Disjointed images flashed through Pahwonâ€™s mind. Memories of staring up into the sky from a basket while being gently rocked; of a great ship towering overhead.Â Nothing remained permanent, odd stabs of pain the only reminder that he might still be alive. Slowly his thoughts began to organize themselves. A soft rhythmic thumping filled his head.Â The thump turned into a mechanical clanking as he opened his eyes. Â Everything was blurry, the noise reverberating as he awakened. He stared blankly at the splintered planks in the ceiling, feeling dead inside.
Slowly he pulled himself up on one arm, staring around the dark room. The clanking emanated from a pair of gears, one pushing the other. The millstone had been disconnected, and was lying still in the center of the room. The freed gears continued in their eternal circle, the clanking noise oddly soothing to Pahwon as he gazed around his new reality.
His gaze fell onto the opposite corner of the mill, where another figure was seated, huddled against the wall. The figure was almost completely hidden beneath a cloak, hiding much of their body. He leaned forward on his arm, a stabbing pain in his thigh stopping him in his tracks. He fell back on the floor, clenching his teeth. Despite the pain, Pahwon tried to rise again, a single thought now driving his mind.
â€œDid, did you save me?â€ He croaked.
The figure shifted, the cloak falling away from her face. It was Hiwei, who quickly pulled her shield back up. From beneath the cloth she stared into Pahwon, a terrible sadness and guilt filling her face. After a single shake of her head, Hiwei returned to the comfort of her knees. Confused and dazed, Pahwon began trying to make sense of what had happened.
When nothing came to mind he attempted to lift his left hand. Nothing happened. Concerned, he reached over to it with his right, to feel what was going on. His left shoulder was wrapped tightly in a cloth bandage. He poked at the bandage, feeling no pain or indeed any sensation at all. His whole arm was numb to pain. He wondered if Kuhhal had felt pain. The thought froze Pahwon, guilt and regret now overtaking him as well.
â€œHiwei,â€ He began in a quivering voice, â€œWhy did, why didnâ€™t I try to reason with him?Â What was I thinking?â€
The last moments Pahwon could recall before the darkness played through his mind. None of it made any sense to him now. The entire day before the bloodbath flashed in his mind, the folly of it all now unbearably clear. He began shaking, trying to piece together where it had all gone wrong. Desperately wanting someone to bounce ideas off of, he looked back to Hiwei.
â€œPlease, Hiwei, where are we? Are-are you alright? Did you get hurt? Please, tell me, tell me how did we survive?â€
Still unresponsive, Hiwei continued staring at him, seemingly unable to speak. Pahwon looked into her sad eyes, trying to glean what thoughts lay behind them. He wondered if she was angry at him, or if perhaps she was still shocked from the night before. Or, he wondered, had he been out longer? The two continued looking at one another, Pahwon wanting desperately to hear anything from his friend. Even furious condemnation would have been preferable to the silence. A cool breeze blew in through the open door.
The room seemed to darken slightly, eliciting a response from Hiwei. She raised one arm hesitantly and pointed towards the door. Pahwon looked over and saw a person leaning against the door frame looking back at him. As this person came into better focus, Pahwonâ€™s confusion deepened. She was a tall woman, with skin pale as the moon. Her head was topped by long dark hair, her face dominated by a pair of deep blue eyes which gazed back at Pahwon.
She was dressed in a blue fabric outfit, which seemed to have been made by cutting off swatches of fabric from what had once been a much larger dress. The woman wore shorts, both legs of which were different lengths, and a skirt, which was attached to the blouse by several buttons around the midsection. The buttons were attached to strips of fabric that descended from the shoulders of the blouse, and the blouse itself had slits in the sides. It looked so ridiculous that Pahwon blinked several times to make certain he wasnâ€™t hallucinating. The sight dredged up an old memory of Soshet proudly marching into the kitchen dressed in a mass of red and yellow fabric she had stitched together herself from motherâ€™s sewing scraps.
â€œSurprised?â€ She asked with an odd accent. â€œI understand you were expecting a different sight.â€
â€œUh, um, what on earth are you wearing?â€ Pahwon stammered, wondering if one of them had gone mad.
â€œYou find my attire unflattering?â€ She asked, stepping through the door.
â€œOh, no that isnâ€™t what I meant,â€ Pahwon half-lied, trying to stifle a laugh.
She snapped the frail door shut, lowering herself down into a sitting position an armâ€™s length from Pahwon. The two stared at each other for as Pahwon tried to gather himself. It felt like a fog had entered his brain, that he was forgetting something important. The more he tried to remember what had happened, the more lost he became. After nearly a minute of quiet staring, he finally managed to find his tongue.
â€œWho are you? Whatâ€™s your name, I mean, and, and did you save us?â€
â€œSapphire, is my name, it is,â€ the woman replied cordially, â€œAnd I indeed saved your life and the other two in addition.
Pahwon blinked, the odd wording making him feel dizzy. The weight of all the questions, thoughts, and ideas screaming in his head was simply too much to bear on an empty stomach. A painful spasm wracked his stomach.
â€œIs there any, uh, do you have any food?â€ Pahwon asked hopeful. â€œAnd some coffee, I could use some coffee.â€
â€œI shall get some for you in a matter of moments, yes,â€ The odd woman replied, rising up once again.
She turned around and lit a small fire in the large millstone, much to Pahwonâ€™s alarm. Nervously, he pulled himself back until he was upright against the wall. The flames, he observed, were contained within the millstone, away from the dry wooden walls. Slowly the enticing aromas of cooking food and brewing coffee wafted through the room, and Pahwon relaxed.Â Hiwei also stirred at the scent, and leaned towards it.
The smell nearly drove Pahwon mad as he waited for the food to finish cooking. At long last Sapphire provided him with a mug of black coffee, and a piece of unevenly singed bread topped with a dash of oil. He quickly devoured the bread, and the gnawing in his stomach subsiding.Â After drinking some of the bitter coffee, Pahwon felt his energy returning, though his left arm was still numb. This worried him, since he remembered only being grazed. He carefully felt the area again.
â€œIs your limb still numbed?â€ Sapphire asked concerned.
â€œAh, I hope I did not inject you with too great amount.â€
â€œWait, what did you do?â€
â€œDo not be concerned,â€ Sapphire quickly assured him. â€œYour arm-limb was shaking too much, decided to inject a Union sedative chemical.â€
Sapphire then reached behind the large grinding stone and pulled out a small grey case with a red cross on the front. Out of this she withdrew a glass syringe. Pahwon recognized the device, recalling an injection years earlier. This revelation also gave Pahwon one more question to ask.
â€œWhere did you get that?â€ Pahwon asked suspiciously.
â€œI did not pilfer this medical case, if that was your insinuation. I received it from a friend.â€
This sounded odd to Pahwon, who remembered that it had been difficult for his father to acquire a single vial of Union medicine. The whole situation seemed off to him. The two looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, Pahwon unable to detect any malice in this the Sapphire womanâ€™s eyes. He decided to simply accept the stranger as their benevolent rescuer for the moment.
â€œSo, what exactly happened while I was unconscious?â€
â€œYou were carried by the other two, down to the beach and then place upon a melancholy looking raft,â€ Sapphire explained somberly. â€œThen your healer used all her energy on the leg injury and collapsed. We arrived at this location and the other girl sailed ahead. I assumed she was planning something, as she had a bag of wealth with her at her waist band.â€
The strange wording almost caused Pahwon to break out into laughter. He blinked, wondering where this woman had learned their language. He noticed Hiwei shift, retreating back behind her cloak. The feeling of humor vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving only an emptiness. He looked back at the stranger, thinking of something to ask that would not give away his feelings.
â€œSo, what happened to the city, do you know?â€
â€œSmoke has been rising in that direction from there since we departed.â€
â€œGreat, I might have gotten the town burned down,â€ he uttered bitterly. â€œI canâ€™t believe, I, I didnâ€™t mean for this to happen.â€
â€œIt was not your doing,â€ Sapphire said reassuringly, â€œnot entirely, it was not all your…uh, pay that no mind.â€
â€œA ship, there was a ship, not a pirate ship,â€ Pahwon started urgently. â€œDid you see it; do you know what happened to it?â€
â€œShip, uh, with three masts?â€
â€Yes, thatâ€™s the one.â€
â€œI think it left harbor,â€ Sapphire replied cautiously. â€œYes, I think it left in the confusion.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good to hear,â€ Pahwon said quietly, needing to believe that it was so.
A feeling of relief spread through him; the thought that something had gone right gave him a moment of hope. He tested his arm again.Â His skin felt cold and rubbery, but after some effort he clasped two fingers together. His relief quickly vanished as he came to cold realization; he could never return to Qarrahum or anywhere else the pirates had control of. They were fugitives.
Pahwon leaned heavily against the wall, staring at the ceiling. He wondered dimly if Soshet might be the one to sign his arrest warrant. The numbness in his arm began to fade, replaced by a throbbing pain. Pahwon closed his eyes, unable to think. It was all too much. He listened for a time to the mill gears, and the peaceful sound of the river lapping against the waterwheel below.
â€œSo, Sapphire,â€ Pahwon began. â€œWhy, why did you save us?â€
â€œI just, simply could not allow it,â€ She replied slowly, awkwardly. â€œFor you to be killed, that is what I meant to convey.â€
â€œYou talk funny.â€
â€œMy apologies, I did not mean to make light of the situation,â€ Sapphire said ashamed.
â€œNo, no, thatâ€™s not what I meant,â€ Pahwon said quickly. â€œSo, uh, Miss Sapphire, you were just there. You just happened to stumble upon us?â€
â€œUm, I suppose you could state it that way,â€ Sapphire said hesitantly. â€œI probably would not, although.â€
It had been a fluke then, Pahwon realized. He had been saved because somebody had happened to be in the area and had seen what was going on. He sighed, unable to think of anything to do with himself except flee. Apparently Sapphire noticed that something was wrong, as her own face filled with concern. Slowly she made her way towards him, arriving at his side and laying a hand on his good shoulder.
â€œI think I am aware of some news that might, might,â€ Sapphire began in a soothing tone, struggling to find the right word.
â€œWhat are you talking about?â€
â€œHave you aware of Shamus Krauss?â€
â€œThe shipping magnate?â€ Pahwon asked confused. â€œI have heard of him, why?â€
â€œI am, Iâ€™m working for him,â€ She explained. â€œI saw the attack on the office; I think I know why you did it.â€
â€œBecause of the pirates, a-and the bad things going on in town,â€ Pahwon said half-heartedly, still sickened by the memories.
â€œMore than in town, those men took the royal family hostage. They are using them to control the country.â€ Sapphire explained. â€œMister Krauss has arrived here to take action about them. He has made a plan and that is why I am at here.â€
â€œWh-what, wait a minute,â€ Pahwon exclaimed, â€œHostage? Krauss? Plans? What are you going on about exactly?â€
â€œThe pirates take the Kassars, use them, rule through them. Krauss announced the pirates are bad for business, wants to rid of them. I am helping, with information.â€
â€œOk, so, things really have gone crazy,â€ Pahwon murmured, slightly relieved, â€œYou were gathering information? About what?â€
â€œFort, big fort, but they werenâ€™t there.â€
â€œHuh, so you have to look someplace else?â€
â€œExactly, so, would you accompany me?â€ She asked enthusiastically. â€œI am not very knowledgeable of this languageâ€¦â€
â€œThatâ€™s for sure,â€ Pahwon muttered.
â€œâ€¦or this landâ€™s geography, but perhaps with the two of you assisting me I can arrived in Samek and deliver the information to Mister Krauss.â€
A spark of hope, or at least direction, ignited in Pahwonâ€™s mind. Needing the stranger to be telling the truth, he made up his mind on the spot. He was going with her. He looked over at Hiwei who had emerged from her cloak once again. She leaned forward cautiously, appraising their benefactor. Though odd in appearance and complexion, the woman didnâ€™t strike Pahwon as dishonest. Sapphire had also saved his life, somehow. Pahwon narrowed his gaze, realizing this wasnâ€™t adding up. Then he smelled smoke.
â€œFire, fire,â€ Pahwon said insistently, pointing towards the millstone.
â€œOh, I should not have stopped paying attention to that,â€ Sapphire commented, walking towards the fire unconcerned.
With a single deft movement Sapphire grabbed the burning pole and extinguished it. Pahwon blinked. She had simply grabbed hold of the wooden beam and it stopped burning. With a wave of her hand the remaining embers on the stone extinguished. Sapphire turned around and looked back towards the stunned boy. A chill spread through the room.
â€œWhat just happened?â€
â€œOh, did I not mention to you that I am a magic wielder?â€ She asked smiling.
â€œNo, you skipped that part,â€ he replied. â€œYou froze those two pirates approaching me, didnâ€™t you?â€
â€œI did indeed.â€
For the first time that he could remember, Pahwon saw his breath in the now frigid mill room. For a moment he thought of his fatherâ€™s tales of a cold northern port where a man could see his breath hanging in midair. All at once everything seemed to add up. He leaned back, feeling better now that he had a fair idea of what was happening.
â€œSo, youâ€™re an ice magic wielder then, where do you come from?â€
â€œIt is not exactly â€˜ice magicâ€™, more able to affect temperature,â€ Sapphire began, looking away as she spoke. â€œAnd, Iâ€™m from a very cold place. It was very far from this land. I left that place some time ago and…â€ her voice trailed off.
â€œCame looking for someplace warmer?â€ Pahwon suggested, sensing her trepidation.
Sapphire simply nodded, looking towards the door. The thought of where she had come from seemed to sadden her. Quiet settled over the room once more, Hiwei leaning back against the millstone gazing at the rafters. She seemed lost, to Pahwon at least. Feeling restless, he looked towards a high window in the opposite wall. Judging by the light, he guessed it was late afternoon.
The sound of hooves approaching put them all on edge. But the unseen horses did not stop, and soon the sound faded into the distance. They all breathed a sigh of relief. Pahwon looked at Sapphire, who began pacing around the room, then paused, dropped to her knees, and began gathering up the various supplies around the room.
â€œI suppose I ought not remain still too long,â€ Sapphire said quietly. â€œDo you two have any interest in coming with me?â€
â€œUh, well, I donâ€™t have any place else to go,â€ Pahwon replied slowly, â€œYes, I will accompany you.â€
â€œGood, then, we shall march through the night until reach Samek, where Shamus is waiting.â€
â€œI think it might take awhile longer than a night.â€
â€œNo matter, reach it shall we, no matter how many days lay between us and it.â€
Hiwei nodded weakly. This seemed to satisfy Sapphire, who gave smiled at them for a moment, before continuing to pack. There was nothing to go back to, Pahwon told himself, his thoughts coalescing. His mother had left on fatherâ€™s ship; they had escaped during the chaos. They were safe, he convinced himself. A pang of pain struck him as he realized they wouldnâ€™t know if he was alive.
He would accompany Sapphire to Samek, where he would sail down the South Fork to Al-Ness-Mah. He knew his father would take his mother there. They would reunite in Al-Ness-Mah, he told himself. Pahwon repeated it over and over until, in his mind, it was the undeniable truth. Satisfied, he tried to stand up. With only one fully functional arm this proved difficult, as the numbness lingered through most of his left side. After two unsuccessful attempts, he dropped back to the floor frustrated.
â€œHaving trouble?â€ Sapphire asked, looking over.
â€œI believe we might be staying here a small amount longer,â€ She said reassuringly, â€œOn another topic, what is the best route to Samek?â€
â€œUp the river, by boat,â€ Pahwon replied, â€œThe old south bank road was damaged and never repaired.Â There are a few other overland trails, but most people avoid them.â€
â€œThat is good information to know,â€ Sapphire commented. â€œPerhaps your other companion could be persuaded to assist.â€
â€œDid Tossmek say she was going?â€
â€œA port far farther up the river,â€ Sapphire replied, sitting herself down in front of the door. â€œShal-Kaz I think she said.â€
â€œThat is quite far,â€ Pahwon said nodding, â€œUh, oh, where are we exactly?â€
â€œWe are near Yal-Kaz, if I am pronouncing that right,â€ Sapphire said quickly. â€œThe raft started acquiring water, rather quickly too, but she believed the vessel could make it minus the extra tonnage. She seemed really unhappy about leaving, although.â€