Nireth bit hungrily into the roasted meat. She cared not what animal it was; all she knew was that she was hungry, and she had been given food.
“So,” she asked through a wad of chewed-up food, “let me get this straight. You’re a missionary? And there’s some kind of church on this island?”
The young man she had encountered outside the cave made a face. “Not so much of a missionary; disciple, more like it. And I’m not a follower of Christ, or the God of the Book.”
“Oh,” Nireth nodded. “Then—”
“I worship the spirits of the earth,” the man explained. “They give life to plants, which give life to us. Then, when we are burned after we die, we release our life to the earth again.”
“Oh!” Nireth exclaimed. “We burn people, too—but that’s to send them to the afterlife.”
The man nodded and watched Nireth devouring her meal. After a moment, he spoke. “I didn’t bring you here to talk about religion,” he said slowly. “I felt something—an aura—radiating from the cave, a dark one. I’ve not seen the likes for hundreds of years.”
“Hundreds of years!” Nireth exclaimed, her jaw dropping.
The man shook his head slightly, as if the matter was not relevant. “I wanted to know what happened in that cave. Can you tell me?”
Nireth stared at him blankly.
“Please tell me you haven’t forgotten,” the man looked pained. “That means they—he—it—whatever the aura was caused by—have gotten into your mind. Once they get in, they can get in whenever—”
“What did you mean, ‘hundreds of years’?” Nireth asked. The man realized that he wasn’t going to have much luck pursuing the answers he wanted if he didn’t answer her questions first.
“My gods bestow long life upon those who do their bidding,” he explained quickly. “So, about the cave—”
“Do you have to wear those robes?” Nireth asked.
The man stopped, his mouth open. It took a second for him to recover and say, “What?”
“Those robes,” Nireth gestured to the hooded grey cloak the man was wearing. It was like a small ship sail, only much heavier and much uglier—not to mention the sloppy craftsmanship that had gone into making it. It covered almost every part of the man’s body, save his heads, hands, and bare feet, and seemed very hot and uncomfortable.
The man glanced at his garb, obviously a bit annoyed with his companion’s tangents. “We believe that cloth made without technological interference brings us closer to our Gods.”
“Wait, looms count as technology?” Nireth asked. Before the man could answer, she continued, “We have looms where I’m from—I actually know how to use one, I’m just not very good with the yarn blending and such. My sister Hildegarde was much more inclined to do the housework tasks. But they’re very old looms—I’ve seen some of the newer ones from the east, brought over by some of our raiding parties, that they use to make fine cloth—they’re so intricate, we usually just toss them out because we can’t figure out how to use them! But, anyway, we could make cloth much better than that, and—”
“Enough, please!” the man sighed and held up his hand. Nireth stopped and blushed.
“Sorry,” she said meekly. “I get excited.”
“It’s alright,” the man said with a smile. “I was asking you about what happened in the cave.”
Nireth bit her lip. “I’m actually not quite sure what happened. I got locked in—this stone rolled over the entryway—so I decided to explore—”
“Hold on,” the man said, “why were you dabbling about in the cave, anyway?”
“This is going to sound very foolish,” Nireth admitted, “but there was this wind coming down the beach, it carried a kind of otherworldly-scream on it. And I had just seen the cave open up, so I was pretty curious—” Nireth saw the wide-eyed look on the man’s face and realized she had a captive audience. “It was the strangest thing! I was just humming this verse of a song I heard—”
“A song you heard?” the man asked. “You said that I was the first person you saw on this island!”
“When did I say that—oh, that’s right, after you scared me halfway to death outside of that cave,” Nireth said, more to herself than to him. “And, yes, that is true.”
“Then how could you hear singing?” the man had leaned forward, “you must have the ears of a wolf!” Had Nireth been more familiar with communication, she would have picked up on the skeptical tone in his voice.
“It’s less hearing it,” Nireth searched for the proper way to explain how she heard voices, “more like knowing it. The words just came into my head, along with a tune. It’s kind of like imagining something, except you know it’s not coming from your mind.” Wincing, she glanced at the man, afraid she had confused him. Instead, to her relief (and partially to her bewilderment) he appeared to understand perfectly.
“So you were humming the song,” the man said, then stopped suddenly. “Can you still hear it?”
Nireth toned out the sounds of the birds and the wind rustling through the treetops and listened. The chanting of the oceans, trees, and earth were still there, but she couldn’t hear any kind of song or whisper, like she could before.
“No, actually,” she said slowly. “I can’t! How odd!”
The man bit his lip, his brow creased with concentration. “So what happened after you hummed the song?”
“It was very strange!” Nireth began theatrically. “This gaping hole just opened up in the cliff face—and that’s when the creepy wind started. So I ran into the cave, thinking I would find shelter—I know it was rather thick of me, but I did it anyway—and instead I got stuck inside of it. I figured there was nothing else for me to do than to work my way along and see if I could find another way out.
“Then I started hearing another song—but it was a different voice singing it, a stronger voice. The first chant I heard was kind of soft and whispery, like someone very old was singing it. Anyway, I followed this voice through a tunnel and ended up getting attacked by a flesh-eating worm,” Nireth finished. “Then I climbed out, and you found me.”
“Is that all?” the man asked. “How did you defeat the worm?”
Nireth thought of the smooth, glowing stone that she had found. It was now nestled safe in a secret, hemmed-in pocket in her dress (her mother had not approved of pockets; she said they were a way to clutter their quarters more easily, thus the secrecy). For some reason, she felt like the stone was something meant only for her.
“You must have scared it away,” she remarked, “perhaps he heard you outside? All I know is that he was about to bite my head off, and—” Nireth stopped short. “Do you think it was the worm?”
“Excuse me?” asked the man, who had obviously been deep in thought.
“Do you think it was the worm that was singing the second song I heard?” Nireth inquired. “I think the song was meant to lure me into his cave, so he could eat me. And maybe it was the worm’s dark aura you saw!—or felt, or sensed, I’m not sure how auras work.”
The man laughed. “No, the caveworms have been here for as long as I can remember. They’ve never given an aura off that strong.” He paused. “It would be really helpful if you could remember the song you sang,” he said, finally. “It would help me to determine if it was those words that awoke the power I felt, the power that scared you into that cave.”
“You think the screaming wind and the power that opened the cliff side were the same thing?” Nireth asked. “And the cause of the dark aura you felt, too?”
“It would make sense—a power awakening after hundreds of years because of an incantation, long forgotten. Until there comes along an incredibly observant girl like you,” the man smiled, then became lost in thought again. “Why is it that you can hear these things, anyway?”
Nireth shrugged. “I believe that everything is alive, in some way; I think that most people don’t take the time to listen to what things have to say. Their voices are loud and clear, if you’re listening.”
“Ah!” the man exclaimed. “I never thought of it that way! We always believed that the earth had to be summoned before we could speak to her.”
Nireth blushed, uncomfortable with the foreign nature of her companion’s religion. She didn’t want to say anything sacrilegious or offensive. “Well, I’m not hearing gods or anything, just the stories of life forces.”
“Still, it is a very interesting concept,” the man observed, “and especially interesting because you thought of it at such a young age. Usually, it takes many years—perhaps even many centuries—to achieve that level of wisdom.”
“Oh, thanks,” Nireth said abashedly. “It’s really not that big of a deal. I just had a lot of time to think as I worked at my chores back home.” Nireth sighed.
“Speaking of chores,” the man dusted off his hands, getting to his feet, “my house could stand some cleaning. I’ll let you stay there for free if you help me keep it nice.”
“Really?” Nireth asked eagerly. She hadn’t even thought about where she would sleep, or what she would eat. “Oh, thank you so much, sir! I must warn you, I’m not the most meticulous type.”
“Many hands make light work,” the man replied, “and, besides, I don’t need meticulous; I just need someone to get the layer of leaves off of my floor. I fear they’ll start decomposing, which is meant to happen over open earth, not on a foundation.”
Nireth nodded, she was becoming more familiar with the man’s strange faith.
“So, these cave worms,” Nireth brought up the subject as they began the trek back to the man’s home. “Do they stick to the caves? Or do they sometimes go out into the sea?”
“They mostly stay in the caves,” the man said, “but sometimes they’ll burst out of the ground and eat people.”
Nireth scanned his face for any sign of a joking sparkle, but there was none. “You’re dead serious?”
“Absolutely,” the man confirmed, “cave worms are bad news. I’m glad you were able to escape from that one; they’re smart and deadly, and ruthless as well.”
“Oops,” Nireth sighed. “I’ll be sure to steer clear of them from now on.”
“Don’t worry,” the man smiled, “if you stick with me, you’ll be fine. I’m not planning on trying to make acquaintances with any cave worms in the near future.”
Nireth released a heavy breath. “Well, that’s a relief!” Suddenly, she hit her forehead with her palm, “Please excuse me, sir,” she said nervously, “but I completely forgot to ever get your name.”
The man stared at Nireth for a second, as if he hadn’t heard her, then replied, “My name is Iref, and please don’t call me sir.”
“Oh, sorry… Iref?” Nireth replied.
“Yes,” Iref nodded once to acknowledge Nireth’s success.
Nireth inhaled sharply, stopping in her tracks. “Is that–?”
“Yes,” Iref said, almost blushing, “that’s my house.”
It was a small, stone building. Crudely made, the structure was a simple rectangular prism. What made it so spectacular was the fact that it buried itself in a hill, and apparently penetrated the very heart, for a tall look-out tower rose from the center of the hill, with no visible door in or out in sight. Vines covered the grey walls, giving it a homey feel. They almost looked as if they were trying to reclaim the building blocks, like the cycle of life that Iref spoke of so much, by pulling the building into the green, green grass. Around the house was a clearing, but the forest began two to three yards away from the base of the hill. It was just the right time of year, too; the delicate pink, purple, and pastel-gold blossoms dusted the ground at her feet, and filled the air Nireth breathed with the sweet scent of sap. The light colors shone out like beacons in the night against the dark green foliage all around them.
“This is beautiful!” Nireth exclaimed. “I wish I lived here. And you have all this room to yourself?”
“Yes,” Iref said, “but don’t go thinking I have the good life. It can be so lonely out here, and it gets very forlorn in the wintertime. The sky is always overcast then, and the trees no longer keep their trees. And in the summer it can get dreadfully hot!”
“Better than where I used to live,” Nireth grinned. “It was cold year-round, and overcast more often than not, no matter the year.”
“Well, enough about the weather,” Iref abruptly changed the subject, casting his eyes skyward. “Dusk is falling, and it’s best to be out of the forests by dark.”
“What for?” Nireth asked.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” he compromised. “Your curiosity never ceases to amaze me.”
When they entered Iref’s house, Nireth found it was much larger than she had expected it to be. There were at least three bedrooms, each extravagantly furnished. She finally picked one at the very bottom of the lookout tower. There was a trapdoor that swung open above her bed, and she figured that if there was ever a night where she found herself unable to sleep she could climb into the lookout tower and try to catch a glimpse of some goings-on in the trees.
But for now, Nireth was exhausted. As she lay on the hay mattress, much softer and thicker than her usual mat back home, she could feel the pitching and rocking of the sea. Before she knew it, her mind had been escorted into the sleeping world of dreams.
(Sorry it took me so long to get around to writing this! ^^”)