Were you feeling tired after Chapter 21? Because our characters and I all were, that’s for sure. Let’s see what happens now that they’re rested.
(previous chapters here)
Someone is moaning, long and slow. It stops for an instant, only to start right back up.
Who is moaning? Why?
I wrench my eyes open. They’re dry and scratchy and at first only see shadowy dirt. Rolling onto my side sets all my muscles complaining. I wince.
A tall earthen wall greets my eyes now. Another rises close behind me. Savi sprawls prostrate and motionless at my feet, and over him are Nhardah and Forziel’s silhouettes, hunched together in the cave entrance.
In the other direction, Nihae clutches her knees and rocks. She moans again.
I curl in like I was punched in the stomach. Unholy screams. Fighting in a tight place. Sword arcing through the air.
I just manage to scramble to my knees, then I’m heaving up bile.
“She’s awake,” Forziel unnecessarily says.
A hand swipes the loose hairs from my face. Another rubs my back. “Relax, Raiballeon,” Nhardah hums. “You’re all right.”
I spit and wipe my lips. Inside me feels just as tumultuous as it did when I was gagging. “How can you say that?” I choke. “You of all people know that’s not true.”
He sighs. “No. But you’re alive, and so are Nihae and Saviayr. The rest will ease with time.”
I swat Nhardah’s hand away and glare at him. “Enough of your stupid wisdom. Where were you when we needed you? Why couldn’t you have come just one moment sooner?”
I roll my neck and test my ankle. It’s sore, but I don’t think it’s too much worse. At any rate, the rest of me isn’t much better off. That decided, I rise with a groan and join Nihae. Her green eyes stare at the cave floor. She doesn’t blink at my approach or stop moaning.
I crouch in front of her. Close up, I see hints of moisture gathered in the corner of Nihae’s eyes, along with both new and dry tear tracks. My breath catches. My stomach knots again. How long has she been like this?
I rest a hand on the arm wrapped around her knees. “Mama?”
Nihae doesn’t react.
So I just sit, holding her arm while she rocks and moans. When my legs cramp, I mimic her pose.
My nose tickles. I wipe it and brush my cheek. I’m not surprised to find that it’s wet, too, though I hadn’t realized I was crying.
Forziel mutters something about checking our trail, probably an excuse for respite from our grief. He scurries out of the cavern, waking Savi in his passing. Savi sits bolt upright and blinks around him.
Then his eyes land on Nihae and me. His shoulders tense. The bump of his throat bobs. He blinks repeatedly and clenches his jaw.
I swallow around the lump in my throat. “Savi?” My own tears slur my voice.
He swallows again, shaking his head at my outstretched hand. “Where’s Forziel?” he asks, voice strained. “We need to keep moving.” Savi pushes up and heads toward the entrance.
Nhardah stays motionless, head bowed. I hiss at him, “At least help with Nihae. It’s the least you can do.” Without waiting for a response–I don’t want to hear anything from him right now–I join Saviayr. He leans an elbow against the cavern wall, chest heaving.
I rub my hand over the warm material of his tunic, stiffened by the river water that dried while Savi still wore it. “It’s okay to grieve,” I whisper. “You can cry. Elesekk…”
Savi’s breath shudders. The muscles under my hand tense further. “No.” He takes a deep breath and pushes off the wall. “I have to move on. We’ve got a mission to accomplish. My dad doesn’t matter⎼” his breath hitches⎼ “when all Maraian is counting on us.”
A sob slips out before I can catch it. “But Savi⎼”
“No. This is my decision.” He keeps his face turned away from me. “I’m gonna go find Forziel.”
Savi dips around the corner and disappears into the darkening world outside. I turn back into the cave with a sigh. Back in the shadows, Nhardah sits next to Nihae. His dark hand rubs her back while she keeps rocking.
“We’re leaving soon,” I tell both of them, not expecting or receiving a response.
A thread tickles my knee. That’s right–the aivenkaite grabbing my skirt, cutting off the fabric to free myself. I try to pull the gaping edges together. The result is a skirt too tight for easy motion.
I scan the cave for the sack with my clothes and writings. It’s nowhere to be found. My stomach sinks lower. I didn’t have the bag last night during the fight. I didn’t carry it across the dunes or through the tunnel. In the aftermath of speaking with the Voice of a Multitude, I left the bag on the floor of the royal Yrin’s main hall.
Just like that, three years of work are lost.
I dissolve into tears as Savi and Forziel reappear.
“I thought you said things were calmer,” Forziel exclaims. He backsteps.
Savi shuffles closer. “Rai?”
“It’s Elesekk, and the aivenkaites–and what are we doing? The sultan’s gonna–and–and my histories, that I spent all that time writing–and I don’t have any clothes!” A hiccough interrupts the last word.
There’s silence but for my gasps and Nihae’s moans.
“You…clothes?” Savi asks.
I wave at the side of my skirt. “Yes. I can’t go wandering through Izyphor half-naked!”
Forziel starts edging deeper into the cave, watching me all the while. Savi shifts his weight between his feet.
I try to slow my breaths. This isn’t their fault. I shouldn’t be freaking out.
“I have some spare pants you could wear?” Forziel offers.
I rake fingers into my hair. Half of it isn’t held by the tie anymore. That must be fixed. I undo the tie with shaking fingers. “Okay. Yeah.” My voice shakes, too, so much the words might not be distinguishable. I have to calm down. I should follow Savi’s example, focus on our mission right now.
Forziel dives into his pack and pulls out patched brown pants. These he tosses over to me before poking around in the bag. He holds aloft a package. “Aha! I brought some food, too. We should eat before we go.”
While Forziel distributes the food, I slip into the pants. Common slave wear, they’re designed loose to make them fit as long as possible. These are too loose on me, though. I gather the waistband in one hand and ponder. My eyes fall on Luemikaroeth, abandoned on the ground. A belt–it can hold up my pants and carry my sword.
I clench my jaw and rip the hopelessly ruined fabric of the dress in which I married Saviayr.
With a new belt in place, I accept Forziel’s offer of food and grind the salted meat between my teeth. The earthy flavor of rabbit fills my mouth. On Ira, our meat mostly came from the island’s sheep flock. Rabbit is the meat of slavery, and its taste calls up hot nights in tiny huts, living shoulder to shoulder with other families, sunburns, and laughter with my sister and Savi.
“What do I do with it?” Nihae asks. A chunk of rabbit jerky dangles from her fingers. Her eyebrows pinch together.
“What do you mean?” Savi asks. “You eat it.”
Nihae frowns at the meat. With great suspicion, she nibbles the very edge.
Savi keeps prompting her to eat, so I turn to Forziel. I feel a little guilty for saying this after he just gave us food and clothing, but it can’t be helped. “I think you should go back.”
His eyes widen. “What? But you said⎼”
I hold up a hand. “I know, but I agreed you could be our guide. We’re trying to get to the capital–due north of the royal Yrin’s land. You led us east and southeast. We can’t deal with someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing. We have to be there by the Feast of Wheat. And I can’t have a naive boy’s death on my hands.”
“Raiballeon, that’s too harsh,” Nhardah rebukes.
“No, she’s right,” Savi says from Nihae’s side. “It’s too dangerous, especially if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We’ve got aivenkaites and Izyphorns on our trail.”
“But I do know.” Forziel throws back his shoulders. “Capital’s up the Havilim. So’s a bunch of other cities and towns. I led our trail away from major cities toward the coast. That’s just what they’d expect runaways to do.
“Now, we’ll double back walking in the river. It’s one of the Havilim’s tributaries, too small for boats and trade. It’ll wash away our trail. We can get out far upstream, where they won’t look for us, and cut across the desert at night to get safe to the capital.”
I bite another piece of jerky to put off answering. When I swallow, I admit, “That actually makes sense.”
Nhardah shifts, but wisely decides not to say anything.
“So…I can stay?” Forziel bounces once on his toes.
His energy exhausts me. But at least someone in our group is untouched by recent grief. “Fine.” Aia, please don’t let this be a mistake.
Savi tenderly drags Nihae to her feet. I look around to make sure we have all of our belongings. Then Forziel leads us out of the cave.
The cliffs on either side block the sun, and the long shadows cast by the western cliffs show that it is evening. Forziel leads us down the short, steep beach and into the river. I wait for Savi to lead Nihae down and follow behind them.
The tepid water is a soothing balm compared to the heat in the air. I’m thankful for my sandals, and for the buoyancy the water provides as rocks shift and roll underfoot.
“Careful, Mama,” Savi murmurs, tightening his grip on her arm when she pitches forward.
Her tremulous response is lost in the wind.
Soon, I lose gratitude for the water when its resistance drags my sore ankle. The cave is hardly out of sight when I start limping.
We walk without conversation. Despite our rest, I am still tired, and I’m sure the others are, too. Besides, if there are any Izyphorns nearby, we don’t want to alert them to our presence. We’ve had enough battles for now.
The cliffs sink, and the banks relax. On the left, we pass a place where the ground was churned by hurried feet. That was where we entered the river yesterday.
Further along, a hand brushes my elbow. I jump.
It’s only Nhardah. I glare at the Firstborn. “What?”
He sighs and rubs the stubble roughening his jaw. “Raiballeon, I need to apologize to you.”
I scoff. “Oh, like an apology will do anything.”
“It won’t change the past, no. But that is not the point of an apology.”
My next step is more forceful, almost a kick. I regret it when my sore ankle twinges.
“You were right, that I am in some part culpable for Elesekk’s death. For long years, I’ve kept myself separate from the world’s affairs. I told myself my time of effecting change was over. Aia would continue his plan by using my descendants to redeem Orrock. They would be my legacy.
“I only came to Ira and interacted with you at Mithrida’s prompting. If not for my wife, for her kaite wisdom and greater knowledge of Aia’s actions, I would have left you alone entirely. Becoming entangled with humans is something I have distanced myself from for centuries.
“I was wrong.” Nhardah pauses, head tilted. “You’ve helped me recognize that I still have a part to play.” He fixes his deep orange eyes on me. “I am responsible for helping set this world to rights again, too. I deeply regret my complacency and the grief and loss it has caused. I shall strive to do better.”
I blink against the prickling in my eyes. My breath shakes. “Okay,” I say. “Good.”
Nhardah bows his head, then turns forward.
“But I’m still mad at you, okay?”
He opens his mouth, then quirks his head. “Do you hear that?”
All I hear is the swish of us moving upriver.
Nhardah holds up his hands. “Wait, everyone.”
The others pause and look back at us, curious. “What’s wrong?” Savi asks. His hand goes to his sword.
The river settles into its placid flow. The reeds starting to grow along the bank swish. Spotted crakes digging for supper along the bank sound their repetitive whip-crack calls.
In a small twilit hush, I catch what Nhardah heard: The weak resound of a baby’s cry.
Tune back in next Monday for Chapter 23 🙂 Let me know your thoughts on this one in the comments.