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Chapter 2 - Part 1: A Borderland Friend

This was my first NANOWRIMO - an attempt to write novel draft in  a month. It is rough in many ways, and I'm not sure I knew where I was going, but I still remember it fondly and would like to overhaul it someday. The idea began in my mind with images of a smoke-colored cat in rust-red autumn leaves, a snow white cat curled around a heart of shining cut glass in a palace tower, and the empty-eyed queen to whom the heart belonged...

Chapter 2 - Part 1: A Borderland Friend

Chapter 2 - Part 1: A Borderland Friend
“You’re lonely.” That was the first thing the stranger said, straight after setting foot out her front door. She said it like an accusation. Elise and Master Rol had traveled all morning since before Elise’s normal wake-up time to get to her, and the first thing out of her mouth was “You’re lonely.” Elise personally thought her quite silly for it. She was sweaty and tired and very annoyed that Master Rol did not believe her about where home was, and she wanted to be with her mom eating scrambled eggs and toast, but she was not lonely. Then again, the woman was looking at Master Rol, not at Elise.

Master Rol ducked her a quick, nimble bow.

“Maybe,” he said, “I did want to see your face, Lady. But I also need help. For the girl.”

The woman looked Elise up and down, making her feel as if she was a flower being pulled apart for a microscope. Then her face cleared. Whatever she had been looking for wasn’t there, and she seemed glad of it.
“What’s the child’s trouble, Master?” The woman enquired. “No,” she said when he opened his mouth, “let’s not talk out here. You two come inside. Have a drink. Have some bread.” She opened the door wider and bustled in. “It’s none of the finest, near a week since last baking day, but come on in and we’ll do what we can, shan’t we?”

            The inside of her house was small—as small, maybe, as Elise’s family’s kitchen—but it was cozy. There was a fireplace in one wall, and a shelf with a basin running along another wall beneath a diamond-paned window. A large wooden chest sat in front of a green curtain drawn across the far side of the room. The ceiling was bare up to its rough hewn rafters, but the rafters dangled with a Christmas’s worth of bright colors in the way of vegetables and herbs. The planking of the floors was patched over by rag rugs. Unlit candles stood and hung in odd corners. Elise was reminded vaguely of a pioneer cabin she had been to once with her aunt, and of pictures in a fairytale book. She thought that if she didn’t have the sort of house she had now, then this sort of house might not be a bad one in which to live. The woman crouched down and pulled aside a piece of the floor, and descended into the dark hole below. She emerged with a bowl, two rolls, and a jug.

            “Come now,” she said, setting them on the table, “eat up. When you’re through, Master Rol, you can tell me what this is that you’ll be needing my help for so badly.”

            “Thank you kindly, Mistress Mairenn,” Rol said with a gleaming smile, and pulled out a seat for Elise before settling down himself. Then he placed a finger next to his eye, closed his eyes, and softly rattled off something in a language Elise didn’t know. The only word she could remember afterwards sounded something like “illion.” It took her a moment to realize what he was doing, and by the time she’d blinked her eyes shut he was almost through.

            When she bit into it, the bread was harder than the stuff at home. It seemed gritty to her tongue. But it also tasted sweeter, and when she was through with her roll she felt more full than she had expected to be. Master Rol was still eating when her last crumbs were gone. He saw her eyeing him and raised his eyebrows.

            “Mistress Mairenn’s bread is fine stuff, as usual,” he said. “It’s seldom I can get such as this or any grain at all on the patrol. …My thanks, again!” He called to the cook, who was rummaging for something in the wooden chest by the curtain.

            “It is a pleasure to have guests beneath this roof,” she called back. Elise wondered how long the warden and the lady had known each other, and whether she lived all by herself or if her family was out somewhere just now. She wasn’t sure it would be alright to ask.

            “You first,” Master Rol told her, passing her the jug. She eyed it in some dismay.

            “Where are the cups?” She asked, perhaps too loudly.

            “Why do we need those?” He asked, and grimaced. “Child, Elise, here is water, you will need it. Drink, now.”

            She shrank, embarrassed. Apparently she’d done something wrong.

            “Yes, sir,” she said, sat up straighter in her chair, and tilted the thing cautiously towards herself. She gulped a few times, spilled on herself trying to right the pitcher, and looked nervously up at Master Rol. He, however, had his attention directed elsewhere, to a bit of shaped metal in his hands. Hastily he shoved it into a pouch at his side as she pushed the pitcher across the table towards him.

            “Thank you,” he said.

            “Here we are,” crowed Mistress Mairenn, appearing with a bundle wrapped in rough brown cloth and twine. “And there you are, finished and ready to talk I take is, Master?” Master Rol nodded, and looked at the bundle with what might have been amusement.

                        “You’ve already placed the need as being a lost child sort of a case then, have you.” The mistress nodded genially, unwinding the twine. “Well, you’re not quite right,” Master Rol said. She paused a moment. “The girl says she isn’t lost. She also says she’s from across the Edge.” As he said that, the woman’s fingers lifted off of her package altogether.

                        “Is it a case for a healer or for a soul-herd, then?” She asked solemnly. Master Rol seemed to consider for a moment.

                        “For a healer, it may be,” he said, “but if the child’s shadowed she hides it cleverly. Tem of Heart needn’t be bothered for her.”

                        “Though you’ll bother a biddy like me with your worries,” Mistress Mairenn said.

                        “Mairenn”—he said, and stopped, checking himself, “Mistress Mairenn, treat this case as if she were merely lost, if you will. I don’t know what strangeness has come in her. I’m just a Warden, a guard. I need to hand her to her folk as soon as ever I can if I’m to get back to my place.”

                        “I know where I’m from! I’m not lost!” Elise cut in frantically. “I’m from home. Maple Lane, across the field. What’s wrong with you?”

                        Master Rol gave their hostess a warning look, but Mistress Mairenn plunged ahead.

                        “She may as well hear it now, warden. Somebody’s got to tell her how it is. Now listen, child. You just can’t be from across the field. Nothing lives there—nothing good—it’s all a-prowl with shadows and such, which is why we need men like the Warden. Nobody’s gone past the Edge and come back into our place alive.”

                        Elise’s mouth hung open, then clamped tightly shut, and she gave her head a hard shake.

                        “You’re lying! I’m going home!” she screamed, and she made a mad dash for the cottage door.

                        Whatever the warden and the border-woman thought of her then, who can fault her, now? They had said her land was a danger or a nothing. Any of us would have done the same. All the same, this complicated matters.

                        “I’ll go for her,” Master Rol growled, “whatever she is, we can’t let her out alone.”

                        “Do you really think the child would go back to the Edge?” Mistress Mairenn asked. Master Rol didn’t answer.
                        Tired. Hot. Dizzy. Afraid. Elise was all of this and more, and it was a bare few minutes she’d been running. She thought of leaves tossed in the air like fairies or butterflies, fluttering down in red and yellow, orange and brown. She thought of her mother outlined by the back door, and she angrily thought of a yellow-eyed cat. How could anything so small and warm have spoiled everything so badly?

                        “Elise!” A voice roared out hoarse and frantic behind her. “Stop, child!”

                        She didn’t.

                        Her feet thumped faster across the ground. She tripped on a twisted root and lay winded, crying in frustration.

                        “Child, child,” the warden gasped as he neared her, “Please don’t run from us. I can’t… I can’t let them take you, too. I… You’ll be safe, girl. Safe with us for now.” He eased himself down next to her and picked her us like a rag doll.

                        “Home… would be… safe…” Elise whispered.

                        “I’ll find your home and your folk, Elise, even if you are an outlander as you say. I’ll spy across the field for you if it’ll bring you to your sense.” The girl looked him in the eye.

                        “You’ll go across the field for me?” she asked. “You promise?”

                        Master Rol hesitated. This was the moment, wasn’t it? If he gave his word to her, he was bound. He saw himself lost in an endless sea of golden stalks, or perhaps in a strange, stark land being eaten up by shadows. No one knew exactly what happened past the Edge, because no one had ever come back. But there was the girl, and her odd clothes, and where he had found her. She did not look or smell of the shadow taken, that much he knew. He bowed his head, resigned. High One protect him.

                        “I will go,” he said. “If I do not return, stay with Mistress Mairenn and let her scry for your home on our side of the borders.” As soon as it was out of his mouth, he knew he was a fool, but the child relaxed in his arms.

                        “Thanks so much,” she said. “Tell Mommy I didn’t mean to run away.”


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