Larch sat on the bed, feeling bone deep weariness in every line of her. The baths had been nerve wracking. Hot water to soak in was a balm to body, mind, and soul, but sharing them…
She was not body shy on any sexual level. Her body was just a body, a meat shell to house her mind and her will, arms to make those happen, a mouth to speak the words. But she was in no way prepared to put such things out for the viewing of others… not when the dishonorable marring was on full display.
Bolke, built like her battle axe, had only spared a glance at them. She didn’t know what the dwarf thought; Larch had the suspicion that, like Glaz, there was a sharper mind than most suspected behind the woman’s beard. But she was hard to read. Even when Larch inquired about the ones looking for her, and offered to assist in keeping a low profile, she’d declined. Not here in this season, apparently.
Mallory… Mallory, spirits help her, would have questions Larch wasn’t sure she’d be up for explaining. Especially after the note and the Other Incident. She’d definitely seen them, and might have an inkling where they came from, and who had given them to her. She seemed younger than she was, with her pretty good looks and kind heart, but she was no stranger to hardship.
It was hard to tell what Miri was thinking. She’d been in her fox form, and it was hard to tell the expression on her face.
Thank the spirits and my ancestors that the Doctor didn’t see them, at least.
Her arm twinged. She flexed the fingers there, sighed again, and rummaged in her bag for one of her many salves. The aches and pains there were chronic; she knew she would have them all her life. But however familiar they were, it didn’t make it any less annoying.
The whip marks, and the place had that the collar had sat around her neck, those didn’t hurt. The collar was simply long term chafing on the sensitive skin of the neck; no more, no less, though it marked her. Her back didn’t hurt because feeling there was muted, period. It healed poorly, slowly, and the nerves there were permanently damaged. It was a small mercy in trade for the humiliation of it, that she was subdued and brought to heel, however briefly, by such a man. But her arm…
…Well, at least it wasn’t as ugly or obvious as the whipping. That had turned her flesh into a hideous mass of scar tissue.
“That was uncharacteristically brave of you today,” a voice said by the window. Flower had unlocked the window and flew in, casually exercising her new power. The purple eyes watched her as she alighted on the bed next to Larch and stretched.
Larch arched an eyebrow, snorting quietly as she rolled up a sleeve. “Thank you,” she said, as sarcastic as her spirit familiar. A pause, then- “….Running from them would be a display of weakness and shame. And it would invite more questions than I wish to answer. I don’t know if it was… brave.”
“Well, maybe not,” Flower said, settling down and licking a paw. Sharp claws like teak wood extended as she methodically cleaned herself. “If you’re not willing to give yourself credit, I won’t make you. But you did it regardless.” At twenty pounds and nearly four times her previous size, she took up a good bit more of the bed than she used to, and the new white star on her chest stood stark against her black fur. Flashes of green among it still marked where the pine needles grew, mirrors of the vines and leaves in Larch’s hair.
“I… suppose I did, yes,” Larch agreed after a moment, smearing the herbal balm on her skin. Flower briefly wrinkled her nose at the strength of it.
“Don’t pet me until that’s dry,” she sniffed. “Did you use more eucalyptus than normal? You know I detest that smell.”
“Eucalyptus has many beneficial properties,” Larch said, with the air of someone stating an argument they have had before. “Topical analgesia among them.”
“Hmph. I suppose it must have some redeeming qualities to make up for the odor,” she muttered, and moved without asking into Larch’s lap, circling there. “What did you learn today?”
Larch straightened. This was Flower’s teaching voice.
“I learned… that… I should ask if the bathhouse is segregated before I enter-“
A paw bapped her cheek, claws sheathed. “Don’t be a smart ass. Continue.”
“-and that…” Larch hesitated.
Flower settled in her lap, waiting patiently.
“…I- they didn’t ask about them. So, maybe… I don’t have to hide so much from them, at least? They have not been bigoted toward my people, and they seem to value my… contributions to the team?”
“Possibly. That will be for you to decide. This is not the forest, away from the eyes of other two leggers. Amalya was right: you are undersocialized, and the company of others will be good for you in the long term. Your suspicion kept you alive, and will do tie to do so, but there are points where it may be maladaptive.”
“I sometimes wish it was still the forest,” Larch admitted. “Things were less… complicated.”
“It’s good for you. Pain can be growth if you let it teach you, sprout,” Flower said with zero sympathy and a little grin. “You’re worried about the words of that god.”
It wasn’t a question. Flower knew her heart. Larch swallowed and nodded mutely. She looked down as the anxiety bubbled in her chest again.
“Stop that. Peace, sprout. No decision has to be made right now. The trees grow how they grow, and so do you. Your choices matter, but do not rush them. Haste is the enemy of caution and wisdom.”
“….Thank you, teacher. I- urgh,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes then shaking herself, determined. “I’ll try.”
“Yes, you will. Don’t worry, sprout. I’ll be here to help.” Flower looked up at her and grinned. “Also to laugh. It is funny, watching you fumble around like a kitten, all limbs and tail and no balance whatsoever.”
“You’re awful. It’s a serious matter, not something to be made fun of,” Larch grumped, looking away. “How could I ever- and him…. What a fucking mess. I- I have been trying to- I need to be… less obvious About how proximity to… what he is affects me. And I…”
Her fists clenched.
“I hate,” she admitted, voice low and trembling with anger not only at herself, “I hate that Master’s effects persist even after his death. I fought. I tried so hard to keep my pride unbowed in my heart. But I find I am unable to… stop it, sometimes.”
Or even oftentimes.
A paw bapped her nose. Larch jumped, started, and looked at Flower, casually grooming her ear.
“I said stop that. You are not in that place anymore. Neither am I. You survived. Now you must learn to live, sprout. With all the wonder and pain that entails, for both of us. You have nothing to fear. After all, our plan is working, the Metal Men are busy chasing you instead of your tribe, and no matter what comes I will be here with you.”
Larch swallowed, emotions clouding her eyes, before she bent her head obediently to accept a head bump and purrs from Flower. The no-longer-just-a-cat stood and moved to her shoulders, purring mightily. It was a rare moment of cuddling between shaman and familiar. Larch was not overly affectionate in personality; likewise, Flower was not precisely cuddly. Quiet lap so sitting, sharing the same space in silent solidarity, or working on herbal things together served as thier bonding moments. But today Flower rubbed her cheek against Larch’s, and Larch turned to rest her head against the spirit’s, drawing strength from her as she always had.
“….Thank you, teacher.”
“Hmph. Well. You’re a good sprout, most of the time,” Flower allowed.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the dream memories came to her in the night, once she is settled down and asleep.
She is small again. Small, one hand and arm bandaged poorly; the other has a rock she is using to dig a hole. The sun is shining. Trees surround her, newish saplings in freshly planted dirt. She’s dirty with her efforts, but the shallow hole is growing deeper.
Next to her are…. Monstrosities. Small, unmoving corpses and mutated plant life: a leshy, with human flesh grafted hideously to it and a withered roselike plant with an eyeball in the center of its single bloom lay next to a rat so heavily distorted by the mushrooms growing out of and on it that it had nearly doubled in size, and a black kitten that had some sort of thorny vibe parasitized or sewn into it. All are dead, and Larch is speaking softly, glancing over her shoulders as she does.
She’s about ten, maybe a bit older. Though her arm is bandaged and her hands dirty, her clothes are good quality but poorly fitting, like someone cared enough about appearances to make sure the animals of the house all matched but not much else.
“-and I curse him, in the name of my ancestors and all the spirits. May his works blacken and wither. May his money turn to ashes in his pockets. May his houses burn with his children and women inside them, and all that he love be taken from him, as he has taken from others,” she intoned. The circles around her eyes, one purple from a fist, made them look dull and tired. “May he reap what he has sown in this bitter garden of hate.” She reached and-
-stopped. The hole was bigger. Larch blinked. Human size, now. Six feet deep. With a twisted fire-blackened corpse inside, wearing a strange blank mask, and just as she inhaled sharply, smelled the fire and the oily black smoke, and he was on top of more corpses, more ashes-
-the eyes opened, and a maw of needle teeth smiled, and Larch yelped as she bolted back into wakefulness, stomach roiling and hand bleeding from where Flower had bitten her to wake her from the dream. She swallowed rapidly to try and fight the bile in her throat. Where- how-
“Larch. Larch! Leshka!”
Larch started again, blinking several times before she registered Flower.
“…Ah. F-Fuck,” she muttered.”I- I’m not-“
“You’re not. You’re in the inn. Your companions sleep close by. You are in Azurestone.” Flower sat in her lap, settling there.
“A-Azurestone. I remember. Yes,” the shaman muttered, shaking. “Fuck. I was… I was back…”
“But you aren’t.”
“…No. No. I’m… not. I’m not,” she repeated, her voice getting stronger. “I have come into my power. We both have. And we made him pay.”
“Yes. Now. You won’t be falling asleep easily. Tell me of your latest tincture proposal combining mint and ginger,” Flower said.
But the image of the grace and the blackened corpses -with one wearing a blank, bone-white mask- would linger for the rest of the night… though the dream did not return.