By Joanna Maciejewska
I remember it clearly: it was three days after we saw the first oskrin, and two days before we hastily finished raising the temporary fencing around the settlement when Miye first complained about being sick. Funny how such unimportant details stick in the mind even after years have passed. She was thin and rather short for her age with brownish, always tangled hair resembling an impassable thicket. The only beautiful accent in her triangular face were her big eyes, a shade darker than her hair, always wide open and watching intently, maybe a bit too intently, as if she wanted others to look away. She might have seemed a bit odd, but she was always the picture of health.
Tanned and seasoned by salt in the ocean wind, she made it through the three-week-long sea journey in better condition than any of us. While others were hanging over the railing throwing up food, or withering slowly in the hull where we spent most of the journey, Miye was all over the place. I don’t know how, but she always managed to sneak outside. On more than one occasion, some sailor brought her, still wriggling to get free from her captor’s grip, back to her father, Tarish.
“I apologize,” was all he muttered, as no explanations were needed, and nothing could be done anyway.
No punishments, threats, nor promises could keep Miye from sneaking out again, climbing the rigging, and laughing as she ran away from sailors, jumping from rope to rope like a little simp.
“I swear, her mother must have been at least a quarter feral!” Tarish used to say whenever he heard Miye’s laughter followed by the sailor’s heavy curses.
“And what, you didn’t notice the fur?” someone would reply. Back then, I didn’t get the joke, but Tarish would turn red as a brick.
It all ended one day when the first mate caught Miye.
“So eager to be on the deck, are we?” he raised his eyebrow as he spoke. “Then you’re going to work like the rest of the crew.”
And Miye ended up swabbing the deck, learning how to tie knots, and looking out from the crow’s nest. Not exactly what a father would wish for a young wiefearn to do, but I think Tarish was just relieved that she wasn’t getting into trouble anymore. From what I saw, when she was back in the hull for the rare nights when the weather was not good enough to sleep outside, the sailors didn’t go easy on her, and she was wrecked. But she was also tanned and gaining muscle, stamina, and endurance while we still hung from the railing from time to time and saw the sun on the rare days when the deck was quiet enough to let us out.
But then Miye, healthy and resilient Miye, said she was sick.
I was resting in the shade of the partially raised fence with some others, enjoying the midday break. Summer on Imheria was hot, and it made more sense to rest through the hottest hours of the day instead of pointlessly exhausting all our strength. We were spared the heaviest tasks, though we claimed we were grown up enough to handle them. I guess we were just typical fourteen-year-olds who thought that being pioneers in a new land made them stronger.
This was when Miye walked past us. Three days after we saw the first oskrin and two days before we finished the fence. I don’t know why I even remember the event so exactly. Even a quick glimpse told me something was not right. Miye always either ran or walked vigorously. When she was exhausted, she would just be slower, but still looking around inquisitively, ready to dash just like a wild animal. I don’t think I had ever seen her like that. Leg by leg, she dragged herself along the street, her body stiff and head bobbing to the sides as if it was too heavy to hold straight. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought she was chewing on fogum leaves.
She staggered straight to the little hut in which our physician, Sil Karia, saw to her patients. We always kept away from Sil Karia as she was eager to check our ears and hair, or throw us in a big washtub and scrub the dirt from us. Of course, Miye was the best in avoiding the coarse cleaning brush, but that day she walked straight to the pudgy wiefearn instructing some young ones on the importance of washing their hands. “After all,” she used to say, “we come from Ozellium and we are civilized, not like those savages that live over here.”
“Miye, what’s wrong, petal?” asked Karia when she saw the little wiefearn stumbling over her own legs.
I stretched my hearing, trying to catch the weak response that came from Miye’s mouth.
“It’s my In. My In is sick.”
My friends looked at each other, exchanging knowing looks, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Miye was not speaking metaphors.
“Oh petal, your In can’t be sick,” said Karia, gently stroking Miye’s tangled hair. “The In is a part of you, it can’t get sick.”
“But it’s gotten sick, Sil Karia!” Miye was on the verge of crying. She froze for a moment like a sand statue, and then she threw up on the ground just by the Sil’s feet.
I have to admit, the physician kept her face almost straight.
“It’s a bit of upset stomach,” she explained calmly. “Come, I’ll give you some salve to make it feel better.”
They walked inside, but I couldn’t watch anymore; we had to get back to work. I didn’t see Miye leave and couldn’t tell if the salve made her feel better, but later on, when we were putting resin mixture between the wooden logs of the palisade, I spotted Sil Karia walking out of the hut. She held a scarf to her face and inspected the place where Miye’s sick was still drying in the sun. Then she disappeared for a moment inside and came back with a flask of dark liquid, which she poured over the spot. The look of concern on her face worried me.
We completed the fence before more oskrin came. The palisade stood tall and proud, and we had guards posted on the lookout tower constantly scanning the area in search of threats. We burned torches to scare away the monsters and never left the settlement at night. Except for that, life went on as usual. I wondered how Miye was, but didn’t see her anywhere.
It could have been both a good sign and a bad one. She could have been sneaking out as usual, or lying down stricken with sickness. I didn’t find enough courage to visit Tarish and ask about her. Our families were never very close. We came from different parts of Ozellium, and all we shared was three weeks of sea journey and being the first settlers in Imheria.
With the palisade finished, I had some spare time, so I went around the settlement eavesdropping. But people were only talking about summer ending soon and preparations for winter. Some worried if we would survive it, and others pondered the threat of oskrin and the locals. So far, the ferals were friendly enough, but one could never know with them. Considered an inferior kind of fearn, ferals were much like beasts, primitive and not too smart. Even their looks, when they came to visit for the first time, were barbaric. They were decorated in bones and feathers, with unfearnly faces, many of them resembling snouts, bodies covered with fur, and large hands with overgrown claws, which made them look more like animals than fearn. Back then, I didn’t understand why they didn’t at least try to become civilized, and I could clearly see why in Ozellium they had to keep to their district. Now, after all those years, I’m unable to see the world in black and white anymore. But that’s another story, for another time.
I think it was a week after Miye visited Sil Karia when I got to see her again. It was my night to be on lookout, so I stood at the palisade staring at the blackness of the wilderness. Sometimes I thought I could see a faint glow of the gems that glittered on oskrin bodies, but none ever came close enough for me to be sure. We didn’t have many oskrin back in Ozellium; our fathers and grandfathers fought and drove them into one quarter of the sewers. We never managed to kill them all, and it seemed there were always a few left behind to breed. But Ozellium fearn didn’t know the threat they could pose. In Imheria, vast wilderness as it was, the oskrin roamed freely across the land. We knew little of what they could do, and though the wise fearn ensured us that oskrin rarely formed big packs, we still feared their attack. There was only a palisade between us and the unknown, and there were only a few fearn doing their best to see through the veil of darkness.
We were all varispected; that’s why we were put on the night watch. But some said that the oskrin bodies radiated no heat, so our thermal spectrum was useless anyway. If an oskrin appeared, would I manage to sound the alarm before it got to me? I stood there, in the claws of fear, staring into the distant forest and hoping to spot anything before it came after me.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” a familiar voice said. “So quiet, calm, and mysterious.”
First I flinched, caught unaware. I didn’t hear her coming, but there she was. Her hair was messy as usual, and her clothes looked like she hadn’t changed them in a while. She was squatting down on the top of the logs, resting her hands leisurely on the sharpened tips of the wood, balancing with ease, almost as if she was nonchalantly sitting in a cozy armchair and not clinging to a palisade.
“I don’t understand why everybody fears it so much,” she interrupted me. Or maybe she didn’t even hear me speaking.
Only then, in the faint light of the smaller of the moons, I saw drops of sweat on her skin not just silvered by the moonlight, but sickly pale.
“Is your In still sick?” I asked.
Miye smiled gently at me.
“It’s getting better now,” she reassured me, but some undertone in her voice told me that she wasn’t telling the whole truth.
I was about to smile as well, if for nothing else than to cover up my doubts about her state, but Miye was already looking back at the forest. There was some strange longing in her face that enchanted me so much I didn’t notice Miye’s eyes closing slowly and her body going limp. My Ra did not realize what was going on, but my In reacted almost instantly. As I dashed toward her, I was grateful that she fell backwards, onto the palisade, not forward — into the darkness.
I always thought Miye would be as light as a feather, so her weight surprised me. I called out to other fearn for a replacement at my post, and burdened by the unconscious wiefearn, I made my way to Sil Karia’s hut.
“Sil Karia! Sil Karia!” I shouted pounding at the door. “Miye’s unwell!”
She came out sooner than I thought, still in her nightgown. Her expression was already of dire seriousness.
“Get in,” she huffed, moving to the side and letting me into the dark corridor. I knew the way to the patient room, so I rushed straight there as Karia saw to some lighting. A short flash ripped through the darkness, temporarily hurting my eyes, but they quickly adapted. And in no time, there was a lit lamp in the room.
“She came up on the palisade,” I explained as I lay Miye down on the bed. “Then she lost balance and fell down.”
“Was she sick? Did she cough? Sneeze?” Sil Karia inquired with her hand already on the young wiefearn’s forehead.
“No, nothing. She just was there, staring at the forest,” I replied. “Maybe I should get her father?”
To my surprise the physician shook her head.
“I will handle it later. For now, will you be so kind as to watch over her? I need to prepare some salves.”
I nodded, slightly confused. I couldn’t understand why Sil Karia didn’t want me to go find Tarish, but then I was happy enough that I wasn’t simply sent away. I sat by the bed watching Miye looking so calm. If she was really sick, one could not tell it by her expression.
Karia came back after a while with two mugs. One she lay on the sturdy dresser, the other she handed to me.
“Here, have some broth. It might be a long night,” she explained, as she fetched a small spatula out of the dresser drawer. It was wrapped in a piece of cloth, and Karia used it to get some liquid into Miye’s mouth. I kept sipping on the broth, enjoying the warmth it gave my body, and watching the physician doing her work.
“Is her In really sick?” I whispered in the end.
Sil Karia gave me a weird look.
“In can’t get sick,” she claimed. “But sometimes, when the body is sick, the In gets confused.”
I nodded, or maybe my head was bobbing already out of tiredness. Funny, I thought, I shouldn’t be that tired. But then my eyes were already closing, and my head was getting drowsy. Karia simply reached over and took the mug out of my suddenly numb hand. I think I saw her gentle smile, though by then, I was already falling asleep. In no time I rested my head on Miye’s bed and fell into nothingness.
“If Pershoni didn’t put all that gohn skip in their heads, maybe we’d be able to actually learn something!” Karia’s angry voice stirred me out of my blissful slumber. “Sick In! That’s just ridiculous!”
I slowly lifted my eyelids letting my eyes adjust to what I thought was morning light, but instead I saw only a lamp by the bedside. While I was asleep, someone had moved me to another room. I wanted to get up and ask Karia how Miye was, but then I heard another voice:
“For Rin’s sake, not so loud, wiefearn! Do you want to get killed for heresy?”
I didn’t recognize who the fearn was, and it only sparked my curiosity. Why would our physician call for someone other than Miye’s father?
“I am not saying that they don’t exist, Harrevith,” Karia said. “Just pointing out that flooding the young ones’ heads with such complicated ideas … we would have a better chance of learning what happened otherwise. The whole colony’s existence is at stake!”
Harrevith … I knew this name. After a few moments, I managed to recall that it was our Elder’s son, said to be the next leader of the colony. But why would Karia call for him, and why was the colony at risk? I was anxious about eavesdropping, but I kept listening intently.
“Karia, it’s only one sick wiefearn! Be reasonable!”
“I would be reasonable if she had any ailment or disease I know of, but it doesn’t seem to be an ordinary fever. There’s more to it; I can tell, and it might be the start of a plague we don’t know how to fight. Before we figure it out, everybody might be dead!”
There was a lingering silence after her words. I sat in bed trying not to breathe too loud in case they might discover I was awake. I was terrified by what I had heard, though I have to admit, I was young and had little understanding. I didn’t care about the plague, and the whole colony dying seemed both improbable and unimportant at the time. All I could think of was Miye having some sickness Sil Karia didn’t know how to treat. And that she could die because of it.
“And the young fearn?” asked Harrevith. “Is he sick too?”
“I don’t know,” tiredness echoed in Karia’s voice. “I don’t even know if it’s contagious. I don’t know anything!” she almost shouted the last words, then paused — maybe to calm herself down. “He brought her here, they seem to be friends. He doesn’t have any symptoms, but if it’s pestilent, my guess would be either he or Tarish will catch it next.”
There was a muffled sound that resembled ‘danzen’ and shuffling and rustling followed. I leaned forward straining to hear, trying to figure out what was going on, and when the realization came, I hastily landed back on my pillow pulling it over my red ears. I wasn’t the shy, blushing type, but overhearing some other fearn mating just in the next room was too much for me. Of course, all the nuances of the situation escaped me. I didn’t wonder about their motives back then, and why they kept their relation a secret instead of announcing they were mates was beyond me. Though I would never admit it back then, I was still young, and many of the subtleties of adult lives and doings were unclear to me, simply irrational nonsense at best.
I laid in the darkness, pressing the pillow to my burning ears to muffle the sounds from the other room, and all I could think of was Miye being sick.
Despite Sil Karia’s concerns, I didn’t get sick. She kept me in bed for another three days, but since I didn’t show any signs of weakness, she let me visit Miye every once in a while. Sometimes I thought she just hoped that in the end I’d catch whatever her other patient had. But I didn’t. I was the way I’ve always been, a healthy young fearn.
Miye, to the contrary, was still sick, and even though her state did not seem to get any worse, there were no signs of recovery either. There were days when she laid motionless, unconscious but calm, and others when she shrieked in pain or moaned feverishly. And I sat there holding her hand in mine watching drops of sweat form on her skin.
Sil Karia seemed helpless. She put compresses on Miye’s head and chest, burned incense, used balms and salves … nothing worked. She even resorted to consulting farmers living outside of Galstead, who came from Ozellium years ago to colonize the new world, but none of them had ever heard of such sickness.
Even when I was finally allowed to go home, I visited whenever my duties allowed. I still held night watch, staring at the forest, but fear had finally released its grip on me. I don’t know whether it was due to the routine and lack of real threats, or if I started to perceive the forest the way Miye did. Of course, back then I was ready to claim it was the latter; but now, after all those years, my memory might be dimmer, but my understandings are broader. We still saw oskrin from time to time, but none of them ever came close to the palisade. Nor were there any attacks. Over time we grew used to their presence, and though no one was willing to let their guard down when outside of Galstead at dusk, fear did not cling to us anymore. We protected ourselves the best we could, and life had to go on.
Sometimes I met Tarish in the infirmary, but we never spoke except for exchanging greetings. I could see how day after day he was slowly fading, being only a shadow of the fearn who arrived on Imheria. I don’t think he talked to anyone anymore, though from what I’ve heard, he tried to perform his duties as usual. The only person he still had some words for was Sil Karia, but more often than not he was just pleading or arguing with her. I felt embarrassed whenever I came in at the wrong time, witnessing their heated discussions. I escaped to Miye’s room hoping they didn’t even notice me.
I think it was nearly a month since Miye had gotten sick when I learned what Tarish and Karia were arguing about. The whole settlement was buzzing like a hive of angry wasps, and news traveled quicker than wind through the trees: a feral had arrived at Galstead.
I wish I could say that I wasn’t there with the crowd, consumed by unhealthy curiosity, but I couldn’t resist the chance to see a feral. In Ozellium, they were only allowed within one district, and my father ensured I never got close to “those primitives,” as he used to call them. So I rushed to the settlement’s gates to watch the feral enter confidently. I admit feeling a bit ashamed, and I stayed between the buildings at first. But being unable to see, I ended up climbing on some crates piled against a shed. In the end I had a better view than most of the crowd at the gates.
I think it was a female, though I couldn’t tell for sure, as she had a snout and copper-hued fur all over her body. Her garment was leather-made with lots of fringes and bone bead embroidery. Her golden varispected eyes glittered in the sun as she looked around with confidence. Only after a closer look, I noticed obsidian-like claws and a long, thin tail resembling that of a flene.
“I am here by the request of a fearn named Tarish,” she spoke loudly in low tones that resembled a fearn’s voice. She spoke our language, but her accent was so heavy and unfamiliar to me that it took a few moments to understand what she meant. “I am here to see to his daughter’s health.”
A displeased murmur travelled through the crowd, but no one stepped forth or replied. So, the feral stood by the gate looking around for at least a few minutes. Finally, a small figure pushed through the crowd, and I saw Sil Karia in her best garment with her shirt tightly tucked and a blue bow by her neck.
“Come with me,” she said simply, and although no signs of displeasure showed on her face, I knew she was not happy with the turn of events.
It only then dawned on me that this was the topic of the discussions she had with Tarish. The words I overheard by chance now made sense: they were arguing of whether to ask ferals for help with Miye.
Sil Karia turned, and the crowd parted as the tribal followed our physician.
I quickly jumped off the crates and rushed to the infirmary. I knew that most likely I wouldn’t be allowed inside, but no one could forbid me peeking through the window, especially if they didn’t even know I was there. Karia usually left the window ajar to allow the fresh air in, so with a little luck, I’d be able to listen too.
I made it just in time. The feral was approaching Miye. Sil Karia was at the door, hesitant whether she should enter or not, but she let out a yell of protest when the feral whipped out a short bone knife. It was all Karia managed to do before the blade marked Miye’s forearm drawing blood. I watched the narrow red stream trickling down her arm in horror and Sil Karia rushing to stop the bleeding. Even more terrifying was watching the feral calmly step away, allowing the physician to get to the patient while inspecting the blade’s tip with squinted eyes. To my surprise, the feral wiefearn sniffed the blood carefully. I almost expected her to lick it, too.
“All those salves and concoctions of yours will do no good,” the voice was deep and guttural like an echo in a cave. “They will only make things worse and drag out her pain.”
Squatting by the edge of the window and hoping I wouldn’t be spotted, I could still clearly see Karia’s face turning red with anger. She straightened up and looked at the feral.
“I beg your pardon, Sil—” she started, aggravated.
“My name is Ish-Thrann,” the feral interrupted her. “And I am referred to as a shaman. All other titles are just artificial fearn inventions.”
“What gives you the right to judge my methods?” Karia demanded. “I’ve been trained by the finest of Ozellium scholars!”
“So I see.” Ish-Thrann did not look impressed. “If my help is not needed here, and you think you can help the young wiefearn, I shall take my leave. Otherwise, it is you who should leave and let me work.”
I could see that Sil Karia was waging an inner battle with herself, pride against the truth. For Miye’s sake I hoped she would not be stubborn.
“Fine,” Karia finally gave in. “Do your best, feral.”
With those words, she left the room.
Ish-Thrann reached in her bag and took out a small stone bowl, a piece of rock that had been patiently carved and polished until it was smooth.
She placed some dried herbs in the middle and lit it on fire with two stones. A gentle smoke rose from the bowl almost instantly, and the smell soon travelled to the window where I stood. It was a pleasant aroma of meadow flowers and honey, and from what I could tell from the effect it had on me, it was supposed to calm and soothe. The shaman placed the stone bowl on the dresser and took out a tiny wooden cask from her bag. From what I could see, there was nothing more than greenish mud inside, and I felt disgusted watching the shaman smear the mixture over the cut on Miye’s forearm.
“It will stop the bleeding,” she said aloud, to my surprise. She was moving the back of her claws gently over Miye’s forehead and cheeks. “And ensure no inflammation will start, although I wouldn’t worry about it too much. How long has she been in this state?”
Only when she spoke the last words did she look directly at me.
“About a month, Sil … shaman,” I corrected myself, as there was no point in pretending I wasn’t eavesdropping. I could feel my cheeks and ears burning with shame.
She simply nodded.
“No reason to stay outside,” she said making an inviting gesture.
It was enough for me, my curiosity being stronger than any other compulsion. I climbed in through the window.
It was then, when I had a closer look at her, I could say she was definitely a female despite the animal-like features, although it made my cheeks burn again when I started wondering whether her breasts were covered with fur too. I noticed darker lines on her face, which made me wonder if they were natural, or if she dyed her fur. They curled on her cheekbones in mysterious shapes, making me think of sailors’ tattoos.
“Is … is Miye going to die?”
She paused and withdrew her hand from Miye’s face. For a moment she stared at the wiefearn lying down in the bed, and my heart kept throbbing as I awaited the answer.
“No.” Ish-Thrann’s one word reply made me sigh deeply. “She is not going to die.”
That was enough to relieve the burden I’d been carrying for days. I was so comforted to learn this, so overjoyed or maybe even overwhelmed with happiness, that a strange tone in the shaman’s voice escaped me back then. Only later, months, even years, after these events, when the scene returned in my memories, it became clear to me that Ish-Thrann was hiding something from me. Maybe she wasn’t even doing it to deceive; maybe I was too focused on myself to understand the message, to ask the right questions. While I rejoiced in the good news, I didn’t think to inquire how she could know that Miye would recover, and more importantly, what my friend was suffering from. Now, looking back at those early years, I still curse myself for such carelessness.
“She will sleep now for a couple of days,” said the shaman. “And then she will recover if that unruly wiefearn outside decides to listen to my advice,” she added with a displeased tone. Then her varispected, honey-gold eyes stared straight at me. “When both moons’ faces brighten up to full circles, come at night and visit your friend. She should be awake by then.”
I stared with little understanding, and before I could ask for some explanation, Ish-Thrann was already leaving. I heard her giving some instructions to Sil Karia, whose displeased voice echoed through the wall. As curious as I was, I fought off the urge to eavesdrop. It was better to make sure that our physician didn’t know I was there at all, so I hastily made my escape through the window.
Ish-Thrann’s words were true. Miye slept for a couple of days, not in a half-conscious slumber filled with pain and unknown nightmares, but a rest of someone regaining their strength. Sil Karia walked around with a displeased face, but apparently she followed the shaman’s advice.
I went about my life performing duties and helping out my father who was working on new irrigation systems for our fields, but when the full moons came, I made my way to the infirmary. This time luck didn’t accompany me; the window was closed. I was ready to turn back, swallowing my disappointment, when I thought I noticed something moving in the dark. A few moments later my eyes caught the faint heat signature of someone getting out of bed. Risking the chance, I gently knocked at the window.
It was a few moments before Miye opened the window and let me in. I was happy to see her in good form, but she simply turned away, walking toward a pile of clothes neatly folded on the chair.
“We need to get outside,” she said simply, as if we were just talking about stepping out of a tavern to catch a breath of fresh air.
“Outside?” I uttered. All the words, the news I had to share, my reassurances that I knew she’d be alright, all sunk into confusion.
“Outside of Galstead, of Tregallia province,” she explained as she pulled a shirt over her night gown. “You are going with me, aren’t you? Otherwise, why would you come?”
I wanted to explain the whole story, the shaman’s words, even my feelings for her, but a quiet rumble from behind the wall reminded me where we were. Should Sil Karia wake up, we would not get a chance to talk, not to mention the trouble I would get myself into for sneaking into the infirmary. Having all this in mind, I simply nodded, and Miye’s face brightened. She struggled for a moment with her breeches, and I struggled with whether to help her, or turn away to offer some privacy as she dressed. I did neither, and Miye didn’t seem to care. So I just stared at her body while she readied herself, feeling my cheeks burning but refusing to look away.
Through our short journey along Galstead’s streets, as Miye did her best to avoid the settlement guard and anywhere well lit by the two moons, I tried to convince her to stop and maybe explain something. But her focus was so determined and persistent that I simply followed her outside. She knew her way around, and even though I believed it was impossible to sneak in or out of the fence, Miye proved me wrong.
When I felt the harsh wood of the palisade behind me, staring at the darkness in front of us, I finally stopped and refused to follow. Miye turned to look at me when she realized I wasn’t moving, but the surprise on her face was quickly replaced by an understanding smile. She gently held my hand.
“It’s safe,” she reassured me in a soft whisper while my fears drowned in the smell of her breath. “I’ve done this before.”
Her voice, so alluring, so gentle… Even though my Ra was ready to point out that somehow doing “this” had gotten her sick, my In was ready to follow Miye anywhere, and I think she knew it. With all the expertise of an experienced scout, she led me to the dark line of the forest — the lookouts on the palisade never even knew we were there.
Of course, even though there was something seductive in her voice and behavior, I had no doubt this night was not going to fulfill a young fearn’s most secret dreams, but the mystery I had become a part of, the riddle that I was about to solve, kept me going. And in the end, Miye was right. The forest, although dark and full of the unknown, seemed to be safe and quiet. Every once in a while I looked around expecting to see oskrin gems glowing in the night, but there were none. It even made me wonder if all the fearn in Galstead were afraid of some child’s tale. Some of the settlers claimed they saw oskrin, but that was days ago. I started to doubt whether the danger was real at all.
We entered a small clearing. The bushes rustled as we pushed our way through them, and I was distracted enough at first that I didn’t see where Miye was leading me. But as soon as I realized what I was looking at, my whole body froze at once.
The creature was not big, maybe Miye’s size, though its long, thin tail made it look bigger. Its skin was pitch black with large teal gems glowing faintly in the dark. It turned its head toward us as we approached. It tried to move, but something held it in place.
“Berjor’s nets!” I whispered as the understanding dawned on me.
Shortly after our arrival at Imheria an older fearn named Berjor declared he was going to catch an oskrin. He claimed that a certain scientist in Ozellium would pay good coin for a live specimen from Imheria. I didn’t understand why he would do that since an oskrin was an oskrin, and we still had some in the sewers back in Ozellium. But Berjor argued it was for “studying differences between oskrin subspecies.” Most of the settlers laughed at the idea, but Berjor journeyed into the forest setting out countless traps made of nyte netting. He checked them regularly, but as weeks passed, and the nets remained empty, he simply left them be. And when the actual sighting of an oskrin occurred, he claimed there was no point in going into the forest anymore, as the traps were surely destroyed. Some fearn laughed, thinking he was simply too scared to go, but no one said it openly.
The thought that an oskrin fell into one of his traps made me smile bitterly.
“He got trapped, and he can’t get out,” explained Miye. “I wasn’t strong enough to help him.”
I looked at her in horror. The tone of her voice, the way she spoke … as if it was her favorite gin, or maybe a poor, young doobi, not a deadly monster. Is this why she lured me here? To help her?
“Miye, it’s an oskrin!” I stated the obvious and couldn’t help wondering which part of it she didn’t understand.
“He’s in pain. He can’t go back to his den,” she said with sadness in her voice. “But now I am strong enough to help him.”
“When did you find him?” I asked trying to buy some time and find a way out of the situation. I watched the creature, still afraid it might somehow dart out and attack us, and then I noticed it looked very thin, nearly famished.
Miye thought about it for a moment.
“Some days ago,” she finally replied, “before my In got unwell. I tried to help him, but didn’t have enough strength. He made me strong so I could free him, and we could go away from Galstead,” Miye paused and looked me in the eyes. “And you can go with us too.”
I think this was the time when I took a step back. I didn’t know what was going on, and my curiosity and will to accompany Miye were now dimmed by the sight of a very real monster that apparently tried to use my friend to get free. How? Some kind of poison, or a disease? Did this creature make Miye sick?
“Miye, it’s an oskrin!” I repeated myself in vain. I understood then that it was not the creature that manipulated my friend. It was as dumb as any beast. I was just willing to believe it so because I refused to accept the truth: Miye was crazed, and she was about to set a monster free.
She ignored me, approaching the oskrin, and I jumped forward to grab her arm, ready to pull her away. I realized that I made a mistake agreeing to help her, that a mature fearn would behave responsibly and wake Sil Karia. I felt ashamed that I failed everyone by acting so childishly, and I was ready to make things right.
I was not ready to fly five units backwards when Miye brushed my hand off, releasing her arm from my grip with ease. A young wiefearn who was bed-ridden for days managed to free herself from a nearly adult fearn. She looked at me for a moment, and I could swear I saw a teal glare in her eyes. It could have been the moons’ light reflecting in them, but it was too much. Confused and scared, I ran back to Galstead. My imagination fed my fears with pictures of oskrin attacking from the darkness, but contrary to my expectations, I made it to the palisade safe and sound.
I don’t know if anybody saw me that night wandering through the town, and I didn’t really care. I didn’t stop until I snuck back into my bed, hoping that familiar surroundings would ease my racing mind and throbbing heart. I tried to convince myself it was just a dream, that I never went to the infirmary, and all that happened was nothing more than a realistic nightmare.
I lied to myself, and then I lied to the others when I went to visit Miye as usual the following morn. Part of me hoped that she would be there, maybe still unconscious but in her bed, but the memories of the previous night were still fresh. I don’t know how I managed to pretend I was shocked at the news she had disappeared, or how I survived those days we went out looking for her. Nobody ever questioned me, and they all saw in me just a young fearn who lost his dear friend.
Days passed, then months, then years. Galstead survived two plagues that Sil Karia was so afraid of, and even though the second pestilence took my father and other decent fearn, we slowly grew and expanded far beyond the palisade we had built the first year. Poor Tarish drank himself to death, never having come to terms with his daughter’s disappearance. Harrevith took the post of Elder after his father. I watched him stand in the crowd looking on as poor Karia was burned to death, accused of using psykaotic powers. If I hadn’t known better, I would never have guessed those two were lovers in the past.
As for me, I started a successful business trading with feral kind and selling some of their craftwork to Ozellium. Their tribes suffered harsh winters as well, and as Galstead grew and took more and more resources, ferals were willing to trade some of their totems and trinkets for supplies. Sometimes I felt guilty about us fearn bringing them such fate in their own land, but then I thought at least I was helping them survive. Every once in a while I asked about a shaman named Ish-Thrann, but none of my contacts knew of her. Or they just weren’t willing to help me.
Over the years, the oskrin sightings became quite regular. There weren’t that many attacks, unless someone ventured deep into the wilderness. I wonder about the true nature of those creatures and if they were really the bloodthirsty beasts some fearn described. Maybe we made them so by pushing them into a small part of the sewers? Maybe they were just like other animals?
I kept my study quiet, as many fearn did not like those who dare to question common truths. And many of them were quick to set fire to someone tied to a stake. I did not wish to end my life this way.
I gathered what meager knowledge I could without attracting too much attention and kept coming back to that night when I saw Miye for the last time. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if I stayed, if I didn’t let my fear govern my actions.
Sometimes, when both moons are full, I find myself unable to sleep. I sit by the window and stare at the sky above the roofs of Galstead. And sometimes I can see a creature with pitch-black skin squatting on a chimney. The way it balances on the edge with ease and stretches out to look into the distance wakes up old memories.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I hear these words again so clear. “So quiet, calm, and mysterious.”
Sometimes the creature on the rooftops turns its head toward me, just as if it knew I was here by the window … watching. I see a triangular face partially covered by a teal gem that looks like a mask, and I see dark brown, varispected eyes staring straight at me.
And then, always, I regret that I didn’t go with Miye.
Joanna Maciejewska was born in Poland, but a couple of years ago she escaped to rainy Ireland. She doesn’t mind the weather as it doesn’t interrupt her hobbies — reading, writing, video games and craft. Previously published in Polish magazines, she now tries to write in English.