Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism
In the morning, when the fire had burned down to embers and there was no way it could spread in the wet and the mud, Lefeng shouldered eir pack. It was overfull with everything ey could salvage–and buried in the bottom, a simple, childish bracelet. Without looking back, ey started down the trail to the next village, hoping to find someone there alive. Hoping to find answers.
The trail was more mud than trail, as if a great storm had soaked the area. Lefeng added it to the strangeness ey had seen and focused on following the path that was nearly unrecognizable from when ey had walked it last spring. The trail ran up in the foothills. High enough to have mostly escaped… this. Down towards the sea, Lefeng could see places where whole trees had been ripped from the soil or broken in half. Whole stands of saplings ripped away. Around the trail itself, ground cover had been ripped away, soil eroded and rocks exposed or pulled out of the ground. But the trees and brush had mostly survived.
Lefeng watched the trail more carefully than ey needed to. Eir ankle was mostly healed, and ey needed to keep watch on the changed trail to avoid reinjuring it. But more, keeping watch on the trail kept em from thinking about what had happened.
Late in the evening, Lefeng heard crying. At first, ey thought ey imagined it. Too often that day ey had been haunted by the memory of those ey had lost. Why would ey not imagine hearing the tears ey was unable to shed?
So ey was unprepared to come around a bend in the trail and find a young child sitting on the verge, crying. Lefeng squatted down a few paces from the child. “Hello.” The child looked up. “I’m a farwalker near-adult from Sandy Cove. What are you?”
The child’s hair was more tightly coiled than Lefeng’s with golden highlights brightening the auburn that no one in Sandy Cove had sported. Eir skin was tawny and lighter than most folks Lefeng had met — in the village or on the trail. Ey had the button nose of most children and wide-set eyes.
Lefeng didn’t recognize em.
The child rubbed eir eyes. “I’m–I’m fisherfolk youngling. I– I don’t know the name of our village.”
Youngling meant the child was old enough to leave the family compound, around 5 years. This one looked young enough to have just left the compound that season. And Lefeng spent so much time in the foothills, ey might not have seen this child.
“Did your village have a sandy beach where the fisherfolk could pull their boats right up onto the shore?”
“No. The trees grow right out over the water and the boats are tied up to the roots.”
Not Sandy Cove, then. But… “That sounds like High Trail village. I’m traveling there. Will you travel with me?”
“I want my Baba and my Cenn and my parents.”
“Do you know where they are?”
“They were at the boat. It got broke and they were fixing it. I was playing with my friends when the water disappeared. Everyone was shouting and yelling and then the water came back and it picked me up and brought me here and I didn’t know how to go home.”
By the end of eir little speech, the child was crying again. Lefeng offered em a scrap of soft leather to wipe eir face.
“It is almost dark. How about if I sleep here with you tonight, and in the morning we will go to High Trail and see if your parents are there.” Ey wanted to pick up the child and hold em, as Lefeng would have done with eir sibling’s babes. But one did not touch the children of another family. So ey could only sit and wait.
To Lefeng’s shock, the child threw emself at Lefeng. Lefeng caught em instinctively and ey burrowed into Lefeng’s arms, clinging to em.
When the child calmed, Lefeng settled em on a cool rock and began laying out a small camp. The child devoured the food Lefeng offered as if ey hadn’t eaten in days. Which ey probably hadn’t. Ey took water too, though ey didn’t seem particularly thirsty. When Lefeng asked, the child said that ey had been drinking water from a ditch a short distance from the trail. With a full stomach, the youngling began to drowse. Lefeng, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled out eir greatcat fur that had, miraculously, survived the… the wave to make a soft, dry bed for the youngling. Exhaustion and safety carried the youngling off into a deep sleep. Hopefully, it would be free of dreams.
On the other side of their banked fire, Lefeng slept lightly. It wasn’t likely they would have trouble. Not on a well-trod trail this close to a village. But the wave must have disrupted the habits of the animals in the areas as well. The child might seem easy prey to predators looking for a meal.
Besides, any time ey started to fall into a proper sleep, ey dreamed.
In eir dreams, ey saw the wall of water the youngling described crashing over eir home. Eir family battered or swept away or sucked out to sea in the great undertow such a thing would carry with it.
The next morning, Lefeng was eager to get back on the trail, and away from eir thoughts. The youngling was slow to start moving, but once awake seemed relieved to have a grownup telling em what to do. They ate a quick meal of trail rations and started walking. At first, the child seemed cheery and curious. Lefeng’s presence and promise to help em find eir family was enough reassurance to have em darting ahead along the trail or lingering behind to examine some plant or interesting rock. Ey asked questions constantly about this or that thing ey saw.
But as the day lengthened ey became quiet. Ey stopped exploring and instead stayed close to Lefeng, frequently clinging to eir hand. Lefeng should have pulled away, but didn’t. The youngling needed comfort and reassurance. Even knowing how eir actions would have shamed Lefeng’s family, ey couldn’t deny the youngling’s need.
The youngling’s presence also helped Lefeng. Ey no longer heard the voices of eir dead or saw the sprawled bodies, like discarded dolls. The need to take care of the youngling, keep em from danger, and comfort em kept Lefeng focused on the moment.
Eventually, as the youngling clung more and more and began to stumble from exhaustion, Lefeng picked em up and carried em.
Often, Lefeng had carried an infant sibling on the trail. Less often, ey had carried younglings, those old enough to follow the trail but still young enough to be worn out at the end of the day’s walk. The familiarity of it finally brought the tears to Lefeng’s eyes. Ey didn’t wipe the tears, not willing to let go of the youngling. They dripped down eir face to soak into the youngling’s hair.
Lefeng’s arms were just starting to get tired when ey saw the first set of footprints in the trail. Sometime since the wave, someone had walked part of the trail then turned back. When Lefeng started seeing footprints in the mud covering the trail, Ey roused the youngling and set em on eir feet. The village was likely nearby, and it would not be well to approach the village with Lefeng holding or touching a child not of eir family.
They walked into the village as the sun was touching the tops of the mountains.
Unlike Sandy Cove, this village had been built on a rise a fingers-width walk from the water’s edge. Lefeng had heard fisherfolk in Sandy Cove talk about the foolishness of it. Why build so far out you couldn’t even see your boats from your gateway? But Lefeng saw the wisdom of it now. Sandy Cove had been destroyed by the water. This village was damaged, yes, but it was still standing, and full of people who even now were bustling around repairing compound walls or clearing detritus from the street. It was worse damage than Lefeng had ever seen after any storm, but not unrecoverable.
It gave Lefeng hope, that the fisherfolk youngling might be luckier than ey was.