Gariel Morlique pushed open the door to her dirty little hovel, eager to strip off her smoke-laden clothes and wash the spilled drinks from her body, and saw that someone else was already inside. Such a realization might not have been alarming had she been one member of a ten-person household or had she been a resident in a sprawling, multi-leveled complex, but she was not. Her family had either died or fled the kingdom and her home was a two-room shack between a handful of overgrown lots. It should have been empty.
     Gariel staggered back, taking a better look at the markings on her floor and wavering like a soldier who’d been injured in combat. But if Gariel had been seriously injured, her wounds must have been internal. She bore no external signs of combat, no cuts or rashes or swollen purple bruises. These injuries might have been concealed by her attire, but that was not likely.
     The skimpy orange rag she’d stretched from mid-bosom to upper thigh left very little flesh to the imagination. On display for all was the splotchy brown birthmark on her left calf, the dried meat sauce on her right collarbone, and the handful of shallow scratches along both knees. Some of these scratches were old and scabby and apparently suffered days or even weeks prior, but a few were fresh and bleeding and appeared to have been inflicted on her trek home, possibly while tripping on the cobbles and landing in the street.
     She paid the scratches on her knees no mind, her attention focused on the trail of brown smears littering her floorboards, each the length of a forearm and the width of a hand and each forming a queue into her abode.
     “Wha’ the Pit…,” she began, lowering herself down for a better look and making it less than halfway to her knees before falling sideways, landing on all-fours, and nearly sticking her shoulder in the smear. She recovered awkwardly and lowered her nose.
     Sniffing at it tentatively, Gariel detected a hint of nothing emanating from the blob. When she sniffed it again, this time inhaling more deeply, the lumpy brown smear again bore no distinguishing odor, just like the dirt path upon which she lie, the cobblestone street across which she’d trod, and pretty much everything else in Onador.
     She lifted her head from the mess and sneered at it. Even with her sense of smell impaired, she hadn’t honestly believed the smudges were animal droppings, not unless they had come from a rather large animal with a serious case of liquid bowel. And even then, she didn’t believe any animal capable of relieving itself at regular intervals and in equal proportions.
     More than likely, the slathered muck on her floorboards was nothing more disgusting than river mud, a trail of moist soil tracked in by someone’s moccasins. What was more, as she crawled up the door jam and regained her feet, she thought she might know the owner of those moccasins.
     “Come sniffin round, have yeh?” she said with a slur, stumbling through the doorway and catching herself against the wall. But if there was anyone inside, intent on sniffing her or not, they made no reply.
     Groaning at the silent intruder, Gariel slid inside the hovel with her head and shoulder pressed against the wall. In a way, this gave her the impression of a large and tropical bird that had lost its sense of balance; the loss of balance due to the same stimulus that had robbed her of her smell and the resemblance to a brightly-plumaged avian due to her decoration and attire.
     Her hair, for instance, was dyed bright red and spiked into the air, giving her the distinctive look of a colorful fowl. Adding further to the illusion of iridescent feathers were the multicolored beads around her neck and the silver bands about her ankles, both of these chittering and jangling as she struck the inner wall and slid along its face.
     “An’ I tell yeh what,” she muttered, speaking to the room in general. “Yeh bes’ not’a ruint m’clothes again. Tha’s all I gota say.”
     But as Gariel moved along the wall and surveyed the trail of filth, she saw that the trail had somehow moved around her many piles of laundry and even managed to avoid the assortment of fly-covered food she’d left rotting on the floor, the melon rinds and chicken bones and various pieces of bread. And even more impressive than this, she noticed the trespasser had also succeeded to circumventing the plethora of water skins littering the space between garments and garbage, water skins which, ironically enough, had never been used to store water of any kind.
     Plowing through a pile of these sticky containers, Gariel leaned against the doorway leading to the back and final room and, with her head slumped against the wall and her glassy eyes taking on fire, she tracked the remainder of the smears to the far wall where they ended at a pair of mud-caked moccasins.
     Blinking at the grimy footwear, she moved her eyes up the equally-grimy pants to the rest of the unkempt attire and, eventually, found herself grimacing at a hilljack-looking fellow with leaves in his hair and grass in his beard.
     He was seated in one of her two chairs with his elbows on his knees and his head drooping down. Had she not known better, she might have thought the hilljack was dragging himself in from a long night of ditch digging or garden tending or some other form of manual labor.
     Tha’d be the day, she thought, her lips curling and her eyes narrowing.
     Pushing herself from the wall, she said, “An’ jus wha’d yeh think you’re doin’?”
     Without moving a muscle, the leaf-strewn man said, “Jus bringin yeh some sweet root.”
     Gariel put a hand on her hip and glared. She stood corrected. He wasn’t just sniffing around for love, but was willing to pay for it as well. Not with money, of course—Oh, no! His payments came in the form of roots or rocks or some other backwoods piece of crap he’d dug from the ground.
     The hilljack said, “Yeah like that sas’fras tea, doan’cha?”
     Gariel snorted disdainfully. “Yeh know I do,” she said, watching the filthy man cock his head and peek at her from the corner of his eye. “Wha d’yeh reckon I owes yeh fer it, Jayshy?”
     The hilljack didn’t move, just stared at her from his periphery and waited for her to calm down. When it was clear this wasn’t going to happen, he gave his head another timid shake and said, “Yeh doan’ owe me nothin. I jus fig’erd yeh—”
     “Oh, I know. I know what yeh fig’erd!” She felt her face flush with a warmth that had nothing to do with the night’s debauchery. “There ain’t but one thing that brings yeh out’a them woods, Jayshy, and we both know it ain’t got nothin to do with what I want.”
     Still peaking at her like a rabbit in a glade, the hilljack said, “I thought yeh was okay wi—”
     “Well, I guess I ain’t,” she spat, lowering her petulant gaze to the footprints. “An’ I ain’t okay with yeh trackin up my house neither.”
     The hilljack glanced at his feet, staring for longer than was probably necessary, then saying, “Oh.” He sounded not so much apologetic as surprised. “I’ll clean that up,” he said. “Fore I leave.”
     She threw back her head and cackled like a crow. “Oh, I jus bet yeh will, Jayshy. I jus bet yeh will. But I tell yeh what? Stead’a yeh cleanin mud off a rotten floor, why not get me a real floor, huh? Why not get me out’a this hole? Sweet Pit, Jayshy, you get me a real place an’ I won’t care what yeh drag in here. You can fill the place with muck an’ weeds an’ all the li’le black hai—”
     She stopped, her head jerking towards the rest of the room as a thought occurred to her. “Is she in here?” she asked. “Is that li’le pest in here?
     Shaking his head very slowly, the hilljack said, “I ain’t seen her since—”
     “Bed’er not see ‘er,” the woman warned, sliding down the wall and peaking behind a row of warped shelves, “less’n you’re ready to pick them li’le black hairs off m’clothes.” She crawled to a mattress in the corner and looked behind it, moving to the other items in the room and doing the same. “I ain’t got no black outfits, Jayshy. I ain’t. So that means I got’a pick them god-bannin hairs off’a ev’ry las—”
     She gasped and drew back.
     Far to the right of her, tucked back in the shadows of the little hovel, she spied a giant crystal thing lurking in the corner, a creature so immense that its head touched the ceiling and its feet bowed the floor. Gariel tried to imagine how she had missed it until now, but could not. She was chemical impaired, and angry with Jaysh, but still…
      It found them shaduhs, she thought. It’s good at findin shaduhs. An’ ain’t that jus what Jayshy calls it? His ever-lovin shaduh?
     The shadow never looked at her, never took its dazzling, pupil-less eyes from the hilljack. But that didn’t stop Gariel from sprawling backwards on her butt and skidding towards the door. She knew what the thing was, and what it did, and that she had no reason to fear it. But there was just something overwhelming about the creature, the way it filled the room with its mass, the way it stared blindly at the back of Jaysh’s head.
     “Doan’ much care fer that neither,” she said, nodding at the angular shape in the corner. “Cain’t it wait outside?”
     Without looking at the creature, the hilljack shook his head.
     Gariel eyed the shadow a little longer, fearful it might turn in a rush and come for her—those huge gemstone fingers reaching for her throat, those huge cobalt eyes boring to her very soul—but when it did nothing more than stand there and take up space, she moved to the nearest pile of laundry and began picking through the clothes.
     The sudden jolt of adrenaline and subsequent tumble across the floor reminded her that she’d been up all night and that it would not be long before her body shut down. Before that time came, she needed to find an outfit with the fewest number of stains and leave it in the window to ventilate. That way, when she woke this evening and started the festivities anew, the garment would be ready for another night of wear.
     “So when are yeh gettin me out’a here, Jayshy?” the woman asked, her tone almost neutral. “I’m bout sick’a livin like this,” she said, pulling out a tiny red rag and holding it up for inspection. “Scroungin through clothes.” She tossed the crimson garb aside and picked up a yellow one. “Eatin filth and livin like a dog.” She discarded the canary-tinted garment and grabbed up a purple one. “Jus look at the dump, would yeh?”
     The hilljack did, and gave it a nod. 
     Holding up the lilac tunic, she studied it with her head on one side and while chewing on her lip. Like the others before it, the tunic was day-glow bright and two sizes too small, but in the end it must have resonated with her because she clutched it to her chest and clawed her way up the wall. 
     “Well?” she said, shuffling across the room to a lumpy mattress. “You gona answer me?”
     The hilljack shrugged. “I din’t think yeh was here that much.”
     “Yeh din’t think I was…Well, I’m here now, ain’t I? Ain’t I, Jayshy?” She tossed the violet cloth on the bed, followed by all her bands and bangles and the beads about her neck. “I’m getting’ ready to sleep here, ain’t I?”
     The hilljack fumbled with his words, then settled for a nod.
     Peeling off her skimpy orange dress, she said, “So doan’ give me none’a that ‘Yeh ain’t never here’ filth! I’m here plen’y. An’ even if I weren’t, wha’s it to you?” She tossed the sweaty, wine-soaked outfit in a random pile of other sweaty, wine-soaked outfits and said, “Where’m I suppose’ to be, Jayshy? Waitin fer you? Waitin while you waller in the muck an’ roll about in the sticks? Well, yeh can ferget that. If’n you leave, then I leave. An’ if’n I leave, well, yeh know where I’m gona go. To the Wound,” she spat. “To spend time with the same folk you used to call friends. Folk like Beady an’ Danes an’ good ole Im—Oh!
     Her face lit up like a firework and she came staggering towards him, naked as the day she was born, but seeming not to care. She watched the hilljack look up and cringe, not at her naked form—which was ostensibly why he’d come—but at the name she’d nearly mentioned.
     “Iman,” she said again, clasping her hands to her chest and eyeing Jaysh closely. “Iman said to tell yeh he was lookin fer yeh an’ said to tell yeh it was about a job tomorruh, in the mornin. Somethin to do with countin sheep or cows or…or somethin like that, he’s countin something. I’m sure he can tell yeh the rest, but he said it was one’a them golden opp’tunities.”
     The hilljack groaned.
     “He said it’d be a good deal,” she said. “Said it’d be good fer both’a yeh.”
     The hilljack’s expression darkened further. “He jus wants somethin,” he said.
     Gariel blinked at him. “Well, yeah,” she said, “I reckon he does, but tha’ doan mean it wou’nt help you too.”
     The hilljack lowered his eyes to the floor and Gariel took this as her cue to back away to the wash basin, backing away as if the hilljack were a skittish cat and any sudden move might cause him to bolt from the room. At the basin, she withdrew a damp rag and began rubbing the nastier parts of her body, tossing the rag back inside the bucket when she finished and slinking to the mattress, watching the hilljack from the corner of her eye.
     “I told ‘im I’d tell yeh bout it,” she said, dropping face-first on a wad of blankets. “An’ I told im you’d probably do it.” 
     The hilljack stared at the floor, perhaps listening to the muffled sound of footfalls outside on the street.
     Gariel said, “So?
     Glancing over at her, the hilljack said, “Huh?”
     “You gona do it?”
     “Do what?” he said, furrowing his brow, but then realizing what she meant. “Oh. No, I…I cain’t do it. Not tomorruh.”
     Gariel lay there for a moment, not yet ready to reassert her anger, then said, “Why not?”
     Picking grass from his pants, Jaysh said, “Tomorruh’s Scout Day.”
     Gariel sat up on the bed, the flush back in her cheeks. “What’s that gota do with anythin?
     The hilljack looked at her, seemed to realize where she was coming from, and then lifted a muddy branch from the seat beside him. It had a string tied to the tip and a hook tied to the end of the string.
     “I missed Fish Day today,” he said, setting the stick back down and shaking his greasy head. “Cain’t miss two in a row.”
     Gariel felt an ice-pick of fear drill through her chest, but managed to hold off the subsequent anger. Just once’t more, she thought. Try him once’t more, now. She inhaled deeply, rolled over on her side, and clutched her blanket to her chest.
     “Jayshy, baby. Baby, this is your chance. This is the chance you been waitin on, a chance to prove yourself to them uppity folk in the castle.” She shook her head. “An’ I doan’ like ‘em no more’n you, Jayshy, but it’s the only way this’ll work. An’ if I could do it fer yeh, yeh know I would. I’d do it in a heartbeat, Jayshy. I’d do it right now. An’ doan’ think a night goes by that I ain’t wishin to the gods that I had your chance…,” she trialed off, her face growing slack, “…but I don’t, Jayshy. Them folk in the castle doan’ give two licks fer me. They doan’ know who I am and they doan’ care. Tha’s why it’s gota be you. Yeh see that, doan’cha yeh, baby?”
     The hilljack had been staring at the floor as she spoke and continued to stare as she finished.
     Gariel said, “Wha’ do yeh think, Hon?”
     The hilljack never said a word, never told her yes, never told her no. He just lifted his head and stared at her, the rueful look in his eyes saying it all. And this time, when the ice-pick of fear came back, Gariel did nothing to cushion the blow.
     Clenching her fists and straightening her arms, she pointed her head to the ceiling and screamed like a banshee, screaming and screaming and then screaming some more, screaming until she thought a layer of flesh might slough off from her throat and go spewing to the rafters, screaming until she thought the crystal man in the corner might shatter from the force, screaming until the thought the hilljack’s moronic head might explode from his shoulders.
     But it didn’t, and when she finished her mad shriek, Jaysh was still sitting there, still staring at her as moronically as ever. She rolled over and grabbed for the nearest water skin that had never contained water. 
     “Jus go!” she snapped, picking up the skin and shaking it by her ear. “Jus go on back to your hill, go do Sira-knows-what with that big, blue freak.”
     Scratching his beard, the hilljack looked to the crystal man in the corner. “Like what?’
     “Like the same stuff yeh does to that little pest,” she said, dropping the skin and turning to the next. But this one was empty too and she quickly chucked it aside and made for one she spied beneath the window.
     Behind her, she heard the hilljack shuffle his feet, then say, “Are yeh mad?”
     “No, Jaysh, I ain’t mad,” she said, grabbing the water skin and hearing it slosh in her hand. She yanked off the drawstring, brought the leather to her lips, and tipped the bottom higher and higher, tipping it until the contents were drained and her throat was burning. She belched loudly and slung the skin against the wall. “I ain’t mad at all,” she said.
     “Yeh ain’t?”
     “I ain’t,” she confirmed, pausing in her crawl back to the mattress to grab his fishing pole from the chair and throw it into the front room. “Now get the Pit out’a my house,” she said, collapsing on the bag of poorly-packed straw and snapping shut her eyes. 
     But they weren’t shut entirely. She could still see the hilljack through mesh of her lashes, could still see him turn to look at the pole in the next room, then down at her naked form on the mattress, the tiny wheels in his head spinning weakly and with effort.
     “Yeh really doan’ wanna—?”
     “Out!” she screamed.
     The hilljack looked at his feet. “I said I’s sorry bout th—”
     “It ain’t the mud, Jaysh—It ain’t the mud.”
     He looked to the shadow standing in the corner. “An’ there ain’t nothin I can do about that thing,” he said. “I can take my shoes off, maybe come round here a little more, maybe make Zeph wait outside when I do, but…,” he glanced at the glittering blue giant, “…but there ain’t nothin I can do bout that.”
     From the rumble of her heavy breathing, she said, “Can yeh go with Iman tomorruh? Can yeh do that, Jaysh?”
     The hilljack dropped his jaw as if to answer, then closed it and dropped his shoulders instead.
     “Jus go, Jaysh,” Gariel said, watching through the screen of her lashes as he shuffled sulkily into the next room, paused long enough to gather his stick, then plodded out the door.
     From the corner of the room, the floorboards groaned as if caught in the throes of a quake, the shadow marching after the man.
     As it did, Gariel Morlique was quick to shut her eyes.