He looked at her the same way that the rest of them had. Trying not to screw up her face and say something privately unpleasant, Eleuin let her eyes drift about. She could not quite explain why this young person had given her the faint glimmer of hope he had. Possibly it was that he was even dirtier than the people she saw day to day.
Or it was because he was such a vivid piece of the world outside the window. It was not likely that he was the brown-cloaked man she had seen that afternoon, but she had been told that beggars all wore one like it. Eleuin tended to remember what she was told.
They sat there in uncomfortable silence for what seemed like hours to her, but may have only been a handful of seconds. Time passed so abominably slow on this planet.
Finally, she broke down and spoke again. He had been spending the interim inching away from her, like a worm retreating a dry spell. "It's true," she insisted.
No effect. Except that his eyes met hers again, in that awkward way she had noticed some of the more aware unfortunates did. Just like them, he held perfectly still until she opened her mouth again. Then he gave up the pretense and shifted bodily.
It was almost humorous, to see him lift himself up just enough to settle back down a handspan away. Humorous, but a little sad as well. Her hand remained on his knee, and she tipped over, nearly landing in his lap.
His hands flew up, not to steady her, but to keep her away. Bony fingers dug into her shoulders, his thumbs smudging the already grubby gown. She looked down at them, eyeing the streaks of dirt and whatever other sort of filth was to be found outside.
Determined to see it for herself, she fixed him with an imploring stare. "I beg of you," she said, stressing the second word, "it's the only thing I could ever ask of anyone. Take me outside with you. You have to leave, don't you? Why can't I go with you? Only through the door. No farther than that, I needn't follow you any farther than that."
It was the most and the fastest she had spoken since her arrival in this place, all in a torrential whisper that she wasn't certain he would understand. She had picked up the local language from her first week or so in the asylum. There could be a myriad of dialects beyond it.
He let go of her with one hand, signalling for her to hush, but that threw off their balance. Caught up, she had been leaning against the support of his hands on her shoulders. Connected by his other hand, they both tumbled back into a soft but foul-smelling pile of bags.
Something else fell, clattering to the floor. Accustomed to the sound of breaking crockery, Eleuin was startled by the lack of that familiar crash. She clung to the boy, ears straining for it, suddenly afraid.
The rest of the clamour would come, and it would follow her path down the stairs. She could feel her chance at freedom, hampered as it had already been by this largely silent boy's inhibitions, shrinking more and more.
A voice came from upstairs, muffled by the owner's attempt to inquire quietly, but no less insistent for that. The muscles in Eleuin's ears still working hard, she thought she could identify the voice as Gerda's, but she couldn't be certain. She reached up and covered the boy's mouth to soften his mucus-clogged, frantic breathing.
His nose was running, and her hand was inevitably affected, but she had been through far worse. Unfortunately, it was the most physical contact she had so far had with one of the locals, and she would later be inclined to note it as such. Not exactly the kind of detail that would look good in posterity.
Again, Gerda called out, and Eleuin was certain that it was Gerda. But another voice answered her, louder, less conscious of the unfortunates lucky enough to have achieved sleep. The matron.
The boy yanked Eleuin's hand away--he was quite strong in comparison to her, she noted, with some momentary alarm--and scowled horribly at her before wiping his nose with a handkerchief. He tossed the handkerchief to her before secreting himself away nearly inside the cloth sacks.
Her nose rebelling, Eleuin clasped the handkerchief in her soiled hand and followed his example. Although she was smaller than him in almost every possible dimension, she did not possess the same alacrity for hiding. While his longer legs and arms needed more space, he seemed better capable of folding them up.
"I thought they all knew to stay out of the cellar," matron grumbled, intruding upon the dark with a candle.
Adrenaline attempting to replace blood completely, Eleuin gave up trying to do as the boy had done and just lay down flat. Thus situated, she tugged a sheet over herself and breathed so lightly that she could barely feel her own chest moving.
If she let her eyes roll upwards, she could see the light trying to pierce her hiding place. Suppressing a gasp, she squeezed her eyes shut.
When she opened them again, she saw the boy's ankle and foot, sharing her hiding place. He wore boots, or at least one boot. It was made of leather, crusted over with sand, mud or possibly clay beneath it.
Matron cursed in the name of someone called Noalli. Out of habit, Eleuin scrawled the name into her mind even as she reached out for the boot. There would be someone to ask outside, and that was precisely where she would be going.
In all her life, youthful as she had to admit she was, she had never experienced a rebellious streak. As her hand hovered over the crusty leather boot, waiting for the matron's light to depart, an inner voice told her that every experience was worth having.
"Mice?" The fretting in Gerda's voice was plain. "Oh, do let's go back upstairs, Matron. The underlies have all gone home, except for old Mr Doldinous, and you know his back gives him such trouble."
With a reluctant grunt, the matron acquiesced, and the footsteps sounded again, Gerda's quickly departing patter underscored by the matron's condescendingly slow march. The stairs creaked.
Eleuin stared hard at her hand and the boot, the inner voice shouting at her, blaring out any other thoughts. It was her only chance, he wouldn't listen to reason and release her. She could only do one thing, and that was to grab the boot.
It struck her in the face.
Dazed but still conscious, she held on as if attached by a substance more agglutinant than the gruel. Her vision seemed to swim. She could not focus on any level above colour and the dark.
A hand, bigger even than the matron's, grabbed her by the wrist and tried to pull her up. She made herself sit up, whimpering. Still holding on, she found a higher grip--his knee--and clung to that.
She was rewarded with a curse and a hissed, "Get up already!" which she did not obey.
Another second and her vision began to clear. His face, shrouded by the hood, reminded her of a picture she had seen once, on one of the first days the priesting people had come. There had been a name with it, but the only name she could be certain of at that moment was her own.
Cursing, he knit his brow and held her head, apparently looking for something. Or at it. Her face was wet, but she was not sweating and she did not cry.
His hands were not quite as warm as her face, but they were of a different texture entirely. She pulled away from it, making a displeased face. Her fingers curled into his clothing, still adamantly attached to his knee.
"Let go." He peeled her fingers off of his boot, and then pulled his leg back, disrupting her hold on his knee as well. Hopelessness was not an experience she wanted any more of, but it invaded her head.
The laundry slid about as she made another grab for him, revealing a door. Eleuin peered blearily at it, wondering why it was so small. A large animal would have had trouble navigating it, but a small person might have been able to crawl right through.
Moving like a flash, the boy tried the door. It stuck, threatening a locked state, but Eleuin saw the give. The boy threw up his hands and covered his face, but she moved ahead of him.
She tried to tell him it wasn't locked, but her tongue felt the wrong size altogether. Instead, she reached out and pulled at the door. Her fingers and arms felt weak after hanging on so hard, but she pulled all the same.
At last, the door popped open and allowed her to see a square of the world outside the asylum. It was barely half the size of the window, Gerda and the matron would have thought of it as less than a hole. But Eleuin had made her body in the right proportions with the wrong size.
Staring at her, the boy bit his upper lip. Then, he appeared to sigh, or move in some other subtle way, before grabbing his handkerchief from the mess of upended laundry sacks. He handed it to her again, gesturing with his hand. "Go first," he mouthed.
Eleuin did so without taking the handkerchief or otherwise delaying for another moment. He did not jostle her from behind.
Cobblestones under her bare feet sent her reeling back to the moment she had first come to this place, this community for which she still had no name. She had been injured then, bleeding from too many places to count, and gloriously free. Her body was already broken in, to use a phrase, possibly incorrectly, though parts of it were still so new as to be pale and colourless.
Shuffled inside as she had been, the colour had never had a chance to set in. She had not noticed it very often in the asylum, but now, watching the boy carefully coax the tiny door shut, she was aware of the differences between them.
Although he was not broad nor tall like Gerda, his eyes could see on a level above her own. His feet, both in boots, were big and presumably wide. There was blood on one of them, glistening in the moonlight.
Eleuin reached up and touched a spot on her forehead that had been throbbing with pain for some time. There was something about being bloody on these streets. She laughed, embracing the feeling in her chest, and even the pain in her head.
Free and out. Thanks to this person who had, of all things, kicked her in the head. She bowed low to him, hands clasped over her chest, her pale hair brushing the dirty cobbles. "I owe you more than I could ever repay," she said, earnest as only one of her kind could be. "What would you wish of me?"
Clearly taken aback, he held out the handkerchief. It was the third time he had done so, and she wondered if he was used to covering others with humours from his own body. Although the first time had been her fault, she mused.
Again, she asked what he wished of her. The unfortunates had often failed to hear her, but he was, supposedly, not one of them. She would never see one of them again. Poor dears, as Gerda would say. But they were where they belonged.
"Come here and stop mooning around," the boy growled. He grabbed her by the arm and wiped clumsily at the blood on her face, stinging her eyes with every miss.
Eleuin did not struggle. He was no gentle woman in white, not even so much as the ones who scrubbed faces with the same vigour as they did floors, but it was still a kind act.
When he moved away, he kept on moving. He went at such a speed that his hood was blown back free of his head, the rest of his cloak flapped out like the billow of sails. "Good luck to you," he said, without turning back. "I'm getting out of here before someone comes outside and carts us both back in."
She ran to catch up with him, in time to catch something about 'the all-up'. For all that his legs were longer than hers, and he walked in long, swift strides, she found that she could quite easily overtake him if she skipped a bit, scissoring as in a waltz. "What's an all-up?" she asked.
His pace increased, but she kept up, scissoring on. "It's like that place you were in, except without all the nice people. An' they give you kicks instead o' food."
"That sounds terrible."
Suddenly he halted, and she almost scissored right past him. "Why are you following me?"
"You haven't told me what you wish yet. I have to do something in return for your aid, you know." She beamed at him, tucking her hair behind her ear.
He gave her an odd look, as if he wasn't certain he had heard her right.
She frowned. Perhaps she was missing something important. Scanning her memory for things she had seen outside her window, she happened upon a greeting. There may have been words of some ceremony to be said, but as she was sadly unable to give them, she settled for the motion and simply said her name. "Eleuin. That's--that's my name."
The odd look moved down to her hand, but he took it in his and shook it, letting go very quickly, as if it burned. Then he threw both of his hands up in the air and said, "By Chaephar, this is surreal. Are you even--no, you're just a madd'un. Of course you don't act real."
"By kaiafar," she repeated. That was a new word. Or set of words. There had not been many pauses. "What does that mean?"
His eyes were wide, and his jaw slack. "I thought they had the priests and 'esses in there to teach all of you stuff like that. Hope and salvation, like."
"I know those words," she chimed in. "Although I must admit, I am sketchy on what salvation actually is. None of the priesting people ever talked to me long enough to answer many questions." She held out her hand again, wondering if she had done it quite right.
More staring. Yes, she must have not have done it exactly the way it ought to have been done.
"You didn't give me your name," she explained, thrusting out her hand, a little more insistently.
His lips parted in a smile that showed his teeth. "I'm Gremlin." Then his teeth disappeared with the smile. "Look, are you going to follow me forever?"
"Oh, forever is such a long time. At least, it is everywhere else I've been."
"Yeah? And how many places have you been?" He barked out a laugh, walking again, barely glancing at her as she settled into a complementary waltzing pace. "Never mind, I don't think I wanna hear any more nonsense."
Nonsense, that was a word that the women in white said a great deal. Eleuin pursed her lips, then pressed her case again. It would not due if he held back his wish for a long time like forever. "I have to grant you some great favour to repay you," she said, explaining as she might have an idiot. It was a horrible habit held by all tourists, she knew, but there must have been a reason that no one could really break it. "Or else I'm afraid I might have to follow you forever."
"What if I just er, wish for you to go away and leave me be?"
She gave him a look patterned partially after many she had seen from the matron, and partially after one of his own, to make a personal amalgam that she believed would convey disapproval. "That would be unspeakably rude, and I would have to follow you anyway. Though I confess, I would not be happy about it at all, even after the incredible service you rendered."
"I did kick you, you remember."
"Yes, and it hurt. Less now, though." She touched the injury with ginger care. "I suspect it will stop entirely soon."
Gremlin sighed, stopping quite abruptly. His face, streaked with the same mud and sand as she had seen on his boots, was nevertheless an exuberant example of youth. The size of his features were closer to her own, as well. Small, wide-eyed, a mouth that did not look like much could come out of it or go in. "Does it have to be a big wish?"
"Yes. It is for a big service. I'd spend all of my time paying you back if you kept asking for small things."
He turned a corner, leading into a narrow alleyway, and then sat on a crate. After so much walking, Eleuin realised that her feet were tired and a little sore. She also realised that had not paid any attention at all to her surroundings. The glorious outside.
What a bother it was, to owe a favour.
Sitting on his crate like a king on a meagre throne, Gremlin pressed both hands on either side of him, hunching his shoulders. A smile crept onto his face, but it did not appear to have any particular meaning. "If that's how it is, then let me think. Can you at least leave me alone while I think?"
The truth was that she could certainly do that. If she had been at home, she could have left him quite alone while awaiting the name of the service he required in return. But that was far away, where she had other things to attend to, other places that she knew she could be. Here, the only places she knew were the asylum, and walking next to Gremlin.
Therefore, she told a small fib. "I'm afraid I can't."
"Fine." The smile wavered, but only just. "Pull up a crate then, you look like you could use the rest."