Clearing The Air

The night was peaceful, the fire was burning low, its embers gently cracking and the heavy scent of burning pine sap filling the air. Taylar watched the fire, almost as if it was hypnotizing him. He had been staring at the fire for well over an hour and his eyes was dry and his lower half was numb.

Taylar’s watch was coming to an end. He looked at Tamarack knowing it was time to wake her to take over, but she looked so calm and happy. It was as if sleep took away the multitude of chips that she balanced on her shoulders. He considered not waking her, just letting her sleep, but then he would be shattered tomorrow and what if there was danger? He fingered his ring of sustenance and wished it didn’t take a week to reset every time he put it back on; while he was wearing it everything else was easier, he didn’t need to eat, drink, sleep properly, or even use the bushes. Whenever he wasn’t wearing it he felt mortal again; as that thought crossed his mind he could feel the weight of the day before pressing down on his eyelids. It was a pity; it meant that he did actually need to wake her. He knew that when he did, she would bite his head off, which would leave him tense and stressed and unable to sleep, completely undermining the need to wake her.

Still undecided, Taylar busied himself making tea. He added a few more hunks of wood to the fire and set up the kettle, he was bemoaning the fact that the Satyrs had drunk all of his brandy, a little drink would have helped ease away whatever snide snub Tamarack would throw at him next. He looked at her again lying still, and he saw both of her, he saw Tamarack who he had loved and who he missed desperately, but he also saw Dorydd, who hated him. He really didn’t get what her problem was. Everything had been so nice, well until Graster died.

At that point boiling sap inside one of the hunks of wood forced its way out of its wooden cage and a loud snap filled the air.

Tamarack woke with a start and a small gasp. Her sleep had been shallow, her mind knowing it would have to wake soon to take over the watch. She relaxed with a sigh, realizing the origin of the noise. Her eyes settled on Taylar, a little shadow in the firelight. “My turn?” she whispered groggily, stretching her tense muscles.

Taylar looked at Tamarack, relief flooding his face both that she hadn’t been mean yet and that the difficult decision had been taken away from him. “It is. There is hot tea in the kettle, and still some meat and potatoes in that pan, unfortunately the Satyrs finished the last of the brandy.” Taylar stood up and busied himself with a bedroll and blanket. He longed for his blankets hoping that a night of proper sleep would help ease some of the knots deep in his shoulders. “And Tam, thanks.”

Seeing him bundling up in the shadows somehow reminded her of a night spent years ago in his old shack. She almost smiled. “Thank you,” she replied. Watching him settle in, she didn’t miss the stiffness of his movements. Taking pity on him, but not yet ready to apologize, she said, “Wait—come over here for a minute. I’m told I give good backrubs.” She held up her hands in offering.

It was strange, thought Taylar, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to thank her for. He originally had meant to thank her for waking up and taking away his need to wake her. But he also meant to thank her for not biting his head off. And as he thought about it, if Tamarack hadn’t got him out of Landsbreak he would be nothing but another weighted skeleton in the docks by now. “That would be very nice of you.” He shrugged off his jacket. Without his armour and without his magical illusions and alterations Taylar suddenly seemed much smaller, the ring of sustenance he had worn for the past six months meant that his body only got what it needed no more, so he was back to his original waif-like stature, although his muscles were much more developed. As Tamarack looked harder she noticed that his back had a lot more scars on it now than it had last time she had seen him unarmored. It looked like someone had tried to flay the flesh from his back.

“This looks… new,” she remarked, running her thumbs across some of the scars in between digging them into his shoulders.

“They aren’t hugely new. Maybe a year, something like that. Whenever I was last in Kamest. I went there to get Graster resurrected and when they said no, things went a bit side-ways. I tried to figure out why they wouldn’t resurrect Graster. I had the price I was told was right, but they wouldn’t even try the spell. First of all they said it wouldn’t work, then one of them slipped and said that they had been told they couldn’t cast it for me. I tried to figure out whether they meant me or Graster, but it seemed to be both of us, like they have something against us particularly. I started off just getting vocal, letting them know that I wasn’t going to just walk away, but they sent someone to get rid of me.” Taylar paused and thought about it. “I might have gone too far… I just wanted revenge. I hooked up with a thief gang, the Black Orchids or something similar, and started fighting back against the clerics. I got caught after I torched one of the high cleric’s homes. They beat me pretty bad,” Taylar reached back and touched some of his own scars, “and they wanted to put me on trial, but I slipped out and gathered up my stuff. I hightailed it out of Kamest the next dawn. Some caravan selling carpets hid me while I recovered.”

“Oh, puppy…” Tam sighed, almost unconsciously using the pet name she hadn’t uttered in quite some time. She pressed a cheek softly against the top of his head “As much as you deserved that… and as much as I’m determined to stay mad at you… you still manage to break my heart.”

Taylar reacted well to being called puppy, it jerked at something inside of him. “It wasn’t like I killed anyone. That had been my original plan.” He thought of Graster turned into moss and rot falling out of his armour, and he started to react emotionally. “Someone needed to pay for what happened to Graster and you guys are treating Saite like a princess, well prince. How would you have felt if we hadn’t been able to get Kianna back?”

Tamarack frowned. “That would have been just… the worst thing,” she admitted, running soothing fingers over his upper back. “But Ki wasn’t dead. Sometimes people die… and often they stay dead. How do you know he isn’t happier where he is?”

“Because I asked.” Taylar turned around and looked straight at Tam. “You know how I am about money, I wasn’t going to spend 20,000 gold getting him rezzed if he would rather be a corpse. I had some minor cleric cast speak with dead. He said he wanted to come back.” Taylar went quiet for a moment, then said, “That doesn’t mean the same is true now, but then he wanted to come back. What I should have done was waited until Kianna was back on her feet, then we could all have gone together, but when the three of you ran to Kianna, I just took Graster’s remains and left town.”

Tamarack pulled back her hands. “You did a good thing. But clearly there’s more going on here than any of us realize. Perhaps we should try to contact him again.” She reached forward and brushed a piece of hair from his forehead. “Anyway… I don’t want to talk about Graster right now. I think maybe we should talk about you and me.”

“But you’ve just said you're determined to stay mad at me, so is there a point to that?”

Tam swallowed. “Do you even know why I’m mad?”

Taylar looked at her, a dozen or more answers populating in his head. He rejected those that could provoke rage and settled on, “Know, no. Think, suspect, maybe.”

She brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them. “Well, I’m not going to be petty enough to make you guess… but I’m curious. What do you suspect?”

Taylar took a deep breath and started a laundry list. “You don’t like that I went off for a year. You don’t like that I got married. You don’t like that I moved on because you did. You don’t like that I don’t share your ethics. You don’t think I like who I am. You don’t like the value I put on wealth. You don’t like the fact that I kill. You don’t like that I change my appearance. You don’t like that I have given up on actually achieving social change. You don’t like that I stopped living in a hovel and bought a mansion.” Taylar stopped then, not because he had finished but because his throat was dry and his face was turning blue.

Tamarack bit her lip, deep in thought for a few moments. “I suppose… most of those things are true. But the thing that really got me in a fury was… I was just beginning to appreciate who you were… and then you changed. It used to be that your nemesis was the Wealthy Gentleman… and then suddenly you started becoming just that same highfalutin toff you always resented. I couldn’t understand how you could do that to yourself. But maybe the worst part was the idea that you’d done it for a girl.”

“Sara was only part of it. Things changed in Kamest.”

Taylar looked at her and decided it was better to talk than to snipe. “When we were, together, that was my first time. I mean I had messed around with street girls, but nothing serious. So the fact that you still wanted to mess around with other people was enough to make me kill. I brought that image ring back because I thought you would find it funny. Not so you could go and play Mr and Mr with the innkeeper. But I didn’t kill him, mainly because I didn’t want a murder rap. I just moved on.” Taylar paused and looked at Tamarack, he was doing as much expressing with his hands and body language as he was with words. “So look at it this way, you kept going back to that fat fuck with his nice inn and feather bed, but one night was enough with me in my hovel. I was always on the outside, tolerated because I was useful, but hardly anyone’s first choice for companion or anything else. Then I went to Kamest. I showed up in the high temple with a small keg of moldy slime and a beard saying it was my friend and I wanted him put back together. They looked at me the way kings look at beggars and it was two months I realized then that if I wanted to play at a higher level then I had to be able to look like I was playing at that level. Then I just wanted to steal, and kill and burn. So I went back to Landsbreak. I went to see Gurmilla, I had a few magical items to buy, but she looked straight through me. So I went to see Sara. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper I had wanted Sara but I didn’t feel like I was good enough because she slept in a bed and bought her food. So I cleaned up and went to make a proposition to her. I wanted to own some businesses.”

Tam pressed a hand to her mouth, and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. Two large tears escaped. “I’m so sorry,” she blubbered behind her hand. Sniffling, she rubbed away her tears, and then went back to hugging her knees. “I need you to know why I left you behind. Sleeping around was always just… recreation for me. When I went to you… I was breaking all my rules. Ye don’t shite where ye eat, that was my philosophy up until then. You don’t do ‘that’ with people you care about. But I cared an awful lot about you, and I think it scared me. I didn’t want to obligate you into anything just because things had changed for me. A lot changed for me after that. I can’t do that anymore—I can’t just bed someone and walk away. Going off and hopping into the sack with that insufferable dwarf… and whoever else I screwed around with back then… was partly trying to undo what I’d done to myself, and partly something akin to mutilating myself so I wouldn’t have to feel the other pain. I always thought… if I really meant something to you… you’d let me know. And then you went off and cleaned yourself up and got a wife without a word to anyone? I never thought you were looking for a family…” She faded away with a sniffle.

Taylar moved closer to Tam, hugging her tight and feeling frustration that he couldn’t get his arms all the way around her, he considered shifting into human size, but dismissed the idea immediately. “I am not sure I was looking for a family.” Taylar paused and thought about it, “but I had never had one of my own, apart from Hetty I ‘spose.” Taylar reached for more tea filling both of their enameled mugs and breathing the heat in as it steamed off the mug. “After Kamest I actually grew up, I became a more complete person. I stopped living hand to mouth and decided that I could be like the other normal people, I could pay for food and have a whole meal for myself rather than just eating someone else’s left overs. I realized that having some softness in your life wasn’t a bad thing, I realized that I had earned some luxury.

“Some old watchman I was talking to was discussing his ‘boots’ theory about wealth, he said people like him would buy a new pair of boots for a silver piece or three and they would last three months but rich people would buy boots which cost five gold but would last for twenty years. Therefore they save a lot of money over those twenty years. He was talking about false economies being a trap for the poor. I don’t buy jewels, unless they have a purpose, I don’t buy stupid things with money but things which could save my life or someone else’s are worth spending on.

“As for how I appear, what does it matter? Everything anyone shows someone else is a mask; I just have more masks than other people, and I switch between them faster. I met this guy in the Deepinghome, he called himself the master of a thousand face, that was where I got the idea for this skullcap. There are different shapes for different tasks. With Varden’s people, anyone without wings is looked down on. With the goblins and kobolds, anyone who isn’t of their race is wrong. Therefore I have had items made which allow me to shift size and shape so that I can take on the right appearance for the situation. Streetrat is just one of many masks I can wear, besides I found I like being clean, not having drying muck on my skin all the time, not scratching at fleas in my clothes, or picking maggots or blue stuff off the food I eat.”

Taylar looked at Tamarack, and finally started to tackle the elephant in the room. “I know you see rutting as recreation, but I never have. I was talking to the Black Orchids about it and they were basically saying that the higher born someone is and the less they have to work the more they think with their loins. The harder you work, the harder you scrape and scavenge the less appealing recreation generally seems. Very few animals rut for pleasure, it’s normally just for mating, those who just work, eat, sleep are more animalistic and therefore rut much less often.” Taylar started to look embarrassed. “When we were together, I saw it as something more permanent, more unique than you did. When I went out to get breakfast you freaked and within a few days you were with Chargurt, so I assumed it had just been something passing for you, and rather than painting his inn red with his blood I coped and moved on. Graster helped a lot.

“But between that and Graster’s death, I was released from the trap I was in. It freed me to look at things in a different way to become a different person.” Taylar picked his fingernails and looked at Tamarack, “Sara was the first girl I had ever wanted. The first girl to make my heart flutter when I looked at her. From the first moment I saw her I wanted her. But I hadn’t thought she would look at me twice. But I felt alive, I felt daring, I felt that I could cope with whatever happened, so I made a move and she appreciated it.” Taylar’s whole face lit up when he was talking of his wife. “Sara says there are three ways to look at rutting, as a business, as fun, or as love. Sara had spent her entire life working in a brothel, surrounded by whores and, from what I understand, she had made certain rules in her head about the difference between working at a brothel and being a whore. Therefore when we had been together a while and it seemed like things were going to go further she made it clear that she had no interest being a floozy or a whore. So we married.”

Taylar fumbled with something on a chain around his neck, a silver holy symbol of Odinthor taken from Graster. “It was a small wedding, not like that affair when they wanted to eat a dragon. I was still mourning Graster, so it didn’t feel right to have a large wedding. If I had invited everyone from Skyhold it would have just underlined the fact that I wasn’t inviting Graster. So having no-one there was easier than having everyone apart from Graster there.”

Taylar realized he had been talking for a while and looked at Tamarack. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant to. I have never been anyone that anyone else depended on. The gangs used to care if people didn’t get back, but their concern only lasted for a week not a year. I honestly thought that you guys would have forgotten about me by the time I got back.”

Tamarack smiled through her tears. “Never.” She rubbed the sandy feeling out of her eyes and sighed. “So you really love her. I think I can live with that. And… for the record… I think I would have eventually been flattered if you had slaughtered Chargurt. A large part of my pulling that prank with the ring on him was wanting to get rid of him. He was always wheedling at me, and at the time it was tough to resist. Growing up like I did makes a girl feed off of any kind of power.”

Taylar’s eyes lit up at the opportunity. Entire plans flashed through his head, he thought of poison first and then a meat grinder. Then the logical part of his little mind kicked in and he realized that she wasn’t actually asking him to murder Chargurt, he sighed. “I do really love her. She is pretty amazing.”

“Then I can find it in my heart to stop being a harpy to both of you. And I’m sorry for how I’ve been acting.” She squeezed the little gnome’s shoulders. “I guess we’re both in a better place now. Clearly the time has passed for you and I… but hey… in a couple of decades, if by some circumstance or other, we both end up alone at the same time… maybe we could give it another try.”

“Thank-you. That makes me feel a lot better. I really wasn’t sure what to do, I had even considered going back to Landsbreak or the Deepinghome, you had made it so clear that you didn’t want me around and Kianna seemed to have adopted your hostility.” Taylar looked at Tamarack, remembering how she had felt against him. “As for the other thing, we never know what the future will bring, especially with long lived races.” Taylar laughed and reached for the skullcap, “by the way, have you seen what this can do?” Within moments he switched between human, gnome, elf, drow, goblin, ork, gnoll, volanti, kobold, and halfling, then he went the other way appearing as a female member of every race. Taylar laughed loudly, so loudly than he thought he would wake the others. “I need to sleep.”

Tamarack giggled behind her hands. “Well… good night, then. I’ll have a talk with Ki. Sometimes I rub off on her in the wrong ways.” She rolled her eyes. “Sleep soundly, pup.”

Taylar heard her words as he fell asleep, but he was unable to respond as the weight of the last few days propelled him into unconsciousness. The little gnome was soon deep asleep, not twitching and half awake as he was normally. The weights Tamarack had lifted from him allowed him complete relaxation, and he was soon uttering small contented noises like a cat in front of a fire.

Tam grinned at the sleeping creature. It was a relief to look upon him with affection and a sense of protectiveness instead of resentment and fury. She wondered idly if Sara knew about their history. A question for tomorrow.

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