A paladin watches her chronicler leave.
Free and off the record.
She smiles and spins around and does a little dance, snaps her finger and stamps her feet. And the stamping and then dancing shakes her head, and she gets a little dizzy. And her jaw aches from the smiling, and she’ll have a big bruise in the morning.
Grumbling to herself, but with a smile still in her eyes, she stops her flailing around. It will not do to fall over on your own in the middle of an empty room – even if it’s off the record.
A paladin grabs her belongings and looks for a better table. She is not hiding. She need not sit by the door. Paladins don’t do subtle.
Behind the bar, a big sister finds comfort in the familiar. She pulls a pint, pulls two and three. Well known motions, practiced for years. Grabs a bag of nuts, grabs another. And a tray. Some napkins.
Her sister is back.
– – –
Toini picked a table in a booth along the left side of the room. The wall of the booth kept her out view from the two old men at the bar, but let her see the door to keep an eye on anyone entering or leaving.
The lone man at the table over on the other side of the room had fallen asleep, but he seemed comfortable enough, and she didn’t have the heart to wake him. Maybe she could ask her sister for a blanket for him.
Footsteps came from behind her, and a moment later Paivi appeared beside the table, carrying a tray with three pints of stout and a bowl of nuts.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” she asked.
“What?” Toini looked up at her.
Paivi set one of the pints down in front of Toini. “Mr Bad Ass with the gun.”
“Ah. Raoul.” Grinning, she grabbed her pint and sipped. Dark and filling. Creamy and bitter. Proper Kul Viller Stout. “He’s dismissed for the afternoon.”
“Dismissed?” Paivi raised an eyebrow and set down the tray on the table.
“Yes. I don’t want him here and he has family to see, so I sent him off for a few hours.”
“Is he coming back here?” Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the far wall of the booth. “I don’t like people bringing guns into my bar.”
“Yes, later, but you don’t need to worry.” Toini smiled, and waved the concerns away. “We’re both cleared and licensed. There won’t be no trouble.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Paivi’s jaw set and she glared down at Toini. “I don’t like people bringing guns into my bar – period.”
“Oh, I see…” She tugged at one of her dreads. “Do you have somewhere we can put them? Somewhere safe?”
“What!” She stepped away from the wall of the booth and put her hands on her hips. “You too? My sister. Bringing guns into my bar.”
“Uhm, yes…” Toini frowned at her. “It comes with the job.”
“Comes with…” Paivi heaved a big sigh and threw her hands in the air. She spun around and took a few steps away and then returned to the table again.
Slamming her palms down she leaned on the table and stared at Toini. “You go and get dead and then you come back twelve years later with your boyfriend pointing guns at me in my own bar, and it’s just comes with job.” She took another deep breath and pushed away from the table again. “Seriously?”
“He’s not my boyfriend!”
“That’s not the stupid point!” Paivi yelled. “He could be the Cardinal of Knysvian for all I care.” She stomped at the floor and pointed at the door. “He’s not coming in here waving his stupid gun around again. Is that clear?
“Paivi. You’re ranting. Sit down.” Toini nodded at the table. “Drink your beer.”
Paivi’s mouth dropped open and she stood there gaping – and then she sat down and grabbed her pint.
Toini reached for her own drink and clasped her hands around it. Her eyes met Paivi’s and she waited.
Grumbling, but without breaking eye contact, Paivi lifted her beer to her lips and drank. Three long draughts. She sighed, set the glass down, and licked the foam from her lips.
A wry grin tugging at her lips, Toini grabbed some nuts from the bowl.
“Okay then…” Paivi sighed and crossed her arms over her chest again. “So what’s the job, and who’s that guy?”
Toini stared down at the nuts in her hand. Must not look smug. Must keep a straight face. She picked one, popped it in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
“Raoul is my chronicler. I’m a paladin.”
Paivi gasped, and her jaw dropped. “No way! You’re not!”
“Am too.” Cheeks flaring, Toini struggled to keep her face under control. “Paladin of Ek.”
“Drag me backwards! You’re not a paladin.” Paivi shook her head.
“Mhm!” Toini nodded.
“No way! How did that happen?” Paivi could barely sit still. “Everyone thought you died. Why didn’t you call? You should have let someone know – and who’s Ek anyway?”
Toini raised her hand to stop the barrage of questions. “One thing at a time.” She took a sip of her beer and then cleared her throat.
“Okay, okay.” Paivi grinned and drank too.
“So what happened? The report said your ship was shot down over the jungle and everyone died.”
“Yes…” Toini took a deep breath, and her jaw set. “That happened.” Her squad. She could still see their faces in front of her – still remembered their names.
Paivi nodded. “But you survived?”
Toini stared down into her drink and swallowed. All of them gone. She’d failed them. “That was in Diamond Maw.” She paused and took another sip of her beer. “At the time it was part of the Republic of Kwahil, but both Hamalla and Rurudundi had forces in the region claiming it as their own.”
Sneering, Paivi shook her head. “Bunch of savages killing each other, They’re always fighting over something or other down there.”
Toini stared at her. Sitting there all nice and cozy in her pub, all safe and warm and out of harms way. “Paivi. That’s not appropriate.” Her sister had no idea what it was like.
Paivi glared at her.
“Bastards killed my stupid sister.” She took a sip of her beer and wiped the foam off her lips with the back of her hand.
“So… Anyway…” Toini shot her sister a glare and drummed her fingers against the table. “We were on our way to relieve a forward observation post when we were brought down by hostile fire.”
Paivi sneered again. “And you’re telling me not to call them bastards.”
Muttering something under her breath, Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and stared off towards the bar, not looking at Toini at all.
“So anyway…” Toini sighed, and paused to clear her throat. “We’re shot down over the jungle. I’ve got dead and wounded and there are hostiles in the area. Everything’s chaos.”
“You’ve got?” Paivi raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yes!” Toini slammed her hand into the table. “I’m the stupid commanding officer and half my squad is stupid dead! Okay? Can you stop interrupting me?”
“Okay.” Paivi lowered her gaze and stared down into her beer. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.” She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. It was all done and over with. She shouldn’t be yelling at her sister. It wasn’t her fault. “I’m sorry. It was pretty bad.”
Paivi nodded, but remained silent.
Toini closed her eyes and took another deep breath. “So… I’ve got the survivors gathered and ready to move, and I’m doing a last check of the ship and the gondola to make sure we haven’t left anyone who’s still breathing and that I’ve got all the dog tags and such.”
The flames crackling all around her. The ship. The jungle. Dead bodies. Everything burning. Andersson. Rayfolk. Ephraheim. Good men. Good friends. Someone’s hand. Blood and crushed glass and twisted metal and the blistering heat of the fire from all directions.
Toini sniffled. She rubbed at her eyes, and cleared her throat. “I’m on the far side of the ship from the rest of the squad and then the ground just collapses under me.”
“We must have crashed at the edge of some ravine or some underground tunnel or something and it gives way and me and the ship are dragged down with it.”
Across from her at the table sat her sister. Silent and serious. Just listening. Waiting to hear what she had do say. Toini tried to bring a smile to her face, but it slipped off right away, and instead she just blinked and had another sip of her beer.
“I remember falling, and then I wake up and I’m stuck in some dark place and I can’t move and I can’t see a thing.”
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. Fighting for air. The darkness crushed in on her and broke her bones and broke her mind and tore her soul to shreds and she couldn’t even get enough breath to scream and this was finally really it and she would never see her sister again. Never.
“One of my ears was under water, and sometimes it ran into my mouth, and I remember I thought if didn’t drown I’d starve to death.”
Pressing her eyes shut to keep the tears back she fought for breath – just like then. But this was now, and the air smelled safe and tasted of home, and her sister was right there, just on the other side of the table. Close enough to touch.
Paivi just stared at her, mouth hanging open. “Oh Toini. I’m so sorry.” She reached out across the table and put her hand on Toini’s, gave it a light squeeze and tried to smile. “It’s okay now.”
Toini pulled her hand away. “It’s fine.” She stared down into the table and then snatched her pint up. “I survived didn’t I?” And then she hid her face in the glass and drank.
Paivi’s smile drained away, and she looked at her sister in stunned silence. After a moment she dropped her gaze and pulled her hand back. “Uhm, yes… But how?”
“Well, someone saved me of course.” Toini glared at her. “I was stuck under a stupid airship and a crapton of jungle. There’s no way I’d have ever gotten out of that myself.”
“Okay, okay, sure.” Paivi frowned and grabbed some nuts from the bowl on the table. “Go on, who saved you?”
“Veydundriel,” Toini mumbled. “A shaman.”
A grin spread on Paivi’s face. “Hah, saved by an elf. Just like in the stories.”
“Yes. Exactly. Just like that.”
Toini glared down into her pint and swirled the contents around inside of it. “I’m the stupid commander and I go fall down in a hole in the ground and my entire squad gets wiped out by hostiles and I get saved by a stupid elf like some bleeding storybook princess.”
“Geez, Toini. You make it sound like it’s a bad thing you survived.”
Toini set down her pint on the table with a thunk and glared at her.
Paivi hunched up her shoulders and looked away. “Sorry.”
Taking a deep breath, Toini continued. “So Veydundriel dug me up and took me to a temple of Ek up in the mountains and left me there to recover.”
The pressing darkness shifted its grip. New pains, in parts of her she hadn’t felt for days, seared her mind. Light burned her eyes and hands touched her face. Strange sounds carved at her ears.
And then the nightmares. The steaming hot jungle and never being still. Always moving. Carried on the back of some big animal that never ever stopped and the crushing darkness that stole her back whenever she closed her eyes. Burning up inside. Shivering from cold. Shapes that moved just beyond the corner of her eyes and that were never there no matter how fast she turned her head.
The screaming of the birds that called out to her with the voices of her dead squad.
Toini picked up a nut from the bowl and rolled it between her fingers. “I was in a pretty bad shape.”
“Okay.” Paivi nodded.
A wry smile tugged at her lips. Her sister hadn’t guessed. Her eyes hadn’t betrayed her. Good. She’d keep it like that. Gloss it over. There really was no need for her sister to know the details. She’d be better off not knowing.
“So I stayed at this temple.” Toini grabbed another few nuts from the bowl and lined them up in a row in front of her on the table – one by one, each an equal distance from the next. “It was pretty deep into the mountains. Far from the contested zone. Well, far from everything really. Unclaimed land you know.”
Her sister grinned and took another sip of her beer. “Oh, wow, that really is like some movie or something.”
Toini raised an eyebrow at her. “Yes. Shut up.”
Paivi’s grin grew even wider and she relaxed back into the seat, letting her shoulders slump. “Okay, go on.”
She picked up one of the nuts and put it in her mouth. “After I got well enough to move around on my own I began helping out with the temple gardens.”
Smiling, for real now, Toini sat up a little straighter, and the words began to crowd her. “They had the most amazing gardens. You’ve never seen anything like it.” She raised her hands in front of her to show just how amazing it was. “They grew things there I’ve never seen anywhere else. Like, they have this orchid that grows green pearls in its flowers.”
“Hah!” Paivi slapped her palm against the table and laughed. “You and your muddy fingers.”
Toini clamped her mouth shut, cutting off the cascade of words. “Uhm… yes, sorry.” Her cheeks warmed, and a silly smile tugged at her face. “It’s a really special place.”
Paivi just grinned at her.
Toini relaxed, ate her nuts, and then for a while they just sat there, enjoying each other’s company without saying anything. Just like back in the day. Just like nothing had happened at all.
Eventually, and far too soon, Toini shrugged and cleared her throat.
“Right, so I’m at the temple, recovering from my wounds and tending the gardens, when Ek comes to me.”
“Okay.” Paivi sipped her beer and then nodded.
“Yes. You know I always was good with animals and tending the plants and such when we were little.”
“Yeah…” Paivi’s eyes filled with mirth and she grabbed another handful of nuts from the bowl. “Like that time we went camping and you woke up with a fox in your sleeping bag.” Her face broke up into a big grin. “That was so funny. I still have no idea how it even got into the tent.”
Toini put her elbow against the table and rested her chin in her palm. The fox had slunk in when her sister went out to pee in the middle of the night and not zipped up the tent flap properly, but she’d never had the heart to tell her. She smiled to herself and gazed off into the distance.
“Yeah, just like that,” she said eventually. “It happens all the time now if I end up having to sleep outside. Bunnies, foxes, deer, bears, lions – you name it.”
“Lions!” Paivi gasped. “You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.”
Grinning, Toini straightened up again. “Yes, sure, some other time.” She grabbed her pint and sipped her beer – almost empty. “Anyway, it turns out Ek really took a liking to me and ordained me as his paladin.”
“Just like that?” Paived raised an eyebrow at her.
“Well…” Toini sighed. “There were a lot of rituals at the temple, and then tons and tons of bureaucracy once I got out of the jungle and had to report to Knysvian.” She stuck her tongue out and made a farting noise.
“I’d still have been Ek’s paladin without it. I just wouldn’t have had the support of Church the way I do now.”
Paivi chuckled, and her eyes filled with mischief. “Right, I get it, but you still haven’t told me who Ek is.”
Toini groaned and hung her head. Her life she’d dedicated. Her entire being. Everything. And her sister didn’t even know. So typical.
“I run a pub. I don’t do theology.”
Rolling her eyes, Toini heaved a big sigh. “Ek is a type A god. His aspects are life and nature.” She threw her arms wide and stared at her sister. “How can you not have heard of him?”
“Whatever. I’m sure he’s great.” Paivi glared at her and took another sip of her beer. “What I want to know is why did you never let hear from yourself? You could have called, or sent a message or something.”
Toini lowered her arms. It had been good for a while. She’d almost forgotten about the world outside. Almost forgotten how long it had been. Almost been back to where she left. She stopped her smiling, and her shoulders grew tense. Serious again. Business. Reality things.
No more banter.
“Security concerns,” she mumbled.
“What?” snapped Paivi.
“Look!” Her head shot up. “Being a paladin isn’t exactly safe.” She jabbed her finger into the surface of the table to emphasize her point.
“So what?” Paivi set down her pint a little too hard. “What’s that got to do with me?”
Toini took a deep breath. She ought to keep calm. It was her own fault. She’d let her guard down. Her sister had a right to ask.
“Warding nature is not a popular job. I make enemies – a lot of enemies.”
“Okay.” Toini heaved another big sigh. “Here.” Again, she poked her finger at the table. She’d really have to spell it all out. “I’ve made a lot of very powerful enemies, and they don’t play by the rules.”
Paivi frowned at her. “Yes–
“Shut!” She cut her off with a wave of her hand. “Going after me is tough, but if they were to get to you, it would compromise my integrity.”
“Uhh… what?” Paivi’s jaw dropped.
Toini grumbled. What was so hard to understand? She emptied her beer and reached for the spare pint. The one Raoul would have had if he’d stayed. Good thing he hadn’t. This was something between her and her sister – and only them.
“As a paladin, I have to do what’s right in the eyes of my god no matter what. I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way or cloud my judgment.”
“Oh…” Paivi’s face paled, and she closed her mouth.
“Exactly.” Toini lowered her gaze. “If I were forced to choose between your wellbeing and the greater good it would be the end of me – not just as a paladin, but as a person too.”
Paivi looked down into her glass and nodded. Slowly, she rocked the glass back and forth on the table. She drew breath as if to say something, but in the end she just nodded again.
Toini shifted in her seat. “I…” She squirmed and hunched up her shoulder. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around.” And then she just sat there, staring down into the table, and with a big lump growing in her throat.
It had been the right thing to do. It had.
Ek had chosen her, and she had heeded the call. That’s all there was to it. There was no way she could ever go back to the life she’d lead, become the woman she’d been.
That woman. She might as well be dead.
“It hasn’t been easy for me either.” She sniffled and rubbed at her nose with her fingers. Without looking up she reached for her pint, lifted it halfway to her mouth, and then set it down again. Not now. “I keep telling myself it’s for the best. At least you’re safe this way.”
Across the table from her, Paivi said nothing. She didn’t move. She just sat there. Silent. Waiting.
“I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.” Toini stared down into her pint. She hadn’t even touched it yet – just grabbed it and held on to it. Like some teddy bear for a little girl.
“You’re the only one who really matters to me. You, and…” For a moment, she closed her eyes, and then she sighed. “You. Really. There’s just you.”
“It’s okay.” Paivi reached out across the table and took her hand in hers. “It’s okay Toini.” Strong, honest fingers. Rough and callused, but warm and friendly.
“Please don’t.” Toini snatched her hand away and hid it in her lap under the table. She pressed her lips together and turned her face away, starring into the wall at the back of their booth. Not the hands.
After a moment she swallowed, forced something like a smile on to her face and turned back to Paivi. “You are okay, right?”
Her sister hadn’t moved at all. She still sat leaning forward, with her arm reaching out across the table and her hand resting right next to the full pint of beer.
She must have nudged it when she pulled her hand away. Foam had tipped over the edge on one side and run down the glass in a thin line. Her teddy cried.
Toini sniffled, and rubbed at the corner of her eye with one hand. “I mean, the pub’s still standing, and you’re still here, and you’ve got someone working for you and…” She took a deep breath, and tried the smile again. “You’re okay? Right?”
Please. Be okay.
Paivi sighed, pulled her hand back, and sat up a little straighter. She waited for a moment, thinking, frowning, and then eventually she nodded. “Yes, Toini. I’m okay.”
She didn’t smile. She looked tired and worn, but her eyes held that gaze that Toini knew so well. That gaze which bore no lies, that meant no harm, and that trusted her like no one ever did.
Toini relaxed. She let her shoulders slump and leaned back against the wall of the booth. “Good.” She rubbed at her nose, and a little smiled sailed up on her face – completely unbidden. “Good… How’s mom?”
The gaze was gone. Paivi’s eyes had grown distant. Cold. She looked at Toini without seeing, and her face had gone rigid, like she’d never smiled, and never would.
Toini grasped for words. She hadn’t known. If she’d kept in touch she’d have known. She should have been there. “I guess…” She could have done something. “I guess that was to be expected…” Anything. “I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay.” Paivi’s expression didn’t change. She just turned her head and looked away, at something only she could see, hidden in memories where no one else could go.
Toini’s heart ached. Her sister. All alone. No wonder she looked tired and worn.
A big lump formed in her stomach. She’d brought it up, and she would have to see it through. Better get it done and over with. She cleared her throat and smoothed out her face. The sooner the better.
“What about dad? Is he still around.”
“Jail. Got drunk. Killed his girlfriend and her kid.”
She should have been here. She could have stopped him.
“Yeah.” Paivi’s voice was barely a whisper.
She’d missed so much. Lost so much. Things hadn’t been fine. Life had moved on without her, and she couldn’t just come back and find it like she’d never left. Her old life really was gone. That woman she’d been – she was her no more.
And yet. Her sister sat right there. Close enough to touch.
The thought shamed her. There would be no touching. Not with these hands.
She never killed without reason. Every death she dealt was fair – every judgment true. And yet, she killed. These hands ended lives, and they would not touch her sister. Her pure, innocent sister.
She swallowed, took a deep breath, and swallowed again. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay.” Paivi still didn’t look at her.
“No!” Toini yelled and slammed her fist into the table. “It’s not okay!” Her eyes filled with tears. “It’s shit, and I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well…” Paivi lifted her glass to her mouth glared at it. Just a little bit of foam left at the bottom. “It is, but what are you going to do about it?” She leaned her head back against the wall of the booth and looked up into the ceiling. “It’s done, and now we have to live with it.”
Toini’s shoulders slumped. She sniffled, blinked a few times, and then nodded. Her sister was right. Of course.
“Hey, boss!” came a shout from the bar, followed by the opening and closing of the hatch at the end of the counter. “Kegs are done. Would you mind if I head off on some errands while it’s still quiet?”
The little brown man came up to stand beside the table, looking at Paivi. “You can handle the bar right?”
Paivi slowly turned her head and stared up at him from where she sat.
Toini turned her face away. She clasped her hands in her lap and resisted the urge to rub at her eyes.
“Uh… You girls okay?” The man took a step away from the table. “I didn’t see… I mean…”
“It’s…” Paivi paused and cleared her throat. “Don’t worry. We’re fine. Could you bring some food back? Kitchen’s cleaned.”
“Sure thing. What do you fancy?”
“I’m fine with whatever,” said Paivi. “Mossy Barn does decent take-out all day.”
From nowhere at all, a wave of nostalgia washed over Toini. That place. “Oh… Mossy Barn…” The smell of meatballs and lingonberry jam filled her nose, and a smile forced its way onto her face.
Grinning, Paivi raised an eyebrow. “It seems Mossy Barn it is. Remember to grab the receipt for me.” She fell silent, chewed on her lip for a moment, and turned to Toini. “You’re not vegetarian or anything are you?”
“No, it’s fine.” Toini shook her head. “I’ll eat anything.” Her smile grew wider. “Especially if it’s from Mossy Barn.”
“Sure thing ladies.” The man raised his hand to wave and headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a bit.”