9.28.2017

Stained Pt. 2

Erin returned quickly enough that I figured she must have dog-trotted through the complex to the med quarters, where Sully slept.  The man in question looked remarkably well put-together for such an early visit, but then I realized that he would have been up before dawn.

“What is it?” He asked, all brisk business in his role as Councilman.   I squashed a memory of him as a gap-toothed, skinned-knee kid asking me if he could touch my gun.  He was Sulaiman to the people of the complex, not Sully.  Which is why I was always careful to keep that nickname to myself.

“I want to take a closer look at that zombie out there,” I said, and gave Erin a look that indicated she should offer up her rifle so Sully could take a closer look.  She did so, and so did he.

“Those marks aren’t natural,” he said, almost immediately.

“Nothing about zombies is natural,” I grinned, and he looked at me long enough to roll his eyes.

“I mean they’re not indicative of any disease I’ve studied, nor do they look like any sort of organism that might grow on decaying flesh.”

“So you’re saying I can catch it?”

He gave me an appalled look.  “Catch it?  No, I’m absolutely not saying that.  I’m saying we can shoot it in the head and you can study the remains in the field, should you so desire.”

“There are markings on the head,” I protested.  “I want to look at them first, maybe do some sketches, and then I’ll put it down, promise.”

“Absolutely not.  We’re not taking a chance like that for something as puerile as curiosity.”

I arched a brow at him and said, “Erin, will you give us a moment?”  Eyes wide, she nodded and carefully traced her steps back towards the stairs.

“Since when is curiosity puerile?” I hissed as soon as I was sure she was out of earshot.  “Your father would turn in his grave to hear you spout such anti-intellectual bullshit.”

Sully’s face flushed.  “I didn’t intend-”

“I don’t care what you did or didn’t intend.  I’m older and meaner than you, and I’m just as familiar with the risk of a live zombie, even one that’s obviously starving and half-frozen.  I won’t bring it inside the walls, but I want to take a closer look at it before I blow the back of it’s head off.  Which I will.  You know I will, Sully.”

Sully looked away.  He did indeed know I would.  Anyone who could put down their own newly-infected best friend wasn’t going to hesitate to put down a stranger’s corpse- not even an intriguing, mark-covered stranger.  He stared out at the zombie and sighed.

“The rest of the Council-”

“The rest of the Council is also younger and less mean than I am,” I countered.  “And they aren’t here.  I only asked for your input- your input, mind you, not your permission- because you’re better with disease than I am.  You confirmed that it’s not diseased, and that’s all I needed.  But then you had to tell me ‘no’ in front of a youngling.  And what did I always tell you about giving orders?”

“Not to give ones you know won’t be obeyed,” he said grudgingly.

“Right.  Now, I’ll forgive your momentary lapse of judgment because you’re young yet,” Sully snorted at this, as well he should: 55 was considered well-seasoned in this cruel new world of ours.  “But we need to call Erin back up here so you can publicly give me the permission that I don’t actually need.”

“You’re a pain in my ass, old-timer, you know that?” He muttered.  I smiled.

“Well maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll bite me.”

Sully shuddered.  “Don’t say that.  Not even in jest.  If you turned so close-”

I placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.  “Sully, if it bites me, I’ll blow my own head off before any of the rest of you can blink.  I swear it on your father’s grave.”

9.26.2017

Stained

I haven't had much time to write lately (more on that in a few days) but this evening I found myself with a spare hour, and feeling giddy with the possibility of it all.  I had a little story seed hit me in the head this afternoon, so I wrote it out, and started poking it with a stick to see what might come of it.

This is the beginning of it, with more percolating in my brain as I type (but I need to get to bed):

***

There aren’t many zombies left these days, but we keep patrol, regardless.  After all, it only takes one, and enough of us of us are old enough to remember what it was like during the First Panic to not want to take any chances, impassable walls or not.  Every day, every night, high summer or dead winter, five of us stand sentry, one on each wall, and we look out across the landscape for any signs of movement.  Sometimes we see something- and usually it’s a perfectly living nomad, sometimes a peddler, or even a caravan.  Very, very occasionally, it’s a zombie, usually moving pretty slowly by that point.  We let it get close, just to make sure it’s not leading anything else in (and, honestly, to make disposable a bit easier), and then we snipe it.  Usually two of us take the shot.  Some might call that a waste of bullets, but I say it pays to be sure.  Plus back when we only did one shot, we always knew exactly who killed it.  Which was fine until the day Pietor discovered he’d killed his long-missing sister.  What was left of her, anyway.  Yeah, we all know intellectually that zombies aren’t the people whose bodies they animate, but hearts don’t always care what brains know, and nightmares rarely consult the forebrain.

Anyway I was on the northeast wall, stomping my feet to ward off the cold and mentally encouraging dawn- and my replacement- to hurry up, when I caught sight of a flutter out on the horizon.  In a way the northeast wall is one of the easiest to patrol, because there’s nothing in that direction, just flat land as far as the eye can see.  To the northwest is similar, except there’s a lake to take into consideration.  West holds more lake, east  gets the rolling hills, and of course to the south is the forest.  In the early days we always had three people patrolling the south wall, because the forest likes to play tricks.

I squinted and leaned out over the parapet, not entirely certain it hadn’t been a low-flying bat.  The sky was lightening by that point, and whatever it was remained a black smudge against the blue ink of the horizon.  Not a swooping bat, then.  I hefted my rifle up to my shoulder so I could use the glass for a better view.

Human-shaped, whatever it was.  Time would tell if it was alive or not, but I was willing to bet it wasn’t: something about the gait said it was shuffling in a way that had nothing to do with being footsore.  Zombies slowed down when they were hungry, and they slowed down even more in the cold.  That’s why so many of us lived so far north these days; longer winters.  I’d heard rumors that the lands near the equator were damn near uninhabitable, because nothing ever cooled off, let alone froze over.  And nevermind what that kind of heat did to decaying flesh.  The mental image of soupy zombies, more liquid than solid, was guaranteed to turn my stomach every time.

I sighed deeply and settled in for a long wait.  At that speed whatever it was wouldn’t get close until after my watch was over, but if it really was a zombie, they’d need a second gun, anyway, so I might as well stay put.  And in the meantime, I checked on it periodically through the glass.

Before much longer Erin joined me on the wall, saying nothing but holding out a steaming mug.  I accepted the tea and jerked my chin out at the middle distance, where my “something” had resolved itself very definitely into a zombie.

“Got us some target practice,” I said.  “Something odd about it, tho’.  Can’t quite put my finger on it.”

Erin raised an eyebrow, then her rifle.

“Huh,” she said at last, and I could almost hear her squint.

“You see it too?” I asked.  She dropped the rifle.

“Yeah.  The skin looks… off.  Not like, rotting or peeling or any of the stuff you’d expect to see, just… weird.”

I nodded, satisfied that it wasn’t just me.  “Yeah.  Almost like it’s got markings.”

“Like tattoos?”  She peered through her glass again.  “Who would tattoo their face like that?”

“Maori,” I muttered.

“Who?”  Erin didn’t look away from the zombie, and I could tell she wasn’t that interested.  She was an adult, but young yet- only about sixteen.  She’d been born long after the First Panic, and her knowledge and experience had a lot more to do with survival in all it’s many forms than in cultures halfway around the world.  Still, I’d need to have a word with our teachers.

“We’ll talk about it later.  But it’s not just the face that’s tattooed, I don’t think.”

“Huh!  Well I’ll be damned.  I thought it was a patterned shirt.”

I looked through my own glass, trying to make sense of the dark and light patterns on the creature’s arms and torso.  Legs, too.  “Nope.  That’s what really convinced me it was dead: no one living would be walking around out there with so little clothing on.”

“You figure it’s close enough to put down yet?”  There was a touch of anxiousness in Erin’s voice.  This was her third patrol, and the first zombie we’d seen in over a year.

“Yeah, but I want to wait a little longer.  I want to figure out what’s going on with that skin.  Go fetch Sulaiman for me.”

That she didn’t argue with me showed how nervous she really was.  If she was older, or more experienced, she might have said something about plague, although it was rare for a zombie to be carrying one.  But she probably didn’t even realize that was a possibility.  Sulaiman, however, had trained under his doctor father, was on the council of five, and would have plenty to say about me letting an odd looking zombie get close to the walls.  I didn’t think it was diseased, tho’... but I did want another pair of experienced eyes on it.

9.12.2017

A Candle Held By Steady Hand Goes Dancing in the Dark

I've mentioned before that I've repressed much of 1994, the year my father was diagnosed with- and died from- cancer.  This is just my brain's way of doing its best to protect me from the horror of that time, which just goes to show that Jerk Brain is definitely not part of my Real Brain, which is obviously a much more thoughtful and considerate entity.  Because when you've mostly repressed something, you can't really spend time dwelling on it, and if you don't really spend time dwelling on it, you're far less likely to slit your own wrists in a moment of poor judgement.  Of course, the flip side to that is that I also don't, generally speaking, remember the good times from that year, either- and yes, there were some; moments here and there of brave candlelight in a long dark night of fear and sorrow.

Yesterday I found out that my Great Aunt (sister to my father's mother) died.  I was at work when I heard, and work isn't really the time or place for processing such things, so I shoved it down and went along with my day, until I could get home and write in my journal.  And as I wrote in my journal about how I felt, and the impact Cordelia Ann Richmond Dew had on my life, memories suddenly bubbled up from the repressed darkness.

Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I thought of the summer of 1994 as The Terrible Summer- I mean, I didn't really think of it at all, so how could I have a Title for it?- but apparently I do.  And one of the things that happened during The Terrible Summer was that my brother and I, eight and thirteen, went to live with Aunt Dee and Uncle Gene while my dad was poked and prodded, poisoned and sliced open, and all those other things they do to try and save you when you're very very sick.  In the haze of recently-recovered adolescent-memories it seems as though we stayed with them The Whole Summer, but I know it wasn't- surely it wasn't more than a month, maybe even only three weeks.  Regardless, three or four weeks is a very long time for a child (even a very clever child who has had to do a lot of growing up over the previous few months) to be sent to live with a great-aunt with whom she's never been around except in the company of the rest of her boisterous family.

I was not very gracious about it.  I don't mean that I was a brat, or rebellious, or anything like that- I was too much the Goody-Two-Shoes for any sort of negative acting out- but I was very, very self-centered and selfish, and spent a great deal of time alone.  My memories are of swimming in their pool, discovering MTV on the television in their office (I have very vivid memories of watching the video for Black Hole Sun over and over again), and reading Renegades of Pern in the room that had been designated as mine.  I remember finding Dee's copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and devouring it, and her providing me with reams of printer paper (remember when it was perforated?) to practice on, because she was an artist too and understood.  And I rememer her patiently showing me how to use the type writer so I could labor over my Very Epic SciFi Adventure Romance Story wherein a bunch of teenagers were abducted by aliens and dumped (naked, naturally) on an uncivilized planet to see if they'd survive (and breed, also naturally).  Definitely the main character was based on me (her name was Leia naturally) and the main love interest was 100% based on my three-years-older-than-me-crush.  And the other characters were also based on my best friends at the time and their crushes.  Just... thank goodness the Internet wasn't ubiquitous yet, that's all the commentary I have on that.

But back to the heart of the matter.

What I'm saying here with this long and rambling and typically self-centered bit of prose is that I spent a lot of time alone that month, doing and thinking about the things that suited me- and Dee gave me the space and support that I needed to do and think about those things.  She didn't hover, she wasn't trying to make me talk about shit I didn't want to talk about.  She was just... there for me.  And for my brother, who doesn't feature much in my self-absorbed memories of that time (beyond one moment of him dumping ketchup on his mashed potatoes, and her laughing).  And for my parents, who surely were having a much more hellish time than we were.  And for her sister, who was thereby freed to be with her son during said hellish time (something I now appreciate in a way that never would have occurred to me before I had my own son).  Dee was just... there, doing what needed to be done, and doing it without complaint while finding a way to smile and laugh and encourage you and give you what you actually needed rather than what society said you needed.  She was loving and accepting and smart and funny and loyal and wonderful, and I'm so grateful for what she did for me and for my family.  So grateful to have had her in my life at all.

I just hope she and her big sister picked a really excellent shade of crimson to slather the Hereafter with.

8.17.2017

Hooked on Phitness Worked for Me!

I've been surrounded by a lot of good physical-fitness influences, lately, and they've finally rubbed off on me.  As a result, Nathan and I have spent the past five weeks getting up between 0530-0600, six days a week, to do p90 workouts.

I am surprisingly okay with this.

First of all, let me say that I fought against this for a long time.  Like, years.  Nathan has suggested not once, not twice, but multiple times that we do p90 together, and I have always resisted like a dog being called away from a dead squirrel.  Because I don't like to work out just to work out.  I have to sort of trick myself into it.  Like, "Oh I'm not working out, I'm just going for a fun bike ride!" or "I'm not working out, I'm just having climbing up this amazing rock face!" or "I'm not working out, I'm just taking a seven mile hike!" or even, "I'm not working out, I'm just teaching a group exercise fitness class but obviously it's teaching, not working out so it doesn't count!", etc.  You get the idea.  So the thought of doing some annoying video workout in my living room, where  I don't go anywhere or see anything or boss anybody around was like, "Blech.  No thanks."

But then I got really, really unhappy with my fitness levels, and with how much quality time Nathan and I weren't spending together, and I saw several of my friends getting great results (along with their spouses) from their new exercise regimens, and I said, "Fuck it.  I'll give it a try."

Now, I'm still not, like, "OMG working out in my living room is the best!" and in fact I get downright resentful on some cardio days (on the other hand, I might actually be enjoying the weight training days, sooo...).  But.  I really, sincerely am enjoying having this shared physical activity with Nathan (especially when he makes the recovery shakes afterwards) and I'm definitely enjoying the fact that after a full month, I'm finally seeing results (including the return of my waistline, plus hella fly guns: thanks protein powder!).  And these past two mornings, when Nathan was too sick to join me (mild case of food poisoning: he's fine now) I got up and did it on my own, and came to the realization that this is my lifestyle now.  Getting up stupid early and getting sweaty and gross is just what I do.  And then I feel really energized for the rest of the day, and my husband and I can bitch about how sore we are and it's bonding.  And that makes me really happy.

So yeah; I'm hooked.

(A post like this one sort of cries out for photos, but I don't want to post them just yet.  Rest assured, we took "before" photos [and I made a funny face because I was so uncomfortable with having such an unflattering photo taken] and we will take "after" photos... but that won't be until October.  I'll post them then, promise.)

8.16.2017

How Severan Became Starface

My regular gaming group is a little larger than average, and as such it can be (quite) difficult to get us all together on a, well, regular basis.  For the last gathering it was me (and only me) that couldn't make it, so my DM came up with a clever way for me to have a little solo adventure the following weekend (because he's accommodating that way).  It was to involve my character, Severan (a tiefling paladin), learning how better to commune with her deity (Sh'lan), so he suggested I spend some time meditating on how and why she came to serve.

I already knew the quick answer to that question, of course, (I'm nothing if not a thorough background builder) but this gave me a chance to dive into the bare bones I'd established (over a year ago now!  Eep!), and I ended up pounding out nearly 3500 words in one day.  And now I share with (/impose upon) you, with the brief explanation that Severan is nine years old when this goes down.

***


The day had been stiflingly hot, and although the medics had pulled the tent walls up to let in any breezes that might decide to grace the camp, none had obliged- so Severan had spent her hours there feeling closely akin to a quail egg buried in the fire pit.  A busy quail egg, at that- the medics had kept her hopping, fetching and carrying water for drinking, washing, and sponging.  The sun was setting now, bringing with it some measure of relief, and Severan was looking forward to sponging down her own limbs.  She wondered, briefly, what her naturally bright-crimson skin would look like sunburned.  She thought back on some of the painful patches she’d seen today, on the necks and forearms of young mercs who “Didn’t have the good sense Tyr gave a turnip,” the medics said, and how those young men and women has winced even as the burn cream was applied.  Severan shook her head: she could live without knowing what reddened red looked like.

She was cutting between two of the supply tents when she heard the scuffle; nasty laughter and what sounded like blows.

“Please!  Please stop!”  The voice was small, high-pitched, and terrified.  Severan immediately halted, trying to place a direction.

“Leave me alo-!”  There.  She had it.  Severan ran towards the noise, bursting out from between the supply tents, dodging down another cloth-alleyway, and finally emerging to find a pack of children her own age.  She recognized them: merc kids, like her, but mostly from the Ashen Gnolls, the company her own company, the Sunning Drakes, had joined up with a fortnight ago.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.  A few of them turned and flinched, and she held herself tall: she knew what she looked like.

“None of your business, demon,” the biggest one said.  She knew his name was Darriz.  He had not flinched at her appearance, but she noticed he took a step back.  She took one forward.

“Doesn't look like nothing to me,” she said, although the truth was she couldn’t actually see what they were doing: it was blocked by their bodies.  She remembered the terrified voice, tho’- and she couldn't hear it now.  Something rose up in her chest, and she took another step forward, fists balled.

Move aside,” she growled.

“Make us, freak!” one of the other children said, this one a girl named Sorga.  There was a subtle emphasis on the word us, and in that moment the others seemed to remember that they outnumbered the young tiefling.  By a lot.  Severan realized it, too- but she didn’t stop.  The children spread out, and she saw what they’d been gathered around: a halfling child, curled up and bleeding in the dirt, a noose around its neck.  Severan’s vision went red, and without thinking, she stooped down and picked up a stick.

Later she would be confused by that- she hadn’t done it consciously- hadn’t seen the stick and thought to pick it up.  But she’d known she needed a weapon- and so she’d reached for one.  And one had been there.

It was a good stick, and it evened the odds considerably, especially in Severan’s hands.  Her father had started training her with a practice sword some months ago, and her body was well-drilled on what to do.  She struck out, again and again, driving the other children away, snarling and cursing at them.  Only three actually tried to fight her- the others fled almost immediately- but those three didn’t last long.

“You’ll be sorry!” Darriz yelled as he limped off, holding one arm his arm to his chest awkwardly, blood trickling from a cut under his eye where Severan had managed to land a punch.  “You- you hellspawn bitch!”

“Better hellspawn than a- an evil bully!” Severan shrieked.  “Don’t come back, or I’ll thrash you again!  All of you!”

But they were gone.  Severan, shaking, and suddenly aware she hadn’t come away entirely unscathed, either, pushed all of that aside and turned to examine the little halfling child.  She couldn’t tell how old it- he, she corrected herself, seeing the cut of his pants- how old he was, but surely not older than Severan herself.  He was fatter than a merc child would be, but so small- he could never have defended himself against even one of the bullies, let alone the pack of them.  The rage flared up again, but she pushed that aside, too, and bent to gently loosen the braided cloth from around his neck.  He flinched as he did so, and she realized he wasn’t unconscious, after all.

“Hey,” she said softly.  “It’s okay.  You’re safe now.  It’s okay.”  The halfling opened his eyes- a luminous shade of hazel-green that put Severan in mind of a warm forest pond- and gasped, scuttling backwards in spite of his injuries.  Severan felt a pang.

“I won’t hurt you,” she said, trying to ignore the stinging of her eyes, trying to make herself look non-threatening, wishing her horns hadn’t finally emerged from her hair this last year.  It wasn’t fair.  “I know- I know what I… what I look like, but-”

The halfling was staring at her, a look of stark terror on his face, chest heaving with too-fast breaths.  Severan felt her own face crumple, in spite of her best efforts to keep it calm.

“I promise I won’t hurt you,” she pleaded.  “But you... you need help.  And… I’m the one who’s here.”

The halfling began crying, and Severan wanted to disappear into the earth.  But then-

“You saved me,” he said.  “You- you chased off those… those…” his words were lost to sobs, and Severan couldn’t help it- she reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder.

“They’re bad people.  And they’ll be punished, I’ll see to it  But right now I want to take you to the medic tent, so I can clean up your cuts and maybe put something on that bruise on your neck.  What’s your name?”  The halfling boy hiccupped, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“My name is Brannon.  But,” he gave her a shy smile, “My friends call me Cubby.”

“My name is Perseverance,” Severan said, “But my friends call me Severan.”

“Are we friends?”

“I think so, Cubby.”

“I think so, too.”

***

As soon as the medics saw Cubby, they gently- but firmly- put Severan to one side and tended to him themselves.  They narrated what they were doing, so that Severan would know how to handle it in the future, but they said she needed to tend to her own wounds- and so she did.

Once the two of them were properly bandaged and salved, they were made to tell the story of what happened.  Severan started to report as her father had taught her: short and simple, leaving out any details that weren’t pertinent, but Cubby, apparently over the worst of his fright, all but fell over himself to interject his much more colorful version.  He had just gotten to Severan “wading in with nothing but a tiny stick, barely more than a twig!” when Eurig arrived, summoned by some eldritch fatherly instincts.  He listened to the rest of Cubby’s story, a troubled look on his face.

“What did you say your name was, young man?”

Cubby squirmed under the older man’s gaze.  “Um, Brannon.  Brannon Thistledown, sir.”  Eurig nodded thoughtfully.

“Ah.  Well, Severan,” he squeezed his daughter’s shoulder.  “You’ve done quite well.  But I think perhaps I’d best return young master Thistledown to his family’s wagon, while you get yourself to the mess tent, and then bed.”

“But father-”

“But nothing.  You can see Master Thistledown in the morning, if he’s feeling up to it.”

“Yes!”  Cubby’s face brightened considerably.  “Oh Severan, do come by for first breakfast!  My mother makes the most wonderful apple fritters- you’ll love them!”

“We’ll see what your parents say,” Eurig interjected gently.  “And I’ll report back to Severan any invitations they issue.”

“Oh, of course they’ll want her to come,” Cubby said blithely.  “They love company for meals.”

“We’ll see,” said Eurig again, and that was that.

***
The Thistledowns did invite Severan for breakfast, and if there was a bit of a tightness around their eyes, they treated Severan with such affection and courtesy that she felt certain it had nothing to do with her.  They didn’t even glance at her tail- not once!- and they fed her more than she thought possible to eat.  Cubby chattered the whole time, pointing out gleefully how much his bruises had faded, and how the cuts weren’t even going to leave scars.

“Which is too bad,” he whispered to Severan around a mouthful of bacon, “Because scars are so terribly impressive and exciting.”  Severan grinned at him.

“Don’t worry, you’re bound to get some sooner or later, traveling with merc companies.”

Ellan Thistledown dropped another fritter on Severan’s plate with such force that Severan jumped.  Ellan smiled apologetically.

“Actually, my dear, our caravan is going to be parting ways with your company until- well, for a while.”

“Oh,” Severan said, a sinking feeling in her stomach.  The merc companies loved it when merchants traveled with them: it was extremely profitable for both groups, and usually lasted for several weeks, at least.  But who would want to travel with a merc company that came close to killing their child?

“Don’t worry, Severan!” Cubby piped up.  “I’ll send you letters, and Mom promised that we’ll travel again with you one of these days!”

“Oh,” Severan said again, trying to hide her confusion.  “I’ll- I’ll like getting letters from you.  How will I send letters back to you?”

“Just send them along with any merchant or peddler you come across,” Ellan said with a smile.  “Our family is... not unknown, to those who travel the roads of this world.”

***

The Thistledowns- and the rest of the caravan- pulled out later that day, and Severan was desperately sorry to see them go.  She’d known Cubby less than a full day, but she already felt like he was the best friend she’d ever had, and she felt it was terribly unfair that she was being separated from him because other people had to be so hateful.

Then again, she thought as she picked her way carefully through a nearby boulder field,  if those other children hadn’t done what they’d done, would she even have met Cubby?  Severan wasn’t sure.  But if that was the case, better that she’d never met him at all than for him to have gone through what he went through.

Severan was lost in these thoughts, arms full of moss scrapings for the medics, when something rammed into her back, sending her sprawling forward in the dirt.  She scraped her chin on a rock, and felt strangely betrayed by its presence.

“Hello hellspawn bitch,” giggled a voice.  “Not so tough without your stick, are you?”  Severan looked up to see Darriz, arm strapped tightly to his chest, standing next to an even bigger boy- nearly a man- who bore an unmistakable resemblance to him.

“You broke my brother’s arm, little bitch,” said the larger boy as she struggled to her feet.  “And then you ran your mouth and got our family cut out of the company.  So I think I’ll break your jaw, to make us even.”

Severan felt sick to her stomach- the boy was twice her size, and wearing gloves she recognized as having metal sewn into the knuckles.  He could easily kill her.  And there were no sticks here.

“I’m not scared of you,” she said, and wished her voice hadn’t broken as she said it.  The boys just laughed.

“You should be,” said the older one, and lunged for her.

Severan dodged him, trying to get her back to a boulder so that Darriz couldn’t sneak up behind her.  She dodged his second swing, and his third- but the fourth one managed to connect with left side of her face, exploding the world into white hot pain, robbing her of her vision.  She fell to her knees, crying, knowing she was going to die-

And then there was a strange thk noise, and someone was screaming, and something heavy fell on top of Severan, but she couldn’t fight it off, couldn’t do anything but drown in the pain of her face, her face, her broken face...  A second thk followed, and Severan’s world went from white to black.

***

A calm voice gradually floated up into Severan’s consciousness.  “...one blames you, of course.  Any of us would have done the same- maybe not even have been so merciful with the younger one.  The family is crying for blood-”
“I’ll give them blood,” a second voice snarled, and Severan realized, in a detached sort of way, it was her father.
“-but the company had already terminated their contract over the Thistledown incident, so they have no one to back them, and none of them is good enough to challenge you to combat.  Still, they may attempt an assassination, so we’ll stay on the alert for that.”
“I hope they try to employ Nix, I surely do.” Eurig’s laugh was bitter, and Severan realized she must be dreaming.  Her father hadn’t spoken her mother’s name since she’d left them, more than a year ago.
“I doubt they have the funds for that,” the first voice said dryly, and Severan suddenly recognized it as the Commander.
“Eurig, Lady, can you perhaps have this conversation elsewhere?” a third voice floated in, one that reminded Severan of the smell of rubbing alcohol and sun-bleached cotton.  “I promise I’ll…”

Black again.

***

“My face hurts,” Severan said.  Or, rather, tried to say.  It came out as a mumble, the side of her mouth having been packed full of something soft.  She opened her eyes to see one of the medics leaning over her, face illuminated by a pink magelight.

“I’d be willing to bet my last silver piece that you’re complaining about your face,” the young man said with a sympathetic smile.  “Let’s get that moss out of your mouth so you can properly express yourself, and maybe drink some water, and then I’ll go fetch your father, eh?  He only just stepped away to get something to eat.”

Slowly, gently, the medic plucked the moss out, and gave her a little cup of cool water.  Severan swallowed carefully, trying not to gag on the blood taste.

“Tk ooo,” she whispered, then grimaced at the pain- then grimaced again at the pain the grimace caused.

“Sorry about that, dearheart,” said the medic.  “It’s going to hurt for a long while, I think.  He managed to split you open pretty good.  Now sit tight, and I’ll get your father and some more willow bark.”

After he’d left, Severan reached up to touch the left side of her face as delicately as possible, trying to assess the damage.  It was terrifically swollen, and she could feel row after row of neat stitches, radiating across her cheekbone from her ear to her nose, up to her temple, back across her jaw, and down almost to the corner of her mouth.

“Hello my love,” her father’s hand covered hers, gently, and she turned her eyes up to him.  He smiled down at her.  “You’re going to have one hell of a scar there, my Perseverance.  That little shit hurt you pretty badly.”

“Dn’t... brk... m’jw…. tho,” she muttered.

His brow furrowed.  “Didn’t… didn’t what?”

“Jw.  Nuh brkun.”

“Your… jaw?   He… didn’t break your jaw?”

Severan nodded, and Eurig threw his head back and laughed.

“I’m sure you’ll explain the relevance later, my love, but no- he didn’t break your jaw!  He broke your face open, but he didn’t break your jaw, or your spirit.”

“Hpn’d… tim?”

“What happened to him?  Well I killed him, of course,” Eurig’s voice was casual.  “Put an arrow through the base of his skull from a hundred yards.  Perhaps the finest shot I’ve ever taken in my life.”

Severan’s eyes filled.  So that had been the thk, the weight.

“I’m just sorry I didn’t get there sooner,” Eurig said, and moved his hand up to the uninjured side of her face.  “Please forgive me for not protecting you.”

Severan turned her face into her father’s hand to cry.

***

The medics wouldn’t let Severan look at her face until they took the stitches out, several weeks later.  And even then it wasn’t that they let her look at her face, it was that Severan got up out of bed in the middle of the night and went hunting for a shaving mirror.  Her father, who kept his beard full as a nod to his human heritage, didn’t have one.  But she knew there would be one somewhere in the camp, left hanging and forgotten on a tree limb.

Sure enough, she found one near the showers, and she used the eerie brightness of the full moon to examine her new visage.  Her scar spread across most of the left side of her face, a paler, almost silvery pink against the crimson.  It was… huge.  But it also wasn’t quite as ugly as she’d been afraid it would be.  Her features didn’t appear to have been twisted by it, at least.

“Look familiar?”  Severan almost dropped the mirror when her father appeared out of the darkness between tents.

“Of course it looks familiar,” she said tartly, trying to cover her racing heart.  “It’s still my face.”  Eurig chuckled.

“That it is- but that’s not what I meant.  Look closely at the shape of your scar.”

Severan turned back to the mirror.  “It’s a star!” she said suddenly.  Eurig smiled.

“Not just a star, my love- a tailed star.”

“Like your pendant,” she said turning to face him again, and he nodded.  He stepped closer, and reached into his shirt to pull it out.  The silver pendant hung against his brown shirt, one point stretched out further than the others, shimmering mysteriously in the moonlight. The same point that stretched out and down Severan’s face to her mouth.  Eurig tapped the pendant softly.

“You’ve been marked, Perseverance.”

“I can see that, father,” she said, trying to keep the bitterness from her voice.  Like she wasn’t monstrous enough to begin with.  But Eurig shook his head.

“Not by the boy.  By Sh’lan.  I’ve given it a lot of thought, and it’s the only thing I can think of.”

“What do you mean- the only thing you can think of?”

“The only reason I didn’t get there soon enough to… prevent it.  Because Sh’lan had already chosen you, and wanted to mark you as her own.  So she brought me soon enough to save your life, but not so soon that you wouldn’t bear her mark for life.”

Severan reached out a hand and touched the pendant.

“Sh’lan… chose me?”

“For your valour in protecting the halfling child.  In facing off against those who were persecuting someone who couldn’t protect themselves, you proved that you have the heart and spirit of a paladin, the willingness to act as both sword and shield for those who cannot bear arms.  Sh’lan honors you as her true follower.”

Severan shook her head at this.  “But… but… I thought the gods rewarded those who pleased them?  This…  I’m sorry, father, but this doesn’t feel like a reward.”

Eurig touched her new scar gently.  “I know, my love.  And that’s fair.  Because when you serve Sh’lan, if you choose to do so, it will not be for rewards.  There will be no rewards, or if there are they will be rare, and usually only so that you can better serve her purpose.  If you choose not just to worship Sh’lan, as I do, but to truly serve her, as a paladin, it will be be because you choose to serve as a force of light in a world of darkness.  Because you choose to be the gift, rather than the recipient.”

Severan dropped the pendant and looked at her hands.  “That sounds… hard.  And lonely.”

“It will be hard, yes” Eurig grabbed her hands in his own, and squeezed.  “But not necessarily lonely.  And Sh’lan believes you have the strength to do it, or she would not have marked you.”

Severan mulled this over.  She wanted to be strong.  Not so she could hurt people, but so that people would not be hurt when she was around.  She wanted to make a world where people like Cubby never had to feel afraid walking alone.  If Sh’lan would help her do that, she would serve Sh’lan for the rest of her life, and gladly.

“What do I have to do?” she asked in a tiny voice.  “To serve Sh’lan?  Do I have to go to a temple and be trained?”

Eurig gathered her to his chest and kissed her between her horns.  “No, my love.  You don’t have to go anywhere.  We can continue to train you as a warrior, and in the meantime you can serve Sh’lan anywhere, at any time.  All you must do is listen carefully- she’ll speak to your heart, through signs and portents, and you’ll know what she wants you to do.  Fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.  Protect the innocent.  Be the light in the darkness, a ray of hope for the oppressed.  Stand ready to act as her sword and shield on earth, and soon enough she’ll put you to work.”