The South Gate was not really a gate, so much as a place where the main dock street abruptly stopped being a cobbled street and became a dirt path. Perhaps there had been a gate there once, but now it was just a place where the city ended and the Riverlands began.
Serene was waiting for me, dressed similarly to how she had looked when I’d first met her, and was cloaked, her hood pulled far over her face. She leaned against a small tree that was growing just outside the edge of the city line.
“Thought yah would run,” she said, pulling the hood back just enough for me to see her face clearly.
“Aye; thought yah would hop on a riverboat and try to run from your problems. That’s the only reason I gave yah the hour.” She looked up and winked at me. “It’d give me the fun of chasing yah down.”
“Oh,” was all I said. My face felt a little red. I suppose she was right. I could have just gone. I still had the boat. It would be easier than dealing with whatever this was likely to be.
“Anyway,” she continued. “Yah’re coming with me.” She waved for me to follow her, and start walking down the dirt path.
“What will be doing out here?” I took a few quick steps to catch up, and tried to read her expression.
“We’re going to fix this, Northlander.” She waved her hurt arm at me like a stiff banner. “Or at least, we’re going to try.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
We walked for a while without speaking. The air was warm, but a cold breeze whispered of summer’s end and the coming nightfall. I’d been passed out for all of the morning, and part of the afternoon. The shadows of the grass stretched east, and were growing longer.
As we walked, the sounds of the city began to fall away, making the river and our footsteps seem to fall louder. The grass around the dirt path grew taller this far from the city’s edge. The sound and smell of running water that wasn’t full of city muck, and the stillness of the quiet here, reminded me of home.
“I do have a boat,” I said, although home was the last thing I wanted to think about right now.
“Oh do yah now?”
“Yes. I was trying to find someone to sell it to when you kidnapped me.”
She snorted. “Invited yah to dinner, but go on with your story.”
“Invited to dinner, then drugged and held prisoner all night, while you and your weird friend did whatever you’d like to me.”
“Tossed yah in a corner to sleep it off.” She shot me a sideways glare. “But if yah ask me I was more than right about yah.” She waved the burned arm around again.
“Do you think this guide will cost a lot?” I asked, to changed the subject.
“Of coin? It depends on how far yah need to go, how risky, and all that. But since yah’re trying to cross the Forest, I’d imagine it won’t be cheap.” She gave me another sideways glance. “Yah don’t have much, do yah?”
“No.” I sighed. “That’s why I wanted to sell the boat. Do you think they’d take anything other than money as payment?”
“Well, that face of yours is pretty enough, and yah’re young and spry. Maybe they’ll take a little river paddling.”
“Or a fish stew, with all the bones still in it.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“I…ah, never mind.” She shook her head at me. “Yah can’t be any good if yah miss hints as big as that.”
“Any good at what?”
“Hmm, unless they like ‘em innocent.” She chuckled. “So yah were planning to sell your boat. How nice of a boat?”
“Not the nicest,” I admitted, cheeks a little flushed from finally understanding her suggestions. “Just a small boat, a bit older. It wasn’t meant to come down to the Midlands.” My boat and I had a lot in common in that regard. We were meant to get old circling the same cold, beautiful waters.
“I’m sure there’s still a buyer if you look in the right places.”
“That was the hope, but if you can’t tell, I don’t know how to look for those places.”
“And that’s why yah’re a fisherman, and not a merchant,” she said, smiling.
She stopped walking suddenly, and stared into the grass to our right. I looked, trying to see what she was looking at.
“Oh, that’ll do,” she said, and began striding into the grass. I followed, not sure what she had been looking at.
She led me deep into the grass, to a place where it grew up to my knees. There, she stopped and sat in the grass, legs crossed beneath her. She gestured for me to do the same.
As I sat down in the grass across from her, it coming up to my chest now that I was on the ground, she removed her cloak and pulled the sleeve of her burned arm back. She had wrapped it in a bandage, which she unwound, exposing the entirety of the wound. The burn lines wrapped around her arm like vines, reaching all the way up to just past her elbow. Goddess. My stomach turned uncomfortably at the sight.
“Sister’s shadow,” she said, wincing as she flexed her burned hand. “Yah really did get me good.” She held the burned hand out to me. “Let me see your hand, Northlander. Not the evil one, if yah’d be so kind.”
I frowned, but reached out my right hand. She took it with hers, locking her blistered palm against mine, wrapping her fingers around my wrist. My stomach did a somersault as the bubbles and puckers stuck against my skin. My other wrist thrummed gently, as if on alert.
“Goddess, that’s disgusting,” I shivered.
“Oh, that’s a bloody nice thing to say to someone yah’ve maimed, about the maiming yah did to them.” She wiggled her bubbled palm against mine, and I could feel pus oozing against it.
“Goddess, please, stop!”
She snickered, and stopped.
“Let me warn yah, yah’re not going to like what we’re doing,” she said, face darkening. She tightened her grip on my wrist, though it seemed to hurt her, and closed my fingers on hers with her free hand hand, and held them down.
“What exactly are we doing?” I asked, feeling that nagging anxiousness that I had felt when I was first with her in her rooms.
“I told yah,” she said, voice low. “Fixing this.”
The hand she held started to feel odd, an unfamiliar sensation buzzing in the palm. My marked wrist started to itch furiously. I looked at it, and the two red eyes were staring out out me.
“What are we doing to fix it?” I asked, as the red eyes flared at me like angry fires.
“This won’t be comfortable,” she said, ignoring my question. “It’s going to hurt a lot, actually. Your evil thing, it will want me to stop.”
“Hurt how? What are you doing?”
“My people have a saying,” she said, as the strange sensation crept up through my arm. “Words from the Goddess herself.” The grass around us began to sway, but there was no wind. My wrist felt hot.
“These words are the backbone of our laws,” she continued. The grass swayed hard, whipping back and forth unnaturally. The eyes in my wrist began to feel hot.
“The words guide our actions, and shape our spirit.” The grass moved, like living vines, every stalk reaching toward me, wrapping around me. The eyes began to burn.
“Hold steady, Northlander,” she said through clenched teeth. She gripped me even tighter, eyes locked on mine. “Put your other hand on the ground and hold it there as best yah can.”
I put my hand against the ground. The grasses entwined tightly around our joined hands. The sensation wound around my arm, like vines inside of me. The blades of grass tightened, squeezing so hard it felt like they would break my skin. The strange sensation grew stronger. My wrist burned like it was on fire. No, it was on fire. Where my hand was held against the ground, the grass crackled and smoldered.
“The saying is this, Northlander,” said Serene, breathing heavily, as the strange sensation in my bound arm began to turn into pain. “Life for Life.”
In an instant that felt like much longer, both my bound arm and marked wrist erupted in pain, and the sleeve of my shirt burst into flames. The grass around my burning wrist flared, stalks shrieking as they suddenly shriveled. My bound arm pulsed with waves of the strange pain. Serene had closed her eyes tight and was shaking. I tried to pull my arm away, but grass bonds held us together, winding tighter with every tug. The painful waves flared once again with more intensity, my burning arm responding in kind. Everything was pain. I could feel myself still screaming.
And then it was over.
The grass that had been bonds went limp, falling away in dead clumps. The flames on my shirt went out, leaving charred patches all along the sleeve, and soot all around me where it had burned away grass. In a near perfect circle, except where it had been burned, the grass around our joined hands had died. Not in the withered way the burned grass had, but as if time had sped up there, sapping all of the green away and leaving empty, dry, yellow husks.
I yanked my hand away, inspecting it. There was nothing seemingly out of the ordinary. I checked my marked wrist. It was an unreadable blurry cloud, as black as the charred earth its fire had left behind. My skin, however, seemed unburned.
“Life for Life,” said Serene again, standing up and brushing off her clothes. She held out the arm that had been burned. Nothing remained of her injury. Not even scars.
“Why did that hurt so much? What did you do?” I was breathing heavily, sweat dripping down my back and neck.
“My people’s magic can heal, but not without a cost.” She pulled down her sleeve and pulled her hood back up. “Life for Life. It takes the death of something else to replace the death in a wound.”
“You were taking my life?” I took a jumping step back from her.
“Goddess, don’t be silly,” she scoffed at me. She gestured at the grass. “I took it from the earth. The pain yah felt was the pain I felt when yah burned me with your evil little tattoo. Ritually, when one Glendweller harms another, they must share in the pain of the wound they caused. It makes the magic stronger.”
She started to walk back towards the path. I followed.
“And I was right,” she continued. “Your magic fought me back.” She looked back at me, and looked me up and down. We’ll have to get you a new shirt.”
“You’re getting the shirt,” I said, looking sadly at what was left of my sleeve.
“I’m getting the shirt?” she snorted.
“I didn’t know I was going to hurt you,” I sniffed. “But you knew you were going to hurt me. And I loved this shirt.” It had been my favorite shirt. Worn and wooly, it was the most homey shirt I owned.
“Smells a bit too much like fish, if yah ask me.” She crinkled her nose. “Roasted fish, now.”
“Hey,” I frowned, and shot her a glare. “And whose fault is that?”
“Yours. It’s not my evil little tattoo.”
“And what if you’d given me a warning? Maybe it only set me on fire because it thought you were trying to kill me again.”
“Fair enough, Northlander.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll get yah a damn shirt.”
“Whatever. Let’s get home and get something to eat.” She looked up at me, that little spark of mischief back in her eyes. “And I probably won’t drug yah this time.”