Chapter 4

As on the first night, when Anevyren entered the cottage there was not a sign of the stranger's presence. Unaccompanied as she was, however, she felt certain that he would soon make his appearance. Assured thusly, she entered the kitchen, and put already-tired hands to work on preparing a supper. As she turned away from the sink (and the almost-pointless task of washing her hands)—intending to go to the pantry to discern what, exactly, could be used as a meal on this night—she was shocked to discover the stranger standing in the doorway. Not a sound had he made upon entering, but nonetheless, there he stood.

A hand was pressed to her chest, a breath of air sighed out in relief. "You startled me," she remarked—it somehow felt right to speak to him, despite knowing he had no idea what she was saying. The stranger bore a mask, now, instead of a hood—the front half of his scalp, both eyes, and the right cheek were covered in that black leather that looked far, far too familiar. A red satin ribbon, beautifully paired with the sheen raven color of mask and hair, secured the mask to his face—it, too, looked far too familiar.

With a frown, she excused herself, and wandered back to her room. It was in shambles; drawers pulled out, clothing scattered, the wardrobe doors open and the contents in disarray. Quick, concerned steps carried her to the wardrobe, where she found a ribbon missing from her finest gown—the only part of her father's riches she had taken with her, when she had left him in favor of the Cradle—and her riding boots also absent. Fingers curled against her palm, forming tight fists. Had he no respect for the property of others? She had taken him into her home—him, a complete stranger, and a near-deranged one at that—had offered him food and clothing and genuine hospitality, and how was she repaid?

Slowly she turned, to find the stranger standing in her doorway, looking almost sheepish. He extended a mass of cut-up leather towards her; when she took it, she was dismayed to find the feel of boot soles at the bottom of it. "If you had asked," she said wearily, "I would have given you what you needed. I could have found you the leather for this! You did not have to do this..." She held up the boots. "Could you not have just asked?"

Hands lifted up slowly in a helpless gesture; he did not understand anything she was saying. Still, something in those disconcerting eyes suggested that he knew he was being rebuked—no real sign of apology existed in them, however.

Anevyren sighed, and dropped the boots onto the floor. "I suppose I should clean up this mess, then." She turned away from him, and began scooping up clothes from the floor. Each article was carefully and neatly folded, and tucked away inside the drawer in which it belonged. She once lifted her head, and was pleasantly surprised to find the stranger folding whatever he could find, and setting it on the bed (for obviously, he had no idea in what drawer it belonged). He worked with a steady, almost surprising efficiency; she did not work long, before she found herself with little to do except to tuck away that which he had already folded.

"Thank you," she murmured as he walked out. There was no reply—but then, one was not truly expected.

When she wandered into the kitchen, she found him leaning over the sink, a dishrag pressed against his nostrils. More blood was dripping into the sink, and his legs appeared almost shaky. Concerned, she moved to his side, one hand falling to rest on his shoulder. "Please," she breathed. "Let me see?"

There was a long moment of hesitation, before he turned his head towards her. Slowly, cautiously, she raised her hands to the mask. "May I?" Almost miraculously, he understood, and with eyes closed he granted her a nod. Even more slowly, she raised the mask, and allowed it to rest upon the top of that glossy head of hair. The sight of his face was unnerving, she was forced to admit; that something like it could be done by nature alone was nearly painful to consider. Unusual though it was, it was not a thing that Anevyren Eraclid would allow herself to grow weak-stomached over; thus, with a slight frown of stubbornness and a reinforced will, she lowered her hands to rest upon that near-shattered nose.

She had not before noticed how the nostrils seemed caught in a state of half-decay. The nose was definitely there, though not nearly as much of a nose as any other man's. Pity surged up in place of disgust, and caused her touch to be all the gentler, all the sweeter. "I've got to set it," she told him gently. "It looks as if... You tried to do it yourself, didn't you? Tsk... You've quite messed things up, haven't you, then?" Without waiting for any sign of understanding, she pressed her fingertips to his nose, and forced it back into place as best she could.

To his credit, he withstood the pain shockingly well. Hands flew to her upper arms and squeezed tightly; eyes already closed were pressed even more so; the corner of one lip curled in a grimace; but no other sign of his pain was given. When finally he released her arms, she stepped back, and fished out a clean rag to hand to him. "The bleeding should—Oh, why do I even bother?" Speech was given up, and she turned away from him to find yet another dish rag, with which to clean the mess of blood he had left on her counter.

That evening, when she had finished cleaning up and putting away their supper dishes, she found herself quite alone. Relief threatened to come to the forefront, before she stubbornly pushed it away and almost forced that gap to be filled with concern. She wandered out onto her porch, eyes searching through the gloom for the stranger who was quickly ceasing to be a stranger. She saw a dark form moving in the garden and, hoping desperately that it was him, stepped down into the moist grass to meet him.

As she neared him, he lifted his gaze and offered her something of a smile, though it was a disconcerting one considering the streak of darkness that concealed nearly three-quarters of his face. Without waiting to hear her greeting, though she could not blame him for it, he turned and crouched before one of her plants. Nimble fingers plucked from a stalk a pair of purple and blue blooms, bringing along with it the vibrant yellowish-orange leaves that curled along the petals' sides. Standing, he extended it towards her.

Shocked, she reached out to take it from him. The Bohrreni's bloom was one used by prophets and seers—those wishing to see into minds, into future and past; and its leaves were toxic in the extreme. Did the stranger know of it, or was its plucking mere coincidence? As her fingers near closed over the piece of stalk accompanying that pretty flower and its leaves, he drew it back from her just a bit. Her eyes raised to find his, and then lowered again to watch as he separated the twin buds, and the two leaves. One fell into each palm, and was there squeezed and crushed within powerful hands. Using his fingers, he stirred the contents within, and then devoured that which lay in his right hand. The left hand, he pushed towards her.

All common sense forbade her next actions, but looking into his eyes she found such reassurance that she could not resist. Her hands, dwarfed beside his own, scooped the now-crushed bits of petal and leaf into her own palm, and then put them within her mouth. The taste was sweet, almost too much so, and flooded her senses, casting her mind into a brief mist. She and the stranger both fell to their knees, and she watched almost dumbly as he took her wrists and pressed her hands against his temples.

His eyes shut, and his head bowed. For a moment, Anevyren sat in dazed confusion; suddenly, her eyes snapped closed, her head arched backwards, countenance lifted towards the glittering moon, and her mind retreated from the world at hand.

Visions flashed through her mind, feeling of memories, though they were of a place she had never been. Dim, blurry glimpses of rich and vibrant interiors, of beautiful women and of dazzling chandeliers. Pain was an underlying current throughout, though sometimes overshadowed by anger—and once, by happiness, in a singular moment involving blonde hair and the sweet face of an angel. Red velvet—black cloaks—mirrors—the repeated snap of a noose that, though the name had never been heard in her ears, she recognized as a Punjab lasso—trap doors—a rooftop that brought on more pain that could be fathomed, all because of the two tiny figures clutching tightly to one another—nothing made sense, but all seemed to at the time. Ultimate pain struck her, and her back arched, a tiny cry escaping parted lips as a kiss met her forehead, as a woman and a boy walked away.

Cold snow, numbing her limbs—countered by memories of hot deserts and hideous architecture marring the golden sands. Many different worlds all melded into one little mindset; the face of a kind old man melted into that of an antagonist who refused to pay a salary; the angel's face became that of a wicked mother who ruled with angry vengeance; a beautiful cat, pushing its way beneath her skeleton's hands, grew to the size of a shaggy dog whose memory, though cherished, brought on a feeling of utter misery.

Angry men seemed such a redundant memory, and yet persisted; in each of the combined worlds, in each of the scenarios, they seemed to put an end to each. Two voices flooded her ears, drowning out the shouts of the men—one, sweet and gentle and perfect, singing on command like a well-trained songbird; the other, crooning a mournful tune, as the starved frame of the Angel of Music trembled on the cold wet ground with utter despair.

Her hands fell away, lungs gasping for air they had forgotten they needed. Eyes wide, mouth wider, chest burning, she managed to find the stranger's face. The voices were gone, but not completely—two sounds so utterly perfect could never be forgotten, not when they spoke of things even greater than heaven.

Shaking, she tried again to gasp for air, but found there was not enough to sate her need. The moon had climbed high in the sky and already begun its descent on the opposite arch; in this state, her mind could not grasp how much time she had spent kneeling in her garden with this man. Still there was not enough air for those dying lungs; panting, and finding it to be doing little good, she reached out and grabbed his neck.

A single word slipped from between those chapped lips, before the darkness took her and she slumped forward into his arms.

A single word.