A fiction story by Melpomene based on characters and backstory created by Melpomene with a heavy dose of Greek mythology thrown in.
“Ismene! Ismene, come quickly!” The stable boy burst into the tavern, a flurry of snow and ice trailing in his wake. The child, no more than ten years, looked around the tavern with wild, frightened eyes, his shock of black curls edged with frost and quavering with his every movement. “Ismene!”
“Orion, what’s happened?” A woman rushed out of the kitchens, wiping her hands on a flour dusted apron, her cheeks flushed and damp with perspiration and with chocolate brown corkscrew curls that hung limply around her heart-shaped face.
Ismene started to question her baby brother, he’d had a difficult time of it since their parents’ passing and he’d been sent to live with her at the inn, but something in his eyes stayed her voice. Instead, she snatched her heavy cloak from its peg and followed Orion out the door.
He scurried across the yard to the barn, shoving open the door to allow his sister to enter. The oil lamp blazed inside, driving out most of the shadows. A horse stood in the center of the room, its saddle and bridle still in place. The beast was huge and towered over the pair as they stared up at it. He was a black as midnight, his eyes exhausted and his breathing labored.
“Where did it…” Ismene was cut off when a figure appeared from behind the animal. She couldn’t say if it was a man or a woman who stood beneath the layers of cloth and fur. All that was visible were a pair of huge violet colored eyes and a single chestnut curl.
“Ismene, help her. She wouldn’t let me help her. I think she’s ill.” Orion looked desperately up at his sister, his concern clearly palpable in the enclosed area of the chilled barn.
Shocked into silence, Ismene could only watch the figure slowly cross the distance between them to stand before her. At close range, she could see that her brother had been correct about both their visitor’s gender and her physical condition. Her incredible eyes were fever-bright and confused. Ismene reached out a tentative hand and took hold of what she could only guess was the other woman’s shoulder.
“Of course we’ll help you.” Ismene tried to assist the woman to the door but she pulled back out of her reach, preferring to walk unsupported.
Ismene motioned for Orion to tend to the horse before joining them in the tavern and slowly followed the woman across the snow-blanketed yard. Several times she reached out to catch her as she stumbled but each time she managed to upright herself and continue forward.
Once inside the tavern, the woman walked to stand before the blazing hearth, her eyes closed against the tremendous heat. Ismene sat down to watch what she might do next, close enough to help if need be, but still far enough away to be safe from the unknown woman. She shrugged her shoulders in a delicate shudder and in a single fluid motion her cloak and all the heavy furs puddled to the floor around her feet. Her arms remained motionless, wrapped around and clutching a bundle to her chest.
“Here, let me… oh!” Ismene had risen to help the young woman, but stared in disbelief at the sweet face of the infant who slept bundled in the furs.
“Here… I can’t…” The woman held the child out to Ismene, shoving the bundle into her immobile arms. “Please…”
“Come with me.” Ismene shifted the baby to her shoulder and caught one of the woman’s elbows in her free hand. “Come lie down.”
Later that evening, Ismene dozed lightly in her bed, Orion cuddled up next to her beneath the pile of blankets and the baby peacefully nestled in a padded basket that was generally allocated to laundry duty. All three were blissfully unaware of movement in the next room.
The painfully thin woman collected her furs from the pile they had been left in and slipped a worn and tattered saddlebag onto a table near the door. The bag held all the coins and jewelry she possessed and what few personal items she still had.
The baby would be safe, she knew he would. He would grow up happy and healthy and well-loved, things she couldn’t be sure of him ever achieving should he remain in her care. She had been led to the inn for a reason; it was the last gift Apollo had bestowed on her, his personal servant and priestess.
Pushing through the door and back out into the frozen night, she set out into the driving snow and sleet. The tavern keeper and stable boy would find the saddlebag in the morning and they would draw their own conclusions from her disappearance, nothing they could imagine would ever broach nearing the truth, but it would have to do.
Trudging through the snow in an attempt to put as much distance between herself and the inn as possible, she allowed her mind to wander. Her life had been turned upside down for several cycles of the moon, her sense of normalcy destroyed ever since that first evening she had found the injured woman in the woods near the only home she could remember having with any clarity.
After hours of stumbling through knee-deep snowdrifts and spent of all her energy, she fell to her knees and threw her arms wide to the winter sky. She didn’t want it to end here, so far from the ruins she had called home, so far from the few friends she could claim, she wanted more but she knew the spot when she saw it…
She slowed her breathing, slowing her mind into a single thought as she slipped into a final oracular trance, a single word on her lips, “Atalanta.”
She crouched in the underbrush, the trees overhead tossed to and fro in the gusting wind but she could still hear the soldiers as they moved on in their search for her. Although they were moving away from where she hid, she was reluctant to leave her spot among the brush. Fear kept her senses on edge but curiosity guided her eyes as she searched the landscape. The low moaning continued even as the soldiers passed through but they had been so consumed in their search that they had not hear the sound, or had dismissed it as an animal. Continuing to search with her eyes, she found the source of the noise at last; just ahead of her position there lay a body beneath the bushes.
Carefully, she navigated through the plants that had hidden her so well, edging ever closer to the object of her curiosity. Instinct guided her to smooth her appearance but as her hand came to rest on the tangled, filthy mass of hair she had knotted at the nape of her neck, she shuddered in response. Her clothing was just as dirty and tattered and sported more holes than it did actual cloth and she sighed with bitter longing.
Moving soundlessly across the forest floor, she dropped to her knees once she reached the person who had caught her notice so thoroughly. Surprise filled her tired eyes when she at last was able to look fully at the person. A woman, nearer her own age than not, lay among the leaves and broken twigs, blood covered most of her exposed skin and stained the tunic she wore.
She sighed again over the stranger’s condition. The woman’s wounds needed to be tended but the open forest was the worst place for it, the chance of being discovered was far too great. Bracing herself for the task that lay ahead, she took a deep breath and eased the woman up onto her shoulder. She would need to somehow carry her back to the ruins before she could so much as think about treating her injuries.
The night was nearly gone by the time the tiny woman stumbled into the grove and deposited her patient on a soft patch of moss. Exhausted beyond feeling any pain, the girl sat against a tree and rested her head in her hands, waiting to see if the woman would wake.
The next evening, after she had spent the day tending to her sleeping patient and watching for any signs of the woman regaining consciousness, the young woman perched on a nearby fallen pillar to continue monitoring her uninvited guest. Doctoring her had kept the girl’s mind occupied for a long stretch of time, her thoughts centered on fleeting memories of her mother’s midwifery and healing skills.
When she had at last come to the end of her knowledge as a healer, nothing was left for her to do but sit back and hope for the best. She considered offering up a prayer to Apollo but since she had never been one of his favored mortals, she reconsidered the idea fearing that her plea would do the stranger more harm than good.
Worry gnawed at the edges of her consciousness as she continued to study her patient. Her unexpected guest had lost her deathly pallor in favor of a sickly yellow tone; once bathed, her wounds had proved to be mostly shallow and superficial although any possible internal injuries were still questionable.
She wiped a grimy hand across her forehead and rubbed her aching eyes, deciding at last to rest. Curling up next to the slumbering woman, she allowed herself to fall into the arms of Morpheus, pleased with the thought of awakening to company if nightmares again plagued her dreams. Even unconscious company was preferable to the eerily vacant grove in the middle of the night.
As the new day dawned on the remains of the crumbling ruins, the two women, awake and refreshed by their rest and more or less recovered, sat in furious opposition on either side of a cheery fire. The argument, unchanged from the start, showed no signs of ending soon or with consensus.
“Look, I’m sure I’m sorry and all, but you’re not leaving here without me.” The girl leveled cool violet eyes at her opponent and sighed in utter exasperation. “I’m sure you’re a fabulous huntress and athlete and all, I mean the tales of Atalanta have reached even this grove, but as far as I can tell you seem to have lost all the arrows from your quiver. Besides, no one knows this area even half as well as I do. You might even call me an invaluable asset.” A grin shone through the grime and dust of her face and her eyes danced, hope and anticipation mingling in their depths.
“I don’t need a puppy yapping at my heels,” Atalanta snapped, glowering at the inordinately cheery girl.
“Well now, that is a relief! I can’t stand dogs, they terrify me, they always have. I’m Balkis, by the way, my father had wanted to name me Parcae but my mother once told me that she wouldn’t let him. It’s a good thing too because I can’t even spin wool much less the threads of life. And weaving? Ugh, I’m atrocious. She tried to teach me, to spin wool, not the threads of life, but I was never really interested in learning. I guess it wasn’t exciting enough for me. Humph.” The shadow that had momentarily clouded her eyes fled as quickly as it had appeared and a sweet smile returned to her face.
She extended a hand to the huntress. A hand that was only slightly less filthy than her face. Catching the flicker of disdain in Atalanta’s eyes, she withdrew the hand, brushed it against her tunic, and shrugged. “There’s not all that much time to bathe when you live in a place like this.” Gesturing broadly to their surroundings, she let her hands fall into her lap.
Atalanta was immediately filled with self-reproach about her reaction to the girl and regret replaced her initial disgust. Somewhere beneath all the dirt and filth, she could see that the girl was quite spectacular, she couldn’t be sure of her complexion or true hair color, but her eyes were absolutely startlingly beautiful in their clarity and intensity. “Look, I’m on a quest, I can’t afford to be bogged down with every straggler I find in the woods.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “You haven’t seen the Oracle of Tessious, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. We can leave as soon as you’ve recovered, I’ve already packed everything that I think we might need. If there’s anything I’ve missed I can always find it along the way. I have a gift for acquiring things.”
“I’ll bet you do.” Atalanta slapped at a hovering fly. “I’m sure you’re quite talented. I still can’t allow you to travel with me.” For the first time in nearly a year, she smiled. She found herself liking the girl despite her resolve to the contrary and regardless of her incessant chatter.
“Uh huh, I see. But as I told you, I’m not going to let you leave here by yourself.”
“Look, umm, Balkis, I do appreciate what you’re trying to do… what you’ve already done for me. I can’t remember a time when someone tried to take care of me. But there’s something you ought to know, my friends tend to end up dead.” The huntress’ eyes had turned cold and her face was void of any expression. “I wouldn’t forgive myself if your kindness were repaid in such a manner.”
“Then it’s a good thing that I’ve got an uncanny gift for beating the odds and staying alive when I should be payin’ Charon to ferry me across the Styx. I’ve made it on my own for a very long time now and I’m tired of it. In a word, you’re stuck with my charming conversational skills. I want out of these ruins. I need out of this place.” Balkis turned and cast hardened eyes over the crumbling ruins half-hidden in vegetation, her face shielded by the lengthening shadows of sunset.
After a long silence, Atalanta sighed. “We’ll discuss it once I’ve rested. Tomorrow will be soon enough.”
Balkis spun around, a broad smile belying the unshed tears that sparkled in her eyes. “I can be quite convincing.”
Night brought with it ominous thunderheads alive and crackling with electricity. Deafening claps of thunder filled the air as bolts of lightening flashed down from the sky and tore through the leafy canopy to sear the trees and dirt around the small clearing that held Balkis’ ruins. Eerie staccatoed light illuminated the grove and the smell of rapidly approaching rain flooded the winds, urging Balkis into motion.
Kneeling next to the mat she had forced Atalanta onto mere moments earlier, Balkis tentatively reached out to touch her shoulder in an attempt to rouse her when the huntress sprang to life. Grabbing Balkis’ arm and wrenching it behind her back, Atalanta was up and on her feet seconds before a snap resonated through the grove like the breaking of a tree limb. The resulting crashing pain sent Balkis’ sprawling to the ground.
“Atalanta,” Balkis panted, her voice edged with panic, “it’s only me… Balkis. I don’t want to hurt you.” Although Atalanta had released her arm when she had sunk back to the ground, the pain remained intense and Balkis pushed it to the recesses of her mind. She gently placed an arm on Atalanta’s shoulder. “There’s a storm and it’s bringing rain. Just beyond the pillars there’s a small area where the roof collapsed. There’s just enough crawlspace to keep you dry but we’ve got to get you there first.” Balkis quickly snatched up the pallet and draped it awkwardly over her shoulder, returning her attention to assisting Atalanta in rising again. Muttering a string of curses, she helped the drugged woman cross the grove and shoved her headlong into the only shelter to be had. Of all the nights to give her a sleeping draught, Balkis had chosen the worst by far.
She sunk to the ground just outside the sheltered area, her arm throbbing with the pain she had been trying to ignore. Her head dropped back to rest on the pillar at her back and she closed her eyes against the first few drops of chilling rain.
A sudden crash of thunder shook the ground, rousing Atalanta. “What’s…”
“It’s just the storm. Go back to sleep, it’s okay. Rest and with any luck you’ll be recovered enough to travel in a few days,” Balkis sighed, she only hoped she could wait a few days for her own healing. Waves of nausea had begun to mix with the raw pain that radiated from her arm and shoulder and for the first time in her life she was grateful that she had missed dinner.
The next thunderclap was accompanied by icy rain sheeting through the trees. Balkis was soaked to the bone in bare minutes, shivering until her teeth rattled. “Okay girl, you’ve got to think, concentrate,” muttering aloud to herself she worked to steady her resolve. “This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve been caught out in the freezing rain and it surely won’t be the last... Maybe if I just keep talking, then everything will be okay. I just won’t let myself fall asleep until the storm passes.” She tried to pull the fabric of her insufficient clothing tighter around her shoulder while she continued to mutter quietly to herself but had to abandon the attempt when the movement intensified the nausea she was trying to forget. In no time at all, she found herself doubled over in the mud, dry heaves wracking her body and searing pain eating away at her shoulder. “Perhaps it would be best if I just stayed here for a while. Besides, isn’t mud supposed to be good for your skin?” Trying half-heartedly to rise one last time, Balkis collapsed back into the mud, spent of any energy she may have had.
Sunrise found the grove still being pelted with rain. Atalanta roused enough to peer out into the hazy morning. She vaguely remembered Balkis helping her move out of the rain the night before but had no idea where she had gone afterward. She returned to her slumber again, listening to the gently falling rain. Somewhere nearby she could hear a sound she could almost recognize but sleep claimed her consciousness before she could think clearly enough to act or even recall what the noise was.
She woke again that afternoon. The rain had slacked off a bit but continued to fall and the unidentified sound also continued albeit more softly and intermittent than before. Gingerly, she stretched her long limbs; only a dull ache remained in her chest, a testimony to the cracked ribs Balkis had bandaged for her. Whatever medicines the girl had forced on her, they had worked nothing less than a miracle. The previous evening she had been barely able to stand on her own, but after a long drug-induced sleep, she felt better than she had in years.
“I hate to admit it, but she may well be an invaluable asset after all. Now, where did she sit out the storm?” Atalanta turned around in the small space as best she could and studied the ruins. There didn’t seem to be any other identifiable shelter within sight. “Don’t tell me you sat out in the rain all night, Balkis,” she muttered, “where are you?”
Although she didn’t relish the thought of wandering around in the rain searching for the invaluable chatterbox, she edged her way out into the shower. “Balkis! Where are you?”
Finally recognizing the noise that had been carrying on throughout the night as slight whimpering, it dawned on her that it sounded like the cry of an injured animal. The muffled sigh accompanying the sobs was without a doubt human and the only other human she knew of in the grove was Balkis. Atalanta sighed heavily, her brow wrinkling with concern. What could have happened in one night? “Balkis? Where are you? Are you hurt?”
The ground was pockmarked with puddles and mud oozed under her feet as she followed the sounds to the far side of a fallen pillar. By the time she rounded the first statue, the rain had completely soaked her clothes. Between the rain, the mud that squished between her toes, and the chills that raced down her spine, Atalanta was quickly becoming miserable but was brought to a standstill when she spied the girl at last.
Balkis lay in the mud, not far from the fallen pillar, her knees drawn up to her chest.
“Hey, what happened?”
Violet eyes, clouded with pain, searched until they were able to focus on Atalanta’s face. “It’s my arm. D-don’t touch.” Balkis’ eyes fluttered shut and the low sobs began anew.
Atalanta knelt next to the woman, confused but determined to lend any assistance she might be able to provide. “Balkis, open your eyes. What’s going on? What happened to your arm?” She tried to gently probe the limb in question but the moment she touched her shoulder Balkis cried out with enough force to threaten to topple the few pillars that remained standing.
“No! Go away and leave me alone. I-I’ll be fine.”
“Well, that’s obviously not the case.” Atalanta reached again for Balkis’ arm, one hand ready to restrain her if the need arose. “Look, your shoulder’s dislocated, it needs to be reset.” Atalanta sighed, grimacing about the task at hand. “This isn’t going to be a pleasant experience. I wish I knew about your healing herbs, they would probably help a lot just about now. But if I tried to give you any of them, I would probably end up poising you.” She watched the girl’s face for any sign that she was hearing her but was rewarded with only pain-etched features. “I’ll be right back.”
Atalanta returned with the threadbare blanket Balkis had shoved into the crawlspace with her the night before. Tearing the material into long strips, she again knelt next to her. “Now, I would like to get you out of the mud before I try to reset your arm. I promise you I won’t touch your arm until your settled again, but to keep that promise I’m going to need you to help me a little.”
Balkis nodded slightly before trying to stand. It took nearly an hour for the two women to navigate the ruins and find a reasonably dry, non-muddy place big enough for them both to sit. Balkis didn’t make the short trip easy, she wouldn’t allow Atalanta to lay a hand on her or assist her in any way. “You’ve done enough already,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “Besides, you’ll get your hands on me soon enough, I don’t relish the idea, but…”
Atalanta reached out and easily caught her as she slipped into a faint. “At least this’ll make it easier. You can’t prattle on while I reset your arm if you’re unconscious, and maybe you won’t feel the pain as much,” the huntress murmured to her suddenly silent companion.
In less time than it had taken them to cross the ruins, Atalanta had Balkis’ arm properly set and bandaged securely to her torso. In resetting her shoulder, she had discovered the arm was broken, the tell tale bruising proved how it had happened. She had spent a long time perfecting the move that would both break and dislocate her opponent’s arm, incapacitating them at least momentarily. Ordinarily, it hurt a lot but Balkis hadn’t been in the best of health to begin with and had sat out all night in the freezing rain, becoming seriously ill and trembling with fever.
Atalanta worried over the girl’s condition, not only because she was responsible for her injury but also because if her health didn’t improve, she wouldn’t be able to lead her to the Oracle of Tessious.
The rain had slacked off to a thick mist accompanied by the chilling calls of carrion birds as evening fell on the grove. Atalanta rested against a tree trunk and cradled Balkis’ head in her lap. Since nightmares had disturbed the sleeping woman’s rest, Atalanta had decided to remain close rather than going in search of a meal for fear that Balkis might do herself harm or wander off and get lost if she awoke while she was unattended. Each time Atalanta tried to rest her eyes and relax, her patient would cry out and the huntress found that after so many years in the company of men, she had buried any maternal instincts she may ever have possessed. When the woman-child Balkis cried out at her dreams’ terrors, Atalanta could do little more than watch helplessly.
The soggy night stretched on endlessly, allowing Atalanta only brief snatches of rest, until hazy sunlight finally found its way into the grove, filtering through the tree limbs and the resurgence of rain that had grown heavier with the dawn.
Atalanta drew a hand through her short uneven hair, sending a shower of droplets down on her shoulders and Balkis’ face. She regretted the action as soon as Balkis’ eyes fluttered open.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. How do you feel?” Atalanta watched the woman slowly wake up, a grimace clouding her features when she tried to brace herself on her injured arm. “Here, let me help you. I know now what happened to your arm, but how?”
Balkis pushed herself into a crouch using her one good arm, refusing Atalanta’s assistance, and turned to glare icily at her. “I was trying to help you get out of the rain but you went all ferocious on me and tried to rip my arm off. Then you proceeded to fall asleep in the shelter and I had to sit out in the rain.” A smile suddenly brightened her face and her eyes began to shine with something other than fever. “Now you really are stuck with me. You can’t possibly leave me behind now, you owe me, and there’s no way you can deny it this time.”
Shaking her head, Atalanta couldn’t help but smile. “I suppose you’ve got me there. We’ll leave as soon as you’re recovered… together.”
“How is the pain now?” Atalanta asked as she reached out to rest her hand on Balkis’ uninjured shoulder, forcing the other woman to meet her gaze. Balkis’ eyes were clear and seemed to mirror her thoughts and emotions without the veil of deception; pain and hope mingled there. Atalanta knew her own eyes yielded no such secrets, even when a smile played on her lips, the inner workings of her mind were securely cloaked, a learned talent that had served her well for more years than she could remember.
The one positive outcome of her arrival at the grove was that now that she had secured Balkis’ loyalty to some small extent, she might be more willing to direct her on her path to find the oracle, although what she would do with the child then was a mystery. Her chatter alone could be infuriating, but she could become accustomed to having her around, given that Balkis learned to temper her tongue. The peace and quiet of solitude was becoming less appealing with each day that passed.
“You really should stop doing that, you know.”
“What?” Balkis craned her slender neck to gaze over the horse at her companion.
Atalanta returned the look and chuckled at the girl. She was the picture of honesty and innocence despite the saddlebags filled with pilfered goods she was struggling to place on the giant Arabian. “You know very well what I’m talking about.”
“I don’t recall seeing you pay for the horses,” Balkis said, her tone turning petulant.
“That was different. The horses’ owners tried to attack us. The horses were merely payment for our delay.”
“I don’t think those men would agree with you,” the girl grumbled, still fighting with gravity to secure the saddlebags.
Atalanta grinned. “You’re probably right about that.”
Sighing deeply, the huntress mounted one of the monstrous Arabians she had acquired and gestured for Balkis to do the same. “Let’s go. I’d like to put some distance between us and that village before they figure out that their sweet visitor was a voracious thief determined to rob them blind.”
The women traveled through the sparse woods, Balkis’ chattering vying with the din of insects and birdsong to be heard. Their journey had been as such for nearly two weeks. They would edge around towns and settlements, only staying in an inn and sleeping in real beds very rarely. Atalanta uttered only a bare minimum of words while the unrepentant thief kept up her unending monologue.
It hadn’t taken Atalanta long to discover the girl rarely required a vocalized response to her ramblings, often speaking of completely meaningless and disjointed things. Atalanta had decided that most of what came out of Balkis’ mouth was stray thoughts or fuzzy bits of half-forgotten memory. She had abandoned the task of keeping track of Balkis’ words and it became more common that she would simply block out the chatter altogether.
“What? What’s wrong?” The huntress nearly lost her seating as she spun in the saddle toward Balkis.
“Wow, I didn’t think your eyes could get any bigger. I swear they’re as large as serving trenchers.”
“Balkis! Why did you just shout out my name?” Atalanta found that every bit of her willpower was needed to prevent her from dragging Balkis from her horse and beating some sense into the little thief.
“You were ignoring me. I don’t like to be ignored.”
“Well, if you would just be quiet for a while so that I could think, I promise that once we make camp tonight you can talk all you want, ask all the questions you wish and you’ll have my full attention.” Atalanta rubbed her temple, regretting at once her promise. She would have a raging headache by the time Balkis had exhausted her topics of curiosity and conversation.
“Balkis! I need to think! Fall behind me and be quiet!” She reached out and grabbed the reins of Balkis’ horse, forcing it to an abrupt stop and nearly throwing the girl from the saddle.
“Hey! Be careful, will you? I don’t want to be stuck with my arm broken again so soon after the last time.” Balkis’ eyes flashed with anger and she grabbed the reins from Atalanta’s fist with her left hand, shielding her right arm beneath her makeshift cloak.
“I wouldn’t let you fall, Balkis. I wouldn’t let you get hurt. Don’t you know that?”
“Uh huh, sure. Are we forgetting exactly who broke my arm the first time around? Hmm?” She turned the horse and walked it a good distance back along the trail, turning around again finally to stare silently ahead, refusing to make eye contact and not allowing any emotion to bleed into her features, even her eyes were blank.
“Bal—oh, forget it. No doubt you’ll get over it before we make camp.” Atalanta shrugged.
It did surprise her that Balkis could hide her feelings so well. Since their first meeting, she had always seemed to be completely open, unquestioningly honest, honest to a fault more frequently than not. Atalanta had thought she would be able to read her easily, at all times regardless of the circumstances. She supposed she was wrong. Her change in attitude did worry her a bit though and as she turned to cast a quick glance at her companion a shiver raced down her spine. The woman had the countenance of a hungry wolf stalking its prey.
They traveled on further into the forest, Balkis refused Atalanta’s offer to stop and stretch for a moment, insisting that they instead quicken their pace. Atalanta only sighed; she regretted snapping at Balkis but was determined not to let her know how much this new attitude bothered her. If Balkis wanted to spend the evening pouting, so be it. Atalanta urged her horse into a faster gait. Balkis could learn all about the results of hard riding and perhaps would be too preoccupied nursing her aches and pains to remember the huntress’ promise to be a willing audience to her chatter. Oddly enough, the thought of a night filled with silence didn’t sit well with Atalanta, probably because she’d be sitting across the fire from an angry wolf.
Dusk came and brought with it more chilling rain. The horses were sheltered in a thick grove of oaklings and Balkis had wandered off in search of fresh water that wasn’t falling from the sky while Atalanta sat beneath the oiled tarp they had stretched between a few trees and set to work nursing the fire Balkis had somehow managed to coax out of dampened wood. The sheltering tarp was angled against the slant of the rain and Atalanta watched the plumes of smoke from the fire roll up the oiled fabric to disappear into the soggy night. The fire crackled and sparked, warming Atalanta and drying her stocky hair into hedgehog-like bristles while she awaited her companion’s return.
The darkness was nearly complete when Balkis slipped back into their camp. She dropped several flasks onto the ground near the fire and sat down heavily in the mud just outside the tarp’s protection.
“Come sit over here, it’s drier.” Atalanta managed to keep the irritation out of her voice, the woman was beginning to remind her of an over-indulged child who had been denied a sweet.
“No.” Balkis shook her head and sent a shower of water droplets in a wide arc. “I’m already completely soaked through and I’d just get you wet again. It’s really not so bad over here,” she said, stretching her legs before she lay down and curled into a ball, her back to the fire.
“You already did get me wet again,” Atalanta snorted, brushing the cold water from Balkis’ hair from her arms. “Stop being foolish. You’ll only get sick again and we don’t have many of your medicinal herbs left.” She stared at her back, noticing, not for the first time, how thin Balkis’ clothes were. She had to be freezing. “Stop acting like a little child and come over here, you’re still getting rained on where you are.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be alright, I always am.”
“Fine!” Much to her amazement, Atalanta found herself wanting to initiate a conversation with the oddly silent chatterbox but couldn’t imagine how to begin. She watched curiously as Balkis sat up again, her back straight as a lance and her eyes refusing to meet those of the huntress.
Balkis brushed water from her arms and continued to stare blankly ahead, trying desperately to ignore the cramped and overworked muscles in her legs and back.
“I’m sorry for nearly knocking you off your horse and I’m sorrier still for having broken your arm, especially since you were trying to help me at the time.” Atalanta heaved a weary sigh. “I’m not good at being around people.” A grin spread across her face. “I’m even worse at apologies.”
Balkis cut her eyes at Atalanta, a wary glint in her expression. “I forget myself when I’m around someone else. I just can’t seem to keep from talking incessantly. I know it’s annoying, me prattling on as I do, but it used to get so lonely spending all that time alone in the ruins with just the trees and crumbling statues for company. Really, it’s me who should apologize, for going on like I did. I promise to try to not let it happen again.”
“Don’t apologize for who you are,” Atalanta snapped, quickly softening her tone, “Besides, I don’t mind the conversation so much anyway.”