The one-eyed woman towered over Serene, even though they were both seated, one in each armchair.
“But surely,” Serene coaxed, “yah must be at least a little interested.”
“I don’t chase myths.” Her frown deepened as she turned her cold eye to me. “And besides, he has no coin.”
“To find the Bell would be a payment of its own,” said Serene. “Even if all its chimes had been used, the price it would fetch with nobility —“
“I said no.” The cold eye shot back to Serene. “Historians and dreamers can chase this nonsense.” She looked back at me. “My work is straightforward. You tell me exactly where you want to go. You pay the coin. I take you. If you can do that, we have a deal. Otherwise, this has been a waste of my time.” She glared icily at Almir as she said the last part.
Serene looked at me, desperation brimming in her expression. This whole meeting had been going wrong from the start. Almir had decided to send a boy from the inn to fetch the guide, rather than wait until dark to go himself. The guide had arrived, and her patience evaporated, long before Serene and I had come back from our little errand. Seeing the state of my clothes had not improved her mood or opinion.
We scuttled to wake Almir, who had gone back to sleep, and get the meeting underway as quick as we could. Serene, insisting that my spare shirts smelled too much like fish, had put me into one of Almir’s. It was too large, and made me look like a child wearing his father’s shirt. I wasn’t sure that this was any better than a ruined shirt or smelling like fish. When the guide learned it was me that was needing to travel, she looked as though she would just walk out.
Serene had talked her into listening. It felt so odd to have someone else negotiating for me on something they were not involved in. Was it just enthusiastic curiosity that made her want to help me? I still couldn’t shake the feeling that she must have some ulterior motive. Maybe that was paranoia, but drugging me hadn’t exactly been the best way to build trust. Still, I preferred this to the alternative, which was doing this alone.
I was especially grateful to not be speaking with the guide alone. Her name, which Almir had barely gotten to announce, was Cela. Nearly as tall as Almir, her presence demanded attention, although she seemed dressed to avoid it. She wore simple brown and dark blue-grey traveling clothes, which were as worn as my old shirts. She looked tan, presumably from a life spent mostly outdoors. Her hair was a woody brown, gentle waves cut short, just beginning to pass her jaw. Her face was angular and almost bird-like. Her left eye was covered by a wide eyepatch. Her right eye, angled downwards, enhanced her frown, and made you glad you weren’t being looked at by both eyes. It was as cold and intense as a swim in the fjords before sunrise.
She stood up, a decisive way about her as she did so, and faced all three of us. “I take it there’s nothing left to discuss?” She looked at each of us, one by one.
“Show her your mark,” said Almir, looking at me.
“Oh, uhm, alright.” I pulled the billowing sleeve back from my wrist, turning it up to reveal the mark. The mark was in a resting state, showing only the cloud like shapes that moved subtly beneath the skin.
“A birthmark?” said Cela, almost insulted. “Almir, don’t waste my time.”
“It’s not a birthmark,” snapped Serene. “That damn thing nearly killed me. Tell her, Almir.”
“Cela,” said Almir, voice gentle and low, “It’s not a birthmark. In all my time in the West, and in my travels with you, I have never seen or heard of any magic like this. Please, let me explain. I promise you that it is relevant.”
“I’ll listen,” Cela said. “But you know it costs me coin to be here.”
Almir nodded. He stood, and walked to where I was seated. He reached towards my mark, hovering a palm over it. I felt the warmth of his hand as much as if it were pressed into my skin. My wrist began to itch.
“Stay calm, Kulen,” said Almir. “This will not hurt you. Let’s see if we can tease out a gentler repeat of yesterday.” The warmth increased, becoming as hot as a low fire. My wrist prickled. He moved his palm a little closer. The heat was a little uncomfortable. He moved it closer still, and I forced myself not to pull away from him. My wrist burned.
Red eyes erupted from the cloud. Heat radiated from my own wrist, matching the heat of Almir’s. I yelped, and pulled away. Almir pulled away too. The red eyes snapped shut and disappeared as quickly as they had opened.
Almir looked to Cela. Cela did not seem impressed.
“So he’s possessed,” she said. “Or playing tricks of illusion on you.”
“Not tricks,” said Almir. “What Serene said before was truthful, although exaggerated.”
“Oy!” Serene glared at him. “Exaggerated? Yah’re not the one who had a bloody burned arm!”
“No,” said Almir. “But it was only a burned arm. You weren’t going to die from a wound like that.”
“So the boy is magical,” Cela said, interrupting what Serene was going to say back. “Uncommon here, but not unheard of or impossible.” She looked me up and down, scrutinizing me.
“The mark is new,” said Almir. “He says it appeared recently. It responds, I think, to other magic.”
“And you believe this boy you just met, what was it, yesterday?” Cela raised an eyebrow at Almir, looking me up and down again.
“This morning,” I said sheepishly.
“Oh, very assuring.” Cela crossed her arms and squared her body towards Almir. “I expected a lot more from you, Almir. This is not any better than the pitch to have me chasing mythical artifacts.”
“It doesn’t feel very mythical to me.” I looked at my wrist, swirling quietly. “I don’t know if the Bell is what it wants me to find, or what I’m supposed to do if I find it. But I want to get this out of me, and this Bell is my only clue to start.”
“Find yourself a priestess, then,” said Cela. “This is not the work that I do. I travel to set destinations, and I do not do this for charity.”
“It wouldn’t be for charity.” I looked up at her, feeling the same desperation Serene had shown earlier.
“Oh, yes, the self-reward of finding a legend.” Cela rolled her eye. “How could I forget such an enticing offer? You have no coin. I wouldn’t take you across the street.”
“I’ll be paying,” said Almir.
“Why?” asked Cela. I looked at him, wondering exactly the same.
“This magic fascinates me. And, if there really is a chance of finding the Bell, I want to be there if it’s found.” He sat back down in the armchair.
“I’d like to come too,” said Serene. “I want to see someplace I’ve never been. And I’d also like to be there if the Bell is found. It would make quite the story.”
“That is not convincing me that this is a better idea than before.” Cela glanced towards the door.
“Cela,” said Almir, “Hear me out. There is no guide I know of more knowledgeable than you about the Forest. There is no one I would trust with my life in that place the way that I trust you. I know that you see this as a wild chase, and I understand that this is not a good time to travel. So, I would be enlisting your services to accompany me as a source of knowledge to keep us safe from the trappings of the Forest, and to bring us safely back out from it.”
“And if there is nothing to find?” Cela asked.
“Then you will still be paid, and I will take it as a loss, as I have done before on previous ventures.” He looked to me, black eyes serious. “And if there is a Bell to find, I will be keeping it.”
“The answer is still no,” said Cela. “It’s almost the winter, and there is nothing in this for me but a waste of time and resources.”
“I will pay you double your usual rate,” said Almir.
“Triple,” Cela shot back. “And the rate applies to all three of you.”
“Two and a half times the rate,” said Almir, calmly. “For both of us. I keep the Bell.”
“Two and a half times the rate,” said Cela. “You keep the Bell. And I can call the search over at any time.”
“That sounds fair to me,” said Almir. He looked to me. “Any objections?”
I looked to Serene. Serene was looking to me. I looked back at Almir, and then at my wrist. The cloud was still moving in its subtle way, but faintly, so faint that I almost missed it, a pair of Violet eyes were staring back at me. I felt the answer as if it were my own. I looked up at Cela, meeting her stare.
“Take me to the Forest.”