Of Frogs, Genes and Black Sheep?
Crenen decided to continue teaching me lessons in humility. He started by having me row our boat back to camp. I got half way to shore before Menen took over while I panted breath back into my lungs. When we got to camp, Crenen insisted I stay in his tent and sleep on the floor at the foot of his cot. Beastie, meanwhile, was allowed to sleep on the cot itself.
The message was clear: Crenen thought me less useful than a dog. Which, on reflection, put me lower on his lists than Jenen whom he affectionately dubbed Sick Nasty Dog.
I supposed I'd done it to myself. My mother had warned me that liars went to Hell and wasn't that precisely what this place was? So much for my silver tongue of which I'd so often been proud. Not that I necessarily meant to lie—just, sometimes, it was easier than telling the truth.
But, once more I digress.
I slept that night on the cold ground, with naught but a matted fur for bedding. It was warm above and freezing beneath me. It rained again in the night. Fortunately the water didn't come inside the tent. At first I expected it to—after all, the floor was dirt. But when I later investigated I discovered that the Paradisians were forward thinkers; they had dug trenches around each tent to catch the rain. Then again, this was their life. Of course they knew how to prepare for a storm.
It was in the wee hours of the morning when Crenen roused me. I'd been expecting it, considering how annoyed he was. I didn't expect another bucket of freezing water, however. The shock of it sat me up gasping. I shot him a murderous look, which he returned with his trademark grin of doom. He tossed the bucket aside. "Spend some long time with Screechy Hurting Doctor. She make understand truth more better, yeah?"
Grumbling, dripping and cold, I stomped from the tent and shivered in the early morning drizzle. I trudged to the healer's tent and flicked the flap a few times, wondering if she would be awake.
The flap opened marginally and I saw one blue eye peering out at me. Then she opened it all the way and stepped aside. "Come in," she said. The coldness of her tone sent another shiver running through me. I entered grudgingly and then paused to bask in the splendid warmth of her tent. There was no fire, of course, and so I gazed around in search of the warm's source. I had no luck.
I turned to regard Sasha. "Well what?"
"Why are you here?" she said, arms folded, eyes glittering. Again I was struck by her beauty, though it was less dazzling than was Lady Veija. There was something, though, that appealed about her more—dare I say?—human beauty. And she was deadly. I'd been told once that men were all stupidly attracted to dangerous women (but then, that was my sister's opinion and I'm pretty sure it was biased).
"Your prince sent me," I said.
"I don't know," I said, not eager for her to add to my misery and knowing that if I told her Crenen was punishing me, she'd probably bask in the venture.
She narrowed her eyes and studied me. "He always has a reason and he usually lets you know what it is. Are you ill again?"
"Not especially." I was feeling a little queasy this morning, but I figured that related to my rowing efforts of last night.
"Either you are or you're not."
I sighed. "I'm cold, tired, sore, hungry and wet, but otherwise I'm fit as a fiddle."
She cocked an eyebrow. "Is that all?"
I considered. "My head itches," I said at last. It was true, now that I thought of it.
I thought I saw a smile twitch on her lips, but she turned away before I was certain and she began rummaging around on her desk. "That is the dye," she explained. "Having gotten it wet, it will itch until it dries or is washed out."
"Then can I wash it out?"
"I imagine so." She turned around and offered me a bottle. "This soap will make the process easier and relieve the itching." She considered me for a moment. "Black hair makes you look too pale."
I took the soap. "Should I go to the warm spring?"
"Go to a stream for all I care. I'm not your mother."
Thank goodness for that, I thought, but said nothing. I headed for the flap, but it opened before I got there and someone entered. Not someone I knew. I stepped aside and the man whisked in. He glanced at me, then turned to the doctor. He was a muscular man, tall (but not as tall as Menen), with the same black hair as the rest of his clan and the same tattered clothes. He staggered over to the chair as Sasha moved aside for him, and then began coughing into his hand. Sasha moved swiftly, taking up a bottle from the table, then kneeling beside the man. She waited for his fit to pass, then had him drink from the bottle. He sighed with relief, closed his eyes and slumped down in the chair.
Sasha spoke soothingly in Paradisian as she rested a hand on his arm. He murmured something, then jerked upright as another fit of hacking coughs took him. I looked on, feeling helpless. But there was nothing I could do. I began to turn away when I caught the flash of Sasha's blue eyes looking at me.
"Can you do nothing?" she asked.
I stared at her. "You're the doctor."
A frown pulled at the corners of her mouth. She looked away. "You cannot be the one."
I offered a humorless smile. "No, I'm not." I didn't know what she expected me to do—miraculously stop the coughing? Stop the clans from fighting each other? Stop what? Not that it mattered. I stepped from the tent, hair soap in hand, shoulders hunched a little under the weight of expectation.
I couldn't do anything.
The walk to the warm spring was longer than I remembered, but that was probably because I couldn't recollect the exact path. Garbed as I was in Paradisian clothing, with my hair still black, no one looked twice at me on my way. The bath itself was without incident and I sighed with relief as I rinsed the itchy dye away for good. (I hoped).
I sat at the spring for a little while, gazing up at the trees. I wondered if perhaps being with Jenen would be the better course after all. At least he wasn't a tyrant like Crenen. With a sigh, I got to my feet and headed back for camp. Even so, I didn't know where Jenen was. And...well, finding him without Beastie was an effort I didn't want to make.
Thinking on Beastie, I didn't notice the man who slipped in front of me from somewhere in the shadows of the trees until I almost ran into him. Stepping back with a start, I looked up and found myself staring at the ugliest man I'd ever seen. He was of medium build, with a definite paunch, a round flat face and beady little eyes. His hair was matted and oily and his scarred arms were smudged with dirt. Worst of all was his odor—like he hadn't bathed in weeks. He carried a spear with a jagged point as ugly and menacing as his froggy face.
He spoke. I expected a croak and got nearly that. His voice was hoarse and harsh and not English. I stared at him, not knowing what he said, not knowing what to say in return. "Er," I said brilliantly. I meant to add more to my fumble, but I didn't get that far.
(It should be noted that "er" is not a compliment in Paradisian.)
Mister Ugly crowded me, his putrid odor permeating my senses until my eyes filled with tears. He croaked at me, evidently angry. Not understanding why, I backed up, tripping over my own heels. I landed hard on my rear for a second time in as many days. He kept shouting.
I grimaced up at him, half afraid and half annoyed. The latter won out and I shot back to my feet and tried to crowd back—which is sort of pathetic when you weigh half what your adversary does. But I didn't think about that. He shoved me hard and I fell again, twisting my ankle in the process. This time I stayed where I was, but glared up at him, defiant. "Got a problem, Frog Face?"
That got his attention. He trailed off mid-tirade and fixed those beady eyes on me, then squinted, which made his face all the more offensive. "English?" he said with a heavy accent.
"That's right. Good thing you're smarter than you are pretty," I said, trying to sound nonchalant, though my voice cracked a little.
He stared harder, mouth pulling into a deep frown that stretched his flat face. "You speak English," he said, enunciating carefully.
"Yup. Pretty sure we established that."
His frown deepened, a perfect counterpoint to Crenen's ear-to-ear grin of doom, just as his ugliness was a counterpoint to Jenen's effeminate beauty.
"Fenik." The sharp tone brought our heads up to see Menen coming toward us. The word I usually associated with him was stoic, but now his red eyes were blazing with fury. Mister Ugly whirled around to face him and snapped off a sort of salute. Menen stopped before him and eyed me on the ground. "Are you injured?" he asked me.
"Not really. A little bruised," I said, choking back the urge to lie just to get back at Frog Face.
Menen relaxed for a second, then narrowed his gaze on his fellow clan member. He said something brief and sharp in Paradisian and Mister Ugly flinched, then mumbled something low and croaky. Menen eyed him up and down, taking in his sullied appearance, and sighed. He pointed in the direction from which I'd come: Toward the warm spring. "Vasa."
Mister Ugly turned, gave me an appraising scowl and trudged off, graceful as an ape.
Menen offered me a hand. "Fenik is over-suspicious. He took you for a Verenvae spy." He sighed. "Which is ridiculous, as we have an alliance with the Verenvae now."
"Good thing I'm not really one of them then, as his actions might've called that alliance off," I mumbled.
"He is unaccustomed to dealing with people," Menen said. "He is usually stationed in the swamplands, which is deadly work."
"No wonder he smells like a bog," I said, thinking he must feel at home there with his frog cousins. I brushed off my clothes.
"He is a good warrior and a good man," Menen said sternly, though a smile just touched his lips. "But he could do with a lesson in hygiene." His expression turned worried. "Are you certain you are well?"
"Fine," I lied, feeling far from well at all in this place with these people.
He relaxed again, which was like a soldier going from "attention" to "at ease." Considering the nature of this place, I shouldn't be surprised by his constant attentiveness.
"Hey," I said as we started for camp. "I couldn't help but notice that you, Crenen and Jenen all have similar names. Is there a reason for that?"
"Yes," he said and did not expound.
"Ookay." I kicked at the ground and winced, recalling with the pain that I was barefoot. I limped on both feet now, one ankle twisted, one toe stubbed. Menen said nothing about it. We reached camp soon and I limped back to Sasha's tent, figuring I'd better get to whatever Crenen wanted me there for. Menen followed. As we arrived I heard a bark behind me and I turned to find Beastie trotting alongside Crenen, who approached with his usual evil grin.
My eyes snapped back to my dog as I realized that he'd somehow gotten bigger. Impossible. Beastie was as big as he could get. "C'mere, boy," I said, crouching down to scratch his ears. He moaned contentedly as I scratched and judged his height. Definitely taller. Was it the diet of this place?
I froze. Did that mean I was growing too? I glanced up, then stood straight and looked between Crenen and Menen, who both looked on curiously.
No. I wasn't taller. Not even a little bit.
I sighed and patted Beastie's head as I met Crenen's gaze. "What?"
His teeth gleamed. "Strange Coward Boy look more better now." He tugged on his lopsided ponytail, presumably to emphasize the state of my gold-again hair.
"Yeah, so?" I went to stuff my hands in my pockets, but I didn't have pockets anymore. I wondered where Menen had taken my own clothes and shoes. I and my toe missed them.
Crenen shrugged. "Now spend day with Screechy Hurting Doctor, yeah? Make Strange Coward Boy grateful to we for being kind in past. Always be worse, yeah?"
Definitely in Hell, I thought, and slouched before going into the doctor's tent. The scent of herbs hit me again, pleasant and strong. Sasha was sitting at her table, crushing dried herbs in a bowl with a pestle. Her earlier patient was gone. I watched her for a moment, studying the contours of her face, aware and petrified of her beautiful profile. She looked up after a moment, eyes glinting in the candlelight. They met mine and she arched a slender brow. "Yes?"
I gestured helplessly. "Crenen wants me to spend the day here."
She sighed and set aside the pestle. "And what am I to do with you?"
"Make me miserable, I guess." Again I tried to stuff my hands in pockets. Which must have looked stupid.
Her mouth quirked upward. "Crenen is always making someone miserable. I suppose it comes as no surprise." She crumpled a leaf into the bowl and began grinding with the pestle again. "Pull up a seat."
"Isn't it hard to see?" I asked, approaching.
She looked up. "I have eyes."
"Well, yeah, but not for long," I said. "Use candlelight in a dim room long enough and you'll lose your eyesight. At least a lot of it."
She paused. "So...?" she said.
"So," I said, "it's a nice day. Take your work outside. My mom's always saying fresh air is best." In truth, I just hated the idea of staying cooped up with this woman all day in confined quarters. Her personality was stuffy enough without the added ambiance.
She looked ready to snap at me, but hesitated. "Your 'mom'?" she said.
"I do not know this word."
"Oh, um, Mother."
She blinked. "I see. Your mother is wise."
I couldn't help but grin. "Yeah."
Sasha relaxed further. "Your tone is one of love."
What do you say to something like that? I laughed sheepishly, feeling a warmth in the pit of my stomach like I hadn't since coming to Paradise. "I guess."
Her face turned to ice once again. "Foolish boy, if you have family what are you doing here?"
That threw me. "You think I want to be here?"
Her expression shifted to confusion. "Did you not choose to come?"
"No. I was shoved into a puddle by a bully and woke up drowning."
"Menen did not speak of this."
I shrugged. "S'how it was."
She put aside her pestle again. "Can you return home?"
"I don't know. I don't know how."
"You are useless then."
I tried not to flinch at her words, so closely echoing my own doubts and fears, but I failed. Menen had talked of choice, of deciding to act or not. But if I chose to act, what difference would it—could it make?
"I don't know what you want," I said.
"I suppose not." She began tapping her claw against the table. "But if you did, would you try to help?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Then why should I explain?"
"Because then I'd know whether I could help or not."
"That isn't what I asked," she said.
I stared. "What did you ask?"
"Would you. Not could you." She stood and snatched up her bowl and pestle. "Grab that basket of leaves and follow me. We will work outside."
I obeyed and we sat under the sun crushing herbs all the rest of that morning, saying nothing. At lunchtime Sasha sent me off to the cook tents to find food for both of us. I pilfered some fish, the ever-present flat bread and two flasks of water. I returned to our spot on the hill overlooking the large lake. I could see several boats at its center. Probably fishing.
I handed Sasha her food and sat cross-legged beside her to munch at my fish. It was well seasoned and very meaty.
"Can you tell me about Menen?" I asked, at last fed up with the silence.
Sasha said nothing for a long moment. I thought she wouldn't answer at all. Then she said softly, "What do you want to know?"
"I don't know. Just anything."
"He is a man of distinction," she said and flicked a fish bone into the water. Several water-skippers darted away, ripples blooming in their wake.
I waited for more. "And?"
She sighed. "What more is there?"
"Is he a good warrior? Does he have family? How old is he?" I said, exasperated. "Do you people never talk, never gossip?"
"Rarely," she said in a flat voice. "Yes, yes, and thirty-three, if you must know."
I had to think back to my questions. "So, he's a good warrior. I don't doubt that. Is any of his family here?"
"Oh yes," Sasha said, and flicked another bone at the water.
I looked at her and realized that her hair wasn't black at all, but a dark chocolate-brown. I blinked. Hadn't Menen said everyone of his clan was black-haired? I thought back. No, he'd said all the men had black hair.
She noticed my interest. "What?"
"Your hair is brown."
"So?" she said.
"I thought you all had black hair."
"Only the men. We women have brown." She reached up and fingered a lock of hair, twisting it.
I looked back toward the lake and felt the compulsion to enter it return. I fought the feeling, wondering if there were magical sharks in the water who lured their prey with subsonic waves of irresistibly. With a shudder I looked up at the blue sky. There wasn't a cloud in sight.
"You know very little."
I flushed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you truly Vendaeva?" Sasha asked, sounding skeptical.
"Heck if I know," I muttered. I met her gaze. "I don't even know what that means."
"As I said."
I rolled my eyes. "You people are impossible." I fell back into the grass with a sigh of exasperation and glared at the sun overhead, which glared back at me. It won, of course, and I turned onto my side to glare instead at the inoffensive grass. It quivered under my scrutiny. I blinked, and then noticed the ladybug crawling along the blade.
"Crenen," Sasha said.
I stiffened and sat up, looking around for the dread lord. I didn't find him so I turned a questioning look on Sasha. She looked amused. "I answered your question."
"Does Menen have family here? Yes. Crenen. They are cousins."
"Oh. Well, I guess every family has a black sheep."
Sasha's face went blank. "Black sheep?"
I laughed. "Another new word?"
I tugged on my sleeve. "Do you use wool?"
"Not in the summer," she said.
I shrugged. "Wooly creatures, usually white, say 'baa'."
"Ah, yes. We call them bajaya."
"Okay, well, black sheep means the one set apart. Usually a delinquent. A rebel." I shrugged again. "You could say black baja-thing if you wanted."
She eyed me for a long moment and then began to laugh. Uncertain what she found so funny, I sat in silence and watched her. She recovered fast and eyed me appraisingly. "You are a strange boy."
"So I hear," I said. "But I'm not a boy. Not really. I'm eighteen,and where I'm from that means I'm a man."
"Here, age matters not," Sasha said. "It is about proof. Deserve being treating as an adult, and you shall be." Her mouth quirked. "You have much distance to cover, especially as you are not tall."
I scowled. "Not my fault. I just got the wrong genes."
"Genes?" she said.
I froze. "Ooh no. I'm not going into genetics. Forget it. I'm no teacher."
She looked confused, then her expression changed again, going icy once more. "We've dawdled long enough." She grabbed up her plate and shoved it at me. "Take the dishes back to the cook tents, then go to my tent and bring me the chest. It is heavy, do not drop it."
I obeyed, thinking I'd never seen a woman more prone to mood swings in my life.
Paradise? Series © MHWoodscourt.deviantART.com