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17

↤ BLOODY SOLES ↦

(that is, the importance of shoes)


Arteo’s footwear was unideal. As with all the leatherwear he possessed, it was the tanned, shrunken hide of the Blacklace hogs his farm had raised for generations, shaped into whatever need was required.


Despite his preparation for the journey, he was no cobbler, and neither was his father. When their shoes wore to tatters, hides would be taken into town and a deal would be reached with a cordwainer to prepare them for the family in exchange for free hides. The craftsman would take his time and make footwear worthy of his reputation, sometimes weeks passing before completion.


The texture of new shoes would be aggressive, unyielding. The leather needed breaking in — the wear of many days of movement to adjust to the particulars of their owner. Eventually there would form creases in the pockets where the heel turned up, or the ball of the foot bent — smile lines carved on the formerly stiff and inflexible hides.


Arteo’s shoes had their tantrum days almost four summers prior. He was younger and smaller then, but now could feel the pressure of the cramped space entombing his feet — toes pinched up against the tip, wedged in an awkward and uncomfortable slant to accommodate the stretch of limbs he’d suffered. So quickly had he grown into this gangly frame that the skin around his shoulders radiated marks where his body was unable to keep pace with its own development.


He would have been due a fresh pair come fall, just in time for the harvest of millseed for the hogs, but he refused to wait any longer to walk the Trail. At the time, he reasoned that his shoes, though uncomfortable, were not sufficiently dire to wrest him from his journey. He now felt that was the dismissive attitude of a much more foolish and impetuous version of himself, one he was growing to despise.


For while the daily toil around the farm was tolerable, the uneven terrain and grind of the Trail was becoming excruciating. Sharp jabs of ache had infiltrated the sides of his feet before cracking inward like hot razors. Sometime after the fourth turn around the rising, disgruntled switchback that led them higher into the bright glare of midafternoon, a bright flash of sharp agony flayed up his leg like jagged lightning. Electric glass shards of pain split his muscles and tunneled out a scream from his mouth as he collapsed. It was an unusual sound, like a shorehound being put down for being rabid.


Kessa’s face cracked with worry as she fell to her knees next to him.


“Tey!” she cried in confusion.


Ilis, surprised yet poised, stood above them both. He hadn’t noticed or heard either of them, his mind distracted by the scribbling mawks of sorrowpain rending him into a form frozen — too afraid that movement in any way would make thing worse.


Ilis squatted and unexpectedly put her hand on his shoulder. It was enough to bring his attention to her eyes.


“Which leg is it?” she asked with an uncharacteristically soft voice.


Arteo could just barely huff out, “Left.”


In what appeared a singular motion, she leaned towards his legs, gently craned his foot to a point, and breathed the shoe off. He hadn’t the time to react, but witnessed a microcosmic white bomb of fire followed immediately with a rush of soothing relief.


“Tey…”


Arteo had mind again to read the anguished expression on her face. He followed her eyes to find the woolen stocking soaked with red. He didn’t know how long he’d been walking in his own blood, but it had been enough that a pool of it had coagulated into a sticky mass.


“You can remove that yourself,” Ilis said dryly.


Arteo slowly rolled over and sat up on the dirt. He carefully lifted his foot and gently peeled the ruined sock from his foot, wincing at the radiant shocks of pain that were thankfully retreating.


“How long, Tey?” Kessa asked, the worry carried in her voice like cold wind.


“I didn’t want to stop. We haven’t the time—”


“That’s nonsense,” Ilis countered. “You’ve slowed us down all the more now.”


“What did you want me to do?” he barked. “I didn’t have the time for new ones. They suited fine on the farm!”


“But clearly not here.”


“Yes, clearly,” he mocked. She bent down to meet his face, staring right through him.


“You are welcome.”


He sighed.


“Sorry,” he responded, his tone mellowed. “Thank you.”

Satisfied, Ilis straightened herself. She scanned the length of his leg, feeling into the future. She turned her eyes to the road ahead and wondered how easily he’ll be able to move around.


“Your other foot?” she asked pointedly. He shook his head and rotated his body to remove the other shoe. It was a relief to have it off him, and thankfully no blood. It wasn’t until it was gone that he realized how restrictive it had been, viced around his foot in a crippling gait.

Kessa rested her head on his shoulder. “Can you walk?”


“I think so,” he said, probably lying.


“We need to clean and wrap your foot, at least until we find new footwear,” Ilis said, thinking over the night and day, and if she could afford to have another delay. Before she fell too deep into that thought, she caught Arteo’s gaze.


“Is… Is that tree moving?” Arteo asked, eyes narrowed as he attempted to focus on something. Ilis and Kessa turned to match his gaze, finding that the trunk of a nearly redfur was seemingly breathing. It almost appeared like a large knot stuck out from it had taken to growing lungs. It rose and set almost imperceptibly, but it did move. Ilis reached under her cloak and removed her hunting knife, approaching it cautiously.


As she got closer, the pulsing knot, little bigger than her head, froze. She reached out and was about to touch it, when a set of large, black eyes opened to greet her. She jumped back and held the knife out, almost yelping.

The camouflage shifted on the strange animal, its hair vibrating as it changed position and revealed itself. Its natural color was ashen white, remarkably different from the crimson browns of the redfur tree, four gangly limbs each ending in four toes with meager, ebony claws that gripped into the bark. A swash of tail uncurled from around its body, thin and reedy, stood straight up as the animal descended the tree and plopped down to the earth.


It sat back on its haunches and stretched its neck up, revealing the nub of a pink nose jutting from its lean snout. The eyes were not completely black as at first glance, they held a thin razor of white around them, more visible as the irises changed to ponder the things that had just uncovered its hiding spot. It had ears larger than it had any right to for the size of its head, pointed and moving about in jerking twitches.


The four of them all stayed like that for some time, before Kessa carefully bent and reached into Arteo’s knapsack, tearing off a bit of jerky and holding it out. She clicked her tongue behind her front teeth, encouraging it to come to her.


“Kessa, we don’t—”


“It’ll be fine, Tey,” she interrupted him. A calm had come over her, silencing Arteo’s doubts. Ilis lowered her weapon and watched to see what would happen.


The animal cocked its head, ears twitching and evaluating the weird being offering it food. It lowered itself to all fours, considering its options, before slowly approaching her. It stopped a short distance away, leery of the consequences of being wrong. Yet its doubts quickly faded as it crept forward, reaching out with one of its front paws — claws retracted — and plucked the jerky from her. It sat back again and studied the meat, sniffing at it, before nibbling it down to nothing.


“How did you—” Tey started, but Kessa was already there, words like notes on the air.


“I just knew,” was all she said.


“You know of this creature?”


“I must know of it,” she replied, eyes narrow and full of the melt of time’s past. “I don’t know how I do, but I remember it from somewhere.”


“Maybe from one of my books?” Arteo added helpfully. Even her rudimentary literacy was enough to muddle through the simpler texts. Kessa shrugged, but spoke no more of it.


A crack in the forest nearby made the animal press itself to the earth, the hairs on its body rippling until they blended with the color of the dirt, patterned with dark rivulets that mimicked the shadows on the uneven ground.


“It seems its fur can change color when the hairs sway in different directions,” Ilis said, mostly to herself. It had been some time since she was surprised with the unique and beautiful adaptability of nature.


Arteo reached into his knapsack and removed a strip of cloth buried in its depths. He carefully wrapped it around his injured foot, wincing as he tied it off. Kessa reached out a hand and he gratefully took it to help stand up.


The camouflaged creature on the ground unruffled its fur and opened its eyes, dissolving the illusion that it was merely dirt. It moved with a delicate silence over to Kessa, regarding her with wide and curious eyes. Kessa smiled at it, wondering at the animal, and gently reached out her hand to touch its head. But just before her fingers connected, it chirped and scuttled off into the thin cover of trees.


The three of them stood silently, trading glances between the critter hiding in the trees, Arteo’s bare and bloody feet, and Kessa’s hand still held out as if to pet the furry imp, before they all collapsed into laughter. The entire scene was so ridiculous that they couldn’t contain themselves, and even Ilis was unable to stop herself from yowling. Their mirth echoed out into the Valley and sang weak praises back at them.


Their joy ended suddenly when a tremendous roar erupted from the deep eyes of the forest. How far away was difficult to judge, but it felt present and tremendous and terrible. A flock of birds decried their hidden branches and flew into the darkening sky, safely away from the beast that frightened them all.


“What was that?” Kessa ached out through shivering words.


“I’m not certain, but we must be away from it,” Ilis replied. “We’re exposed out here, we need to find cover for the night.”


“The sound came from ahead of us,” Arteo said, his eyes darting about, “we can’t go that way.” Arteo and Ilis met eyes and knew their option.


“Our choices are limited,” she retorted. Kessa was confused and anxious, her breathing flighty. Another deep rumble from the path ahead set them on their toes.


Suddenly the diminutive creature jumped from its secret place in the trees and raced along the dirt path, fur shifting awkwardly to camouflage as it ran back up the path and detoured on the overgrown trail they’d passed before.


Wordlessly, they all agreed to follow it, and turned back to escape the dreadful noise.

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