Just before dawn, when the sky was beginning to show pale blue at the eastern horizon, Thuringil had just finished the last watch of the night. He shrugged his cloak closer around his shoulders, and set to work preparing tea over a low fire, throwing in dried herbs and a twisted bit of knobby root: mint and ginger, mostly, but with a precious bit of starflower. Fragrant steam curled from the pot as he stirred it, reminding him of happier places, happier times. When it was brewed he poured it carefully into a pair of metal flasks, and as golden light crept into the mist-laden air, he pulled his hood low and went to keep watch over one of a cluster of wagons with his peace offering in hand.
Moments later, Kryllan emerged, once more dressed in the shapeless grey frock of a Sister of Mercy. She made her way to the dying fire and perched on an upturned log, unaware or perhaps just uncaring that she was being watched.
Thuringil studied her for a moment, searching for signs of sickness or any change, but she looked the same as she had since he first agreed to be her protector: pale, cross, with a perpetual pout on her otherwise pretty face. He joined her, sitting next to her on a second makeshift seat, and held one of the flasks out to her. She turned a sour look on him, but that hardly came as a surprise. “Are you well?” he asked. He uncapped his own flask and took a sip himself, to show it was safe to drink, then offered her the second again.
Irate fire flashed in her dark eyes, but her gaze want to the offering . After some hesitation she answered, “I’m fine”, and took the tea without a thank you. She sniffed it, then held it in both hands, hunching over the small source of warmth and sipping the tea in little mouthfuls.
Thuringil cleared his throat. “I know you don’t care for my company, but I wanted to talk. To tell you… If I had known how you were misused by your mentor Dalrius, I would have… I….” He stammered, unsure whether to continue, and flinched away from her accusing glare, staring instead at the low flames licking the charred edges of their campfire. “What he did to you would never be tolerated amongst my people. Had I known you were in danger, I would have done everything within my power to protect you from him. I’m sorry I failed you.”
Her answer was a guttural string of harsh syllables — Dwarven, perhaps, or one of the many Human languages — undoubtedly a curse. “Why do you have to make everything about you?” she demanded, switching to Trade. “Or did you even consider that this happened before you ever even came along?”
Thuringil let her tirade wash over him, preparing to give up his attempt to talk to the girl, but something about Kryllin’s expression softened so that she seemed less angry and more young. A little ashamed. “It happened more than once,” she said quietly. Her eyes never strayed from the gently steaming flask clutched between long-fingered hands. “And I told no one.”
Cold, impotent fury roiled like nausea in Thuringil’s gut. He kept his face turned towards the fire, but midnight blue eyes flicked to the corners, studying her. "Yes. I understood you must have conceived before I met you. It’s the… the…” He slipped into Elvish for a moment, reaching for a word meaning ‘peril at the hands of a protector’.
Kryllin’s raised eyebrows said she didn’t understand.
“There’s no word for it in Trade,” he told her. “It’s the fact of ‘more than once’ that I wish I could havce protected you from.” One blue-skinned hand clenched into a fist, and the other crushed hard against the flask of tea. “When you asked me before about life and death…” He hesitated. “You knew?”
“I knew,” she answered. “The sickness came one morning, not long after our journey began.”
He nodded. Paused again. Kryllin looked curiously at him, waiting for him to speak. The longer he hesitated, the more her forehead creased in annoyance.
A Gray Legionary had no past, they said, only the mission. But the mission, this young woman who still seemed a child to his Elven eyes… The mission was changed.
“This tea is the kind my bond-mate and I shared with the mother of our children when she carried them,” he told her, words tumbling out in a rush and accented more than usual. “It eased her sickness.”
“You have children?” She sounded astonished.
“I…” He swallowed, then plunged ahead. “I had children. Two. Methr, a boy, and Osa, a girl. Osa looked most like me, and Methr took after his other father.”
It was so easy to see their faces, Osa with her silver curls tucked behind long ears, her sky blue cheeks creased with a bright smile. Methr with his gap-toothed smirk and darker coloring, begging for a game of cross stone. Jothindir, dark as their son, with hair that never curled, and the same slight gap between his teeth. The same promise of mischief dancing in his eyes.
“What… what happened?” asked Kryllin. Her irritation was gone, replaced by apprehensive curiosity.
Thuringil took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “I was betrayed. My family slain.” His voice broke ragged for a moment, then settled again, dull and distant to his own ears. “I would have perished with them, but a cousin brought me to safety and hid me until I was well enough to flee.”
She lifted her eyes from her tea to regard him frankly. “Elves must be different. Among humans, the honorable man would have died with his family.” There was no sympathy in her voice.
Thuringil was grateful; sympathy would have broken him.
“I wanted to,” he told her. “But my cousin… As a member of the court, he had a responsibility to protect my life. My position as surviving pri—” The word fractured in the middle, too dangerous to speak, and too meaningless. “I surrendered all that I was,” he told her instead, “to take up the mantle of the Gray Legion. Because you are right I should have died with Jothindur and our children.”
He felt her eyes tracing the grey cord slung over his right shoulder, the signifier of his vow to the Grey Legion, his loyalty, and his willingness to die in that service.
“My teacher had similar reason for taking on the Grey Rope,” she said. “He was a good man. Truly. But prone to great fits of melancholy. Do you have such anguish? Do you drink? Do you hit? Do you rape?” She looked away sharply, adding as if she were talking to herself, “Why would you not?”
“All who wear the Rope live in sorrow. That’s no excuse for taking advantage of a child,” Thuringil snapped, as anger replaced regret. “It’s no excuse for any of those things. It sickens me to think of it, and to know you now fear it in me because of Dalrius’s vileness. He was not worthy of the Grey Rope.”
She scowled. “I don’t fear you.” Then her expression turned inward and she looked away, studying her tea as if it held answers. “I’m not sure I fear anything, anymore. My life — the life I had planned for myself — it’s ruined. No man will take me. These men… They already look at me differently. My travels are at an end, and my looks will avail me little when my belly swells. Who will hear my songs then?"
“Then perhaps you are ready to take the Grey Rope as well,” Thuringil told her with wry sadness, “if you have nothing left to look forward to but death. But I hope it’s not so. A ruined life is still a life. And you carry a new life. Though if you wish not to see it come to light, I can’t blame you.” What woman would want to raise the child of her rapist? No Elf would, and probably no human, either.
“There are ways,” he offered. “If you wish to end this life before it grows."
Her eyelids flickered, but Thuringil had too little experience with humans to read her expression.
“Why is your career as a skald in ruins?” he asked instead. “Is it so in human society, that a woman is only valued if a man will have her?”
“No, it’s…” She hesitated, then plunged ahead, voice rising in distress. “It has nothing to do with humans. It has to do with me! Boys…. It’s important to me that boys like me. And, yes, I know about the ‘ways’. A woman in Keep gave me something to help, should I wish to use it. But it’s too late now! Kol— these men already know. Curse that Malik.”
Thuringil’s brow furrowed in puzzlement as he tried to remember what he knew of the rules of chastity and honor among humans. “But you remain beautiful, don’t you? I see no sign, and Kollsvein and Malik are both taken with you. Surely your situation is no doing of your own. Your virtue was not freely given.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kryllin wailed. “Don’t you know the limericks? ‘There once was a virgin from Hellic, whose cunny was rare as a relic…’” When Thuringil gave her a blank look, she waved an inpatient hand. “It doesn’t matter. The point is that men wish to venture in unknown places. They may claim otherwise, but they can’t control it. I’m ruined in their eyes. And Malik is nothing to me now.” She spat at the ground and stamped her foot, as if speaking Malik’s name had put a foul taste in her mouth.
“I can’t speak for humans,” Thuringil told her, “but I can promise you that there’s more to desire than a wish to conquer unexplored realms, at least for elven men.” He laughed dryly, pushing away bittersweet memories of Jothindur. “Don’t worry, you have nothing to fear from me in that regard. Still, I’m sure you’re far from ruined.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said slowly. “Maybe there is a future for me, but not with these men.” She touched her belly, pressing a hand flat against the grey robes. “And probably not in here.” She tipped her flask up, drinking the last of her tea, then looked at the fire. “I will do it soon.”
“The herbs?” Thuringil hesitated, then reached a cautious hand to touch her shoulder. It was thinner than he’d expected. More delicate.
She was still a child.
“When you do it, tell me first, and I’ll guard you and bring you medicine for your pains. Between the birth of my son and my daughter, there were two who died before their time and were brought out with the same method. I won’t leave you to face that alone.”
“Ugh!” She jerked away as if his touch had burned her and got to her feet. “Why would I want an elf man around? Gods! Why do you always have to be such a greplkch? Now if you don’t mind, I need to vomit and make water, unless you’d like to be there for that, too! Ugh!”
Before Thuringil could quite react, she stormed away, heading for the trees near the water’s edge.
In an instant Thuringil’s sympathy for her vanished. He rolled his eyes and tossed the remaining tea in his own flask into the fire. “Idiot child, you’ll get yourself killed,” he said under his breath in Elvish, staring after her. “If I’m going to have to sneak around and follow you all the damn time to protect you from yourself, it’s time for Kollsvein to learn the meaning of leadership. He can help keep an eye on you.” Pulling up his hood and checking the set of his sword at his side, he went to find their young knight.