“They were interesting.”
The sun had barely moved before Va’il had to stop walking, but it was not out of exhaustion. He had barely walked for five minutes before his renewed senses picked up a noise. His questions about the ambiguous girls were pushed from his mind.
A sound was slowly moving towards him. He strained his ears to hear. The sound became louder and louder as it got closer. Eventually, he realized that it wasn’t just one sound, but a large collection of sounds; the sound of children talking. He started walking quickly towards the voices.
“The half is still alive!”
A large group of students had been searching through the forest when they suddenly saw Va’il walking out of the depths of the forest towards them. Amidst the many shocked expressions were two quickly moving objects. Va’il spotted Pete as he rushed towards Va’il. Behind Pete was the small Harnes. Kelin was casually walking. They were the only three that were moving, as everyone else had dazed expressions.
“You, you!” Pete cried out. It was all he could muster as the hefty swine put his arms around Va’il. Va’il felt his shoulders drop a bit lower from the weight, but it felt good. Kelin, silent in his joy, simply patted Va’il on the back. Va’il could feel the tension in Kelin’s hand.
“My friends…” Va’il said, the tears finally coming to him.
“We thought you had… um, I mean, you’re alive, Va’il,” Pete said. Sensei had walked over as well, showing a relieved smile.
Va’il nodded slightly. He then flinched. Harnes had just discovered his broken arm. Not two seconds passed before she ran off as fast as she could. Pete let go of Va’il and stared him straight in the eye.
“What happened?” Pete asked. The tears running from his face didn’t match the serious tone he had.
“I’m not sure entirely, myself,” Va’il said honestly. He still wasn’t sure of the answer. While in this group of friends, the events that had transpired didn’t seem real. He looked down at his left arm. The break was real. The splint was real. The bandages were from a dress; that too was real. But everything else, especially the drowning, didn’t seem as if it had really happened. “There was a whirlpool under the lake. It sucked me into a cave. Eventually, it led out.”
His one sentence explanation seemed to be enough for Pete. Explaining everything wouldn’t be good, Va’il thought. He thought of Ruby’s attitude, and her silent conversation with Shiroi. I’ll protect them at least. As thanks for the help, and they seemed really troubled that anyone would know who they are, Va’il thought to himself. He mustered a little courage from this thought.
Kelin looked at him with squinted eyes. The explanation didn’t suffice for him, but he wasn’t going to make an issue of it now that Pete had stopped crying. Soon, though, the questions he had would arise again.
Va’il tried answering questions that the other kids had. He explained the feeling of the whirlpool and the experience of walking for hours and hours, which wasn’t much to say. He avoided talking about Ruby, whose name he still thought was Shiroi. It still didn’t seem real to him, so he also didn’t mention the underground cavern filled with statues and a pavilion. He also wasn’t sure how much people would believe him. No one seemed to ask about what happened to the person who was drowning either, but Va’il didn’t even notice that part of the hole in his story.
“Oh, but how much time has passed?” Va’il realized that the sun was still quite low in the sky.
“A couple days. Today is the trip back,” Kelin said calmly. Va’il was shocked. The time in the tunnels had passed much differently. He knew that the hunger and exhaustion he felt were extreme, but two days was longer than he expected.
“The trip back? Today?” Va’il asked.
“Yes. It’s still morning even now. The campsite is being packed away by everyone still there. We leave when we get back,” Kelin said.
“But, then, why are so many of you out here in the forest?” Va’il asked. They had barely moved as a group when Harnes came running back, breaking the flow of the conversation.
She was carrying real bandages and a shaped splint; part of the medical supplies they had brought. Everyone stopped and waited as Harnes addressed Va’il’s broken arm in her usual noiselessness. She carefully undid the bandages that Ruby had tied around his arm. Harnes seemed to notice that the material was previously clothing, but she ignored it as she continued with her work. Va’il took each of the bandages in his right hand as Harnes undid them.
“I want to keep them,” he said to her, quietly. She nodded and threw the sticks that formed the crudely made split away. The arm was covered in scratches and bruised. The swelling wasn’t as bad as before, and Harnes slowly adjusted the splint to Va’il’s arm. Part of the splint went around Va’il’s neck. His arm was now supported in front of him. He said, “Thank you,” to Harnes, and used his good hand to try and put the old bandages in his pocket.
Va’il noticed too late. His fumbling with his pocket when putting the bandages in it caused something to fall out of it. It was a folded paper. It fell to the ground with the markings facing up.
Twill, previously unnoticed, was immediately at Va’il’s feet. She picked up the paper faster than most people could notice. But Twill had noticed, and took personal responsibility to reclaim what she thought had been lost.
“Va’il,” she said calmly, “is this what I know it is?”
“Uh.” Va’il was at a loss. The sudden change in atmosphere caught him completely off guard. He didn’t think anything of the package in his pocket a minute ago. He was quickly realizing that this was something he should not have had.
“It’s the paper package for our food, right?” Sensei asked.
“Yes,” Harnes said as she finished tightening a loose bandage on Va’il’s arm. It was now too tight.
“One of the stolen ones, yes it is,” Ter’ae said with the widest grin he had yet shown. A few of the kids standing near Ter’ae moved a few feet away from him when they realized how close he was to them.
“Wait, stolen? That is presumptive, isn’t it?” Pete asked.
“Evidence is evidence.” Twill was uncharacteristically slow in her reply.
“What kind of evidence is that? There’s no reason to think Va’il hadn’t had it earlier! We all eat the same stuff, there is nothing proving that is one of the missing packages,” Kelin said.
“It’s never been wet.” Twill’s answer silenced everyone. She held up the paper, now unfolded. The edges were still sharp, the ink hadn’t run, and it folded and unfolded with ease. Anyone could see that this paper had never been wet.
“The white and clawed thief makes his appearance!” Ter’ae shouted happily. The crowd of children had formed in a circle around the main characters, which in turn were all looking towards Va’il, a small child amidst many people older than him. His few, but reliable friends were not going to give up so easily.
“Still, Va’il can explain, right? We all saw him go down in the water! This accusation doesn’t make sense, if you think about it,” Kelin said; the usual calm in his voice was missing. Twill scowled at him.
“And just what do you think we were doing while he was supposedly off drowning? That’s right, trying to figure out who was still stealing food! Don’t you forget just why we were searching through this forest! Tracking down the thief who was careless enough to leave a few tracks leading in the direction your friend just came from!” Twill huffed while her feathers ruffled.
“Va’il, say something. You didn’t do this, right?” Kelin asked pleadingly of his small friend.
“I…” Va’il didn’t know just what to say. I need to think about this calmly, he told himself. The small boy was thinking rather clearly considering the irrationality of everyone surrounding him. The pressure of the world in that moment didn’t seem to exist in Va’il’s mind.
The only pressure he felt was the nagging feeling in his chest. The thought of two unique girls was imposing itself in his mind. He considered if he should tell everyone about them, but not for long. He didn’t want the girls to be discovered. They had helped him too much for him to want to expose them. He thought of the secrecy that they showed. More than that, he remembered the girls’ whispered conversation.
His decision was one some people would call foolish. He listened quietly to the surrounding children. There were shouts and yells. There were his two friends along with Harnes and Twill surrounding him, even protecting him. The voices and sounds faded from his mind. He thought of the fact that the two girls were a short walk from here. Not even ten minutes. He heard the sounds of the air rushing through the trees behind him. The sounds of the leaves cracking, branches cracking, wildlife scattering. The sound of wood breaking reminded him of his own break. I’ve already sacrificed much to protect them, he thought again. A little more sacrifice is fine, he decided.
“I don’t have anything to say.” Va’il spoke as he stood tall and held his head high. He exuded an air of confidence, arrogance, and pride. He did feel proud, but not for the reasons that he made everyone think he was. Be unapologetic, he told himself over and over again.
The reaction wasn’t expected. Everyone went silent again. Even Ter’ae didn’t know what to say; his accusations wouldn’t matter anymore. No one questioned Va’il after that. There was the question that circulated, as to whether Va’il actually confessed or not. They all decided to walk back, disgusted. Va’il noticed that even Harnes walked back with her head down. She stayed with Twill and the rest of the children, who all walked together, separate from Va’il.
“I don’t believe you,” Kelin said, then walked off towards the campsite.