Wake. Sleep. Doze. Sleep. Wake.
The moments of true wakefulness came so far apart, and so briefly, that they seemed nonexistent. Even when he managed to pull himself from the depths of drowsiness that had enveloped him, he caught only glimpses of the world:
His room, in the dark of night, with only the stars for light.
His room, glowing orange-rose in the light of the rising sun.
His room, silver-white and ghostly, lit by the light of the crescent moon that peered at him through the window.
His room, dim but for a faint glow emanating from the corner. His wife, sitting with her back to him, head bowed, limned with the light of a candle. She did not turn. He couldn’t raise his voice enough to call to her.
His memory of everything else had melted away into a confusing sludge, a pile of collected bits, some shiny and some not, like someone had mixed in finely worn river-rocks with rough gravel. There was only his room, now: it had become his present. His world.
He knew who he was. Or… He knew he was important, or maybe that he’d been doing something important, before now. He knew he had to save someone. To protect them. To do that, he had to wake up.
Yes. He was healing, because he’d been hurt. When he healed, he could go back to protecting. He had to keep someone safe. The house, perhaps; it felt more like a someone than a someplace, for some reason. His wife, too — he loved her, and cherished her. She needed to be safe, but something told him she wasn’t who he was meant to protect, only that he did so because he wished it.
How long, he wondered, had he been here, in this room? It felt like forever, though he knew it couldn’t have been, because he knew there had been a time before. It filled him with so many questions, though. He must have been gravely wounded, if his recovery was taking so much time. Surely the healers should have had him on his feet by now.
If he was gravely wounded, he should have been in pain, but he was not. Not physically. He should have woken to the healers attending him, too, or at least his wife, but the healers were never there and his wife, when he glimpsed her in the evenings, never turned to speak to him. Oh, how he longed to reach out and hold her.
How he longed to rise up from his bed, storm out of this room, and take up his sword again. The thought sent a fire through him, a burning urge to protect. To defend the house, his house. He rose…
The fire blazed through him, and he almost pushed himself from the bed, from the room, to storm out into his home and ask, “Why am I still here?”
Then the heat faded, quicker than it came, leaving him chilled and tired. He fell back into the overwhelming, heavy sleep that would not leave him.
He woke, and the night greeted him outside his window.
He kept waking, always in the night, always with a single, driving thought: Protect. He had to wake up, and protect his house. He had to protect his wife.
Again, and again, as though he wouldn’t see the day again, he woke to the night. All he saw was the moon as it waned and then waxed again toward full.
Then she arrived. He knew when he saw her that she brought change.
Silhouetted in his windowsill, stark and shadowed against the gibbous moon, the first thing she brought was a jolt of fear, something he hadn’t felt since the long days of sleep had taken hold. She perched there, looking at him, inscrutable in the shadow of night, her black feathers making her seem featureless. Even if he could have seen her face, he doubted he could have read her expression.
“Ornoth,” he whispered, surprising himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken a thought aloud.
She gave no indication that she had heard him. She leaned forward, her neck stretching as she peered about the room. Seemingly satisfied, she hopped down to the floor, strutting around his bed, long legs gliding as gracefully as an elvish noblewoman making an appearance at a gala. Ornoth varied in looks as much, or more, than any elf or human. This one reminded him of a raven, though with a long neck and longer legs bringing her perhaps chest-high on a halfling.
She circled the room once, ignoring him, and then, in a flutter of wings, landed on the footboard of his bed. She turned her face toward the head of the bed, but her eyes didn’t meet his. Her gaze passed right through him. “Well, I know you’re here. You may as well show yourself.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. His voice felt stronger, for some reason, even though he felt lost and confused in a new way. He didn’t know any ornoth, not personally; why would a pactmaker be visiting him at his bedside?
“Hmm?” She tilted her head. “What was that? You’ll have to speak up a bit.”
“I’m sorry,” he sad. “I’m just so tired.”
As he spoke, though, he realized that some of the exhaustion had fled. He pushed, sliding up in the bed so that he was no longer lying down all the way.
“Ah, there you are,” she said. Balancing on one foot, she raised the other, waving at him in a way he might have found comical if the situation hadn’t felt so… wrong.
“I’ve been here the whole time.” He wrinkled his brow, squinting as though he could see the answer to his forthcoming question. “Are you blind?”
To his surprise, she laughed. “No, no. I see quite well. I see quite a bit more than you do, I’m sure.” She turned her head, leaning forward dramatically.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He would have felt more comfortable with his sword in his hand. Dealing with ornoth involved too many words, and there was always such a risk of them trapping you in some sort of agreement that you didn’t actually agree with.
“I mean exactly what I say, and nothing more.” If she’d had lips, he was sure, she would have been smirking. “That wouldn’t be said about most of my kind, but I’ll say it about me.”
“That’s never true. Not of anyone, elf or human or halfling, and certainly not of ornoth.”
“If you’re so confident about it, I’ll make you a vow.” Her head tilted the other way, as though to emphasize her point. “That’s not something you’ll get very often, from me or any ornoth, so take it as a wondrous gift.”
Ornoth vows, made by them or to them, were dangerous. He wanted nothing to do with that. “Wait —”
“Ah!” She pointed at him with one of the small claws protruding from the edge of her wing. “No objections. I’ve already made up my mind.” She rolled her shoulders, stood up straighter, and spoke in a clear voice. “I vow that, for the remainder of the hour, I shall speak nothing but the truth to the man before me.”
He shuddered. The vow would bind her, not him, but still. He had always avoided dealing with ornoth. That, when it had to be done, was his brother’s job.
Something about her presence, or about the fact that she was engaging him, had sent sparks hopping through his mind. He felt more present, more real, than he had been since his injury.
He sighed. If she was going so far as to bind herself into a vow, even a temporary one, he owed her the respect of hearing what she had to say. “Fine. Why are you here?”
“To help you.”
It was not the answer he had expected, but then again, it didn’t surprise him much, either. He didn’t know what to feel. All of his feelings, all of his emotions, felt deadened by the omnipresent temptation of falling back to sleep. All but his wonder at why she was here, and his wish that he could go back to protecting his home, because he had failed.
“Okay. Why? And how?”
“You just cut straight to the point, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard that there’s little point in doing otherwise with an ornoth. The more you speak to one, the more likely it is that they’ll trap you in your own words.”
She nodded. “That’s wise. That’s why it’s always safest to stick to questions and statements of fact.”
“And to avoid answering anything with ‘yes.’ Am I right?”
“You are, you are.” She spread her wings. “But you have nothing to fear from me, because I’m not here to take something from you. I’m not here representing a rival House, or one of your enemies, or anything like that. I’m here to offer you something.”
“You said you want to help me. What is it that you have to offer?”
“Well, to get you out of this room, for starters.” She looked around, shaking her head all the while. “It’s got to be dreary, staying in one place all of the time, does it not?”
“I can’t remember the last time I left.”
“It’s been nearly two months, or so I’m told.” She held up a claw, open, in a gesture of surprising insecurity. “I wasn’t there for it.”
He did not like this, all of a sudden. He hadn’t liked it before, he supposed, but now he hated it. He didn’t want to be here, with her, listening. He didn’t want to know what she was about to say, even though he’d asked. The thought of it filled him with dread.
“Why, the night you failed, of course. The night that, shall we say, put you into this room.”
“You promised to tell me the truth.”
“I promised to speak nothing but the truth, so that you could be assured I would not tell you a lie.” She paused. “I did not promise to tell you the whole truth, if you’re insinuating that I have not or will not.”
“You’re messing with the words. You’re skirting around it. What do you mean when you say that I failed?”
“What do you remember?” She leaned forward again. He wanted to push her off of the end of the bed.
“I…” He clutched at his chest, suddenly bright with pain. “I… remember getting hurt. I remember fighting someone, though I can’t… I don’t know who, or what happened to him. I remember being brought here, and I remember my wife, and my brother, watching over me. And doctors.”
“Yes, that sounds accurate to me.”
“But who was I fighting? Do you know? And how badly was I injured, that I haven’t been able to leave my bed?”
“Oh, you’re not injured.”
“I… what? What do you mean?”
Her eyes caught the moonlight, glinting. They were a pale lavender. On another day, he might have marvelled at their beauty. “I’ll help you, and I’ll answer your questions, if you agree to help me.”
“Okay,” he said, and it was as though a vice had tightened around him. He gasped. He’d meant it only as a filler word, hadn’t he? But it still had meaning. And he did want the answers but… what had just agreed to?” “No, wait, I…”
She waggled a claw at him. “You can’t take that back, so you will be helping me.”
“You said you were here to help me!”
“Both things can be true.”
He sat silent for a time, fuming, infuriated both with himself and with her. This is why he left the word-stuff to his brother. He always messed it up, somehow. “Answer my questions.”
“So stiff,” she huffed. “But alright. You were fighting an assassin. That’s easy enough. I don’t know his name, but it shouldn’t matter much to you: he died. He wounded your brother, you wounded him, and the other guards finished him off. He’s not important anymore.”
“Is my brother okay?”
“You said yourself that you remember him standing over your bed, did you not? He’s alive.”
Relief flooded through him, followed by consternation. “You told me I had failed, though. If he’s alive, and the assassin is dead…”
“There’s more than one way to fail, my love.” She hopped down from her perch, landing on the sheets. He didn’t want her any closer, but his fear at her, which had spiked when he’d first glimpsed her in the window and then quickly diminished, was mounting once more. He didn’t have the strength to deny her.
“My wife?” He could only whisper the words, because he didn’t want to hear the answer that he feared.
“She’s well. She comes in to mourn, sometimes, at the shrine on your dresser. There.” She pointed with an extended wing, over to where, in the haze of sleep, he’d seen his wife sit with her back turned.
Indeed, the top of his dresser was filled now not by books he was reading, or intended to be, but by two candles on either side of a wooden box, leaned against which was a wooden portrait-frame. In the dark, he couldn’t out who the portrait might be of.
“My… son?” No, that sounded wrong. All of the confusion, the pebbles and rocks of memory that had been all jumbled up in his sleep, sifted once more through his brain. He didn’t have a son, or a daughter. Not yet. “My nephew? Whose mourning shrine is that?”
“It’s yours, Thallion.”
“No, I…” His breath deserted him. He could hardly support his words. “I’m here. Now. Talking to you.”
“You are, but you are not all of you. Not like you once were.” She strode forward on the bed, and he found himself shrinking back, though ornoth were not that physically intimidating. “You lost the fight, Thallion, on the evening after you fought off the assassin. Your wound proved too much for your body to handle.”
“No.” The word run soft, and hollow, and he hated himself for it, so he said it louder. “No.” But it still rang false, and so he shouted it, screamed it as loud as he could. “No! I am alive!”
He sobbed, then. He hadn’t cried like this since he was a small child, clinging to his mother’s dress. The ornoth settled down to watch him, folding her legs beneath her body. She offered him no comfort, saying nothing until his sobs had receded.
“You’re not dead, you know. Not all the way.”
“What?” His voice felt weak, but not as it had before, when he’d been alone and ignored in his room. Something about the fact that she continued to regard him kept him strong. The conversation, as painful as it was, kept him awake.
“You lost your body to your wound, but you have a strong spirit. It’s clinging to, well, not life, but something like it.”
“I’m… a ghost?”
She chuckled, low and humorlessly. “That’s one word people have used. Wraith is another. I like to think it’s more accurate, but that’s more a matter for linguists and wizards than for me.”
“What… what does that mean, really? Is that what you’ve come to help me with?”
His mind whirled. Ornoth magic involved agreements. Magically binding agreements. They weren’t healers, like treefolk. He imagined some of them studied alchemy, though he saw no potions on this one. Some must study the First Tongue as well, but he didn’t know what good that would do, and she’d said she wasn’t a wizard anyway.
“Seeing as that’s your only problem worth solving, yes. I’d like to offer to help you with your, ah, wraithhood.”
“I’m not even sure what… what it means. Being a wraith.”
“It means death, eventually. It means months or years of fading away, slowly forgetting everything you once knew, barely able to interact with the world around you. Unless you find an anchor.”
“You’ve found some small ones,” she explained. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. When I heard about you, I thought perhaps you’d be one who stayed. You were very dedicated to your House, and to your wife. You would want to keep protecting it. You fought hard to stay alive, at the end.”
“I did,” he whispered.
“That’s one. Your connection here. Another is this conversation. Our spirits are the parts of us that think and speak and love. By talking with you, I’m basically feeding you. Or at least, you can think of it that way.”
“So if you stop talking to me, and leave, I’ll just go back to how I was before?”
“Unless something really riles you up, or unless someone else starts talking to you, yes. You’ll eventually just dissolve into nothing. Without a body, that is.”
He felt himself trembling. He tried not to think about how little sense that made. He was suddenly very aware of the fact that she was right: he had no body. He was not under the sheets, as he’d perceived himself. There were no legs disturbing them, and there was no heart beating in his chest — there was no chest for it to beat within.
“So, what? You’re here to offer me a body?”
“As I said, I’m here to help you.” One of her legs slipped out from beneath her. She pointed at him with an outstretched claw. “And you agreed to help me. The agreement isn’t very strong, of course, because it was weakly formed, and agreed to with little intent. But you’re not very strong either.”
“I don’t understand what I could do to help you. I don’t even know how to leave this bed.”
She regarded him steadily as she spoke, etching each word upon the air with deliberate care. “The body I have to offer you is mine. We would share it.”
“What?” He shook his head. Or imagined himself shaking his head. He didn’t know. Her offer made no sense.
“I will allow you to use my body as an anchor. You will share it with me, and you’ll be a complete being again. You won’t regain what you’ve lost, and I can’t promise you’ll stop losing parts of yourself — I’m mortal, as you are, and my body has only ever held one spirit. But if you agree, you can use my body as an anchor, and through me you will live again.”
“What does that gain you, though? You said I have to help you, too.”
“That will help me.” She spread her wings wide, revealing her sleek, feathered body. “I am no great fighter. You are, and you have a drive to protect already. I would ask that you help me protect myself. And, of course, that you would obey me.”
“As a precaution, my love. The spirit is meant to control the body. I can’t invite you into mine and risk losing it for myself.”
“I need to think about this.”
“Think away. I have more time than you do.”
There was one thing he didn’t need any time to think about. He didn’t wish to die. Perhaps he already had, as far as those in his life were concerned. Certainly now, with no body to call his own, he didn’t feel as though he lived. He could do nothing for himself, or more importantly, for his House, in this state. He could do nothing for his wife, who would now be living as a widow in his brother’s house. If he took the ornoth’s offer, maybe she would agree, in turn, to help protect them.
Protect. He had died, protecting. Was it worth living again, to try to protect again? To have a chance at continuing to keep his House safe, even if it meant losing most of himself? He would have to obey this ornoth who he’d never met. He knew she spoke the truth, at least, because even an ornoth could not break a vow made to herself. He supposed the question was whether truth meant trust.
“I have one request, before I agree to your proposal.”
He spoke before he’d even realized he’d made a decision; and yet, as the words left him, he realized that he had.
“Make it, and I will tell you whether it is something I can honor.”
“I want to keep protecting my House. My wife, and my brother, and my nephew. I want to keep them safe. I want you to help me do that. It’s… it’s my only reason to hold on. It’s why I held on until you came.”
“It is important to you.”
“Yes,” he answered vehemently.
She nodded. “Very well. If I offer you my body, will you obey me? Will you place my will and my desires above your own, and take control only when I permit it?”
“Yes,” he said, without the hesitation he so dearly wanted to let take over, because he didn’t know, if he waited, if he would ever take the chance she offered.
“Will you protect me, as you would protect your House or your wife? Even at the cost of yourself, so long as you reside within my body?”
“I… Yes. Yes, I will protect you.”
“Will you lend me your skills and your knowledge, without hesitation, so long as we both exist?”
“Yes!” he said, weeping once more as her magic, the vows he was making, tightened around him.
“Then come. Come to me.”
He moved toward her, then, and he didn’t know if it was his own volition or her command that brought him to her. With a ripple of horror, he realized he truly couldn’t separate them. He wanted to go to her, and so he did; he had no choice in the matter. He drew closer and closer, closer than having his body in the way would ever have allowed, and suddenly he was… within. He felt heavy. Solid. He hadn’t even known it was lacking.
He couldn’t move. She spoke, and he felt her vocal chords vibrate as though they were his own. He heard her through her own ears. Her wings flexed, and as promised, he made no effort to resist.
“Ah,” she said. “I can feel you. I don’t know how I expected this to feel. Hmm.”
She strode toward the edge of the bed, in the direction of the window.
“Where are we going?” he wanted to ask, but of course, her throat didn’t move.
She responded anyway. “We’re leaving. I have no further business here.”
“Yes you do. You said we could protect them. You said we could protect my House.”
“No. I asked if you wanted to do so. I asked if it was important to you. You said yes.”
“You…” Dread. He would have cried out, if he could. He would have screamed and raged and punched at her, but the body was hers. He was hers. “You said…”
“Shh. Quiet for now. You can speak again later, when I’m in the mood to listen.”
He quieted, because the vow held him to his word. She left the house, carrying him with her, and all he could do was silently wonder what he had truly done.