↤ NEW SHOES ↦
(that is, a terrible dawn)
As it was, the man’s shoes fit Arteo perfectly.
It was Ilis who suggested it, and though he was disgusted by the idea of even touching anything that man interacted with, his barren feet weren’t going to happen upon footwear elsewise. She didn’t argue about who did the doing — she was more than happy to pluck them off the corpse and toss them to Arteo.
He tried the right one and uncomfortably found that it fit. He couldn’t turn them down, but he did leave them in the rolling tide of the water to flush out whatever remnants the man may have left. He hoped the water held cleansing power beyond his shoes, with the horror of the night still unwinding in his thoughts.
Ilis stared at her resting place — secure from sight by the rocks, but also protected by dried leaves she’d scattered around herself, an early warning should anyone approach. She hadn’t given Arteo and Kessa the same guidance and understanding. Yes, he had been impetuous, but that didn’t mean he should be unprepared.
To be true to herself, she was ashamed. She had let her stubbornness and pride overturn her sensibilities. They all were safe and whole, but if not for Kessa’s wakefulness, Arteo might have been killed, throat slit in a gurgling puddle of oozing blood and regrets.
She wondered if the distance she’d placed between them, both literal and otherwise, was beneficial to anyone besides herself, but immediately knew that of course it benefitted her — she could keep them at arm’s length and help when needed, but if something happened, oh well. And is that the kind of cruel thing she had become, someone who only forges connections with those who are useful to her? She had been set on staying alone, conquering this madness by herself, but still she saved them from the wolves, showed them how to cross the water, and once again spared their lives from tragedy.
There was a responsibility for them now, she thought. They were strays and she the warm meal and heated home. It did them no good to toss up her hands and let them figure out that sleeping in the Valley without proper protection could get them killed.
The beginnings of dawn inhabited the air towards the east. It was subtle, the wisps of clouds above had began to glow an almost imperceptible yellow. The day would come soon, and they must make use of it.
As she watched the day open, Ilis thought back to the dark of night. She remembered first hearing a tussle, some disturbance, and opened her eyes. There was no one near her, not within reach of the boulders she’d secreted herself behind. With the yelling and screaming she was up, crouched and loading her crossbow with the swift and silent movements of the distant tides. She carefully pulled back the bow string clip and set it against her shoulder.
She breathed in.
At once she beheld a dark figure, a man, over Kessa, brandishing a knife. Arteo was injured or unable to help for some reason. Kessa struggled to get up — she had no weapons, he was going to kill her.
She breathed out and pulled the trigger.
The bolt shot true and flew straight through the back of the villain’s head, interrupting whatever desires he might have then and forevermore. She saw him slump to the ground like a filled sack and took no pleasure in it.
She reloaded a bolt and checked the wilderness, suspicious of an attack from a raiding party. She scanned every entrance, each possible intrusion, finding no one. After a time, she relaxed and unloaded the bow.
She saw Arteo and Kessa holding each other, weeping and yowling, not knowing how to compose themselves. Kessa’s arm was wounded.
She took them from her bag, having had several rolls just in case they were needed. She anticipated perhaps a fall or rocky terrain tearing into her a bit, but not this.
She knelt next to Kessa and gently nudged them apart, enough so she could wrap the bandages around her arm. Neither Kessa nor Arteo said anything, or even spared a glance her way. She’d beheld those eyes before, the eyes of people who’d seen too much and too quickly. With time, they would find stable ground, but now she was grateful for their impassivity, it let her work without being bothered by their questions or their hearts unfolding.
Arteo had a minor cut on his neck, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. It was a very thin and precise incision from someone who knew their way around a blade. She left it to heal over on its own.
With them taken care of, she went to the man and began to search his belongings. Resources were useful, but she wanted answers. What kind of person was he? Who could be so cruel and malicious?
He carried no coin, some jerky, and a pamphlet of pages. The pages were written with ever-increasing odes to violence and grotesqueries, most of which had been damaged in the struggle. But one section survived —
It is such a clever thing to kill, isn’t it? The delicacy, the audacity, the triumph! All the little things that must dance before you and you must dance right back. It has been ever so long since I found such delights as the boy and the girl. He with his sun-marred skin and fresh face, thin legs and arms, and her with the sumptuous smile and hair like sunlight. Oh they are so perfect and whole and needed. My time in this wretched place won’t be wasted, not a single moment lost, because I have my little pets to play with.
Ilis stopped reading and put the text down in disgust. There was no reason for the pair to see this, and she made note to burn those horrible fragments of madness as soon as there was call to start a fire.
She grabbed the body by its ankles and dragged it into the ferns, hiding it just out of sight. Before removing his shoes, she spat in the corpse’s gnarled face.
“Let the birds have you.”
After she returned with the footwear, Arteo put his unfortunate new possessions in the lake tide to clean them, and they sat together in the infant dawn, waiting for the sun to burn that night away.
Ilis found her excuse to make a fire, and the pages were easy kindling.
As daylight wicked over the landscape, the three of them collected themselves. Arteo took the shoes from the water and set them by the fire to dry. Kessa tended to her wound, unwrapping the bandages and lowering her arm into the water. As it washed against the cut, she felt a thin shock of ice run up her arm, but the intensity subsided and sighed to relief.
After wrapping her arm with more bandages, she ran her gaze over the nearby ground for a particular spot. She found it under the sagging arms of a whiteshadow tree, its purple buds just beginning to blossom.
She dug a shallow hole in the soil there, the earth pliable and giving under her fingers, before walking over to the body of the creature that saved her life. It was a humble thing, lying dead on the ground. It hadn’t breathed much past the wound that tore into its side, and it seemed not to have suffered much. Kessa scooped it up and cradled it in her arms, taking it to the grave she dug.
She sat down on her knees and gently lowered it into the indentation of earth. She put her hand over its body, a silent eulogy, before covering it with dirt. She neither asked nor wanted help from either Arteo or Ilis. This was something she needed to do, and she needed to do it alone.
They gathered at the fire, their thoughts reflective and elsewhere. Too unsettled to hunt, they all shared the dwindling supply of jerky to fill their bellies.
“So,” Ilis said, “where should we go?”
Arteo and Kessa sat solemnly, masticating the strips of meat in silent contemplation. After some time, he lifted his head and turned towards the water.
“There’s a path around it, to the right. I think it leads forward, or at least worth trying,” he said with voice stripped barren. The firelight that tickled their faces with shadow was warmed by the light of a rising dawn.
“I don’t understand,” was what Kessa said. It was perhaps the first recognition of the event between them.
“You don’t understand what?” Arteo asked.
“You know,” she responded, and he did. That man and the horrible things he’d planned were free-floating in their minds.
“Do you know when you’ve been hurt by someone, that feeling?” Ilis asked.
“Of course,” Kessa replied.
“For you, you wouldn’t want to make others feel that way, would you?”
“No, never.” Kessa shook her head.
“Because you know how terrible it feels, you wouldn’t want anyone else to feel that pain. Well for some people, the pain is their purpose. The only joys they get are from other’s agony. They take pleasure in inflicting all manner of horrible onto others to try and satisfy the bottomless pit inside themselves. But it never fills, their hunger never sated, so they continue to eat and eat and eat.”
Arteo and Kessa stared deeply at Ilis. She was speaking from a dark, abyssal place, somewhere in her past where all happiness was smothered by those not much different from the man lying dead on the ground. The pain in her eyes was obvious, if restrained.
“I am terribly sorry,” she added, eyes glassy.
“What are you sorry for?” Arteo asked. “You saved us, you don’t owe us an apology.”
“I do though,” she replied. “I have really only taken care of myself, with you an afterthought. I have been a victim of my own isolation. Too many times have those I cared for been hurt or killed without me able to do a thing for it, so I learned to only look after myself, only keep myself safe. In turn I was careless — not with my life, but with yours. For that I’m truly sorry.”
Arteo didn’t know how to respond. Kessa stood up and moved over to Ilis, and as she wrapped her arms around her, she asked, “Is this okay?”
Ilis smiled and placed a hand over the arm embracing her. “Yes. Thank you.”
They stayed like that for just long enough, before quietly standing and collecting their belongings for the new day’s journey.
Thank you to my patrons!
Mitch Iverson Jimmy Kneifl
Fire Amber Patrons