It was dark and I was desperate.
A rolling river of sweat ran down from my brow and dripped off my chin as I once again hurled my guts into the stone toilet.
Kysta Province was known for two things, and one was it's cliff stone.
Even our simple two-bedroom, one bathing room cottage had been built of the alabaster stone hewn from the Kysta cliffs, keeping the rooms nice and cool during the summer season. I used to love the gleaming white beauty of the north-eastern coast of our province in Hymaria. But then I'd turned seventeen, gone back to the village of Kymara after a three-year long absence, and one day that white cliff-stone transformed from a symbol of hope and strength into a reminder that even stone crumbles under the heaviest of weights.
And all that white, the white that I was now braced over and clutching as I continued to gasp and retch, all it did was make my post-dream nausea that much worse.
Two weeks I'd been dreaming of that old book my father kept tied securely to his waist in a worn out leather satchel. And for two weeks I'd been waking every morning, far before dawn, to hurtle my way through darkness and yield the contents of my stomach to the white stone.
One of many things I had yielded to it.
My father hadn't come to check on me, though I knew he was awake and could hear the sounds of my heaving. He'd already gotten used to the after-effects of my dream, the one he interrogated me about every morning at breakfast, and continued to deny was of any importance.
If it wasn't important, he wouldn't ask about it. In detail. Every morning. My father was a no-nonsense sort of man that way. Which made the lack of answers all the more frustrating. And I'd already decided that today, I wouldn't tell him anything.
I'd been here for fifteen minutes now, head throbbing with each hurling retch, and I was desperate enough that I wanted my father to come and hold back my hair as I continued to vomit.
My body lurched forwards into the toilet as I heaved again on a snort. Twenty, nearly twenty-one years old and I still sometimes wanted my father to care for me. Even as I wanted to get out of the cottage, out of the vicinity of Kymara, out of Kysta, and make my own way on our continent. Somehow.
But even mad and lacking answers to questions I didn't dare ask more than once, I wanted my father to hold me as I heaved and gagged from that recurring, nightmarish dream.
I wondered what that said about me. Was I still a good daughter, or had I turned into a selfish young woman too curious for her own good?
I managed to side step the swinging arc of the blade speeding down towards me, but only just barely. My ankle twisted and I fell, crashing to the grassy ground in the back courtyard of Myron's white cliff-stone home in a heap. But I had managed to keep my blades from flying out of my hands.
"What have I been telling you about your stance?" His free hand jutted out above me, quick and sharp.
I picked my head up only to stare at that proffered hand, glance to the blades still in my hands, and then up to meet the silvery-blue of his eyes, narrowed under heavy brows before he snorted and rolled them skyward as he took back his hand.
I managed to push myself up from the ground as he rolled his eyes yet again and said, "Out with it already."
I walked over to the wooden table pushed against the far side of the courtyard, nestled into the corner space that connected the rear walls of the house and the forge, and sheathed my blades at my sides. We'd been going at it for three hours. Nothing but unrelenting attack, defend, slice, parry, evade.
"I didn't sleep well last night," I said, pouring myself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.
"Nor any night in the past two weeks it seems," he said as he stepped up from behind me to stand by my side, sword already sheathed down his spine.
My only consolation this morning was that he was sweating just as much as I was beneath my black fighting leathers. I might have lost my footing just a moment ago, but I'd at least been able to keep up with his terrific speed and strength as we spared until then. And ignore the way his sculpted, tattooed chest and torso gleamed with sweat under the bright sun, the harshly beautiful lines snaking over powerful shoulders to the rippling strength of his back as he moved. Ignore, at least until now.
I gulped down the rest of my water and set down the glass before I turned away from him, not willing to give him the ammunition with which to annoy me this morning. "I'm fine," I said.
"So I've had a few restless nights," I said, turning back around. I shrugged. "Big deal."
Those eyes, like leashed lightning, bore into mine as he poured himself a glass of water. "It is, when before you were managing far longer and with no missteps."
Something dark rolled in my mind, like a wave of pain waiting to be unleashed. I ignored it, as I did whenever I passed the villagers. "Like I said, I didn't sleep well."
He set the half-empty glass of water down on the table. "And why not?"
I chose not to answer, asking instead, "What do you know about the book my father always carries around with him?"
Shadow replaced that lightning in his eyes as he fixed his face into a mask of stone. "What book?"
My hands curled into fists at my sides. "You can't be serious."
That look didn't change and he didn't so much as twitch a single muscle as he said, "I'm always serious."
My head jerked back as I snorted. "No you're not. Cocky, arrogant, and usually a horrible flirt. But serious? No. Not ever. So what aren't you telling me?"
Myron took a step forwards, then another, until his body was nearly flush with mine and it was an effort not to step to the side and away from him. From the heat radiating off his body and nearly flooding into me, even through my leathers and under the summer sun. From the barrier he formed between me and the white stone wall behind me. That dark wave in my mind rolled again, but nothing happened. Just my imagination.
He said, "There is a great deal I don't tell you, Valyn. Just as there is a great deal you don't tell me. Even after all these years."
My eyes darted to the side as I held my body absolutely still. "Why? I tell you everything, you're my only friend after all. Who else would I share things with?"
Myron barked a laugh and shifted so that he leaned now leaned a shoulder against the wall. "You don't tell me everything."
I crossed my arms over my chest to hide the small tremors that had started shaking in my hands. "So you really don't know anything? About the book?"
His eyes slowly traced over the outline of my black fighting leathers before finally coming to rest on "If I did, would you tell me why you suddenly want to know so badly?"
"I'm just curious."
A snort. "And why are you suddenly so curious?"
I stood there, debated telling him the truth, telling him about my dreams. My nightmares. But while he was my friend, and I may have sometimes thought about just getting over it and taking him up on his suggested offers, I didn't think I could stand for him to report back to my father how I-
"I just wanted to know. He's had the thing all my life and never told me anything about it," except that I knew it was written in the Old Tongue and that he had taught me to read and write in the ancient and forgotten language.
He crossed his arms. "Is a man not allowed to keep his secrets, Valyn?"
My eyes narrowed. "So you do know."
He shrugged. "Maybe I do and maybe I don't. It hardly matters. You should be more concerned with the fact that your footing has gotten sloppy."
I started for the gate at the end of the courtyard. "I don't even know why he wants me to continue training, it's not like I'll ever use the skillset."
"He wants you to be able to defend yourself," he said as his footsteps sounded behind me. "Things still happen, as you should remember."
That dark wave rose, as if coming from an ocean of night. Just my imagination. I whirled around. "I remember that incident just fine, thank you. And he was more than capable of taking care of both of us. Women aren't supposed to fight." I hated the words coming from my mouth, they tasted like ash and soot.
He shook his head and let out a dry, humorless laugh. "They used to. Just because the women in Kymara no longer fight-"
My fingernails cut into my palms like shards of glass. "It's been centuries since any woman was forced to fight. I'm already different enough. I don't see why he has to force me to come here four days every week on top of that," not that I didn't sometimes appreciate the training.
The sunlight caught on the blonde of his eyebrow as it rose and he smirked. He said, "I thought you rather liked visiting me."
"It's not you, it's this place," I said. "I hate it. And it's pointless. Just like everything else he's educated me in. There is no place in Kysta for a female soldier. And there is only one place I can go to do anything with my education." And it definitely wasn't the library in Arasha, not after what I had done to the guards there.
That smirk fell and he ran his fingers through his short, white-blonde hair, shaking his head. His voice was smooth and cold when he said, "You're not going south to the Sakaath Province."
"And why not? It's not like I can do anything with my life here."
He angled his head, scanned the length of my body from head to toe and back up. "Why are you suddenly so…" His mouth cut a hard line. "Just what does all of this," he waved a hand over me, "have to do with you wanting to know about your father's book?"
"Because," I hissed, taking a step towards him, "I've spent my entire life bowing down to his every demand, and that's fine. I love my father. But maybe now I want to do something of my own, and he's been keeping things from me."
That mask slid back over his face. He said, "Fathers keep many things from their children. Usually for good reasons."
"And what would you know about that? Your father is dead."
He prowled towards me, slow and lethal, as if he were a predator and I had suddenly become his prey. Stopping just inches from me, he leveled a glare and said, voice as sharp as steel, "I know a great deal more about it than you would think."
I swallowed. Close, much too close. And that voice… The darkness in my mind raged, but it was nothing. "You're only twelve years older than I am," I managed to say, surprised at how calm my voice was. "And I've never seen any children around you."
Something murky misted in his eyes and I could have sworn a ghostly shadow rippled out from behind him for a moment, but he backed away and said, "We're done for the day, go home." He turned around. With his back to me he added, "And tell your father there's been a stranger around asking after him."
I didn't argue, didn't ask. Couldn't. Not with the way he'd suddenly gone cold and dark. I just turned around and walked out the back stone gate, wondering what had caused his eyes to cast over with such darkness, such heavy shadow.
I was thinking of that stranger though Myron mentioned though as I walked down the main village road. Strangers came to Kymara all the time, desiring to see the famous outpost-turned village and its beautiful, gleaming white symmetry. Wanting to gaze upon the perfectly carved, white-stone structures that lined either side of the village road, flawless and clean and beautiful, just like its people were supposed to be. Wanting to read the etched characters on the towering entrance arch and learn what the Fae from long ago had to say about the ancestors of Kymara. The ones who had fought alongside them as mortal and immortal armies defended the world from being dominated and ruled under an evil Fae overlord. Even the women had fought then.
Not that the Fae left us humans with anything but a tiny continent afterwards, and yet the people of Kymara were so damn proud of their Fae built village, of the Fae etched stone.
I scowled at the thought, halfway to that towering arch, when sudden feeling of cold dread washed over me like a fine mist. Danger ahead, it seemed to say. I tightened the mental shields my father had taught me to build and wrap around my mind years ago- to keep out the sickly feeling of other minds scrapping against it- and I imagined them covering my physical self as well as I scanned the area, the white stone buildings, the people walking and talking and staying far, far away from me.
A brush of wind caressed my face, the hairs on the back of my neck, the nerves of my sweat-sticky skin under the long leather sleeves tingled. There, standing at the very edge of the village, leaning against the stone arch, a striking dark-haired man snapped his attention from the coastline to me, a quizzical look on his face. I knew men who looked at me like that, and they were the ones that caused the imaginary ocean of darkness to swell in my mind. I swallowed as I made sure to keep my pace even and steady. He did not drop his gaze, did not turn away, and I forced myself to tear my gaze from him. But then I heard that soft wind whisper into my ear.
Even the heat of the summer sun and the warmth from hours of training and sparing with Myron couldn't touch the sudden ice I felt coursing through my veins as I faltered a step. The man certainly didn't look Fae. Not with his rounded, ruddy face and rounded ears. I slid my eyes over to him once again as I neared the stone he leaned against, noticing how the air around him seemed to almost shimmer. Like a heat wave off in the distance.
Glamour, if the stories were true. I tore my eyes from him again and held my breath as I walked past him under the arch, hating every traitorous beat of my heart. If he was in fact Fae, he would be able to hear it, thumping as loudly as it was. Even I, with my sensitive, but still human senses could probably have heard it.
The wind had never lied to me before. He must have been glammoured to appear human, and he could probably scent my fear of him as well.
I kept my steps calm and sure as I trekked down the hill, waiting until I knew no one would be able to see me. My head was pounding with the loud, wild drum beat of my pumping heart as I veered off the path and made for the wood line on the other side of the hill.
I was not afraid, not for myself. But if that had been the stranger asking after my father in the village…
I didn't know if erasing my tracks would work, not against him. Against a Fae. But as soon as I crossed the threshold into the woods, thanking whatever gods there were that they had seen fit to gift the coastal area of Kysta with both cliffs and forest, I made sure to start hiding my tracks, my scent, and every bit of evidence that I had ever stepped foot into the wood at all as I took the longest, most convoluted route I could home.
Stranger indeed. Myron had no idea just how strange he was. And he'd been looking for my father.
That night at the cottage, when my father had returned from his business, I told him of the stranger Myron had said was looking for him. Of the Fae.
He merely shrugged it off and sent me to bed, saying not to worry about it. But I couldn't help worrying, wondering why he seemed to think it was such a small thing as I fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of that book once again.