This is the nineteenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the first in part three, Water.
Iris wan't a good liar. She'd realized that by now. Sure, she had told Geb often enough how she could use the lies to her advantage, as it had saved her life several times... but was that true?
Not really. When had she lied the last time? In fact, she did the exact opposite: instead of saving herself with lies, she got into trouble with the truth, the naked truth. She was not half as wily as she always pretended to be.
And now Sedna was openly announcing that she had blatanly lied to them twice.
Iris hadn't trusted her in the first few days, that was true. But over time they had become friends - especially since Sedna knew Autolycus, Iris had thought that there were no more secrets between them. And now...
"You come from Zesto." That was a fact, not a question.
Sedna looked at her and actually looked as if she was sorry. However, combined with the revelation that she had a sister, that was more than Iris could forgive her immediately.
"What else are you hiding from us?"
"I'll tell you everything," Sedna promised. "But not now. I have to visit my father."
"Your father?", Geb replied with a disbelief Iris hardly heard from him. "You said he was a Shadow."
"No." Sedna sighed and avoided eye contact. "Selkie said he's fine."
"I thought she was mute?" Zephyr put in.
Sedna shifted her weight from one leg to the other; was looking for ways to escape from this conversation. "She is. But - listen. We'll sort it out later. Everything. That is, if you want me to be there. I'll take Selkie back to Father, regardless of whether you're going to leave with Gerra or not."
Iris took a step back and waved her friends to her - all but Sedna, of course. "What do you think?"
"If we leave now, we'll never see Sedna again," Geb said.
"Would that be so bad?" Zephyr asked, but the others immediately gave him angry looks. "Alright, alright. I'm just saying, with all the lies..."
Iris bit her lip. He wasn't wrong. Sedna had kind of deserved to no longer be part of their group.
"If we go with her," Karzelek thought, "Would Gerra wait for us?"
"Depends how long it would take, I guess." Geb turned to Sedna, who had voluntarily stayed away from their discussion. "How far is it to your tribe?"
It was easy to see that Sedna had been listening to them the whole time. Iris would have done the same. "From here? One week. Just from here over the hill to the east coast." She paused. "I... am not asking you to trust me. I understand if this is the end."
She really didn't make it easy for them. On one hand, she had lied to her friends for weeks, even for months. On the other hand, she had never gotten them into trouble. It was not as if Sedna had betrayed them all to the Shadows. It was - for whatever reason - only about her origin. Iris made a decision. "I say we go with her."
"You don't have to ask me," Zephyr replied. "I don't know Sedna well enough to decide for one side. But I'll come with you, you can count on that."
Karzelek had no real opinion either, but seemed to wait for Geb's. It took him a while to decide. "We accompany them," he said. "Not because she's our friend. I just want to know the truth."
The truth. Iris knew how much that meant to Geb. Already at their first meeting he had made it clear that he didn't tolerate lies. For him, this conversation was even more stressful than for her...
"I'm talking to Gerra," Iris said. "Let's hope he lets us go at all."
It was a strange feeling to go to Gerra all alone. Especially after she had made herself more than unpopular on their first encounter... but perhaps they could also solve that now.
She would at least try.
Gerra wasn't hard to find among the five people on the other bank. He was talking to one of the other Elmen who had come with him. He was still wearing his skull helmet - did he ever take it off?
When he heard her coming, he immediately turned to her. In spite of his skull, in this quiet and open environment, he seemed much less frightening. "Iris," he said, turning back to the Elmin next to him. "You don't forget her name that quickly."
"Gerra," she greeted back. At least he hadn't become offensive instantly. "We have a request."
"A request?", he repeated. "I thought we had solved the matter with Fuocith."
"We have. But we need a few more days before we leave."
Gerra and the Fire Elmin exchanged a look. Iris saw only the woman's eyes, but she read a touch of nervousness in them. Did Gerra think the same?
"What for?", he asked.
"We want to take Sedna's sister home," she said truthfully. "That will take about two weeks. Their settlement is at the end of Wildfire Hill. At the east coast."
"That's Torch Crocodile territory," Gerra muttered skeptically. "What do you think, Nerio?"
She too hesitated. "The Kindle Asps will hardly accept it if we stay here for two more weeks. They were already suspicious enough on our arrival."
"Then join us," Iris suggested as a plan took shape in her head. "If you travel, it won't bother them, right?"
Nerio frowned before she walked to one of the companions reptiles and took out a map from a sort of saddle bag that she spread on the floor in front of Iris. It showed Zesto, divided by dark lines into twelve regions, all of which were marked with a symbol of sorts. Nerio ran her finger along Wildfire Hill, the lower end of the map.
At its eastern end, a settlement was actually marked, even if it wasn't labeled. From this perspective, Iris could see that Zesto itself was shaped like the upper body of a reptile - Fuocith. Mount Ember was its eye, the teeth were self-explanatory, and the city they wanted to go to was on the land-side end of a peninsula that resembled a foreleg. The entire area was a territory whose scorch line was perpendicular over Wildfire Hill, a direct extension of the east coast above the peninsula.
Iris pointed to the line. "If you accompany us to this scorch line, you will have to wait less for our return. And from there we could go straight north to the area where Fuocith is."
"That's about halfway," Gerra thought before looking at the sun. "Alright. We'll accompany you there. As you cross this line, I'll give you a week. If you are not back by then, we will return to Mount Ember without you."
We'll barely make it, Iris thought. But it's possible. "Thank you," she nodded. "We'll hurry, we promise."
They immediately took off and made good progress without ever encountering other Fire Elmen. They didn't talk much; Nergal also kept distance from them. He probably didn't want to worsen his reputation with his tribal companions. Only Ani and her companion stayed with him. How did she stay comfortable? Iris wouldn't last long in his presence. But Ani didn't seem to mind.
Even after they had left the rest of the group at the scorch line, they were faster than Iris had thought at the beginning: Boulder didn't have to carry four people and a goat, it stayed at three. Selkie had decided to swim - or rather to drift, they were headed downstream after all.
Thus, Iris, though only from above, met her companion, an energetic seal that Sedna introduced to them as Pearl, and which swam with Selkie with eagerness.
The rest of the day they rode in silence, but when it was too dark to ride on, it was time for Sedna's story, for she had refused to tell them about it in Nergal's vicinity. They didn't kindle fire - they lacked combustible material - but Karzelek's glowing stone gave them at least a little light. Not much, but enough to see at least something.
Then Selkie began to shine.
It was not a gleaming bright beam, but a gentle light similar to that of the glowing stone. All her white markings - those that were no more than aesthetics - illuminated the darkness in a peculiarly mystical way.
"Can you do that too?" Karzelek asked, staring at Sedna like the rest of them. Only Zephyr seemed unimpressed.
"Of course she can. Water Elmen have a special bioluminescence, similar to some marine creatures."
"Great to finally find out too," Iris glared at him.
"What?", he replied indignantly. "I thought that was common knowledge. Our tribe has some books on the subject."
"Books no one ever reads," Iris grinned before concentrating on Sedna again. "Okay. And now the whole truth."
Sedna still hesitated. What was going on? Did she not trust them, even now? Then she sighed and the markings on her skin also began to glow. She was older than her sister and had more markings, but that was hardly noticeable, as weak they were in comparison. Was that because Sedna had not used this ability in months, as far as Iris knew?
"We come from the city at the end of the river," Sedna began to tell. "At Ancamna Falls."
"I heard about that," Zephyr nodded. Of course you have. "Wildfire Hill falls steeply into the Sea of Clouds. Instead of entering the sea in a delta, the river ends in several waterfalls that form the edge of a bay."
"Right," Sedna said before she continued her story. "We lived as six: Selkie, my father, our companions, and I."
"And your mother?", Karzelek asked.
Sedna raised a hand. Wait for it. "We weren't rich, but not poor either. We were fine, really. As soon as we returned from Acquois, Needle and I hunted for ourselves and for the city. Needle was a swordfish, the fastest fish in the ocean; we never returned without prey." Sedna had always avoided talking about her companion. But now, when the time had come, she sounded happier than ever.
Until her voice abruptly became bitter. "Two years ago, Needle and I were out on the open sea. We wanted to look at the stars where there was no disturbing light from Ancamna, so we didn't light our markings when we were at the surface.
"It worked well for a few minutes. But suddenly we felt that there was something in the water, very close. We shone, as brightly as we could, as a kind of warning, because that kept wild animals out of the way. But it was too late - the mako shark shot out of the water, exactly at Neadle. It was a violent fight, we both did our best, with all the magic we had."
"But you had no chance," Iris said quietly. Selkie had already begun to flicker uneasily.
Sedna nodded, her volume adjusted to Iris's. "Needle had hit the shark badly, her sword had given it some deep cuts. But it had wicked teeth. Within seconds the water was red with blood. I had no idea of what was happening around me, I was almost unconscious of all the blood and my own wounds. But I made it. I remained conscious. And when I could see more clearly again... both fish were drifting dead in the water."
An uncomfortable silence spread out. No one wanted to speak first, they all waited for Sedna to say something. She did what she could to hold back her tears and stared at her friends. As if saying, Come on, I know what you think. As if waiting for a particular reaction.
"I'm sorry," Geb said at last.
Sedna looked at him, speechless. It didn't seem as if she was merely surprised by his answer. No, she looked as if she had just realized something incredibly important.
"Is everything alright?" Zephyr asked.
Sedna needed a moment. "That can't be. That ... no, I don't believe it."
Zephyr raised an eyebrow.
The Water Elmin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "In our tribe we kill those whose companions have died."
Again she waited silently for the reactions of the others. Iris didn't take long to understand. And yes, she was speechless as well. "You thought that would be the case with all of us."
"That's why you lied to us," Geb said, no less stunned. "That your companion would find you at sea, even if we didn't meet her a single time. That you had a completely... normal story, only that you used the Shadows as a reason to be on the run. But you actually fled from your tribe."
"I didn't even say good-bye," she confessed. Now she completely ignored the tears, too overwhelmed by what she had just learned. "I just swam as far away from Ancamna as possible. Stayed away from all the Water Tribe settlements, despite my wounds and the fact that I was miserable hunting underwater without Needle.
"And then I was there, at the other end of the world, in the river Xiro. I found you, and I decided to go with you. Not only to the Beak Bay. No matter where. So I could stay on land, where my tribe would never find me... but I had to be careful, you would kill me as soon as you knew about the truth."
"And of course you could never talk about it," Iris said. "You didn't want to risk anything."
"Of course not," Sedna whispered, her usual apathetic appearance completely gone. "I know enough Elmen of our tribe who would turn on me without hesitation. How should I have known that your tribes follow other rules? If I had known that you wouldn't harm me... I wouldn't have lied to you. I wouldn't have told you any of my lies. I'm sorry."
"I believe you," Iris said quietly.
For Geb, however, it looked different. But he wasn't angry, that didn't suit him. Just frustrated and confused. "But you knew we were different," he pointed out. "The Ore Tribe, because of Tanzanite, and the Tribe of Sky, because of Sabazios. By then you would have been able to tell us."
"I thought I'd never have to. I thought I could keep it for myself because we would never even come near Ancamna."
"Well," Geb said, his arms crossed. "Here we are."
"We all make mistakes," Iris said. Surely Sedna had been there when Geb had talked to Khya! "We just have to stand by them."
Sedna gathered herself and looked at Iris gratefully. "You won't kill me, I know. But... are we still friends? In spite of everything?"
"We'll have to see about that," Geb sighed. "But yes, we'll come with you. We won't just leave you here."
Zephyr cleared his throat. "I don't want to disturb you, but we're being watched."
Iris whirled around and followed Zephyr's gaze: A Water Elm had laid his arms on the bank of the river, lighting his markings bright-green, which looked particularly mystical with the distortion underwater.
"It's really you, Sedna!" He grinned at her with big eyes. "Selkie and I were with mother over at Snailspring and then she was suddenly gone. I thought that she wanted to look at the Forest Elmen that we'd passed by earlier, so we followed her and the Elmen there told us about you. Mother swam ahead, you know how she is. Would rather return too early to Ancamna than too late.
Then I saw you here and I didn't believe it at first, I mean, we thought you were dead! Well, I didn't, but the others. I always knew that you just ran away. And I always believed you wouldn't just have died like that. 'Not Sedna,' I told Selkie. 'Sedna doesn't let anything get her down.' And who'd have thought, I was right."
Sedna's face was somewhere between annoyed and deeply touched. No wonder, this boy was really talking like a waterfall. But instead of telling him - making him shut up - she got up and walked over to him. He had now pulled himself out of the water, and just in time: without a word, Sedna embraced him.
Even if he had seen that coming, the boy kept quiet now, at least for a moment. "We missed you."
Sedna remained silent until, after a while, she let go. "I'm sorry."
"No problem." The boy looked curiously at the others. "You've come along pretty well."
"The last few months, yeah. But it's also nice to be here again."
"How far will you go with Selkie?"
"Up to Ancamna," she declared firmly. "I have to talk to Father."
"Naturally. And your friends will want to see our tribe," he smirked before turning to the friends. "My name's Hapi. Seems to be an interesting story, your group. Can't wait to hear it tomorrow."
"Are you staying with us?" Sedna asked. "Even now at night?"
"Of course! As if I were going to leave now."
"I think she meant something else," Geb said. "Someone should tell your mother that you found Selkie so she doesn't have any unnecessary worries."
"Ah!" Hapi beamed. "I get it. Yeah, that probably isn't such a bad idea." He turned towards the water and began to light his markings in a certain pattern and let them go out again.
The answer came immediately: the water surface began to shine in the same green light. But it wasn't the river itself, but much rather a large, flat... animal? It had no legs, but it didn't look like a fish either. It was just a kind of blanket.
Iris waited until Hapi had finished communicating with the animal. Could they really understand each other? Speak the same language? Only when the animal swam downstream and its light faded away, Iris dared to ask the boy.
"We can't really talk to each other," he explained. "The tribe has some signs to communicate underwater, but it's not enough for whole sentences or conversations. But we did develop a few separate sequences of our own with Selkie."
That's why she and Sedna had flickered earlier, Iris thought. They were talking. And that way Sedna had also learned things from her which she couldn't possibly have known herself!
"Cuddle will tell the tribe that we'll return one day after him," Hapi continued. "Nothing about Sedna, of course; no more people than necessary should know about that."
"Cuddle?", Zephyr asked before anyone else could answer. "This is by far the least dignified companion name I know."
"Hey, it suits him!", Hapi protested, laughing. "Just wait, I'll make sure you get in the water and he notices you."
"I think I'll pass."
"Well, I'd like to see it," Iris grinned.
Even Sedna looked sincerely amused for the first time, as if she knew only too well what lay ahead for Zephyr. "It's good to be back home."
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|