He had an accent I didn't recognize, his words flowing together like a river, squeezed narrow and rapid in some places and drawing out wide and slow in others.
"I saved your life," I said, frowning.
"While I was saving yours."
I rubbed my arm. "I never asked you to."
"And I never, you."
Our eyes met, and simultaneously broke gaze, silently and mutually agreeing to shift away from the topic.
"So they're dead?" I asked, pointing in the direction the attackers fell.
Ment laughed, once, humorlessly. "You've just run through half the forest, trying to avoid death by their arrows, and now you're concerned about them?"
He crossed his arms, watching me carefully like a predator. I crossed my arms and stared back. I was not prey. "I could've gotten some answers from them."
"From scavengers? Unlikely." He turned, picking his way across the ground, toward the attackers.
"Scavengers," I repeated, following him.
"Poor bottom-feeders trading morals for a meal or two."
"So what? They were bribed to kill me?" The words tasted odd in my mouth—too casual.
He glanced over his shoulder. "Don't look so shocked. A lot of people here would do a lot for a good bribe."
I stopped, waiting until he noticed and turned around to face me. "People like you?"
He cocked his head to the side, his eyes brooding in a way that was too animal to be human and too human to be animal. "Darling. I'm not going to hurt you."
I appraised him for a moment. "Why do you call me 'darling'?"
He shrugged, straightening his helmet. "What should I call you then?"
I opened my mouth and then closed it. Very good question. He raised his eyebrows after more than a few moments of silence passed between us. I narrowed my eyes. "Darling works for now. What should I call you?"
"Those—what are those?" I pointed at his scales. I frowned. Probably not the best way to phrase that question. "I'm sorry, I don't…"
His eyes lowered as he tugged on a pair of gloves pulled from his pocket. "What do you think they are?"
"Are they…are they tattoos?"
"Are they real scales?
I stared at his hands, even though his gloves covered the scales now. "I think I've seen you before."
He scratched his neck, studying me sharply.
"You were chasing me in the forest. You called me Luma."
He sighed and dropped his hand. "My mistake. I thought you were someone else." He looked at me and shook his head. "But you're definitely not her."
I rocked back on my heels, suddenly aware of a sharp splinter in my heel, naked and vulnerable without my boot. "Oh. So you don't know me?"
The barest smile touched his features. "Don't sound so disappointed."
I frowned. "It's just…skies, I don't even know how to explain this." I let out a deep breath and let my words roll out quickly in one exhale. "Having someone who knew me would be very helpful right now."
His eyes flickered over me. "Why?"
My eyebrows furrowed. I glanced at him, taking in his silver helmet, his scales/tattoos, and unfamiliar features. I didn't know this boy. Could I trust him? "Something happened to me, and I can't remember what. Sweet skies, doesn't that sound awful? Anyways, something happened, and it's why I'm like this." I gestured toward my head.
He raised his eyebrows. "You want someone to tell you why you're bald?"
I started drawing in an exasperated sigh but stopped halfway. "Actually, I would like to know why I am bald. Was I always like this? I can't remem—" I stopped, leaning over to grab hold of a tree trunk. "I can't remember," I said flatly. My eyes turned upward, meeting Ment's. "Why can't I remember?"
Ment glanced away, scratching beneath his helmet. "That's a good question. Sorry I'm not more of a help."
I waved him off, looking away. "You didn't do anything. Actually, you did. You saved my life." I met his eyes carefully. "Thanks, by the way."
He nodded once. "Same."
I shifted uncomfortably. He was still studying me, his strange silver eyes flickering back and forth across my face like he was reading a book. What did he see there? What did he know that I didn't? I straightened up. "So you haven't found this Luma yet?"
He sucked in a deep breath, breaking gaze. "Nope. Fairly certain she's gone for good. Damn falks got to her."
He grew as still as a tree, his eyes fixed on the soil by his feet. I frowned. "Hey," I said. He didn't respond. My frown deepened as I reached out to grab his wrist.
His eyes snapped up. His wrist jerked away before my fingers even made contact. Up close, I noticed that his eyes weren't entirely round—they stretched vertically like a bird's, reflecting back an opaque silver. They flicked coolly across my face, a silver warning.
Animal, I thought. A memory tickled the back of my mind, another set of vertical eyes, another warning. It slipped back into the fog of other memories before I could fully register it.
I dropped my hand and backed up a step. "I'm sorry."
His face hardened, closing off like windowpanes flicking shut. He shook his head. "You didn't do anything," he echoed. We stood there for a few moments, not quite looking at each other, but not quite moving either. Around us, trees were growing and moss was forming and the sun was dragging itself slowly and surely across the sky.
Ment glanced down at my shoulder suddenly. "Well. That's strange."
I glanced down too, realizing that my burning pain had, for the most part, subsided into a dull ache. The wound had almost completely closed up, the only sign of it a thick grey line. "That's not supposed to happen like that."
He scratched his chin, glancing from my shoulder to the area behind him where the two bodies had fallen. "I wonder…" He broke off, pushing a path down to that area.
"Hey!" I called, rubbing my shoulder tenderly and stumbling after him.
Ment seemed oblivious to my rising panic. His shoulders lifted in another shrug as he followed a grove of small trees, none of which came up beyond my neck. Twisted into the branches of few of the trees were the bent limbs of two dark figures, with skin painted to match the color of the trees. They were like oversized moongliders. I glanced away, my stomach churning at their gaping blank eyes.
"Do you recognize either of them?" Ment asked, circling around the grove.
I glanced back, reluctantly. There was one male and one female. They both had dark skin, light hair, and violet eyes, foreign and unfamiliar. "Does it mean much that I don't?"
Ment stooped by the woman's body, reaching out to dislodge the case of arrows from her back. "Probably not. But it doesn't hurt to check, mmm?" He plucked one of the arrows from the container and inspected it. They were made out of some shiny material I didn't recognize either—not wood or plastic. The neck was elastic, bending fairly well around Ment's knee, but the head was some kind of bronze metal, its tip dipped with something that looked like white powder. He rubbed some of it off, between his fingers until it turned into a grey gooey substance.
I glanced down at my injured shoulder, peeling back my torn sleeve to where the arrow sliced me earlier.
Ment lowered the arrow, leaning in to inspect my shoulder instead, where there was already a faded grey line where the slice was. Not a single drop of blood ran out. "I've seen this white powder before. It's some kind of poison, and when it reacts with body heat, it turns into something thick that closes up the cut, keeps it from bleeding out."
"Well," I said, trying not to sway at the mention of the word, "poison." "At least I'm not bleeding to death."
He glanced sharply at me and back down at his fingers, which were stuck together with the gooey substance. "No, but it also makes it difficult to take the poison out from the cut. It'll work its way through your blood soon."
Poison. Another word thrown away too casually for my liking. "Stars," I said flatly. "Flying arrows, memory loss and poison. How much worse can this get?"
"You're also bald," Ment helpfully added.
"And you have scales," I shot back.
He crossed his arms, and instead of killing me, like I expected, a corner of his lips lifted up in a half smile. It made him look more human. "Well, darling, I hope wherever you're headed, they have star healers there."
I glanced up at him and away.
"You are headed somewhere?"
"Of course," I said. Or I was, until I lost the map while fleeing for my life. I would have to wait until night fell and the stars returned, to know which direction to head in again.
He cleared his throat. "I was just checking because of the whole…" he gestured toward his head and hummed softly. "Memory issue."
"Of course," I repeated, more tightly.
"So do they?" he asked. I stared blankly. "Have healers there?"
I glanced away and poked at the skin around my wound. "Probably."
He cocked his head to the side.
"Here, let me see," he said impatiently swatting my hand away from my own shoulder. I rolled my eyes and turned, trying to keep my face as blank as possible, while the word, "poison," burned through every corner of my mind like…well. His lips pressed together as he gently probed the closed wound. The finger on his glove was smooth, worn out, and I tried not to think about the scales that were just beneath them. Like a lizard, I thought, but immediately dismissed the bizarre thought.
"So where are you headed?" Ment murmured.
He gave me a look.
I shrugged. Casual. I could act casual too. "Lihani. It should be close by."
"Lihani? There, now that sounds like the name of some skies awful earth-hugging cave dweller."
I jerked my shoulder back, tugging my sleeve back over it. "It's a village." It's the only hope I have of finding my memories. And apparently now, of me not dying.
Ment crossed his arms, glancing from my shoulder to my face with a curious expression. I stayed silent, listening to two monkeys bicker nearby, reminded of another white-faced monkey. The trees, which seemed like some a familiar, warm place yesterday, seemed much more lonely and dark today. The chatter of the forest sounded foreign, not familiar. And everywhere I turned, the ghost of a memory tickled my senses, teasing me. Suppose Ment left me, I could join a family of monkeys until my memory returned. And suppose it didn't return, I could spend the rest of my life sniffing monkey hair and growing a tail. Bald. Until the poison killed me.
Sweet skies, Ment, say something already.
"It's a good thing," he said slowly, bending over to take the case of bow and arrows from both bodies, "That I'm headed there too."
"You're…you're coming with me?" My voice broke. Casual. I was so casual. Ment could break out in tribal dance with a family of monkeys and I wouldn't even blink because that's how utterly casual I was.
But I couldn't help the note of hope that rang in my ears, or the interruption that followed sharply on its heel—a screech of suspicion. Was he helping me or himself by doing this? Did I want him to come with me? "No," I said abruptly, silencing it. "You don't even know me, and you've already saved my life, and now you're willing to help me again, and I can't let you do this. I just really can't."
"I just figured," Ment said, ignoring me completely, "That if you and I are headed toward the same place, we might as well go together, seeing as you have a tendency to…." He gestured toward his head and hummed again.
I bit my lip. "You don't get it. I can't repay you. I don't have anything."
He shrugged. "You'll be an entertaining companion. Just think, any time I need a good chuckle, all I have to do is look at your head."
I laughed, and then faltered. "So you're really taking me there?"
"Take it or leave it, darling." He turned his back to me then and whistled, low, three times. A higher whistle answered him, followed by the silhouette of wings against the tangle of branches and leaves above.
I took in the boy in front of me again, with all his scales and scars and sadness. A darkness loomed in his eyes, not entirely separate from the shadow the silver helmet cast across them. Again, I asked myself, could I trust him?
Perhaps it was the fact that like me, he seemed lost, that I finally looked away from the dead bodies behind him and said, "I'll take it."