I smiled warmly as I stepped into the water. It rippled and splashed over my feet, running through its bed aimlessly, paying me no mind. I sat down on a broad stone and leaned back. The stars twinkled down at me brightly and cheered my spirits. I wish my sisters were here with me, I thought remorsefully and I dipped my fingers into the brook.
A soft rustle on the other side of the stream caught my attention, and my eyes instantly sped to the source. A small child was crouched on the opposite side of the river, garbed in what looked to be sheepskins and tan leather, holding a small shepherd’s staff. She had very long, black hair that was tied back in a braid, which fell past her waist, and strangely shaped eyes. They were shaped like almonds and were a very dark brown colour. It was a very pretty combination, but for the life of me, I could not figure out what race this child was.
She blinked her big dark eyes, evidently as startled to see me as I was to see her. We stood stock-still for a moment, staring at each other. Her small hand was frozen around a waterskin that looked like it was made of some animal’s stomach. There was a water lily in her hair, one that I guessed came from the creek, because there were similar flowers floating along the bank. Finally, the little girl called, “Ni shì shuí, huo nu?”
My brain scrambled frantically to understand her words. I had not heard any words in another language in a long time, especially such a different language than my own, and it took me a long moment to even figure out what her first word meant. And she spoke so fast! I translated in my head slowly: “W-who … are … you, fire … lady”? Fire lady? That can’t be right … Then I realised she was probably referring to my red hair. I struggled to answer her, and when I finally was able to piece together a response, I said, “Wo de míngzì shì Elysia. Wo de péngyou hé wo dū duì zhèxiē shānqū luyóu, yào Rielture. Ni shì shuí?” My name is Elysia. My friends and I are travelling over these mountains, to Rielture. Who are you?
The little girl’s eyes lit up in astonishment when I replied to her. Continuing to speak in her fast, complicated language, she told me excitedly: “JiaQing! My name is JiaQing!” Then she cocked her head at me, dark eyes asking an unspoken question. “Are you lost? You look … confused,” she asked, studying me.
A little taken aback, I stared at her for a moment. She was asking me if I was lost? Where on earth did this child come from? I shook my head. My brain was beginning to ache from the arduous process of translating all these words, back and forth…I had had little to no practise with Instinctive Speech, and to try and translate so many words back and forth so quickly … I answered JiaQing wearily, “No, JiaQing … I am … just tired.” I sat down wearily on my side of the river, the moss soft and cushioning beneath me. I listened to the comforting, soothing sounds of the river rushing by, and the sounds of the frogs and crickets singing. I was very tired, emotionally, physically, and especially mentally.
JiaQing shifted into a sitting position, her large dark eyes bright with excitement, apparently convinced she had made a new friend. She really was tiny; she could have been no older than six years old. I smiled, remembering how Lillian was at that age. JiaQing asked then, “Why is your head on fire?”
I laughed. “My hair … is naturally this colour, JiaQing; my head is not … on fire. I was … born like this, with red hair,” I answered slowly, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar words.
“That’s so weird!” JiaQing exclaimed, staring at me with new interest, her large dark eyes alight with excitement. I smiled at her. I knew subconsciously, though I had no idea how, that she was Chinese. But I had never heard of the Chinese, nor their language, nor anything to do with them before tonight, and yet, here I was, speaking fluent Chinese. Though my brain was aching with a massive headache from the intense work required of it, I was enjoying and marvelling at my odd ability. Who would ever have guessed that I could understand and reply to a language I had never even heard of, without any schooling or teaching at all? I smiled at the peculiar workings of the world.
JiaQing filled up her waterskin and tied it to her belt, humming happily. She laid the small shepherd’s staff down beside her. I supposed she must be part of a nomadic tribe in these mountains or down on the plains, though I had seen no other people besides Brandyn’s company. Fascinated by this possibility, I asked her, “Where … do you live, JiaQing? In the mountains?”
JiaQing held out her small staff as evidence, eyes bright. “Wěi!” she said. Yes! “My family herds goats and sheep in these mountains; our tribe has been here for hundreds of years. My brother and I were trying to find a lost lamb, and I stopped to get more water.”
“You were looking … for the lamb … during the night?” I asked, absently massaging my aching forehead. I wondered how much more of this strenuous translation my unpractised brain could take.
“Wěi,” JiaQing affirmed. “He probably won’t wander around during the night, since he’s away from his mother and the herd. It’ll be easier to find him because he’ll probably hide somewhere, and my brother and I will find him.” She was suddenly distracted by the sight of a small winged insect flying past. JiaQing sat stock-still, watching it. Then, in a lightning-fast move, she snatched it out of the air. She opened her hand to gaze at it and let out a squeal of enthusiasm before releasing it.
I smiled again. I had forgotten it, but I now remembered Lillian doing the same when she was younger. Lillian had always been captivated by animals, no matter how big or small. With these memories came a strong ache of homesickness, however, and I asked JiaQing a question to get my mind off of my home: “Where is your brother now, JiaQing? Shouldn’t you be with him?”
JiaQing laughed. “Why? He can find the lamb without me!” Something in the river caught her eye and she leaned forward, studying the rushing water curiously. Then she looked up at me, cocked her head, and said, “I smell smoke from fire. You said there were other people with you. Are they nearby?”
“Wěi,” I agreed. “They are … over the crest there.” I pointed back at the direction I had come from, where Efroy and the others were sleeping.
JiaQing looked interestedly at the direction I pointed and said, “Are there others with fire-hair there? I’d like to see them! My little sister’d like to hear about the fire-people.”
I laughed. “There are no more … that I know of, JiaQing. I’m sorry. But I could take you … to see the camp … if you want.” My headache was beginning to lessen a little as I continued to speak in Chinese, though I knew it would be a long time before I could speak with the speed and fluency of JiaQing.
JiaQing’s dark eyes widened with excitement. “Wěi!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen a camp of other people before! My brother’ll be so jealous when I tell him!” And after hiding her staff in a bush on the bank, she hopped into the river and paddled across, swimming surprisingly strongly and more confidence than I would have expected of such a tiny girl. The current did little to move her from her course, and she jumped to the bank only a few feet farther down from where I was.
She shook off what water there was on her—her sheepskin and leather clothes seemed rather water-resistant—and wrung out her long black braid. JiaQing darted up the slope, and I stood, leaving the rock I had been seated on, to follow her with a smile.
At the edge of the camp, JiaQing hid behind one of the boulders and slowly peeked around it to peer at the campsite. I stood behind her, watching her with amusement.
One of the men stirred, and JiaQing gasped and pressed herself flat against the boulder. But when the man was quite again, she instantly moved back to where she could see the camp. She giggled after a moment. “What funny clothes they wear!” she said in a whisper that was none too quiet.
“Wěi, they are very … different than you,” I agreed, kneeling beside her and watching the camp as well with amusement.
“Who is he? He is very beautiful,” JiaQing asked me, tugging on my sleeve, and pointed.
I blushed when I realised it was Efroy she was referring to. “That is my good friend … Efroy,” I told her.
“He is your friend?” JiaQing asked in awe. “Oh, you’re really xìngyùn! Really lucky!”
I smiled. “Yes,” I said, looking at Efroy fondly. “Wěi, I am very lucky.”
JiaQing whirled around then, flat against the rock, and asked, “Where did you say you and your friends are going?” Her big eyes were full of curiosity.
“To Rielture,” I answered.
JiaQing cocked her head. “The eagle-city? If you’re going there, why aren’t you on the right path?”
Confused, I said, “I didn’t know that … we weren’t on the right path. Where is the right path?”
JiaQing darted away from the rock and stood down on the bank, craning her neck to search for something. She stood on tip-toes for a while and then ran back to me, saying, “The road to the eagle-city isn’t far from here. If you keep going this way, you’ll run into a big pile of rocks that will make you have to come back. I can show you the road, fire-lady, if you want.” With her huge, innocent eyes she looked at me pleadingly.
“Why … would you do that for us?” I asked, unsure.
JiaQing looked surprised. “Because you’re my friend! You’re lost, and I can help you get back to the right road. Please let me help you.” She looked up at me beseechingly.
This doesn't really surprise me much, but I've decided to focus solely on Sons and Daughters and not try to simultaneously write another story; I'm too involved in this series, and I don't think I'd be able to give another story enough attention - and therefore depth - whilst also working on Book Four. I liked the idea for The Rat Race, but I'll need to work on its plot quite a bit; it's pretty similar to The Hunger Games, apparently... *irked look* If you have any suggestions, please let me know! :) So yeah...back to Sons and Daughters, I guess. I may still write a little on The Rat Race if I'm bored or something, but it's not going to be a major project. Hope you all have a great weekend, and God bless!! :)
The prize? My life, and hers. If I fail, we both die.
There is only one way to run—forward.