Hours later, Iliana made the harsh trek back to the village.
Uneasiness crept down her spine as she traveled through the forest. She felt as if she were being watched, but no amount of staring into the undergrowth or canopies could decipher where the feeling came from. She attempted to write it off as an aftereffect of her time spent sitting with Aran, but some part of her knew better.
The reaper held his own, unique feeling. It was cold, and somewhat frightening, but nothing like the uneasiness seeping from the shadowed trees.
They did mention nightmares. The thought sent ice through her veins, and a hurried edge to her pace. While she’d never been injured by one herself--thank the gods--Iliana had grown up knowing exactly how dangerous they were. A memory flashed through her thoughts, and she sank her teeth into her lip, forcing back the pain thruming through her chest.
“Mama’s okay. Just a bit tired.”
Pain laced her thumb, a coppery-tang filling her mouth. Still, she didn’t pull her thumb from her mouth, continuing to bite down on her too-short nail. It helped guide her thoughts, to push the tears away. Mama hated it when she cried. So, she wouldn’t cry.
Even if Mama didn’t recognize her.
She rested her bottom against her heels, watching as Mara ran a wet cloth over their mother’s sweat-soaked forehead. Mara’s free hand clasped their mother’s, a desperate grip born of fear.
She wasn’t supposed to have noticed, Iliana knew. Mara tried her best to hide how scared she was. Iliana wasn’t supposed to see how bad their mama’s sickness had gotten. She was too little. Or at least, that’s what Mara told the priests every time she left Iliana in their care. Mara was the big sister, so it was her job to worry.
“Get my drink, will you?”
Mara stepped away from the small cot their mother laid in, and crossed the room. Iliana turned away, pressing her back to the wall she’d been hiding behind. She’d long ago learned it was best that she stay out of sight when their mother was like this--bed bound and confused. Most of the time, she slept, or cried. But… sometimes, rarely, she’d get angry.
Mara said not to listen to her when she got like that. She said it was normal for the Poisoned to get confused, and that Mama didn’t really mean to forget Iliana. She listened, usually. There’d been a few times, when she was littler, that she didn’t. They were burned into her mind. Mama had screamed about Iliana, saying that Mara wasn’t allowed to bring strangers into the house. How they could barely feed themselves, let alone beggar children. That she needed to put her back out on the street.
When she was better, she didn’t remember. She smiled, and offered hugs. Saying how they were both her baby girls, and how she couldn’t live without them.
Mara said it was the nightmare’s fault.
Iliana… wasn’t sure.
She peeked around the corner, unsettled by how quiet the room had become. She must have leaned out too far, because her mother’s gaze caught her own.
Iliana shook her head, casting the memories to the back of her mind. What was it about this island that brought memories she’d long buried to the forefront of her thoughts? Her mother was long-dead, the wounds her disease had gouged into Iliana’s heart had faded to old scars. She’d been young enough that most of the memories were fuzzy, now, with the exclusion of a few, random experiences.
Still, wariness flooded her system and she was careful to avoid straying from the main path. Most nightmares held the same poison that had plagued her childhood. Her mother had died from a scratch. Anything more than that and she’d have never been born, as most of the Poisoned died within hours, if not seconds. Less commonly, the “lucky” ones, like her mother, managed to survive a few months to a couple years in constant pain.
Thankfully, Iliana reached the village without incident. Taking deep breaths to soothe her frayed nerves, she paused just inside the strange, vine-like tree branches to study the scenery more fully than she had the day before.
Several cabins that mirrored the one she’d spent the night in littered each side of the dirt path. They ended where the path met the fountain. Beyond it laid a small clearing, lined by what appeared to be trade shops. Absently, Iliana wondered what currency the sirens used, if any. Most commonly, a country used coin-cut gems, copper, silver, or gold. She’d yet to see sirens exchanging those, though. Were the goods free? Then why have a shop?
At the far end of the clearing laid a building larger than the rest, and more ordadent. Inna’s home, perhaps, or maybe Rhode’s. She was inclined to lean towards the goddess, however, given Rhode’s reluctance to claim leadership.
Passing her cabin, Iliana drew closer to the shops. A wooden sign dangled above each doorway, indicating what lay within. The closest boasted a needle and spool, the farthest displaying an anvil. There was even the painted hand signifying a healer. She wondered if they’d used that symbol because it was so easily identifiable, given that most of the time healers who posted a hand mark were witches, not sirens.
A squeak of surprise escaped her as she spun around. Dalphie stood behind her, faint amusement flickering across her face.
“I’m glad to see you returned safely,” she continued.
Iliana studied her, a frown playing across her lips. “Are all sirens as quiet as you are?”
Dalphie cocked a brow, obviously prompting Iliana to expand. She hesitated, then offered a small shrug.
“You walk without sound. I’m usually pretty good at noticing when people are coming up behind me.”
She hadn’t noticed it when they first met, but there was something… unsettling about the Dalphie’s silent approach. Sure, Iliana had been distracted, but she’d never been the type to ignore the world around her. Iliana was too paranoid for that. She should have heard something.
“Oh,” Dalphie replied. “Sorry if I startled you. It’s a bad habit.”
Iliana bit the inside of her cheek, resisting the urge to drag the questioning further. There were more important matters to consider than curiosity over the siren’s silence. It took a moment, but she pulled her thoughts away by the scruff, and focused her attention on the why, instead of the how, of Dalphie’s approach.
“Were you looking for me?”
“Rhode told me to keep an eye out for you. And, I have lunch. Well, dinner, now.”
She frowned, turning her eyes to the sky. Was it really that late?
“I’m not hungry.”
Dalphie’s expression faltered, before the faint smile returned in full-force. “Still, you should eat. Food is important for humans.”
That said, the siren turned around and started back towards the guest cabin. Iliana stared after her in confusion. Wouldn’t it be important for sirens, too?
Shaking off the question, Iliana darted after Dalphie. If nothing else, she could use the time to get to know the siren a bit better. The more she knew about the island and its inhabitants, the easier it would become to escape when the time came.
Despite Iliana’s initial intention when joining Dalphie for dinner, she had little chance to question the siren. She ended up seated at the table as the woman darted around the room, setting up a simple meal of fish, cheese, bread, and rum. When Iliana questioned her about the meal, as she hadn’t seen any livestock during her walk, Dalphie’s face lit up.
“I’ll show you!” she’d declared.
Which was how Iliana found herself being dragged from the village only hours before dusk and given a tour of the small farm the sirens cared for. It laid in the opposite direction of the cliff she had climbed, and seemed to be thriving despite being buried in the thick forest that made up the majority of the cove.
From the explanations that Dalphie offered, she surmised that the state of the farm was the direct result of the Children. Every few months the sirens would pay for one nymph and one faerie to spend a full week blessing the earth and bettering the state of the few crops and animals the sirens kept.
“Inna doesn’t think that far ahead,” Dalphie said, a wry smile playing across her lips. “When she created this haven, she wanted somewhere that was peaceful and secluded, but didn’t quite think about day-to-day survival. There are hundreds of places to conceal yourself on this island, but few to plant. So, we had to improvise.”
By the time Dalphie was satisfied that Iliana knew the ins-and-outs of the farm, the sun had fallen past the treeline. Despite having done very little with the day, Iliana was exhausted. The moment she was alone, she buried herself in her blankets and slept.
She dreamt of standing on a beach, holding a red string in her hands. The thread disappeared into the ocean, and was so taunt it threatened to pull her under.
Kain’s voice echoed from beneath the waves, asking her to help him.
The next morning, Iliana managed to escape the village before Rhode or Dalphie came calling. Part of her knew that the best plan would have been to wait for whomever would come, but the rest of her was left reeling from restless nightmares.
She couldn’t face them while her mind offered nothing but the memories of how she lost her crew.
Unwilling to face the tough climb she’d endured the day before, Iliana wandered down to the beach. Her eyes skimmed the large, sandy area before catching sight of rock cutting out ground further down. A closer inspection revealed that it wasn’t just one stone, that another leaned against it, and that the sand in this area was really just a thin layer over rocky ground.
If I sit here, they won’t see me if they come looking.
Satisfied with her plan, she wedged herself between the rocks. With nothing to distract her, her thoughts continued to spiral. A heavy feeling settled in her heart as she tried to force the memories away. Focus. She urged herself. Think of what you need to do, not what you should’ve done.
Iliana rested her head against the side of the stony alcove. Her eyes searched what little she could see of the open ocean. Part of her desperately yearned for something, anything really to appear in the distance. There had to be a way out. The sirens wouldn’t house her forever, not as she was. And Iliana would not settle for being stuck on this island, forced to live out the rest of her life alone in a forest full of nightmares.
You don’t have to be alone, a traitorous part of her pointed out. You could say yes. Then you’d have a family. Would it really be so bad?
She shook her head, dismissing the thought. Iliana didn’t want this kind of family. If she was going to join one…
Unbidden, her mind produced Kain’s nervous smile and his offer. A lump formed in her throat as tears began to form. She raised a clenched fist up, rubbing the tip of her knuckle beneath her eyes.
I give up.
Too much was happening for her to simply shove the memories away once again. Maybe it was better to let them have their way just this once. Alone, she could mourn. Perhaps once her chest no longer felt like it would burst, she would be able to find an answer to… everything.
So, she cried. She let out strong, body-shaking sobs without ever shifting her head from the rock.
She cried for Kain.
She cried for Artemios, Saul, Ancus and Kreon.
She cried for the future she’d lost, and the sister she’d most never see again. She cried for the ship that had become her home, a ship now drifting without a crew. She cried out the stress that had consumed her over a problem she might have no answer for.
And some time later, when she felt she could cry no longer, Iliana raised her stinging eyes to the ocean once again. Through the tears that remained, as she couldn’t bring herself to wipe them away, she spotted a faint shape peaking beyond the edge of the cliffs. As Iliana stared, the shape blurred, then disappeared.
Was… was that a ship? She wondered, then shook her head. It was impossible. If there was a ship out there, the fog would have rose.