When you never speak people tend to forget that you're there. I hadn't spoken a word in five years.
Being invisible has its advantages. You learn to move through the world differently. Silent as smoke. You learn to listen and remember. You never know what will come in useful. You gather information like trophies, hard-won.
I shake my head, tossing my braids side to side and the jangle of bone and wood, shell, and stone alerts the Ant riders to my presence.
A tall rider with hair as red as his ant starts and clasps a hand to his massive chest, laughing, "Gave me a fright. I forgot you were here."
I bare my teeth at him. Maybe he'll interpret it as a grin. I gesture with my chin at the bowls of stew they're dishing out of a rapidly emptying pot. I don't know what's in them but the smell makes my stomach rumble.
"You want to eat?"
I raise my elbow. 'YES' is tattooed on my forearm and his eyes light on the word. I've been tied up since our meeting on the plains outside Achten Tan. It's hard to explain your business when you can't speak.
The An’cher captain grunts his approval and the red-headed boy dishes out a steaming portion into a bowl carved of stone. He stomps over and starts to hand it to me. I raise an eyebrow at him, waiting for him to figure out why that won’t work. He stares at me, waiting for me to take the bowl.
“She can’t eat with her hands tied.” A young An’cher with pale skin and golden eyes intercedes on my behalf.
Redhead shuffles his feet, processing this information. He might be pretty to look at but not much is going on behind those moss green eyes. Finally, he turns to his captain.
"Karak, should I feed her or untie her?"
The captain gives me a hard look, "You going to run?"
I lift my other elbow - NO. Why would I run when they're taking me where I'm going?
"Untie her. Since he’s so concerned Kamal can watch her." He grumbles.
Moss eyes pulls a knife from his belt and severs my bonds. I stretch as blood flows back into my wrists and give Moss boy another grimace. He shoves the bowl at me and a bone spoon to go with it. Fancy. Back home we use dried hard-packed algae for practically everything.
Thinking of home hurts so I shove aside those thoughts and focus on eating.
The boy with the golden eyes moves closer to watch me. I focus on the unfamiliar taste and texture of the stew, feeling the weight of his gaze. When the last morsel is gone I glance up.
“Good?” He asks.
I shrug. Tap my knuckle. WEIRD.
After the meal, nobody bothers to tie me up again. The six giant ants are arranged in a circle around the fire, huge bodies curled against the cold. The An'chers place their bedrolls by the ants. There is no way to leave the ring without climbing over a G’ant, which I have no intention of doing. Most of the An’chers ignore me. I see one making a sign warding against evil, clutching his God Tree amulet. Kamal seems to be the youngest of the riders. He isn't wearing the amulets of the God tree worshipers. His only adornment is a black band of ink around his bicep, the same place where my name tattoo lies.
As I try to make myself comfortable on the hard ground by the fire, he beckons to me. I glance up at the giant insect he's leaning on so casually. Mandibles longer than my arms click and hum above his head. Its mandibles click, sending shivers down my spine. I didn't travel all this way to be an ant snack.
"She won't hurt you..." He smiles, "not unless I tell her to."
My steps falter. He chuckles darkly and beckons again. His face is lit up by the fire and the moonlight above us. The reddish glow and silvery light compete, casting his face in a maze of shadows. Even so, something about him is familiar enough to calm me.
He lounges against his ant's body. "Sit down," he says, "it's warmer here. Namala blocks the wind."
I sit and ease back gingerly till my shoulders touch the chitinous shell. A shudder runs through me at the sensation and Kamal notices. He places a hand on my shoulder, just above my name tattoo.
"Mila. Is that a common name where you're from?"
I tap YES. He frowns, forehead creasing in concentration as though trying to recall something. He parts his lips as though he wants to say something but doesn't. Instead, he lets his eyes take a long sweep up my body. Impertinent little shit.
I know. I tap my tattoo. MILA. Now that my arms are untied the lines of text along my body are easily accessible.
"Come here often?"
He grins as though he knows how cheesy that line is but uses it to be funny. He's cute, but he's at least two years younger than me. He's taller and bulkier than I am, but with his pale skin tone and golden-brown eyes, we look similar enough to be brother and sister. A small hope burns brighter in me but I don't know enough yet to fan that flame.
I raise my chin. Underneath it says, Zedayen, which is gnomish for 'Fuck off'. He reads it and laughs. My Nora frowned when I got that one tattooed but I can't tell you how often it comes in handy. Most Onra place the words in easily visible places but not those kinds of words. Luckily, when I'm insulting people taller than me, they can't always see the inscription, even when I lift my chin. That's probably saved my life a few times.
Kamal pulls his knees up and places his chin on them, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "So, are you a witch?"
My head jerks up in surprise. I look around wondering if any of the others heard him. His eyes twinkle, reflecting the starlight.
"I won't tell anyone," he whispers in my ear, leaning in so close that his breath ghosts over my cheek. I gently place my hand on his chest and shove him away. If my suspicions are correct, I'm doing him a favor. I think about it for a moment and then finger my braids, plucking a feather from one of them. I balance it in the palm of my hand and mouth FLY. No sound leaves my lips but still, the feather rises softly and hovers between us. Kamal claps his hands together as joyous as a child.
"So, you can do magic but you can't speak?"
I show him the line of text inside my wrist. SPEECH IS FORBIDDEN.
A small lie between friends. When the magic took my voice my Nora insisted we let others believe our silence is a choice. The world isn’t a safe place for girls who can’t cry for help, even those with fledgling buds of power.
Kamal nods solemnly, as though he understands but he doesn't. He can't know what it's like to have not spoken since puberty. He can't imagine the shame and frustration to still be an Onra at eighteen when all my cohort has found their words of power and become Misra. My Nora thinks something is holding me back. Something I lost, which is why she sent me on this journey to the Nora of Achten Tan. I hope she's right. I pray this works.
Kamal's leg presses against mine, warm and reassuring. I pat his shoulder and arrange my blanket around me, lean back against the ant and close my eyes, signaling the end of the conversation.
When I wake dawn is breaking over the boneyard desert. In the distance, the spires of the Ribs are visible, the column of the God Tree towering above them. During the night I slipped sideways, my head resting on Kamal's shoulder. He pretends not to notice and I'm grateful.
"Ride with me?" He asks as we get ready to leave and I nod. I've become comfortable with him in just a few hours. I'll be heartbroken if I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.
Kamal mounts the giant ant, positioning himself on the thorax just behind the ant's head. He leans down to give me a hand and pulls me up behind him. My legs dangle and I scoot closer to him to avoid slipping.
"Hang on," he shouts and the ant lunges into motion. Luckily, I can't embarrass myself by squealing, but I run my arms around his waist and hang on with all my strength.
As we enter the city, I wonder how I will find their Nora, but I shouldn't have worried. My Nora said Gerwyn the Wise is a seer, and as we trundle through the skull gate a small wizened figure hails the An'cher captain.
"Ho. You have a delivery for me."
Her voice carries through the brittle early morning air. Karak looks around in confusion but I'm already preparing to dismount the ant.
"If you'd be so kind…" Gerwyn's voice stops me, "my old bones ache and creak and it's a long way on foot back to North Ribs…"
Karak nods, knowing better than to cross a wise woman.
"Kamal, take Gerwyn and your passenger to her home."
Gerwyn steps up to the ant as though she's done this before and scrambles up with surprising agility for a person who just complained of creaking bones. She settles behind me and Kamal nudges the ant into motion. Even with all three of us weighing it down the giant insect moves fast and soon we're at the base of one of the ribs. Gerwyn squeezes Kamal's arm.
"Come up for some sweet cakes. Thanks for taking me home."
Kamal nods eagerly. Apparently, his fascination with witches extends to those far beyond his age. That or he just loves sweet cakes.
Gerwyn leads us up steps carved into the Leviathan's bones. On his feet I notice Kamal struggling with an uneven gait. Nevertheless, he doesn’t complain as we climb flight after flight of stairs till we reach a door several turns up. Inside there is a large room with a single window, not so different from my Nora's abode back home. In bone jars and glass vials are every conceivable natural element; Bird's feathers, hay, leaves, snakeskin, herbs, colored gemstones, seashells, and snail shells.
"Is that a Boggoliz tooth?" Kamal whistles.
Gerwyn lifts a box and places it on the table.
"Open it," she says to me but there is no key or latch.
I let my fingers roam the seams searching for a hidden spring. Something pricks my finger. I hiss and draw back. There's a click and the box springs open.
Gerwyn speaks from the shadows, her voice cold as the spray coming off the Everfall, her eyes greedy.
"Finally. I've been waiting for you," she says through crumbling teeth. "Your blood is the key."
I shake my head. Tap NO. She's supposed to help ME unlock MY power. She shoves me towards the box. It's empty.
"Fill it," She commands, "with blood!"
I hold my dripping finger over the box. As the first drop falls it shimmers, now looking as though it's coated in gold.
"I think we need a bigger sacrifice than that," the witch grins. Fast as lightning, with a speed I thought impossible for a woman of her years, she kicks the back of Kamal's leg. He thuds to his knees in front of her and she grabs a fistful of his hair and yanks his head back, exposing his neck. Her bone knife presses against his throat, the slightest touch already drawing blood. She draws her finger along the wound and flicks the blood into the box. The shimmer intensifies.
“Ahhh,” Gerwyn crows with satisfaction and starts to lean harder on her knife.
"STOP!" I shout. Then I freeze.
The word shoots out of my mouth and hangs in the air, vibrating with chords of power.
The world stops.
Drops of water, knocked over when Kamal fell, glisten mid-flight. All three of us stare at them. The witch grins through the wreckage of her teeth. I glance at her knife and move towards them, pushing forward slowly as though moving against resistance.
I drop to my knees and peel her hand away from his throat. My fingers rubbing away the scratch across his skin.
"HEAL" I whisper and the blood reverses its course as the cut fades away. I look up into his eyes, glistening with tears.
"START" I say and the world moves again.
Kamal doesn't move, looking at me with wonder in his eyes, "You broke your silence. For me." His eyes search mine, "Why?"
"You’re my brother," I stammer as tears glide down my cheeks cutting grooves in the desert dust. "You were six, when you disappeared. I was eight. I was supposed to watch you..." Panic and guilt rise up again to choke off my words. Like I deserve. "It was my fault."
"You can speak now?!" He asks and I nod and tap my arm, YES, still unaccustomed to being able to use my voice.
"Pffft," Gerwyn mutters, lowering herself into a chair built of bones, the glowing box forgotten. "Not your fault. Not your burden. Our healer Otara found the boy on her way back from the Algae farms. He'd fallen, hit his head. She saved his life and raised him like her own."
I touch the black band on his arm. "This used to say Turosh. Your name."
"Kamal means 'found one' in Svaalti," He says.
I throw my arms around him, "Then it's perfect."
"You will stay and train with me." Gerwyn states as though I have no say in the matter. "Learn the power and role of a Misra."
"Will you stay?" my brother asks, his eyes full of hope and wonder. And I nod, my heart too full to speak once more.
"My sister the witch," he muses.
"My brother the Ant rider," I reply and bat his shoulder with mine.
"Shut up both of you. We have much to do." Grumbles Gerwyn and so we do.
Having grown up but never matured, Debbie channels her inner teen into YA SFF. She lives & writes in Meitar, Israel, balancing a day job as a public speaker with writing VSS on twitter. Follow her on @debbieiancu or at her author website