With a deft twist of his fingers, Kivan gave the bowstring a final pull, then nodded his head in satisfaction. The repair wouldn’t hold forever, but it would certainly serve until the small group of adventurers could make it to Beregost. There was rumored to be a smithy of no small renown tucked away in a corner of the city, and with the gold that the party had gathered over the last few days, certainly enough could be spared to purchase a new bowstring, if not an entire bow.
He lay the bow against the tree at his back, then stretched out his long legs and slipped his hands behind his head, lacing the long fingers together. The night was clear and moonless, with only the faintest hint of a breeze to set the leaves to dancing. They twisted and swayed in the gentle wind, breathing a rustling song that swelled and faded in waves of sound. It was on nights like these that he missed her the most. The night was calm, the world was still, and yet his heart never seemed to feel the peace that lay all around him.
The elf let out a tired sigh and closed his eyes, letting the breeze play over his face. It brought with it a promise of rain that was less than welcome in the ranger’s mind. It would make it easier to pursue his… their enemies, that much was true. But by the same token, it would make their own motley band of adventurers more vulnerable to a tracker’s practiced eye, and that could make things difficult.
Not that it would be difficult to find them, anyway. The halfling walked with all the grace of a pregnant cow, using his crude axe to hack at any unsuspecting piece of greenery that had the misfortune to get in his way. His companion was no better. Kivan would wonder about the wizard’s sanity if there were actually any question. As it was, the mage wandered through the forest like a drunken insect, muttering about rabbits and dragons. That was, when he wasn’t shouting about rabbits and dragons.
The druid knew how to travel in nature, at least. Gracefully, with only the faintest hint of a whisper to betray her movements. And though her husband did not have her grace, he was a good enough fellow, and had been in the forest enough to know where to step and when to stand. The little thief was not so bad, either, though she had an unusual penchant for laughter at the oddest times, along with a tendency to break out into spontaneous song when she felt that the mood had grown too serious.
It was their leader that Kivan had not yet figured out. Arien. Elven like himself, she was tall and willowy and moved with a natural grace that betrayed her heritage as much as did the delicate shaping of her ears. Her hair was the color of spring honey, her skin pale and smooth. Her eyes were green. Not the deep green of an emerald, but the softer, gentler green of a new leaf. Charming, really. Not that he noticed that sort of thing, of course. Not anymore. But he had to admit that she was lovely, though very young and seemingly full of contradictions that set his mind to wondering.
Though her voice had the lilting, musical quality of an elf, she spoke little of the ancient tongue, and what few words she knew were barely recognizable under the thick human accent. She knew a little of the natural world, but the song of the birds to her was just a song, the howl of a wolf only a mournful cry that tore at her heart.
She held her weapons with the hand of one academically trained in the techniques, but it was unlikely that she had ever seen true battle, for she hesitated a moment too long whenever an enemy approached in attack. Her parry became loose, her bow arm unsteady. They were mistakes that could make a fatal difference in the confrontations that seemed to follow her wherever she went.
That was something else that troubled him. He had seen the bounty notices carrying her name, and had even been offered one himself. He had refused, but still he wondered. She seemed innocent enough. Harmless. Who was this child, that she should be so hunted?
And then there were the dreams. Plagued by his own dark visions in the night, Kivan often sat awake in the shadows, watching his companions. Though lately his eyes had been drawn more often to Arien than any other. She tossed and turned on her worn cloak, moaning and shouting until the tears streamed down her cheeks and she threw herself from her bed. After one such dream, their eyes had met. For only an instant, but to his mind it seemed an eternity before she looked away and rose, slipping into the shadows in search of solitude. He had stared after her for some time, curious. What were her dreams, and why was there such terror and pain in her eyes? Perhaps he would ask the little thief Imoen someday, when there was more time.
Or perhaps he would ask Arien now.
The ranger did not need to open his eyes to know that she was there. He could feel her gaze on him before he could hear her footsteps, soft and hesitant in the fallen leaves that lay thick on the forest floor. She crept closer, until she was only a few feet away. Then she stopped. Rather abruptly, as though she had suddenly changed her mind. He could almost feel her indecision on the air. He found it amusing, somehow, and had to push away the smile that threatened his lips.
She came no closer, but did not immediately move away. Instead, she stood a few feet from where he lay against the tree. She was trying to breathe as shallowly as she could, and only barely succeeding. After a few moments, she seemed to take a step back, then turned quietly on the soft green carpet of the forest floor and began to walk away.
Kivan let out a deep breath in a pretense of sleep, trying to draw her attention. The action seemed to surprise Arien, but no more than it had surprised himself. Why had he done such a thing? He had no real desire for company. Yet he found himself strangely reluctant to let her leave.
He had to admit that her presence brought a certain amount of comfort. Her conversation was pleasant, her laughter light and musical, if somewhat rare, and growing more infrequent as the days passed. In fact, she reminded him in many ways of Deheriana. The thought troubled him slightly, but he had no time to explore it further, nor was he sure that he wished to….
She was moving away.
This time it was a slight frown that tugged at his lips, and he hastily covered it with a yawn, shifting slightly and lowering his hands from behind his head. He crossed his arms over his chest and let out a sigh, seemingly drifting again into a sound sleep. It worked. She stopped, then turned and crept forward again, though her movements were still reluctant. At last she seemed to lower herself into a crouch just more than an arm’s length from where he lay against the tree.
In a single fluid motion, he sprang from his sleep, pulling his bow from its resting place. In the space of a breath, he had fitted an arrow, and in another breath had it pointed directly at the girl’s nose.
Arien scrambled back with a startled cry, falling rather unceremoniously onto her backside. The amused smile returned to his lips, but he pushed it quickly aside before she had a chance to notice. She lifted her large green eyes to his, forcing her breathing into a steady rhythm. He stood motionless, watching her for a long moment with a carefully measured expression. Neither said a word. He had time to study her now.
Arien’s face was thinner than Deheriana’s had been, her skin fairer. It was currently even more so, pale with alarm and touched with shadows just under her eyes. Her hair fell over her shoulders in soft honey-colored waves, so unlike the shining golden curls that had tumbled like a cascade of sunlight to his wife’s slender waist. Arien’s eyes were a clear green. Deheriana’s had been blue. Arien’s lips were a delicate pink, and curved like a bow. Deheriana’s had been more round, the color of a summer rose. She was tall. She was short. Slender, rounded.
With a frown, he shook the thoughts violently from his mind. There was no time for this. No time, no place.
With a sharp movement, he looked back at the girl. He whispered harshly, growing more irritated with himself as each second passed.
"Mankoi maa lle sinome?" (1)
Arien had apparently recovered somewhat from the initial shock of finding herself at the point of Kivan’s weapon. She pushed herself into a slightly more upright position and shook a few of the clinging leaves from her hair. She brushed a few more from her thick linen shirt, and Kivan noticed for the first time that the girl was not wearing her armor.
He had never seen her without it.
The shirt was several sizes too large. One of the men’s, no doubt. It had slipped down her shoulder as she fell. He lowered his bow slightly as his eyes took in the delicate curve of her throat, the smooth shadow of her collarbone. The air suddenly seemed thicker than it had been, and certainly warmer than what was comfortable. He raised his eyes again quickly, then his bow, his voice stronger and sharper in his growing frustration.
"Mankoi maa lle sinome?"
Arien finally raised her eyes, then pulled the collar of the shirt back up over her shoulder as a hint of a blush touched her cheeks in the moonlight. She said nothing. Her fingers tightened slightly on the coarse fabric, but she made no other movement, looking quickly at the point of the arrow so near her nose.
Kivan waited another moment, then lowered his bow and sighed, shaking his head. Without another word, he tossed it lightly to the ground in an angry gesture and turned away, running a hand through his dark hair. He should have let her go. There was no reason for her to be here. Why had he wanted her to stay? He certainly had nothing to say to her. They were only a few days from the bandits’ camp. He would find Tazok. He would take his revenge. And then he would fade into the shadows, never to be seen again.
Arien did not rise from the ground right away. He could feel her gaze on his back, but did not turn, leaning instead against the tree and facing the sky in the opposite direction. After a long pause, he heard the soft rustle of leaves behind him, and then a voice a few feet from his shoulder.
"What… what did you ask me?"
He glanced over his shoulder briefly. Arien stood behind him, her arms wrapped around herself in attempt to ward off the growing chill. Her hair danced softly around her face, and the silver of the moonlight lay glittering in her eyes. She seemed small, and delicate, and utterly vulnerable in the oversized tunic. Completely out of place on the path that she followed. And yet there was something in her eyes…. A strength behind the moonlight….
He turned away again, crossing his arms over his chest with a sigh. "I asked why you were here….."
From the corner of his eye, he saw her pause, then nod slowly and look away as her mouth silently formed the strange words. He turned to watch her curiously as she repeated them, then once again, her voice barely more than a whisper in the darkness.
"Mankoi maa…." Her voice trailed off and she shook her head in mild frustration, her fingers playing at the fabric of her sleeves. "Mankoi maa lle sin… sim…."
"Sinome. Mankoi maa lle sinome…." Kivan’s voice was smooth and lyrical as he spoke the words. He rolled lazily to face her, still leaning against the tree.
Arien looked up, startled. A faint blush burned in her cheeks, and she gave Kivan a little flustered smile before looking down at the forest floor once more. "Sinome, then."
The ranger nodded only slightly, saying nothing. He watched with dark eyes as Arien dug at the leaves covering the ground with a slender foot. The movement was graceful, if somewhat childish, and his eyes softened slightly as he watched.
She really was quite lovely….
"You must think me terribly clumsy…." She said it simply, as if it were a foregone conclusion.
Kivan took a deep breath, utterly failing to banish the smile that crept over his lips. "Yes."
Arien laughed, a light, breathless laugh of embarrassment as she watched the motion of her foot among the stirring leaves. "I can’t blame you."
She let out a noisy sigh. "Gorion tried to teach me, but…." She shook her head, still smiling. "Speaking in tongues was not his strong point. He could curse at Imoen in at least a dozen languages, but when it actually came to having a conversation he was absolutely hopeless…." She looked up and shrugged lightly, her eyes sparkling with laughter..
Kivan chuckled softly in spite of himself. He watched Arien for a moment longer, then pushed himself away from the tree and bent to retrieve his fallen bow. "You never answered my question," he said as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Mankoi maa lle sinome? Why are you here?"
Arien rubbed her arms softly as she took a hesitant step forward. "We should reach Beregost by tomorrow. In the late afternoon, most likely, unless Xzar finds another rabbit burrow." She smiled softly and shook her head. "It took Jaheira over an hour to talk him down from the tree the last time. I didn’t think anyone could climb that fast in mage’s robes."
Kivan laughed aloud, tossing his dark hair from his eyes. "I suppose it didn’t help that the halfling was threatening to turn him into a wizardess if he continued his shouting…."
Arien grinned and looked back down at her feet. Kivan glanced at her curiously as he stood, slipping his bow over his shoulder. She looked a little distracted, and seemed to be avoiding his eyes. Again, he found the gesture strangely charming.
He watched her for several minutes, almost hypnotized by the way her hair moved in the wind, curling over her shoulders and down the slender curve of her back. It shimmered in the light of the moon, taking on the color of richly polished oak. He wondered idly if it would feel as smooth, have the same silken quality under his fingers….
He shook himself suddenly from his thoughts, looking away and clearing his throat softly as he bent to pick up his quiver of arrows.
"Is that all you had to tell me?"
Arien looked up, surprised at the suddenly broken silence. She seemed to be measuring her words carefully, mulling them over in her mind before she allowed them to fall from her lips. After a moment, she smiled shyly, a flush coloring the apples of her cheeks.
"Actually, I… was hoping that I could talk to you."
Kivan let his hand linger on the strap of his quiver, then looked at Arien again. Their eyes met for only a moment before her gaze faltered, and she tilted her head slightly to the side, rubbing her thumbs over the rough fabric of her shirt.
"Just for a moment. I was hoping…."
He let his hand slip from the leather strap, then shrugged his shoulder to shift the quiver into a more comfortable position. Her sudden shyness was absolutely enchanting. But he wondered what it could be that had the girl in such a state. Surely she could not be thinking…. But then, she had come to find him alone, to tell him something that certainly could have waited until morning….
Kivan felt the delicately pointed tips of his ears grow warmer, and he looked away as well, picking up his cloak from where it lay draped over a fallen tree.
Certainly that was not what she meant.
"You were hoping…?" He arched a dark eyebrow, avoiding her eyes.
She paused for a moment, then took a deep breath, speaking the words carefully. "Amin hiraetha, amin n’rangwa." (2)
Kivan winced slightly at the awkward way that the words fell from her lips. Her voice was soft and melodic, but her pronunciation was somewhat less than graceful. She must have noticed his reaction, because she laughed sharply, and when he raised his head, he noticed that her cheeks and delicately pointed ears were colored with embarrassment.
"I know, I know…." She tucked a wave of hair behind her ear, grinning. "It was really bad, wasn’t it?"
Kivan paused for a moment, eyeing her thoughtfully as a slow smile spread across his features. At last he nodded. "Very… very bad."
She blushed more brilliantly and looked down, laughing quietly. Neither she nor Kivan spoke for several minutes, until at last she lifted her head, a shy smile still dancing in her eyes.
"Will you teach me?"
Kivan’s stood motionless for some time, then said simply, "There are other elves in your company, Arwen en Amin. (3) He looked away, suddenly intent on making sure that the buckle to his quiver-strap was fastened properly. "Certainly as fluent as I am, and undoubtedly better company."
Arien smiled and shrugged lightly. "Khalid, I suppose…." She chuckled softly, shaking her head. "Or Jaheira, perhaps." She glanced over her shoulder into the forest, where Kivan could hear the low hum of voices. "I don’t know. Jaheira is so… so….." She smiled, shrugging softly as her voice trailed off.
Kivan could think of a few rather colorful descriptions to describe the stubborn druid, but he wisely said nothing. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully, tightening his hand on the strap to his quiver.
After a moment, Arien looked at him again, smiling softly. "I’m sorry, Kivan. Thank you, anyway. Good night." She watched him for a moment more, then turned and began to walk away into the shadows of the forest.
Kivan took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. After a moment, he called after her, not raising his eyes as he heard her turn.
"Hama sinome." (4)
Arien hesitated, then stepped back toward him, shaking her head to signal her lack of understanding. Kivan looked up at her, then nodded again to the fallen tree, repeating the words. "Hama sinome."
The girl smiled faintly, then took a step toward the tree, putting her tiny hand on the rough bark in preparation to sit. She looked up at Kivan, raising her eyebrows in silent inquiry.
Kivan nodded his approval. "Quel." (5) He slipped the quiver from his shoulder, then the bow and leaned them both against the log. Arien watched his every move with interest, her eyes shining with grateful anticipation.
"Thank you, Kivan."
He smiled and shook his head as he stepped a few feet away.
"Diola lle." He looked at her and smiled, then looked away as he shook his head again. "Diola lle." (6)
Arien smiled as she understood what he was trying to do. "Diola lle, Kivan."
Kivan paused for a moment in his steps, then looked at Arien sharply. The words had been spoken perfectly, with the gentle, musical grace that marked elven speech. There was no trace of the awkward human accent, no hint of the clumsy, childish pronunciation.
She looked up at him curiously, drawing her eyebrows together in mild confusion. "I’m sorry, Kivan. Was that wrong…?"
Kivan shook his head sharply, then held up a hand. "It was… That was very well done, Arien." He looked away again, letting out a deep breath as he moved a few steps away.
She nodded slowly, continuing to watch with faint concern as Kivan sat down on a small boulder opposite her, putting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward. He looked at his hands for a long moment, then up into her face, feeling a knot form in the pit of his stomach as he stared into the endless green of her eyes. After a moment he took another deep breath, rubbing his hand over his face in an attempt to clear his thoughts.
"Lle desiel, Arien?" (7)
The question could very well have been meant for himself.
Lle desiel, Kivan?
(1) Why are you here?
(2) I'm sorry, I don't understand
(3) My Lady
(4) Have a seat
(6) Thank you
(7) Are you ready?
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