“She still sleeps?” An old woman’s voice woke Iluna, dissolving troubled dreams, though her eyes remained shut for now.
“Indeed,” a different woman said, right by Iluna’s ear.
“How long since you found her in the Shadowlands, Trvok?” the elder one asked.
A man’s voice, deep and gruff, replied, “Three days.”
“Will she heal, Estrella?”
“With faith,” the woman nearby answered. Something warm and wet stroked Iluna’s forehead. Her body tensed but then relaxed with the sensation.
“And… is she who we suspect she is?”
A pause formed before the woman – Estrella – answered. “I don’t know.”
The lie was obvious and Iluna tried to say so. That was when she realised these people did not speak her native tongue. They spoke mountain speech. Were they mountain-folk? She tried again to open her eyes. To lift her head. Her body wouldn’t respond, as though she were paralysed.
“Keep me informed,” the older one said, then all three voices went quiet, and dull footsteps echoed faintly, before fading.
A memory flashed in Iluna’s mind, causing her eyes to scrunch. She’d been flying in raven form. For a long stretch of time. A score of eightnights. She’d never spent so long in her Other form. The trees had been bare when she’d begun her journey, but over time she’d observed their spring-time buds as she soared over the forest canopy. She’d lived as a raven. Eating as one, preening, even making her droppings just as a raven would. Some part of her human mind had worried over it, fearing if she remained in this form too much longer, she would forget her humanity once and for all. Sometimes she’d wondered if she even wanted to return to that reality. Human emotions seemed blissfully unimportant as a raven.
She recalled the Ravnak she’d spied. Hundreds upon hundreds of them lurked in the dark forest. They congregated in violent hordes at times to feast on a killing of deer, or a family of bear, even mountain lions weren’t safe from their marauding. They killed lustily, with a fervour that bespoke their innate evil, and they drank of fresh blood and ate of raw meat in bizarre feeding frenzies that would make Iluna caw softly as she witnessed it. She wasn’t sure when it was she had shed the raven form and returned to her human shell. But her human body felt heavy and uncomfortable. Ravnak monsters had filled her dreams for days since. A shiver gripped her. How did she get here? Where was she?
“Saru.” Iluna’s ears pricked and she became aware once again of herself, her human self. It was the man who spoke. He must have remained. His voice a deep gravelly timbre, his words short, to the point. “Any news?”
“No. And I’ve told you before not to speak to me directly when others are around, especially the sylvanalla. It’s too risky. You’re leaving now?”
“I will meet you outside the west gates directly.”
“As you wish,” the man replied. His footsteps, swift and assured, strode away.
Iluna jolted. She tried to respond but her voice wouldn’t come. She tried again to open her eyes but they too wouldn’t obey. This awkward body was a stranger to her. Panic threatened and she suddenly found her breaths also out of her control as she panted a rapid rhythm.
“Shhh. No need to fret, Iluna. You are safe and recovering from your change. The binding was a long one. Your physical self will take time to readjust. And there’s your injury. They got to you before we did, regretfully.”
Got to her? Iluna’s heart raced. A sudden burning sensation flared at her neck. Her hand twitched as she tried to raise it to touch the hot pain.
“Be calm. Take a long, steady breath.”
Estrella’s calmness had an immediate effect, the touch of magic behind it. Iluna slowed her breathing and the panic faded. Whoever this person was, she had the gift.
“Good. Now I’m going to wash your face and then I want you to try to open your eyes. Do you understand?”
Iluna tried a nod before a warm wet cloth, scented with a sweet oil, made her face tingle. Her eyelids fluttered, and when the cloth was removed her skin tingled with coolness. She scrunched her eyes and with an effort forced them open. The world was a blur. A face floated in front of her, but the features were a haze. She blinked, trying to focus.
“My name is Estrella. I am a friend.”
Estrella was nothing but a tall fuzzy shape – too tall for a woman of the mountain-folk – but she seemed to be smiling. Perhaps she was a friend after all.
“Do you think you can try water? Then perhaps we can get your voice working too.” A hand supported her head and Iluna’s dry lips opened around the brim of a cup. The water was cool and sweet, and she suddenly realised how thirsty she was.
“Just a little at first.”
The cup was taken, and Iluna tried to speak but nothing more than a croak was forthcoming. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Where am I?” Her voice rasped, barely sounding like her voice at all. More like the rough croak of her raven form.
“You’re in my arbour in Ilvadran, the first and the last furlon of our people. You made it to us, Iluna, scarred and battered to be sure, but you’re safe now. Another few days and you will be back to your old self again, and I will answer all your questions. Right now we must attend to your healing. Now, try another sip.”
Iluna lifted her own head this time to take a few mouthfuls of the water. Her vision remained blurred, but she thought she detected a look of kindness on the stranger’s face. She couldn’t trust this Estrella, whoever she was. Not yet. But Iluna was grateful nevertheless.
A low caw sounded close and Iluna snapped her focus to the left, looking blindly for the familiar source of the sound.
“He sits on a perch I’ve made for him. He won’t leave your side. I suppose he is your verashade? The one you bind with?”
Iluna frowned. Her raven had died at the hands of Yuli, her old enemy, back when she was still with the Wolf. Many ravens had surrounded her when she’d left Arlg-Teg to make her long journey. But there was one. One who had warned her when the Ravnak attacked. A sudden memory of a tall Ravnak monster lunging for her flashed in her mind along with a sharp, high-pitched screech, almost like laughter. But the scene dissolved when she attempted to recall it in full.
She tried squinting to get a look at the raven, but her eyes wouldn’t focus. “I can’t see him.”
“You will. Your eyesight will return to normal.”
“How do you know?
“I know many things, Iluna.” Estrella stood and took a few steps away. Her image was still a haze but Iluna confirmed she was tall and moved with a smooth grace. “I think we should try some food next. It is time your healing was expedited somewhat. You must rest for now. You need sleep more than ought else for healing. I shall return soon.”
Iluna’s eyes closed with heaviness. She once again detected the touch of magic before a renewed fatigue gripped her and sleep returned.