By C.C.S. Ryan
Avelie stared at the giant knot of jewelry that Enden had pulled out of the unlocked chest. The Pendant of Tyrantfell, the object of their task, was in there--somewhere. Only its warm glow was visible through the twisted mess of chains, bracelets, earrings, and things that Avelie couldn't even identify, all snarled together into an unwieldy ball nearly the size of Avelie's head.
"Good grief," said Maerth, blinking. "Can you get it out of that thing?"
Enden poked the mess and shrugged. "I don't know any unraveling words," she said. "Never seemed handy."
Maerth gestured at Tesk's axe. "Can't Tesk just--"
"No!" said Enden hastily. "Pendant. Of. Tyrantfell. Wielding a weapon right next to it? Only if you have a death wish."
"Mm." Maerth eyed it and put a hand on the hilt of his sword. "Well, then, shall I? I hesitate to misuse my blade so, but it does have a bit more finesse than that uncouth chopping thing."
"It doesn't matter whether it's a civilized weapon or not, Maerth," snapped Enden. "I wish to live to enjoy the reward."
"Besides, the other pieces are more valuable intact, I suppose." Maerth sighed.
"Avelie can do it," suggested Enden. Avelie raised her eyebrows. Enden said, "Well, it was an easy battle, and there are no injuries for you to take care of, so it's your turn to be useful. Anyway, you've got small hands."
"Fair enough," said Avelie. "Let's take it back to the inn where we stayed last night."
"No," Enden and Maerth said together. Maerth added, "Too many prying eyes--I don't want to have to fight to keep this stuff. Anyway, no backtracking. We need to continue west to Imrir's holding now that we have it. But if we bring the whole thing there, they'll claim all of it. You know the rules."
Avelie was wearing furs, but she was still cold, and she'd be even colder if she took off her gloves. "I--"
"I will make a fire," said Tesk, already moving toward the nearby woods. Over her shoulder, she added, "Enden knows warming words."
"You Midlanders are so delicate," said Enden. "It's only nippy today, not dangerously cold. But fine, sure."
Avelie ignored her and pulled down a blanket from her horse to make herself a seat on the chilly ground. "Take care of the horses, Maerth; don't just let them stand here." He grunted, but took her suggestion.
Enden deposited the cold weight of the knot into Avelie's hands, then bent down and whispered into Avelie's hood. Avelie felt a slight warmth start to emanate from the furs.
"Thanks," Avelie said, but Enden was already wandering toward the chest that sat a few yards away.
The pendant was less uncomfortably bright now, but it still glowed. Avelie looked for an end or a reasonable place to start, and finally chose randomly. She tugged a few earrings and bracelets loose, putting them into a pile in plain sight of everyone so that Enden and Maerth wouldn't get the wrong idea. The snarled necklaces resisted her, though, and she wasn't even sure that she could find the chain that the pendant was on. The ground was hard and cold, despite the warmth of her furs, and it made her hipbones ache. She gritted her teeth and dug into the infuriating mess again.
Tesk returned, nodded at Avelie, and began to build a fire. Maerth had done the basics for the horses and was keeping one eye on Enden, who was poking around in the chest for anything interesting. She pulled out a dramatic green and gold headdress and held it against her black hair. Maerth shook his head. "More my color than yours. You're too pale for it," he said, then sighed heavily. "Twenty-nine days it's taken us," he said more loudly, though apparently still speaking to Enden. "I hope that healer makes this quick." Typical of Maerth to have been calculating the exact date, Avelie thought, holding part of an especially long golden rope in her mouth. It tasted like old coins and blood.
Steam still rose into the cold morning air from the bodies of the twisted scalekind they had just dispatched. At least the battle had been quick enough. After the others had struck down the scalekind who had been trundling along the stolen chest in a cart, hidden under filthy rags, there had been a moment where no one had made a move toward the chest. Finally, Avelie had nudged Enden and asked whether she was going to open it.
Enden had sighed and nodded. "Yes, yes. It just seems a bit anticlimactic. The Pendant of Tyrantfell, finally!" She had wiped her red nose with a silk handkerchief. A few days ago, Avelie had given her a morning draught to keep away these irritating winter illnesses, which dulled the senses and reduced one's reflexes. Clearly, Enden had not been taking it.
"Let's get on with it," Tesk had grumbled in her deep voice. Avelie had noted it and glanced up at her; since Tesk rarely spoke, she must have been eager to get things over with and move along to a warmer place.
"I'm going, I'm going." Enden had approached the chest cautiously, closed her eyes, and run her pink fingers over the surface of the wood without touching it. After a few minutes, she had whispered some words onto her fingertip and touched the lock. Enden had cackled at its resounding click. "Here we go!"
It was not an enormous chest--easy enough to carry with two people, or just someone Tesk's size, but it was packed full even now, without the massive clump they had removed from it. Enden had pulled her gloves on and stuck her hands all the way the bottom, then drawn up a handful of precious objects, letting rings and coins in a dazzling variety of shapes and metals fall back with a resonant clatter. "Centuries of layers in here," she had said. "Lots of old stuff, probably."
"Let's get what we came for," Maerth had replied.
Enden had huffed and dug around. "Oh! I can feel the magic in this one right through my gloves." Then they had all had to shield their eyes, as light erupted from the chest and Enden yanked out the pendant of Tyrantfell--but it hadn't been the pendant. It was this damned mess that occupied Avelie's hands now. The pendant still stubbornly remained knotted within it.
Avelie winced as a cloak pin bit into her finger. "How long have I been doing this?"
Maerth overheard her. "Twenty-two minutes," he said, glancing toward the dull disk of the sun behind the clouds. "More or less."
Avelie pressed a bit of clean cotton to her finger to stop the bleeding. "Is that all?" She wanted to swear, but held back. Last time she'd let out a good Midland swear, Enden had laughed at her, saying that she sounded more like a cabbage farmer than a healer. "I am longing for blasting words," she muttered under her breath. "I would love to set something ablaze right now!"
Maerth raised his eyebrows at her facial expression, and Avelie sighed. She took a deep breath and said more calmly, "I don't seem to be getting anywhere with it."
"Let me try," said Tesk, at Avelie's elbow. Avelie jumped. The woman could be quieter than her bulk ought to make possible.
"Sure, if you want," said Avelie. She made to stand up, but Tesk sat down next to her. Avelie put the knotted mess into Tesk's hands. Tesk's little finger was thicker--and probably stronger--than Avelie's thumb, and her knuckles and palms were calloused. Though less so, Avelie noticed, since Tesk had been using the nutfat ointment that Avelie had given her when winter blew in. Tesk peered intently at the mass of jewelry.
Maerth and Enden stared at them for a moment, and then both fell apart laughing. When they had recovered, Enden wiped the tears from her eyes. "Oh, this calls for the good cider, and a tent to lie in," she said. She jerked her head at Maerth and they tramped away to set up a temporary camp at the foot of a hill nearby, out of the wind. Avelie knew she ought to go help them, but she didn't want to move away from the fire--and they seemed to be enjoying each other's company, anyway. They were of a type, Avelie thought to herself, knowing that they would think it a compliment if she said it aloud.
Tesk was patiently working at the knot with her big fingers. Avelie watched the muscles in her hands and forearms move. Her skin was as dark as Avelie's, but Avelie used an array of ointments--beyond the nutfat--to keep her own skin soft and smooth. Tesk's bare arms were rough, crisscrossed with ropey, thick scars. Avelie made a note to ask Tesk later if any of the scars hurt. Softening the damage would take more than ointment, but if they were in a safe place and she didn't have to conserve her healing touch for the battlefield, she could help.
Tesk pulled out a strand now and again and shook it, letting a chain fall out under its own weight. She had already extracted five necklaces. Avelie pulled her hood tighter and watched silently.
After a while, Tesk said, "That's about a third done. It should get easier from here. More movement."
Avelie said, "You've done this before?"
Tesk glanced over at her. Her eyes were green, ringed with brown. Avelie realized that she couldn't remember ever making direct eye contact with Tesk before. Tesk didn't say anything for a moment, and then she looked away. "Yes. Many times. We moved often, and my grandmother had an extensive collection of jewelry. I would sit in front of the fire, like now, and do it. It's relaxing and...satisfying."
"Was your grandmother a freelancer too, then?"
"What? No! She collected historical pieces, to be sure, but our tribe has many fine gemwrights. Your finest cosmopolitan jewelers and goldsmiths wait for years just to beg to be allowed to study with our gemwrights. Ah, I miss watching them work...it's been too long since I've been back."
"Wait, your...your gemwrights? But--"
Tesk's nostrils flared. "But, what? Stupid barbarians no use metal good? Right?" She snorted and bent over her work, presenting her broad back to Avelie.
Avelie felt her cheeks heat. She touched Tesk's shoulder tentatively, her hand tiny against taut muscles. "I'm really sorry, Tesk. I guess I don't really know anything about your people."
"Because nobody ever asks!" Tesk exploded. Avelie saw Maerth glance in their direction and then carefully turn away. "At least you have been polite to me, which I do appreciate--unlike Maerth and Enden and their constant little remarks. I'm so sick of their sniping. It started before you joined us, and it's always subtle, so I can't say anything without looking like the hothead they believe me to be already, and I..." She trailed off. "Damn them!"
Avelie made herself not flinch back from Tesk's anger. "That's why you're so quiet," she said.
"Hah! Yes. It's just...easier. Otherwise, I say too much. Like now."
"It's not too much," said Avelie.
Tesk glanced at her and put more jewelry that she had extracted in the piles. Avelie reached over and shored up a stack of flat brooches as it threatened to topple into the grass. Light from the fire caught faceted gems among the tarnished metals. Tesk's breathing became slow and rhythmic as she worked.
"You're still here," observed Tesk, after some time had passed.
"I'm not that easy to scare off," said Avelie.
Tesk nodded. She pulled out a cylindrical piece that seemed to be made of spirals and showed it to Avelie. "This is old," she said. "It's a Yokora braid spiral. Very valuable because it has few gemstones, making it an early work." She put it down and worked a flat chain out of the dwindling knot, and identified it as well, and then a set of linked rings, and so on until Avelie realized that she could see the entire face of the pendant.
"Hey, you're almost done."
"Good, I'm getting a cramp," Tesk grumbled. "Ah!" She shook out the Pendant of Tyrantfell and set it down on a corner of the blanket.
"May I have your hands?" asked Avelie. Tesk's brow furrowed, but she held them out. Avelie took off her gloves and poured a little oil into Tesk's left palm, then began to rub her hands, tracing the muscles and joints. Tesk watched Avelie's hands work. "No mending words--never without permission--just simple mechanics," Avelie said. "It should help. And while we're here, I have a question."
"Yes?" Tesk sounded wary.
"Are you alright with Imrir receiving the pendant?"
Tesk cocked her head to one side. "Seems fine to me. Imrir is a sensible leader. It'll be safe. I wouldn't have agreed to go after the pendant in the first place if I hadn't thought so."
Avelie nodded. "Likewise. So, next question. You want to keep freelancing with Maerth and Enden after this?"
"Say no more," said Avelie. She smoothed her hands over Tesk's, making sure the oil was worked in. "I'll be right back."
She hopped up from the blanket, ignoring the stiffness brought on by the cold, and ran over to the others in the warm lean-to. Avelie made her offer to them, mindful of Tesk's eyes on her back, and then returned to Tesk.
"What's going on?" asked Tesk.
"We're out of here," said Avelie, "or at least we will be shortly. I've offered them a deal, and they've agreed if you agree. We don't need to accompany them back to Imrir's hold; we can leave now and go anywhere."
Tesk sucked air sharply through her teeth.
"Hold on, I'm not done," said Avelie. "Yes, that means they'll get all four shares of the reward for the pendant, meaning we'd be getting less overall. However, we still get our shares of the rest of the chest contents--and we get to choose our shares. More specifically..." She paused, and looked at Tesk.
"I get to choose our shares." A smile slowly opened up Tesk's face.
Avelie couldn't help but smile back. "Exactly. And then we'll go our own way. In fact, since we can certainly afford to take a break after this, I think I'd like to travel a bit. I've heard about this tribe that does fine jewelry work, but I don't know much about them. I think the best way to learn is to visit them myself, don't you think? If--if you think I'd be welcome."
"A healer is welcome wherever she goes," said Tesk, and she grasped Avelie's outstretched hand.
C. C. S. Ryan was born in the Ozarks and now lives in the easternmost part of what is technically still the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches English and ESL. She likes to write about the odd corners and uncanny crossroads of science fiction and fantasy. This is her first published story. She can be found online at ccsryan.com and interstellarteahouse.com. Despite substantial empirical evidence, C. C. S. Ryan is probably not 30 Maine coon cats in a bathrobe.
"Untangling" Copyright © 2016 by C.C.S. Ryan