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The Trajectory of Planes


The word is foreign on Wren’s tongue, not unlike much of the words they’ve formed and crooned on their trek from Keoni to here. But Riggian pings off her memory like a forgotten history, leaving hints of copper and confusion in its wake. She counts seven letters in the sound and thinks up seven excuses as to why no one ever told her of this place or its people.

Wren’s captors lead her forward through the trampled village, standing tall and brash as the legion accepts their place without thanks or second-thought. Evrek and Taliesin burrowed into a remaining cottage, and they wait for the others just outside the door. As they grow nearer, Wren can’t see who the home belongs to, and she wonders who was displaced so that they might have a space to sleep. As the others march her to the open door, she peers down the bricked road. The strangers still huddle in the doorways of their homes, watching Wren and the warriors as they climb trembling steps and disappear.

There are windows cut from wood that sit empty and glassless in the pouring red sun. Despite them, it takes Wren moments to adjust to the shadowy room she enters behind Cartham, Ayol, and Lillias. Behind her, Taliesin or Evrek pulls the lofty door closed, sequestering her in with the terse warriors. The room itself is small, but opens up to narrow hallways and bedrooms without doors. The wood of its design is warped and knotted, leaving dark marks on the floors, walls, and ceilings.

As Wren steps forward and away from Lillias’s cautious eyes, she falters on a strip of uneven ground, reminding her that even nature has ways of retaliation.

Cartham grabs her shoulder, and the brunt of his hold keeps her upright but knocks the air from her lungs. She breathes deep, forcing in the sooty air, and exhales in a cough, catching more looks from Lillias and Cartham both. Avoiding them, Wren takes stock of the space. The design contrasts against what she knows of a house; the walls all curve slightly inward, bowed from the heat, and the dilapidated furniture juts out at strange angles. The furniture itself is a mix of things – one chair made from overlapping twigs and spliced logs, another hastily pasted together with scraps of animal pelt. Wren doesn’t know what it’s stuffed with, but she decides that she’d rather not. She can’t see much else of the house, for it deviates off at strange angles with thick, rampart-like walls blocking views and concealing corners. It thrums like a living beast beneath her feet; the heartbeat of the house reminds her of all the horrors it’s seen before.

Along the east wall is a mass of blankets that are thrown haphazardly together. Wren glances to Evrek as he moves for them immediately, doling out one for himself before gliding past Wren. She watches until he’s gone into the darkness, heading to the furthest reaches of the house, stealing the first scraps of privacy he can find.

The others seem to wait for orders, looking to Cartham like he might dismiss them for the night. Lillias inches minutely closer to Wren, already accepting his unspoken role as watchdog. Cartham’s chin tilts almost imperceptibly toward the ground, turbulent-eyes holding firm, and the rest of his bevy move in sync, breaking apart.

Wren stands still as they part around her, a flurry of foreign words assaulting her ears. She falters to understand in the moment before she knows they’re not speaking her language, and then listens with her eyes instead of her ears. Cartham is the only other person not moving. He stands like the trunk of a tree, rooted to the ground as the rest seize and bustle about him. He watches his warriors without looking, catching their movements out of the corners of his eyes, letting his sanction wash away as he becomes less of their leader and more one of them.

Wren categorizes the parts of his expression, hesitantly surprised to find fatigue beneath the layers of control and apathy. In his silent, still moment, Wren wonders if he’ll sleep, and how closely he’ll watch her if he doesn’t.

Finally, Lillias rejoins her, holding mounds of threadbare blankets. For a moment, Wren’s throat knits closed around her breath as she considers sharing blankets with one of these men – sharing a room alone. Despite his young face and gold eyes, Lillias has seen and done monstrous things. When she looks at him, she feels the weight of his cloak in her arms, but also the weight of Mernala’s death on his shoulders.

Cartham speaks easy words first, intentionally using his own language as his stare pins Wren in place. His eyes slide with the intonation of his words, falling from her to Lillias with his steady commands. Even in their dialect of a language she doesn’t know, she’s aware that he’s giving Lillias orders for the night, explaining to him where Wren will sleep.

“I’m sleeping alone,” Wren speaks, wishing she had the ability to not sleep at all.

Cartham notes the words and the tone, but doesn’t seem to accept them. He blinks and turns toward the remaining quilts. “You will not,” he says as he plucks the sheaths of fabric from the floor. “You will sleep in the same room as Lillias, or I will take his place.”

Wren glances toward the narrow hallway where the rest of them vanished. “I’ll sleep out here,” she says, ice-eyes shifting from Lillias to Cartham, “with you or Lillias.”

She watches Lillias’s recognition of his name off her lips and then watches as he waits for Cartham’s approval. The white-blonde man pauses, his back to them, and then turns slowly on his heel to face Wren. He’s mere inches from her, shoulder tilted in toward her chest. If she moves, she’ll brush against his sleeve, and she shivers at the faint memory of his hand leading her from her people, her brother.

Cartham, tall and imposing, looks at her with the type of awareness that threatens to strip her bare of any bravado she might still cling to. His eyes are light, shining, and he gauges her like someone might size up a competitor that is really no competition at all. Finally, he relents, wearing the type of amused smirk that lets Wren know that she didn’t win this small victory – he allowed it.

Lillias hands Wren two impossibly thin blankets, and she steps over a jut in the floor and makes her place beneath the glassless window. She spreads one blanket down on the flattest part of the floor and then lies the other on top. With Lillias’s gifted cloak, she balls it up to use as a pillow and tucks it between both quilts.

“I need water,” she coughs, drawing the attention of both males. They stand near each other in the center of the room, discussing in quiet, accented Keneso. Cartham answers before Lillias even considers what to say.

“It’s late,” he says, nodding to the red sky as proof.

Wren doesn’t falter. She stands at the edge of her temporary bed and doesn’t follow his gaze to the window. “Is there running water in here?” she asks. “A bucket of it even? Otherwise I need to go outside.”

Lillias begins to move for the empty bucket left in the back of the room, but Cartham answers Wren directly. “I’ll take you to the well,” he says, pulling his cloak on and fastening it around his neck. He takes the bucket from Lillias. Wren nods as he pulls the cloak up over his head, shielding him from everything but shadows. He moves toward her, and Wren hastily grabs her own cloak, throwing it over herself.

Cartham is already at the door when she catches up. She pulls the hood on as she passes, taking to the unsteady steps before her feet land on solid ground. The evening is quiet, but Wren can hear the continual hum of the village. It’s not one sound, but a dozen inlaid over each other. As she walks on the uneven bricks that lead back to the well, and the forest, and home, she tries to match the sounds to ones she knows from Keoni. The cacophony is settling – comforting almost.

The stoic warrior walks beside her in complete silence. She doesn’t look to him. She can hear his presence even without a single word from his mouth. His boots make heavy footfalls on the ground, and the give and take of his breath beats in time with the noises of the people. The circlets that bind his wrists clink together when he reaches up to straighten the tie that holds his colorless cloak to his throat.

Wren falters as they round the final building on the edge of the village. From here, the land opens up to the forest and the well that sits in the clearing. It’s the people, however, that make Wren stop. They stand around the well with buckets and rope made of violet vines. They chatter in hushed, condensed Keneso, different still from the quick, lilting words of Cartham and his warriors.

Wren starts at the feel of Cartham’s hand on her shoulder. She looks to him immediately. “Keep your face turned down,” he says, nodding her onward.

He walks on without her, heading into the thick of the burgeoning crowd. They seem to know him, and they glide out of his way when they see him approaching, donned in deceptive-white. Wren walks the same path, fifteen feet behind, and she wonders if this was home before he became what he is. The people don’t touch him like her own family would, but they speak and greet and flitter apprehensively around him. As Wren nears the well, they seem to notice her differences. They give her a wide berth as she steps toward the well.

Cartham waves her forward into the crowd impatiently. A woman hands him her bucket, tugging on the vine-rope to show its strength, speaking so quiet and slowly that Wren only knows she’s speaking because her mouth is moving.

Cartham pulls it from her hands and turns back to find Wren, threading the rope through her nervous fingers. Those nearest to her peer into her face, trying to see beneath the burgundy fabric that hides her. She moves to Cartham quickly, pressing up against his side in her haste and uneasiness. He pauses a moment to look down to her, and then speaks Keneso in soft strokes.

Cartham lowers the bucket all the way down into the darkness of the well. When they pull it back up, it’s significantly heavier, and the scrapes on Wren’s hands protest. Cartham leans over her as he hefts the water to the surface. Wren drinks it down in heavy gulps, afraid that the others might grab it before she has a chance. It’s halfway gone before Cartham stops her. He lowers it into the well again and hands Wren their own bucket as he brings it back. They dump the well water from one bucket to another.

When they’re far enough away from the crowd, Cartham speaks, “There will be food in the morning.”

Wren nods, aching at the mention of sustenance. She climbs the steps of their temporary shelter and finds Lillias sitting in the animal-pelt chair, head back against the wall, gilded eyes lost to the world. His cloak is in a bundle on the floor near his feet, and for a split second Wren studies the unabridged lines of his face.

Cartham steps in behind her and heads to the only vacant corner of the room.

Wren sleeps tempestuously at best, waking up in fits of fury and fear, unaware of her surroundings until she finds the darkened figures in the room with her. Her body aches from the cuts and bruises, her stomach folding in on itself as it grows emptier, begging for food over sleep.

When she wakes in the morning, she’s not sure if she was sleeping or delirious, but she climbs up anyway and surveys the room. The stifling heat found its way back inside while they slept, and she feels the humidity clinging to her skin and clothes. If the others are sweltering in the cloaks and armor, they say nothing. Evrek finds Wren’s eyes first in the morning. He notes the way her arms wrap around her empty stomach.

Wren catalogs the number of seconds he stares at her, then counts the strands of hair that fall from the knot atop his head. Thirty-four and five.

“The ktolhm wish to speak with you,” Evrek says finally, turning from her to Cartham. “They’ve prepared a meal.”

Wren drinks her fill of water from the water bucket and washes the grime from her face. The others flit around her, arming themselves like they’re preparing for a battle ground instead of a breakfast table. The first time Cartham appears from the back of the house, he wears his sword across his back. Despite sleeping on the floor himself, his white clothes are spotless and his hair neat. The only item missing is the heavy cloak. When his eyes fall on her, Wren wonders if he considers leaving her behind while they feast, but ultimately that means also forcing one of his own to stay while the rest gorge themselves on a meal.

Wren stands up and readies herself before he can say anything of that nature, and she marches the to the door with her ruddy cloak.

In the orange daylight, the village, Foteha, is incandescent. The remaining wooden walls temper with the heat and the brick pathways shine, rubbed smooth by the countless footfalls. Cartham lets the others lead the way, instead falling back to just behind Wren, watching the situation with calculating glances. Taliesin is the most enthused. Much like Evrek, he wears his thick hair pulled up to abate the sour heat. Ayol, on the other hand, lets her thick, dark tresses fall free to her shoulders. She marches in front of Wren, placed between Lillias and Evrek.

Cartham is at Wren’s side before they enter the center of this village. His slim, killing fingers find her wrist and grip hard, forcing her to face him. His eyes are green, rolling like smoke caught in a jar, and he stares down at her with all the weight of his position. “Don’t speak a word to any of them,” he warns.

Wren clutches her wrist above where his hand holds her, afraid to pull away for fear that it might shatter down to the bone. “I won’t,” she answers, blue eyes turned stone, turned to him.

The room they enter is barely four walls and a roof. Despite the patches of ceiling that are missing and the uneven ground, it is filled with onlookers who watch their every move. Before she puts the cloak on to hide her face, Wren catches the cautious stares that linger on her. It is obvious that she does not belong; she wears shades of olive and tan on her skin while the rest are devoid of color. And while she’s tall among her brothers, parents, and the others, she’s significantly shorter than everyone she walks beside now. The large room hosts one large table that splits the area down the middle. Each villager brings what they can with them, but even then, it’s hardly a feast.

Wren and the others clamber inside after a group of poachers who carry the morning’s only extravagance with them: two feathered animals strung between them. The children with them watch the meat with dazed, hungry eyes.

Cartham moves to the front of their congregation as they step inside. The others coalesce beside him like an echo. Wren cleaves a space between them, chin tilted toward the hard-packed ground as they shelter her among their ranks, hide her. Two of the villagers meet them at the door, strangely combative in the way they stand – like they’re guarding their feast from the same warriors they invited to their banquet.

Wren hunches down into herself, trying to hide amidst the bodies of her captors. She listens as they speak for a long while, terse and worried and pointing their words at Cartham like daggers. His timbre is almost comforting in response, reassuring and poised and somehow even polite. Silence stretches between these people and them, until finally her abductors part like air around her.

As Lillias takes her arm and leads her away, Wren catches the eye of the man they spoke to. He’s tall and slender, with narrow shoulders and reproving eyes. His expression shifts when they make accidental eye contact. His gaze narrows, and he stumbles forward.

“Ho ete dhlaral,” he says quickly, reaching out to stop the group of warriors, to stop her.

The others move fast in response to his words and his eyes on Wren. They coalesce around her once again, and Lillias tucks her close to his body. Wren peers over the golden-eyed man’s shoulder and watches Cartham turn back smoothly, body taut as he speaks on her behalf.

“Ise triy seyn para mortalia,” Cartham lashes out, uttering words in a tone that even Wren is afraid to question. Lillias pulls her away before the Riggian man has a chance to say anything else to her directly, but Wren has questions.

“They are worried about having a human among them,” Lillias explains, his tone clipped and reproachful, but honest, as though it might silence her faster.

“What did Cartham say?” Wren whispers, tumbling hard into one of the wooden chairs that Lillias leads her to. The hood of her cloak falls to her shoulders, but she quickly fixes it back into place, ducking to see Lillias’s expression.

“That no Lusbei know that you are here,” he answers, “that no one will ever come looking for you and bring danger to their homes again.”

Wren looks both ways down the oversized table as the villagers fill in around them, leaving space between themselves and Wren. She bites her tongue, but still the words spill out. “Do they speak English?” she asks. “Would they understand me?” Her gaze slides to Cartham. He is bristling, shoulders tucked back, head straight as he speaks. The rest of his warriors flank him.

“No,” Lillias answers, the word drawn into two distinct syllables by his accent. His expression darkens, the word becomes a warning. “Noh-hah.”

They leave after breakfast, having only stayed for the show of it, it seems; Cartham is drawn tight into himself. His hazy eyes watch each of the villagers like they might lash out, strike Wren from the world, from their land, before Cartham has a chance to take her away. It is his concern that worries her, because up until now she’s been little more than cargo. She can feel the word stamped to her skin, and it suffocates any hope of escape that she still harbors. Vital, she thinks, although she does not know what for.

Evrek is notably missing from their group as they take to the forest north of the village. Wren begs to bring their water bucket, but Taliesin denies her, pointing at Wren’s scratched hands and rebuffing that she’ll be able to carry it the whole way. “And when it’s gone,” he adds, tying his honey hair atop of head, “we can’t afford to leave it in the woods to be found.”

“I’m going to die out here,” Wren speaks as she follows them back between the trees. The sight of Foteha grows smaller every minute, and Wren longs to run back and surrender herself to the cruelty of the distrustful people. The warriors are hardened against the travel, but Wren begins to shake as the skies let loose and warm rain makes her cold.

“You will not,” Cartham answers sharply. “One more night,” he adds, “then safety.”

Wren laughs at the word, pushing her wet and matted hair back from her face. “I haven’t been safe since I met you,” she says, expression cutting like glass. “I don’t think I will ever be safe again.”