“And who are you?” asks Martin, frowning at the man – who is still smiling that eerie, over-practised smile.
The smile widens. “Smith,” their uninvited guest answers. “My name is Smith.” Martin frowns. He doesn’t look like a smith; he looks little like someone who spends much of their day with a heavy hammer. He is thin, slight, a man whose appearance cries fast rather than strong.
Suddenly, Aerith’s hand is on his arm, her voice low and next to his ear. “Don’t trust him.” At the deepening of his frown, she elucidates, “Did you hear any footsteps? Do you see any tracks?” His eyes fall to the ground, following her words, and his jaw tightens, his teeth clenching in suspicion and sudden worry as she ends with, “Or did he just… appear? The grass is not flattened, Martin.”
Two realizations flicker suddenly into existence inside his head: the first being that he never heard this “Smith” approach, and the second being that this is the first time she has used his name. He works not to register his surprise, his gaze sliding back to their intruder. “I saw nothing. I heard nothing.” He is almost afraid to blink, lest this odd man attack, or slip out of his grasp. Or out of his mind – it occurs to him, as he looks at the simple, rough-spun wool of Smith’s clothes (an unfussy brown tunic, rumpled breeks) and his face (what his sister might call “kind” eyes slightly crinkled as he watches them; only slightly aquiline nose; wide mouth with lips just a little on the full side) that he is, to put it simply, the most forgettable man Martin has ever come across.
Smith’s head turns, his eyes flickering between them – silent, calculating – several times before he says, “Not my usual idea of being hospitable. A dour pair, aren’t you?”
Martin and Aerith glance at each other, surprise and anger warring on their faces, and then back to Smith.
“What do you want?” Martin sighs.
Smith has the air of the men who have come to his mother’s hut with offers of mysterious herbs, cures and newly-discovered ailments; men with eyes that are too quick and fidgeting hands, the kind he has met so many times before. Except… this one is still, so utterly still that it is strange to see his hair blowing with the wind – calm, immoveable as the trees rustle and the grass bends with the breeze. It’s unnerving, strange in a way he hasn’t encountered before. What Martin recognizes from the other men is the same smirk lurking behind the eyes, waiting to break through in a moment of honesty and spread to the man’s mouth; the same look of knowing something that he doesn’t, of being ready to play a fine, fun trick. It unsettles and irritates him at the same time, and he struggles not to let it slip into his behaviour and manner; he can’t help feeling that that will only amuse the fellow before him.
A hand on his arm. He looks to his left to see Aerith watching him, that afraid, feral look in her eyes once more – one he thought, hoped he’d never see again – and she says, “Ignore him.” Then the pleading look falls from her face, her eyes shuttering and growing hard, and the next thing she says is an order. “Never make deals with his kind.”
Martin barely has time to wonder at the his kind before the implacable, calm stillness of Smith’s face is disrupted. Just slightly, the smallest downturn of his mouth and a narrowing of his eyes – but a shiver runs down Martin’s spine, his toes curling and his shoulders tensing involuntarily. He looks to Aerith, confused and worried by his reaction, but the utter lack of surprise on her face only serves to increase his anxiety. Out of his prior confusion blooms, suddenly and strongly, fear, climbing into his throat and making him swallow so he can breathe.
“You could at least have the grace to consider my offer,” Smith says, the gentlest of frowns creasing his brow. “Or has your trek here stolen your sense as well as your charm?” He grins, white-toothed, wide and animal, and Martin feels the hand on his arm tighten – whether the cause is fear, anger or a need to warn him, he doesn’t know. “You need never make another such trek, when you’re with me. I have a way for you to cross the marshes quickly, safely.”
Though Martin hates to admit it, his interest is piqued, and he has just opened his mouth to ask for more information when Aerith says firmly, “No.”
Smith raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “‘No’?” Then the disbelief is gone, a confused, hurt smile in its place. “But I’m only trying to help you.” In that moment, Smith’s eyes are so kind, so innocently hurt, that Martin can’t quite help but trust him. Some indeed help strangers in need – some ask for nothing in return, or only meagre offerings. The song of the beggar and the prince winds its way back into Martin’s head, and he is torn between questioning Smith and longing for his lute.
“Do you enjoy playing?” the stranger asks suddenly, his eyes meeting Martin. “I have a lute here…” There is an instrument strapped to Smith’s back, one that Martin swears wasn’t there before –
Of course it was. His mother has taught him not to be superstitious, or a fool, and many men on such journeys carry lutes. Playing is a way of keeping sane on the road. He has simply been unobservant, something very unusual for him, and he’s ashamed of himself. His eyes are drawn to the shining wood of the instrument, and much as he still can’t trust the man, he still admires his lute…
Aerith shakes him, and he jumps, looking to her in surprise. “How did he know?” she says urgently. When he only frowns at her, she elaborates, “How did he know you were thinking of a lute?”
His thoughts swirl strangely, refuse to piece together,; the hand on his arm, the firm grip and the nails not-quite digging into his skin, is the only thing keeping him grounded. His brow furrows. “I do not… know…” His mind begins to clear as she watches him, eyes sharp and narrow, and she seems to notice the moment that anger rushes into him. “I never spoke of it!” he says, understanding the words as they spill from his mouth.
Aerith gives one curt nod. She removes her hand, strides forwards. In a smooth, sure movement that Martin barely registers, there is a hiss and scrape of metal and the sword is pointed at Smith’s throat, touching his Adam’s-apple just enough to draw blood. “We will walk,” she tells him, through gritted teeth. “We accept nothing you offer us. Leave without bloodshed.”
“I’m sure I can…” Smith begins.
“We accept nothing,” Aerith reiterates, and her eyes are frightening. Wild and half-unseeing, her mind trapped somewhere else.
Smith rolls his eyes. He straightens his legs in a movement that’s graceful and effortless. There is a pause in which he watches Aerith, mouth now fully downturned, seeming displeased with what he sees, before he speaks. “Very well, crone. I am a demon of my word.” He turns, takes a couple of steps, and then he is simply… not there. The air is still where he was, but now with an absence rather than a presence.
Aerith is unmoving, seeming to wait for a few heartbeats before she turns to him. When she does, the seeming mania is gone from her eyes, her bruised face calm, but as her anger has faded, so has her burst of speed; the movement is, like many of her other, prior ones, slow and jerky. She limps past him, sitting by the fire slowly, painfully and without a word.
He shakes himself out of his stupor and follows her, taking the other side of the fire and watching her through the flames. “He said ‘demon,'” he remembers, his eyes steady and his voice unwavering.
She is looking at her knees, seeming lost in thought. “Yes,” is her blunt reply.
“They are children’s tales, meant to frighten them, to stop them following those who would hurt them. Peasants’ explanation for the illnesses that befall them, created to help them grasp disease.” He swallows.
“No,” is her reply.
Growing frustrated, he asks, “‘No’? Meaning what?”
She looks up, her eyes angry. “No, meaning that they are not children’s or peasants’ tales. No, meaning that they look like men. No, meaning that I have met them before.”
He swallows. “Before?”
She looks away, out into the night. “Their kind are drawn to me.” She exhales heavily, in an audible huff of breath. “They find me. Then they find my blade.” Her tone is matter-of-fact.
“It frightened me,” Martin admits, pausing. “But it seemed willing to trade.” That confused, hurt smile sticks in his memory, even as the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
She meets his eye now. “Some are. But traders always ask something in return. Demons always ask too much of you.”
“They – ” he begins, but she cuts him off.
“They like precious things. Trinkets, lives…” Her gaze is unwavering, and she probably doesn’t mean for her voice to hitch – just slightly, many wouldn’t hear it – as she finishes, “… lovers.”
Martin remembers the necklace amongst her things that so perplexed him, and wonders. “Did you kill it?” he asks quietly.
Her teeth come together with a click as she realizes that he has caught her unintentional slip, and he knows he has overstepped a line, pushed too far. She looks way from him, at the now tough, charcoaled rabbit. “Eat,” she orders. “We move in the morning.”
“I apologise,” he tries, attempting to repair the damage and warm the suddenly cold air. “That was…”
“Eat,” she says again, and no more words are exchanged for the rest of the night.