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They fasted so on these modest foods.
As they did the small hostess became more perhaps accustomed to the circumstance; before long she began to talk, and her questions filled the recess of their meal.
“Did you sleep like this often?” she asked our dear boy once. “Alone in the forest, in a tent?”
“Not often,” said Garion shortly.
“Where did you, then?”
“Not in a tent.” He looked solemnly in the steady flame of the lantern. “Under the open sky, as a rule; faster to stand in the morning and move back on trail when nothing keeps your departure. Why?”
“I’m curious, that’s all. Isn’t it dangerous to have this inside with us? It’s fire.”
“The canvas is wet,” Garion marked; “it would not catch flame easily. The lantern also is crafted to snuff out the wick if it is tipped to the side. There is no danger; rest you assured.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Satori smiled. “As a matter of fact, even if I end up with my hairs all burned off, I’ll know leastwise who to fault.”
After they ate they settled down in two ends of the tent.
Their moods wound down with time; the rain thrummed on, unbroken, neither growing nor dying away. Quiet, the small hostess sat embracing her knees and watched wistfully how the blond man buffed away at a set of cast firesteels with a snip of rag. Thunder rumbled on away over and beyond the trees; and the forest was as if timid with it aloft: not a crack of twig nor crinkle of leaf nor even a shrinking bird-song while the storm blew.
As so passed something akin to an hour; but such a calm time it was and peaceful that one may not tell how long it was exact.
At length however the calm was broken; on her spot the slight Satori switched then spoke in a small voice:
“Yes?” said the blond man, not turning from his task.
There was a pause.
Then Garion murmured. “I see.”
The small hostess knitted her brows. “No, you don’t. I’m cold.”
“I cannot make a fire now,” said the boy in a terse way. “There will be no dry wood.”
“I didn’t want one, Garion. I’m only cold.”
Garion put down his rag.
With not one word of question he reached to his backpack: for the heavy blanket inside, which he tossed next folded on the ground before Satori’s feet. Then, naught a say still, he went on back to polishing his toys, in his deepest heart believing the trouble was done. This, however, he was swiftly made to stop when the blanket flew at him and struck him dead-square in the face. On he scrambled to at once peel it off; but in the meanwhile someone light and smelling faintly of damp hair down fell on his lap and shameless leaned their little head on his shoulder.
Then the person craned up her neck to look at him with unhappy eyes.
“I told you I was cold,” she told him a pert way.
“I did hear,” the blond man protested. “I gave you a blanket.”
“I didn’t want a blanket, Garion,” said Satori. “Tell me. Aren’t you a little cold, too?”
“No. Not very.”
“Then you are—a bit. You’ll put these away—” here she motioned at his shining firesteels, “—you’ll rub them into fine dust if you go on. Then you’ll take this blanket and cover me and yourself. We should both be warmer this way. You’re a practical person, Garion. You should see the vantage in that.”
“... Is that so?”
It was, by nature, circular reasoning.
Withal our Garion pocketed his polished playthings; seized he then the rugged blanket, unfurled it, and swung it round his back and shoulders so that the ends overlapped on his front. These, in turn, he tucked about the little lady nestled on his lap. She sank against him then, and sighed: a content little sigh from ‘tween her small pale lips.
“See? Isn’t this miles better?”
“... If so you say.”
To say now that at any other time he would be loath to such intimacy would not be great overstatement; but the logic—though circular—was sound, and shake as he might about it his blond head, he might not dismiss that they had been as close as this already once. There had been nothing for Garion to do but fall in with this quaint request, or order. There’d have been no real reason, indeed no sense, in saying no. Truly, no reason at all: this was no thing new.
“We’ve done this before?” Satori asked whimsically.
Garion felt her shift cosily in his arms.
“The previous night,” he said in a stifled voice. “You would not lie still... till I let you lie on me.”
There was a bashful silence.
“Well!” The small hostess cleared her throat. “At any rate, this goes to show Rin was right in one thing about you.”
“You make for a great pillow, Garion.”
“I do not take kindly to mockery,” he said bleakly.
“I’m not mocking. I’ve seen finally why she took to sneaking in your bed instead of mine like usual. As a matter of fact, I’ll have to admit my defeat here: I can never hope to be as comfortable as you are, Garion. You’re likely to have been the most comfortable thing in my house to date.”
“... You are mocking me.”
“Would I do that?” she said innocently.
Garion did not reply.
Thereupon another silence followed—lengthier now: punctuated by only the rapping of rainfall on the roof of their shelter. Again Garion set his mind to wander – to matters mundane: to the land and the trail, and the weather and the rain, and the muddy bog which the road would become if it held; on the forest paths he thought, on the farms and villages, and of the underground caves: of the bridge and the tollhouse there, the twisting passages, and the sunken mansion on the magmatic lake. Of the miles he had gone he thought, and the years he had squandered. So long had he been at his quest. So long. But now! he was closer now: today evinced it, nurtured his conjecture. Yes; he was not certain, not yet – but nigher now, surer.
Surer, mayhap; but still he started when, beneath the cover of the blanket, a warm and now-familiar hand sought out and wormed into his.
“Oh, don’t do that,” Satori said irritably.
Almost unknowing he took hold of the hand and apologised.
At that, the small hostess chuckled. “You don’t honestly expect it to work me after you’ve told me what the trick is, do you? Ah,” she made a pleasant sound; “but did you know something? It does. I can’t imagine why, but I can never stay angry with you for long. We’ve been together almost constantly since yesterday evening, too, did you know?”
“I have noticed.”
There he cast his eyes down, but her face was hidden from his sight.
“I suppose you might have,” she granted him in a courteous manner. “To be honest, I’d always thought I’d tire of you very rapidly if it ever came down to something like this.”
“You have thought about such a thing?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” she said, “I have. I think about lots of things, Garion. It gives me something to tide me over the times when I’m by myself. I don’t have nearly so much leisure for thinking when I’m with you. Why is that, I wonder—don’t you?”
“And have you tired of me yet?” Garion evaded answering.
“And what would you say?”
She gave his fingers a painful tweak.
“Are you, by chance, trying to push it, Garion?”
“Consider my pride unappeased. I’m not so easily won over, I’m afraid. But no, I haven’t—not yet, anyway; not to say you’re helping your case a great deal. Why, at times I’m all but led to believe you’ve addressed yourself specifically to getting in my hair. Speaking of—” she said sharply, “—would you stop breathing in it, please? I can’t say in blunt truth I’m enjoying it all a lot. Thank you. And do not you go and be sorry yet again, do you hear? I’m already quite conscious you weren’t doing it on purpose; there’s no need to go out of your way to convince me of it. Are we clear, Garion?”
“The same goes for my ears. You can have my hands, but my ears are off-limits. Are we absolutely understood on this?”
“As you wish.”
“Great.” She let out an eased breath. “I’m rather attached to my ears. I won’t let you steal them as easily. Well, my hands too, but... as far as we’ve gone you’ve been tender enough not to pull them off, so I presume there’s no harm if you’ll touch them... every once and again. But my ears are a lot more sensitive than my hands. So there. Ah, but we were talking about something else, no?” she said glibly. “What was it?”
“Thinking,” said Garion. “Yours, precise.”
“Oh yes. That. What I was saying was: you gave me a goodly deal to think about. It’s in large part the kind of thing that makes my hair stand on the ends though, so don’t winch your arm out of its socket patting yourself on the back.”
“I was not.”
“As a matter of fact, no, you weren’t. You wouldn’t really do that, would you? You tease me—without knowing sometimes—but you never take pleasure in it, am I correct?”
The question surprised him.
“Why?” he could but repeat.
“You view yourself very serious, don’t you?” Satori said inquisitively. “You tease me, but there’s always, always some very sober cause behind it. Sometimes you want something of me, so you pick words you’ve found I’m soft to. Other-times, you need me amiable for some inexpressible end, so you look at me or touch me where you suppose I’ll like it. I’ve noticed, Garion. You’re doing your hardest not to be too evident about it, but I’ve still noticed.
“As a matter of fact,” she went on, “I can name off the top of my head: when you offered me your hand after bolting off yesterday? Or another instance: when you brought me that wonderful breakfast to bed? You were reciting to yourself all the while: ‘only being grateful, only returning the favour;’ but you knew I wouldn’t hold it against you if you hadn’t done a thing. And yet you just kept going; you didn’t even allow for the idea of maybe enjoying it just a little – even if you take big satisfaction in cookery. You do, don’t you?” she asked him. “You do, Garion; you can’t fool me, not on this. Shouldn’t you be glad if the other person likes it too?”
“Why don’t you, in that case?” Satori pushed on. “It’s all right to be glad of little things like that. You’ve only done yourself disservice so far by acting so prim and proper all the time.”
“I do not need be glad of it.”
“No. As a matter of fact, there isn’t a thing out there we should ‘need’ to be glad of. Some might say otherwise, but there isn’t; it all comes down to our personal liking. Still, we go out and play and enjoy things of our own accord—even if we don’t need to. Why would you say that is?”
“I do not play;” the young man did not yield.
“Oh, but you do. With my heart. A lot.”
That Garion did not answer.
The lantern flickered; it drew his gaze from the tiny figure rested on his lap. But the draw was momently; though he might wish, he would not be let forget that she was here, for presently she made herself known again.
“Garion?” she cooed his name.
Once more the blond man looked down. “Yes?”
“Can I turn around?”
“Can I turn around?” implored the small hostess. “I’d like to face you.”
Garion braced his self. “... No,” he said. “You cannot.”
Satori’s question was disheartened.
“It would not be proper.”
She made a small groan. “What did I tell you about propriety, Garion, remember?” she plained. “We’re just us here: nobody’s going to peek then noise about that you’ve hugged me for all in the Land to hear. We’re as alone as we could ever be. It’d be silly anyway, if someone were to announce something like that as if it’s so great. Why won’t you quit worrying for these petty appearances, even now? As a matter of fact, didn’t you say yourself we’d already been close like this once – in someone else’s home, at that?”
“I did not say it,” he corrected.
“No, you didn’t; but you might have as well. I was asleep at the time, anyway. I want to, if you won’t mind... I’d like to try it again—but awake for a change. Won’t you let me?”
“Why are you like this, Garion?” she erupted. “I just want to face you, that’s all! Are you so bent on making me beg for it?”
“Then can I, at last?”
“Ah. And if I do anyway?” she challenged. “Are you going to hit me? Shake me off, perhaps?”
The young man shaped with his chapped lips a choice of uncomplimentary words.
“... This is hardly fair,” he complained.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” tweeted the devious Satori, “yes, it is. You’ve probably never noticed, but I’m a girl, Garion. I don’t have to always be fair. And even if I’m not, you’ll still forgive me because I’m small and nice to hold hands with. Won’t you just, Garion? Hold now!” she told him resolutely; “I’m turning. And don’t even think about pushing me away. I’ll hate you if you do.”
Then, as said, she did turn: twisted round under the warm blanket and embraced with longing arms the inflexible blond man.
Wanting, not wanting, he also closed his arms about her, if only to, in this new peril, secure a steadier pose. With indelible almost correctitude he well-nigh cricked his neck not to breathe again in her pale hair. The small hostess made no remark of it; she touched her tiny nose to his front and gave off, one after one, a number of delighted breaths.
“It’s such an ugly word, ‘peril’” she murmured, “isn’t it, Garion?”
The young man ignored that.
“You are strangely lovesome today,” he marked instead in a factual tone.
“I like that word, though,” she answered, “‘lovesome;’ even if it’s a shade too strong,” she added instantly. “I’ll say ‘caught up in the moment.’ It’s a bit milder—and more accurate, as far as words go.”
One does not however acknowledge normally when caught so, one should mark.
“I’m brighter than normal,” she replied. “So I’m aware—and can acknowledge.”
“‘The moment?’” asked Garion.
“We’re alone, Garion. I’m cold. You’re warm and comfortable. I don’t mind if it’s indecent; I want a little of that warmth.”
“Will it last?” he said, his voice unconvinced.
“Until you knock me out of it, likely. Of course, then I’ll knock you out and boot you out on the rain, so you’d best not crowd it. I’d really rather sleep with something for a pillow than not—backaches, yes—and you don’t have anything else of the sort on you, do you?”
“Then you’ll have to cope. Aside from that, though,” she continued, “is it really so strange? Why, if I think on it, I remember the assessment of me you made of me—after I had... well, you remember—and you said, among those other things you’d inferred, that I badly liked being touched – but now you turn it around?”
“I do not know,” said Garion. “You were never so intimate when we stayed in your bed-chamber.”
The small hostess tensed. “That... is something else,” she argued. “I don’t typically... when at home, it isn’t so... I’d die of shame if... Oh, do you know something?” she groaned. “Never mind. As a matter of fact, I said just then, didn’t I: the moment? And you’re ruining with your stupid sound logic and points. Gods, you’ve annoyed me.”
“... I apologise,” said the blond man; and by way of apology he held her closer.
This cost him great control, but he did not flinch.
“Am I really so loathsome, Garion?” she asked him pitifully.
“... No,” he answered after a length of thought.
“Then why are you so revolted to touch me now?”
“It is...” he muttered, “... not proper.”
“Why isn’t it? Who says that?”
Garion did not answer.
A pause came then, laden with tautness.
At last Satori spoke again in a dispirited voice.
“I am here,” he assured.
“Why won’t you forget about her? About that woman of yours?”
The young man’s mind reeled. The words came like a fulminant noreaster and chilled him to the very core. He could not—not ever. It was all he had.
“... No,” he choked out, “I cannot.”
“It is... all I have.”
Once more the tiny Satori stiffened.
“And when you find her?” she asked then. “What will you do?”
“I will thank her.”
“Is that really all?” She did not believe him. “And what after?”
“After?” the blond man echoed.
“Aren’t you going to do anything? Go with her, maybe? Only thank her? And that’s it?”
“... You have asked this once already,” said the anew staid Garion, “have you not now? I will thank her; pay her back for her kindness. This I must—am vowed to do. That is all.”
And it was all.
Satori made a whining sound. “I can’t take you, Garion!” she cried. “I’ll never take you. You’ll age me ancient before the week is out.”
“Are you not—” he began.
“Shush. A handful hundred years isn’t ancient; not to mention, that was the rudest of you. I have feelings, did you know that? I’m not human, yes, but it doesn’t change anything about the fact that I’m still a girl. I’m plump and soft in all the customary places.”
“... You are,” Garion agreed.
“I don’t think you’ve fully grasped it yet, but I’ll let it pass for now. Anyway, I don’t look my age this way or the other, so what does it matter if I’m a few hundred and not a few tens? I didn’t always live like now, either. I didn’t really like that previous life. I’d much sooner count my years from the point I learned to wear clothes and brush my hair, if I could.”
“I’m not telling. As for you, you’ll have to come to accept that I’m not how or what you’d envision me. All things considered, you’re very thick, Garion,” she told him piteously. “We’ve spent so many nights together—even slept in one bed—but you’re still picturing me as something... or someone... I’m not.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a person, Garion. A normal person: with normal crotchets and quirks.”
The young man released a slow breath. “... Is that so?”
“Yes, Garion,” she told him sadly. “Yes, it is so. It’s all really very silly, did you know that? You came to terms with my... peculiarity... in an instant; but somehow it unnerves you that under all the hate, the legends and the monstery nonsense is just a girl. A silly old girl living in a faraway hollow for a home. A silly old girl with no one dependable to hug to when she’s feeling lonely. A silly old girl who’d likely blithely fall for the first stupid passer-by to give her a deuced shoulder to cry on.” She halted and swore silently under her breath. “Gods, I’m so stupid, too. Why did I just say that? Never mind me, Garion. I’ll be back in order just as soon as I’ve gotten some sleep. I’m actually tired, did you know that? I really don’t know what made me say that. It must be—”
“—the moment,” hinted Garion.
“I’ll take that,” Satori said in a little happier voice; “I’m tired, so I’m probably letting it run away with me farther than I ought. It must be that. The rain, too; it’s giving me a headache.”
“Will you lie down?” offered the blond man.
“And will you with me?” she returned.
“Should you wish.”
“Then I might just. I’d hate to have to lie on the ground alone. I’ve done it before, but I still wouldn’t care for it a lot. I’ve said this already, haven’t I? I’m repeating myself. Gods, I feel so doltish now.”
“You shall be better once you lie down.”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, yes, you might very well be right. You’ll take your shoes off, won’t you? They’re hurting my calves.”
“I intend to.”
“Great. Then I’ll just... wait for you, I guess.”
The small hostess gave forth a withered breath; with it she slowly came away from the blond man so he may carry out his intent.
“You may lie down,” he advised; “I will be with you but in a moment.”
Satori nodded; naught a sound of resistance she lay down on the mat: knees up, ill at ease, hands folded on her chest.
Our Garion, meanwhile, was ever as strait-laced; sedulous he discarded his hard-shod travel-boots and set them where they would not wet in flowing rain or morning dew. At that, he traced also along the edges of the tent for invading water, but found none; promptly then he threw the blanket across his back, and, like a child or animal on all-fours, crawled over the waiting Satori.
The small hostess did not look whilst he hovered over her like so; away, distant were her big violet eyes, and her palms were laid, protective-like, on the front of her breast. There she was: small and unarmed, only these tiny hands for defence. And with her here was Garion: tall and strong, honed by years of roving through the Land.
A thought flashed to his head; but smartly he brushed it aside.
This was not the time, nor was this the place; still he was not sure, still uncertain. Another thing, withal, was as plain as plain, though never had it struck him before: these clothes, these heavy robust travel-clothes, not hers, did not suit her, did not flatter her at all.
But this was but his passing thought.
That chased also from his mind he laid down; he spread and let settle the broad blanket then, again, he embraced the small Satori and held her tightly to his chest.
“Garion?” She was startled. “What are you—?”
“You will start to kick once asleep,” he explained. “This is so you will not.”
She made a muffled noise. “But Garion, you’re too... Ow. No! I don’t like this. Not so—”
She pushed away from him. Their eyes met.
“Oh dear,” she said in a wispy voice.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Her eyes darted. “Nothing, Garion. Never mind. It’s nothing. But... I kick? Are you serious?”
“I always am.”
“Am I that bad?”
She was hurt.
“Worse,” said Garion regardless, cool and unflurried by her look. “You toss and switch, toss and switch; until someone holds you in place, you will not calm.”
“I did not know that,” Satori said sourly. “I’ve never woken up in a tossed-up bed after sleeping alone. But yes. You make sense. When Rin or Utsuho sneak in to sleep with me, they always cling as close as they can. Could it be I only do that when there’s someone else with me in bed?” she wondered. “I doesn’t sound the most elegant, does it—nor too sensible.”
“It might not,” said Garion; “but it is so all the same.”
“But if you hold me, I’ll...?”
“... This is so embarrassing, Garion.” Satori shook her careworn head. “Why do you keep unearthing these things about me I myself would much rather never know? I don’t like it. I didn’t let you sleep with me so you could do that to me.”
“Let?” he repeated.
Quite inadvertently he thought back on the previous night and the decanter of delusory wine-that-was-not-wine.
A slow flush made onto Satori’s tiny cheeks.
“Oh dear,”she gasped once again, pink and wide-eyed.
The blond man understood.
“It is of no import,” he said as fast as he might; “I wish no issue made of it. What is past is past.”
“No issue,” he insisted.
She gave out a faded whimper. “But I... I only... Oh, bother!” She stuck her face in his vest. “I only wanted some excuse to bully you a bit, that’s all. I hadn’t planned for your finding out. As a matter of fact, Garion, it hadn’t occurred to me you’d want to check. Why had you to? But I shouldn’t have left it like that, anyway. I could have spared us both this talk if I had—”
“I told you just then,” interjected the blond man. “I wish no issue of it.”
“But I do!” Satori exclaimed. “See now? This is part of the problem, Garion. You’re much too good for me at hiding these thoughts. You’ve a way with that. A horrible way. You lock them away to yourself; but then out of nowhere you let them loose and all kinds of things come out. You’re really trying my heart like this. When you find me out doing things like that, tell me! Not think it!” she added; “tell! I don’t enjoy reading your mind that much, anyway; I try to hedge against it when I can.”
Which, one should say, was rarely if indeed ever.
“I can’t defy my nature,” Satori defended; “but I do try it. Anyway, next time something comes up of this like, just open your mouth and tell me! I won’t hit you. I wouldn’t do that again. I couldn’t bear it. I just want to know when I’m making a stupid out of myself in your eyes, Garion. Would you do that for me? Tell me?”
“I cannot guarantee,” said Garion gravely.
“That’s all right. I’ll be happy if you’ll just consider when it inevitably happens again.”
“As you wish.”
“Thank you,” Satori said without a hint of irony. “Oh, and Garion? You don’t have to turn and twist so hard. You can breathe in my hair. I don’t care any more. You can do whatever you like—just not with my ears.”
“... As you wish.”
“I might, at that.”
Overcome with weakness, she spoke no more. And still the inexorable rain drummed on outside.
Our dear boy also, was still; hardly he moved in those next minutes; but in time the swooning voice of his lovely hostess reached again his ear.
“There is one thing, though,” she whispered; “one you’ve never told me.”
“Which is?” he asked.
“When you kissed me, yesterday... Why did you on the lips? I never said it had to be there. Could you tell me, maybe, if there was a reason why my lips and not—not the cheek, or forehead, or even hands? I had really thought it would be there. I’d been led to think you’d taken a liking to my hands. Was there any particular reason why not them?”
“... Not particular.”
“Then why the lips?”
“It seemed...” he steeled himself, “... appropriate, at the time.”
This he firmly believed.
Satori murmured. “... I see. Garion?”
“And if I told you again: to kiss me, would you?”
“... I would not.”
“I see. I didn’t think so. But you’ll do anything else?”
“Then don’t ever tell anyone that I asked. Will you?”
“... As you wish.”
“Great. Ah, this takes the stone off my heart.” She moved lightly under the blanket. “I can’t think why, but I’m relieved. As a matter of fact, I’ll see now, I think, if I can perhaps still get some sleep tonight.”
“Very well,” he said. “Then I shall also.”
“Good night, Garion,” said the small hostess.
“Good night, Satori,” said the blond man.
And then she wilted in his arms and never again spoke that night.
And so a time passed that Garion listened to her breaths: these tiny breaths that were no bigger than a minute and each, warm, clearly felt on his neck. At its end, of that time, when the breaths were shallow and even as the sound of rain outside, he reached out from beneath their blanket and quenched the blinking flame of the old lantern.
Then once more he took the small Satori in his arms, buried his nose in her fragrant hair, and himself, promptly, gave in to deep, dreamless sleep.
※ ※ ※