Chapter 6: Shalli is Quiet
A girl was sprawled on the ground, wearing a plain dress covered in dirt and only one shoe. Her blonde hair was messy, as if it had been pulled violently as she had slept. She was breathing quickly, almost panicking as she stirred, coughing twice.
Opening her eyes, the girl knew immediately she was not in the safe, pine-walled aroma of home. The glaring sunlight startled her for a moment, rippling shadows scampered over her face. As her senses sharpened, a pressure in her back told her she was certainly not lying on the straw mattress she would so often wake up to. She rolled herself onto her front, then got up to her knees, blinking until everything came into focus.
She was kneeling beneath a long dead redwood, the gnarled root beside her had left her sore and damp but a quick stretch eased the pain. With shaky feet, she stood and admired the rotting giant, slowly adjusting her ruined dress. A low mist hung around her, each cracking of twigs and leaves beneath the girl's feet startled her. Then she felt the hand on her shoulder.
She snapped around to see the small cloaked man to whom the aged hand belonged. He was short, hunched over and gripping something tightly in his other fist. His silver hair was longer than hers on one side of his head, yet cut close to bald on the other. The girl stepped back, stumbling away quickly, but his hand grabbed her wrist.
"Shalli kri! Shalli! Shalli kri!" The man whispered hurriedly, but his words meant nothing to her.
"I don't understand!" She protested, struggling with him.
"Shalli kri! Sha-"
"-What are you saying? I don't-"
"-What do you want fr-" His hand covered her mouth, forcing her into silence as he whispered again and again. Her eyes were wide but soon she understood and stopped resisting. His hand dropped away, retrieving the object he had been holding from the floor, leaving them both watching each other in silence.
"Quiet, right? You want me to be quiet?" She asked him.
"Shalli is, quiet?" He asked, still hushed but the sense of urgency now gone. In reply, she put a finger to her lips and repeated:
He nodded and said "You, quiet. I, speak," gesturing for her to sit.
She did as told and awkwardly leaned against the old tree. He removed his cloak, revealing a ragged black shirt. With surprising speed he tossed the object to her and began to talk.
"I, Derelli, you?" He spoke in detached, mispronounced bursts, but knew enough to make his question clear.
"Lerina, my name is Lerina," she told him slowly.
"Lerina, you...see?" he pointed at her hands clutched around the object.
Unfurling her fingers, Lerina looked at the object. It was a small metal coin - finely polished but somehow it still seemed ancient. In strong letters she could read "Di Ffrin, Di Sstrek" etched beneath a finely detailed image, turning it over she found an intricate pattern of circles and the initials "L.T".
"Those are...my initials?" Lerina asked, the panic returning to her voice.
"Your...mother made, for you," Derelli told her, then gently touched her arm, "She, gone, I find you, after they...uh," he waved his arms, desperately searching for the word before pretending to kick a nearby log.
"They, hurt her?" She asked.
"No, you," He replied, pointing to Lerina's hair. She ran her hand through it and flinched as her hand got caught in the mess of tangles.
"You found me? How did...how did you know?"
"Your mother, knew, I show you," he told her, taking the coin, returning his cloak to his shoulders and helping Lerina to her feet. He began to lead her away, whispering to himself as he did.
Stenar's feet had already begun to blister in his heavy leather boots. He had considered leaving some of his armour behind - but through both habit and caution he decided against the idea. The sword at his side knocked against his legs as he walked, at first an irritation but soon a comfort. The rhythmic tapping kept him going, occasionally he'd hum an old tune in time with his steps.
I may lose my way,
I may lose my mind,
In the forest of the dark and wrong,
But through darkness I'll find,
The path to perfect day,
If I keep my heart and sword strong.
The words rolled so simply through his mind, as they had rolled off his grandfather's lips so many times. The song had been taught to him as a young boy, back when his father was away fighting. His grandfather sung it to him when he was lonely, when it felt like his father was gone forever.
The song had been his anthem, leading him through military school, up the ranks and finally to his fiercely contested position as "Third Wall Guard of Dunav". For him, that had been the realisation of a dream. It was not just pacing up and down ancient walls, it was a gesture of trust. He was trusted with the lives and safety of all in the fort. And now? That trust was gone.
Somehow, by siding with those he pledged to protect, he felt like a traitor. By following instinct, in that rash moment he had betrayed everything he stood for. For what? A crying child? His whole life for a few tears – that was the reality.
But who else was there for them? Ssrellia certainly wasn’t, at least, not anymore. Besides, Ssrellia couldn’t provide them with what they really needed – the one thing that could save them.
I may think I know,
Which way to go,
In the forest of dark and wrong,
But all I need to grow,
Throughout winter’s snow,
Are black ribbons to keep me strong.
The second verse had often perplexed him. He recalled asking how ‘black ribbons’ would keep someone strong. His grandfather had told him that just as a sword in the hand protects you, so could these ribbons. Stenar had never been happy with this answer but it was all he ever got.
The song’s first verse had been his guide, now, he decided, it was time to let the second verse show him the way. Of course, every child knew the ‘forest of dark and wrong’. The Rellian province was well known for its dense covering of trees as well as the barbarianism that flourished there.
So Stenar decided, sword in hand, heart strong, it was time to find ‘all I need’. With the third verse in his mind, his decision was final.
I may feel the pain,
I may hear their cries,
In the forest of dark and wrong,
But if I leave again,
All the tears will die,
When I’m filled with a power strong.