Among all the ways mankind had found to hinder the ever-encroaching forest and halt its Tide, in places even push it back, there were water, steel, and blood. The division between these three approaches led to the Order of Vestals with their use of Sight and holy water, the Venators and their strange rituals of skin and blood, and the rest of ordinary people who more or less had to make do with the leftovers from industrial civilization.
There were people who used more than one approach at once, but it was usually frowned upon, and even Verna had to keep secret her frequent forays into industrial archaeology and her fringe experiments.
For Elissa, it was the first time. The old woman laid on a bed she had her attendants set up right besides the main pool. She had been cleaned and medicated – other than her two missing fingers, she had a bad fracture in her right arm and a series of marks, wounds, and punctures, most of them swollen blue and black by the time she’d been brought it. Thanks to Elissa’s water, though, they had been mostly reabsorbed and while she wouldn’t be able to run around the town for a bit, she was far better than when she reached the walls of Belacqua.
Another things she did not understand was why she was so cranky. She had yet to peer through her mind, mostly out of respect, and Arguta was already trying to shut in her thoughts as much as she could, warding them against any intrusion, by simply thinking about the same thing: her furnace in Trefiumi.
“I hope you find yourself in a better predicament now,” Elissa tried, reaching out to her with her voice. Unlike the old woman, she was standing inside the pool already, covered only by her blindfold. Her overture did not seem to help her much, though.
“Heh. As far as my arm goes, maybe a tad. But I demand to know why I am held prisoner here.”
“You’re not a prisoner, lady,” Elissa replied, shushing up with a prod from her mind as the temple guards turned at the old woman, already frowning at her insolence. “You’re my honored guest. I tended to your wounds and I wanted to speak to you about a certain matter.”
“That’s rich,” she scoffed, showing her golden grin. “They tell all sort of wonder stories about you, girl. That you’re the most amazing Augur in generations, even more than the Hag from the floating city. Well, I sure won’t let you use me for your dirty plans and schemes. I know your lot, and behind your smile there’s always some treachery. I had to make do with the old ways: fire and steel brought us here and will save us from this mess. Your fake friendship and faker powers will help you none.”
The Hag? Inwardly, she chuckled. Any enemy of Verna was a possible new friend. Besides, the woman’s temper was a welcome and curious change. She was used to people kissing the ground that Augurs walked on. Meeting someone so opposed to her was… refreshing. It made her feel like they could understand each other as peers, women fighting against the darkness, even thought it was a different kind of battle.
Besides, as impressive as the woman’s resolve was, her mental defenses would hold against her precisely as long as wet paper.
But she was not Verna. She did not just take what she wanted.
No matter how easy it would have been.
“You are right, up to a point,” she replied. “I have invited you here for another reason as well. I would prefer not to speak about it, though. Would you allow me to speak directly to your mind?”
“Ha! The wolf kindly asking to take just a nibble, that’s what.”
“Oh, spirits…” if she could, Elissa would have rolled her eyes. Patience. She waved a thread around them, cutting them off from the external world, like she did when she left the temple on the first night. Her attendants saw the mist and vapor rising to cover them, any word turning dull and indistinguishable. “I want to talk about the Hunter,” she revealed, coming a little closer.
The old woman sat up on one elbow, looking down at her.
“What about him?”
“I know you have given him service a few weeks ago. Before he left for the darkest parts of the forest, you refurbished his equipment and his sled. And he wasn’t the only Venator there in Trefiumi that night. He and another helped your town by mounting guard. You accepted to work for him because you admire his tenacity and because he doesn’t haggle too much.”
Arguta blinked, pulling up her hands to her forehead.
“I told you not to look into my head!”
“No need. Those were all clues I picked up on my own.” It was her turn to grin. “Maybe, as you said, there is something to this ‘best Augur of my generation’ story, don’t you agree? There’s no need for me to pry any information out of your mind. Besides, it would be bad form. And I am not… I’m not Verna.”
“Oh. There’s beef between you two, hm, girl?”
“What? Not at all…”
“Just some clues I picked up on my own,” she chuckled, falling back on the bed. She let out a tired sigh and for a while she just allowed her breathing to echo the sloshing of tiny waves against the walls of the pool. “I did wonder about it,” she said in the end, looking at her two missing fingers. “Weird guy, the Hunter, but not stupid. He knew that going into the Forest by winter, especially this winter, would be suicide.”
“I’m sorry for the loss of your settlement.”
“Quit it with the fake pleasantries, girl. I know you don’t give a whiff about. Never been there, and you know shit about the beauty and certainty of steel. But yes… he was working for the Hag. Whatever he was looking for, he did not tell me. Is this the reason why I’m here? You wanted informations?”
“I need a connection,” she explained. It was quite hard to lay it all down, especially to a mind who did not have a hint of Sight nor a minute of training. “Imagine the Hunter is a knot in a fabric. That knot is moving with the fabric, and you can find all sort of strings leading in that direction, but only a few are connected to it. Hence I need to try and jump from the closest knot I can put my hands on.”
“You mean I’m the last person he talked to?”
“I’m not really sure,” she admitted. “The Forest makes everything dull. By spring is much clearer, but the Tide meshes everything in a shuddering tunnel of constrained sorrows. The Queen of Thorns does not want us look into it. If we try… something might look back.”
“Hmmm. The Queen has her ways. She’s an indomitable bitch,” she said playing with the metal and bones adorning her necklace. “So you want to try and contact him. Why?”
“I believe he’s in great danger.”
“No shit. Is this the power of Augurs? I’m beyond impressed.”
“And I can help find him the way back home.”
She did leave Sadja out. The less she mentioned it, the less ripples might reach Verna’s feeling threads.
“As soon as I recover, I won’t surely be in want for a job,” Arguta commented, flexing her bandaged fingers. “But sure as carbonates, that guy pays premium. Ha! Besides, Spirits know if he has suffered enough. You know about…”
They shared a look. Empty and mute, on Elissa’s part, and sharp and inquisitive on Arguta’s end.
She held out her hand.
“As long as you don’t fry my brain. Try something fishy and I’ll hang you with your own blindfold.”
Pic by ThePandaAuthor’s Notes: another interesting chapter to write. I had to work on this while I received some loathsome news, so I wasn’t really in the right mood for a dark and moody chapter. Arguta’s lively spirit surely lifted my own. I hope you also enjoyed this little exchange between the two women. Thanks for reading.