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Ilya's Tale, Part 2: The Raven
The pain woke him, sending its cruel vibrations up his leg. His heart sent back its miseries in reply. Slowly, his eyelids creaked open, squinting and then shutting again as the sun seared his pupils.
Ilya felt for his fingers. His body seemed disjointed, disconnected—only the pain tied its separate parts together. It was as if he was a spirit trying to return to a body he no longer owned. He wondered if he was dead—and the jolt of fear brought him fully awake.
He opened his eyes in spite of the sun, turning his head to the side. His arm lay stretched out beside him, fingers still wrapped around the branch that had helped him through last night’s forest. Ilya thought of the tree it had come from and the storm that must have knocked it from its bough and the years it might have waited for him to stagger across its path, and whispered, “Thank you.”
All that came out was a hiss of dry breath—and the realization that he was horribly thirsty. He’d had nothing to eat or drink since…He did not want to remember that last supper. Seated around the fire, they had complained about the fare as they usually did, remembering the comforts of home cooking. They had known that, in theory, it could have been their last meal—but none of them had really expected to die that day. Ilya remembered their faces—all his friends, one of them closer than his blood brother…
A sob wrenched itself from his chest. Alone in a strange wood, afraid, hurt, and exhausted, Ilya did not even try to stop his tears. His eyes burned as the hot drops traced down his face, spilling onto his lips…
Water. Ilya licked at his tears, not caring that they tasted of salt. Even that little bit of moisture was welcome, giving him fresh energy and hope. He could not mourn Kiran and the others now, he told himself. If he survived, he would have all the time he needed to grieve. If he died, then they could commiserate in the afterlife. A tiny smile lifted his cracked lips.
Wincing, he sat up. He could feel new bruises—his memories of the previous night were hazy, but he knew he had fallen more than once. Grimly, Ilya assessed his situation: broken leg; no food or water; unfamiliar country; one dagger; one staff; and his wits, such as they were. Ilya looked at the sun, fixing North in his mind, and cautiously got to his feet. He tried to set weight on the splinted leg—it held, but he did not relish the thought of the walk ahead.
He would head downhill; there might be a stream nearby that he could follow…His dry mouth sighed for water. Just yesterday—was it only yesterday?—he had carelessly flicked water at Kiran for his joke about the girl at Ceras. If he had known then what it was like to thirst, really thirst, he would never have wasted his precious water on Kiran…
Pain suddenly crippled him. He had everything and nothing to say to his dead friend; Thank you simply didn’t mean enough.
A raven cawed; Ilya’s head jerked up. The saucy bird was sitting in the tree above him, staring down with head cocked in a calculating manner: How long do I have to wait for this one? Ilya snarled a hoarse curse and gave the bird the courtesy of the most obscene gesture he knew. It cawed again and hopped to a lower branch, unimpressed. Ilya glowered at it and turned away, setting his staff down firmly in the loam as he started forward.
Yard by yard, he stumbled through the forest, following the gentle downward slope of the land. The raven stalked him from tree to tree, giving the occasional caw. Ilya was too focused on walking to pay it much notice, but when it swooped across his path, landing to hop up and down in front of him, he stopped and glared at it. “Go away, crow,” he rasped, his breath short and uneven. “I’m not dead…yet.”
“Ki-yah!” the bird insisted, cocking its feathered black head. “Ka-yah!”
Ilya shook his head, blinking sweat out of his eyes, and resumed walking. The raven cawed angrily. Ilya growled and swung his staff at it—then staggered as his leg betrayed him. The world spun dizzily before his eyes; he was falling—and then his flailing arm struck a tree and he leaned into it, panting. The raven looked at him as if to say, Serves you right.
“I’m sorry…” Ilya whispered through dry lips.
“Caw,” said the raven seriously, waddling up to him. On the ground, the carrion-bird’s ungainly gait rather destroyed the sinister image for which it was renowned. It bobbed its head, then cocked it to the right. It repeated the motion, giving and impatient Caw! when Ilya failed to respond.
Ilya just stared, blinking stupidly. What was it doing? The pain was dulling his mind; his thoughts were slow and cumbersome. Should he follow the bird? But he was looking for water…What was that noise? Was there a stream around here?
What was the point?
With a feeling of mild surprise, Ilya realized he was on the ground. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but his leg hurt worse than ever. The pain was deep in the bone, throbbing with the beats of his heart. An iron ball chained to his leg could not have crippled him more thoroughly.
For the sake of the dead, he gave a last, feeble attempt to stand. Secretly, he didn’t want to succeed. He just wanted to lie here and fall asleep, and who cared if he never woke up? The raven would be happy…
The black bird gave an angry caw and jabbed at his leg. Ilya gasped as its beak pierced torn flesh and new blood leaked from the wound. The raven jumped back and glared at him with a beady black eye. Or rather, it seemed to glare; no bird knew how to look like that…Ilya began to wonder if he was imagining things, hallucinating. Perhaps it was all a nightmare…He closed his eyes, hoping to wake up.
His last lucid thought was an apology to Kiran.