The leafling looked forlornly out from her prison, long spindly fingers beating a sad tattoo against the bars of her cage. The cage was a beautiful, ornate affair, two levels high and heavily decorated with scrolling metal leaves and flowers. But it was still a cage.
Gwin sat looking at the sad creature while she waited for Vanth to arrive. She had a child’s face with bright eyes and a tiny snub nose. Her wings were veined and pointed like young, green leaves, although they wilted sadly against her back. The leafling gazed back at Gwin, lifting a tentative hand to her fingertip when she pressed it against the bars.
“Hello, little one,” Gwin whispered. “How did you end up in this dreadful place?”
The creature simply sighed. In her woodland home, the grass-green sprite would have been almost impossible to catch, blending in with the moss and leaves of the trees. Gwin wondered how it had been accomplished. She realised the leafling had probably been lured into a trap and bristled at the prospect.
Her reverie was disturbed by the appearance of the tavern keeper. The large man wore a grubby apron and was sweating at his temples.
“Your food, Miss,” he said, placing a battered metal dish on the table in front of her. “Best I could do, anyway.”
“Thank you,” Gwin said. “I’m sure it will be fine.” She appraised the two badly bruised apples and softening pear with a sinking feeling, but smiled politely as the tavern keeper moved away. Gwin took up the knife laid next to her plate and cut a slice of apple, discreetly lifting it to the cage and offering it to the leafling between the bars. The creature shook her head and slunk away into a corner.
“What in Thetia’s name are you eating?”
Gwin looked up, startled, to find Vanth standing over her table. “It’s an apple.”
“I know what an apple is, but why are you eating one here? This is strictly a meat and bread place. I’m astonished Bryce was able to scrounge up anything as exotic as fruit.” Vanth laughed, sitting down on the opposite side of the table.
“Is fruit a luxury in Armoria?”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Oh.” Gwin nibbled the corner of her apple slice and wrinkled her face at its rancid taste. She slowly put it back down on her plate before reaching for a cup of water. “I believe I should have ordered bread.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the pork,” Vanth said. “Bryce salts it himself.” She turned towards the tavern keeper stationed behind the bar. “Bryce, how about some lunch?”
“Of course, Vanth.” The man disappeared into what Gwin assumed was a kitchen.
An uncomfortable silence descended while they waited for his return. Gwin did not want to stare at Vanth but she could feel the other woman looking at her, taking in her every detail with those dark, knowing eyes. Finally, Bryce reappeared with a steaming plate of pork and a hunk of rough-looking bread.
“This smells wonderful, as usual,” Vanth said. Bryce nodded before returning to his station behind the bar.
Gwin thought the plate smelt awful. The fatty aroma pricked her nose and filled the back of her throat with bile. She swallowed, embarrassed when she noticed Vanth was staring at her again. Her disgust must have been obvious. “My people don’t eat meat,” she explained.
“Is that so?” Vanth said, placing a large forkful of pork in her mouth. Her eyes remained fixed on Gwin’s face.
“I imagine you have many questions,” Gwin said, gently pushing her own plate away.
“You imagine correctly.”
Gwin flinched. She hadn’t been prepared to be made to feel this uncomfortable. “Please ask,” she said. “I promise to answer truthfully. You saw the magick hidden in my music, I have nothing to hide from you.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Vanth said. “What did I see?”
“It isn’t what you saw that matters. The fact that you saw it at all, that is what’s important.” Gwin sighed when she saw Vanth’s eyes narrow. “I don’t mean to be unclear,” she said. “Maybe I should begin with the purpose of my journey?”
Vanth swallowed another mouthful of pork. “Go on.”
“I am not what I appear to be, or whom I appear to be. I’m certainly not from Jonick. I travelled here from The Wastes. My people are the Asrai.” The leafling fluttered beside her, thin wings rustling against the bars of the cage. Gwin pretended to ignore it. “I am one of many Asrai who were sent out into Joria in order to find others like ourselves. To find changelings.”
“There’s an enclave of changelings hiding in The Wastes?” Vanth sounded sceptical.
“You misunderstand. We’re not changelings and we’re certainly not hiding. We do share blood with your changelings, though. You could say we are distantly related.”
“I’ve never been to The Wastes,” Vanth said, “but I’ve heard many stories. People say it’s a barren place. A land of ice that stretches for many hundreds of miles towards the sea. I find it hard to believe anyone could live there.”
“We are creatures of the ice,” Gwin replied. She glanced down at Vanth’s arm resting on the table and with a sudden flash of inspiration, grasped it, gripping it tighter when she tried to pull away.
“What are you doing?” Vanth demanded.
Before the Salt Sword could reach for a weapon, Gwin summoned the ice that slept within her, letting it flow through her arm and into her hand. It froze the warm spot where she was touching Vanth so swiftly, icy smoke curled from beneath her fingers. Vanth gasped and tried twisting her arm free, using her other hand to attempt to pry Gwin’s fingers loose. Gwin only let the bitter chill of her touch linger for a moment. She pulled it back inside herself as she released Vanth’s arm. Any longer and Vanth would have been damaged beyond repair.
“The marks will fade,” Gwin said, assessing the arm Vanth was now cradling to her chest. A faint outline of her fingers remained on the woman’s forearm, rimed with blue frost. “I apologise, but you thought I was lying. I had to prove to you I wasn’t.”
Vanth’s face was dark with anger. Gwin noticed she was bracing herself against the table in an effort to control her barely perceptible shaking. “Don’t ever touch me again,” she snarled.
“I truly am sorry,” Gwin said. She clasped her hands together in her lap. This wasn’t going well at all.
“The panflute,” Vanth said through gritted teeth.
“Tell me about the sodding panflute.”
Gwin nodded, eager to move the conversation on. “Each Asrai journeying through Joria carries a similar panflute. They were crafted by our elders, made to look plain and unremarkable so as to draw the least attention. We were instructed to play in taverns and public places, anywhere those with Asrai heritage might gather. Only those we seek are able to see the magick conjured by the music. Ordinary Jorians remain unaware and hear nothing but a pretty song.”
“Why would you need a magick panflute to find changlings? You need only look at their hair and their wild eyes to see what they are.”
“That’s true,” Gwin agreed. “I want them to see me though, to come to me. All the moon-blessed who heard me play last night will seek me out.”
“Then what will you do with them? Form a panflutist’s guild?”
Vanth did not reply. She sat still for a long time, her gaze fixed on the table. Gwin could see she was piecing together her story, turning the details over in her head. She suddenly sat up straight, her eyes wide. “You came here to play your spelled panflute and lure changelings to your side, but I saw that bird flying over Midnight Square and I’m no sodding changeling. Surely this is all some trick?” Gwin noticed Vanth’s hand sliding towards the daggers holstered on her belt.
“You have the sight though, do you not?”
Vanth shook her head, the merest hint of panic flashing across her features. “Everyone sees strange things sometimes. Out in the Scratlands, in the forest.”
Gwin watched in dismay as Vanth’s demeanour changed, her face becoming hard once more. She leapt to her feet, chair crashing to the floor behind her, and leaned across the table, a deftly drawn dagger angled towards Gwin’s chest.
“How do I know I can trust you?” the Salt Sword demanded. “How do I know you’re not working for Dewer? Have you been sent to test me? To learn how insane Vanth the Vile really is so you can go scurrying back to your master with your report? I can’t have you doing that, I’ll slit your pretty throat right here.”
Gwin sat back in her chair, her eyes darting to the other patrons. They were suddenly exceedingly interested in their drinks.
“They won’t help you,” Vanth said. She turned around to address the three lone customers, all sitting at different tables. “Get out of here,” she shouted at them. “And if I hear any of you gossiping about this, you’ll be ending your days in the Pit.” There was a hurried scraping of chairs on stone as the three men rose wordlessly and quickly headed for the door. Even Bryce disappeared into the back room behind the bar.
Gwin could feel the necklace at her throat begin to grow warm, trembling with a vibration that made her shiver. “Please calm down,” she implored. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I’ve spilt the blood of many a maid, I know what I’m doing.”
“No, you don’t understand.”
Gwin desperately groped for the right words to win Vanth’s trust but to her horror, the eye in her necklace was already opening. The pendant was usually unremarkable. Gwin knew Vanth’s Salt Sword training meant she noticed details that others would not, but even she had failed to study the necklace or comment on it. When dormant, it was a grey pewter disk, subtly engraved with a sleeping eye. Now the eye had woken. Vanth paused when it snapped to life, taking a step back from the table. It was suffused with a silvery light that made it appear to glow. The lone purple eye slowly blinked and began to rove the room, finally locking on Vanth who gaped in horror.
“What is that thing?” she breathed, holding her daggers so tightly her knuckles were white.
“It’s spelled to protect me,” Gwin said, afraid to move or talk too loudly lest the trembling power contained in the pendant break free. “Please sit back down, Vanth. If it perceives you as a threat, it will hurt you. It might even kill you. I had a trouble-free journey to Armoria, I’ve yet to see the eye awaken. I’m unsure how far spread the destruction will be if it’s set loose.”
Slowly, Vanth slid the daggers back into her belt and reached down for the chair lying on the flagstones behind her. She set it right and sat down. Her movements were careful and precise, as though she was negotiating her way past a particularly angry snake. The two women watched each other across the table, their quickened hearts beating as one until finally, the pendant’s light dimmed and the eye closed once more, fading back into dark pewter. They each let out a long breath.
“That’s sky magick,” Vanth hissed. “I’m breaking my Salt Sword oath by allowing you to wield that.”
“The Asrai do not recognise Lord Dewer’s laws,” Gwin replied. “It is wrong for your druids to control the use of magick.”
“Is that so?” Vanth took several deep breaths, still trying to compose herself.
“I have very little control over the eye awakening,” Gwin continued in a rush, hating to have alienated the Salt Sword even further. “It was designed to be a last desperate measure, only to be used if my life was in danger. It has been centuries since my people have ventured so far from their lands.” Gwin smiled. “Perhaps the elders were overprotective.”
“Maybe next time you should leave the bloody thing at home.”
“There will be a next time?” Gwin asked hopefully. “Does that mean you will meet with me again?”
“That depends,” Vanth said. “You still haven’t told me why your people are seeking out changelings. What do you intend to do with them when you find them?”
Gwin almost laughed, she had thought her plans were obvious. “We need help to challenge Lord Dewer, of course.” She was surprised to see Vanth shake her head in disbelief.
“You know I am a Salt Sword, sworn to protect Lord Dewer and his city. What in Thetia’s name makes you think I would betray him and join your foolish campaign? What makes you think I would even allow it to continue?”
“But you saw the bird,” Gwin stuttered. “You are one with us. How can you bear to watch Dewer summon his vile demons and do nothing?” Gwin watched Vanth’s face as it twisted into an incredulous sneer. Tears sprang to her eyes. No wonder Vanth had accused her of lying, she had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. The Salt Sword must think her insane. “Do you know what he has his druids do? The terrible creatures he has raised from below?” she pressed.
“No, I do not. I’m fairly certain if there was a horde of demonic creatures rampaging through the city, it would have drawn my attention.”
“I’ve seen one of Dewer’s abominations for myself,” Gwin insisted. “They are attracted to magick and to those who wield it. The druids know how to protect themselves but my people were ignorant of what has been happening beneath Armoria. We have spent too many centuries in seclusion and were unprepared when the creature attacked. The ice was stained with our blood.” Gwin faltered, fighting to collect herself. “It was stained with my brother’s blood. With my mother’s.”
Vanth seemed unmoved. “If that is true, it is a terrible tragedy and I’m truly sorry for your people, but why do you think Lord Dewer was responsible?”
“We have ways of divining truth when we need to know it. Our seers spent many weeks drawing down the power required to show us the reason for our slaughter. They were exhausted by the end and many of them died in the attempt, weakening our numbers further, but they saw the truth eventually, illuminated by the great lights that blaze in the sky above the ice. They saw Lord Dewer there, surrounded by an army of wretched monsters. We can only imagine he plots to rule all of Joria. We cannot allow that. We cannot allow such reckless use of sky magick to remain unchecked. These beasts do not belong in our world.”
Gwin waited, trying to gauge Vanth’s reaction. Her expression was blank but her eyes flashed as if she were arguing with herself.
“Will you help me?” Gwin eventually pleaded, the silence becoming too heavy to bear. “You are positioned close to Lord Dewer, you would be a great asset in determining what his plans are.”
Vanth stood. “I won’t help you,” she said, her voice so low it was almost a growl. “I don’t want to see you again. If I do, I will arrest you and you will spend the rest of your days in a cell below sea level. That is if Lord Dewer is merciful.” She turned and strode from the tavern without a backward glance.
Gwin slumped in her seat, feeling exhausted. To her right, the leafling began rapping lightly on the bars of her cage once more, reminding Gwin of her presence. She turned and regarded the tiny creature.
“That was not the reaction I was hoping for,” she confided. The leafling stared at her with large, mournful eyes, as though empathising with her. Gwin thought of her brother, pushing past the immediate image of his broken body lying in the snow. She thought instead about how bravely he had fought that day, how selflessly he had thrown himself into the fray in a desperate attempt to protect his family. Gwin was still alive because of him.
“My brother would not have given up after one setback,” she whispered to the leafling. The leafling nodded in understanding. “He would also have hated to see you in this cage.”
Glancing around the room to make sure she was still alone, Gwin quickly flipped open the latch on the cage and held her hand out for the leafling to step on to. The creature looked unsure, as if afraid Gwin was playing a trick on her.
“Come on, little one,” Gwin encouraged. “You are not their pet, you shouldn’t be in a cage.” The leafling edged out of the open door, tentatively stepping on to Gwin’s hand and holding on to her thumb. “We shall find our way together,” Gwin promised, opening her cloak and guiding the leafling to an inside pocket. The sprite grinned up at her, her two hands holding the top of the pocket and only her light green head poking out. Gwin smiled back before exiting the tavern, grateful to feel the breeze blowing in from the waterfront after the near claustrophobic gloom of The Leafling’s Half.
A single pair of eyes followed Gwin from the tavern, shrouded in a deep hood. The changeling leaned forward from the shadowy corner where she had remained undetected throughout Vanth and Gwin’s entire discussion. She watched Gwin through a window as she made her way back along the sea wall towards the city. Finally satisfied that she was gone, the woman slipped out from behind a table and wrapped her cloak more tightly about herself, pulling the hood firmly down over her face to hide her prominent birthmark. A clatter from the backroom announced Bryce’s imminent return and the changeling hurried for the door, wishing to keep her secrets to herself.