Chapter Thirteen: An Ancient and Ruinous Whisper

The first riverfolk called it Álor-én-Ér, where the sun peeks above Vómakháll and flutters down past pines and lesser peaks, over the crest of a fallen stone, and pierces the trunk of an ashen tree. You will not understand, if you haven’t seen one—an ashen tree, that is. There are not as many as there used to be. Father had to explain them to me when we first came upon it. I thought, as our wagon bumbled up into the clearing, that it had been willed into that shape by some implement of the locals, but he wagged a finger and grinned.

“That is the work of fae hands,” he said, aiming a finger to the circular growth at the center. “You see how the trunk splits, forming a sort of doorway. That is what the fae use to walk between worlds. They’ll come and take children up to Kyr Níl Faen, up to the Otherworld.”

Mother stepped up behind us and, as the carriage stopped and she hopped down to loosen the horses’ bridles, whacked Father upside the head. She landed with a pat upon the dirt and flashed a grin over her shoulder. He rubbed a smile off his lips.

“You’ll scare the boy, Lin.” She worked her fingers about the buckles and straps. “No such thing as fae or djinn. Your father spent too much time up near Keirigan, that’s all. Smoked too much with the druids.”

Father laughed and clapped his knees. “What did you see at Kunwall then?”

“A trick of the lights.” Mother threw her hand to the tree. “Same as you’ll see here.”

I’d my arms around my legs, watching the other wagons groan to a halt in a circle about the ashen tree. “What do you mean, mám?”

Shekhlán vú,” Mother said. “You should speak in Shekhlán here. You don’t want the other kids to make fun of you.”

“It was just a word,” Father said. “And so what if he wants to speak our tongue?”

Mother slung the bridles over her shoulder. “Your tongue.”

An Féadholl Shén i.” Father clapped my shoulder, then continued in the language of the riverfolk. “Don’t listen to what your mother says. You can speak however you like. If anyone says otherwise….”

I pressed my hands between my knees and answered in Shekhlán. “Lána says I sound like my mouth is full of cotton when I speak An Féar.”

“Speaking another language is never something to be ashamed of.” Father pinched my cheek, and I winced away, giggling. “Lána’s mother speaks Lánpareoke. Most of us speak something else. Shekhlán is how we come together. But it shouldn’t replace what makes us unique.”

Mother propped her hands on her hips. “Lin, can I talk to you a moment?”

Father rustled my hair, then slid off the seat of the wagon. “Why don’t you run off and find Lána. There’re some good boulders up there.” He pointed up the slopes a ways. “I’m sure you two could climb them.”

As he followed Mother back behind the wagon, I dug through the blankets behind me and produced my book. There is something about old tomes that intrigued me even then, and my appreciation has only blossomed since. Cracking one, listening to it whine open, feeling the coarse parchment beneath your fingers—that is an unparalleled sensation. I’d later have all the books I desired, but that is another story; it’s one we’ll get to, I’d imagine. But for now I had only this one.

Folktales of Alvyria, it read in silver thread across the cover. The fabric had been worn to tatters, and the corners frayed to reveal the boards beneath. I wasn’t entirely sure how long we’d had it or where it had come from; I’d discovered it mostly by accident, tucked beneath a couple of Father’s manuscripts and a series of fur rugs. I had felt like a little archivist, scrounging in the dust-ridden shelves in the depths of the earth for some derelict tome in a long-dead tongue. Alas, it was neither esoteric nor otherworldly. It had been printed in a city along the river Báin.

I’d even pieced together a tale of how this fellow—whose name had been overwritten by a coffee stain so that only ‘B’ remained—had trekked up from Feavoll to Báinshir, marched into Óren’s Press, and demanded that the owner, who I imagined had worn a apron or whatever printers wore since I had never seen the interior of one of their shops, produce for him a copy of Folktales of Alvyria. They’d had some disagreement. Óren had acquiesced. But he had wrung his hands and cackled while he worked the press.

This elusive man, B, trudged back down to Féavoll, book tucked under his arm, content in knowing he had come out victorious. It wasn’t until he sat down at his dinner table and cracked open the spine that he realized Óren had only printed the first half of the book. The back half, some two hundred pages, were utterly blank. It had wounded me, several years past, to realize this. I was halfway through learning about the selkies of the lower shores when I’d turned the page and been confronted by terrifying white. And then another blank page. And another, and another, and another, until I slapped the back cover shut.

So I employed all my craftiness and cunning to fill them out, having honed my skills on Óren’s tale. The author, a fellow named Klavik Hall, had his particular style. Long and illustrious sentences, partitioned by these long dashes which he used with incredible zeal, and a penchant for descriptions that lingered overly long on the dusty little details. It was all too much for me. I tried at first to emulate him. Then I got my hands on another book and began copying that author. But then it fell to tatters, quite literally, and I was left with Klavik’s droning tone and delicate descriptions of each daisy and dandelion. The thought of it is still enough to make me sick.

Ah, but I’m getting away from myself. I sat there with my book, but really it was more of a prop as I listened to Mother and Father speak under the assumption of privacy, behind our wagon. She sharpened her voice, and he padded his with long moments of silence and frequent uses of ‘darling’ and ‘dear.’ It was a common tactic of his, if we’re being honest.

“Do you know what Shelen said, yesterday?” Mother said. “She told me—to my face, Lin Mávbenen. To my face, she said that Khal was a freak. They’re already scared enough after what happened in Málben.”

“I told you, that wasn’t his fault.” Fathers voice grew ragged, as it did whenever Mother called him by his full name. “And why should it be? She’s the one who’s so afraid of southerners. He just spent a little too much time around their caravan, nothing more.”

“Like it was his mother tongue, Lin.” A thunk sounded as Mother pounded a fist on one of the wheels. “Lána knows what, ten words in Lánpareoke? And that boy, Mátal? He doesn’t know a lick of Natíl, and his father speaks it every day. But Khal spends half a month with some southerners and now he’s joking about tumbleweeds and demonseeds in Valkon? He’s never even been south of the strait.”

“He’s got a gift, Leréya.” I imagined Father spreading his arms, and Mother glaring sideways at him as she looked out at the other wagons. “The university in Vómakháll would—”

“He’s not going,” Mother said, and there was finality in her tone that dragged silence in its wake. Her voice interwove with it, forming a duet of quiet and callous words. “You need to understand. If he settles down…. If he ever stops running….”

The cries of children scrambling out of their wagons and of adults pitching camp in the clearing drowned out my mother’s words. I sat there a time. They made little sense to me then, and even now I wonder how it was she knew so much and yet—no, we will get there in due time. I clapped my book shut, then slid it back beneath the blankets.

As I heaved myself off the wagon and scampering out in search of Lána, something blossomed in my chest, feeling tendrils into the nooks and crannies of my flesh. It was as ink bleeding into my lungs, a cold and viscous fluid coating each vein and artery. A weight like iron, a sensation as smooth as sand, and beneath it all an ancient and ruinous whisper.