Chapter 22

Ayalah was beginning to enjoy herself. She and Greyson had been gallivanting about the city for nearly a week now, and she’d managed to drink him under the table every single night. They were making their way around the city methodically, one city block at a time, led mostly by the shouts and laughter of the patrons inside, and, at meal times, by the enticing smells of food wafting out into the streets.

The entire populace of the city seemed to be enjoying itself; even the barkeeps and barmaids were weaving on their feet and slurring a little. She and Greyson made friends everywhere they went, Greyson because he was naturally friendly and Ayalah out of a conscious effort to blend in and glean information. To keep wandering hands off of her, they made it clear that anyone who touched Greyson’s “wife” would get his neck sliced—though they didn’t specify who would be doing the slicing.

Greyson, she was amused to notice, loosened up a bit after he’d been drinking—but only a bit. He’d been so drunk one night, she’d had to keep him from falling off his seat, and yet he had suddenly turned to her and, stiffening, pronounced his disgust at the debacle occurring on the other side of the room. She had looked to where he pointed to see one of the barmaids with her skirt hiked up and one of the drunken reveler’s hands disappearing under the many folds of fabric. She’d laughed at Greyson at first, but then wonderingly realized that he was serious about his disapproval, even when falling-over drunk. He never ceased to surprise her—he still insisted on making eye contact with everyone they met, for instance, despite the impropriety of doing so—and she had begun to value his moral integrity, uptight as he sometimes seemed. He was a good man, this smithy. Perhaps Gavin was right about him.

Tonight they had moved on to a part of the city that had something called “herb bars,” a term Ayalah had never heard before. She discovered right away that they certainly didn’t have anything like this back in Miltinoth. The herb bars functioned in basically the same way as a traditional bar, except that instead of ordering drinks, patrons ordered some kind of strange-looking pipe, which they would sometimes share with one another and sometimes puff on by themselves.

Ayalah and Greyson had accompanied a couple of new friends to this herb bar, and they watched with fascination as the men inhaled from the bizarre pipes. Theidan, a dark-haired local, and Erikson, a blue-eyed, blond-haired Bolladian, seemed to love the stuff. The habit, however—while certainly interesting—repulsed both Ayalah and Greyson, who had asked instead for more familiar drinks, which the bartender eventually provided after more than one sidelong look at them.

“Sure you don’t want to try?” Erikson asked.

Ayalah shook her head. “That smells like a dead animal.”

Theidan guffawed, clapping her on the back. “Aye, it does! Tastes like one, too.”

“Then why smoke it?” Greyson asked.

Erikson took a drag and shrugged. “Same reason you drink that piss-tasting slosh,” he said, indicating Greyson’s ale. “It’s fun.”

Erikson, they learned, was a bit of a wanderer, having left Bolladoth some years prior to visit new countries and explore uncharted territories. He had settled in Olekoth two years ago, he said, and had taken it upon himself as a challenge to explore the wilderness in the north of the continent. Local legend had it that everyone who had ever dared attempt this feat had never been seen again; Erikson vowed to be the first to return triumphant, with tales to tell.

Theidan was captain of one of Olekoth’s warships: not the one that had employed the man whose throat Ayalah had cut—although he was friends with that ship’s captain—but a different, bigger ship, one he called “the pride of Olekoth.” He had readily accepted Ayalah’s reluctant apology and had proclaimed her “welcome aboard the Phoenix anytime.

Now the two men shared a pipe and sucked in contentedly, demonstrating to Ayalah and Greyson the proper way to hold the smoke in the lungs for just a few moments before breathing it out again. “It makes the feeling sharper,” Theidan explained. Ayalah didn’t understand, but she smiled and nodded anyway. The pipe reminded her of a snake with two heads, sitting coiled on the table and winding its way up through the smoky air to land in both men’s mouths. Two more of its necks lay on the table, limp and deflated. “You know,” Theidan mused, “it’s almost an insult to our culture that you won’t at least try it.” He waggled his eyebrows first at Ayalah and then at Greyson. “Come now, what’s the harm?”

She hesitated.

“You may be able to get a Bolladian with a death wish to try it,” Greyson said with a laugh, “but us sensible folk from Miltinoth aren’t interested in such adventures.” He turned to Ayalah. “Right?”

“Right,” she agreed. She felt relieved, somehow, and content to go along with Greyson’s decision—but this in itself confused her, and she stared into her drink, trying to puzzle out her feelings. Did she care what the smithy thought? She scratched under the armband he’d made for her. Well, she’d certainly grown to respect him, she thought. So it seemed logical that she would value his opinion now. Or did it? Her mind felt hazy and sluggish.

The men laughed raucously at something, and she looked up at the noise to ask what had been so funny. But before she had a chance to open her mouth, a figure in a long, brown cloak slipping out the back door of the bar caught her eye. Could that have been—? It wasn’t possible of course, but—she really could have sworn—

She pushed her chair back and stood up hastily.

“What—?” Greyson began.

“I’ll be right back,” she shouted over her shoulder as she shoved her way through the mass of bodies and the haze of smoke toward the back door. She was a little wobbly on her feet, but she made it to the door and out into a back alley, where she caught a flash of the bottom of the brown cloak disappearing around the corner.

She chased after the retreating figure, down one street, across another alley, and through a small patch of greenery, but she couldn’t catch up. Her breath came in short gasps now as she sped through the streets, past baffled bystanders, desperately trying to catch up, to at least see a glimpse of the face of the man she followed.

She was almost positive that the man she had seen in the bar was the wizard Swynn. But seeing him here in Olekoth made no sense: hadn’t he told her that he’d been in that enchanted forest of his for ages? He’d implied that he hadn’t left in decades. Hadn’t he? But no matter how fast she ran or how many people she pushed out of her way, she could only catch glimpses of the back of his cloak, and, sometimes—or was she imagining it?—the beckoning of an impatient hand.

Finally, she found herself at a dead end, in an alley leading straight to a solid brick wall. She cursed aloud: the wizard was nowhere in sight, and the wall was much too high for an old man to have scaled it. She rested her hands on her knees, panting, trying to regain her breath. Her heart was racing, though her mind still felt sluggish, and her reactions seemed slowed. Had she been running as fast as she’d thought? Was she as lost as she suspected? She forced herself to breathe slower and calm down.

She snapped to attention suddenly. The streetlights didn’t quite illuminate the whole of the alleyway, but she’d definitely heard a cough coming from the other end, near the wall. She fumbled in her boot for her emergency knife and then cautiously approached the wall. “Who’s there?”

Her foot made contact with something, and she jumped back instinctively before realizing there was a body lying in a pool of blood on the ground at her feet. It was a man, and he seemed to be saying something.

She lowered her knife warily and bent down. Whatever he was saying, it was so faint she couldn’t hear it. She put her ear right next to his mouth and caught the dying gasp of one word: prophecy.

“Do you have the next piece of the prophecy?” she demanded wildly. The man gasped for breath. “Please,” she said, “please tell me your piece, I need to know what it is.” But it was too late. The light was beginning to fade from his eyes—someone, she thought desperately, had gotten to him first. She sat back on her heels in defeat.

The bracelet! She hadn’t taken it off since Greyson gave it to her, and she’d begun to forget its presence. But he had said there was medicine in it, and although she didn’t know what the medicine was, she unscrewed the stopper, poured the liquid into the man’s mouth, and waited, holding her breath.

His eyes snapped open. He gasped and clutched her arm in a vise-like grip that left bruises for days; he began to whisper.

Where fish is dead,
and land is red,
don’t drink the water.

He repeated it over and over, frantically, again and again.

“What?” Ayalah said. “I don’t understand.” Had he forgotten the correct words? The pieces of the prophecy were supposed to be in rhyming couplets, weren’t they? Perhaps this was in some kind of code she needed to decipher; perhaps he was purposely trying to mislead her. “I, too, am a prophecy holder,” she said, trying to be encouraging. “You can trust me.”

But the man ignored her.

Where fish is dead,
and land is red,
don’t drink the water.

Where fish is dead,
and land is red,
don’t drink the water.

His voice began to grow faint.

Where fish is dead,
and land is red,
don’t drink the water.

He coughed once more, and then he was still.

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2 Responses to Chapter 22

  1. Maybonics says:

    Oh dear lord, what the heck is going on? Why? WHY? WHY?!? What does the random poem mean? Why are you teasing me like this?

    As glad as I am to see them interacting with people outside the core two, I’m kinda upset it skipped over a whole week in a few paragraphs. I’d have loved to have seen how they decided she should pose as Greyson’s ‘wife’, and what exactly had been the tipping point that lead to it. And how they’d struggled through it. It could have been a funny chapter all by itself.

    That said, I’m glad to have seen hem hang out with some other people it really fleshes out the world, gives it some culture.

    But… ARGH!!! WHY? Was that Swynn? What’s he doing? Who else is after the prophecy?

    • JB Starre says:

      Haha, yess, I’m so glad I’m keeping you wondering! I can’t WAIT to see your response to the next chapter.

      As for that missing week… perhaps I will just have to write some kind of appendix with these missing stories in it, hmm?

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