Two sisters sit in silence. Fire crackles. Music plays. Moments pass, and a paladin fumes.
A chronicler brings his luggage. Big and unwieldy. A suitcase is not needed for fetching food, and tiny rubber wheels are no help on streets of cobblestone.
Looks are exchanged. No words said. Chronicler. Paladin. A suitcase is safe and attended. Some things are best not left to chance. An understanding exists and a chronicler nods farewell – for now.
Two sisters sit in silence. Waiting for the sounds of departure.
Hinges whine. An old bell rings. Candles flare in a breeze that smells of rain. A chronicler is gone, and a pub’s door grinds shut behind him.
– – –
Toini shifted in her seat and glared at Paivi. “Raoul is not my boyfriend.”
Paivi raised an eyebrow and grinned at her. “Okay.”
“He’s not. Okay?” She reached for her coffee and grabbed the mug from the table.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.” Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and snorted. “He’s still an asshole, and if he comes in here waving guns around again I’ll beat the crap out of him. “
Toini sighed. “It’s fine.” She sipped her coffee and put the mug back down. “We’ve got our papers in order and we know what we’re doing.”
“Fine?” Paivi stared at her. “He threatened to stupid kill me.”
“Of course he did.” Toini splayed her hands. “You knocked me out cold. If I’d known you’d do that I’d have told him to back off in advance.”
Paivi’s jaw dropped. “What?
“Look.” She took a deep breath. No point getting into an argument about it. That wasn’t why she’d come. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
Paivi sat stock still, mouth wide open, just staring at her. She started to say something, stopped herself, an instead reached for her coffee and took a big gulp.
“You know what? I don’t stupid care.” She set the mug down with a thud, splashing coffee on the table. “You don’t bring guns into my bar, and that’s final. No guns, no knives, no magic. Is that clear?”
Toini lowered her gaze and looked away. She’d forgotten about that. Old habits. Different culture. She’d felt the same back then. It was just one of those things. Everyone did.
It was a different world up here, in the north.
She glanced down at her bag on the chair beside her. “Do you have a safe or something? I can’t leave mine unguarded.”
“You too? Seriously?” Paivi stared at her. “What do you need guns for anyway?”
Toini cleared her throat. “Comes with the job.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m a paladin.”
There, she’d said it. It wasn’t how she’d thought it’d be, but at least she’d said it. Her sister would just have to make of it what she would.
“What?” Eyes wide, Paivi stared at here. “You’re a what?”
“I’m a paladin – paladin of Ek.”
Saying his name always made her feel better. She sat up a little straighter, breathed a little easier. She was what she was, and there was no changing that.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Paivi scoffed at her. “That’s bullshit.”
Toini said nothing. She met her sister’s eyes straight on, and a faint smile tugged at her lips. Confident. Determined. Perhaps a bit smug, but it was sometimes hard not be to when you were the mortal representative of a major god.
“You’re serious…” Doubt. Disbelief. Confusion.
“I’m serious.” Toini nodded. Kept her face straight.
“But…” Paivi stared at her. Her mouth opened and closed. “How did that happen? I mean…”
She paused, swallowed, and blinked a few times. “What happened? I thought…” She sniffled, and rubbed at her nose. “They said…”
And then she stopped talking completely. Her shoulders tensed and her back grew rigid. She closed here eyes and clenched her fists against her lap.
Toini just sat there. Hollow and useless.
Her sister suffered. She could see it. Feel it. Right there in front of her and she should do something to help her. Reach out. Say something. Touch. Care. But she just sat there and did nothing while her sister dealt with her pains alone.
“You stupid died!” Fire burned in Paivi’s eyes, and tears rolled down her cheeks. “I got the stupid letter upstairs! They told me you died!”
“I’m sorry. It’s complicated.” Toini hung her head. Too late to do anything now.
Paivi leaned forward, elbows on her knees – eyes big and pleading. “Please, just tell me. What happened to you?”
Toini swallowed. Not that. She couldn’t do that – not already. She needed time. “How much do you know?” She reached for her coffee, took a deep sip, and stared down into the mug. Black, warm, bitter. “What did the letter say?”
“Uhm…” Paivi sat back in her chair, clasped her hands in her lap, and her gaze drifted off. After a long silence she cleared her throat. “Your ship got shot down somewhere over the jungle.” She paused for a moment. Sniffled once. “There were no survivors.”
“Anything else?” There wasn’t anything else. She’d read the reports.
“No, that’s it. Just…” Paivi swallowed. “Just a lot more words.”
“Okay.” Toini pressed her lips together and nodded. She’d known this would come. Of course her sister would ask – and she had a right to know.
Her shoulders tense, she slowly drained the rest of her coffee and set the mug down on the table.
Paivi looked at her. “Why? Wasn’t that it?
“No. That was it.” Toini squirmed and looked into the fire. “We were shot down.” Flames licked at blackened logs and lumps of coal. She swallowed and tried to keep her thoughts in check. “It was pretty bad.”
Smoke. Heat. Burning flesh.
Toini nodded. She could do this. Stay focused.
Across the table, her sister grabbed the pot and refilled their mugs. Toini’s first, then her own. Slow, measured motions. Not rushing. Not spilling.
Paivi took her time. Paivi understood. Paivi let her baby sister collect her thoughts.
“Thanks.” Toini forced herself to smile and reached for her mug.
Paivi didn’t look – only nodded, just barely.
It was okay. It was in the past now. She’d lived through it.
Toini clasped the mug in her hands and stared down into the coffee. Sometimes she wondered if she really had survived. So much had changed. The woman who’d crashed in the jungle wasn’t the same one who’d come out of it.
She looked at her reflection in the black liquid. How much was the same? What was left of the girl her sister used to know?
Paivi said nothing. Sipped her coffee and waited.
Eventually, Toini set down her mug, clasped her hands in her lap, and cleared her throat. “Most of my crew died in the crash, and the rest in the following days.” Days. Nights. Slowly, cruelly. Lives torn from their bodies. She’d watched. Every single one. Some of them had lasted weeks.
“In the end it was just me left.” She closed her eyes and focused on keeping her breathing steady.
“Oh no. That must have been horrible.”
Toini nodded. She still didn’t know why.
Her squad had been part of the international peace-keeping force, on their way to a village in the jungle to oversee the construction of a medical station. They posed no threat. They knew no secrets. Her captors didn’t even speak a language she knew.
There had been no reason.
“I’m sorry.” Paivi smiled at her. “Go on.”
“I don’t remember much else.” Toini lowered her gaze. She wished. “I caught a fever or something. It’s very hazy. I know I fell…” Knocked to the ground. Pulled up and thrown down again. Stabbed. Beaten. Burned. “I couldn’t get back up.”
“The next I know…”
Strapped to the back of some huge beast. Pain and fever. Unable to move. Unable to scream. Shadows tearing at her skin. A soothing voice that said she would be fine but she never was and the pain didn’t go away and the shadows never stopped screaming.
Toini shrugged, and shook her head. “The next I know I’m in a bed in a temple in the mountains, and there monks looking after me.”
Paivi’s eyes grew wide. “Really? What happened?”
“I’m not sure.” It didn’t matter. Didn’t want to know. “Someone must have helped me.” Didn’t want to think about it. “The monks said they’d found me in their garden one morning.”
More dead than alive. More burns than skin.
“Huh, weird.” Paivi frowned at her. “Is that how you became a paladin?”
“No, not right then. That happened later.” Toini took a deep breath and clenched her jaws. That too was a story she must tell.
“Okay.” Paivi held up her hand and began counting on her fingers. “So you got shot down in the jungle, someone saved you, and then the monks took care of you. Then what?”
“Yeah, that’s about it.” Toini nodded. “I stayed at the temple for a long time. I’d woken up and I could walk around, but I never really got better.” Even then, it had been a good time. Simple. Peaceful. “I could help out in the gardens a little, but only just – no heavy tasks.”
Paivi grinned at her. “You always enjoyed a bit of gardening.”
She had, and the gardens at the temple had been like nothing she’d ever seen before. In a way, the gardens were the temple. The little shrines and buildings were just homages to the wonder and beauty of the life the thrived around them.
A smile tugged at her face. Wonder and beauty indeed. She’d loved that place, despite the pain and the weakness. She’d been happy in those gardens – walking along the paths, sitting in the grass, smelling the flowers and listening to the singing of the birds and the wind whispering in the trees. If she got old enough to retire, she’d return there.
It probably wouldn’t happen, but it was nice to dream.
Across the table, Paivi slurped her coffee.
Toini’s mind jerked back into the present. There was more to tell, and the gardens were far away. She sighed, and her smile faded. “Then, after almost exactly a year I suddenly got worse. It was really bad. I couldn’t move or eat or anything.” Her body stopped listening to her. Became her enemy. Tried to cast her out. “Everything just hurt.”
“What happened?” Paivi looked at her – eyes full of worry.
Toini clenched her fists and swallowed. “Turns out I’d caught some kind of parasite in the jungle after the crash.”
They’d cut her up and planted eggs inside of her. Seared the scars shut with fire and magic.
“I’d carried it inside of me the entire year.” The monks hadn’t noticed. She’d been too scarred for them to see. “That’s why I never got better, and now it wanted out.”
Paivi gasped, and covered her mouth with her hand.
Toini swallowed. She sat up a little straighter, smoothed out her face – shut out all emotions. “It was eating me alive from the inside.” Maggots. Slithering within. Burrowing through flesh. Writhing under her skin. She’d tried to scream, and her throat had filled with them.
She clenched her fists. Pushed them against her lap. Pressed her jaws together closed her eyes breathed faster. She held her mental shields up and kept the mindless howling at bay. She couldn’t break now.
Sweat broke out on her forehead. Couldn’t.
“I’ve never hurt so much.”
“What happened?” Paivi stared at her, eyes wide and hands pressed to her face. “How did you make it?”
“Ek saved me.” Just saying the name helped. The terror faded. Muscles relaxed.
He always listened.
Toini nodded. “The monks found a glowing seed in the center of the gardens.”
Flames of life. Warm light playing on the walls of her chamber. The seed’s glow cast no shadow – shone through the monks standing vigil around her bed. It danced for her alone. Sang to her of life. Held her soul while her body died.
“The elder said it was a sign, so she made a hole and planted the seed inside of me.”
Plunged a knife into her belly and slit her open. Shoved the seed inside and screamed for everyone to stand back. There hadn’t been time for anything else.
“What?” Paivi gasped.
“Right here.” Toini poked herself in the side – on the right, just below the ribs.
“Wow! Did it work?”
“Yes.” She nodded, and her face turned serious again. “Without it, I’d be dead.”
“That’s amazing.” Paivi stared at her with wonder in her eyes.
“Yeah.” She cast down her eyes. “It’s in the records as a miracle.”
Paivi raised her eyebrows. “Heh, no shit.” She grabbed her mug and drank.
Toini leaned back in her chair. “That’s not all though.” She let a smug grin play on her face. This would be good. “The seed took root and sprouted.”
“What?” Paivi’s head jerked up and she nearly splashed coffee all over herself.
“See this?” Toini lifted her hand to her face, and ran her fingers over the vines on her right cheek. “It’s not a tattoo.”
“Say what?” Eyes wide, Paivi stared at her.
“Yeah.” Her cheeks warmed with pride. Finally she’d managed to impress Paivi on her sister’s own terms – with something she knew. “It looks like one, but it all grew out of the scar left from when Cherry cut me open.” She reached for her mug. “It even changes with the seasons.”
“Cherry?” Her sister frowned at her.
“The elder monk.” Toini smiled and sipped her coffee. “Her name was Cherry.”
“It was she who convinced me Ek had chosen me for his paladin.”
The birds and the trees and the entire garden had chimed in too, but it had been Cherry who’d laid out the details and performed the consecration.
Paivi nodded, and stared down into her coffee.
“She’d had her suspicions, apparently, but the seed taking root sealed the deal for her.”
“Wow.” Paivi sloshed the coffee around in her mug, and then she looked up with a stiff smile on her lips. “So you became a paladin the old-fashioned way.”
“Yep.” Grinning wide she straightened up and planted her fists on her side. “Toini – paladin of Ek. That’s me.” She puffed out her chest and did her best mock-serious face.
Paivi smiled back, and her face relaxed a little. “That’s amazing.”
Toini blushed, and hid her face behind mug.
“I mean…” Paivi hesitated for a moment. “It is really cool and all, but who’s Ek?”
A groan escaped her before she could stop herself. “Paivi…”
“Well I’m sorry, your holiness.” Paivi glared at her. “I’ve got a pub to run and I don’t have time to keep track of the whole stupid pantheon.” She drained what was left of her coffee and sat her mug down on the table. “I pay my church tax and that’s it.”
Toini sighed. Of course her sister wouldn’t know. It wasn’t her world. She should have thought of that. “Ek is a class A good. His aspects are life and nature.”
“Never heard of him.” Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. “Is that why you look like such a hippie?”
“What? What’s wrong with how I look?”
Out in the main room of the pub the bell on the door jingled, and a gust of wind from the street rushed in and made the candles flicker. Hinges whined and eventually a dull thudd signaled the door had closed.
A moment later Raoul appeared in the doorway of the snug.