I pushed myself onto my feet, rising from the rough rock ground. The light was much brighter than inside the cave; I blinked repeatedly, my eyes adjusting. The sky shone bright blue directly ahead of me. It was also a bright blue above, to the left, and to the right - 'below' only being exempted due to the thick layer of clouds that swirled there instead.
It was a sheer cliff to either side of me - I could see that much. No way down, either. I would have to be able to jump maybe twenty feet to go upward - normally that wouldn't be a problem, but my blood was weak right now, exhausted from the fighting and running and jumping (god, the jumping!) I'd been doing over the last few hours. If I had more time - but I could hear my pursuers behind me, their antique servitor clanking and rattling as it hunted me. They wouldn't be able to take it through the narrow crack I'd crawled through to get to this ledge - but they wouldn't need to. I was trapped here. My choices were a slow death by dehydration, or a swift death by the sword - or by falling.
I swore as eloquently as I could. The first attempt was unsatisfying, so I tried again. Worked up a real stream of invective - a babbling brook of obscenities, a waterfall of... attempts to distract myself from the fact that I was about to die. Could've worked better.
Could've worked a lot worse, too. I heard a voice from above - a small girl's voice. "Hello! Those are some very naughty words you're using. And loud - I could hear you from across the island!"
There weren't any children among my pursuers. This girl - craning my neck, I could see what might have been a lock of yellow hair, fluttering over the edge - must be a native of the island. Unexpected - but any port in a storm. I called out to her.
"Toss down a rope!"
"Why should I?" the girl asked. "You were using some very naughty words."
I swore again, this time under my breath. "There are bad men after me," I said, pitching the words to carry. "If you do not help me, they will kill me."
"I guess that'd be bad," the little girl said. Her phrasing did nothing to reassure me. "Here, I'll be back in a jiffy. Maybe this'll help you feel better!"
She dropped something. It drifted slowly downwards, moving back and forth on the breeze. I reached out - being very very careful of the edge - and caught it when it came close.
It was an origami swan.
Time passed. My pursuers came closer; stopped. I heard faint voices - probably a debate over whether to crawl through the tight passage to get to me, or to wait me out. I pried a rock loose from the cliffside, just in case they chose the second option.
More time passed. I watched the clouds below me for a little while. They had some curious shapes- like people, or animals. Funny how I'd never noticed that before.
More time passed. I heard more discussion from inside the cave; and then quiet.
How long had it been? Minutes? Hours? I grew increasingly anxious; willed at my blood, tired as it was, to give me the time. It told me the time was seventy past noon.
This was unhelpful.
Had she forgotten about me entirely, I wondered? Been chided by her parents for wayfulness and turned from her task? Perhaps she'd just been unable to find a rope?
Footsteps came from above me. I tensed - what if it was my pursuers, moving more cleverly than I expected? - but a rope slithered down, and a familiar voice followed it.
"I tied it to a tree!" she said, giggling happily.
"...clever girl," I said, reaching to grip the rope. It slipped. I gripped harder and began to climb.
The girl spoke as I climbed; I didn't really pay much attention to what she was saying. Most of my attention was spent keeping my hands on the rope, and my eyes pointed forward. (Normally I was good with heights - isn't everyone? - but, climbing a rope secured only by the dubious knot-tying skills of an eight-year-old girl, I found myself more than usually vertiginous.)
I survived the climb, almost to my own surprise; and, having done so, turned to the girl who was helping me. (She was wearing a pale blue gingham dress, festooned with ribbons and lace - pristine - even when walking around the island freely? She must be a very careful, meticulous sort of girl.)
"Now, quickly - we must pull the rope back up," I said.
"So the bad men don't catch you?" she asked.
"That's right," I said, watching her untie the knot around the tree. It seemed a complex sort of thing, actually - she must have spent some time learning it. "You're a quick learner."
"Why are they chasing you?" she asked.
I thought about how to answer this. After a moment, I had a simplified version that I thought would serve. No need to complicate things - especially when it was only a matter of time until they realized their quarry had slipped their trap.
"...my parents were very important people. They once ruled many islands, far from here. But the bad men killed them and took their land, and now they are hunting me."
"Oh!" the girl exclaimed. "I know who you are. You're a Gaylord!"
This was not a conclusion I expected the girl to be able to deduce - or anyone here, for this matter. It had been a very long trip from the islands where the Gaylords held sway, across two entire belts. Were these people Exiles - perhaps of a later, less murderous breed than the ones pursuing me? Or were they the same? (But the Exiles returned from the north, and I had fled south!) I would have to be very cautious.
"...yes. You're a very clever little girl, aren't you? Why don't we get going to your house?" The sooner we got moving, the more time I would have to hide and let my blood strengthen again.
The girl smiled and nodded. She led the way, skipping; I followed. Along the way, she chattered.
"You are a Gaylord!" she exclaimed happily. "I know all about the Gaylords. You were one of the First Families, and then you 'o'erthrew the Captains / and sent their steely towers / vanishing into / the clouds below' -" this was in verse, some song I was unacquainted with - " and your Mama joined the People's Council, and then she took over the People's Council and - "
" - enough!" I interrupted, her chirpiness getting on my nerves. I was still too close to death, both in the recent past and the looming future, to have any tolerance for it. "I know my own history, thank you very much. Could we be quiet until we get to your house?"
The look she gave me - I have never seen anyone, old or young, woman or man, look quite as injured as that little girl appeared at that moment.
I sighed. "Oh, all right, I'm sorry. ...you can go on if you really like."
Of course she did.
"And then the Exiles fled, and you wanted to chase them but Black John Steele stole your ships and stopped you from chasing them, and you fought him for a while, and eventually he blew up the whole island and killed your Mama, and then you got all separated and ruled a bunch of places on your own, and then the Exiles returned and started killing you all, and now you're here!"
"...you know a lot for your age."
"Oh, I'm older than I look. I still have the Blood Gift. Do you?"
I stopped dead in my tracks.
The Blood Gift. She should not know that name. Unless - she was some lost descendant of the Gaylord line - or an Exile -
(I willed my blood to awaken. It refused. I cursed, inwardly. If only I'd managed to make that last landing with a little more grace, and a less bleeding!...)
"Why'd you stop, mister? My house is just around the bend!"
I decided to test my more optimistic scenario first. "Are you a Gaylord?"
"Nope!" she chirped cheerily.
My blood froze. (Metaphorically.) It was exactly as I had feared. I backed away slowly, glancing behind to avoid tripping over a rock.
"Then - you're an Exile - you're one of them - "
"Oh, don't be silly! If I was an Exile, would I have this perfectly nice cottage?"
"...that's more convincing if you actually look at the cottage."
She walked closer; I backed away. I hurled questions at her to distract her. "Who are you? Where did you come from?"
"I think it's rude to ask questions while you still haven't answered mine." She crossed her arms, pouting.
I felt my muscles lock. I fell, rigid, to the ground.
What had she done to me?
(When my left ear, pressed to the earth, stopped ringing, I heard my pursuers' servitor clanking. It was close. How had they moved so quickly? Exiles!)
"All right," I said, feeling the girl's shadow fall over me. "Yes. I have the Blood Gift. I am a direct heir to Matriarch Genevia's bloodline." What good would hiding it do? She had all the power - somehow - and besides, I had a strange feeling that she'd have known if I'd lied.
"All right, then! Since you have the Blood Gift, and I have the Blood Gift, and since your friends are Exiles, they have the Blood Gift, there's nothing to worry about! I'll just talk to them, and everything will work out just fine."
"Um - I don't think that's a good idea - " I didn't even know why I was saying anything. Hadn't she just paralyzed me, a full-grown man of the Gaylord line, without batting an eyelash?
"Oh, don't worry. It'll be fine. Here!"
I felt control of my neck muscles return. Carefully, I exercised them, peering upwards. I saw my pursuers appear from around a turn in the path. (The one beyond which the girl claimed her cottage sat.)
I sighed and let my head sag back down; then, driven by a terrible curiosity, I pulled it back up again.
The Exiles hunting me were a rough band - their once-shaven heads bristling with stubble, their clothes ragged, their disposition foul - though I suspect only the first of those was a real change. Three of them bore foot-long blades, and the other two carried crossbows in their arms, cocked and loaded. (And, at the moment, pointed my way - though the girl's body luckily blocked any clear shot at my vitals.) Behind them floated their servitor, bobbing unevenly a few inches above the ground and wheezing loudly as its antique engine strained. It held an rusty flamethrower in its hands, but, luckily, seemed to have been programmed not to fire without command. (I assumed; otherwise, I would be on fire by now.)
The girl stood quite firmly between them and me. Her lace rippled in a faint breeze.
"A girl?" one of the crossbowmen remarked, surprised. His accent was thick, barbaric. "This is far from the Gaylords' realm; I didn't know anyone lived here."
The man at the front of their group, who I'd come to know as their leader cast a sharp look at the talker. (He shut up.) Then the Exile leader turned to the girl.
"Girl, you stand between us and our ancient enemy. Let us pass, and we will put an end to him."
They hadn't expected that.
"You should talk, instead." she suggested helpfully.
The talkative crossbowman was having none of it. He pushed past the other swordsman, took careful aim at me - his finger on the trigger, the bolt ready to fly -
- and he suddenly froze, too, just as I had, and crumpled to the ground.
I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding.
"What?" "Jeralt!" "Huh?" "You!"
They were fast learners, after all! It took them hardly any time to figure out it was the girl who'd struck their comrade down. Such a pity they didn't learn quite enough not to point weapons her way immediately thereafter!
The girl shook her finger at them. "You are all very rude! Even ruder than this young man, who said such very naughty words not long ago. You should be ashamed of yourselves! I'll be back later, to see if cool-down time does you any good."
I felt control of my muscles return.
"Here, come on, Mr. Gaylord. You can sit down in the cottage, and we can have a little tea party with biscuits, and you'll feel much better. Perk up!"
"...what is your name?"
"Took you long enough to ask! I've taken to calling myself Circe. What do you think?"
" ...it suits you."
Circe's house was perched on the edge of the island. It had a balcony, with a very lovely view of the cloudscape below. Circe invited me to sit down while she made tea; I waited until she turned her back and then made a break for the balcony.
That "cool-down" she'd given me had done wonders for me. My blood had been completely rejuvenated - I felt like I could do anything! So I jumped off the island.
The landing was only slightly more painful than the last one.