In a moment of madness which lasted two weeks, I wrote 22,000 words of a novel draft. This period lasted from 2019-05-31 to 2019-06-16, during which I devoted the vast majority of my time crafting both the backstory and the plot to this draft. It struck me out of a desire to write it, bizarre as it may be for a writer to want to write something, and through this I rapidly developed the mechanisms of chasing inspiration rather than having it come to you. I wrote down the characters and setting on one file, and wrote down each of the draft’s five chapters in separate text files. It’s, of course, unfinished. It’s also, I remark, not my best work. But it’s the only work of its type which has survived in my hard drive during its two years of fermentation. And after that time, I can say with confidence, it is certainly one of the novel drafts ever written.
There are some troubles with it, but there is also some value. Where I was enthusiastic about my simultaneous publication of something a little less lengthy, being a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Fanfiction, I am less enthusiastic about this work, but I concede what is here is nonetheless acceptable in a roundabout fashion. The story itself is slowly-paced, but at this slow pace it still develops. The dialogue is prone to going into character explorations which are not relevant for the scene they exist in, but what is explored, I feel, is still minimally interesting. The themes of the work are obvious but at the same time are not interesting — it’s effectively a hero’s journey plot with a lot of talk about the unfairness of life and how the only justification for living in it is the pursuit of knowledge which will be irrelevant upon your untimely death. It is intensely cynical but the occasional moments of sweetness betray its atmosphere, and I’m lost as to a unified aesthetic for the work. And the prose itself is my attempt to find a “style” for the work, mostly-sparse and sometimes snarky, which ends up creating a work composed almost entirely of Seinfeldian conversations which all contribute to the lore in a slow, slow manner.
What is the plot? What is the lore, for that matter, as irrelevant as it is without an acceptable plot? Two kobolds find their den destroyed by forces far more powerful than their tribe ever will be. One of them vows revenge and seeks to kill the world, the other vows to create a finished map of the land during their life. They have three days to get their bearings before the Solstice, the twice-a-year battle between all the land’s “big folk”, outside the normal scope of the “small folk” these kobolds are. They will discover all the big folk and find the matter of their den’s destruction, their desires for revenge, and their quest for knowledge have already been solved in the face of what these more civilised races had already accomplished, a testament to the meagre desires which seem impossible in our primitive states of living. During the Solstice they will die and their journey will not have mattered at all. The themes of tribalism, nihilism, and the pursuit of inner peace are all expressed in this work. They are expressed poorly.
You know I write long. Despite this, I am a hypocrite; I rarely read long. I can justify this by saying that yours truly, as someone who writes, rarely has the motivation to do more than skim online articles for citations and to read longer works than the few thousand words that news websites publish within. Despite this, I manage just fine in the majority of my writings. After all, all my pieces are opinion, and what is the Internet if not the endless outpouring of bad takes and stupid humans? It’s when I’m outside my comfort zone of expressing my rhetoric that I falter. It’s when I have these rare moments of madness involving writing fiction where I stumble and showcase how out of my depth I am. My rare forays into the world of fiction reveals to me writers whose mastery of prose and plot is above and beyond anything I have ever wrote. Don’t misunderstand me. The work I present to you today is not bad. It is mediocre, unfinished, and I wonder if there’s any reason to come back to it when its ideas — and the expression thereof — are not that interesting?
You may wonder why I’m publishing this work at all. The reason is simple. It’s there. Despite my arrogance, I’m not above admitting my failures. I’m not above publishing mediocre work for the sake of showcasing my attempts at existing outside my area of operation. And I’m not above being humble, for once, and setting expectations for my readers that I am rarely better than them in any area outside those I express my proficiency in. The experience of writing this work two years ago was fascinating, and I look back on it and wonder what the hell state of mind I was in to have written so much in such a small period of time. Maybe it’s passion, stupid me for having it, passion for actually writing. Giving a shit about doing it. Caring one bit about its quality. But passion isn’t enough, as expressed, and creation without competency is hardly worth doing. We only create to attain competency. Isn’t that a bitch? You can’t care for your work until you make a hundred pieces you hate. But what else would we do with our lives, as stupid as they are?
I also consider the realities of becoming professionally published. Passion is all well and good, but money, dear reader, is the greatest motivation for art’s creation. This work, as stands, must be rewritten, even in this fragmentary state of existence. Some of the language is obtuse and the deliberate style of describing action is often unclear. It’s been said that aesthetic is narrative and visuals contribute to a story as much as the story itself. In the confines of my own head, I forget that the reader does not see what I see, and I must make this third eye clear to them. I mistakenly believed that describing everything I see would elucidate my imagination. I understand now that “show don’t tell” does not apply literally to every single action. It’s well enough to say someone is stretching without describing the movement of all their muscle groups. And because of this, it’s hard to believe anyone would be willing to read even up to the humble 22,000 words of this work’s existence. The book would be too long, have too many pages, would often be confusing, and I speculate the proletariat wouldn’t understand what the hell I’m saying anyway. There are far worse works being published every single day, and that knowledge carried me through the creation of these five chapters. But my work is not the best. That’s a terrible knowledge for me to bear.
There’s no backstory necessary to read this work. There are proper nouns expressed sometimes and the language is, but you can intuit what they mean — and if you can’t it’s foreshadowing for a work which I will never finish. Sometimes the language is strange for the sake of establishing a setting or lore. I would now be more direct in what I mean instead of this strangeness, and to be less involved in lore than I am in story. I would also be more honest in how I write, to write how I write naturally, and to do so without fear of style, for my style is decent and I already write decent enough anyway. But that’s easier wrote than written, and I hope this experience leads me on to different stories, neither better nor worse, and that I’m able to tell them in a fashion which I can say wholly represents my competency in doing so.
I wish I could give you some bullshit inspirational speech about following your dreams, never giving up, and finding glory despite all adversity in the world. But I won’t. Because it doesn’t matter, and if it did, nobody will love you anyway. We create because we pretend our creations matter, we pursue our desires out of irrational emotional impulse, and by the time our desires are met we are unsatisfied with the ways they are. That’s the story I want to tell. That’s the story this work was on the course to tell. But its creation is flawed and nobody will see it beyond the small cult of congregators I have amassed over these five years of my stupid activities, and if I told it well, I wouldn’t influence anyone. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing that matters in all this world aside from your ego, and there is no way to kill it, because killing it would be killing yourself as well. Writing is just an extension of our ego, and through it, narcissism.
It’s all so tiresome, isn’t it?
Knowledge is no comfort when staring at skin and bones, tiny and crushed, some draped with hide and others pooled in blood, all of which your family but with no means to know who. They were greyish furred kobolds who lived in their cave, now a dead hole. A survivor grieves in the center, clutching an anonymous skull, digging into bone as her wails go unheard, screaming the names of her friends. Her name is Ile, covered in medicinal waste. The other one is Ere. He stares from metres away, at the edge of this hole, looking into the sky and staring. He didn’t know Ile was loud like this. He didn’t know she could scream.
He jerks his head down as tears splurge from his eyes and his insides feel like poison that doesn’t kill. He looks in the impressions of the lazy-made footprints he stands in, her sack of flowers and furs beside him, guessing the prints larger than the downed trees around him. The clearing they passed through was not there before, and stringbark shatters beneath him as he paces aimlessly. He saw the fake mountain coming home; it’s a pile of dirt four times his height and thicker than numbers he knows. The sun’s afterimage distracts him from reality. He does not cover his ears. Ile is still loud.
Ere wipes his chest, then breaths out and turns around. He clambers down the hole, the fauna drowned out above, finds footholds grasped by his hindclaws, closing his eyes and scrunching his nose, breathing laboured, going down. He finds flatland and steps on something organic, a wet squish, and the poison reaches to his chest, clenching it, grunting with no airflow. He squints through dust in the air, seeing foreign colours and the familiar shape of his best friend in an unfamiliar position. Ile curls facing backwards, and grinds her hands into dirt, sobbing with a shuttered throat and screams with broken sound.
He puts his hand out, the slits between his fingers a filter against the writhing mass he approaches. Each step something is squished, the webbing in his toes treated to new sensations which make him twitch. Sometimes the dirt is sharp, sometimes it’s soft, sometimes it’s wet, and sometimes it’s a bit of everything. He moves slowly to Ile, grimacing, looking down and up and to each side, with no determination but a sense of duty which overtakes his conscious thoughts.
The birdsong above and the flybuzz below is shot through by arhythmic thumps, bassy, pounding dirt with token resistance. He stops. Ile has a dagger. He knows the sound. He sees her back and legs, arm moving up and down slightly, surrounded by odd weaponry. The ornamental knives and short swords are around her. There are bows made with stringbark. They are the weapons of their folk, barely used but studied nonetheless.
The knife in her hand, he thinks, is not an ordinary one, forged from surface lava and odd trinkets gathered through curious theft. It’s the one constructed from a broken piece of steel and a piece of wood stuck together with strong sap. It’s the bad one, the one made through inexperience. The one she made. The one she stabs into the ground with no aim. As he moves closer, he cringes.
Ere catches something in his throat, and jolts back his head.
“Ile…” he says in his scratchy voice. He steps even closer, looks at some shattered bone sticking out of the dirt, then realises the smell of rot and gags. “Ile!” he yells out, clipped by bile. He recoils, his elbow covering his mouth, shuttering his eyes, then listening. Ile weeps, and the dagger keeps plunging, both softer. He moves his head to the sky, opens his eyes, finding the sky too bright, moving his head back to Ere, dropping his arm as he snorts back phlegm.
“I want to — ” Ere starts, as close as he’ll get, then stops. He sulks and shakes his head, looking at the ground right below Ile, for he never talks directly at her back. “Come on, let me — ” he goes on, scratching his arm. He breaths out, then breaths in fast and scratches his arm deeper. His body twitches, he growls out, grasps a sword’s handle, whips it behind him, then throws it into the pile of arms, crashing with metallic thunder and scattering as the knives jump and settle into slightly different positions.
“Ile!” he yells, tears sprouting down. “Will you — ” His throat snaps shut. Ile plunges the dagger again, stops, then wails. “I mean, I just…”, he says softer, “…I don’t even know. I just want to be there for you. You know… be here.” He looks at Ile and pauses. The back of her head turns a tiny bit upwards, sobbing instead of wailing. He looks around. At his family, his friends. At what used to be them, and the decomposing parts of them. His eyes clench, his hand seizes and grasps nothing. He opens his eyes and lets the tears fall, sighing long and hard. He looks back at Ile, and breaths out once more, then sitting, leaning into his legs.
“Why am I so…” he mutters into his knees, then shakes his head and speaks to the sky. “Ile, I’ve never done this before, I’ve never had to, and I know it’s hard to deal with this stuff, and I haven’t even done this to — ” his own parents, he would say, before grumbling, “ — anyone else before this, even when I should have, even when it’s justified, but I just really want to be able to stop having such an intrinsically worthless existence and be able to help you recover in your grievances so maybe we can get out of here before the folk who did this to you come back and kill you so you will have cried for nothing and I just can’t have something so meaningless happen to someone as worthwhile as you!”
Ere closed his eyes, and images from the sky danced in his eyelids. Ile weeped softer, and he frowned and grumbled long. He talks to his side. “I spent every single day since I learned of these folk paranoid that it’ll happen to you, and even those breaks where I was happy and focused wholly on something else, even something dumb that doesn’t do anything, I still woke up wondering what would happen if what we do would come back to us, even if they’re your theories, and I just… it’s like even being right makes me want to throw up and be food like everyone says so, but even if I’m here and with you, I don’t know, it’s like, it’s like I should be more grateful I’m not dead but at the same time I want to be when I’d really rather just spend the short amount of time I have left with you.”
He pauses for a moment. He opens his eyes, looking at Ile, and finds her quieter, clawing at the dirt to the side of her head. He blinks, straightens his legs, then leans forward. “I don’t know if we’re going to starve or be stabbed or get shot or any amount of the three, but I want to think we didn’t spend our lives learning about the world around us just to end up getting killed without finding a way to make it matter.” He scratches his forehead. “And I don’t know what that means, but I want to think your friends and family didn’t die just so we can sit here and suffer the same fate as them. And I want to think the reason we’re alive is because there’s some qualities we have that make us more likely to live than our other folk, and that if we waste them we won’t be able to give your family the reconciliation they deserve.”
Ile sobbed once, then breathed deep. Ere frowned, and his chest was heavy. “I think I’m…” He also breathed deep. “I’m sorry,” he said aside. He looked back at her. “I guess I just want to comfort you. To help you grieve. I’m not good at this. I’m sorry.”
Ere closed his eyes, and Ile did something that might be a laugh or an indignant haught. He knew which.
He wanted to laugh smally, but he smirked behind his arm as he wiped his mouth, exhaling into his wrist, and stood up. He walked to her, pushing left some swords with his foot, pushing the ones he missed to the right, and throwing behind him the ones he missed. Right at her backside at the base of her tail he turned around, moved his heel ever slightly to meet skin with her, took a small step forward, sat straight down, looked back, patted her tailbone with his hand, then snuggled up to her, laying his back against her and grunting softly as he did.
He put his fingers between each other, looked at them, turned his eyes towards Ile’s head, and saw it nodding. It raised up a bit, heard her deep breaths quiver, then go back down to the dirt. Against her back he felt her shiver, then his fingers became more interesting, interlocked and with the gaps between them minor, small shadows made within, thinking of things that isn’t his hands at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He paused. “I’m sorry.”
Ere closed his eyes and his mind was at once blank with too many words in it. It’s heavy and the rest of his parts feel like they are not there. His eyes glaze.
Ile’s arm is in his view. He registers it and his eyes cringe out of instinct, his body tensing wholly. It slaps his thigh, then his shoulder, back, the side of his head, then slides to the other side. Her arm pushes down, his initial resistance lowering slowly, putting his hand to his side to feel the ground, putting his arm under his cheek, then resting on his new pillow as he touches soil and hears Ile’s breaths. Her arm gropes his face, then pushes, the back of his head reaching hers, Ere shifting his body to match against hers, his other arm lazy in front of his belly and the rest of him put to its side.
Ile shook her head, and he felt it. “You’re inaccurate,” she whispered in her patchwork voice. “I’m not grieving. There are things wrong with what you said and I don’t want to talk about them right now…”
Ere opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. “Can I listen?”
She took two seconds. “Yeah.”
He listened, and heard nothing but breathing, whimpers, and slightly-shifting weapons.
He looked up and squinted. There’s small birds that should be making noise but don’t. The corpse bugs are not near him. The trees are just there. They are big, and they are bigger than big to him. They grow in warmth and die in winter. Their thin leaves dangle and scatter light and darkness on him, turning the sun into various shapes still bright. The days are cooler but the sky is large and there is too much to get lost in, the clouds especially, always there, dark or day, forever.
Ere looked back at the wastes of his home. The shards of bone and blood are far away from him, whole specimens much closer, various joints still connected and pointing in different directions and rotations. His heart thumps, but it’s a dead thump. Their kin are gone. Tears do nothing. He feels something sharp inside him, inside him, something which pains for his friend.
His face scrunches and he releases it with a hot sigh. “Ile,” he said loud. “If I,” he said softer, “go to bed, and I dream of a plan which makes you better, and… fixes this…” He shook his head. “No, that’s not the right — ”
“You can’t,” said Ile, her tail whipped against him, “dream up a den.”
He continued. “…and we’ll have lived for something by the end. We don’t even need a den, we have the book, we have the swords…”
“There’s no point to it anymore.”
Ere paused. “We’re going to die.”
Ile scratched the dirt. “When?”
“It’s Solstice,” he said. “Three days.”
“Sooner than that…”
“We can eat for three days,” he mumbled.
“Off what food?” she said louder.
“Whatever doesn’t kill us in three days.”
He shuffled a bit into place, smacked his lips, then spoke again.
“The difference between poison and venom is that poison kills you when you eat it and venom kills you when it eats you.” He blinked a lot, and his eyes darted somewhere else. “But I guess if you’re eaten — ”
“Is this comfort?” asked Ile.
One side of Ere’s mouth dropped. “It is?” His mouth closed whole again. “No, wait. What did you say?”
“If you weren’t always like this I wouldn’t know what to do right now.” She chuckled, and his eyes went wide. “You’re as stupid as you are dumb, and I don’t know why you can’t just be one.”
He thought for a moment. “As stupid as I am ‘smart’?”
“No,” she said.
“Oh.” He looked again, his eyes hurt, then he looked down grimacing. “Ow.” He rubbed his eyes with he free hand. “The sun is stupid.”
“If we left under the moon, we would have already been dead.”
“Yeah, we’d join the party.”
Ere said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“Just shut up and rub my belly.”
He processed her words, shuffled a bit in place, and the dirt rubbed into him. “I don’t wanna look at you…”
She exhaled. “I’m not crying anymore. It’s…” She stopped. “It’s like you look at what happens to other folk and see their folk die each time and you know it’s going to happen to you and you spend the rest of your life hoping it doesn’t happen to you.”
“Paranoid. And not to the degree you were, you know, and I don’t want to feel bad things either.” She sniffled. “I can’t even ask why it happened because I know there’s no reason to it, and that’s the worst thing.” She sniffled worse. “It’s something I want to know and I never will.” She put her head down into the ground, looked at the skull she had, and pushes it behind her, breathing stifled.
Ere reached behind him, rolled his arm against her tummy, and started scratching with the back of his claws. “This is for kids, Ile…”
“It’s for me…” she trailed off. “Don’t you want to console me?”
“I wanna sleep.”
“You can’t.” She patted the front of his hand, her words wavering enough. “You’ll be eaten”.
Ere nodded. “Can’t happen…”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said.
Ere shook his head and looked at his legs. There’s red stuff on his feet and the rest of him is dirty, but his soles are still sticky and distracting nonetheless. He curls his toes in and out, but the discomfort is not gone.
“I’m gonna kill the world,” he whispered. His hand stopped rubbing, and started again.
“Save it for the dreams,” she sighed with a frown.
“I’m going to kill the world.”
She closed her eyes, and her frowned turned into nothing. “There’s so much wrong with the words I’m hearing.”
“And you shouldn’t be hearing them, I hear. I’m gonna do it.”
Ile grabbed his wrist, raised it above them, then dropped it back in place. “Why?”
He didn’t move his arm again. “I don’t know, it just seems like a good idea…” He yawned.
She yawned too. “Can I come?”
“Three days. Then Solstice. Then death.”
“Can I come?”
“It’ll be like a story anyway…”
Ile pinched the thin skin of Ere’s hand. He winced, and his head bumped hers softly. “Do you listen when you speak?” she asked.
“It’s such a stupid question…” he said bitter. He grimaced and his eyes went heavy. “If you don’t come I wouldn’t… know what to do. With myself. And in general.”
“I know what I’d do.” She bumped her head against his, softly. “I’d lie here.”
“I think I’d stab whoever did this.” A bassy thump hit the ground, a much softer thump followed, then was forfeit.
“You would die.”
“You said you’re going to die anyway.”
“That’s on purpose.” He punctuates his points with his scratching fingers. “If you kill yourself, you die on your own terms. That’s not life. Life is dying on someone else’s. Life is dying of old age. But. We. Can’t. Do. That. Our home is forfeit, and they’ve never had the opportunity to do what I’m going to do. I’ll take the honour from them. I’ll take their homes. Their country. Their land. And then I leave. And then I die. And then I’ll defy life itself, for life itself is such a stupid idea anyway, and I think I’ll kill myself in a way that isn’t stupid, like make a machine to cut my head off… or something…”
“I think you’re stupid,” Ile said.
Ere hummed. “At least I know it…”
“You’re a bit smart, you know”.
She hummed to mock him. “You wouldn’t even know how to build that machine.”
“Then I guess,” he slapped the ground, “I’ll just jump off a cliff!”
“You could help me stab someone before you do.”
Ere thought about it. “I’m tired.”
“The sun is stupid.”
She laughed. “What are you going to do about it?”
And so they did.
Ile slept, or she might not have slept. With her eyes closed the world was bright but dark and still hot but physically there. No longer on her side, the ground met against her belly and made her dirty with odd liquids and hard parts of former bodies. Given attempts to sleep the thoughts overtake her mind and she doesn’t think anything at all, for arbitrary lengths, until she thinks again and then opens her eyes and faces reality again. She doesn’t dream; there’s no other realities. There’s hardly imagination. There’s what is and what isn’t and she determines this through observation. She observes, at the moment, she is asleep. But she cannot do so while asleep, so she concludes she’s awake. Slightly.
She opens her eyes; they hurt. There’s brown and white and the sky is blue. She can’t see it until she looks up, but there’s too much light, so she knows it’s blue and not black. There’s no more red on the ground, instead darker shades of dirt. All this she sees through squints and one eye discoloured, out-of-practice for having been slept on for an amount of time she does not know. Time did not move backwards, and it’s still day, and she knows there’s nothing to dismiss into dream, as dreams have no logic anyway. She knows this thirdhand, a worse folk for being unwilfully ignorant.
In her head she hears a dull tone, and outside she hears soft pats. She unsquints a bit, lifts her chin up, and some stuff in her nose makes her growl. She snorts out, blinks, rubs her eyes with her pillow arm, and yawns with purpose. She frowns, then her face becomes sleepy again.
In front of her are the sides of two greyish hindclaws pushing up and down against the ground, raising its calves on its toes. Up, and down. With rhythm.
“Daylight, Ere,” she said.
“Daylight,” said the toes.
Ile cringed, curious but unmotivated. She pouted, put both her arms on her chin, and looked at the swords around her, her amateur dagger included, and thought it nobler to remind him not to cut himself up.
“You were supposed to die,” he said.
She forfeited her rhetoric and spoke directly. “Oh.”
“What?” he yelled.
She muttered and dug herself into her arms.
“Daylight, Ile!” he yelled again. “Daylight!”
She shook her head, groaned, put her arms in front of her, pushed up, shoved her leg under her, stood up lazily, and the dull tone became sharp and her temple screamed inside her. She looked at Ere, followed her eyes up to the side of his face, moving up and down. She closed her eyes, yawned and stretched, and as she opened them he did a double-take and jumped a bit, staring at her.
She grabbed his shoulder, and Ere spoke as his shoulder shuddered. “I didn’t want to look at you.”
“If you fall backwards, you’ll die.” She looked behind her, found it clear of weapons, took a step back, and dragged him towards her, him stepping poorly, though normal enough. “I think you wouldn’t like that.”
“I’m going to kill the world,” he said.
She nodded her head and smacked her lips, dropping her arm to stretch. “Still on that?”
“Yeah, the plan. You know.” He kept staring at her. “The revenge thing.”
“Oh.” She kept nodding her head. “Did you want me to die?”
He snapped his head away, and she stopped nodding. “No!” He looked back at her. “That was something I said to make you consider the consequences of your death. But then if you did die, I wouldn’t be able to ask you about it, and I would be sad.” He paused. “I would be very sad.”
One half of her mouth smiled for a short time. “I haven’t been asleep for long, then.”
“Because you’re alive.”
“No, Ere,” she said, “my liveliness is independent of how long I’ve been asleep.”
“But,” he said, “if you had been asleep for longer, you would have surely been discovered by somefolk and suffered the consequences of your decisions to do just that, the consequences of which are dependent…” he paused, put his finger to his lip, then started, “…in-dependent… of the folk in question, including the small folk, and then the consequences would have varied from dramatic to none at all and I think that’s the opposite of where we find ourselves now, suffering no consequences while the rest of your kin suffered the maximum.”
Ile tilted her head down and looked around her. The same smelly bones, the same dirty flies and the same damaged skins. The same… sack, her field sack, just a bit off to her side.
“You brought it for me.” She moved her hand towards it.
He smiled. “It’s for me!” He looked off at nothing in particular then snapped back to her without the smile. “I guess that’s not the right thing to say.” Then he smiled again. “Are you grieving?”
“I think I am.” She looked down, clambered to the floor, and sat cross-legged, tail wagging. She grabbed the flat handle to her sack, crudely affixed to the damaged hide of some unknown creature found dead long ago, and dragged it to her. “I don’t know, Ere. I might be tired.”
“You’re boring when you’re tired,” he whined. “And you know things when you aren’t. You know what you don’t know.”
She exhaled, shook her head, reached into her sack, stopped short and yanked her hand away, then flipped it over and dumped it to her side. Wilting plants and discoloured flowers cushioned a few unsheathed knives, on top of them a codex bound in hide, then several samples of dead animal parts. “You know,” she said, “I might not know what I don’t know right now, but I’ll know what I know soon enough.” She looked at him and nodded once. “You know.”
He waved his hand and stepped oddly. “Why would I know? You have to know, first, then you teach. You know?”
“Yes, I know.” She pushed the dead waste off the pile.
“So it’s agreed we know!” He stopped stepping. “What do we know?”
“I don’t…” She chuckled. “I hate you right now.” She picked up the codex and brushed it off, both sides. “Thanks for the — ”
“Are we bad folk?”
With her fingers on both sides of the book binding she looks at the cover, blinks once, then drops it to her lap and pouts at Ere. “You might be.”
He scratched his neck, looked to the sky, looked back down to Ile, then plopped himself next to her, cross-legged. He spoke in front of him. “On what grounds?”
She looked at him. “You read it.”
“Oh, yes.” He nodded, then looked at her. “I would argue it’s immoral to be ignorant, and your book provides me a path to stop being ignorant, therefore more moral than not, and therefore I’m good.” He smiled.
She breathed out. “It’s private.”
“Private?” he stammered. “Of course it’s private! I’m private to myself! You’re private to yourself! And now that I’ve violated this bad principle of privacy, we can stop being private and start talking openly about the ideas within.” His fingers traced in the air to his side. “It’s no good being private. It’s a culture of badness.” He paused. “If it’s written it should be read. If I were words that would be my grave, blood.”
Ile stared at him.
He stared at her, looked back, touched his cheek, then hummed. “It’s like my own wants took something from you.” He shook his head. “I made you feel bad and now I feel bad, too.”
“I’m happy you’re…” she said with a sad smile, “…talking openly. About the ideas.”
“‘And all the Here folk they want for themselves and what they want is known. The four folkinds do not make four wants and they want more and their wants are shared with folk sometimes but not the harvest resulting. I study the folk and see they are not bad folk without want. They are bad because they want and without want they would die and I can not study dead folk.’” He inhaled. “And then it tells me the moral loop of life and death and how being good doesn’t matter outside yourself but matters sometimes inside.”
Ile nodded, wagged her tail, and opened her book to the third page. It’s thick but not tall and the pages are written on foreign vellum. The language is not a language but a collection of sounds written in blood. A series of left-to-right lines are grouped in sets of two with arrows terminating these sets. The lines support scratch marks made by any means, indented in particular forms. Each form makes a sound and the sounds group together to make meaning. There is no punctuation and the reader interprets the oratory; all writing is read aloud. The scratches are known throughout Here and all folk understand them. The universality is a betrayal of its primitive nature. There has not been a better system.
She read page three. “‘Want is life and life is want and one cannot die without the other’s death. Want is food and care. Want is sun and knowing. I want to know and I live to know and I study folkinds and found four big ones and a big number of small ones. I want to know why they live. I know they want. And all the Here folk they want for themselves…’” She looked at him. He was hunched over and looking away. She smiled, and her chest was warm. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“I was always with you,” he muttered.
“I thought you stayed with me because you were bored?”
“You make me less bored.”
He raised his brow, looked up, put his hand over his eyes, then looked down and grimaced. “I don’t know, I liked hearing it from you.”
“Getting plants and dead stuff…” She softly closed her book. “I thought you hated it.”
“It’s overground and there’s weird warmth.” He whipped his head around, scrunched his face, and unscrunched it as he put his hand over his eyes and groaned. “I don’t know, Ile, if it’s like if I’m not talking it doesn’t mean I hate things.”
“But you always talk.”
“I don’t when I’m happy…” He shot air from his nostrils. “Or really not happy.” He looked around the wastes, pointed at arbitrary carnage, and frowned. “I don’t know.”
She followed his finger with her eyes for a second, then spoke to her feet. “What do you know?”
“Hmm?” He looked at her eyes, then looked at her feet, then back to the wastes.
“I mean this in an honest way.” She breathed out. “You say ‘I don’t know’ a lot.”
“I don’t.” He snorted. “I mean, I don’t. I really don’t know a lot and I guess I like knowing things from you.”
She looked behind her and sought to lie down, but her eyes watered a bit before she did. She straightened her back, inhaled, then rubbed her forehead. “You’re so simple, Ere. What do you even do when I’m not around?” She looked at him, incredulous. “Don’t you have any life besides being around me and helping me with my projects?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I did.”
She stared at him for one second frozen, hunched over, then put her legs out and leaned back, supported by her tail. She moved her head around aimlessly.
He looked her over and matched his posture to be the same, but with one leg bent up and his elbow resting on it. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“You say that a lot, too.”
“Well…” he scratched his neck and bent it down. “Do you want me not to be sorry when I hurt your feelings?”
She breathed in, picked up her codex, flipped through a few pages idly, and breathed out. “I just want to be done.”
Ere peered through the vellum’s riffles. “With that?”
“Yeah.” She stopped on a page. “With that,” she said, pointing at an empty rectangle surrounded in a dearth of text.
“I can’t see where you’re — ”
“How far did you read?”
He shifted his face around, then measured with his fingers a thin thickness.
“So your understanding,” she said, looking over her writings without interpreting them, “is incomplete.”
He laughed once then hacked his spittle short. “I’ve gathered some pieces in my head…” He looked over to the pile of flora and fauna next to her. “And I have, physically, gathered all that for you.” He looked at her then back to her book. “But no, I don’t know — I mean, my understanding of the work in question is by necessity not complete as it was not necessary for me to understand it before.” He waved to the page. “To do the tasks in question to my ability. The best of.”
She nodded her head, then put her chin on her hand, her finger following the double-lined language printed. “‘For all folk at Here they live and are divided and one folk live at their place. All folk live at Here but not all folk have their place and without a place folk live poor but not in badness. To take a small Here place is not bad but to take a big Here place is bad and to kill folk who walk with no weapon is very bad.’” She stopped mid-line and moved her finger onto the rectangle. “I haven’t gotten the map done.”
Ere’s mouth muttered the sounds where her finger left, but stopped as they became unreadable. He darted his eyes across the page and looked for more elements, but there were no more. He kept muttering. “It’s a mapping, plant-getting, bone-bringing, philisophical…” He spoke to her. “…folk-defining all-Here-in-this-thing type of thing. Isn’t it?”
Ile looked over the all-Here-in-this-thing book, smiled softly, and breathed out, ruffling the pages. “I guess it is that type of thing.” She looked at him with the same smile. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“I just said it.” He looked out at the distant wall of their hole. “I like it, like I said. I like reading it and I like hearing the bits and pieces that comprise it in the bits and pieces you provide me. I like hearing it and I like looking at it.” He shuffled his body more comfortably. “I like being with you, too.” He didn’t look at her, but he spoke at her. “I do want to help you grieve.”
She looked at him and spoke at him, rubbing the back of her claw against the smooth vellum. “Why didn’t you?”
He winced and sharply breathed in. “I said I’m not good at this stuff, but why must you hear it again?”
“No, that’s not…” she said as she stopped smiling. “Why don’t you feel so strongly for our loss? Why didn’t you grieve?”
“I’m not good at that, either.” He smacked his lips, and yawned. “This is only my home for I was born here and lived here. I only know the folk here because I grew up with them. I was raised here and I knew nowhere else to be but here. I could have been just like my family and friends, growing here, dying here, living for no reason and dying for none, too. I could have done more or less in the years I was here, but the stuff I got out of it was waning by the end. I could have never been born at all. There’s too many ‘coulds’.”
He looked at her codex, and with his eyes followed her finger as it traced idly within it. “I don’t know, it’s like you look at all the coulds in front of you and you see what’s beyond you and you want to run away but you might die somewhere else, and it’s easier just to die where you were born. It’s like you spend your whole life learning about something you’re waiting to happen to you, and when you’re finished living you don’t get to see what it is. That something isn’t here, I think. I think there’s more to it than this. If there wasn’t, my blood would be in a book. A stain in the dirt.” He looked at the skull next to Ile’s upright dagger. “Dead.”
“Dead”, she said, looking down at the pages.
He nodded. “What do you think?” He looked at her cheek.
She looked at Ere, no expression, for a few seconds.
He turned away slowly, shifted his posture, and rotated himself a radian away from her. “That’s just what I think,” he said. “I don’t really know myself…”
She got off her bum, twisted herself to her fours, crawled in front of him, then sat in front of him as his eyes went aimless and he froze just a little. “What you should know,” she said, “is that I like hearing what you think, too.” And she nodded her head and exhaled.
He unfroze, and his eyes went back to the closed book in her hand. “It’ll be hard to complete that once the world dies, you know.” He waved his hand to nowhere. “That.”
He eyes widened. “Is that what it’s called? That’s good. I mean, your name is good, not that.” He waved his hand with vigour and groaned.
“I get it,” she said.
“Begs the question what’s outside of Here.”
“What does it matter?” She plopped it in his lap, then pointed to it. “Aren’t we supposed to kill the world?”
“Kill the world, right. That.”
Ere smiled, Ile laughed, and she scooped up the Herebook as he put his claw under the cover. “No peeking, this time,” she said.
He cocked his head then put it back in place. “Secrets are still dumb, but I’ll be dumb for you.” He rubbed his chin with his now-empty hand. “Not too dumb. That would be real dumb.”
“Yeah, it would.” She stood up, stretching, and looking down on Ere as parts of her cracked and her chest grew warm again. “But,” she groaned, “we’ll figure it out together. As we go along.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I think.”
He nodded his head over and over again, staring out at nothing, his tail wagging from side to side. As his mouth opened, a sword struck down into the ground as he slapped it with his tail, a not-dull thud giving him a frighten, its wobble enchanting him and forcing him still. A ray of light bounces off its sheen and blindsides his right eye, making him recoil.
With one hand Ile grabs odd handles in the piles of swords and arms around her, throwing some to the left with a clamber, some to the right with a din, and some to her front with a whoosh. Some are bronze and some are iron. Some are short and some are long. Some are dull and some are sharp, but she doesn’t care and so throws a shiny one behind her. Another thud makes Ere whine, so she whips around and sees the two sticking up.
“Which one?” she cries out.
He stayed stupefied, then threw air through his mouth, shambled upwards, and gripped the one closest to him. Dust raised and settled as the blade curved out from the dirt, the sword a scimitar and the sheen a bit tarnished. He held it out in front of him, spied both sides, and raised it above his head, his body towards Ile.
“Alright!” she yelled. She stepped over to the other choice, walked past it, shoved the Herebook in her sack, put the handle around her other-side shoulder, then bent over and yanked the sword from the ground, putting it above her, then tapping her blade against his.
He looked at the tap then back to her. “You made your choice,” he said.
“It’s a symbolic gesture,“ she said.
“What’s a symbolic?”
“It signals our duology and willingness to take up arms for a purpose greater than mere survival.”
“Oh.” He looked up at his still-raised blade, lowered it, saw some dead flowers, then pointed behind her with it. “You want that?”
She didn’t look, patted her sack, and shook her head. “The solstice is in three days, and within those three days I hope to forget all the bad parts of today and remember all the good parts before…” She looked to the sky; the sun was not in the same spot, and the stringbark shade fell right on her eyes. “I guess three days isn’t so hard.”
“You’re hesitant”, he said.
She tilted her head a bit, then back in place. “You’re suggesting something out of the ordinary and a little outrageous.” She peered the codex within her sack, empty yet flanked by the ruffles inside. “It’s thoughtless. And I have my project, you know.”
“If you don’t want to commit suicide and you want to spend the rest of your short life working on something which will be stained in your blood and passed around as a curiosity before being used as tinder, that’s your mandate and I hope you are able to share with me all its secrets before I do cut my own head off or something.”
A part of Ile that was once in its proper place sank a little bit lower. Her breathing is conscious and the corners of her eyes are heavier. She looked at Ere, looked at her sack, then stepped past him around the swords, paced through the dirt, and straight towards their hole’s closest wall. Standing still he tracked her position and said something she didn’t care to hear. Her heart beat.
At the edge of the wall she stopped and looked upwards. She found it taller climbing up than coming down. She rested her mouth in her palm, inhaled in through her nose, and looked down at the convex perimeter at her feet, her toes curling up onto it, and then focused on nothing, thinking herself already up there and into the forest within. For a dozen seconds she indulged the fantasy, until her concentration was broken from noises behind her: shuffling air, many footsteps, and panting, stopping suddenly a metre behind her. She knew the source.
He said nothing for three pants. With one deep one he spoke. “The truth doesn’t matter because I hurt your feelings.” He took another, then his voice trailed off. “That’s not right. I’m dumb. I’m sorry.” It was quiet. “I’m sorry.”
She looked up again, jumped up, swung her sword through the air and jammed the blade within at her apex, then turned around. He buried his face in his elbow and paced a small area hunched over while shifting without reason, his breaths laboured. She faced her sword, unwore her sack, jumped again, tossed it onto the handguard, then turned around again.
With his hands he wiped his face and forehand, pulled his cheeks down, looked at her knees, stopped pacing, and breathed in twice more, slower. With his arms he motioned to the wall. “If you wanna get up there — ” he paused, “ — you gotta get something like, a pulley, or you gotta lift me up.” He motioned to nowhere else now. “Or I don’t know, I lift you up. And I can pull you. You’re stronger than me - ” and he put his hands on his thighs, looked to the sky, squinted in the shade, and dropped his bum to the ground to sit. “I don’t know,” he said quieter. “That’s my thought.”
She nodded, wiped her eyes, reached out for her scimitar’s hilt, and turned to the wall. As she did, he got up, made shuffling noises, and pattered towards her. Ere stopped right behind her, she stopped reaching out, looked at him, then looked in his hands.
In one hand he limply held out the side of her bloody knife; the other he dangled the uncured, messy, greyish hide of their kin. He looked down and to his left.
She breathed out.
He tilted his head not up nor down. “It’s for your book.” He paused. “And it’s for you too. Come on Ile,” he said while looking in her general direction, “I always hated giving you things. It’s treating you like a child and it makes me feel weird.”
She smiled a bit while rubbing one eye, gripped her knife out of his hand, draped the hide on her arm out of his other, then folded the hide over the knife. She opened her mouth, but she closed it, looked to her feet as her tail moved slowly to each side, and she grabbed his wrist and pulled him up from the ground with a whimper towards her sword, watching as she placed the items into it, then dropping his wrist and flourishing to it.
She looked at his eyes. “Now how do you feel?” she asked.
He opened his mouth, winced, closed it, then opened it again with his eyes wide. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing again.”
“In your timidity you do not engender courage nor confidence,” she said with a slight lilt, “and these qualities are inalienable to someone who is worth listening to, and for that matter worth speaking to.”
He snorted. “Never stopped you before.”
“That”, she said, “is the wrong thing to say.”
He smirked and rubbed his nose. “I’m sorry.”
“Just get over the hole, will you?” She turned to the wall, reached out to it, then turned back to him. “And you shouldn’t be ashamed to be kind in those few moments you show your capacity for it. In our world of independent self-interested folk, it’s rare to see these…” She stopped talking, breathed in, and nodded her head. “You already know all that,” she finally said. “Thank you.”
He walked to her side, went down on his knees, cupped his hands right next to her foot, and looked up at her as he squint his eyes. “I don’t want to be worthless is all.” He blunk. “You’re welcome, I think. You’re welcome.” And he looked away from his hands and smiled a subtle smile.
She looked down, balled her hands in front of her chest, then turned around, clawed her left hand into the wall, grappled her scimitar’s downward hilt with her right, pushed herself off it, kicked her left foot into her foothold, pushed her right one into a higher hold as she exhaled, bent her knee, put her body into a spring, then launched herself to the grassy peak and threw her claws into the greenery, jamming into the moist soil and scuffling her claws through clouds of dust she made as her body flopped topside, her heartbeat in all her limbs for just a few moments, cold from the grass’s tickling touch.
Throwing her body from torso to posterior she crawled to the edge, reached down to her sacks handle, then in her eye’s corner caught Ere staring at her with a cringe, one palm shielding his face from the sun, the other on his thigh, his mouth agape, and his eyes directed entirely onto Ile. He looked down, shook his head, then shuffled his legs to standing position, walking towards her sack. As he reached out to grab it, she waved her palm in front of him, put herself further over the edge, reached out, snatched her handle, transferred it to her free hand, then grabbed her hilt and pulled it upwards, unsheathing the blade from its indentation and trickling dirt downwards as she pulls them back to her as she sits cross-legged, wiping the blade into the grass and putting her satchel around her.
He looked at her and beyond her from below. He then looked at the ground, to the wall, then back up. “I forgot my sword,” he yelled a little.
She leaned over above him. “That’s no good for survival,” she yelled back a little.
He wiped his brow and sniffed once. “Should I go — ”
“Yes, get your symbol!”
“The duological thing, remember?”
He scratched his temple. “I thought that was representative of our willingness to take up arms for a purpose greater than mere survival.”
She put her hand in her chin and let her other arm go slack. “Yes, it’s that too, but it’s also — ” She breathed in then sharply exhaled. “Just get up here and I’ll teach you.”
He looked at her for a second, then ran back to his armament.
As she saw him run past the debris of her former family, she looks over at the wreckage, and though a piece of her stomach twinged, in her heart she felt dead and her mind spilled over with wonderings of why she didn’t feel more for her loss, looking at him grab the sword he ignored to gather her stupid dagger, looking at the shattered bones and fragments of hide he scavenged fast to find a decent specimen, and kept her wonderings in her head, looking at him run back, her having a smile and not a cry, wondering again why she cried at all but why she too feels obliged to cry for a place she will surely never visit, and a home she will never have again.
Ile’s slack arm aimlessly patted the wall, nostalgic for the grime, while Ere rushed over, jumped up, clawed the wall with all his digits, then fell over on his back to right himself at an instant, quadruped at first but bipedal immediately, his sword fallen and can’t get up. From the ground he foists it, raises it above him, looking right at his friend.
“Oh.” He lowers it, panting.
She puts both arms under his chin and sighs. “Although I know you can sequence my same movements to create the same result, in practice you’re a bit different from I, and these differences create a new result despite their minutiae.”
“I’m lazy, I get it.” He looks to his sword and sees a distorted image of himself in its barely-mirrored metal. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Ile.”
She puts her hand out. “Fix your claws with mine and I’ll forgive you.”
He breaths out twice, looks to both sides, steps to the left, raises his scimitar above him, slams it into the wall at his arm’s peak, then steps rightward and grabs her palm with both hands. She puts her other on top of his, pulling up as he scrambles his feet, scratching the wall and kicking down dirt clumps as he groaned, lifting himself by virtue of her arms, her exhaling, then pulling upwards as she yelps, grips under his armpits, and tosses him to her side as he lurches forward with a wordless exhortation. He lies there with bated breath for a moment, then snorts as he rolls over, crawls over the edge, reaches out, and finds himself staring at his own image, the blade held by Ile’s hand.
She looked at Ere in the shoddy reflection. “If you forget this, I won’t let you use mine.”
He looked at himself and nodded. “I should reassess what I value then.”
She tilts the reflection towards her, then places the crook of the blade’s back in his outstretched hand, grabbing it right away. “I wouldn’t do that,” she says. She pushes her chest up and sits on her ankles with her knees to the side. “If what you mean by that is trying to please me instead of bringing with you a silly sword, that is.”
He stays on his chest and gazes over the hole, his silly sword in claw. He murmurs. “Only folk in the world I have and I’m dumb enough to make her happy.”
“Are you sulking?” she asks. “Sulking leads to great insight, but not to great discoveries.”
He tilts himself to his side and lets his blade hang lazily in his palm, no longer with a murmur. “I’m sick of this place.”
“Yeah”, she said, brushing off her knees then lifting herself to stand. Her abdomen twinged as she did so. “I might be sick, but it’s likely just hunger.”
“Your Herebook calls it ‘foodwant’.”
She pouted. “The Herebook is silly sometimes.” She pointed at him. “Not as silly as, say, forgetting your sword.”
He looked at her finger and hummed. “Or wanting to kill the world with the only folk in it I have, dumb enough I am for trying to please her.”
She scooped under his ribs with her foot and pushed up slightly. “You’re not dumb, and you’re not lazy either. You don’t need me to keep telling you.”
He rolled over, got up, and jammed his feet into the dirt to stand upright with his scimitar pointed down in his hand. He waved it to his side slightly, and she waved to it with hers.
She nodded. “If you find me more valuable than a sharp piece of rock, remember your friend can’t kill without their own.”
“Yep, kill.” He looked up to the sky. She did as well: Sun in the same place, sky the same colour, shade slightly moved, and the air the same slightly humid still-cool atmosphere. He looked down to nothing and spoke. “The world and all that. Sharp rock.”
“Yeah,” she said, still looking. “The world.”
With Ere’s free hand he motioned to Ile’s satchel as his posture got worse. “With your dagger or your sword?”
“I haven’t — ” she paused, furrowed her brow, looked to her sack, then breathed out as she said, “ — can we decide when we get there?”
“Where are we…” He looked up again, his hand a visor and his fingers a screen. “Night? We’re going Night?”
She followed his eyes and her hand did the same as his. The sun rises at Day and sets at Night; it was in the middle before and is slightly past that now, teetering towards night. “We could really go either way. Daynight is a good choice.”
“Are we going where there’s food?” He looked at her stomach then looked away shy. “Does your Herebook have food?”
“We’re going where we’ll be slain instantly or treated to a feast.”
“Fun!” He started walking in a direction, stopped immediately, then walked back to where he stood before. “It’s those weird folk, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “If we go Night we won’t find their ropes, but if we go Daynight, we’ll run into one sooner than later.”
“But if we also go Night, we’ll not only find their rope, but one of their camps.”
“You’re only speculating we’ll find a camp.” She looked up, spun herself around slowly, spying the arc of the sun. “And from there it’ll be nightlight and we’ll be food.”
“So you want to find the rope?” He scratched his neck. “It could just as well be cut.”
“What do you want?”
“That’s a far-reaching question… but for now I would appreciate a hope less fleeting.”
Ile stopped spinning, pointed towards Daynight with her sword, and pointed towards Day with her other hand, encompassing Ere at a right angle. She then turned to an angle left of that, dropping her Day hand and pointing straight with her sword. “If we go that way, we’ll cross their squares at an angle, find a rope soon enough, then hopefully their camp before it gets too late to sleep. Even if we get lost, we’ll still have the moon to go by and we can walk Daynight towards one.” She lowered her sword. “I hope.”
He looked towards the line her blade was towards, with the fallen trees and the unnatural clearing terminating immediately into forest at a diagonal. “Towards all of that but not going straight to it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Unless I’m wrong.”
“You can’t be wrong,” he said. “If you’re wrong, where does that leave me? I’d be even more wrong.”
She nodded her head, grabbed his shoulder, walked towards the clearing, found her hand slipped off, and then turned around towards him, looking at his hole.
“You’re walking away from everything you’ve ever known and cared for like it was nothing, Ile.” He turned back to her, and smiled as he did, his eyes happier. “I’m proud of that. It means you get the impermanence of it all and how silly it is to be attached to things you have no real reason to be, just placed in there without cause.”
She slouched and breathed out. “It means I want to forget this day ever happened and move on with my life before I break down and start crying over the corpse of someone whose name I didn’t even get to speak before their death.” She wiped her eye with her free hand, looked to the ground, then back to him. “You know what it means.”
He pointed at waist-level towards the line she pointed at before. “It also means we have a journey to make and someone to stab with your finely crafted knife.”
“Stop,” she said, breathing in and unslouching herself. “Let’s just get there.” She smiled an ingenuine one. “Alright?”
He walked up to her side, stopped, and looked at her lips. “If you smile when you’re not happy, Ile, it means you’re lying.” And he looked away. “I’m sorry.”
She stopped smiling. “Don’t be,” she said. “You’re right.” With her head down, she smirked, grabbed Ere by the wrist, and walked him along their straight line’s start, stringbark snapping beneath their feet, stepping in the footprints larger than the trees which lie down within them.
“Oh, Ere,” said Ile. “They’re also called ‘Landborn’.”
Ere looked at her, then looked back across the path, grabbing the wrist holding his same. “They’re weird folk to me, Ile.” He smiled, and his hand was warm.
“We’ll find them.” She smiled, and she looked forward, and her hand was warm, and her heart beat slower, and her blood went to places it doesn’t always go, and she breathed a sigh so long and content as they walked together, the waning sun upon them, towards the destination they never knew they sought.
And so they did.
Nightlight. The sky’s sun long faded, the bright blue of daylight into sapphire shades and cloudmist, the moon in its place and rising the same eternal arc, its calming temperament a panacea for the world below. And from below Ere looks up and behind him to spy it, walking on cool dirt and running the crook of his scimitar against a thick and unkempt rope threading through the forest at the same height as his neck. Ile leads in front, gripping it with one hand and dragging her own blade behind her with the other, clanking against odd rocks and snapping through spiketree twigs unchallenged. The odd squeak of small folk cut through the sounds of claws on gravel paths and the crunch of plant stalks crippled.
They are in a forest where moonlight’s cream-white washes over them and gives their eyes something to work towards looking through. It’s dark but not black and the indications of logs and puddles are mostly intelligible, in greyish shapes if not distinct, negotiable with enough ease to not be worth complaining. The slight breeze of day is tardy and transferred to night, whisking between the walkers through their thighs, between their armpits, sneaking behind their ankles and through their toes, snooping in their intimate parts with no regard for courtesy or personal boundaries. It was cold and it chilled him, the wisps between his matte fur a novelty which lost its charm, blood pumping under it without cause of labour, but of necessity.
As his callused feet met the ground to distract him from his thoughts, his sword ran against the taut rope as he looked down and his eyes glazed over to follow his best friend’s feet as hers did the same but looking at not much at all.
A knot burst from the rope and his sword shook as it bounced across its crook.
“Ten thousands,” Ere said. “Ten thousands worth of steps.”
Ile muttered a low drone.
“I’ve stepped a lot,” he continued, “and I’ve done many times that in my life.”
“You’re going to get us eaten.” Her words came quiet and she did not look from the ground.
“Ten thousands worth of steps without a camp, without a camp at the ten thousandth step…” He shook his head. “Let me be eaten,” he said. “The night folk have stomachs and there’s food in those stomachs. If I get eaten, I’ll eat what they eat. I’ll eat the food they throw up when something poisons them. I’ll eat it so they don’t have to throw up.” He paused and blinked many times. “I’ll eat you.”
“You won’t eat me,” she said. “You’ll eat berries and stalks of water-borne plants sprouting up on the sides of rivers and lakes. You’ll eat the mushrooms once farmed for our people, and you’ll eat them in the wild uncooked. You’ll eat a small furfoot racing through the tall grasses, and you’ll pass out and swallow the bugs that crawl into your comatose mouth. ” She looked back at her sword, then back down in front. “I think you’ll eat those before me.”
“How do you know?“ He pointed at her and then flopped his accusatory arm down with a whimper. “Have you… have you seen the…” He yawned. “This rope is stupid.”
“It’s stupid but it works…”
“Have you seen one of us eat one of us? Have you — ”
“No,” she groaned. “I’ve heard the tales.”
“Tell me the tales, Ile. Tell me the tales of our kin who we’ll never know again.” Ere raised his open palm to the sky. “Tell me the stories of our brood, so that we can learn from their follies and never again repeat the disastrous circumstances which led us to be following a large piece of string, with which we might use to strangle ourselves.”
“A cannibal ate a friend of a friend and they both died.” She paused. “The story ends.”
“What did the cannibal die of?”
“I don’t know, Ere,” she whined while looking back. “Some sort of disease. Their skin became bumpy and their body kept shaking and the bumps kept rupturing blood. The doctor cut their head off, scooped up the blood with their excised fur, then burned the medical waste in our lava lake. The rumour spread between our kin and for two weeks we ate boiled shrooms.”
“Yeah, my mouth turned to mush.” He yawned again. “Any other victims?”
“Do you want me to tell you all about the tragedies that have befallen our folk? I can tell you all about the tragedies. If you so desire.”
“No, Ile,” said Ere. “I want you to tell your Herebook and let whatever pair of eyes wavers over your words know that their incurable diseases have been suffered by so many others in the past. It’ll be beneficial because it turns pain into comfort, ignorance into knowledge, and…” he yawned again. “…and all the other stuff that people care about in your book, or will care about should be it be read — ” He trailed off.
She kept her head up, looked forward, and straightened herself out, wagging her tail from side to side, feeling the grime and gravel swooshing against its tip. “Your explanation is callous, but it betrays intelligence, you know.”
“Tell me what I know,” he said. “I must not know it.”
She nodded her head. “Records of diseases disprove speculation and tell us what afflicts each folk depending on which folk they are, and they tell us this exactly. They tell us the vectors of infection and the causes of their ailments. They tell us what the disease is, how it goes, when it fades, and what to do to make it go away sooner.”
“Yeah, they don’t tell you to execute the dead.”
“They might,” she said, “if it’s a bad one.”
“Couldn’t they just exile them?”
“They could infect our food and the small folk that might also be food.” She looked around her. There were no folk around but them. “It could kill the world, like you said.”
“I don’t wanna eat you anymore,” he said. “Even if that’s what it takes, I don’t wanna eat you.”
“I believe I will put this in my book.” She looked back and smiled, slouching again. “See? We got somewhere.”
“Not where I wanted, I’ll say.” With his free hand Ere rubbed his stomach and jiggled the insides a little. “If there’s any evidence against the existence of the gods, it’s needing to eat and being punished for eating.” Though he rubbed it, it did not growl. “Our gods are either dumb or evil. I don’t feel hungry, yet I want some delicious berries — the ones that makes your body shiver — then have my stomach burst from having the audacity to try to live.”
“Maybe the gods like the berries more than you.”
“Berry gods are gods of poison and death.” He looked at the back of Ile’s head. “I can talk better than berries. I can teach smart.”
“Maybe the gods are punishing you for trying to divine knowledge. Hubris and all.”
“I don’t even know gods. Do you know gods? Do you know a berry god?”
“No,” she said. “I only know the concept.”
“Something for your Herebook, then.”
“I don’t think so.” She stepped on a rock, stopped with a wince, bumped her back into Ere, picked it out of her sole, then went on with him ensuring his sword was on the rope, then looking at Ile’s ankles again and lazily following her.
“The gods of Here doesn’t qualify for Herebook?” He looked around the gravel they tread on, looked at the grassy path flanking them a few feet to his right, and frowned.
“Well,” she said. “there are already godbooks here. And I’m sure if there are gods they would have killed us for burning all them.”
“You weren’t inspired by their tales of mass murder and self-contradictory moral values?”
“I think that’s a question you want a particular answer to.”
He waved his free hand once to nowhere in particular. “Did you keep any?”
“No,” she said, looking back short.
He smirked. “How censorial…”
“Don’t tell me that!” She cried in a way that was meant to be quiet but wasn’t. “It’s just that they’re so common. And even for a particular godbook, they’re just mythology when you think about it.”
“Isn’t culture just a collective mythology of things we choose to believe about ourselves?” He looked at her sword being dragged against the ground, bumping up and down in small amounts as she keeps her grip regardless. “Does your Herebook question the nature of culture, Ile?”
“Why would it?” she asked. “I already have you to do that.”
“I should stop being so disingenuous, then.” He paused. “Dis-in-gen-u-ous. Your words are diseasing me.”
“I don’t even say that word.”
“You could. It’s fun. Untranslatable, but it’s fun.”
“You don’t even know how to write,” she snapped back, “let alone translate the particular interpretations of obscure words to an undeveloped phonetics system with a vocabulary which makes a breeder’s youngest-born kin sound as erudite as its scholarly ancestors.”
“Words…” he muttered. “I don’t like writing. It makes my claws hurt.”
“How did you even get through your classes?”
“Well, let’s see.” He scratched his head, puffed his chest out, and let out a large yawn as heat flooded his body, and was soon chilled again. “From none to three I was naïve, from three to five I scrubbed through my responsibilities by pretending they didn’t exist, and from five to six I was already completely sick of living. Sometime between the earliest field expeditions to the time when I was supposed to be transcribing ideas I would have rather read, the intricacies of the written line escaped me.”
“And from seven to now?”
He looked behind him with a grimace. “‘Seven’ was some time ago, and I only remember the numbers and not what they mean to me. Eight is right out. Ten is coming up, I think.”
“Well,” Ile said, “do you want to know what I think?”
Ere exhaled something quiet and hot under his nose. “Yes, I would very much like to know what you think.”
“I think you know what I think.” She smiled a little. “And I think you are being dis-in-gen-u-ous.”
He put his palm to his face and wiped it down as he hunched over. “Alright, Ile, must you shame me? Must I beg at your side to stop you from embarrassing me further?”
She slowed down her walk, her scimitar grinding softer against the ground, and turned around, swapped her sword hand, and regrabbed the rope, closer to her. She blinked at him and wagged her tail. “You can beg in front of me, if you’re so inclined.”
He stopped, sharply inhaled, and let his blade’s crook hang on the rope as it dangled smoothly on it, crossing his arms as he looked to the sky’s pale black. “Does this give you pleasure?”
She stopped in front of him and leaned forward. “If you want to discuss the morality of relative pleasures and compare my great enjoyment to your mild annoyance…” She breathed in deliberately and looked at his eyes as he shifted them away.
He paused and looked through the gaps between the trees to his left, softened his brow, slowly looked back to her nose with a wince, then closed his eyes and scrunched his face up, releasing it with an exhalation. “…when I became eight I did not attend my own birthdate celebration, and the hosts and attendees within spent many days after that harassing me in my quarters and suggesting I was ungrateful for not spending even more of my life with kin I passively hated. Their rituals didn’t mean any more to me than any other day I spent alone, and I spent too long after that shouldering the burden of public shame, as anything I told them was rejected by their minds. Their stupid traditions meant more to them than my own disgust of them and their ignorant ideations of things they had never experienced.”
With his eyes closed he gripped the rope and his free hand clenched into a fist, then released. “It was after years of indifference the den’s opinion from me shifted from barely knowing me at all to being hostile for breathing the same air as them, saying my hobbies were worthless compared to whatever garbage they all worked towards, saying my existence were a burden on them for eating the same food they ate. I could not crawl from cave to cave without some folk I hardly knew giving me a mean look just for showing my face. They would say untrue things about me in malicious tongues, and they would not even say them when I told them to tell what I had just overheard.”
He shook his head and grumbled. “It was half a season later I nearly crushed the neck of a kin much younger than me, having gone through my possessions and vandalised my books and drawings and other things which meant so much to me. His screamed his wails between gasps of breath, and all the kin I hated came by to rescue him, thinking themselves brave enough to fight me. It was only by threat of my dagger against the child did I pass by without cutting them up. Through the crawlspace of my quarters I escaped before they got me, running through when I could and crawling as I needed, straight to our daymost exit, escaping through the forest before they would run their mouths and tell them all what I did.”
Ere opened his eyes, and looked straight at Ile. With his eyes angry he saw her looking at her feet, fidgeting with the handle of her bag, and with her sword left on the ground. He softened his gaze, looked to his own feet, and grabbed the handle of his own sword, running it across the rope far behind him. “Ile…”
She stopped fidgeting, put her finger on her chin, and looked at his chest. She spoke softly. “I heard the story, but I didn’t know it was you.”
“Yeah,” he said to match her voice. “It was.”
“So you were the one who — ”
“Yeah.” He cut her off. “It probably was.”
“With the knives.” She looked at his eyes, and he was looking away into nothing.
He shook his head. “I really did want them to kill me.” He looked back at her, then snapped back to looking at nothing, rubbing his nose as he sniffled. “But they didn’t. They put me with you instead.”
She looked back down to her feet, and her posture shriveled. She opened her mouth, closed it, breathed in deep, then barely spoke above her breath. “If I had known all that was your doing, I wouldn’t have agreed to take you as my partner.”
“And I’d likely be torturing small folk for fun.” He grimaced and let loose hot air from his nostrils. “But that isn’t what happened.”
“They showed me your drawings and crafts and only the good parts about you.”
“Because they knew I’d just go back into the forest before getting slain by some Beast somewhere,” and as he breathed these words he started to yell, “but that isn’t what happened!” He pushed down against the rope, and as it sprung back up, his sword wavered off it and crashed to the ground with a clang. “There’s no sense in — ” He cut off the words from his throat, staring at Ile, seeing her freeze upright as her hands locked together in front of her chest, her tail laid flat and dead.
His eyes went soft, averting them, nodded his head slowly, and breathing out despite his pounding neck. “I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t like to talk about what could have been or what might have been different if I wasn’t such a stupid kid who didn’t know how to appreciate what he had right in front of him. I don’t remember things well and I don’t want to remember anything that happened inside that hole.” He paused, shook his head, and looked at her legs. “The past six seasons have been the only parts of my life worth living, and it’s obvious to both of us you’re the only reason that is the case. If by some chance I die so you may live, I will have spent this life in service of something worthy.” He nodded his head again with the same speed, closed his eyes, and muttered two words he thought inside his mind, but could not bear to say to her outright.
She looked to the ground, to the rope, to her sword behind her, to her claws fixed together, into her sack around her shoulder, and then at Ere’s downward head. With one hand she reaches out, her tail wags once, and she stops. She looks back, frowns with her whole face, and looks at him again, stepping twice, putting her hand on his shoulder as light as her arm allows. His body shakes, he jolts backwards, steps on his blade, then looks right into her eyes with hands in front of him. They were soft with pity, and deep with something he did not know.
He blinks once, lowers his arms, looks at her hand retreat, looks away, and puts his hand on their guiding rope. He breaths in slowly, breaths out softly, and closes his eyes as he sees her worried in greyish blurs. He closes his eyes, tenses his shoulders, winces his face, then points his face towards her and nods his head, facing downwards as he does.
Her tail flings from one side to another, balling her hand up, then stepping forth fast, putting her arms behind him and wrapping her torso in his. His heart jumps and his leg muscles strain and prickle, jamming his feet into the dirt and his sword underfoot as his arms burst straight in front of him, forcing them to seize mid-flight with a bend. He felt her chest in a different rhythm from his, and as he breathed his belly felt these rhythmic tremors, shuttering his breath to inhalations cut short. As she nestled her head into that same tense shoulder, his wide eyes relaxed, and he looked straight ahead as his one arm came to the tall of her back and patted it slightly faster than slow. His other hand he wiped against his thigh and wondered why her breaths were so wet and warm inside his neck, and why there was something in the corner of his eyes which made them tremble and blink.
As her tail softly whipped against each of his ankles, he shook his head, but bumped his cheek into hers. He recoiled his head to the sky and breathed in as he saw the moon just within his periphery, breathing in through his nose then moving his mouth behind her neck.
“…why?” he asked.
She muffled into his neck. “Because you need it.”
Heat rushed to his head and then faded, leaving his mind abuzz. “I don’t want to be coddled like a kid, Ile.”
She scratched her claws against his back and her palm rubbed the small of it. “Have you ever been hugged like this, Ere?”
He stared at the ground, looked at the back of her feet, looked above her body in this foreign manner, and after a pause gave his quiet reply. “No.”
“Then you need it…”
And so they did.
Ile’s snout retreated from Ere’s shoulder. She looked at him with a small smile and a slightly open mouth, her eyes seeing him looking at something else entirely, something she knew wasn’t interesting or important but was looked at nonetheless. Inbetween the pats against her back she withdrew her arms from him as his hand held static in the air, then dropped it onto the taut rope beside them, his hand reaching to grab the rope he missed. She grabbed it the same, brushed the moisture from her mouth and nose as she sniffed, and looked down at his feet as her heart went from barely bumping inside her to being clandestine and bringing back cold within her chest. She patted down the fur against it and then looked at him again.
“Don’t forget your silly sword.” She pointed at his scimitar underfoot, dirt caked on the metal as it impressed into the ground.
He nodded his head, lifted his foot, scrubbed his thigh to throw clumps of ground and grass off his stained-red sole, then put it down and bent over to slide his fingers under the hidebound hilt, lifting the grip and pushing up from underneath to unearth the blade proper. He gripped it in his fingers and swung it in a short arc below his waist beside him, blowing air through his lips and nodding his head at her.
“Thanks, Ile.” He transferred it to his other hand, swung it high, and brought the blade onto it from its peak. He mumbled. “For the — ”
The sword came down and passed through the rope with a snap, the wrong side of the crook jutting against it and travelling across Ere’s leg with a wobble, grazing it as the rope sprung backwards from Ile’s hand, whipping her arm back and spinning her towards its quick journey and fall, him kneeling with a yipe with his sword thrown in front of him. As she turned towards him, he groaned as he held his knee above the ground, her breath escaping her as she rushed to crouch in front of him, shifting her head to both sides of his legs, then spying between her knees a crusty scimitar refracting moonlight, a thin streak of dark red just against its upper edges.
From far away a gong did ring, shooting loudly through the trees, rustling spikeleaves as winged folk threw themselves out of them and migrated under the starless skies, flying past the moon and beneath the clouds as his knee dropped down with a groan. Craning her neck above and behind her, her body seized and her eyes shot wide looking into the wood beyond. The brassy scream subsided as the faraway cry of a giant bell ran through the air with abandon, each toil crashing through the atmosphere and each clang coming soon after, only stopping as her heart pounded within her and that was all she heard.
She forced her lips closed and shook small parts of her body as she shifted her head to neutral and saw him sitting there, feet stuck together while he moans in pain with a stupid grin staring at his left thigh. He shook his head, pushed his open palm onto it, and looked back to his sword, leaning over it and staring into the blade.
“So this is how I kill myself,” he said. He looked at her and his eyes opened to match hers as she sat on her bum and reached backwards for her sword, patting dirt on the ground and feeling around before her claws hit metal. “Not from spilling my own blood,” he said as she leaned back and gripped the back of her blade, “but because of the aftermath of such.”
She yoinked her weapon to her chest and held it in front of her with the pommel against her navel, the cool metal causing her belly to tuck in and her to breath in fast. “This has to be them,” she whispered with wavy words. “It makes too much sense not to be any other folk.”
From as far away as the other sounds came were a chorus of angry screams in rhythm, loud in fact but quiet in observation as the primal chants from far beyond were dulled by time and distance as they travelled to Ere and Ile crouching under the treetops that chorus had to travel inbetween by necessity. They had no evidence of language on their ears beyond the overbearing emotions of anger and pride, with the result not being fury, but the call of petty vengeance against a wrongdoing that needed no law to establish its doneness.
He looked up, sniffed, and grinned wide with gritted teeth as he pushed harder against his thigh, a rumbling from his throat mixed with single chuckles spewing from within it. “So it’s the weird folk who do us in.” He reaches out and picks up his sword, looking at it from each side, then putting the tip into the ground as he keeps it steady with one hand. “At least we’re on schedule, if a bit too zealously.”
“Why?” she asked, blood rushing to her cheeks from under her skin. “Why are you trying to be funny?”
He snapped his eyes to her feet and shook his head. “Would you rather die screaming or die laughing?”
“I really don’t think that will happen.”
“Oh,” he said. “You would know that because your Herebook says so?”
“I know this, Ere,” she said as she pointed her finger off her grip, “because I know this, and the evidence of past interactions with these folk indicate that not only are by and large peaceful, but that they would not kill folk of our kind just because we happen to exist in the same space as them.”
“And yet they scream.” And he looked up into the sky and saw no more winged folk flying.
She looked between her sword and saw his open mouth wane into smiling lips. Something inside her jumped up and fell down, and her eyes widened as she rested the side of her blade against the knees of her crossed legs. “…and yet we walk into a Here place as folks with weapons.”
He nodded his head, moved his bloody palm off his thigh, and winced as he saw the last runny red drip down into his furry wrist and dry up, then breathing out and groaning soft as he placed it back onto his apparent wound. “Would you rather we run into a big folk and stand there as they shoot us with short spears?”
“Tell me, Ere,” she said, as her grip around her scimitar tightened, then relaxed as something in her mind submitted hypocrisy. “If we do run into that big folk, what would preclude us from not running out from that folk and going back to our den anew?”
He looked at her face, and it went from indignation to realisation, fading into regret as she looked down just a little.
“Ile,” he said, looking at her hands on her hilt, with a pause. “I’ve killed big folk. You’ve killed small folk.” He averted his gaze and turned his cheeky grin into no expression at all, brushing his mouth with his raised-sword fist. “You can’t run from a Beast. You can’t run from a Ferrar. And you can’t even run from a Kermode.”
“You’ve never even met those last two — ”
“Yes,” he nodded his head out to the side, “I know my knowledge of them is based on the same tales you no doubt base your Herebook entries on, but I’m not arrogant, and I know from experience that if you’re in a situation where you will most certainly die, the one action you have is to charge into it and destroy the threat, like a dagger jammed through the jaws of death stops them from crushing your head.”
Her eyes looked at him and they collapsed into mean looks as she angled her sword to touch the ground. “So why aren’t you charging straight into those ‘weird folk’?”
“Well,” he said, “if I stand up I think I’ll fall down again,” and he held up his blood-stained palm.
She looked to the sky and between her lips she blew air through them, and they fluttered as she looked back and blinked at him resolutely. “I mean charging with your attitude and not your actions.”
He put his palm back in its place. “Because you must be right,” he said. “If I can’t fight and I can’t run, then what else can I do but surrender my weapons and hope that our captors will kill us quicker than most?”
“They’re not going to do that,” she said.
“Because you’ve met the weird folk?” He scoffed. “Because they once came by our caves and sold us kids toys and spices?”
She shook her head and grumbled. “In your quarters you could not talk to them, and you could not hear them speak. You didn’t listen to any of what they had to profess, and it was evident they were excited to share it. The subjects those traders talked about were so varied and interesting that it makes even the words of our elders seem archaic and obsolete, for they were using terms I’ve never heard invented, and they were saying them so naturally that it was clear to me their body of knowledge was so advanced in particular areas that they could discuss anything within those areas and I would still listen with open ears and be willing to write down whatever they spoke if only I had the materials.”
He put his finger to his cheek and blinked to his side. “Ile, that was so many seasons ago that — ”
“And all those seasons ago they taught me more than I ever knew I would have ever learned.” Her shoulders shook and bristles inside her skin pared off as she shivered and sent warmth to her forearms. “They taught me about medicine, construction, cookery, divinity — ” She breathed in and rolled her eyes to forehead as she tried to bring images forth from her mind’s eye… and all that resulted were fragments of spoken words. “ — numeracy, recording, weaponry, and all this terminology which suggests an understanding of the subjects so passively involved that I could spend a lifetime learning them and not fully understand all they had to offer me.” She open-smiled wildly and her tail whipped around in all the space it can. “And all of that from less than half a day’s light!”
“Yeah, it does — ”
“And the thing is,” she continued, “when you hear all this said, it isn’t said in exclusionary speech where they speak to you for the purpose of confusing you, making you ashamed for bothering to try to understand their point of view. They say it in simple ways with words that comfort you instead of turning you away. They say it in a way where they’re satisfied you get to know them, and when they do speak to you long enough, you see something in their eyes that tells you that something inside them is so very happy and they’re grateful they get to share that happiness with you.” She looked away from Ere’s potential gaze and breathed out warm air as her head was flooded with an unexpected image. “The same type of eyes I see in you when you’re with me for long enough, and the same type of eyes I have when I get to look at myself through a small pool of water, just looking at the finned folk within, living their simple lives as I wonder why they try to live at all…”
He paused, shook his head, stopped, looked at her chest, and scratched the back of his neck while brushing off nothing before mumbling to her. “That sounds…” His eyes turned weary and he frowned, looking down to his tummy and sighing hotly. “I like to be with you.” He nodded his head slowly, turning to her feet. “I really, really do.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”
He smiled and shot air through his teeth with a one-sided grin. “Yeah,” he said. “I know…”
They sat in silence for several seconds, looking around them and shifting their sitting positions, listening, hearing only the soft rustles of small folk and spikeleaves whistling in the nighttime breeze.
Ile’s stomach grumbled as it digested nothing, sucking in her belly as she winced, hunching over and clenching her teeth, the grumbling stopped as she exhaled a wavering breath. “I do think,” she said as she pouted and straightened up her back, “we should have considered bringing foodstuffs with us.”
“You’d think nature would feed us,” said Ere, “but then why would it want to be eaten?” He blinked. “Why would we want to be eaten?”
“Obviously we don’t.”
“You know,” he said, looking at her belly, then looking straight to his, “or maybe you just realised and didn’t have a chance to, that hunger is the best spice.”
She looked at the kempt grasses beside them and against their legs, and something under her tongue salivated. “Spice is applied from the desire for taste, not from the desire to live.”
“I’m saying they’re not thinking right.” He looked behind her and frowned, seeing nothing but spiketree trunks born from anonymous dirt and rocks. “If they really wanted good food, they’d eat it when they’re starving. That’s the thing with the spices. They can’t sell you hunger, they can’t sell you the time to make you hungry, but they can sell you an imitation of it. They can sell you something they say will make your food good, but then when that stops being good, what do you need? More spices.” He pointed to Ile as his tail jumped a bit. “And that’s how they sell them to you! They make you want a taste that never comes back!”
“You weren’t even there to purchase it.”
“I didn’t know they were there, and if I did know, I doubt they’d want scraps of sharp rocks and cloth.” His pupils went to the left corners of his eyes, and he paused. “And I got my share of time spent in the cookery cave, and let me tell you, whatever they put in that stuff, there’s too much of it, because it makes my mouth crackle.”
She smiled a bit. “Boiled mushrooms made your mouth crackle?”
“They were fried and they were plants!” He shook his body and his head went all around, looking at things around him. “They were good plants. But I bet you if it wasn’t for the spice, the plants wouldn’t be good.”
“But if you were hungry — ”
“If I was hungry the plants would be real good!” He patted his bloody thigh with his palm and smiled as he swayed from left to right. “If they sold you the spices that made you hungry, that would be their calling.” He stopped wiggling and coughed as he grimaced and held his hand still. “But they can’t do that, so what do I know?”
“You seem to know a lot about this…” She felt the handle of her sack against her shoulder, slid it off with a jostle, looked at it, then found her tongue pressed against her upper teeth, breathing out some guilty air as she suppressed a snicker. “…this supremely impassioned discipline.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just think they’re playing a spice game and playing it badly. Or are they playing it well?” He put his finger to his chin. “I guess if I knew they were there and you weren’t there and I even knew you by that point or about the spices or even what they looked like…” He stopped talking, then started up again. “I wouldn’t know what I’d say, but I know I would say something, even if they wouldn’t listen to me because you can’t take what some folk is doing and saying they’re doing it wrong without them yelling at you and having to hit them because they’re yelling too loud.” He looked at Ile. “Unless it’s you, I think.”
“I, uh.” She looked at him like an infant looks at everything. “Thank you, Ere. I think.”
“I’d probably buy the spices anyway, so I think what they’re doing now is good enough for them.” He looked up into the trees, craning his neck to and fro. “And they’d be there to sell them, too, not putting us out here sitting around with one of us waiting to bleed out. And what was with all the screaming? Shouldn’t they have shot us by now?”
“If you insist,” said a third voice.
They grabbed their blades as she shot to her feet and looked above to see the leaves shattering downward spikes onto their heads, rumbling as the voice’s smooth shape ran under moonshine and straight through the trees it transferred between, running away on bouncing thin branches as they both looked at the spot where it disappeared into darkness, camouflaged by distance and time. With her mouth open and her breath halted, her heart banged hard as her eyes threw themselves around their sockets and the rest of her body froze up and seized.
Ere vised his sword against his forehead and peered into the woods, grinning smally as his ears cleared themselves of extraneous noise. He looked to Ile, saw her unflinching in the same position, and held his breath for a second, breathing out as his grin faded and he shifted his body around a bit to contrast. “If you stand like that,” he said, “then you will always be shot.”
“Shut up,” she said.
His jaw went ajar, and so he did.
She stood there with her sword poised in front of her chest with both fists, looking through the scenery as it blurred in front of her vision, digging her heels into the dirt as the last spikes fell down onto her shoulders, swept away by a passing breeze, her breathing cold breaths and thawing her throat with warm ones.
His mouth closed and he shook his head as he wiggled his blade in front of him, bouncing a beam of moonshine across the trees, directing it to wherever the metal deflects it to. He jiggled it, darted his eyes to her back as the moon shot there, then angled the sword to focus the beam right there, in a thick line across her shoulder blades, biting his tongue as his lips pursed and his shaky hand made it jump up and down just a little bit.
“How strange of my friend to stand there in fighting stance when her Herebook says walking with weapons tend to get you killed.”
She breathed out, her chest warmed up, and she put her head down as her upper muscles relaxed, shaking it a little. She shook her arms, lowered them to her sides, putting the blade in her left hand, and turning around as he whipped his sword into the ground with a thump, dissolving the beam and looking away from her as she faced him, the sword creaking into place as it settled into the dirt.
“Forgive me,” she said. “Forgive me for applying the violent wisdom which you so effortlessly espouse.”
“Alright, well,” he scratched his scalp with his bloody hand, then rested it into the dirt behind him as he leaned back with one arm. “You said they wouldn’t kill us, then I said you were right, then they said they would kill us, then you stood there, and now you’re standing here, doing nothing.”
“What did that folk even say?” She looked up and waved her free hand to the spot where it was, then where it went, then where it disappeared. “Did they say they would shoot you?”
“Sounded like it to me.”
She dropped her hand down. “So why haven’t they already?”
“Well…” He breathed out, looked to his chest, pushed his hands deeper into the dirt, and his tail flopped up and down. “That sure is an interesting question.”
She nodded her head. “It’s not the capacity for folk to do violence that determines their dominance. It’s the capacity not to do violence. It’s having the means to kill your enemy while having the ability to do good to your friends.”
He looked up from his chest. “That sure is an interesting statement.”
“So,” she continued, “if they want to kill us, and they have the means to, they would have. If they don’t have the means, they wouldn’t be here. If they do have the means, then we’re either their friends, or we’re not their enemy.” She smiled and pointed her finger to the ground with a downwards fist. “If we do walk here without weapons, as we have walked here with them in nominal safety despite us being demonstrably observed to some capacity, then we will continue to do so with ease.”
He looks over to his blade stuck upright in the ground, and his eyes jam themselves open and shut as he scratches them with his cleaner knuckles. “Ile, have you thought that folk was just unarmed? I wouldn’t shoot someone by jamming my finger into them. I wouldn’t have the means, you know.”
“You’re saying you disagree,” she said with no smile, motioning her sword towards the ground and gazing at a spot just beside her feet. “Right, Ere?”
He looked at her, looked at the spot she looked at, then looked at her again, with his gormless eyes squinting and his mouth open dumbly. He coughed, widened them all, and went on. “You’re doing this thing where you think of folk as predictable. One the things I know for sure, right, is that things do change, second by second, and none changes more than the temperament of someone who was being real friendly one second then deciding they want to start something with you the next. There’s something in their heads that isn’t there and it should be, and the absence of that something is what makes them crazy. It’s what makes them folk, not plants or the skies and stars, not something you can look at and know they’ll act the same way each time no matter how you look at them.” He paused. “And sometimes if you look at them that causes all your problems. That’s why I don’t like looking.” He scratched his mouth, and muffled into it. “I was never even good at looking.”
She breathed out, dropped her sword from her hand, and it landed to the ground with a clatter. She nodded her head, then sat down cross-legged in front of him, grabbing the handle of her satchel and putting it over across her other shoulder. She leaned into him, and her expression stayed neutral. “There is no need to be humble when you’re speaking real words. It’s far more convincing to have faith in what you say, or else your speech will fall out of your mouth and be heard only by the ground.”
“I do respect the ground, you know.” He smiled, and looked up to the starless skies, the moon in his eye, peering through squinted eyelids. “But being well-spoken is an act of dominance.” He paused, blinked, and his smile faded. “Failures seek greatness and aim to destroy it. That’s what it means to speak well. It’s being better than those folk who are unbothered by the concept of speaking those real words. It’s showing you’re better. It’s being a threat, and threats have to be taken care of.” He faltered his posture. “I don’t know, that’s my thought. I should stop kidding myself. Maybe I’m just wrong.”
“You’re doing it again,” she said soft yet firm. “You’re not respecting yourself enough to believe in what you say.”
He looked right into her. “And what if I am wrong?”
She smiled with teeth bared, and laughed a little. “Then you’re wrong, Ere!” She moved her hand, picked up her dropped sword, then stabbed it into the dirt straight down. “So what if you’re wrong? You’re not going to be forever!”
He nodded and grinned, wiping his mouth to clean nothing. “Because I’ll be dead?”
“Yes, but also,” she continued, “because you’ll have the knowledge and experience to understand what you thought right before was inaccurate. To learn isn’t to take in and express information like soil takes in rain, blossoming them into truths whose beauty is apparent to all. It’s unearthing the foundations of your personal world and inspecting them to ensure that the conditions for truth, no matter how nascent, are supported within the soil, and cultivating the field to ensure that knowledge, however ugly the bounty of its harvest, is able to be reaped whenever it presents itself to us.” She grabbed the pommel of her scimitar and wiggled the whole weapon a bit. It wavered only slightly in the ground. “To be more direct, it’s being able to be wrong. And it’s being able to tell your friend that they are also wrong, no matter how it upsets them.”
His heart jammed itself against his ribs then beat back to normal after three hard ones, him breathing hotly. “Like when I suggested your Herebook would be tinder?”
She nodded her head, then put her palm in her face as she exhaled with a one-sided grin. “Well, you were wrong,” and her cheeky expression left her as she looked at him again. “And I was upset. But…” She looked to her side. “I really don’t think my feelings were why you were wrong.”
“What little I remember brings me guilt.” He sighed and shook his head downwards, before snapping back. “And it doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s just about power. It’s about defending what you care for, even if it is a book. That’s power. It’s making sure you don’t end up dead because of your knowledge, because folk out there will kill you based on what they think of the world, not because of how it is.” He found himself gripping his sword, then let go of it as he tilted his head back and held his arm out in the air. “And you sure can’t talk with a knife against your throat. It’ll cut you up if you try. It’ll make you bleed for speaking.”
“It’s about exerting power and rewriting facts from fiction because of that, then.”
“Yeah,” Ere said, dropping his arm. “That. Just like those godbooks, and just like what will happen to yours if you don’t have the means to defend its factness.”
“The means,” Ile said.
He shook his head and leaned forward to rest his elbow on his upraised knee. “Whatever the means are and the means are to get the means, I guess.”
She grinned and adjusted her position as she patted her bag and the hard edges of the codex resting within its fabric and against her side. “I suppose I’ll need to acquire the means to get the means so I can have the means to defend what I mean within my book, all before writing down this conversation about the means, of course.”
He looked at her hand against her bag. “Did you even bring a writing stick?”
She stopped grinning. “You know you can just make one, right?”
He threw himself in front of her. “You can just make one!?”
She wiggled herself back and looked to the trees as she puffed her cheeks out and blew air out threw them. “It’s like wood and blood. Or you can just crush up flowers, I guess.”
He blinked. “Oh.” And he moved backwards to his original position. “It should have been obvious in hindsight.”
“Yeah, well,” she said, shifting forward. “All things are obvious in hindsight.”
He looked around the same old dirt and grass, the same old dirt and trees, the same old dirt and rope, the same old dirt and gravel, the same old dirt and everything that the dirt is right next to, and his body twitched as he jammed his fist into his cheekbones. “I bet if I talk about them again they’ll come by and free us from all this sitting.”
“Sitting is the core construct of our plan,” she said. “Although you can pace around, if you desire.”
“That’s even worse!” he dropped his fist and looked up with his mouth dropped. “That’s just walking but without a destination. It’s work but without the reward of seeing new places. It’s dumb.”
She followed his gaze. “It’s not a particularly involved plan, I admit…”
The moon was up there and it did not move. “So much for the schedule.” He breathed out. “And so much for our plans of finding some folk that wouldn’t even want us.”
“I bet if we walk over there, we’d get better results.”
“And then there’s the matter of our weapons.”
She shook her head. “Would they really be so aggressive?”
“It would go against your teachings.”
“It was really about the evils of killing peaceful folk rather than explicitly punishing ambiguously threatening folk…”
“‘Ambiguously threatening’!” He jumped up and shot his arms out to the sky. “This whole scenario is ‘ambiguously threatening’! We’re sitting here waiting to die, Ile! We’re just…” He spoke to the ground and paced around her as her eyes followed him as she frowned, not bothering to look behind her. “So what we’re doing, right, what we’re doing here is discussing whether or not these weird folk are here to murder us, right in front of the rope we cut that they so appreciate dearly, and we’re just hoping they’ll be alright with that as they may or may not even talk to us before they may or may not come right here to murder us.”
“I just — ” She could not finish two words.
“So,” he went on, “that’s the ambiguity there. And topping that off, because we’re in short supply of ambiguous threats, we’re also discussing whether we should walk right into the weird folk who may or may not be here to murder us, and then may or may not be welcoming us with open arms, and then may or may not even give us what we came here to do, may or may not, may or may not give us food and a place to sleep. And would you do such a thing?”
“No,” she muttered.
“No!” he answered, facing away from her. “And the only reason we’re even here is because we have absolutely nothing better to do with ourselves before the ultimate conclusion of us either starving to death, getting chewed up by something bigger than us, or just plain being sick of our respective existences and then doing something that makes us no longer exist. Those are the reasons we’re here. And I bet if we run away we’ll be in an even worse position.”
She stood to her feet and turned around to follow his arbitrary paces as she raised her voice at him. “What do you expect us to do, Ere? It’s either we throw our arms out to the only hope we have outside of a family that’s no longer here, or we go out into the woods and try to form a new den with no resources to do it with!”
“You know,” he said as he stopped pacing, “consider our ancestors. Alright? We had to be bred from something, and those dead folk are our something. So, imagine what they would do in our situation. Because a thousand seasons ago there were no dens, there were no hopes, and there was nothing else to do but throw yourself out into the world and hope that whatever you are isn’t looking too tasty to whatever you aren’t.”
“So they died!” she said, leaning towards him with her arms crossed. “Is that your great revelation? That our ancestors had it worse than us?”
“Well,” he said, scratching his head. “I guess what I’m saying is that we…” He looked to the ground. “…might not. If we do as they did.”
She looked to the ground, buried her nose in her fist, scrunched her eyes up, and sighed as her hot-hearted chest exhaled into the cool air, and her matte fur wicked off sweat from everywhere.
“Die, I mean.” He mumbled.
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
He looked up and spoke to her back with wide eyes. “What do you mean ‘You beg’?”
She turned around and lowered her arms. “I didn’t even speak — ”
A diagonal streak of bloodrushed worry darted through Ile’s lungs as they stopped breathing in and out, jamming her eyes open and feeling her skin tighten as it froze under her fur. Ere saw her face, jammed his feet into the ground, whipped his head up, then threw himself to the ground with his arm outreached to his scimitar’s hilt as Ile rushed two steps towards him, yelling “Wait!” as his hand hovered just above it and both her hands grabbed his shoulder as he tensed, moving them back as she gripped her claws into it and pulled him towards her. She stepped backwards, easing the pressure off her fingers as she dropped one hand, him standing up and turning his body towards the moon, and her craning her neck up as her heart pounded inside and the rest of her body shot nerves from center to limb, stabbing her every vein.
She saw the weird folk. He saw the weird folk. And the weird folk, shone under moonlight and enveloped in a breeze on a branch still wavering and dropping ample spikeleaves upon the two, froze itself on all fours, hunched into its hind legs, and with its two glossy eyes did see them, too.
And so they did.
It was a raccoon-lynx with long strands of musky brown mane that draped down its short frame, reaching down just to its velvet fingers grappling the branch it balanced on, flecks of pink laced between its fur as speckles shining in the boon, its stature unsure as it stared between its drooping hair with beady eyes, tall ears pointed towards Ere and Ile, its bobtail held still in the air with wind shooting through its fluff.
It stared at Ere as his arm dropped and his breathing stayed bated, with Ile looking at the folk with mouth ajar and her back straight, still holding onto his shoulder as she stepped towards him. He looked straight at the creature and saw its worried eyes. He stared into it through its fur, closing his mouth and exhaling as he blinked, shaking his head as he patted her hand, grabbing it off his shoulder, and putting it down to her side as he tapped it twice and nodded her head as he felt her looking at him. He stayed still, suppressed the aimless jostling of his tail, and looked down at the ground as he held his wrists together in front of his waist, closing his eyes and listening to Ile, hearing her breaths, hearing her scratch herself, then smacking her lips and talking to the weird folk proper.
“Ni — ” she stuttered, “Nightlight.”
“Nightlight,” it said, quiet yet clear, spoken in androgynous tone.
He opened his eyes and looked up to the sky, catching the thing in his periphery.
It paused, kept looking at them, then opened its mouth, and it words did not falter once. “I disturbed you earlier and I’m sorry. I came here to spy on you, and I was rude to you by making you fear for your lives. My warden said I’m only allowed to talk to the enemy if they’re funny, but then I don’t know if you’re the enemy. I’m happy you didn’t grab your weapons this time because then I would have to run back early and I would still be tired from running back here since the first time. I think after hearing what you said the first time my ward was ready to yell war at you, but I told my warden you were Dener, and when she heard that she told me to come back here. I did that and I’m tired now, and I would like to rest if you will let me, but I really am afraid right now. They are coming slowly and I don’t want them to find me here as a corpse, because it always makes her sad to see when her soldiers die at the hands of the enemy. That’s why I’m here, she tells me. She wants to minimise expenses.”
For all its speech it did not budge a centimetre, staring at Ere, only moving its sclera as he involuntarily shifted.
Ile froze. He looked at her with her expression unchanging, and he looked back up to his periphery.
It spoke again. “Do you know the words of our mother? It would be silly of me to talk to you and not have you understand what I’m saying, because a large part of my job is having you understand what I say. We meet small folk who don’t understand much at all, but we don’t really call them folk. I’ve learned that Dener are big folk with the hearts of small folk, so says Horo. She likes to visit you, but it looks to me she won’t be able to if it’s true you’re now orphans. That makes me sad. It makes me sad for her and you, because your family is dead and she can’t sell her toys.”
“Hang on,” said Ere. Ile looked at him, and she grabbed his shoulder again, him looking at her, then shaking his head and grumbling.
With her voice above a whisper he spoke to him. “I believe I know them, Ere.”
“Perhaps,” he whispered back, “I have some things I’ve yet to know, Ile. Some questions to ask of these weird folk so that I can start knowing.”
The raggedy creature hummed an inquisitive pitch as its ears raised towards them, then put one fore finger under its lip and spoke with it there. “Whenever I don’t know things I’m tempted to ask questions too, but when I stop speaking and start to listen I find a lot of my wonder is answered anyway, like how you do speak the mother’s tongue yet decide not to speak to me because you seem like there’s something which makes you afraid of me.”
The two looked at it as he cocked his head to the side and she slid her hand off his shoulder, the thing rolling its finger off and regrabbing the branch. “I’ve come to understand that trust outside of common blood is dependent on many things I don’t understand, and it’s really sad I can’t say to you to trust me because then that makes me appear more suspicious, which is not what I want to happen because it seems like my warden is the only hope you have to make your lives last longer. It’s really sad that you’re dependent entirely on her despite having never met her, because it’s really like putting your faith in our mother without having known her either. You wouldn’t have gotten her attention either, which is really sad too. It’s like you have nowhere else to go, and I’m intimidating you.” It paused, and looked out in front and over the branch in front of it. “I’m not supposed to intimidate the enemy, because if I do they’ll kill me.”
He shoved his fist into his face. “There is so much to remember here that I can’t even begin…”
“Oh,” it said. “Don’t worry about remembering things. If you write them down it’s like a better memory. Do you know how to write?”
“No,” he growled. “I don’t.”
“Ere,” said Ile while squeezing his wrist. “Please. Let me talk to the…” She looked at the creature again, then let out an unknown sound. “I’m sorry if I offend you, but are you Landborn by chance?”
It moved its head to her and blinked. “Yes. All of my ward and home base are Landborn. Big folk don’t call us Landborn because they think we’re small folk. They call us names that we don’t have. That’s why Horo says the Dener are small folk. If you were big folk, you wouldn’t care what we were called.”
“Oh,” she said. “And what do you mean when you call us ‘Dener’…” She put her hand to her chin and rolled her eyes down, but she could not open her mouth before it spoke again.
“That is the name of your folk,” it said. “You have been known as Dener forever.”
Ere spoke up. “That’s not a name, weird — ” He caught the word in his throat and severed it in half. “Landborn. That’s not even two names glued together.”
She interrupted his train of thought, speaking up to it. “Do you have a name?”
It did not break its eyes away from Ile as words came out from above. “My vital statistics may only be released with consent from the supervising medical officer.”
He bit his tongue as whatever came out beyond a low rumble would be heard at an instant. He exhaled, gritted his teeth, and looked to her as she spoke, scratching her neck as her jaw went slightly slack, snapping it back into place with an awkward smile. “I appreciate seeing you taking the time to come out here and talk to us. I understand it’s hard to venture outside your home for too long, because it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing out there at all.”
“Oh,” it said. “I’m really glad to hear that. In fact I was worried I was being a bother by taking up too much of your time out here when it seems like you’re quite obviously hungry, injured, tired, dirty, and mentally confused as to what your next course of action is.” It stopped talking.
She used her palm as a visor, tried to peer within its mangy fur, and spoke. “Is it possible for you to — ”
It looked within the forest as she spoke, curled its paws and scooted them underneath its belly, and cut her words off with no regard. “Um, well,” it mumbled. “If you’re not an enemy,” it spoke to the forest, “just stay there for a little bit, and I’ll tell my ward that you’re out here, because I really should tell them, or else I’ll be in trouble again and you will be in bigger trouble, and also I’m not really tired anymore so I think I should just go now.”
She looked into where it was looking, he followed her gaze, and he spoke. “So — ”
It burst off against the branch and spikeleaves again flew to the ground, jumping off its hind legs and bursting into the woods at an instant, disappearing under shadows as leaves bristled in its trail, going from branch to branch as its rustling sounds faded off into the distance, stopping soon enough.
Ere kicked a rock and it arced into a tree with a smack, scooping up his weapon then pacing around the gravelly dirt as he rumbled air out of his cheeks.
Ile jutted hers upright out of the dirt, resting the side of its blade against her palm, and then looking upwards as the moon waned ever slightly closer from the sky’s apex to its horizon, slightly off midnight but close enough to be functionally so.
“I am so mad right now,” he grumbled as his arm dangled down with his sword backwards in his fist. “Alright, you were right. But I was also right. They’re weird, but they’re not interesting in killing us. Not yet.” He dangled his sword by the pommel and swung it in opposite positions within his hand. “We’re right in the worst way, which is half-right, and that doesn’t feel right.”
“If it brings you comfort to know,” she said as sat down with her legs outstretched, placing her sword down next to her, leaning into them with her arms as she spoke louder to compensate, “that brought me a great deal of confusion as well.”
“That can’t be right!” He threw his sword arm up and it curved downwards as gravity brought down the metal behind him, swinging it in cut-short circles as he paced around looking at nothing. “You wrote the book on them!”
“I wrote the section on it, Ere. And even then that was based on hearsay backed up by a few encounters from a source who I admit is fascinating but was evidently not all there.” She groaned as her wrist met her toes and her back bent further, putting her head to her side to speak. “And those encounters were spread out once per season. What am I supposed to do with their limited time there? I know the learning is good, but I would be a nuisance if I monopolised all their opportunities like that.” She switched legs and exhaled as she did.
He stopped pacing and looked to the ground as put his finger and thumb on his chin. “They came by more than once?”
“Yes, Ere,” she said, then giggled a bit. “Did you even get out…” She paused as her words trailed off, moved her pupils up to her brow, then sighed. “Yeah, they did come. And there was more than one of them, you should know. But the other ones didn’t have much interesting to say, and they looked like they didn’t want to be there at all.”
He started pacing again, swinging his sword in the same way. “Of course not — our den was for us, not for them! And it was a boring den at that.”
She grunted, straightened her back upwards, sighed deep, then raised herself up. “It was home.”
“Home sucks,” he said. “And what did they even call us?”
With her arms stretched upwards she yawned and raised herself on her calves. “Their name for us, as is stated, is ‘Dener’. So I suppose we should be Dener.”
He shook his head and grimaced. “That’s neither of our names and nobody’s names at all. It’s disrespect and I don’t like it.”
“We never really had a name for our folk.”
“What folk needs a name, Ile?” He turned at her with his arms thrown out. “Names are nothing more than a reputation to dispute. Names precede us and damage us. Names are sinister things that aim to hurt!”
She lowered her calves and turned towards him as she breathed warmly through her open mouth. “They also bind together groups of folk and unite them to a degree that is impossible to absent of one. They are a simple declaration of cooperation that states they will work together towards their particular goals without regard for those outside the name. They are sinister, but they are powerful, and in any case I’ve written down our knowledge in the Herebook’s section on the Dener.”
He looked at her and frowned with angry and disappointed eyes as he hunched over and dropped his arms.
She nodded her head and turned away. “And you didn’t really explain your objections thoroughly.”
“Forget it,” he said as he waved down at her.
As he moved his head towards her, from the corner of his eye a furfoot popped out from the trunk of a hollow log just ahead of them on the path beyond, the cut rope draped across the log as the frayed end rested under it. The furfoot is a snowshoe hare with a brown coat, small folk with no language, poking out its head, looking at Ere as he caught it in his vision, spying it as the hare’s glassy eye glints moonlight. It moves its face at him, wiggles its nose, turns down to sniff some grass, then jumps out of the trunk and into the denser woods beyond.
Ere shakes his head, and Ile turns to where he was looking, her eyes open for a bit then resting back to normal. As she turned to face him, she turned back as the forest yelled out, him propping his head up and squinting within as he followed her gaze, the dull rhythmic sounds fading into intelligibility, incredulous as he heard “Dener” shouted nearly twice a second, the bad intonations mocking them both as they were said. From that forest the voices shot through, and they slowly came louder as they came closer, too.
The sounds quieted down to the few solitary higher-pitched voices, saying “Dener” again with less bravado, like an ampitheater’s lazy-made comedy, putting out as they were replaced by ruffles and shaken bushes. He grimaced and let loose hot breaths through his clenched teeth, her looking out, and the badly-synced collective taps of claws against rock pinged his ears and registered at the top of his head, widening his eyes, her straightening her posture, as they saw them.
Out from the woods came a raccoon-lynx with that same musky mane,