Day Nine: 1,152 words (12,360 total.)
Talau didn't remember falling asleep. The night before was such a blur. But it hurt to think so she laid still against the scattered blankets in the basement. Slowly, she opened her eyes and stared into the darkness. The sun must not have come up yet...or perhaps the storm had not yet passed. She could hear whipping winds, but they were slowing down. And they was another sound: a rustling. It sounded so close and it was...paper? A crate fell over. She wasn't alone. Talau jumped up, rattling her brain in the process. Dizzy, she stomped around in the basement.
"Who's there?" she yelled.
She stopped and waited. Again, the rustling. The chieftess rushed to the cause of the noise. She reached out and grasped flesh with her hand.
"Who are you?!" she said in the dark.
The flesh in her grip pulled away. But she grabbed it with her other hand as well.
"Let go!" yelled the voice of a young boy.
"Tell me who you are?"
There was no answer, just a struggle. But the sky was getting clearer and flecks of light entered the basement. Talau could vaguely make out the person. It was a young boy; he was dirty and most likely a laborer. But why would he be here? Better yet, how did he find this place? And how long had he known it? Was she never alone all this time? Talau felt so violated.
"If you won't tell me who you are, at least tell me why you're here?"
The boy ceased to struggle. He must have realized it was futile. But he would not speak. Talau thought back to the day before. Her niece had mentioned a runaway laborer boy. Perhaps this was him? She let go. No use keeping him hostage. He would stay.
Talau returned to the pile of blankets and plopped down. The boy inched closer.
"...why did you let me go?"
She was silent. The chieftess could play this game too.
"I just needed somewhere to get away for a while...I didn't know anyone lived here."
Talau played with her nails to seem unamused, "This isn't anyone's home really. I suppose it's just a place to get away."
The boy nodded, "You...won't tell anyone I'm here...will you?"
She laughed, "Should I? Are you a criminal?"
She looked at him as if he were a fly in her spider web, "I sense guilt."
He fidgeted, "Uhh, well, some people are angry with me for what I did."
"Hmm, but what is it that you did? Broke into someone's hut? Stole a pig? Drank too much rum?"
He was confused, "None of those things!"
She giggled, "Then why are you so scared to tell me what you did?"
"...it doesn't matter."
She was going to get the words out of him, "Hmm? If you won't admit it, it must be dreadful!"
"I mean...it's not-"
"Oh dear! You're not a murderer are you!? I should alert the village right away!"
"No! No, no, no! Please don't! It's not like that!"
She struggled to hold back a laugh, "But look how defensive you're getting! Oh, I fear to even think what you must have done!"
"I'll tell you!"
Talau tried to look anxious as the boy spoke, "I...was suppose to take place in the trial... ... ...and I ran away."
"WHAT!? How COULD you!? The blasphemy! The village should call for your execution!"
But as Beroel attempted to speak, the chieftess broke into unstoppable laughter. He finally caught on to her mockery. He let out a grunt and returned to a crate full of scrolls. Talau hadn't had such a laugh in years. While, even to her, the joke was cruel, but it felt so good. After she finished, she wiped a tear from her eye. But, in remorse, she got up to visit the boy. He was immersed in the scrolls. It reminded her of Omoachel in a way. Her niece would often devote herself to activities as a way of clearing her mind. It was a trait that Talau wished she had, but instead, her remedy often was to disengage.
"What are you reading?"
He wouldn't answer. She wasn't surprised. Talau sat down beside him and glanced down at the scrolls. Some were in the language of her people, the Zehnai, but others were older and much more difficult to read.
"You know what those say?"
He seemed agitated, "Despite popular belief, laborers aren't just mindless brutes."
She regretted making fun of him, "I didn't mean it like that. Those older scrolls: they aren't in the Zehnai language."
He twisted his mouth to the side, "They're similar though. They were written by the Runnai."
Talau rested her back against some crates. She remembered her father would tell her bedtime stories of the Runnai and how the Zehnai broke free from them. It was almost like a fairy tale, but seeing the scrolls really took her back to a time many moons ago. The chieftess closed her eyes and thought back. It was so long ago, it was hard to picture, but at last her memories found it.
She was a child. Her and her sister sat beside the hearth and watched their father cook. He never kept laborers. To her and her sister it didn't matter: their father was a glorious cook. Talau recalled the stew he made that night with large chunks of potato and fish. He always believed the chunkier the stew, the better. And the girls could not complain. Her memory jumped to him scooping the food into husks for the family as his chains chimed. Never had she tasted something so succulent since those days.
She strained her memories for more. All she could find was her and her sister drifting off to sleep. Her father told him the story of the Runnai: sea merchants of the tropical Ruun islands. The capital was a great center of wealth. Gold flooded the streets and the Runnai prospered, but it was at the cost of enslaving the Zehnai. Her father told them the hardships their people faced: they were lashed in the streets, forced to work and build until they fell dead, and they lived in such meager conditions. But the plague came. Ruun burned and the Zehnai fled. Along the way, they were spoken to by the spirits who led them to this very island chain and gave them protection. When the story was over, her father kissed both girls on the forehead and whispered something. But what was it? What did he say?
Talau opened her eyes. The laborer boy stared at her.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
She massaged her head as it ached so much. She looked down at the scrolls, "The Zehnai, we were all slaves?"
He didn't look at her, "Some of us still are."