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(that is, words left hidden)

“What’s your name?” Kessa asked. Her bouncy optimism hadn’t quite returned, and Arteo thought it might never completely, but she had loosened the adamantine grip around his arm.

“Ilis,” she said, thankfully without a fight.

“What was that?” Arteo asked.

“EYE-lis,” she repeated with emphasis. Her voice was accented by a lofty tongue, and her speech wasn’t heard within a day’s reach of their farm.

“You speak like you’re elevated, but I’ve never known of a woman of higher class to be on the Trail,” Arteo said, waiting for a response.

“Was there a question you neglected to ask?” she finally responded with her typically acerbic tongue. Arteo felt awkward, and thought he might need to get used to that feeling around her.

“Why are you on the Pilgrimage?” he huffed. “Your high perch not quite high enough?”

She stopped as if she slammed into an invisible wall. Arteo was halted by her sudden pivot towards his face.

“You know nothing of me, boy. Nothing.” If eyes could be fire, hers were the sun.

Words failed to find him, leaving him gormless. Instead Kessa unspooled herself from his arm and offered her hand.

“My name’s Kessa,” she said with a smile, and Ilis learned what Arteo had known for most of his life — it was impossible to be angry when Kessa smiled at you.

Ilis released the tightness in her chest with a soft sigh and cupped her fingers around Kessa’s in the traditional way. When their hands parted, Kessa was beaming.

“Tey, she actually did it!” she squealed, nearly jumping up and down. Ilis wasn’t sure what was happening, but Arteo could only grin.

“I- I don’t understand,” she stammered.

“We’re not of the class that clasps hands,” he explained. “She’s always wanted to meet someone who would do that.”

“You… How do you greet each other then?” she asked. Arteo offered his hand to her, and when she reached out, he shook it.

“I’m Arteo,” he added. As he released his grip, she stared at her hand perplexedly.

“I suppose I should get used to that,” she said. Arteo opted not to clarify.

“Thank you!” Kessa radiated at her, but Ilis simply turned and began walking again, clearly flustered. It was the first time Arteo had seen her look uncomfortable, and he took a certain private pleasure in it.

“Enough of this, we have to keep on, night will find us and —”

“And we need to be in the cave above the treeline before then,” Arteo finished.

“You know of the danger we face?”

“The fungus in the trees. The spores come down at night and could drive us mad, maybe to try and kill each other. Possibly so the fungus can roost in us and use our bodies to make more fungus.”

“Yes,” she replied, “and if I was going to kill you, I’d want to make sure I had good reason.”

Arteo frowned, but left the dry comment on the ground to rot instead of tossing it back at her.

“The first cavern that can be reached from this trail, or the one to the south, is described by Erod as being ‘splashed with blood, over a shutter of white flowers, and lit by ocean waters in the night.’ I was thinking the white flowers could be night-blooming lials, but I didn’t know they grew in the Valley, and I couldn’t find reference to them.”

“You think too literally,” she responded, annoyed. “It’s not poetics, but a nonsense.”

“A nonsense? What does that even mean?”

“Surely you with all your books and worldliness would know?”

Arteo had begun to find the charm of her physical beauty wane in the shadow of her seemingly endless hostility. He restrained himself and tried to meet her at their verbal crossroads.

“Humor me,” he spoke through gritted teeth.

“Nonsenses were riddles that the Poets of that age wrote to communicate things in code,” she explained. “They were for amusement, but also served a practical purpose — they disguised what they actually were in plain sight.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” he grumbled.

“There’s quite a bit you don’t seem to understand,” she countered.

“Are you always this disagreeable?” It was the nicest word he could come up with, but certainly not the first that came to mind.

“With boring people, yes. And most people are boring.”

Arteo sighed.

“I don’t know what I’ve done to gain your ire, but I appreciate your help earlier. Thank you. I don’t know if I said it, but I am grateful. We — my sister — would likely be dead if not for you,” he spoke sincerely. “This is a long enough journey as it is, can we at least attempt civility?”

Ilis rolled this around in her mind before giving the slightest nod. She didn’t slow down or catch his eyes, but instead kept her attention focused on the forest around them, ever-watchful. It seemed to Arteo that she hadn’t relaxed for a moment since he first saw her by the firelight.

“Good,” he said, relaxing. “So what is the nonsense about, do you think?”

“Color in a nonsense was usually meant to evoke specific meanings. Blood almost never meant blood, but the light of the setting sun,” she explained. “Particularly red during spring when pollen and dust fill the air from storms.”

“Then the cave entrance is most visible during sunset?” Kessa asked, moving along her side opposite Arteo.

“I believe that is so, yes.”

“If blood means sunset,” Arteo began, “then white flowers means…?”

“Flowers indicate a place without trees in a forest, while the color means either north, south, east, or west. White is north, green is south, blue is west, and yellow is east.”

Despite the recent hot breath of mortality that had nearly smothered them not long before, Arteo had nearly forgotten about it in the thrall of his fascination. The town library had clearly been deeply inadequate for all the facets of linguistic pleasures he hadn’t known about. An entire hidden language within a language, he had never considered such a thing. A riddle was clearly meant as a riddle, but this was a story told with words that meant other words, known only to those who were let in on the secret.

“How do you know of all this?” he asked from pure curiosity.

“I’ve been taught by many fine scholars,” she said, but didn’t elaborate further.

“Then the cave entrance is best seen at sunset, and is near an open field north of itself?” Kessa asked, turning back to the subject. Arteo had almost forgotten how clever she was.

Ilis nodded, adding, “And finally ‘lit by ocean waters’ means ‘seen from a great distance,’ but by adding ‘in the night,’ it indicates that it might not appear like what it is.”

“Altogether then,” Arteo concluded, “the cave we want can be seen from afar, though it may not look like a cave, with an open field to the northern side of it, and its mouth is facing west, the direction of the setting sun.”

“Precisely,” Ilis said, almost smiling.

“That might be why it doesn’t look like a cave,” Kessa said, “because the cave entrance will be facing away from us. It might only appear as a rocky incline in the forest.”

She was clearly pleased with herself, but a heaviness had settled over her. Arteo could sense the change, reminding him again of the months after their brothers perished from that terrible disease.

“Good,” said Arteo. “As long as we get there before dark so we don’t get infected by the fungal spores that turn us insane.”

“There is that,” Ilis replied dryly.

Arteo noticed that the forest had opened up a bit, allowing a clearer view above. The sun had made its way unburdened by their conversation, and had dripped halfway down the western sky. They had only a few hours before the light would be done and the spores would begin dropping. He didn’t relish the idea of losing his mind.

He thought that if he had the choice, he would run before he hurt Kessa. He would kill himself before he laid a hand on her. He’d dive into the brambles and be cut to ribbons or cut his throat or one of the countless unspeakable ideas he had to prevent himself from harming her.

As the branches closed back over them in an undulating shell of leaves, he cast one more look at the sun and hoped to see it rise again.

Thank you to my patrons!


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