This is week contained my birthday, and as such, I am gifting to myself a wee story.
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The Ilyn were a race of tree people, thin of face and hollow of bone. They stepped sideways and could disappear, provided a favorable environment, and as such made the world’s finest assassins and thieves. A single Ilyn with a dainty bone blade was more deadly than a thousand knights in full plate and steel.
But to find an Ilyn, to hire an Ilyn, one must first go where the Ilyn are. Deep in the Ravenwood, a place of shadow and old, forgotten magic, there is a grove of widow trees. Wispy as their willow cousins, strong as their oaken neighbors, the widow trees haunt the quiet places of the Ravenwood. Their leaves, long and slender, make the sound of glass breaking when the wind wanders through their boughs. Their edges, fine as any dagger, cut all who dare to tread within the Ilyn’s realm.
Perhaps this is why the Ilyn evolved as they did, slippery as shadows and wicked sharp. Perhaps in the folds of the world’s most dangerous environment, they found a way to live among the knives by becoming one themselves. Or, perhaps, they are what the common folk have always claimed.
Ilyn did not take names. The idea of individuality among a race baffled them, made them wonder at the intelligence of the people who came looking to hire them. An Ilyn was an Ilyn, as the widow trees were. The forest, the ground that allowed for life, a corpse putting itself back into the soil: these things connected in a way that did not allow for individuality. However, as the common folk from beyond the Ravenwood could not seem to understand this (for they were not Ilyn, and therefore something lesser and apart) an Ilyn interested in working beyond the widow trees would take up a name as one would take up a badge.
The Ilyn they called Asp pondered this as he watched the bodies move beneath him. He stood in an aspen tree, pale boughs and small, blushing green leaves enfolding him. He stood there and wondered at the stupidity of the people from beyond the Ravenwood. They dressed in heavy, cumbersome garments that rattled and stank. Fur grew from their heads and faces, their arms and legs and chests. He frankly couldn’t tell the difference between the feminine and the masculine of the species, except the lack of fur on some of their cheeks.
Asp was in what they called a city square, although from his vantage point, he could clearly see that it was not a square, but a circle. These people, with their fur and their noise and their stink, they could not even distinguish one base shape from another. How a race of blundering flesh and sound had managed to even build this city was a mystery to him.
But, that was not the mystery that had him here today. Asp shifted, moving like wind moves the leaves. His greenish hands with their long, spider-like fingers gripped the branch as he went. He slid down the tree as shadow shifts with the moving earth, bark and branch beneath his sensitive fingertips. A single knife, white of bone, dangled from his vine belt. Not your typical vine, mind you. An Ilyn first learns to touch the world, and then to shape it. His clothing was a part of his person, a sheath for the tight muscle and bone, and the knife was a part as well.
The poison on the knife, that was Eka’s. And it had cost him dearly.
Ilyn live for centuries, should they stay safe and quiet in the widow trees. And for the first half century of his life, Asp had been content to do just that. He had not understood his fellowship’s desire to travel, to see the world beyond their own. He had been happy, as happy as an Ilyn can be, within his trees of knives. He crafted and chanted and walked among the widows as wraiths move about their swamp. He loved a woman, an Ilyn who he thought was of his own mindset, and would have lived out his days beside her, had she not taken the coin.
There is an inherent need within some Ilyn to wander. Asp saw it as a sickness, and his lover had it. She took the coin and left the Ravenwood. And as the decades slipped ceaselessly on, she did not return.
This was the mystery that had Asp sliding down the bark of a worn-down tree, the mystery that had driven him from his widows and his knives to a place of noise and filth. What had happened to his beloved? What monstrosity had taken her from him, if taken she was?
Asp reached the bottom of the aspen tree and he stood, careful to keep his delicate feet on the gnarled, dusty roots. An Ilyn is not magic. Magic is something smaller than an Ilyn, something within the folds of larger truth. Asp could make himself invisible on the roots and branches of a tree, he could disappear entirely in a forest. Even the rough-hewn wood that made these people’s dwellings was life enough to conceal him. But step on stone, move from the living to what has never known life, and an Ilyn is the same as any sweating, stinking, human.
Asp detested them. He detested them all. And, as any Ilyn can tell you, they felt the same about him.
Eyes fixed forward, Asp pulled the rotten air deep into his lungs. An Ilyn’s hearing is not the best, for the trees do not need to hear what they inherently know. However, the noise of this place beat within his green-tinted skull like nails rattling in a glass jar. He stepped from the root and onto the cobblestone, striding with the quick, flitting walk of someone who does not wish to be touched.
The people were taller than him. This did not intimidate Asp, as he was a creature of the forest, and only the very youngest trees are shorter than an Ilyn. Something that is tall is something that can be climbed. Height is relative.
What did intimidate him was the general lack of concern these…humans displayed. Many did not see him at all, and should he become distracted, he would surely be trodden upon. The ones who did see him were even worse. They looked at Asp as Asp would look at a random, venomous spider in his leaf-sheets, his bedding and home. They looked at him like something that could be crushed swiftly, for left alone to his own devises, surely he would appear at the least desirable moment. Surely he would bite.
He was an infection here, to their murky eyes. He was something dangerous, something out of place, and the fact that they were not wrong did not improve his mood. As Asp made his way across the crowded square, slipping and sliding through the throng, he kept one nimble hand on his knife of venom and bone. Twice he thought of drawing it, twice he saw the vulnerable meat that pushed a little too bullishly against him. And, twice, he thought of his lover, of his love, and he did not make the scene. An Ilyn should never have stepped into the broad daylight of a village square, not without a tree or a shadow in which to skulk.
But this Ilyn had a mystery upon him, and his sharp teeth were set into the meat of it. He had a mission now, like it or not.
The Boar’s Head was a tavern, he had been told. But before yesterday, Asp had not known what a tavern was. And now, with so much useless knowledge crammed into his skull, he cared even less to step into this place. But such is a mystery. One must follow all of the leads.
At midday, the tavern was almost empty. Asp stepped inside with a breath of relief, moving onto the oaken floor and feeling his flesh turn a dark brown. He was not invisible, not as he was in a living tree, but it was a far cry better than what he had been on the stone under the sun. Here at least, he had privacy. Here, there were shadows.
Asp moved along the edge of the room, taking it in, his hand still on his knife. He placed his feet delicately, like a cat moving on something unpleasant. Few people noticed him, here. There was a table with two old, fur-faced beasts of humans at the back of the room. One was sleeping on his furry arms, the other still drank from a horn. The fire in the hearth was naught but glowing embers, and Asp hissed ever so quietly as he stepped lightly past it. Fire is the ultimate evil. Fire is a soul being torn from its body.
Fire, for an Ilyn, is what true fear looks like.
Asp, satisfied with his quick surveillance, moved to the bar. The person behind it seemed to contain extra skin, the abundance of folds making the creature bulkier. Asp did not understand this. Older Ilyns thickened, as did the widow trees. But to have extra flesh…it was something grotesque.
“Well there,” the human said, its face fleshy and without fur, “not too often we see your folk here.”
Asp turned slightly away, so that his body was at an angle to the fleshy creature. He wanted to keep one of his eyes on the door, for the earth only knew what might come into this den next. But he also knew that standing at an angle made an Ilyn even harder to see. He hoped it made the creature nervous.
“I’ve heard,” he said, his raspy, hissing voice like a knife through silk, “that this is where they take the coin.”
The human’s lips widened and it showed him its teeth in the most peculiar way. It was missing one, a front one, but it did not seem to mind flaunting this flaw. Asp had been concerned at first. He had thought this widening of the mouth, this barring of the teeth, he had thought it was a threat, an animal’s snarl. Now, he thought it was meant to be disarming. Like showing someone a knife as a gesture of good will. Here is my weapon. See how it is not threatening you.
“Take the coin,” the human’s mouth widened further, and it made the rough sound in the back of its throat, something like a squirrel’s bark. “I worked here for three turns before I realized that that was what your people called it. But yes, my dear, this is where people come to take the coin. I suppose you saw the posters around town? You’re looking for work?”
“The Guild,” Asp said, the strange word catching in the back of his throat. “Adventures wanted.”
“Aye, dear. And am I to assume that you’re looking apply as a…er, locksmith? Your people usually do.”
“I am an assassin,” Asp said, because that was what he had been told he was good at.
The human’s lips shrank down to a circle, its teeth disappearing. Asp did not know if this was a threat, or if it merely was tired. He did not care. The thing carried too much weight, and it held a mug in its hands. A mug was not a dangerous thing.
“Blunt about it, aren’t you?” it asked.
“I do not understand. Do you need me, or not?”
The human sighed, setting down its mug and gesturing with a round-fingered hand. It moved like a bear, its bulk cumbersome, and when it came out from behind the bar, Asp stepped delicately after it. The human lead him through a red-curtained doorway. The place smelled of lemon, but it was a smell meant to mask another one. An ugly one. Asp wished he could hold his breath forever.
It was a back room with a round table. There were three other creatures there. They sat in silence, and that was preferable to what Asp had come to expect from the outlanders. The bulky human pulled out one of the wooden chairs, and Asp took a moment to realize that he was meant to rest upon it. Another strange custom.
“Can I get ye anything, while you’re waiting?” it asked, filling the room with its voice.
“How much longer?” one of the other humans asked, its voice deeper, its face angular and shaped with neatly trimmed fur.
“Can’t tell ye, dear,” the cumbersome one answered. “Never hosted this employer before.”
And it left them at their table. Asp was seated with his back to the door, and it made him anxious. His eyes flicked over the others, noting their weapons and their posture. He wondered if this would be his Company of Coin. He wondered if his love had once sat here, had once taken an employer’s coin.
He wondered if these were the people who had named her Laurel.
...to be continued