II. Healing or not
Ryel managed to follow Arkmar across the attic-like crawl space they were in until they had traversed the entire width of the tower. She heard flutterings and scurryings around her, but she wasn’t sure they weren’t just fluttering and scurrying in her mind. The crawl seemed interminable, but on the other hand, in Ryel’s state of consciousness, she wasn’t feeling much of anything, including horror, nausea or boredom. It was all just putting a hand in front of a hand, and a foot in front of a foot.
“You okay?” asked Arkmar after they had gone some distance.
“Oh, just fine,” said Ryel. “How would a human have handled this?”
“A human,” said the dwarf, “would have died.”
“Ah.” Hand in front of hand, foot in front of foot. The flutterings did not increase, nor did the scurryings, but there were other noises now. She shut them out.
At the far end of the crawl, Arkmar stopped beside a hole in the floor. Ryel caught up and looked in. “So now what?” she asked over the marginal noise of some sort of large rat cavorting in piles of dried leaves.
“Go downstairs the fast way, as my brother used to say to me,” replied the dwarf. Ryel looked down it and didn’t see anything whatsoever. She gave him a dazed version of her sarcastic look. “Sort of a demon laundry chute,” he explained.
“Come, sit on the edge with your legs dangling down.” She stared at him. Those noises again. The dwarf gave the noises the briefest worried glance, then smiled invitingly. “Come,” he said, “the vampire cockroaches are closing in.”
She stared at him for four seconds, then said, “Did you say vampire cockroaches?”
“I did, yes,” he replied quietly.
She shuffled forward, still staring at him, and swung her feet over the edge. He looked around, then gave her a quick push with the words, “Bend your knees at the bottom!”
Ryel found herself shooting down a flat metallic slide, catching occasionally on bolts and flipping about into a new position. Soon she was tumbling. At one of the 120 degree corners, the chute dropped a foot and turned. This became a regular occurrence, and every time it happened it was a new surprise, a new world of pain for the elf. Every square inch of her back was on fire, her neck itched terribly and her head was in a grey haze, shot through with messages of torment. It was utterly dark, and the smells of the incense from five different temples and shrines and ritual chambers blended in the middle of the slanting duct. Who knew what side effects the combination might have? After an eternity of this tumbling, Ryel felt the floor of the chute disappear, and ten feet later she landed, butt first, on a space of flat stone pavement.
She lay there moaning. Four seconds later, a dwarf in light chain mail, laughing like an idiot, fell from the sky like some sort of peculiar precipitation. He landed square on her stomach.
“Fuck my life,” she moaned.
“I’m sorry,” said Arkmar, rolling off her. “Is anything broken?”
“A rib, I think.” She felt herself. “Oh yeah. That one.” She thought a moment. “Other than that, I think my bones are intact.”
“How do you feel otherwise? Can I administer a cure? Either of the two?”
“The pain is incredible, Arkmar, since you asked. It’s everywhere, even my toes ache a little. And since you asked, some of both cures would be good. Where are we?”
“We are in the laundry room, actually,” said Arkmar. “We came down the laundry chute. Somewhere about here would be where they wash the bloodstains off the white robes and altar cloths. From here, we descend to the subterranean and follow the interconnected basements till we can emerge by the dock. A dwarf has to know these things.”
So Arkmar led Ryel through a series of not very obvious side doors and down some steps and up some more and then down yet more, and finally, just as she was about to collapse once and for all, he made her go up six steps and they were out onto the wharves.
“You know the way from here?” he asked, rubbing his forehead. “I’m good in buildings, and underground is a cinch, but put the sky over my head and I get confused.”
“I do, actually,” Ryel said. “Know the way from here.”
“Are you going to make it? Are you okay?”
“I suck, thanks for asking.” She set off now ahead, plunging into the busy front street. They were no longer in Dylath itself, but in its seaside suburb Atyannath. The black walls of the metropolis loomed just a few blocks behind them. “Those vampire cockroaches,” she said, not looking anywhere but ahead, “did they get you at all?”
“Nah,” said Arkmar. “I got thick skin.”
“Ah.” She plunged ahead and he pursued her in silence. Two blocks later, she was turning in a door of a row house with a decaying stucco front, and doggedly heading up a narrow stair. Arkmar, feeling better about his directions, nodded at the stairway and the little straight hall. They went to the end of it and knocked on the door, which had a sign saying, “Edgardo Ramona, Healer.” They knocked several times, over the course of two minutes, and only then heard something inside.
“Who is it,” came a male voice, a little angry.
Ryel looked at Arkmar. “It’s me, Arkmar the Dwarf,” he said. “I have a patient.”
The door opened. There he was, half elven himself, his dark hair showing just a touch of grey. He was wearing a dark silky tunic over dark pants, a thin silver chain nestled in his chest hair with a bluish amulet on it. He gave Arkmar a glance, then turned his eyes on Ryel, who was exactly his height. He turned and started to shut the door in their faces, saying, “You didn’t tell me it was her.”
Arkmar put his boot in the door, then looked up at Ryel. “What do I say? What did you do to him? I need to know what to tell him you’re sorry for.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryel said. “I’m sorry I’m going to expire on your doorstep. It will look bad.” She swayed and toppled onto Arkmar, and everything went black.
When Ryel woke up, she was lying face down and male voices were talking about her back, which was exposed to the air.
“So you bring her to me. Why do you bring her to me?”
“Your excellent reputation,” said the dwarf. “You would not recall but four winters ago you fixed up a nasty pair of leg wounds. It was the winged goblin war. You would remember that.”
“Ah yes,” said Edgardo. “You almost had your feet bitten off. I stitched them back on nice and firm. No fear. Dwarf bones are tough.”
“So is elf hide,” said Arkmar. Edgardo didn’t say anything, but drew something between a long sigh and a deep breath. “How many stings, er, bites, are there, uh, what do you call them anyway?”
Edgardo sighed again. “Well,” he said, “they are bites, if you want a technical answer. These were administered by jaws.” Sigh. “Lots and lots of little jaws. But that doesn’t mean there is no venom. There is something in the bite, a poison. If she were not an Elf, or possibly a Dwarf, she would be dead.” Sigh. “I do not know about half-elves.”
“In many ways you are as good as Elves. Do not sell yourself short, Healer.”
“Thank you for saying so.” Sigh. “I do not think she would agree.”
“Ahem,” said Ryel, “I’m awake.”
Edgardo said nothing. The dwarf just laughed and said, “Glad to hear it.” In the quiet moment that followed, Ryel heard soft sounds, and then she felt gentle hands rubbing something on her back. She closed her eyes, but the stuff immediately began to sting, and the hands were spreading the sting further and further. Her shirt had been cut off her back, a process no doubt made much easier by the chewing she had received from the bat-bugs. So now those hands were spreading that pain from her waist all the way up to her shoulders, her upper arms and her neck, and into her scalp. She clenched her teeth. She remained silent. She was still silent when he pushed her pants halfway off her gluteus maximus and put the stinging salve there too.
There was a pause. Ryel stared straight ahead, her jaws clenched hard. She started to relax after a few moments, and then there was a hard slap on her back, then another on her shoulder, then another at her waist. “Ow, fuck, that hurts,” she said.
“A little hurt is good,” said Edgardo. He went on administering slaps until he had fully awakened every area that had been bitten. There was another pause and Ryel dared not open her mouth. At least she could roll her eyes without him knowing.
Then there was a dribble of liquid on her back, and then he was rubbing some oil into her skin. Ryel grimaced but said nothing: she looked up and saw Arkmar looking at her with concern. She rolled her eyes in the direction of Edgardo; Arkmar grinned and nodded in sympathy. This oil stung in a whole different way from the salve, and now she could differentiate between them and enjoy the best of both worlds.
“Roll over and sit up,” said Edgardo.
“I wouldn’t do this to a dog,” Ryel said to herself. Arkmar laughed. “Doc, my shirt is ruined, can you at least give me a cape or something?”
“Oh, hold the front part on, it’s not damaged.” She rolled over and managed to sit up. He went on, “I didn’t ever want to see you again. But I am a healer. I heal people. So I heal you. Since I can’t exactly heal myself.”
She just glared at him, holding the remains of her shirt on. “Now what?” asked Arkmar.
“Drink,” said Edgardo, taking a ceramic flask from a drawer. Ryel looked askance at it. “Oh, please,” said the healer, “it’s not as if I would poison you.”
“And he surely wouldn’t waste two layers of treatment on you and then poison you,” laughed Arkmar.
“Sure he would,” Ryel said in a husky voice. “Torture me and then kill me.”
“I didn’t want to do this,” said Edgardo. “You can go fuck yourself. I don’t care anymore.”
“The hell you don’t,” said Ryel. She managed to take the flask, and with some help got a couple of swigs in her mouth. She choked them down. “That’s strong,” she said, and then her eyes rolled up and she fell backward onto the bed.
Ryel woke up some time later. Sunlight came in through a single window in the small, unadorned room. The bed was a single mattress, wide enough for two Ryels to lie side by side, was stuffed with some sort of fine feather. It lay on the floor, and filled half the room. There were a couple of crates of papers stacked up, and on top of them was a tray with a mess of healing herbs and tools. There was one little stool, and a dwarf sat in it.
“Dwarf,” said Ryel. “What are you still doing here?”
“I brought you here. I have an interest in seeing if you survived.”
“You knew I was going to survive. Why are you still here? And not out selling fittings or stealing some blue gem or something?”
“I decided I wanted to know what you were up to.”
“What if I don’t want to tell you?”
“What if I just follow you and see for myself? You’ll get in trouble again and then you’ll realize how much you need backup.” He grinned sideways at the door. “Backup that won’t fall in love with you and get his or her heart broken.”
“How much do you know about me?”
“What I can read from him,” said Arkmar. “He sure doesn’t talk a lot. Shall I go get him? He’ll want to look at you before you’re discharged.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Ryel, three mutually exclusive emotions surging in her heart. She lay back and looked at the ceiling. “How am I paying?” she asked, just as the dwarf opened the door to leave.
“I’m paying,” said Arkmar, “with one of those gold coins we found. And a chunk of that ruby. I need to make sure all those chunks don’t end up together.”
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, “Dylath-Leen and rubies. Bad combination.”
“I know, right? Now just you rest quiet and I get the healer.”
He went out and Ryel spent a minute trying to strategize. How would she deal with the healer, her former lover? Did she want a dwarf? What did she actually know about him? Who knew about the details of her mission? Did she even know, really? What had she actually done to make Edgardo so mad? How would she deal with the healer, her former lover? What did she know about him? And so on.
Then the door opened and there he was. Edgardo Ramona, healer. Half elf, all gorgeous. That shirt unbuttoned two buttons down, that blue amulet. He had to know the effect he had.
Ryel, usually all bundled up with leather and wood elf green and brown, not a hint of cleavage, not that she had anything to make a cleavage with. What did she know of what effect she had?
“Wait out in the hall,” Edgardo said to Arkmar, who was behind him.
“What, no, I want to—!” the dwarf began.
“Wait out in the hall,” said Ryel, not rising. She realized she wasn’t wearing a shirt at all now, just the pants she’d had on when she arrived in town. And, oh yes. She had bathed in that hotel room. She had re-dressed, but she had chosen to leave off her underwear. It made her feel faster during missions. Right now, it made her feel bolder. She was beginning to revive, she could just tell. She was beginning to get ideas, and they were not good ones.
The door shut. Ryel and Edgardo did not move, listening to the dwarf’s feet stomping down the hall a ways.
Edgardo looked at Ryel, but as if there were actually a screen just in front of her on which her image were projected, and that were actually what he was looking at. “A night’s rest,” he said. “You will leave in the morning. You will need to take it easy for a week or so. Never under any circumstances return to this house.”
“I didn’t come here willingly myself,” she sort of lied. “Edgardo—!”
“You may call me Doctor Ramona.”
“Bull shit I will.” She sat up, holding the sheet over her chest. “Edgardo. I don’t know what pissed you off so, but I—!”
“Don’t. Just don’t.”
“Tell me what to don’t, Edgardo. I don’t remember.”
He looked like he was about to wilt, but he had the strength to roll his eyes. “I think I’ve examined you as much as you merit,” he said evenly.
“No you haven’t. Edgardo—!” He turned to go. “Healer,” she said in her most plaintive voice. “I am not sure I am strong enough yet. Hear me!”
With another eye roll, he turned and stepped to her bedside. She reached up and took the back of his neck, pulling him down for a kiss. Yes, just one kiss, and there he remained, unwilling to back off, unwilling to take part. She kissed him again, staring down her nose at his mouth, then up into his green eyes as her tongue pushed his lips apart. He resisted: slightly. Her tongue met his, and his tongue, at least, had forgiven her for whatever. She raised her other hand to his head and pulled him closer to her for the third kiss, which blended into a fourth and fifth and so on.
Finally the healer managed to separate a little, though the elf maid kept both hands on the back of his beautiful head. He involuntarily gazed down at her: the sheet had fallen. She smirked, and snaked her right hand down his arm to his left hand. “You haven’t finished examining me,” she said huskily.
“I certainly have,” he said, but in a broken voice.
“There’s so much you haven’t even glanced at,” she said, putting his hand on her right breast. Ahhh. He could not help himself. They kissed again, and again, his hand gently, slightly, caressing her breast. After some seconds he tried to resist again, and she clucked her tongue. “Nn–nn,” she said at close range between kisses.
“My back,” he complained.
“Big baby,” she said, pulling him down to sit on the bed. She put his other hand on her side and went back to smooching.
“But Ryel,” he said, not struggling anymore, his right hand moving up and down her naked side.
“You talk a lot.” Ryel deftly unbuttoned his pants: she had not lost her touch. He had not lost anything either. No underwear on Edgardo. She feasted her eyes on his no longer hidden assets, even as her hands turned to the remaining buttons of his shirt.
“But Ryel, we need to,” he tried to say.
“You need to,” she said, and then instead of explaining, she pulled him over her onto the bed and set about getting them both out of their pants. There were no further objections for some time.
Ryel woke in the twilight and got up. She was naked, and she felt great in spite of a persistent low level itch all across her back and shoulders. She looked down at the bed, where she could just make out a naked man sprawled on his back. She could not see how she had shared a bed with him. But her body was in no doubt that she had.
Ryel set about finding her clothes. Pants; socks; boots. Ah, the shredded shirt. She searched about and found her backpack, in the corner with her short bow and her quiver. She pulled out a spare shirt, unable to tell if it was green or brown in the gloom. She pulled it on, then remembered her lost jacket. “Gonna go shopping,” she said.
Then she looked at the bed. She could see Edgardo’s eyes gleaming.
“Good evening, Doctor,” she said.
“Oh, don’t start, Edgardo. I have a mission. I have things I have to take care of. You want someone who can be with you all the time, you want—I don’t know. What do you want?”
“I only wanted you,” he said.
“Oh please. Edgardo. Don’t make it more difficult.” Her words were sounding familiar even as she said them.
He sat up and swung his legs off the bed. “I wouldn’t want to make your life difficult,” he said.
“Look,” she said, “you want a long term commitment. You’re not going to get it from me. I told you that. I never once deceived you about what to expect.”
“You made me fall in love with you,” he replied, “and I did, I fell hard. Hard.”
“Well, that’s not my fault.” Definitely an echo in here, she thought. She pushed that away. “I’m sorry you fell hard. I’d help you more, really, except that you’d just fall harder.”
“It doesn’t make it feel better. Even if you’re right. And you don’t know you’re right. Your place could be right here with me. Or you could take me with you. On this mission.”
“You don’t understand,” Ryel replied. “Do we have to open this all up again? We had our pleasure. Honor that.” She turned away and looked out the window, slapping herself mentally while he went on whining. She knew what the echo in here was.
Glosvar’s words to her: those were the words she was speaking. Her words, pleading to Glosvar to stay or let her go with him on his quests: Edgardo was speaking her lines.
“You’re of the pure blood,” Edgardo was saying, just as she had said, “You’re of the high kindred.” He went on, as she had, “Doesn’t that make you more serious about affairs of the heart?” He stood up, so he could get near her and let his male scent surround her. “Because you live forever?”
“I’m not going to live forever,” said Ryel, as Glosvar hadn’t, wouldn’t ever have, said. “I’m not immortal. I’m just not going to die of old age. That’s different.” She picked up her pack and her quiver and her bow. “Now you want a kiss, or not? I’m going to roust out the dwarf.”
“You’re not fucking him.”
“Wash your mouth out with pipe degunker. No, I’m not fucking him. You want the kiss?”
“Yes, I want the kiss,” said Edgardo.
Several minutes later, Ryel staggered out of the room and found Arkmar dozing on a bench. She paused in front of him, pondering. Wake him and take her leave, or let him sleep and take her leave? Whatever. She had things to do, places to be.
The dwarf opened an eye. He grinned. “Ah ha ha ha, Miss Elfstone. You look much better. The healer’s ministrations, I take it, were efficacious?”
“Ask him about my ministrations on him,” she said huskily.
“Yes, Arkmar, and I was going to say—!”
“I should come with you? But of course. Who would save your no doubt very attractive Elven posterior? Not that I know anything about Elven posteriors.”
“You had a mission of your own,” she said. “Remember? Stealing the strangely cut sapphire of the Lord of Winds?”
“The blue diamond,” he laughed, “of the Shrine of the Clouds. It can wait. I find you much more interesting and potentially more remunerative.”
“Oh balls. A strangely cut blue diamond all to yourself, versus—what have you got so far? Some gold coins and a ruby you had to smash to pieces? Split between the two of us.”
“And a map,” said Arkmar. “You forgot to mention the map. Ryel, Ryel, it is true I am not like other dwarves. But I do know what is and what is not remunerative. You may give me lessons, if you like, on what Elf males and Elf females think of one another’s posteriors, because that is something of which I know little, but do not presume to tell me what is and is not going to make me money.” They smiled guardedly at one another, and then he added, “And I think you are going to make me money. I think you are shaking the big tree, for whatever reason you shake big trees, and I am fairly certain that among other things, much gold is going to fall from it.”
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, “you are not going with me.”
“Ryel,” said Arkmar, “I am going with you, or I am going behind you. Either way works, though the first will be a little cheaper, a lot more secure and might afford the possibility of interesting and informative conversation.”
“Arkmar. You don’t know where I’m going. And I’m not going to tell you.”
In response, Arkmar said nothing, but smiled that irritating smile of his as he held up the parchment with the map on it.
Ryel and Arkmar were out on the street in a minute. They walked along side by side, not talking, each smiling, the elf tolerantly, with resignation, and the dwarf with sardonic triumph. They strode along for two blocks away from the walls of Dylath, and then Ryel, without a word, turned sharply right toward the wharf a block away. Arkmar did not miss a step. Halfway down the block to the wharf, Ryel said without looking or stopping, “Where am I going? Do you know?”
“I am going to guess the great isle of Oriab,” Arkmar replied.
She stopped and glared at him. “Are you a spy? What makes you think that?”
“Interesting the order in which you ask those two questions. I think that because the map has a big red star in Baharna. And that is on the great isle of Oriab. And besides, almost the first thing you said to me was, ‘ever been to Oriab?’ So. That’s my guess. Am I right?”
“You’re right.” Ryel was about to say something else but suppressed it. Arkmar took full note of this, too, with a smile. She looked suddenly to her right. “Oh look,” she said. “A jeweler. Let’s sell the gems.”
“And the ruby bits,” said Arkmar. “I definitely need to have seen the last of those.”
The sale of the three diamonds and the five chunks of evil ruby and the pile of ruby chips went well, especially since the jeweler, a little man who was just slightly reptilian, was afraid of Ryel, and the sellers didn’t really care how much they got.
One door down, Arkmar elbowed Ryel and ducked into another emporium. It was run by a mixed-race family: possibly half-gnome, half-human and half-orc, though since, in point of fact, Ryel knew that orcs don’t reproduce sexually, it was hard to see how that worked. In under sixty seconds Arkmar had converted his whole supply of brass fittings and doodads into five gold coins.
“Heading for an island,” said Arkmar. “Sea journey. Don’t need a bunch of metal weighing me down.”
“So you prefer a smaller amount of metal,” said Ryel.
“Yes, exactly,” said the dwarf, smirking. “More concentrated.”
Five minutes later, the elf and the dwarf came out onto the Fore Street of Atyannath, and faced a wharf full of ships at rows of long docks. The City of Dylath-Leen was as dull as a poor man’s graveyard, and in other ways similar, but its docks, and those of its subordinate ports, exhibited a variety of shipping so bizarre it was difficult to classify it all as shipping. The elf and the dwarf stood gawking at the array of schooners and triremes and cutters and galleons and tall five-masted sailing ships and big fat old junks and dhows ranging from puny to colossal to city-size. And then there were the exotic craft, of which no two were alike, though one that appeared to have physical appendages in place of oars, like a boat-sized crustacean, stuck out in particular.
“You don’t see that every day,” said Ryel.
“Never liked boats,” said Arkmar.
“You can stay here,” said the elf.
“Good luck on that,” said the dwarf. “So, just looking for a ship to Oriab?”
“Looking for a particular ship,” said Ryel. “Skipper owes me a favor.”
“Any particular kind of favor?” Arkmar asked with a grin.
“Oh,” said Ryel, half smiling back, “both kinds.”