Trouble With the Truth
L. M. Townsend-Crow
The traveler hefted the pack a bit higher on her shoulder, then walked into the tavern. It was typical of the places she'd found on this journey – wood and stone, straw strewn on the floor, a large hearth, crackling flames inviting her closer. Inside it smelled more pleasant than the other places; yeasty from the ale and bread, but also sweet from the fresh straw on the floor and the wax candles instead of lamps burning rancid oil. She looked about. It was a bit crowded for her liking, but still only half full. She found a table. It wasn't ideal – a bit too exposed and at the same time too close to the fire for her comfort, but the table was empty and that was far more important. She threw back the hood of her dove grey cloak. Curly wisps of her black hair escaped the complicated plaits which were believed by superstitious folk to be made only through "good" magic. Bad magic was created by minions and imps and other hellish things who could not weave or plait, only unravel things. The fact that she wore them meant that she bore the protected status of a magic wielder. "Good" witches honoured the treaty and the Rede and thus were recognized by their ability to conjure the braids. In truth, both the pattern of the plaits and magical gestures merely required deft fingers. She had plaited it herself just before crossing the border into this chieftain's realm as his dislike of all magic was well-known. Even he had to honor the treaty, though, for healers and mapmakers, weavers, potters, ale-brewers, and even some warriors were all considered magic wielders of one kind or another. The people were dependent upon all of these trades, especially the ale-brewers and the healers so the chief had no choice but to swallow his distaste for them. For now, Althaea was a guardian. Her magical education had been interrupted by an unfortunate incident involving her twin sister which had led to this appointment. She just wanted to get back to her training, but now she had this burden and it did not look like she would ever be able to lay it down and live her own life. Her sister, who had essentially cursed her with this thing, was looking for her and Althaea had spent the better part of the last year on the run, constantly moving, trying to avoid her. If she were to get the contents of her pack … Althaea shuddered and kept the pack tightly fastened to her back as she signaled the tavern-keeper and ordered a cup of wine and some bread and cheese.
"We have mutton stew – " he offered
"No! No flesh, thank you." Althaea's eyes widened as she tugged at the pack.
The tavern-keeper blinked – had something in that pack growled? He nervously eyed the unfamiliar pattern of her hair plait, but could not discern what type of magic she practiced. Then he shrugged; she had passed his wards, after all, and he paid a lot for those wards to keep harmful powers and spirits out of his establishment. She would have to be of the helpful sort of magic wielder to have crossed his threshold and whatever was wriggling in that pack of hers had to be harmless, as well.
"A room or a place on the floor?" asked the tavern keeper.
"No, I'll just eat and be on my way," said the traveler, not meeting his eyes..
"Uh, you can't leave now. Curfew was at sundown – about seven minutes ago – no one can be about the streets now, not even someone in your … er, occupation, without the guard jailing them. Unless you're a midwife?" Althea shook her head. "No? Then I'm guessing you don't want the guards' attention? Despite the pact, they have a tendency to be less than gentle with sorcerers."
"I have to be away from here. Is it possible to -- ?"
The tavern keeper shook his head.
"You can't … 'magic' your way out of the gates, eh?"
He saw the shoulders slump under the burden of what looked like a very heavy item in the sturdy pack the woman carried.
"Listen, I can give you a place on the floor in here – no charge," he said.
"No, that's okay," said the woman with a deep sigh. "I can pay for a room – how much?"
"Two silvers if you share or five for a private room – and I'll include your dinner – minus the drink," said the tavern keeper.
"I need the privacy. You're honest and just," said the woman. "Someday, when I have the means, I'll see that you're rewarded for that."
The tavern-keeper laughed.
"Nice thought, but you're still paying for your drinks," he said, still chuckling as he walked away.
The woman sighed. Her sister was very close. She could feel her. She was in this very town, if Althaea's extra senses were correct – and truth be told, they always were. Althaea suspected that it was Dorie who was behind the curfew. No doubt her twin had finagled her way into the city guard. She had the warrior magic, after all. Althaea's gifts had yet to be determined, but so far, she had kept the powerful contents of her pack under control and safe from her sister's designs on it.
And they called me the dark sister.
She finished her dinner, kept the wine to only one cup though she wished for much more to dull the dreams which she knew would come with the sleep her body so desperately needed. Once behind the closed and barred door, Althaea, examined the magic stitching which kept the pack closed to make certain it was secure before lying down in the narrow bed, the pack under her head like a pillow. There was a small growl which came from within the pack.
"Sorry," said Althaea. "I know you're hungry, but feeding you could mean the end of the world as we know it and I'm not ready to take responsibility for that – at least not yet."
Your sister has no qualms, came a sibilant "voice" in her head.
"And that is why we are avoiding her," said Althaea.
Our encounter with them is inevitable, said the voice.
"Perhaps," said Althaea. "And perhaps if I can buy a little more time, I can figure out how to avoid the catastrophic part of it."
There is no understanding in you – your twin must have received all the wisdom, said the voice with what sounded like a sigh.
"Probably," Althaea agreed. "But I don't want to fight Dorie."
Her sword is sharp, the voice agreed.
"I'm not afraid of her sword – between the two of us, I have the sharper weapon, I think," said Althaea.
She has warrior magic and weapons, you have – some – magic of an unknown sort, said the voice. Though the strength of the stitches keeping me in this dark prison lead me to think you may be a weaver … I crave the light. The voice became a whine, then a whimper, trailing off to silence for too brief a moment as Althaea softly punched the pack, seeking a more comfortable shape on which to rest her head.
But I digress. It will be an easy win for her, I should think.
"Shut up and let me sleep," said Althaea.
You're going to need it, the voice agreed before finally being silent.
Althaea awoke, startled by a noise outside the door. There was a bump, a scrape, then angry hoarse whispers and the sound of a sword being drawn. It was still dark, but the damp chill just preceding sunrise was in the air.
"Damn! She found us!" Althaea muttered, grabbing her cloak and her pack and heading for the window. Unfortunately, the room was on the second floor of the inn part of the tavern. Chanting under her breath, Althaea opened the window and stepped out, then floated gently towards the ground.
Too slow, too slow! The voice crowed almost triumphantly.
Althaea could see the city guard gathering around the village well in the center of the square, just where she would land and there was her sister standing in the center, smiling smugly up at her as Althaea literally fell into their hands. Despite being twins, they were opposites in appearance. Where Althaea was petite and dark, Dorie – or Pandora, as she was better known -- was blonde and muscular. She stood there grinning at Althaea, her arms crossed across her breastplate.
"I have been looking all over for you, you know," she said.
"Yes, I do," said Althaea, quietly.
"Yes, I suppose you would," said Dorie.
"Well, let's get this over with," said Althaea, taking a stance, her small dagger ridiculously outmatched by her warrior sister's broadsword.
"Oh, put that thing away," said Dorie. "Just open the pack and let it out."
"Have you let yours go yet?" asked Althaea.
"No, just everything else," said Dorie. "I have the last one with me always."
"You know what will happen next, don't you Pandora?" said Althaea.
"Do you?" asked the warrior, pulling an ornate box from her own pack.
"The end of the world?" said Althaea.
"Hardly," said Pandora. "We have to give everything to mankind to restore the balance."
"Easy for you to say – you got to be guardian of hope," said Althaea, gesturing over her pack to remove the magical warding stitches. "Although this is easier than when we were trying to recapture all of them – remember?"
"Yeah, easier still if I had just listened to our teacher and left the gods-be-damned jar sealed, but you're stalling – come on, we'll open them together," said Pandora.
Althaea removed her own ornately carved box. The guardsmen drew their blades and moved closer, anticipating an attack.
"Back off," Pandora told them. She sheathed her sword and used both hands to lift the lid of her box. Out flew a lovely creature, gossamer chiton, golden hair and only as tall as the length of the warrior's hand. She flew up out of the box. Her shimmering rainbow wings carried her to Pandora's shoulder where she hovered, smiling at all those gathered.
"Hope is beautiful, but she must be tempered by Truth or there is no balance," said Pandora, looking pointedly at Althaea's box.
Althaea opened her box and out flew a dark little creature with wings like a bat. It was larger, the size of a cat, perhaps. It screeched and flew at Hope, devouring the lovely creature by swallowing her whole like a snake would a mouse, then it winked naughtily at the sisters and flew off, disappearing into the darkness.
"That's the trouble with the truth; it always kills Hope," said Althaea with a deep sigh.
Dorie shook her head, then smiled and put her arm around Althaea's shoulders, gently turning her sister to face the lightening sky. Althaea feared that sunrise might not come, that the world would be plunged into eternal night with no hope of light ever returning, but eventually, the sun did appear, bouncing off of the shimmering water in the well. Althaea feared disappointment in the rising emotion in her chest – she had the notion she would be heading back to school from here and that she would find out her magical niche, become a real magic wielder at last, but how was that possible now? Hope was no longer un the world. Mankind would wither away from despair. Then, from the reflected rays in the well's clear water, Hope was back! She sprang up and laughed, then waved before flying off, leaving a rainbow in her wake. Together, the sisters watched the sun finish rising on what promised to be a beautiful day.