The evening hour was past its prime. Vain, vernal northern light exited the stage protesting. Spring peepers boasted amorously to their larger, less-interested ladyloves. Pink-grey mist of the spring’s night drugged the clover, punctuated by orange cabin fires and hearthstones. Travelers and vagabonds moved down the silt path quietly. The peepers’ cacophonous croaking drowned out all other thoughts and inner meditations. One amphibious amante sat under a bush and loudly, profoundly, exclaimed his intentions to any female frog that might be within a two-kilometer distance. Early spring lavender-green frosted the pots and planters. Smaller worlds behind the veil shifted unseen.
Inside the unassuming hovel, Mataoka bent over a bit-too-small woodblock, mincing sungrass herbs for the evening’s spring roasted lamb. This was not her choice. She wanted to be sitting in the over-sized chintz chair by the hearth, one hoof curled under her leggings, with her head rested against the chair’s headrest, but the chef of the house had put her to work. She held the blade carefully so as not to cut her own fingers. Draenei blood does not make Shattrath lamb taste better, contrary to goblin lore. She suppressed the urge to take out her mace and pound the delicate grass to smithereens.
“Please, Guarf, tell me you won’t burn it like you did last time?”
“Burn? No, my dear…not burnt. Flame kissed!” said Guarf, in his own kitchen, completely in control.
“Guarf, it was inedible. Confess, sir, last spring you were utterly and hopelessly sapped by that widow-woman next door, hanging her dwarven-sized bloomers on the wash line…that would distract anyone!” laughed Mat. “Did you ever get in those knickers, my friend? Never mind…please don’t answer that!”
“Aye, lassie, you must admit: getting in Widow Shannon’s knickers is enough of a defense for any red-blooded male! She’s got a backside like an iron kettle.” He then muttered something about stirring the widow’s pot, which Matty chose to ignore.
The spring lamb was basted, browning, and made her mouth water. Guarf, without the protection of hot pads, took the clay roaster out of the oven in his well-calloused hands, placing it on the counter. She was deeply hungry, as if she hadn’t eaten in months. A profound, saturated hunger. With one smooth swipe of the butcher knife, he swept the minced sungrass in the pan, throwing the herb like confetti over the lamb.
When he cooked, he seemed to need by divine right, almost a do-or-die quest, to dirty every dish, pot, pan, and cup in the house. Their living arrangement was based on Mat’s being able to stay there as long as she needed (she was habitually homeless), in exchange for her doing the dishes if he cooked. Normally, he was an excellent cook, with the one exception of the Widow Shannon’s backside distraction, so she didn’t mind being the sous-chef. Her duties did not include laundry or cleaning. She wondered if subconsciously he created such a performance and abuse of resources because she refused to keep house. The bewitched critters of Azeroth stopped short of scrubbing chamber pots while Matty sang, or dusting ancient tomes of lore with their squirrelly tales. They were no help. She skipped gingerly across piles of dirty linens, danced around leggings and sheets piled on floors, and barreled through the stacks of books, books, and more books. Perhaps Guarf’s attraction to the Widow Shannon had more to do with her washboard room skills than her bedroom skills. (So far the buxom widow had shown no interest in giving him, or his linens, a scrub-down!)
However, he took meticulous care of his weapons and armor, and had only spoken sharply to Matty once, when she had accidentally knocked over a row of axes ready for grinding. Her big hooves and tail sometimes made her a bit clumsy.
They were each often off and about on their own missions and seldom encountered one another. It was a rare and comfortable treat to be sharing a meal together. She looked down at his face, and absentmindedly, maternally perhaps, licked her thumb and rubbed out a soot spot on his cheek. She thought of tweaking his beard, but knew that would cross a line. One doesn’t touch a dwarf’s beard. Ever. (She didn’t know how indulgent he felt towards her: if she had, he would have forgiven her. It wasn’t as if his beard was one of his axes, for gods’ sakes!) His uncut ocean-sapphire eyes, affixed in his white-web flossy beard and braids, showed a sparkling, stunning contrast. Those eyes—if he looked at you, you could not tell a lie. His paladin honor, discretion, and respect would shine on anyone, friends and enemies alike. His smile wrinkles, earned by laughter, ale, and merriment, belied his age. He wasn’t old for a dwarf, only 166, but he had a bit of travel on him, and a few stories.
What he saw in Mat’s eyes was exhaustion, but he knew better: you never tell a lady she looks tired.
“I was helping your sister the other day,” he said, a bit vaguely for him.
“Lupe. She’s got a fine fiery sword now, and her armor is coming along.”
Mat loved her sisters, but she didn’t always understand them. Luperci, the middle girl, could be as self-righteous as an hagiographer, one who begins to believe he is just as holy as the saints’ stories he records. The notch in Mat’s right horn was a result of Lupe slamming a flaming shield to Mat’s head when they were children. Mat had made some crack about the color or shape of Lupe’s horns. Matty often spoke before thinking, having a sharp tongue on occasion. Lupe had learned a bit more patience over the years, too; thank heavens, because that irascible arrogance and self-importance would have grown tiresome if left unchecked. Mat avoided her as it was.
Rumors, mostly faded now, persisted that Matty was the love child of their mother, Alenke, before she married Arkkis. These rumors were true. Her mother had been in love; sincere promises were made, secret vows taken, but he died in battle before a priest could sanctify the marriage. The only thing that wasn’t widely known was the draenei warrior in question was Arrkis’ brother. Arrkis admired Alenke, and married her to protect her honor and out of a sense of obligation to his brother’s memory. Compromises created out of duty do not inspire love, and kills lust. Even so, they were fond of each other. But when eyes were closed and lights extinguished, each dreamed of other faces in the dark in their minds’ eyes. He never loved her as his brother had. That would have been impossible.
Mat’s own insecurity of her paternal line wasn’t helped by both her sisters being so different from she was, though this had more to do with sibling rivalries. Mat was the eldest, and by tradition, should have been married, solid, responsible, and wise. She was none of those things. Their father, Arrkis, was a loving, patient, and firm father, but with little time for his daughters. But when he saw a natural paladin in his girl, Lupe, he spent much of his time with her, training and teaching her the ways of being a true champion, as he was, and his father before him. Zeptepi, the sweetest and youngest, had followed in their mother’s healing ways. Mat was the wolf in the flock, a shaman, standing in the muck of grey between the old ways and the new path. She was a young woman divided in thirds--never quite harnessing enough power for one path.
“Well, good, the world needs as many champions as it can get,” she said flatly. She reached in her bags and pulled out two Booty Bay rum-infused limes. She struck a deal with a gritty goblin awhile back: not quite a deal, but more of a mutually-beneficial-I-won’t kill-you-if-you-don’t-kill-me arrangement. They would never wholly trust one another. She would bring him knapsacks of Elwynn Forest flour, and he would give her, in exchange, common fish oil and the succulent limes. She felt the hold of winter’s touch needed the zest of the limes, a promise of sun and warmth. She shivered.
“Aye, oh, and I almost forgot…there’s a letter for you by the door.”
She knew before she reached it that it was from the mage. Usually, the phantom postmaster sprayed satchels of letters with oil of Hart’s horn, (its ammonia smell kept wharf rats from chewing the scrolls). However, the mage had infused the scroll with his brand of magic. He smelled like a forest and fresh water, intensely masculine, and the scroll smelled of him. He was a trickster, for certain, it was the only true thing about him, but worth every brief moment he appeared. She had toughened her heart to his frequent disappearances. Early in their friendship, when he would vanish, her heart felt as if it was cut in two. She had learned that things are not what they seem, that a man can be mute for months, silenced to her, but not to be hurt by his illusions. His priest brother, too, would often sequester himself in study or mediation. “Oh, for Velen’s sake, these men! What is so important that they need to think all the time?” she asked herself.
No other man looked like him. During his infrequent appearances, second only to an oft-missing friend, she would just look at him. Once in a blue-mage moon he would send her flasks, and urge her to drink them liberally. Matty was convinced he put some other ingredient in there that kept her paradoxically disoriented and well protected. He made delicious potions--always added a touch of herbs from far-off lands, and honey mash. These concoctions transformed her into a masked gnome, or any number of other illusions and surprises. He never revealed what was behind the wand, the cape, but would produce delightful surprises that caused the reaction he wanted: her unashamed laughter. Maybe it was the way he carried himself, how handsome he was. But she was under his spell.
It was odd to be sending a letter without some flask or potion attached. Her brow knitted slightly. She used her witchblade to slice open the scroll, and nicked her finger. A drop of blood seeped into the edge of the letter.
My dearest Mat,
I have been summoned to the mage quarters to train apprentices in incantations. Do not expect to hear from me again for a long time. It’s not as if you needed me to give you a port; the gods decide when and where to allow freedom of movement. Please keep an eye on my brothers for me. They would be lost and hungry without you.
She crumpled the letter, making hot wrinkles in it that would never be starched and ironed out. Long time, indeed! She felt quickly ashamed, and tried to smooth out the letter as best she could, so she could keep it, read it, and yes, smell it when she missed him. At least she had this. There were other absences that dug deep. She had only received two types of letters from him: this was the third telling her of a long-term absence, and those filled with potions. She greatly preferred the latter.
But this letter stacked with others who had not written her. Very absent friends. Craters on the heartfield.
She joined Guarf at his long, plank-board table for dinner. She had felt so ravenous, but now, food tasted a bit woody. Raising one thick ropey eyebrow, Guarf looked her over. She was not the same girl who came back from the mail basket. Sometimes the longest distances are not measured in lengths and strides, but in the size of a tear. He wondered who, or what, could have caused this: most likely a ‘who’ in his experience.
“Tonight, lassie-doo, put your troubles down. Let them run away: troubles always have a way of finding their way home, like bad cats and children, so let ‘em all go, shiny girl...” said Guarf. He was referring to the story she told of drinking moon potion around her friend in the winter, and he called her “Shiny Mat.” This reference made her smile, and then push a tear back in her eyes.
“Guarf, the lamb is delicious. You have outdone yourself. And I see the kitchen looks as if the Lich King himself has raided the larder. But I will see to it in the morning, I promise, my friend. You know you have my word. Besides, I wouldn’t want to break our deal and find my tail out on the street...” she smiled weakly.
“What’s wrong, my sweet dear?” he asked quietly.
Matty shrugged, and just said, “I don’t know, Guarf, perhaps I am in love with the Widow Shannon, too!” She laughed. “It’s hard to say in your words, Guarf. There is a word in my language, my mother would sigh sometimes, but I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it means, 'discouraged?' Let’s go by the fire and drink our ale--how’s that sound? I brought some heaven peaches back from Darnassus for us, for dessert.”
Matty lay down on the floor, on an island of rare cleanliness, curled up with a large pillow. Guarf sat on his leather chair, and lit a pipe. “Ah, that reminds me of a story from when I lived in Teldrassil,” he said:
I met a young woman; a priestess, I thought, of Elune, although now I have no idea which god she championed. I was not a proper paladin at the time, you understand, just a young dwarf looking to see the world and, I hoped to make my mark on it. We spent a great deal of time together, this young woman and I, for a number of days, close to a moon’s month, until one afternoon, she took me outside the city.
My woman, in her lovely night-silk black dress, took my hand and pointed toward the sunset. 'Do you see the green hills that rise in the distance?'
“Yes.” The hills seemed to shimmer as the sunlight played over us.
“I will take you there, if you will let me, and we will live as lovers in the orchards where the fruit will be our jewels and the birds our orchestra.” And as she spoke, it was as if I could hear the music and feel the gentle rain, misting on my face.
“I dinna know. The seems to be something...” Something seemed out of tune then, lassie. I couldn’t put my finger on it, couldn’t see it.
“I am not false, my love. Let me show you, that you may find what you seek.” And in the speed of a spell, we were standing in the green hills by the edge of an orchard. “Come with me.” and the woman walked forward, never letting go of my hand.
Soon we stopped before a large peach tree, its branches heavy with ripe fruit. My lady picked one and, finally letting go of my hand, gave it a twist and it broke in half, looking as if it had been neatly sliced. She smiled softly and showed me one of the halves, discarding the other half to the ground. Where the pit should have been was a large red ruby. I removed it from the peach and held the gem to the light.
“How is this possible?”
“Do you see this in front of you? Have faith, my love. Believe. Come.” And she took my hand again and led me to a whispering creek, where water flowed clean over a bed of small stones. My lady knelt by the stream and put her hand in it, feeling in among the smooth pebbles and rocks that made the riverbed. When she stood, her hand was closed. She slowly opened her fingers and I saw that she held, still dripping wet, four small but perfect diamonds that caught the light and glowed. It took my breath away, lassie, and you know how long-winded I can be!
“They are beautiful.”
“Do you not believe what you can touch? And, they are perfect. Come." And she tossed the diamonds back into the stream and led me to an open meadow where the grass was thick and soft.
“Do you hear? Listen.” And as she spoke, a group of birds began to sing. The birds seemed to be on all sides, although I could not see them in the trees, and the song they sang was the beautiful music that all birds make, and yet it was not the same, because each voice fit with each other voice, sometimes joining in unison, sometimes drifting into a counter melody, and together it was an harmonious whole, like a grand symphony that man never wrote.
“Do you like this place?”
“This is where you live?”
“Yes. And it is where we could live together, with each other to laugh with, look at, and touch." As she spoke, a soft warm rain began to fall.
“Your clothes are getting wet.” I know, Miss Hooves-and-Tail, you are thinking I was being a bit pragmatic…
“So are yours.” Looking at each other in the rain, the armor and cloth seemed to melt. She then took both of my hands and said, “Lie down with me,” and she pulled me to the grass.
(Matty blushed a bit--sometimes, this Dwarf!)
After a time, *ahem*, the rain had stopped and the sun warmed us and dried the meadow. My lady lifted her head from my chest and looked in my eyes. “It could be like this forever, if you will come and live with me here.” Her eyes were like the diamonds in the riverbed, and the small wrinkles of a smile played about her face. “This place is beautiful,” I said, “It is perfect. And so are you. You belong here. You are a part of this place, where the trees bear gems and the water runs over diamonds and the birds sing in harmony. But I am not . . . perfect. I am not a part of this place. I belong elsewhere, and that other place calls to me even now.” I looked past her and saw that our clothes were tossed in a heap near the edge of the meadow and I noticed that the birds were singing again just as birds, oblivious to other nests and songs.
My lady rolled off me and sat up, holding her head in her hands. After a time, she looked up and I saw that, while her eyes were red and swollen, no tears rolled down her cheeks. “Then you must go.” But I was already dressed.
As I was walking back through the orchard, I stopped again at the stream. I looked at it a moment, then knelt and put my hand in among the stones. When I brought my hand up, all I could find were the ordinary brown pebbles that you find in any riverbed. I looked at them briefly, and then walked on, tossing the pebbles in the brook.
When I came again to the peach tree, with the birds all the while singing their ordinary bird songs, I saw the two halves of fruit that my lady had twisted apart, and I remembered that I had put the ruby in my jacket picket. Before I could pull it out, however, I heard the woman's voice. “It is just a peach stone.”
I turned, and saw my lady behind me, again in her lovely black dress. But the lovely black dress was wrinkled, and her eyes were tired.
“Then it was all a lie. None of this is real.”
“There was no lie. We make our own truths, Guarf. If I said that anything is possible if you believe, that you desired to, and so it is. This is all real to me, and, for a moment, it was real to you as well. I wanted you to be my truth. But nothing is what it seems if you examine it too closely, and tear it apart. If you dismantle a butterfly you will have nothing but dust and broken wings.”
While she was talking, she had moved toward me until she was standing directly in front of me. Slowly, she reached up and touched my face with the back of her fingers. “You broke it, my love.” And as she reached up to kiss me, the orchard and the woman were gone.
I looked at the green hills in the distance, and I knew that I would never find an orchard there again, no matter how long I searched. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the peach pit and held it up to the sun, half-hoping, half-fearing that it would turn to a ruby in my hand.
“And that, of course, is what set me on the road to being a paladin,” he said summarily, as if his abrupt ending would grant Matty the epiphany of insight she seemed to need. Well, he was used to hammering morality into others. She would understand.
Guarf took another swig from his mug, and lit a new pipe. Mat shook her head, confused. “What? Why did that...I'm afraid I don't understand.”
“Belief, Matty, belief. What are paladins if not champions of belief, and faith? I am learning, every day, to believe, to walk in the Light, but that's just the start, I hope. One day, I hope, I might learn to believe enough.” Guarf stared at the fire, and took another drink.
“But Guarf, the peach pit?”
“Do you still have it? Was it really a ruby?” she asked naively.
“Well, Matty, it’s a peach pit now.” Guarf stared at the fire another moment, then stood up quickly. “But enough of the past, I'm for another drink! You? Of course you are! Bloody tall draenei, must be thirsty all the time, what with the liquid sinking to your hooves.” Guarf's voice faded as he plodded to the kitchen, muttering about her drinking habits.
Her tummy full of ale, and her heart a bit scratchy, planted like a ruby peach pit in her chest. The spring peepers quieted down. Maybe they had found their frog-wife loves. She was fast asleep before he returned with their full mugs. He sighed. He saw the welts in her shoulder blades where angel’s wings should be. He crouched down next to her, reached in his pocket (oh, how utilizing and useful paladins are!) and put a small dollop of gnomish self-warming almond-butter cream on her back. That would do the trick. By morning, he hoped, her pain would be gone. Then he shook out one of his mother’s handmade woolen blankets, covering her completely. She let out a soft, bottomless breath. Mat dreamed of wisps and rings of pipe smoke, whisky, and chimney dust. And in a dream-shaded corner of her soul, a little frog with rubies for eyes told her to hush. Otherwise, she was safe in her sleep.
(Written by Mataoka, and story-within-story by Guarf.)