“Where are we going?” Yorchan asks. She hops over the short bushes on the side of the path.
Dust puffs where our worn sandals fall. “It’ll be easier if you just see for yourself,” I say.
Tatanda’s ultimatum is far from the only reason we need off this island. The aivenkaite cloud is closer now, broiling over the ocean. Really, it’s too large to be accurately called a cloud. A horde of angry spirits waits out there for their chance to break loose and decimate us.
I pick up my pace.
Nhardah greets us as the road veers toward the bluffs.
“How are the people?” Savi asks.
Nhardah crosses his arms. “My children always were foolish. They can hardly unite for a day. Fights break out over the Izyphorn plunder, and I’ve been hearing accusations of theft. You need to talk to them, or there may be no Maraiah left when the week is out.”
I tug at my chanavea and sigh. “Tatanda’s warning was right. We’ll talk to them as soon as we finish this.”
“Where are you going?”
“They won’t say,” Yori pouts.
“You’ll want to be there for this,” Savi tells Nhardah, so he joins us.
We pause on the top of the bluff. Yorchan gasps. “What is that?” Scores of empty boats moored in rows bob and rock in the sheltered inlet.
“This is Crazy Tolak’s life work,” I finally tell her.
“It’s a lot of boats,” Yori breathes.
“Hopefully enough to carry all of us to Tion Beriath,” I say, starting down the slope. “And hopefully we can convince Tolak to give them to us. No one’s ever been able to buy a boat off of him. We may end up needing all the treasure Izyphor gave us and more.”
As we descend, loose gravel dislodges from the path and clatters over the cliff. Savi keeps me close to the wall of the bluff. The memory of our last time down this trail keeps us both alert.
The tide is rougher than I’ve ever seen it. Over the crash of waves rings the pounding of a hammer, just as it has rung out for more years than I have lived.
“He’s been building these boats for sixty years,” I tell Yori. “Ever since a vision of a light told him to.”
We reach the sand, and Yori observes, “This is crazy. All of it’s crazy. Look at them–every boat looks brand new.”
I look, and seem to truly see the boats for the first time. Yori is right: Each boat is perfectly preserved. There is no decay, no mold, no barnacles or salt-worn wood. The only indication of which boats are newer is their smoother woodwork displaying Tolak’s increased skill.
The hammering halts. A shout of exaltation rings from the nearest boat. Savi and I start toward it, followed by Nhardah and Yorchan. “Hello?” I call out from the pier. “Tolak?”
The ponytail holding his curly silver hair is more disheveled than when we visited him a month ago, his black eyes are wide, and his muscle-bound shoulders are more relaxed than I’ve ever seen. When he sees us, he hops up from the deck and waves his calloused hands wildly. A grin covers his weathered face. “They are finished!”
“The–the boats?” Surely not.
“Yes!” he shouts, flapping his arms. “I finished in time! I finished in time!” Tolak starts laughing, arms wrapped around his stomach.
Yori steps backward. “Is he safe?” she mouths.
I hesitate to answer. “Tolak, are you okay?” I ask.
He swivels on his toes and points at me with a crooked index finger. “You!”
“They are yours,” he declares, looking very pleased with himself.
“Yes! The boats for the Champion.” He does an impromptu jig. “I finished! I finished in time for the Champions of the Light!”
Then Nhardah does the last thing I expect: He jumps forward and joins Crazy Tolak in his dance. “Hae-Aia,” Nhardah sings. They link arms, stomping their feet on the deck.
I shake my head and join in laughing.
Savi raises his eyebrow at me.
“What?” I say, kissing his cheek. “He finished the boats! Aia’s saved us again!”
Tolak collapses on the wood planks hewn by his own hands, laughing, and Nhardah lowers himself next to him. “Come with us,” the Firstborn offers. “You have been faithful to Aia; you are part of my family.”
Tolak calms his heavy breathing, looking at his hands and then up at the island. “Thank you, but I will stay here.” He closes his eyes. “Do you know, I have not slept in a house for three score years? And I have family, nieces and nephews I’ve never seen. The Light rewards me now with rest.” One eye blinks open at me. “But you, your work is just beginning.”
“You’re right,” Saviayr agrees. “It’ll take the rest of the day and all night for everyone to organize and be put on boats. We should go.”
I limp forward and squeeze Tolak’s rough hand. “Thank you.”
He smiles back at me. “You are most welcome, Raiba.”
“Peace to you,” I wish him blessing.
He has never heard the Maraian greeting before, but somehow knows to reply, “May it also return to you.”
The five of us, Tolak included, file off the pier. At the top of the cliff, we wish Tolak well and part ways, him heading to the houses, us to the camp.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Yorchan exclaims once Tolak’s out of sight. “That really is crazy! All those boats? Just waiting for us?”
But I think of star that fell at my birth, and the kaites saving and raising me. “Aia’s been planning our redemption for a long time,” I say. “I guess it was just longer than any of us realized.”
Forziel comes running to meet us when we near the camp. His hair sticks out in odd places, and his bruised face is haggard. “Hae-Aia you’re here,” he says. “These people are gonna kill me. Slavery didn’t do it, aivenkaites and salamanders didn’t do it, but they’re gonna.”
“We’re going to talk to them,” Savi assures him.
We keep walking as I ask Forziel, “Is it what Nhardah told us, disputes over treasure?”
Forziel throws his fists to the sky and moans. “Why can’t they just be happy that we’re free? It’s only been a day. Soon as we get one group to reconcile, a fight breaks out across the hill. I hope it was worth it, you heading off and leaving us to manage.”
“It definitely was,” we promise.
A few tents dot the hillside, but most people only have bedrolls spread out in clusters of families. Flatbread cooking over hot coals mixes with the fresh, earthy scents of dirt and plants. Quarrulous voices mix with the crashing of waves against the cliffs. I’ve rarely heard the ocean so high on the hills.
A too-thin woman dandling a baby reaches out to stop us. “Have you ever seen such a lush place?” she asks, eyes wide. “There’s plenty of water for us to drink, and look at how many plants there are! I think this must be the fertile land Aia promised our ancestors.”
I shake my head. “This is Ira, not Tion Beriath. We still have a long way to go before we’re home.”
Her shoulders droop. She looks at her child.
Nhardah rests a hand on her shoulder. “Dear girl, this is a barren wasteland compared to that place. It will be well worth the journey.”
Hope returns to the woman’s eyes. “Really? How do you know?”
Nhardah lingers to talk with her, but Savi and I continue climbing. At the top of the hill, we turn and survey the nation spread out before us.
When the sultan pronounced our freedom, it did not feel real to me. Our journey since then has felt surreal, a set of steps to accomplish but not lasting change.
Now, I look at these men and women: Old, young, individuals, families. They are my people. I labored at their sides in the Izyphorn sun, under the whips of slave masters. Their cries were my lullaby for five years. Our history is the same, and our future is bound together.
And finally, no one else can lay a hand on us.
Warmth expands my heart. I love them, and we are free.
“What do we tell them?” I ask Savi.
My hand is still on his arm. I should find a crutch or a cane before we leave the island, but I don’t mind being close to Savi. He rests his hand on mine. “We tell them the truth: We are going home.”
I take a deep breath and raise my voice. “May we have your attention?”
The hill itself seems to turn toward us, all eyes lifting.
“Peace to you,” Savi tells them.
“May it also return to you,” our people chorus.
“Our fellow Maraians,” I say, “it is our great joy to be here with you. We met on the docks, but some of you may not have been able to hear then. I am Raiballeon, and this is Saviayr. We are your Champions. Aia sent us to the sultan and royals, He performed great and wonderful signs so that all Orrock can know who He is, and now He has freed us from slavery!”
A cheer rises, louder than the crashing waves.
“We sought shelter here on Ira, but we cannot stay. While we are here, we entreat you to treat the Iranines with utmost respect and to live peaceably with each other. We’ve heard some of you fighting over Izyphorn plunder, and we rebuke you for this. Aia’s people are not greedy. We are family. We love each other and share. A time may come for fighting when we reach Tion Beriath and take back our homeland, but this is not that time.”
A less enthusiastic cheer follows, but no one dissents openly.
“A man named Tolak has constructed boats that will carry us home. Your elders will divide you into clans and subclans for the journey. Follow their directions. As you take your possessions to the boats, please stay on the paths. Also,” an idea strikes me, “if any of you would like to give the Iranines a gift for their generosity to us, please bring it to our camp.
“Now, we have a hard journey before us. May the elders come meet with us? The rest of you, rest and reunite with those separated from you by slavery. We set sail in the morning.”
The sun is near the horizon by the time we finish meeting with the elders, directing people to Tolak’s bay, meeting with those who have experience sailing, and receiving the congratulations and thanks of everyone we pass. After a hasty and long-needed bath in the stream, we find our group’s camp, with the axex roosting nearby, near the bottom of the hill.
Nihae fretfully picks at her loose sleeve, watching the sights on the hill. Hoenna holds a spit of ground squirrel over the fire with his eye on Liwin, who chatters with children around a nearby fire. Forziel dozes against his axex. Drigo presides over the gifts of gold and jewels that people drop off. He mutters about waste and possibility. Bathatyz sits near the fire, staring thoughtfully into the amber flames. Every so often, she lifts her head to peer around, then resumes her contemplation.
I collapse on a bedroll with a groan. “It feels so good to be clean.”
Savi sinks down next to me. “Where’s Yorchan?” he asks.
Now that he mentions it, I haven’t seen my sister since we got back from our meeting with Tolak.
“Someone came by lookin’ for her a while back,” Hoenna answers. “I think he was one of the elders.”
We lapse into silence, exhausted beyond words. Revelry breaks out around us. Voices raise in song. Some pull out instruments, some turn pots and buckets into drums. They fall into each other’s rhythms and pick up “Sultan’s Decree,” an old song, one we used to whisper in hope.
“There once was a sultan’s decree,
A sentence to death, guaranteed.
Our children were dying,
Our people were crying,
But something he could not foresee.
Thaies did not ignore our pleas;
Our lamentable plight He did see.
He heard all our sighing,
Then He was replying
That with all our prayers He agreed.
He acted with utmost degree
Of power, to our greatest glee.
Our people uniting,
He did all the fighting
Now finally Maraiah’s free!”
Everyone joins in the last verse. Their voices echo off the three hills.
When Hoenna judges our food ready, Nhardah shows up and the nine of us eat a quiet meal. There is so much to do, but others can see to it for now.
Yori comes back when the sky darkens. Forziel rouses himself, and he, Yorchan, and Liwin start trying to compose a new song to commemorate our liberation.
I stretch out on a blanket and let their chatter and humming blur. I expect to fall instantly asleep, as tired as I am. Instead, my mind races. I toss around. By the time the hill is quiet and the star Landurziel, the night guide, appears, I give up trying to sleep and wander to the edge of the cliff. There I sit, far enough back to be out of danger, and raise my eyes to the other indree.
They continue their dance in the sky, too slow for human eyes to notice night by night. Even though my ears are numb to their song, I imagine I feel its entreaty and hope.
I breathe slowly and deeply. In the quiet, the tempestuous thoughts that kept me awake rise to the surface. At first, it’s the past that clouds my mind in a disordered mess: Weariness from our desert journey, reuniting with Savi, finding Yori, losing Elesekk, marrying Savi, the trek through the abandoned city, interacting with the sultan and royals, meeting Nhardah-Lev, and so much more.
I’ve been pushing these thoughts aside since they happened, focusing on the present. Now I acknowledge them. Strangely, that acknowledgment is what helps me move past these memories.
My thoughts slow and turn to the future.
As I told Savi outside the capital, I’ve never thought about what came after freedom. If today showed us anything, it is that Maraiah will still desperately need a leader.
Aia, will that leader be Savi and me?
The waves crash in their eternal–or almost eternal–rhythm, louder than this afternoon. The aivenkaites haven’t broken free; we’d know without a doubt if they had. Still, the sea is uneasy.
I blink up at the indree, searching out familiar constellations. I straighten up. One is different. The indree who formed the Captive’s shackles have moved away. Even the sky proclaims what Aia has done. Still, the indree are not the reason we are free. They, like Savi and me, are only faithful servants. Aia is the reason we are free.
Salt spray, perhaps my imagination, mists over my arms. It mimics the peace settling over my heart.
Maybe we will continue leading Maraiah, maybe Aia will raise up someone else. Either way, He has prepared and guided us this far. He will continue to guide us to the end.
I sense, more than hear, movement to my right. Nhardah joins me at the edge of the cliff, his silhouette black against the stars.
“Is something wrong?” he asks, soft enough not to disturb those sleeping behind us.
“I couldn’t sleep, but I’m okay now. Why are you still awake?”
He looks out at the light of the waning moons shimmering on the rough water. “My heart is troubled. I don’t know why. I was about to seek out Mithrida when I saw you were up.”
“Oh, I can go if you want to talk to your wife.” I make to stand up.
The Firstborn shakes his head. “No, stay. I can talk with her later. Your company is enough for now.”
“Why are you troubled?” I ask, settling back in. I leave my injured ankle out and pull my other leg up under my chin.
He rubs his chin. “I cannot say. My heart warns something evil is coming.”
I laugh, quiet. “I could have told you that.” I gesture out at the darkness, where the kaites hold back the aivenkaites.
“No, it is more than that.” Nhardah sighs. “I do not know. But I am uneasy.”
I don’t know what to say. We settle into silence, watching the sky. “Can you hear them?” I ask about the stars.
The Firstborn closes his eyes. “Barely,” he admits. “Sometimes, I think I’m hearing things. But somewhere deep inside of me, I still remember the silence at the start of Orrock, before the indree were singing their call to redemption. That is when I hear them the clearest.”
“What does it sound like?”
He doesn’t answer, just bows his head.
We sit without talking till my eyes at last grow heavy. I’m finally ready for sleep. Nhardah must notice, for he says, “Go to bed, child. You do not need to worry about an old man.”
“You’ll find Mithrida?” I check. “You shouldn’t be alone.”
“Yes, I’ll find her.”
I pull myself up. Before I go, I say, “I’m sure you know this, but Aia is on our side. He will be with you, whatever comes.”
Nhardah sighs. “Thank you. Your words mean more than you realize.”
With a pat to his shoulder, I return to bed. The wind picks up, cool enough that I wrap the blanket on top of myself and curl into Savi.
The storm will come tomorrow. Now, I sleep.
Only three chapters left O.O I didn’t plan it in advance, but this turned out to be perfectly timed to finish this year! Thanks for sticking with me/Rai for all this time 🙂 If you enjoyed this chapter, please use the buttons below to like and comment. May your week be filled with peace.