eyes peering into his red ones, a pair of stalk-like ears fully erect and quivering above his head. "What's wrong with ye, boy?" the face demanded.
"What?" Nightling asked vacantly, confused. No one in Sphiridon's caves looked like this....
The strong hand shook his shoulder again. "You walked right outa my kitchen, boy! Wouldn't answer Bristel, and Yula said you was glarin' somethin' fierce 'fore she ran to get me. Thought you was gonna run on back to th'woods ye came from, or somethin'!"
Ahern. Ahern Rasha, that's who this was. Ahern Rasha from the mill and bakery. The bakery-- the bread-- "Oh, gods, I'm sorry!" he wailed, remembering, and spun himself around to hurry back to the baking and the bread he'd forgotten. Ahern clapped his hand back onto his shoulder again, stopping him. His ears had gone skewed again.
"What happened?" he asked suspiciously.
"It's-- it's nothing," Nightling stammered, uncomfortable and blushing. "I just-- fall asleep, sometimes. And I do strange things, then."
"I'll say you did! Fell asleep?" Ahern scratched his head. "Did kinda look like you was sleepwalkin, or sommat."
"It's something like that," Nightling agreed readily, nodding. "Just-- just ignore me, when I get strange like that. I'm sorry, I left your bread--" He stopped as Ahern waved a hand.
"Sent Bristel back to finish up. You all right, then?"
"Oh, yes, I'm used to it...."
"Up to the mill, then?"
"Whatever you say, sir," Nightling nodded again, relieved that Ahern-- solid, down-to-earth Ahern-- had nothing more to say about his employee's strange behavior. He caught Yula watching him as they passed around the house, and kept his eyes on the ground. She, he guessed, would have more to say on the subject... and he didn't really want to talk about it.
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