Days that change a person's life start out ordinary. You crawl out of bed, wishing you didn't have to, and perform the same rituals that have started your day since you mastered independence. For me, that involves straightening the bed I share with my elder sister, tidying my appearance and eating a bowl of porridge with my mother, father, sister and younger brother.
Like most residences in the shanty village outside Meridian, our abode is more a permanent collection of metal sheets than a solid dwelling. Besides the central 'kitchen' and my sleeping quarters there is only one other room which my parents share with my brother. The central room is also our storage area where dozens of herbs hang suspended by string from the ceiling.
Once fed, those manning the market stall gather what herbs they'll need in a cart and wheel it to the venue. The rest leave the populated area to scavenge herbs in the wilds beyond. Today I'm performing the former task with my sister. We finish setting up as the Sun's first light touches the central spire of Holy Meridian. Although it will be several hours before the market is bustling with people it's important to arrive early to prevent some up and coming seller of wares from taking your spot.
Foraging for herbs is a job that requires stealth and silence, but in the busy market I often hum or sing as I move among the scents. Such a rich combination of sweet, spicy and pungent fragrances can cause headaches in those unused to exposure. At seventeen I have had many years to build-up a tolerance. Still, when given a choice between the dangerous tranquility of the machine-invested hills and the noisy safety of Meridian, I always choose the tranquility.
Ambeth, my elder sister, leaves me to watch the stall while she visits with a friend in the tailoring section several blocks over. Not many people are interested in herbs today, most passing me by without a second glance. I don't mind, occupying myself with organising the bundles above my head and diminishing the cacophony of noises by singing a soothing tune. I'm lost in the mindless task of sorting and the song's haunting influence when a woman's foreign accent interrupts my simple world.
“That's a lovely song.” The voice is low and confident.
I turn, tucking a strand of dark hair under my red bandana, preparing to greet the customer with a casual introduction. Then I see her and my tongue goes dead in my mouth. The stranger is more foreign than I'd expected. I've seen a myriad of people from the Banuk, Oseram and Carja tribes as well as some from the fringes who've established their own cultures. I've even seen a couple of Nora since the Great Battle, although they do not seem to enjoy the heavily populated metropolis.
The woman on the other side of my herb display is like no one I've ever seen before. Her red hair distinguishes her immediately. Few people have such a pure amber colour. The hair's frizzy nature is contained by elaborate braiding, an occasional feather and coloured string accenting the ensemble. Her underlying complexion is pale, even compared to the Banuk, yet sun exposure has added a bronze hue. Freckles are sprinkled over her nose and cheeks. The woman's eyes are light brown, almost golden, thin eyebrows emphasizing their depth. Her mouth and nose are small yet perfectly shaped.
She's wearing a collection of animal hides and armour. The hide is finely crafted with decorative dyes while the armour appears to have been scrounged from Old One ruins. Unlike the Carja who make liberal use of elaborate accessories, the stranger is not heavily adorned with baubles. Two sets of beads and a bright blue scarf encircle her neck. There's also a small metal object on her right ear, the finishing touch in a very unique look.
Although I've never seen anyone like her before her station and responsibilities are obvious. A quiver of arrows rests on her right hip, a bow secured snugly to her back. I can see a variety of other weapons as well, including a spear, but cannot deduce what all of them are from my position. What I can see shows expert craftsmanship, the multitude of objects alone evidence that this woman has earned many accolades and much wealth.
All of this information is gleaned in seconds by my perceptive eyes. It would be enough to have me treating this warrior with heightened respect. Add on the fact that my blood is suddenly pounding in my ears and I know I'm going to make a fool of myself.
“Oh, uh.... th...thank you,” I can't meet her eyes but also can't look away.
The woman is likely in her mid-twenties but the confidence with which she carries herself makes her seem older. “What is it?” She asks, her voice softening. There's a certain gruffness in her accent but it's got a lilting quality that soothes the sound.
“The s..song?” I clarify, wiping sweaty palms on my dirty smock. Of course I'd be wearing the one that hasn't been washed for three days. Surreptitiously, I twist my body so that the worst stains are facing away from her.
She nods, a comforting smile on her thin lips. It's the type of expression one might wear to soothe a frightened child. Normally I might take offense, right now all I care about is that she's looking at me.
“It... it's called 'Hymn of the Highlands.' It... it's a Banuk lullaby,” I reply. My face is flushed and my heart has not slowed even a little. I want to move closer to her yet am afraid to do so. She's so different from me but that doesn't stop the attraction.
She nods again then asks, “Do you have any Twilight Nightshade?”
For any other customer the question would be completely understandable – I am a herbalist after all – but my brain does not immediately adjust to the change in subject. “Twilight...nightshade?” I reiterate, gaze darting up to meet hers. That is a mistake since I nearly stop breathing, so entranced am I by their golden depths.
“Yes, the herb.” She says kindly, the paraphernalia of her outfit jostling as her body shifts.
Forcibly pulling back into myself, I nod and move farther into the stall to collect the rare herb. Because of its specific growing conditions the plant is difficult to come by and, therefore, very expensive. I feel guilty as I tell her the price for a pouch. The shards it's worth would feed my family for a month. She doesn't even try to barter, pulling out the stipulated amount as if she spends such values everyday.
She probably does, I admit to myself as I stuff a pouch with her purchase. I add a bit more than I generally would, not dwelling on why. Settling can occur during transport I rationalise, giving her a bit extra is only fair.
“Thank you,” she says. The woman deftly takes her purchase from my hands, tucking it into one of several satchels on her belt.
“May the Sun shine on your hunt,” I recite. There's so much I want to say but can't seem to grasp anything except the traditional Carja hunter's blessing.
She smiles at me one final time, her attention already somewhere else. Mine follows her to the metal merchant a couple of stalls down where she sells some machine parts then until she disappears into the crowds. I don't even have a second to gather my thoughts once she's out of sight because my sister appears as soon as the stranger's vanished.
“Oh great Blazes Teresa is it true?! Was she here?” Ambeth exclaims between panting breaths. She must have rushed back here.
My own breathing is still elevated but the world around me is beginning to seem normal again. “What do you mean?” I ask dumbly.
“Don't tell me you didn't... did she buy something? What was it?”
I'm used to answering my elder sister so the words come of their own accord. “Twilight Nightshade.”
“That's an odd purchase, although not for her I suppose. She's in enough plots to warrant... Teresa, you didn't charge her for it, did you?”
“Oh, well... I-.”
“You did!” Ambeth's already found the shards. It's not hard to see that our stash has increased significantly. “I can't believe you did that! She's a hero! She saved Meridian – twice!”
“She... wait,” my mind has finally started piecing everything together. Although the woman's appearance had been unique in many respects the outfit had been similar to Nora ones I've seen. Since not many Nora frequent Meridian I immediately think of the one Nora woman everyone has heard of. Few have seen her but everyone knows of her accomplishments and her exotic beauty is an important part of recounting the warrior's exploits. When I realise that, yes, the physical attributes I'd catalogued match the stories I almost faint.
Aloy, Thrush of Sunhawk Talanha, Protector of Sun King Avad and Meridian, Mistress of Machines, Seeker for the Nora... she came to my family's stall! Purchased Twilight Nightshade from me... from me. Somehow I lower myself to the floor, ignore the ranting from my sister and take deep, steadying breaths. If I'd known who she was I never would have charged her. No wonder she possessed so much fine equipment and an abundance of shards. She's a legend – the greatest warrior of our time. And I made a fool of myself in front of her.
The rest of the day passes in a blur as business continues and I mull over the details of my encounter with Aloy. During the event I hadn't noticed how many people's attentions had been focused on my customer because my own had been taken hostage by her presence. When I'm tucked into bed that night one thought has reigned supreme: I hadn't known who Aloy was during our interaction yet I'd still been deeply affected by her. If I'd known who she was I could have written my reaction off as hero worship. I would have shared Ambeth's desire to gossip about the meeting and revel in my good fortune. Instead, all I want is for everyone to forget it had ever happened.
I hadn't known who she was... so my reaction to her had been completely natural. Oh, there'd been the awe of a person who possessed wealth and status, but there'd been simple, raw attraction too. It was that attraction that had me thinking about nothing except Aloy for the following week. That attraction led me to pursue every rumour of her whereabouts in the guise of errands. It also kept me from advertising what I was doing, although I probably didn't fool Ambeth.
I only caught sight of Aloy once more despite my stalking attempts. She exited a tavern and walked the half mile to the edge of Meridian's defenses. Once outside the flickering torchlight she let out a high-pitched whistle and out of the darkness bounded two blue points of light.
A Broadhead machine, I acknowledged. Crouched behind a stack of crates, I watched the famous warrior jump astride her mount and gallop into the night. If I'd had any sense I would have counted my blessings for the opportunity to see her then gone about my routine existence. Instead, I packed a supply bag and told my family I was going on a several day excursion to collect herbs. That's how the youth of Teresa Lairde ended.