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↤ NIGHT WHISPERS ↦
(that is, dreamless)
Ilis couldn’t remember the last full night’s rest she’d been given. Unlike all else in her life, a natural sleep was not something she could grab and take without asking, but seemed to her to be gifted to the lucky or witlessly ignorant. She wondered how anyone with knowledge of how things were could slumber in peace.
Often it was a sound that roused her from the darkness. Years of sleeping in awkward places where she could be caught and punished for her trespass, or possibly worse, had granted her the ability to rise back to awareness in an instant. If she ever found a home again, it would certainly be more curse than comfort.
A few hours before the dawn of the journey's second day, something woke her. Like almost every time a noise summoned her back to the waking world, she wasn’t consciously aware of it when she opened her eyes.
She pushed herself up and looked around the cavern. The chill of the night was kept at bay by the direction of the cavemouth, as the winds from the sea wrapping the coast south and southwest of them curved around the rockface, sequestering them from the cold.
She spared a glance at Arteo and Kessa, wrapped in the thick blanket that was meant more for one person than two. Still she thought it kind of endearing the way his sister’s arm haphazardly rested against his face, unbeknownst to him.
Ilis had planted herself in a small alcove of stones that stood as silent guardians around her. Someone sparing a glance from outside the cavern wouldn’t see her unless they knew exactly where to look.
She untucked herself from her own dense, portable bedding and quietly stepped over one of her immovable protectors. With the sort of swift and silent movements reserved for nightbirds stalking prey, she was soon at the opening of the cave.
The Valley had only the breathless illumination of the waning, smaller moon, as dawn had yet to catch up to them. Even with her vision adjusted to the darkness, all she could make out were the tufting rivers of the treetops stretching out into blackness, the stars dusting the sky, and the vague outline of the Tree in the far distance, watching over the world with ancient, dead eyes.
Nothing seemed out of sorts, other than the usual ways. Yet a gnawing unease was burrowing deeper into her side. She couldn’t place it, but it was there nonetheless, a hungry dog scratching at her door.
She wasn’t much for vague and inscrutable feelings. Anxieties were a liability, they clouded genuine threats. And even with her years of honed instincts, there were always occasions for irrationality to creep into her.
She sat cross-legged and began to think through things slowly.
Murder, rape, theft, and all other manner of ill deed was not unheard of on the Trail. Usually the more terrible crimes were reserved for extreme circumstances. Even still, usually the first few days were quiet and uneventful, save for really unusual weather or fires.
While Arteo considered himself well-read, he hadn’t had nearly the volumes she’d accessed over the years. Part of being who she was entailed knowing how the higher classes got their information and conquered the Trail with far less folly than the poor, even putting aside better gear and guardians to lead them. She didn’t have the desire to parade her knowledge around to seem like the cleverest person on the continent. Knowledge is possessing a fact, wisdom is understanding when to use it, and strategy is withholding it to surprise an enemy.
Most relevant here was Walk Herein with the Gods by Tarkus, whose name is only known in relation to that one work. He painstakingly, and very dryly, compiled as many statistics from the Pilgrimage as he could amass — perils, deaths, average number of travelers, accurately scaled maps, and so on. Even with the information contained therein almost two generations out of date, it was still informative.
Theft was by far the most common, usually after a week had passed and the ill-prepared or desperate turned to lifting supplies from sleeping parties to survive. Sexual perversion against another was almost unheard of, mostly because there were so few women on the Trail in the first place, and perhaps because it wasn’t spoken of afterwards. Ilis also surmised that if men were being assaulted in that way, they kept it to themselves.
Travelers killing one another was exceptionally rare, with only one of every five hundred travelers meeting their fate this way, nearly all of them personal disputes — crimes of passion, not malice.
She eased up a bit and turned her body to rest her back against the inner lip of the cavern’s entrance.
It was too soon in the journey for desperation, and anyone who lost their mind under the altering effects of the spores in the forest below almost never lasted the night, let alone had the cognition to track strangers through a hidden path in the trees. While the unusual sight of two desirable women in the Valley, however young one of them may be, could alight the passions of scoundrels, rape from a stranger on the Trail had only been recorded once, and a hundred years prior to Tarkus putting ink to page at that. Logically then, she thought, there was no reason for concern.
She shifted uncomfortably and wondered why that didn’t soothe the susurrus of fear rolling uneven turns in her stomach. She decided to put it from her thoughts for now and keep alert. Not that she ever wasn’t.
For reasons beyond her, a strong memory seethed from a crack in her mind and nearly overwhelmed her. Her father’s voice rose and spread as tendrils of smoke, not long before the screams.
It was a short time after she had discovered the colors of music. The first chills of winter were tickling people through the rivers of wind gliding over the lakewater. She’d noticed her father’s eyes become tired and sad, underscored by dark lines underneath them that married to his sunken cheeks and looser clothes. He barely ate and had been infiltrated by a melancholy that seemed intent on eating him away from the inside.
His desire and energy to play with her had dwindled to fallow efforts. No matter how much she’d beg him to sing to her so she could see the dazzling light show, or give her a ride on his back, or even just sit and play giggle games in a timeless halo that was just for them, he simply couldn’t. Whenever he said no she could see it hurt his heart that much more, so she began to ask less often, and then not at all.
The evening when it happened was memorable for the air it held. The wind slapped the side of the house and rattled the windows with a vigorous, pleading intensity, and as she played with her stuffed animals, her father threw open the front door and slammed it shut.
Ilis froze, alarmed at his appearance. His hair was wild and out of sorts — the shiny, dark brown curls that usually dangled in tight rivulets around his features were now frizzy and disheveled. His face was manic, eyes gripped by panicky horror. He saw the alarm in her and took a deep breath to calm his nerves — mostly unsuccessfully. He moved to her and gently lifted her in a gliding motion to the cot in her adjacent bedroom. She remembered it almost felt like dancing.
He shut the door a bit too forcefully, making her flinch, creaking the old, wood legs of the cot. He knelt in front of her and placed his hands on her knees, willing himself to be calm.
“Ilis, I need you to stay in here,” he said with a rasping exhaustion. She twiddled her thumbs in her lap, an anxious energy captivating her mind and forcing her to fidget to release some of it.
“What’s happening, Fa-ba?” she uttered with fleeting sound.
A sharp series of bangs on the front door made her jump. Her father cast a glance over his shoulder before turning his attention back to her.
“Whatever happens, know of my love for you. You understand?” his eyes radiated, however briefly, with their usual ferocity. She nodded, unsure what more to say.
“Open the damnable door!” shouted a gruff, angry voice from outside.
“One moment!” her father yelled back with a quiver cutting through his voice. He turned his attention back to Ilis. The front door was smacked with a hard clamor, a heavy weight slamming against it. She could see the frame begin buckling over her father’s shoulder and through the open door to her room.
“Whatever might happen,” he said frantically, “don’t ever let them see you’re afraid. Don’t ever let them!”
The entrance opened with a splintering crack and a half dozen men rushed into their home. Built like mountains of stone, the men didn’t need a weapon or defense against the increasing frailty of her father. Two of them grabbed him by the arms and leaned back to tug him away.
“I’ll love you always,” he said, and she saw the words drift from his lips in a patina of rose dust, wisped on air in her mind alone as her father was dragged off.
Time stilled to that moment, flickering over and over as a liquid painting yet to dry. She would reenvision those few seconds before her father disappeared from her life again and again, circling in a loop that refused to diminish, like silver on a sphere.
It would follow her when one of the burly men plucked her from the bed as effortlessly as lifting feathers and carried her off to a wagon with a dirty collection of other children, weeping or stolidly silent, whose parents were similarly removed from their lives.
As the wagon juddered off along the ill-kept dirt road, she could only uselessly reach through the barred porthole in the back, aching to see her father one last time, before she was carried into the night.
Back at the breaking dawn of the cave, Ilis was roused from her reminiscence by the loud movement of heavy feet and clattering voices nearby. She peered through the treeline and made out a group of at least twenty passing through where they were just last evening.
It was Dal Kolt, his name yet unknown to her and their small band, making his way through the forest with purpose.
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