I woke from dream to dream. My nightmares of fallen friends had proven cold company in the dark night, but as I stumbled out of the inn and into the bright morning sun, brilliant hues sparkled off the ice-coated branches of small trees skirting the edge of the road. Every mood of the rainbow manifested itself in the tiny reflections of melting ice, and it seemed all too surreal, as if the trees had found themselves finery to wear. And what, I thought moodily, would be the occasion? These jewels were too happy for the funeral that befit our circumstances.
Carefully removing my coat for a moment, I acknowledged my own injuries. My left arm had been sliced and was now wrapped in cloth bandages, and my thumb, which had suffered a smaller cut, had scabbed over after having had a salve applied to it. Besides that, I had only fatigue and soreness. I had been given my own very simple room and bed to sleep in last night, and I'd felt quite lonely, my thoughts unable to be torn away from Dechar... and all those who had already died on my account. Their faces had haunted my sleep, and I had indeed slept, for the exhaustion that came of travel and torment had prevailed.
And though I had slept, I felt no rest. What was I to do now? I remembered my combat training Keon had promised me, the reason I had remained with the bandits in the first place. I needed to drown myself in it, I decided; it was a worthy distraction that would perhaps give me the strength to fight on for a season. And what of seasons? Winter wouldn't last forever, and spring would bring new hope, or so they always said. I remembered Ghillie Dhu and his obsession with seasons. But my encounter with the faerie and my childhood itself seemed long gone, buried in the snow, and perhaps not even the passage of time could melt it out again.
In the midst of my ruminations, I looked around for Keon, familiarizing myself with the strange territory as I searched. Were it not for the hope of being reunited with Dechar, I realized, I wouldn't even have wanted to get out of bed again, but at least I had a new city to explore. I liked cities and their unfamiliarity, and they were excellent distractions. This one seemed much quieter than Stromton, I'd noticed, or at least at this time of morning.
Sekerheim was covered in a thin layer of snow and ice, and the stones that formed the streets and alleyways were a bit slippery. Looking back, I observed the sign above the door of the inn once more. Above the embellished lettering that spelled 'The Crabbit Rabbit' was a carved out illustration of the very cross-looking face of a white rabbit with blazing red eyes. Were I in a different mood, it might have seemed comical. Most of the buildings lining the streets I surveyed looked much the same, all of them made of timber and formed very humbly.
The city's residents, as to be expected, were much more colorful. There were elves, humans, and even a few dwarves walking about, doing whatever sort of business one does when one belongs to a city of outlaws. They took turns glaring at me with an expression that seemed one part curiosity and the other ill-intent. I paid them little mind, as I was growing accustomed to this sort of treatment from those marauders I'd already encountered. I certainly dared not ask directions, though.
After a little more searching, I finally happened upon Keon.
"Oliana!" he shouted. "Come over here. Meet Carlena." I walked closer toward the corner where he was and nodded at a slender Alfarian woman of middle age. I couldn't quite muster a smile for her. Her skin was a lighter blue than many of the other elves I had encountered, but she still bore the classic characteristics of the Alfar with her pointed ears, sharp features, and blackish hair. Her irises were pale, as was the case of her entire race, but while Orlo's were very light green, hers were pastel cyan in hue. Something about those eyes and the command of her general heir suggested that she was a very wise and prudent sort before she even spoke a word.
"You killed the beast that did this?" She shifted her gaze from my eyes downward to Orlo, who laid very still, his body bundled up on the sled and his eyes still closed.
"Yes. Yes, but it was far too late," I averted my gaze to the snow-covered ground and was surprised to feel Keon's reassuring hand on my shoulder.
"Had you simply followed my plans, we might've all perished in those depths," he said. "You were brilliant, dear." His voice still cracked under the pain of mourning for his fallen companions.
"A frost giant's no easy thing to kill," Carlena added in a guttural accent, and it finally registered that she spoke in my language.
"I've never been able to have an actual conversation with an Alfarian before," I remarked. "Where did you learn?"
Carlena smiled. "Sekerheim is quite a mixed group," she said. "If you live here as long as I have, you're bound to pick up another language or two. Why not? Keeps the mind sharp. Even Orlo knows more than he lets on."
"Really?" I looked at Keon inquisitively.
Keon smirked. "He claims, along with most of our compatriots, that he doesn't ever want to learn the language of the kingdom that destroyed his home, but he can recognize a word here and there, despite his best efforts not to."
"How is he doing? Will he fully recover?" I asked.
"Certainly," said Carlena, "but it will take some time. I expect him to wake within the week, but his strength will recover much slower. He will likely suffer from headaches for a while. It could be a month before he can go back to his work."
"A month?" I asked Keon. "Surely we won't be staying here a month."
He shrugged, and bitter tension rose in his voice. "What, have you got someplace else to be? Dechar will have to find you, not the other way around. Isn't that what your lady of fortune told you? Or did that letter of yours say something different? We brought back plenty of supplies, so it shouldn't be an issue to wait things out a bit. More time for you to teach me and me to train you, yes?"
"You don't have to be so hard about it," I snapped. The letter comment had been especially sharp in my mind. I wasn't ready to tell him about its actual content.
"Sorry," Keon apologized, to my surprise. "I'm just uneasy about the old elf."
"Don't be," Carlena said, and her eyes glinted with confidence. "It's a fortunate thing you brought the horns of the giant. The bone meal helps with minor stomach issues, but its marrow can be used as an ingredient in a more powerful healing elixir. I'll use some in the latter stages of healing Orlo, and I'll happily accept the rest as payment for my service. You know how much Orlo has done for this city, and it's the least I can do to nurse him back to health. Head injuries like this, though, will always take time."
"Are medicine men and women commonplace in the realm? I've never met one before," I commented, swallowinag a lump in the back of my throat. My mind was still on Gillireth's letter, but I was trying desperately to distract myself with the situation again.
"Apothecaries and the like may be found in any city, but my methods are less orthodox... and, sometimes, illegal. Many people prefer to leave magic out of my profession, you see. Too much talk of dangerous curses and the like. It's all rubbish as far as my actions are concerned, of course."
"Hence, your presence in Sekerheim," I nodded.
"Precisely. And then there's of course the simple fact that Alfar aren't allowed in these parts." She hesitated and looked me straight in the eye. "I think you'll find that outlaws aren't always what you'd call bad people, or at least not in a corrupted kingdom like Eirethstead." She paused a moment, then turned to Keon thoughtfully. "Why don't you show Oliana around a bit? I'll be sure to let you know when Orlo awakes. And do let the others in your troupe know that I'd be glad to treat any injuries they have."
"Right, then," Keon hesitantly stepped off with me in tow. Most of my curiosity had been stifled by misfortune, but there was still a part of me that was excited to meet more of these strange people. It seemed I would have to learn to endure their company for an entire month, after all. If only Dechar knew where I was now.