PD Astomi had never seen a city until she arrived in Percs, and now that she was leaving it satisfied her to note that she hadn’t liked the experience. That might have made her a country girl, but the wide plains that she trekked now weren’t right either. As she had many times in the past year, PD longed for the murky darkness of her swamp homeland, and the tight community of her people. As homesickness began to threaten the quest she’d set for herself, PD touched the amulet around her neck and released the spell that contained her prized possession: a saxophone. It was the reason she’d left her homeland, and the reason she had not yet returned. The instrument expanded into the air before her with a slight pop, several feet of gleaming golden metal. It was an inch from her lips when a dry voice spoke in her ear.
“You aren’t using that again, are you?”
PD blew out the air she’d collected. “If I didn’t know better, Bee, I’d think you enjoyed doing that.”
A lizard that had been sunning on her shoulder crawled down her left arm and stopped on the back of PD’s hand to regard the saxophone with intelligent black eyes. Bee was about five inches long, small enough to curl up in the hollow of PD’s palm if that wasn’t an undignified thing for a lizard to do, with bright green scales and white eyebrow markings. The eyebrows made Bee look indifferent to every situation, although that was usually true anyway.
“You knew I was there,” was the answer, in the same dry tone. Bee inched forward along the web between PD’s index finger and thumb until they could place a paw on one of the saxophone’s keys. “If you’re going to magic something, would it not be more useful to magic it to sound better?” The paw was removed, and Bee began to climb back up PD’s arm. “Surely otherwise the magic is a waste.”
This was not the first time PD had heard that opinion, nor the first time Bee had expressed similar views. “If I used magic for everything, I would only learn magic,” she explained. “I want to learn music.”
“How admirable of you.” Bee relaxed on her shoulder again. “Try not to dislodge me.”
PD touched the bead on her neck strap and the whole instrument collapsed on itself until it was no more than an image on a medallion. She could practice in the next town they stopped in, make some extra money, and then Bee wouldn’t have to listen. PD was not entirely sure why Bee had agreed to come on this adventure. A mutual friend had suggested that PD take the lizard along, but the lizard had as yet given no indication that this was something they wanted to do.
They passed several small towns throughout the day, most only a few farmer’s houses collected around the road from Percs. PD watched her surroundings with interest. Bee did not.
At midday, when the weather became too hot and dry for PD to walk any farther, they stopped in one of the larger towns. She drew up one bucket of well-water to replenish her supply, and another to drink. Bee wandered off to hunt bugs. PD ate fast and set herself up to play in the shade outside the local inn for the afternoon. She’d made a few copper bits before the sun began to set and they could continue on. This time Bee slept in her pack while PD walked in the dusky evening light. For several days they continued in this way. They slept each night in the trees that began to line the road, too high for robbers to reach. PD was accustomed to sleeping in trees or in small muddy ponds beneath them, but it was one of the first things she’d discovered that made land-livers uncomfortable.
A few nights out from Percs, the forest enveloped them and they reached a larger town, a good place to stop for a few days. This town was a junction of three main roads, much larger than anything they’d come across before. It was not yet so late that PD couldn’t play a set, or at least hear one, so she headed straight for the inn on the town square. Bee, uninterested in the lights or sounds from the inn, slid down her leg and ran off to make their own discoveries.
The main room at the inn was full of patrons. PD counted at least three other travelling entertainers, one on stage, two waiting for their turn to perform. She ordered cider and made her way through the crowd.
The man performing was juggling knives interspersed with plums, which seemed an odd choice to PD, but the crowd was enjoying it. The next performer, a tall man with long flaxen hair, looked PD up and down and sniffed audibly. The third gave her a cocky, lopsided grin and kindly held her drink as she sat down.
“You one of us, girly?” he asked, handing her mug back. “It’ll be awhile before you’re up.” He jerked a thumb at the man onstage. “We’ll have to drag him off.”
“I’m willing to wait,” PD replied. “It looks like a good crowd.”
“Aye, always is at the Bear Baiters’. Hey, Charlie!” He smashed his drink against the flaxen haired man’s, spilling them both. “Say hello to the lady, Charlie! She’s one of us!”
Charlie went rigid with disdain. “Don’t be such an ass, Fork.” He brushed beer off the table.
“Your name is Fork?” PD asked the friendly man.
“Aye, Fork.” He pointed to a spot in his left eye, below the pupil and dark against the blue of his iris. “Account of the time I got a fork in my eye.”
PD leaned forward to look. “Can you see?”
“Not a wink,” said Fork, and winked.
Charlie sniffed again.
The man onstage finished his act and the crowd shouted approval. Fork banged his mug on the table and slapped Charlie hard on the back. “That’s my boy!” he yelled over the crowd, ignoring the glare Charlie levelled at him. “Taught him everything he knows!”
Something moved across PD’s fluke and began to climb her leg, moving fast. She peeked underneath the table at it to reassure herself it wasn’t anything unpleasant before she dropped a hand down to cover Bee’s ascent. The lizard ducked under her pack and came up on the back of her neck.
“We need to leave,” Bee said urgently. “You need to get out of here now.”
“Why?” asked PD.
Fork turned to her. “What’s that, girly?”
PD put a hand up as if to scratch her neck, covering the lizard. “Back in a bit,” she said, and stood up to leave. The inn was packed now, after the success of the juggler. She stuck to the back wall as she slid past people, keeping her hand in place over Bee.
When they were outside she stepped into the shadows and held Bee out in front of her to talk. “What’s the problem?”
The normally unflappable, normally green lizard had camouflaged themself to dark brown. “I saw the townspeople congregating,” Bee explained. “They’re saying something is here. They called it a monster. They’re going to drive it out of town or catch it if they can.”
“A monster? What does that mean? A magical creature, like you? A bear, or something big?”
“Doubtful.” Bee began to pace in short, jerky movements, from the front of PD’s hand to the back, then side to side. ”I suppose some kind of spectre is possible, but it’s more likely they mean a person. Someone they see as a threat to the town.”
PD looked up, frightened. The town square was quiet and well lit. A couple wandered by. A group of teenagers talked and laughed in the small park at the center of the square. “You’re sure?” She asked.
Bee crawled up her arm and dug claws into the strap of her pack. “I’m positive, and I want you to leave, now. We can move down the road and find a tree until morning.”
“You promised Fija you would listen to me.” Bee had lost the dry tone that characterised their voice, and that most of all convinced PD. She had promised, that was true, but more than that she didn’t want to meet anything that could make Bee this nervous. She slipped down the alley behind the inn.
They were a few side streets from the town border when PD rounded a corner and tripped hard. She fell flat on her face; Bee was thrown several feet. PD laid there for a moment, gasping, as Bee crawled back to her. They both looked around to see what she’d tripped over.
A young woman was sitting up against the wall, her knees pressed to her chin. It was hard to guess her height, but she was large and wearing heavy armour. There was a broadsword hanging from her waist and a large shield strapped to her back, but she seemed to have no inclination to use them. In the dark, PD could only make out the reflection of her eyes and something white near her mouth. She was frozen in place, staring back at PD, obviously terrified.
Bee was back on PD’s shoulder as she sat up. “That’s her,” they said. “That’s the one they’re hunting.” The dry tone was back in Bee’s voice: for some reason the lizard was reassured by the discovery of the woman.
“Hello?” PD said, keeping her voice low. The woman didn’t seem dangerous, or monstrous at all.
The woman shook her head silently.
“We need to leave,” Bee repeated. “They’re coming for her.”
“Bee, stop.” PD held out a hand to the woman. “It’s okay,” she said slowly. “Don’t be afraid.”
The woman shrunk away from PD’s hand, but her expression was changing.
Around the corner lights appeared, with a roar of sound for accompaniment. The woman’s attention snapped away from PD. She curled herself into a tighter ball and closed her eyes, listening as the mob drew closer.
PD stood up. “This isn’t right,” she said, and walked around the corner to face the mob.
“NO!” Bee yelled in her ear, but it was too late. She could see them now, and they’d seen her. They were coming quickly.
“People of this town!” PD called out. “Stop for a moment and think about what you are doing.” Her voice echoed down the street. On her shoulder Bee began to slink down her back, out of sight.
The first few people stopped and stared. Behind them, others joined the mob, lighting their way with torches, brandishing sickles and axes.
“This is not how reasonable people behave!” PD continued. “If this woman has done you wrong, she must answer to the law. If she has done no wrong, you have no right to force her from your town.”
More people stopped to stare.
“I ask you to give her fair trial, and to treat her as you would any other – that is the right all people have!” She’d caught almost everyone’s attention now. The closest were about half a block away.
PD was taking another breath to continue when one of them spoke.
“What is that thing?”
“It’s a monster! There’s another one!”
Screams began to fill the air, and then someone else yelled: “KILL IT!”
She stood in shock as the mob started up again, this time heading straight for her, weapons ready. She might have stood there until they caught and killed her, but someone grabbed her wrist and pulled her along as they ran headlong for the town border and the forest beyond.
It was the same young woman, but she didn’t seem frightened now. She seemed to be calculating the best route to get them over the town wall, ducking down alleys and changing direction to confuse the mob that followed them, demanding their blood.
The wall was only about fifteen feet of wood with a five foot walkway on the top. PD swung herself up easily, and turned back to help the woman, who didn’t need it. They could see the torches only a house or two back as they jumped down the other side and ducked into the forest. This time PD took the lead, heading deeper and deeper into the forest, leaping animal holes and fallen logs. She could hear the woman in her armour crashing through the underbrush, but could only hope the mob had been impeded by their own wall, and wasn’t following close enough to hear as well.
They came across a small stream and PD turned down it, keeping her feet in the water and following it north, farther and farther from the town. When she’d found a good rocky area she turned away from the stream and entered the forest without leaving new tracks. Soon they’d gone far enough, and neither of them could go any farther. They collapsed in a mossy clearing, breathing heavily and listening for any other sounds.
The woman recovered first. She got to her feet and turned on PD, hands on her hips, a furious scowl on her face. “What in the world was that?”
“What?” said PD, gaping at her. “What do you mean?”
The woman held up her hands to the stars like she was supplicating her gods for patience. PD could see her more clearly now in the moonlight, and realised that there were actually two of the white things near the woman’s mouth, and that they seemed to be large teeth. “You tried to reason with a mob.” She said each word slowly. “You tried to reason with a mob.”
“I tried to help you,” PD replied angrily. “I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.”
“You would have,” said the woman, “if they caught you.” She staggered and had to brace herself on a tree.
“I agree with this person,” said Bee, who’d burrowed under PD’s shirt while she ran, and was now coming back out.
The woman shrieked and drew a hunting knife, holding it backwards as if to use the hilt as a bludgeon. “Hold still,” she warned, and raised the knife over PD’s head. “There’s a bug on you.”
“No!” PD shouted, as Bee squeaked and disappeared. “It’s not a bug!”
The woman stopped her swing. “It’s not?”
“No,” said PD with relief. “It’s just Bee.”
“It’s a bee?” The woman raised her knife again. “Where did it go?”
“Stop!” PD reached over her shoulder and pulled Bee out from under her. “This is a friend of mine, Bee. Say hello, Bee.”
“I am not a bug,” said Bee.
“Oh.” The woman eyed Bee warily. “It’s just a lizard. How did you come by a talking lizard?”
“You could ask the talking lizard,” said Bee.
PD smiled. “It’s a long story,” she said. “I’ll tell you in the morning.” She stood and looked around for the best sleeping tree.
“The morning?” The woman snorted. “I won’t be anywhere near here in the morning.” She tried to continue walking in the direction they’d been running. “You’ll forgive me if I say I hope we never meet again.” She stumbled.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” PD caught the woman as she began to fall. “You’re exhausted, and so am I. We’ll sleep until dawn, and then we’ll keep moving.”
The woman opened her mouth, and then closed it again. She seemed to accept there was nothing else to be done.
“Excellent,” said PD. “I call that tree.” She pointed to a large and beautiful specimen, with soft, flat bark, better for sleeping in.
“What?” said the woman, incredulous. “Why do you need a tree?”
“She sleeps in them,” Bee explained.
The woman looked at the lizard, then back at PD. “What are you?” she asked, as though this was a question she’d been wondering for awhile but didn’t want to know the answer to.
“I’m a merperson. My name is PD.”
The woman swayed to the right. “Where’s your tail, PD?”
“I don’t have one.” PD began to climb the tree she’d picked. “I’m of the merfolk family, but my people have long since developed legs. We live in the swampland along the Teth River. Have you ever been there?”
“No,” muttered the woman. “And I don’t want to go.” She settled on the soft moss for the night.
“What’s your name?”
There was a pause while the woman weighed whether or not to say it, and then she said, “Chande.”
“Goodnight, Chande,” said PD. “Bee?”
“I’ll watch until dawn,” replied the lizard. “We’ll have a talk about mobs when you’re awake.”
PD and Chande were already asleep.