Hunting

Tamora Pierce/Immortals Fanfiction.

Blurb: Sarralyn cannot remember a time when she wasn't hiding from the mysterious man who hunts her mother. Sick of living the life of a coward, she runs away and tries to find out the truth, not knowing that her own deadly curse is hunting her down. D/N

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2. Chapter 2: Sarralyn

888

Chapter 2: Sarralyn

888

 

“Och, tell us another story, duck!” Merrian always spoke like that in the evenings. In the day she was in charge of the kitchen, giving out sharp orders and sharper insults when we were slow at our work. But in the evenings her voice changed, and she wheedled like a child for stories and songs. I had only been working for her for a few weeks, but already my tales were being repeated more than all the other maids’ put together. It was a large inn, where we worked, and although there were always still guests in the main hall in the evenings it was where we did our work, cleaning our pans with soft sand by the dregs of the fire. The storyteller was always given the lightest task to do, and some of the others already resented me for Merrian’s favouritism. I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t last, but they preferred to gossip behind their hands than talk to my face. Still, in the evenings they listened as avidly as the cook, and I loved watching the delight in their eyes when I told them the stories that were old and familiar to me, but new and surprising to them.

They had been telling stories the night I arrived, still damp from the river and wild-eyed in my newfound freedom.  They barely looked up when the door opened, caught up in the story, and to my surprise it was one that I knew, about a dragon who searched the mortal realms for a place to have her baby. The story, as my mother told it, always made me cry when I was little. The mother dragon dies at the end. The maid was complicating it, though, losing the emotion in a rambling, boring description of all the places where the dragon made her nest. By the time she got to the end it wouldn’t be a story at all, just a map. Forgetting that I was here to beg for a place to sleep, I interrupted their circle.

“You’re telling it wrong!” I said clearly, making the speaking maid jump and glare at me. The others giggled, watching from the corners of their eyes as they went about their work. From the place nearest the fire, a woman in a smarter dress which was stained by flour met my eyes until I blushed and looked away.

“Well, are you going to finish the story?” The smarter woman asked. When the maid opened her mouth she was scowled at. “Not you, Aimie. You.”

I stared at her pointing hand, feeling too tall and exposed standing among all these sitting women. “Um,” I started, and then breathed out in relief when two of the nearest maids grudgingly moved to make space for me to sit. “Thank you,” I said, getting grunts in reply. Obviously this was not the time to be friendly. I took a deep breath, and started the story again from the beginning.

Mynoss only knows what Merrian was thinking, offering me a job when the others left to go to their beds. If she hired everyone who told her a sad story, her kitchen would be very badly run. It was only later that I realised that the other guests who gathered around that late night fire also listened for the stories, returning night after night to laugh or cry or learn from the heroes that we talk about. Merrian made a good business selling them ale or still cider, and often charged them in the morning if they fell asleep in their chairs. But I didn’t know that when she offered me a job. All I could think of was my freedom, so quickly sold to this woman in return for simple food and a bed. It was a gift, and it was a cage, and even as I settled into the routine of the inn I chafed against its structured life.  I was too used to walking through all weathers, and moving away every few weeks. By the third week I missed my old life keenly, but my anger at my lying mother still burned in my stomach.

It’s lucky that I was hired because of my stories, because I had no other skills. Between my mother and I, we had worked at every menial task under the sun. We had shovelled straw in stables and sown seed in spring fields. We had chopped wood, cooked, and cleaned solars. But these tasks never lasted for more than a few weeks, and you cannot learn a trade in a fortnight. The only thing that I could learn was what my mother could teach me: I could hunt with a bow or a slingshot, read and write, and I remembered all the stories that she told me. Perhaps this is another reason why I like words so much. They’re the only thing my mother ever taught me which I could completely trust.

Merrian begged me for another story, and because I had made the last one up from nothing I decided to repeat one of my old favourites instead of making up another. The other maids nodded as I recited the title, knowing their own versions of the tale from their own childhoods. They said there was something different about my stories. There were small details, which my mother had added, which made them seem so much more real than their own versions. In the shadows of the room around us, the guests shifted in their seats at the title. Some raised their heads to listen more clearly, others rolled their eyes and returned to their own tasks at the tired old yarn.

I took a deep breath, and began. “In the beautiful golden city of Carthak, there were two gilded rooms. One was filled with life: beautiful birds, who sang wonderful songs each morning which put the court musicians to shame. The other was filled with death: vast skeletons which creaked each evening like the hag’s knees.”

There was a laugh at that. The words were well known- everyone starts the story like that. I carried on, slipping into my mother’s lilting simplicity without thinking about it. The laughter quietened as I spoke and all eyes looked distant, as if they were seeing the things I described in the air before them.

All eyes, that is, except the sharply gazing pair from the far end of the hall. In this dreaming world they felt rude, like a dash of cold water on a sleeper’s pillow. I was not used to people staring at me, and I blushed and looked away. Even looking away I could feel those eyes, watching me as I shaped my words into stories. Under their intense scrutiny I could not concentrate; I stammered and hesitated, and the spell was broken. Before the others could laugh or Merrian demand what was wrong, I excused myself and hid away in my room, locking the door. I only opened it again when my roommate returned after someone else had finished the story, and by then hiding away seemed quite silly. She didn’t ask me why I’d left; she just pulled a face at how much of the candle I’d burned that evening, and flung herself into her bed.

The next morning I looked for the man who had stared at me, but didn’t see him anywhere. I didn’t even know if I would recognise him. The shadows had hidden him, and all I could really remember was the firelight shining from those unsettling eyes. Merrian was sharp with me all day, sending me on extra chores and criticising the smallest mistakes in her loud nasal voice, and by evening I was so worn out that I could barely keep my eyes open. One of the other maids told a story, and I did not look around to see if the eyes were watching her, too.

I didn’t look around on the third day, either. I told a simple story about a girl who outwitted a chicken-poaching fox, and then let one of the others speak. When I moved to sit further away from the fire, I looked up and, like a bolt of lightning, saw those eyes again.

Now that I could look back without stumbling over a story, I studied the watcher. He looked away almost as rapidly as I had, watching the new storyteller with absolute concentration. I studied my pot with equal focus, not even glancing up at Juna as she stumbled through a bawdy tale about Mithros and a water sprite. But this time my bowed head wasn’t because of cowardice; in the polished metal of the soup pot I was cleaning, I could study the man without him realising.

His reflection was warped in the curve of the basin, but I could see that he was thin, wrapped in a long cloak against the early autumn chill. He sat far away enough from the fire that I couldn’t make out his colouring, but in the silvery reflection his hair was a dark shadow, shaped with greying streaks that betrayed his age. His eyes were dark pools which the basin warped and duplicated, and I shivered. I didn’t like people staring at all. He could be a perfectly nice person, but his stare sent chills down my spine. I blinked at the eyes in the reflection, and they blinked back.

I’d been trying to outstare my own eyes. The ludicrous relief of it made me laugh, and I had to hide the sound with a cough. Juna glanced at me with narrowed eyes, as if I’d interrupted her on purpose. That night I slept more easily. Once again, my imagination had made something normal into something sinister.

The next evening, Merrian beckoned me over before she called the other maids, and wrapped an arm around my shoulders confidingly. I fought the urge to shrug it off; I wasn’t used to people touching me, and the woman smelled like goose fat.

“Do you remember the story about the dragon?” She asked me quietly. I blinked and nodded. Usually when she wanted me to repeat a story, she simply became more coaxing. But her voice was almost serious when she carried on, “Someone has asked that you tell it, if you know it. He paid well, so tell it well, child.”

“I’m not a child,” I said automatically, my mind stupid with whirling thoughts. It had to be the staring man. He didn’t look particularly rich, and certainly not the sort of person to spend coin on something as fleeting as a story. Still, if my life had taught me anything it was that people come in all disguises.

This was my challenge, then. He was throwing down the gauntlet.

 I took my seat, thinking rapidly over the story so I wouldn’t stumble over some crucial moment, and started speaking. When everyone was settled in their tasks and oblivious in their daydreams, I raised my head and met those eyes, unflinching. Let the cowards look away. I stared back with my head raised defiantly and told the story as if I was a soldier marching into battle. When I reached the end of the story I barely heard Merrian blowing her nose and sobbing over the dragon’s death. All my attention was fixed on the staring man, waiting to see what he would do.

He nodded once, a smile creasing the corners of his eyes but not reaching his mouth. I bowed my head back, feeling strangely victorious in this battle that only I knew I was fighting, and when I looked up he’d pushed his chair back and left.

 

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The next day was my half-day, and I left the inn in the early morning with a strange feeling in my stomach, like butterflies were fluttering around the soft white bread I’d eaten for breakfast. I don’t know if I was nervous or excited, or if I even expected anything to happen at all. It was the first free time I’d had since I’d started working, and in my impetuous way I decided that, if the gods wanted something to happen in my life, it was going to happen while I was on holiday. I wandered aimlessly through the town, watching the market vendors setting up their stalls and the field hands trudging downhill to the fertile pastures. They would be back at noon to swarm around the merchants like flies, buying small pies and bannock bread for their lunch, but in the morning the streets had only a few women idling among the wares, and myself.

My eye was caught by a flash of colour. One of the tables was full of spun wool, wound onto wooden shuttles and dyed the simple colours of the berries and flowers that grew locally. Above them, tied securely to the canopy pole, a few precious silk ribbons shone in the morning sun. Their bright hues shamed the wool, and they danced so merrily in the wind that I wished I could have one. I caught a blue-green one and stared at it ruefully, wondering how many of my salary coppers it would take to buy it.

“Do you like ribbons?” The voice was soft but direct, and without even looking I knew it was the staring man. The wool merchant had been about to yell at me for touching the delicate cloth with my work-roughened hands, but when the staring man addressed me his lopsided face settled into a sycophantic smile.

“I’ll give you a special price, for a pretty lady.” He started, and stopped when the staring man waved a dismissive hand. He was obviously waiting for me to speak, but my throat had gone dry. Here in the street he seemed much taller, and his eyes were no less unsettling in the daylight. I settled for a shrug instead, swallowing rapidly.

“No,” I managed, wincing at the croak of my voice. The staring man looked down at me and smiled like he had the night before- with his eyes, not his mouth.

“Liar,” he said easily, shrugging off the merchant’s haggling monologue and offering me his arm. I stared at it, completely bewildered, until he sighed and patiently explained, “I want to talk to you, that’s all. Will you walk with me?” Again, the patient voice... but there was a vein of iron in it. I guessed that saying no would be a bad idea.

I can still run, I thought frantically, knowing even then that I wouldn’t dare. This man could be anyone- a soldier, a mage, a spy. But somehow he didn’t seem dangerous; he’d watched me for days without even speaking to me. If he was one of my father’s hunters, he’d surely have attacked me as soon as he saw me. No, this man wasn’t a threat, he was a mystery. And I was as curious about him as he was about me. In a world full of dreaming strangers, we’d somehow managed to single each other out as enigmas to be solved.

But there, I was thinking like a story again... and I swore this story would be honest. I can admit that he frightened me. He was a grown man, at least in his forties, and as much as I protested against it I was little more than a child. He waited patiently for me to make a decision.

 I swallowed again and took his arm, hardly reassured when he smiled again.

The sleeve of his tunic was smooth under my hand- a rugged material, but well tailored and finely stitched. It was a bland nothing-colour between brown and grey, and fitted to be comfortable, not smart. The part of me that lived in disguise marvelled at another liar’s costume. Such a tunic would blend into common inns like mine with the same ease that it would be admitted into a lord’s halls. I was too suspicious to think it was just a coincidence; this man was as much of a sneak as I was. In my admiration of his apparel I hadn’t looked up at his face, and when I did he was staring back at me with the same emotionless intensity he had when I told stories. I shivered and looked away.

“Are we through examining each other?” I asked tartly, still not looking up. When he answered his voice sounded surprised.

“How else are we to know about each other?”

I laughed. “Well, we could talk, I suppose.” 

He smiled, this time properly. The twist of his mouth looked slightly rueful. I realised I shared the same expression. He had recognised my nature as I had recognised his, and lying to each other would only confirm it. It was more fun not knowing.

This is how our conversation went:

First, we introduced ourselves. He said his name was Marke (a lie), that he was a spice trader (another lie), and that he was searching for a new household after his past servants had all eloped with each other (yet again, a lie, but so ridiculous that I was honestly impressed he got through it without cracking a smile.) Since he already knew the name I’d given myself at Merrian’s inn, there was no need for me to make up a new story, but I repeated the name with good grace and he bowed over my hand at this mockery of an introduction.

“Lilith,” he said formally, and then released my hand. “Are you still afraid of me?”

“Afraid?” I raised my head and glared at him, mentally telling the coward voice to stop cringing in the corner of my mind. “Why would I be afraid?”

He shrugged. “I always get nervous around strangers. They can be... strange. So, apart from that last one... are we done with lying to each other?”

“Depends what we still have to talk about,” I replied too quickly. I had watched Mama lie her way through conversations much more complicated than this one; why was I so clumsy? She would be rolling her eyes at me if she was here. The thought made the familiar anger rise up, and before I could crush it I knew it was written across my face. When I looked up again he was studying me, not with the same intentness as before but with a level challenge in his eyes.

“We will each ask one question,” he said evenly, “And we must each answer honestly.”

I planted my hands on my hips, tilting my head in a challenge. “And why would I want an honest answer from a stranger, pray?”

He grinned, “Secrets are always worth something. If I read you correctly, I think you know that already.”

I looked away, and mentally shrugged. One question couldn’t hurt me; if it was something dangerous I could lie anyway and he wouldn’t be able to tell. And even if he had truth detecting spells, he couldn’t force me to tell him one word of the truth. Whoever this man was, he was right: any secret is worth knowing. I met his eyes again, and nodded.

He asked me:  “In your story last night, you said the baby dragon had a name given to it by its mother. What was the name, and who told you it?”

What a strange question! But I breathed a great sigh of relief at the stupidity of it. If this was what he thought was a valuable secret, he really wasn’t dangerous at all. I answered easily, “Her name was Skysong, and it’s just the name that came with the story. I can’t remember who told me it, I was a baby.”

He narrowed his eyes as if he knew I was evading the truth, but didn’t press me for more answers. My question to him was more straightforward.

I asked him: “What’s your real name?”

He answered: “Numair.”

 

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