“Aisling, girl, go meet Quinn. He should be here any time,” a mountain of a man called from the front of a roaring oven. The shop smelled of warmth, wood, and bread. The man had all the trappings of a baker, with rough hands stained with flour and simple, robust garb. Sweat beaded his forehead from the heat of the oven, and he did not glance up as he barked instructions to his daughter.
“Aye, pa’,” the girl yelled, bustling out of the ramshackle door of the shop into the early-afternoon sun. The haze of morning had long since faded, and it was as hot as it ever got in the north of Pirith. Aisling brushed long and curly brown hair out of her eyes, turning to regard the sun with a smile. It was brighter than she had expected it to be, and she winced as she closed her eyelids over green irises.
She had just turned twenty, and in the style of Pirith, was helping her father with the family business for several years while she got her footing as an adult. Aisling did not mind helping run the bakery. It was just her and her father, and it came with a lot of heavy lifting, but it appealed to her sensibilities. She had gotten very strong while working with her father, with a musculature to rival or surpass the many dock workers who made Eskcot their home.
Quinn, the young man who ran deliveries for their grain supplier, had not yet arrived. So Aisling leaned her tall frame against the wood of a window ledge, crossing her arms and scanning her eyes across the street.
This part of the market was busy in the morning. With a variety of bakers and other food vendors, “Loaf Street” was the lifeblood for all of Eskcot for a few hours every morning and evening. Some shops were simple stalls, while others were full buildings like the one that Aisling’s father owned. A variety of carts and stalls padded out the otherwise vast distance between the two sides of the street, and people flowed through it like blood through an artery.
Almost directly across from where she was leaning, she could hear the tinkling of a door’s chime and a flash of lavender as a figure stepped out into the busy street. Aisling felt her pulse quicken at the sign of the long, dark hair of the girl, and the intricate lavender dress that she wore. Saoirse.
Saoirse had small flowers woven through her hair, and she dressed like nobody else in Eskcot. Her dresses were always colorful and almost seemed otherworldly to the down-to-earth Aisling. It always made her feel embarrassed for her torso-tight, sleeveless tunic.
Saoirse had an umbrella to match her dress, though it was closed because of the lack of rain. Even without the rain, the street was still rather damp–it almost always was. Yet, despite the frequency of mud puddles, there was not a speck of filth on Saoirse. No dried mud, no caked dirt on her black shoes, and no sweat on her face.
Then again, Aisling pondered as Saoirse turned to regard her with an upturned smile and massive, black eyes, Saoirse wasn’t exactly human.
Her eyes were black, like pits of night. Her skin was an otherworldly gray, and her smile cut Aisling like a knife. It always had, ever since they were children.
Saoirse was a Changeling, a creature of the Wyld taken human form, raised by some very enthusiastic traditional citizens of Eskcot. Her kind could rarely be found in Pirith except in isolated towns like Eskcot, and the Aichedians were almost universally terrified of them.
But Aisling could not understand their fear. Not when the girl walking towards her could smile like that, or walk through the crowd as if every movement was a fluid dance.
Saoirse felt as right to her as summer rain, as close as her own heartbeat, as ever present as the sun.
Aisling could feel herself smiling like a fool as Saoirse approached, but she couldn’t help herself. It was the best she could do to look casual as she leaned back, muscular arms across her chest.
“Hey there, Aisling,” came the silky-smooth voice of Saoirse, with a vocal quality to make Aisling’s spine tingle.
Aisling cleared her throat, making sure she wouldn’t stumble over her words. “Good to see you, Saoirse! What brings you to Loaf Street?”
Saoirse’s smiling visage faltered. “Oh, I’ve got to go around and start saying goodbye to people… which is why it’s good that I ran into you, Aisling.”
Aisling furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, ‘saying goodbye’?” She felt her core tingle, an unpleasant physical response to her trepidation, as she stared into the vast, familiar darkness of Saoirse’s eyes.
“My parents got a letter from the Aichedian Consortium… my presence has been ‘requested’ for study, and they would not take no for an answer.” Saoirse said with a bittersweet smile. “It was only a matter of time, after all.”
Aisling bristled. “We can’t let that happen! Saoirse, there’s no way that your parents are okay wi-”
Saoirse cut her off. “I already told them it’s okay. I don’t want anyone getting hurt because of me, and if anyone tries to protect me, well… you know as well as I do the Aichedians don’t take well to sedition.”
“Saoirse,” Aisling said, gently grabbing hold of the girl’s hands, “the entire town would be behind you. They cannot take you if we all stand by you.”
“Aisling, please,” Saoirse said, a glimpse of sadness slipping through her expression. “More soldiers will come. They will destroy Eskcot to find me. This town isn’t that important to them… and even if I ran into the woods, they would interrogate my family to figure out where I went. There’s nothing we can do, Aisling.”
Aisling tried to steady herself, her arms shaking slightly. “B-but… I can’t lose you, Saoirse,” the girl began, before stopping, realizing that was all she could manage.
Saoirse tried to smile again. She stood on her toes, lifting her head up, and placing a kiss on Aisling’s cheek. “Hey, it’s okay… I still have a few days before the ship departs… we can spend some time together before I go, right? I’d like that very much, Aisling…” she said, squeezing Aisling’s hand once more before letting go. “I’ve got to run along, okay? I have some more stops to make today. Will I see you tonight?”
Aisling gulped air and tried to come across as casual. “… Yes. Aye, bet on it. Same place as always.”
Saoirse flashed her a familiar, otherworldly smile. Then, with two steps into the swirling crowd, she was gone, an eldritch dancer moving through the waves of humanity.
Aisling tried to calm herself down, clenching her fists until her nails dug into the calluses of her palms. She breathed in and she breathed out, and pushed the panic and sadness beneath the surface. It would do no good to let shoppers or her father see her cry, and she had grain to haul in.
Quinn was making his way down the street, handcart banging through puddles and overturned stones as he made his way towards Aisling. She tried to smile at him as he approached, but it only came across as a grimace. “Hello, Quinn.”
“Oh, miss Aisling,” said the honest-looking Quinn, bright eyes matching hers without a shred of malice or critical thought. “Got a couple o’ jars of barley for you an’ your pa’. Want me to unload ‘em for you?”
Aisling shook her head. “No, Quinn, I got it… I need the distraction.”
Quinn nodded a few times, letting the handcart rest against the ground as he rolled his shoulders. “Cheers, then. I got a mighty bad shoulder ache today, and I need a bit o’ a rest. They’re all yours, the two in the back there.”
“I see them, Quinn, thank you,” Aisling said, moving around to the back of the cart and hefting up the two arm-length clay vases. Both had sturdy handles, and she lifted them with minimum effort. She found that she was glad of the exertion, because it took her mind off of Saoirse.
“Alrigh’ then, I’ll be off. Say hello to your pa’ for me, Ais!” Quinn called, picking up the cart after rolling his shoulders again, beginning down the street once again.
“Thank you, Quinn,” Aisling said absentmindedly, mind already drifting to her conversation with Saoirse. She trudged towards the door of the bakery when she glanced down at the contents of one of the open-topped jars.
There were two red dots cloaked in darkness staring up at her.
Aisling did her best not to shriek, instead letting out a strangled gurgle as she avoided tossing either of the vases to the ground. The young woman held them both in trembling hands, glancing between the normal jar of barley and the one that contained a creature of pure shadow, bundled up within the confines of the vase.
She peered down at the two eyes with something approaching wary curiosity. She had been taught, as all children in Eskcot were, to fear and respect the Wyld. These were natural creatures, the true masters of Pirith, and it was only through careful and respectful interactions had humans learned to live in peace with the Fae.
In other words, if there was a creature of the Wyld choosing to hide in her jar, shouting about it in the street would not be the wisest course of action.
Someone clearing their throat nearby interrupted her in her wary contemplation. She glanced up, meeting the shadowed eyes of a helmeted Aichedian guard.
“‘Scuse me, missy, but you have seen no odd happenings or unnatural Wyld demons about, have you? We’re trying to track down some lost property, a Class-C in the care of Commodore Kotia.” The man had his arms crossed, gazing at her with something approximating professional boredom mixed with the slight fear that almost all Aichedian soldiers felt when outside of the relative safety in numbers to be found in Eskcot’s dockside inns.
For a moment, Aisling considered showing the soldier the entity inside the jar. It would take the problem out of her hands, and she had enough to deal with.
But these were Aichedians.
The same Aichedians who had commandeered her home and her country for the last several generations.
The same Aichedians who wanted to take her Saoirse away.
Before she could think any more about it, Aisling spoke. “No, sorry,” she said with a shake of her head. “Haven’t seen or heard about anything, sir.”
“Well,” he said gruffly, already turning away, “that’s alrigh’ then. Carry on,” he said, already pushing down the street to join the two other guards who were talking to Quinn, looking through the jars on his handcart.
Aisling glanced down at the two red eyes before taking a long breath and pushing her way past the door back into the bakery.
“What took you so long, girl?” her father roared next to the oven, still working away.
“Quinn took a wee bit longer than usual to show up. Nothing important,” she called, bustling past him to the pantry.
Their pantry contained a multitude of jars and crates, some empty and some full. Tools of the trade littered the space, and there was an ever present aura of flour in the small room. She sat the two vases down in a free space, regarding the curled figure of shadow.
“Well, you can’t stay in there,” she muttered, extending a hand towards it.
The shadow reached out with several encroaching tendrils, beginning to climb up Aisling’s arm and nestling away into the back of her tunic, invisible. The sensation was ice cold, and unlike anything Aisling had ever felt. She shuddered, standing up. The jar of barley was now mundane, except for a slight aura of shadow that rapidly faded into the regular gloom of the pantry.
She exited the pantry, careful to avoid the frantic work of her father. “I need to run up to my room,” she called to him. “I’ll be back down in a minute!”
Her father grunted in acknowledgement, and Aisling walked up the stairs as calmly as she could.
Continue to Part 3
About the Author
Mason Kennedy is a writer from south-eastern Indiana, with a love of RPGs, Science Fiction, mythology, and vampires. Twitter, @ArchipelegoTV. Tumblr, at archipelego