Book 1 - Chapter 1.4
Both Sol and the cloaked woman breathed a sigh of relief once the group filtered out of the alley and joined the crowd slowly dispersing from the town square. Sol turned to her new companion and said, "What was that about?"
The cloaked woman moved to sit down against the alley wall out of exhaustion then glanced up at her with a look of confusion similar to the one Prosper and his cohort gave her.
"How do you not know?" She said.
"Probably because every time I ask, I get a cryptic answer. But since I helped you, maybe you could clarify some things for me." Sol had sheathed her hunting knife and crouched down in front of the woman, though she angled herself so that she could keep a clear view of the alley's opening.
"I can't say it out loud. It tends to summon trouble just from being openly talked about." said the cloaked woman. She was looking intently at Sol, studying her face with her bright eyes. Sol glanced away.
"Alright, let's just leave it then." She said, and fetched her map from her coat. The cloaked woman had pushed her hood back from her face to mop at her sweaty forehead, and in the fading light Sol got a better look at the person she had decided to protect.
The woman's skin was a darker brown than Sol's, and her pitch black hair hung in damp loose curls that reached just below her chin. She had a large flat nose, full lips, and sharp brows that seemed prone to furrowing.
Her eyes were her most striking and out of place feature. They were large, expressive, and catlike. The irises were light and bright like the first rays of the sun at dawn, or the rising harvest moon, or a lightning strike and its afterimage. They looked like if they could glow, they would.
Sol had a difficult time placing their colour, which wasn't helped by the darkening alley. Fine lines gathered under of the woman's eyes, likely from stress, that made her look older than she probably was. The whole package came together in a heart shaped face and, despite those eerie eyes, Sol found herself staring in appreciation.
The woman caught her appraising eye, and Sol flicked her gaze away again and focused on the map in her hands.
"I was hoping you could help me further." Sol said quietly, and she opened up the map. "Could you show me where I can find your country on this?"
The woman leaned over and looked at the map without touching it. She was quiet for a bit before she waved a hand over the paper and said, "What's all of this blue?"
"That's the ocean." Sol said, a little taken aback.
"What is that?"
Sol paused then said, "It's a large body of salt water. It covers the whole world. Have you never heard of it? All rivers flow towards it."
The woman shook her head and pressed on. "And these triangles?"
"Th... Those are mountains." Sol answered. It was her turn to express befuddlement.
The woman noticed Sol's confusion, glanced away sheepishly, and said, "I've only been outside of my village recently, so I might not be much help to you."
"Guess so" Sol said with a soft sigh as she folded up her map and stashed it back in her coat. "Thanks anyways."
"... What will we do now?" The woman asked, looking back at Sol in a way that begged she not drop the "we" in her reply.
Sol said "I guess we'll need to go find an inn or a pub and someone who can give me directions to the nearest coven branch."
The cloaked woman cocked her head. "A coven?"
Ah well, Sol thought. This might be difficult. She had heard about lands where they did not entertain witches, or they called the covens something else.
She wracked her brain for another word and then asked, “How about a flock? Or a circle?” But the woman shook her head.
Sol hoped this wasn’t one of those lands that had started to actively ban witchcraft, though Sol figured it cold answer Sol's question about the strange woman before her and why she was "marked."
Sol leaned in and said in a low murmur, "Are you a witch? Is that why you're being hunted by those people?"
The woman shook her head and said "I don't know what that is either."
Sol sat back on her heels, stumped. She tried to piece together what information she had. There were presumably no witches in this land. The people here spoke a language she knew, her native tongue in fact, as well as a different language she didn't know at all, and wrote in a script she couldn't read.
And at least one of them didn't know what an ocean or mountain was...
Sol scratched her head and then stood up. "Alright, we might as well go to that inn. It's supposed to be close to the wharf, on the south west side of town."
The woman attempted to stand with her, but only trembled and then sat back down.
"What's wrong?" Sol said, crouching back down next to her.
"I feel dizzy." She said. She took a steadying breath and said, "I haven't had any food since last night." She had leaned her head against the side of the brick wall as she tried to catch her breath.
"Oh. Here." said Sol, as she fished through her pockets for whatever she had left of her travel rations. She pulled out a bag of nuts and dried berries she had left over from a quick lunch, and handed it to the woman, who took it and began consuming its contents without a second thought.
"There's not a lot left. I was hoping to buy some more once I made it into town, but I wasn’t expecting to end up at this town in particular." Sol said apologetically, but the other woman was barely listening. She was shoving walnuts and almonds and dried raisins ravenously into her mouth. Sol searched through her other coat pocket and found what was left of her spiced jerky, wrapped in butcher’s paper, and handed that over as well. It was gone within seconds.
"Thank you for the food," said the woman, once she had finished devouring the last crumb of jerky. The bag of nuts and dried fruit was completely empty as well. Sol couldn’t help but smile in response. "You're welcome." She said, and she handed the woman her half full canteen of water to take a drink from.
"And thank you for your help." The woman continued after taking a pull from Sol's canteen, she was examining Sol again with those spooky eyes. "Why did you do it?"
This took Sol aback. Was there a reason why she shouldn't have?
Sol said, "Well five against one is hardly a fair fight, and when I see murder about to break out I feel it is my duty to stop it."
"Really? Why?" Asked the woman. Sol couldn’t keep her mouth from quirking at this interrogation and said, "I'm a ranger, it's kind of my job to help people. You wouldn't believe the amount of times I've had to break up a group fight or a gang up."
"A ranger..." The woman said lapsing into thought as she continued to stare up at Sol, and Sol was forced once again to glance away from that piercing gaze. "And you just wander the fields controlling what people do?"
Sol's smile dipped downwards. This interview was rapidly losing its magic. With each inch the sun set lower, and the darkness got deeper, Sol was reminded how she didn't want to be caught wandering this town in the dark of night.
She stood up and tied her bag back across her body to indicate it was time to go find that inn and said, "Yeah the fields, the mountains, the forests, the coast." This made the woman narrow her eyes in further confusion, but Sol brushed past it. "It's not control, it's help. People need help everywhere. C'mon let's go get a hot meal and a warm bed."
"You're still set on going to the inn?" The woman asked.
"Yeah" said Sol, not bothering to hide her annoyance. "You're not the only one who's been roughing it in the wild for the past few weeks."
"They will not let me stay." Said the cloaked woman, finally standing but not moving forward.
"Well if they don't," Sol continued, "I'll just pay them double to let you in." Then Sol paused in consideration before asking, "They accept money here, right? Like metal coins?"
The woman nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off of Sol. Alright good, thought Sol. This worked in her favour.
"Money always speaks louder than words. I'm sure they'll let you in for the right price." She concluded. "C'mon!" And Sol left the alley with the cloaked woman following close behind.