A Still Pool
Anina woke with eyes so puffed up she could barely open them. They felt hot, and she couldn't look near the firelight. Her head pounded.
The young boy, Uwa, was back, and he was tucking away supplies in one of the packs. When he finished, he hoisted it over his shoulder. Sungid, off to the side, noticed that Anina had roused.
“Ah, woke up just in time! Saved me the trouble.” Sungid pointed at a small container by her side. “That's the leftover soup. It's cold now, but still good. I'm heading on up to the next cave. You think you can get up and walk with us?”
Anina tucked the blanket beneath her arm, her right hand still smarting with the blisters from her magic-lashing in Angbun. In her left hand, she held the container of soup. She followed Sungid and Uwa as they strode towards the passageway. Anina's limbs were rubbery, and her body was heavy from either the fall or the near-drowning.
“Where are you going now?” Anina asked Sungid. The passage ended in a larger route that ran perpendicular to it. From one end came the splash of the river, and from the other came a scattering of far-off voices.
“I have some distant relatives in a village nearby,” Sungid answered. For once, he didn't sound grouchy. Just resigned. “I haven't seen them in a long time. I stormed out of that place decades ago, too full of myself. But we'll see what happens. How about you? What do you plan to do?”
For so long, all Anina had wanted was to understand what had happened that night in her village. Now that she knew, she felt like a still pool of water that had nowhere else to go. She hadn't expected to feel like this. She thought she'd be at peace. Free to go back to the orphanage, or at the very least, to settle down somewhere among other people. It turned out Anina could have done those any time. She could have stayed at the orphanage, and be no more a danger than any of the other kids. She could have properly grieved the loss of her family, instead of using their memory just to motivate her quest.
The problem had never been with her.
Underneath Anina's exhaustion, indignation swelled. Why didn't anybody know anything about that metal? What were whole chunks of it doing beneath her village? People must have once been aware of it; Anina's village had unearthed them in tidy, square blocks wrapped in rotting fabric. Somewhere down the line of history, knowledge about that metal had been lost, and people today were suffering for it.
Anina's feet stilled. “Actually, I might stay behind.”
Sungid and Uwa looked at her. “Stay where?” Sungid demanded. “In the cave? For what?”
“I don't have anywhere to go back to. At least not in that direction.”
But up there, up the ravine where the camp might still be, perhaps there was something Anina could still do. Although the knowledge of gaining magic hadn't changed her the way she had expected it to, it did empower her in a different way. Like Sano had said – if she gained knowledge, she must do something with it. Spoken like a true Hoarder's son.
“I'm sorry,” Anina said. “I have something else to ask of you.”
Sungid rolled his eyes, his crankiness coming back. “Oh, what now?”
“Do you have a knife you can spare?” Anina eyed the poles he carried over his shoulder, their ends weighed down by his heavy packs. “And maybe a pole too?”
Sungid grumbled and whined, but he gave Anina what she asked for. She returned the blanket and the bowl of soup to Sungid. Uwa looked at her with curious eyes, and she gave the boy a small smile.
“Thank you both. I will never forget your kindness,” Anina said, meaning it too. Sungid harrumphed, and he and Uwa headed down the dark end of the passageway, lit by the torch Uwa carried.
Anina traversed the tunnel in the opposite direction until it opened up to the river. The river was narrow here, and its foamy waves toppled over each other in their descent. Anina thought she would feel afraid and nauseous, but it actually reminded her of the river near the orphanage where Aklin and Danihon had first taught her to control water with magic.
If she were to go back to the orphanage now, nobody could stop her. Bunawi and Angtara thought she was dead anyway. How relieved Anina would be to embrace Aunt Aka and Uncle Lukud again, the people who'd taken her in with no questions asked. It would be incredible to see the other kids again – perhaps meet new children, and hear news of those who'd moved on from the orphanage.
But could Anina really go back there, knowing there were people who needed her here now? Against all odds, she had been given a third chance at life. Shouldn’t she use it to do something significant for once? Because in feeling like she didn't deserve family and friends, not only had Anina neglected herself and her needs, but she had also neglected those who needed her. She had lost her connection to others – not because she was any real danger to them, but because she had stopped caring about anyone other than herself. Funny how it had taken being discarded off a cliff to understand Sano’s desire to matter and be connected to the world.
For once Anina was in the right place at the right time to help. She might not be strong enough to get rid of the king, but perhaps she could get rid of something more dangerous.
Anina couldn’t climb up the ravine with her injured right hand, but Sungid had said that they were in a cave system, so she felt her way westward. The tributary where Sungid found her flowed east, so the camp must be upstream. At various points in the cave system, sloped walkways led to apertures above ground.
After emerging from the fifth hole she tried, Anina found herself surrounded by trees and bushes. It was night time, and the forest was dark, but not any darker than the caves below. Anina gripped the stick that Sungid had given her, half-activating a script she had etched on it. Her magic gave her some light. Since she’d parted from the old man and his servant boy, Anina had only had time to write a simple temperature script. At least her magic had finally returned to her.
Listening for a moment, Anina held herself still. Voices emerged from the south, but they were not close. She crouched by some bushes, listening, waiting. Those chatting were far enough that she couldn’t identify what language they spoke.
Anina remained there for a long time, but the voices neither receded nor came closer. When impatience finally tugged at her, she dimmed her light and picked her way towards the voices. If they hadn’t moved, it meant that those talking were in a settled spot for the night. She needed to identify who they were to determine if she was close to Bunawi’s camp.
The trees thinned, and the bushes became sparse. The soil beneath Anina’s feet got grainier and harsher. By the time an orange glow penetrated the dark, she could glimpse a brightly-lit space through the trees. Torches on poles were interspersed among tents. The voices she’d been hearing belonged to a cluster of Dayungan warriors standing lazily near the edge of the forest.
Anina had actually reached Bunawi’s camp!
Ducking and backing away, she didn’t bother suppressing the grin that stretched her lips. This was good – Bunawi hadn’t advanced further into Katam just yet. As long as he and Angtara were here, Anina had a chance of filching their swords. But first, she needed to ensure she knew exactly how to return to the cave system in case she ever needed to make a quick retreat. Then she would come back to the camp and see what she could learn.
Anina half-powered the script on her stick again for light. She kept a close eye on the ground, searching for the hole she had climbed out of. She seemed to be climbing out of a lot of holes these days.
A sudden rustle made Anina pause. She stopped her magic in an instant, and darkness engulfed her. More rustling, somewhere to her left. Anina crouched on the ground, careful not to disturb any foliage. Her eyes, adjusting to the absence of the glow of magic, could only detect blackness. She reached out to the tree trunk next to her, needing something to orient herself.
Instead, her hand felt flesh.
Someone gasped, and Anina snatched her hand back in terror. Knowing she’d been found, she flashed her magic through the stick and brought it out in front of her.
Towering over Anina was one of Bunawi’s warriors. Not just any of his warriors, but a tattooed warrior.
“What – ca – who – Anina, is that you?” he whispered frantically. He squinted. “Anina, what in Karingal’s name are you doing alive, crawling all over the forest floor? I could have peed on you!” Indeed, his hands were on the ties of his loincloth.
Anina was rooted to her spot, not knowing whether to flee or to talk to her brother. But he made the decision for her, by crouching and embracing her tightly. Too tight for comfort, but just enough to bring tears of relief to her eyes. She hadn’t thought she would ever see him again.
“What is going on?” Danihon asked in a low, anguished voice. “King Bunawi had you sacrificed. I saw them take you out of the tent yesterday morning. Aklin and I still haven’t recovered from the shock, and now – you’re alive! What is going on?”
Anina pulled away to look at him. “I’m fine,” she reassured. “Really, I am fine now. An old man from the caves below rescued me. How about you and Aklin? The orphanage? Did Bunawi–”
“We're fine,” Danihon said. “And so is the orphanage. For now the king's main concern is the duel.”
“Did it happen already? Who won?”
“Nobody. The Malicious Wind swept through the entire camp shortly after the duel started.”
Anina froze. “Did Bunawi and the Ghoul turn to wood?”
“No, they had enough warning. Lady Nawa, the king's prime shaman, stopped the duel before the Wind reached the battle ground. Turns out shamans can sense the Wind's arrival. In any case, King Bunawi has postponed the duel. If the Malicious Wind is roaming about, it could kill one of them during the fight, and the result wouldn't be valid.”
“Danihon!” came a shout in the direction of the camp. “Are you all right? You're taking quite a while!”
“Uh...” Danihon fumbled around, and snatched some plums from a nearby tree. He squeezed them with his meaty hands, making loud, squelchy sounds. He bellowed back, “I'm not feeling so good. I think I ate something bad. Don't come closer! The smell will knock you out.” He discarded the fruity mess and wiped his hands on his loincloth.
“Ugh, that’s gross,” Anina mumbled.
Danihon gave her a grin. “Now that I know you're alive, I actually think King Bunawi might be stalling for another reason. He must have caught mage-illness! His sacrifice was never fulfilled, because you lived.”
Anina reflected Danihon's smile, oddly pleased that by simply living, she had already foiled a part of Bunawi's plans. “And how about Lady Yiling – I mean, the Ghoul? Is she all right?”
“She has mage-illness too, but I don't think she has anything to sacrifice to alleviate it. The Ghoul has been very well-mannered, surprisingly. King Bunawi promised the duel in exchange for her good behaviour. I think she really wants a chance to win.”
Danihon glanced behind them. “Look, I've dallied long enough, but we have much more to talk about. Meet me this time tomorrow night. I will try to bring Aklin along. Please try to stay safe until then!”
He wrapped her up in his arms again, no doubt to wipe the rest of the plum juice on her clothes as much as anything else. But though this hug was shorter than the first, Anina cherished it just the same. Her brothers were unharmed. One less thing to worry about.
True to his word, Danihon brought Aklin the next night. To Anina's surprise, Aklin even wept a little when he hugged her. Usually Danihon was the more emotional of the two.
“You have no idea how devastated we were.” Aklin pulled away and looked her over. “King Bunawi has done things before that appalled Danihon and me, but throwing you down that cliff was... well, let’s just say that if King Bunawi hadn’t kept dangling the orphanage over our heads, we would have defected then and there.”
Anina clutched Aklin’s arms. “I’m all right now. I’m sure Bunawi looked all righteous, punishing an insurgent like me. You would have just gotten yourselves in trouble.”
“Speaking of insurgents, where's Lord Matiban? Do you know how he's doing?” Aklin asked.
“Last I saw, he was recovering well from the spear wound.”
“Is he truly a traitor?” Danihon asked, eyes shining with uncertainty. Anina realized he'd been hoping there had been a misunderstanding all this time.
“Yes,” Anina said, sorry to see Danihon's crestfallen face. “He and the Ghoul really had been conspiring for years.”
“I see. It's just really hard to believe. Sure, he's never been that friendly with any of us. Even Aklin and me, though we went on a lot of assignments together. Still, I just chalked it up to some kind of tragic past – not that he was plotting to betray us.”
Aklin gripped Anina’s shoulder. “I’m so glad we got the chance to know you’re alive and to see you’re well, but you must leave this place now. Let the king and the princess think you’re gone for good.”
Anina hesitated. She’d had a feeling her brothers would insist for her to leave. “I need to do something first,” she began. “Tell me, during the duel, did Bunawi use his pretty sword? The one that’s made of an unusual goldish silver metal?”
“Yes,” Aklin confirmed. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Bunawi is a conniving cheat,” Anina said. “Before I was sacrificed, Angtara revealed to me that those special swords are made from a metal that can amplify their magic. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. I experienced the effect of that metal firsthand, back in my old village. Look, it’s a long story I don’t have time for right now, but I have to steal those swords.”
“Anina, just go back home,” Danihon implored. “Please. Who knows, Katam might come under siege, and then you will have lost the opportunity.”
“I’ve thought about it, believe me.” Anina shook her head. “But it just doesn’t feel right for me to leave those powerful weapons in Bunawi’s and Angtara’s hands. Not after what happened to me in my village, or to Sano in Liman. I may be confused about many other things, but I know those weapons are much too dangerous to be used for posturing.”
“You think they’re in the wrong hands?” Aklin said.
“I don’t think they should be in anybody’s hands!” Anina countered. “I will steal them, and sacrifice them to a sea-serpent.” There was no other way they could be rid of them. Magic-lashing might work if only the swords didn't already bear anto scripts, and besides, lashing would result in unspeakable destruction. A sacrifice was the safest way.
Anina looked her brothers in the eyes, and took their hands in hers. “I’m not asking you to compromise your position in the army. You have your reasons to keep up at least a pretense of loyalty. So if you see... anything strange in the next day or so, just ignore it.”
Danihon frowned. “What strange things? What are you planning?”
Anina tried not to cringe. She hadn’t exactly ironed out the details yet.
“Dear Karingal, you don’t have a plan, do you?” Aklin stated. He heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Listen, King Bunawi might be using the orphanage to keep me and Danihon in line, but you’re our family too.”
“That’s right!” Danihon added, indignant. “So if you think we’re going to let you get away with a plan as flimsy as stealing swords and travelling to the nearest body of water to wait for a friendly sea-serpent to pop out while you’re a sitting duck, then you’re wrong!”
Anina wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or nervous that her brothers were getting involved. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying there is a person in the camp who can summon a sea-serpent right here,” Aklin reminded her. The prime shaman. “King Bunawi was going to have Lady Nawa do it in Masagan to show people he was dealing with the Malicious Wind, that he was making sacrifices to all sacred beings. He really could have had Lady Nawa summon a sea-serpent directly from Little Dayung, but in hindsight, I suppose he needed a good excuse to go to Masagan.”
“But can we trust Lady Nawa to help us?” Anina asked.
Danihon snickered. “Let’s just say the old shaman is less than impressed with the king. She thinks the duel is a farce, and she wants to conduct a proper investigation instead. Not to send hundreds of warriors into Katam.”
“Hundreds?” Anina hadn’t thought the camp held that many.
“King Bunawi has ordered more warriors from all over the kingdom to meet us here,” Aklin added. “Things aren’t looking good for Katam. That’s why we wanted you out of here.”
“I’ll leave once the swords are destroyed.” Anina was certain she must get rid of those swords now. If Bunawi killed Lady Yiling in the duel, he would take his army and trample Katam. If Lady Yiling won, command of the army would be less certain. Lady Nawa might have better luck arguing with Angtara alone, than dealing with both the king and the princess.
“We’ll talk with Lady Nawa,” Aklin assured her. “I'm sure she'll be livid once she knows what those swords can do and what the king and the princess have been using them for. We’ll find a way for you to take them. And then you must leave.”
“I will,” Anina promised.