This week, we're back with Ilendia to see more of her messed up family life. You can find the Google Doc version here. Thanks for reading!
"The man was stricken—the love of his life had died before his very eyes, and there was nothing he could have done," Ilendia said, reading a story for Axohin from one of the books in her satchel as they walked along the winding trail leading to Isthus. She had written this one—the story of the tower and the people who dwelt there. She had been trying to think of a suitable title for the book for months now, but she had never found the right one. "He felt helpless and alone. He struggled to keep his emotions under control, but the Man Who Was No Man came forward, its hideous claws outstretched. The man drew his sword. It was time to finish this."
She closed the book, which was filled with her own scribblings—this story, and many others, as well as a few sketches. Not very good sketches, but sketches all the same. Ilendia put the tome back into her satchel and looked up at Axohin. The tanned man smiled at her and nodded.
"That was excellent," he said, seeming impressed. "You are very good with words. Have you not finished it, then?"
She shook her head. "I haven't figured out the right ending yet. There are a couple different ways it could go." She shrugged. "I just have to think about it some more."
"Well, I would be interested in hearing the conclusion, whenever you are done," he said, nodding as if to himself. "It is a compelling tale."
She blushed. "Thank you," she said. "No one has ever told me that before. Everyone thinks…"
"Everyone thinks they are foolish. They think I am foolish."
"You are not foolish," Axohin said, scratching as his cheek absently. "You are young, yes, and many mistake the two, but you are wise beyond your years, Ilendia. You have insight into the human heart that not many have. That is a useful trait, especially in a storyteller."
"My family says that I should not be trying to tell stories of places that don't exist. They say that I need to focus on what is happening around me, instead of keeping my mind focused on dreams all of the time."
Axohin shook his head. "They are wrong. We all tell stories—everything happening around us is a story waiting to be recorded or remembered and passed along. They can teach us things about ourselves we didn't even know, and help us understand the world around us. Even if the stories are not completely true, they have elements that each of us can relate with. Danger, struggle, love, pain, joy. Human emotion is at the foundation of every well-told story. And you, Ilendia, understand human emotion."
Ilendia blushed again. "I wish someone would tell my family that."
They walked in silence for a while longer, listening to the sound of the birds in the trees and the chittering of insects along the ground. The sun had risen to its peak, and was now beginning to slide downward with the approach of evening. Ilendia looked down at her dress as they continued on, noting with a certain amount of irrational satisfaction that it was covered in dirt. No holes, though. She'd have to work harder next time.
Something is not quite right about that man, Azair said suddenly. He had been silent for most of the journey, and Ilendia had begun wondering what he was thinking about.
Who? Ilendia returned. Axohin?
Yes. He… Azair continued, seeming to struggle with a concept he did not fully understand. Though Azair experienced everything along with Ilendia, he was often out of touch with the way the world worked and how certain words should be used. He is not like others. And he is hiding something.
Do you not trust him? Ilendia thought back, for some reason appalled that her friend would question Axohin’s genuineness. The deeply tanned man was quite possibly the nicest person she had ever met, barring Azair, of course.
It’s not that, he said. He does not seem bad… Just odd. I do not think he will hurt you, but… He left it hanging. Be careful.
Of course, Ilendia responded. She glanced back at Axohin, feeling her eyes on him. He was looking at her with one eyebrow raised. "What's on your mind?" she asked, smiling slightly and raising an eyebrow of her own.
"I was actually going to ask you the same thing," he said, still watching her. "You seemed distant."
Maybe he had caught the far-off look she sometimes had when speaking with Azair. At least she had remembered not to talk aloud. "Oh, nothing really," she said. "Just tired, I guess."
He nodded, pushing back an overzealous branch that had grown out into the center of the winding trail that led towards Isthus. "Most people your age don't really know what that word means," he said, his face soft and contemplative. "You haven't started dying yet. Your body is alive and growing, and you have many years ahead of you. You don't have time to be tired. At a certain point, however, you begin to decline, and things start to slow down. You are more weary than you ever thought you could be, and you look back on the years you wasted in idleness with regret, wishing you could go back and do something better with your life." He sighed once, a bitter, sad sound, and looked at her, smiling wanly. "Well, there are the pessimistic insights of a brooding old man. What pearls of wisdom do you have to share?"
She frowned slightly at the word pearls. The man spoke perfect Argo with no trace of an accent, but he was obviously not from Argosson, and he continued to use words that had no meaning to Ilendia. First tide, now pearls. He'd also said something about a volcano, whatever that was. She wanted to ask him what they meant, but part of her was loathe to seem ignorant. Axohin used the terms as if they were obvious, token phrases and sayings that any common person would reference every day.
"Something wrong?" Axohin said, catching her look.
She shook her head. "No, nothing really. I…" She tried to understand what the phrase had meant. Were pearls good things, or bad things? "I don't really think I have any insights to share. I don't really know all that much."
"I think you're wrong, there," Axohin said as he looked up the next hill. "You know many things. You know struggle and pain, but also love and friendship. You know how to tell a story, and which stories need to be told. You know how to laugh, and you also know how to cry. You would be surprised how many people know none of these things. I would say that you have accomplished much, given your age." His face grew serious, and he glanced at her again. " I think you might understand what weariness really is. The decline, the lack of energy, the defeat inevitable. In a way, I'm sorry for that. You're much too young. But…you also have the chance to do something with it—to channel that experience with pain you have and make it into something great." He pointed at her satchel. "Like all those books of yours. Stories have a way of helping broken people, especially when the storyteller is broken as well."
She stared at him. Somehow, despite her walls and her reservations, he had read her like an open book. Who was this man?
They reached the top of the hill, and Axohin looked out over the forest below them. "Ah, are those the walls?" he said, pointing.
Ilendia blinked, tearing her gaze away from the man's face. "Oh, yes," she said, spotting the deep ravine cutting through the rocky landscape surrounding the hill leading to the gate of Isthus itself. "They are. It will only take about an hour or more to get to Isthus."
"Wonderful." Axohin stretched with a grunt. "A word of advice, Ilendia," he said, a sour look creasing his face. "Don't get old. It's not very pleasant."
Ilendia smirked. "I'll keep that in mind." But her smile fell away as she looked back towards the wall only a mile or so away. She sighed. She really did not want to go back. Not now, not ever. But that was how she always felt after one of her little excursions.
It's alright, Ilendia, Azair said. We can come back. The forest will still be here.
I know, Ilendia responded. Sometimes… Sometimes, though. I wish we could just leave.
Where would we go? Azair said. We like exploring, sure, but do you really think we could survive in the mountains by ourselves?
Ilendia sighed in the recesses of her mind. No. No, I guess not. And we couldn't go to Argosson either, could we? I'm technically a lowborn—I'm not even sure they would let me in. Besides, we can't get there on foot, and I don't know how to fly an airship.
For now, we just have to stay, Azair said.
I don't know if I have the strength for it, Ilendia thought. Please, help me.
I'll try. I don't know how much I can do.
Just… Be there. Just be there, Azair. For me.
"How about we stop here for a short meal?" Axohin said, reaching into his bag and pulling out a cloth-wrapped bundle. He squinted at the evening sun. "There's still enough light left in the day. We can rest a bit."
Ilendia had almost forgotten that the man was there. She glanced at him and nodded. "That sounds nice." She looked into her own satchel and rummaged around, pushing aside books and pencils and searching for food. She frowned. It looked like she had forgotten to bring something to eat. She had her waterskin, but nothing more substantial. Axohin unwrapped his bundle to reveal a loaf of bread, which he began to tear pieces off of and pop in his mouth. He went and sat leaned up against a rock, still watching the sun with an almost melancholic expression on his face. Ilendia looked at him and shrugged. "It doesn't look like I have anything, really. I guess I was in a bit of a hurry."
"Understandable," Axohin said, nodding. He held up his loaf. "Please, take some. I don't need it all. I can acquire more when we get to Isthus."
Ilendia smiled and tore off a piece. She sat on a nearby log and began to eat. The bread was pleasantly warm, somehow, and rich in both texture and flavor. Her piece wasn't all that big, maybe a few inches across, and she finished it quickly. She was still hungry, but she tried not to make any indication of it—she really wanted another piece of bread, though…but it would be impolite to ask. Axohin tore off a large piece of the loaf, which was almost gone now, and handed it to her. She grinned at him and ate the entire thing in only a few bites. She made a mental note not to forget to bring food next time she went out of the city.
They spent a few pleasant moments gazing at the sun and the moons through the trees—Anillend and three of the lesser moons were out today—and then set off again, following the winding path towards the ravine that would lead them to Isthus. The day had turned a bit chilly, even for the highlands, and Ilendia pulled out the two wool gloves she always carried in her satchel and put them on. Axohin seemed to be thinking about something. On the trip back to Isthus, Ilendia had noticed that the man always seemed to be thinking about something—sometimes his face was sad, others it was inquisitive, but mostly it was simply contemplative, as if he was attempting to understand something very profound every second of his life. Whether it was one concept he had been struggling with for years, or hundreds of ideas he flitted from constantly, Ilendia could only wonder.
"Don't you ever find it odd?" Axohin said after several minutes of silent travel. "That the world is so…broken?"
"What do you mean?" Ilendia said, frowning.
"The land always goes up and down, chasms, valleys, mountains, ridges, hills, but rarely is there ever just a plain flat surface that goes on for more than a mile. As if the skin of the world is perpetually cracked and bleeding, scarred, injured. It seems…sad, somehow."
"I've never thought about it, I guess," Ilendia said. "It's…just the way it's always been."
Axohin smiled. For some reason, his smiles always seemed strangely sad. "Not always."
Ilendia gave him a strange look, and finally, her curiosity overcoming her good manners, she blurted, "Who are you? Where are you from? You're not like anyone I've ever met before."
"No one in Isthus or Argosson has met someone like me before. You're all too isolated. There is a world out there, just beyond your comfortable scars. You are just too familiar with the cage to think of walking through the open door." He shook his head. "I digress. My name is Axohin, as I've said before. I come from a land far to the south and west of here. Another people, another way of life."
"Why did you come here?" Ilendia said, the man's answers making her hunger for more. "And if you are from another culture, and you just came to this area, how come you can speak our language so well?"
Axohin chuckled, running a hand through his shaggy dark hair. "If I told you the answer to either of those questions, you wouldn't believe me. And even if you did, you wouldn't understand if I tried to explain it to you." He caught Ilendia's skeptical look and sighed. "Fine, young one. I'm here to help you, if I can."
Ilendia frowned. "Help me?"
"Not you, specifically. All of you, the entire Argo people. There are things…happening in the world right now that are very dangerous and destructive. Things that even I do not fully understand. And if we are not careful, it could be disastrous."
"You're not telling me everything," Ilendia accused, raising an eyebrow. "There's a lot more to what you're saying."
"Yes," Axohin admitted. "This is true. But I do not have to tell you everything if I don't want to. There's nothing you could do about it, in any case. I still don't know what I can do."
That's awfully vague, Azair said. If voices in one's head could frown, Azair was doing it. I definitely don't trust him.
Ilendia had to admit that it was rather suspicious. Her unquestioning partiality towards the man was beginning to falter. The fatherly, kind person she had seen in their encounter with the kanshell was a part of Axohin, but he was also someone entirely different. A secretive, mysterious man who apparently knew more than any of them about something, but refused to share the knowledge.
When Axohin refused to say anything further, Ilendia simply let it drop, and they continued to walk down the road towards Isthus. They reached the ravine soon afterward, and began to pick their way up the incline towards the gate. When they were halfway up it, they came in sight of a group of men dressed in wool coats and trousers, holding spears and carrying bows and quivers of arrows strapped to their backs. Each man also had a bedroll and a small pack that would be filled with the necessary tools and rations for the time they would spend out in the wilds. A hunting party. Ilendia squinted as they came near, noticing that there were quite a few in the back of the group carrying nothing but large sacks filled with…something. She had no idea what could be in them—not more supplies, certainly. They should have more than enough. And then Ilendia recognized the leader of the group. Yannos, her eldest brother. Ilendia forced a smile as the hunting party came to a halt in front of them, and Yannos stepped forward.
"Mother's been looking for you," the brawny man said with a scowl. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and had dark, close-cropped hair. As he spoke, he scratched absently where his left ear used to be—it had been bitten off by a vasso a few years back. "She wants you back in the city." He glanced at Axohin, and his expression darkened further. "Who's this?"
Ilendia looked over her shoulder at Axohin. "This is Axohin, Yannos. I see your manners are improving."
Axohin and Yannos stared at each other across the intervening space for a moment, neither blinking or flinching in the slightest. "I am pleased to meet you," Axohin said, his voice calm but his eyes showing a flicker of irritation. "Yannos."
"What are in the bags, Yannos?" Ilendia said as one of the porters in the rear of the group resituated the weight of one of the large sacks on his back. "It's a little odd to be carrying that much gear for a hunting expedition."
Yannos didn't respond, continuing to glare at Axohin. Finally, he broke the gaze and spat in the dirt. "Get back to Isthus, Ilendia," he said, his face still grim. "Now."
"What did you think I was doing?" Ilendia snapped. "I don't just walk back and forth up this ravine all day, Yannos. I was going back. So you can tell Mother—"
"Tell her yourself," her brother said, shifting the position of the bow on his shoulder and then gesturing to the rest of the hunting party. "I have game to catch—you know, responsibility? I know that whenever you hear the word work, your thoughts dribble out the side of your head, but some of us live in a world without childish dreams." He pushed past her and his men followed, some glancing in Ilendia's direction, their expressions mixtures of pity and disgust—most just ignoring her. Ilendia did not look back as her brother left. She just started walking again, more than a little frustrated. She had her problems with her parents—restrictions, punishments, and the like, but she didn't really hate her mother and father. She did hate her brothers. Though she wasn't sure why she still thought of them as such—they had stopped being siblings a long time ago. Now they actively avoided each other, and whenever these little confrontations of theirs arose, it was never pleasant, for either party. The practice of civil conversation was not really popular in Ilendia's family.
She kicked an unoffending stone as she stamped along, Axohin trailing behind her. She wanted to scream, for some reason. Instead she sighed, and tried to calm herself in preparation for the conversation with her mother she was undoubtedly going to have. Her father was harsh, brutal even, but Mother. She was a different story. She didn't yell or break things like father did—she didn't really raise her voice at all. Ilendia would much rather have an argument with her father.
I'll be here if you need me, Azair said, sensing her uneasiness. Instantly Ilendia felt better. Everything would be fine. She would see what her mother wanted, and then she would lock herself in her room and read over the story she was working on. Maybe she could come up with an ending. They reached the gate, and after a brief exchange were let in, though the guards looked at Axohin with puzzled expressions. Ilendia steeled her resolve and set off up the long staircase to meet her Mother. She had just had to get through one conversation.
Ilendia winced as the gates slammed shut behind her. Unfortunately, with her mother, sometimes one conversation was enough.
"I can leave you, if you want," Axohin said as the two of them reached the last set of steps that led to the mansion at the crown of the hill that was Isthus. "I have a feeling that my company might present more problems."
Ilendia shook her head. "My father will want to see you anyway." She glanced around at the various citizens who tended the extensive gardens outside the mansion. "If you haven't noticed, you're sort of an oddity here."
Axohin glanced down at his deeply tanned skin and nodded. "You are right." He glanced back up at her. "I will try to prevent most of the damage you bringing me here might cause. Your parents may not like the fact that you met a strange man in the woods and brought him home." He smiled.
Ilendia chuckled, though the sound was more nervous than anything. She was wound up tighter than a bowstring. "Well, it sounds weird when you say it like that."
"Even in the short time I have spent with you, I believe I can say that we are both very strange people, can I not?" Axohin said.
Ilendia laughed again, more genuine this time. "That is very true."
They reached the front of the mansion, and Ilendia took a deep breath. She opened the door. Her father and mother were standing in the grey stone entrance room, talking in a hushed whisper. Their conversation cut off suddenly as soon as they caught sight of Ilendia and Axohin in the doorway, and both of them scowled automatically.
I'm here, Ilendia, Azair said, his tone soothing. We can make it through this.
Ilendia's heart begin to pound like a drum in her chest, and she stepped forward, trembling. "Father, Mother, this is Ax—"
"Sky above, Ilendia, I don't care!" Father said, his face growing red. "Where have you been?"
Ilendia blinked. "I've been exploring, Father. Down by the south valleys."
Mother looked down at Ilendia's dirt-stained dress and then back at her face, quite calm, but with a threat in her eyes that sent a shiver down Ilendia's spine. "I can see that," her voice was slightly hoarse, as if she had been breathing in smoke. Ilendia's mother was not a very physically imposing woman—she was not tall, nor was she muscularly built. But she did have a sort of imminent aura of danger surrounding her that made her seem as ferocious as a kanshell. Her light brown hair was drawn back into a tail, and her eyes seemed almost grey in the dim artificial light of the everglow jar that hung suspended from the ceiling in the small room.
"If I may interject," Axohin said, and the warmth with which he said the words immediately calmed the entire room. The man looked at Father. "I have a few things I wish to discuss with you, privately. It has to do with the increasing violence of the wildlife—and of the protection of Isthus itself."
Ilendia's father looked troubled, and he glanced at his wife. She hesitated, and then nodded. "Alright," he said to Axohin. "Let's go."
Ilendia swallowed hard as her father led the mysterious man from the room, down the hallway towards the study. She met her mother's eyes.
"Well?" Mother said, her face as cold as ice. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I…" Ilendia floundered helplessly. "I'm sorry about the dress." Immediately she realized that had been a mistake. Mother frowned, and then grabbed Ilendia by the arm and began dragging her towards the other end of the house. Towards the room.
Ilendia began to whimper. "Please, Mother, no. Please…"
"Shut up," she said, the words so frightening because they were so calm.
Ilendia began to struggle slightly, but her mother dug her nails into Ilendia's arms. Ilendia screamed. Her mother looked at her with smoldering eyes, and the scream died off into a pitiful moan. "Please, Mother…" she mumbled, tears suddenly pouring from her eyes. She hated this. She hated this. She hated this.
When they had reached the end of the long hallway, passing doors leading to bedrooms and studies and the large kitchen in the center of the mansion, they came to a small door barred with a rusty lock. Mother produced a key and deftly unlocked the door with one hand while still holding her daughter tightly. Ilendia's arm was bleeding as she was dragged into the room and thrown sprawling to the floor. Her satchel went flying as well and slid up against the wall, though the books did not spill out as they had earlier in the day.
"If you try that again, I will make you throw yourself out a window," Mother said, locking the door behind her. "And then you can dream permanently. I bet you would like that, wouldn't you?"
Ilendia huddled in a ball on the floor, still crying. Twice. Twice in one day. First her father, and then her mother. She hated them. She hated her brothers. She hated everything. Why did Axohin abandon her? Why wasn't he saving her? Why wasn't someone saving her?
"Stand up, Ilendia," Mother said, stepping over her sobbing daughter to the other side of the room. "We need to begin."
I'm here, Azair said. Don't be afraid.
That voice, which normally calmed her, suddenly enraged her. What was Azair doing? What could he do? He was helpless, insignificant. Just a disembodied voice in her head that may or may not be real. She immediately regretted that thought. Was she really questioning Azair's existence now? When she needed him the most? She would not become like her family. She would not pretend that only what she could see and touch was real.
"Thank you, Azair," she said aloud without thinking.
"What was that?" Mother said, her voice cold.
"I'm ready, Mother," Ilendia said with more volume, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She struggled to her feet, and locked eyes with her mother. She was standing on a high platform built into the floor at the back of the room, looking down at Ilendia with a visible malice. There were steps leading up to it, and a stool set in front of it, as if it were a stage made for an audience of one. That wasn't really how this play would work, however. Ilendia went over and sat on the stool, facing away from the platform. She took a deep breath. For this play, the audience was part of the performance.