Dalila walked across the scorching sands. Her taloned feet were wrapped in a light cloth that did little to keep the harsh burn of the sand at bay. She looked up at the red sun beating down on them and wondered what it had been like to fly.
A clothed hand firmly bopped her on the head bringing her back to the ground. She rubbed her head and looked up at Marjani.
“Ow, that hurt.”
“Keep your eyes down. Looking up at the sun will disorient you,” Marjani said with her eyes forward.
Dalila looked ahead and saw the long line of her people making their way across the sands. All were wrapped head to talon in dusty cloth. She peered behind her and saw the line was just as long. All of the Elfu faced forward, none looked around or behind them.
“Marjani do you remember flying?” Dalila asked.
Marjani cursed and let out a shrill squawk. “Silence. Do not speak of what we have lost.” She never turned to face Dalila her head and eyes firmly set ahead.
“I never flew, but my mother–”
Marjani gave her another bop on the head, this time hard enough to really hurt. “Do not speak of what we have lost,” she said with her beak clenched tight and eyes forward.
Dalila rubbed her sore head as tears began to fall. She hated Marjani. She was cold and strict not like her mother and father. They had been loving and kind. Her mother told her of flight, of the time before the iron sickness, before the Iron Skins brought war to their shores.
Her mother told stories of the beauty of her people. Finely feathered, graceful aerial acrobats and expert fishers. Now their feathers were mostly gone. They were lost to the iron sickness. It spread down the coast and turned the tide a sickly red-green. It first wiped out the fish, petrifying their scales and flesh. Then quickly spread to the Ndegi people.
On the night the sickness claimed her mother, Dalila had made healing waters by calling on gia. Once all Ndegi could move gia, but that too was lost to them. The tiny bit that Dalila did was the most any had managed in a long time. Her mother was proud, but it just made Marjani angry. She sent Dalila out of their hut as she always did. Not wanting the girl to see how far the iron sickness had spread.
Wanting to see if the water would help Dalila watched from outside the cloth door. Peering in as Marjani carefully removed her mother’s wrap. All Ndegi wore the wrap now. It was supposed to prevent the iron sickness from spreading, but Dalila new, as her mother told her, it was because they were prideful, and did not want to be reminded of what they had lost.
When her mother’s wraps came off she almost shrieked. The petrified grey patches of skin, that killed of feathers and prevented flight, were not new to her. She had several patches. But on her mother, they were everywhere. Her entire right arm was covered. It was dark grey, almost black, and curled against her body. The sickness spread across her shoulder and her chest where it was a lighter ash-grey. She watched as Marjani tried to move the arm in the warm water, but her mother just shook her head.
“It is too late Sister,” her mother said, “the arm is solid. Don’t let it spread further. Don’t let me become some half-dead stone.” Her mother gripped Marjani’s arm tightly. “Please, take care of Dalila. She is my sky.”
It was the only time Dalila could remember seeing sadness in Marjani’s eyes. “Go then sister,” Marjani said as she held her mothers head under the water, “It is time for you to join your husband.”
Dalila cried as she watched, unable to look away until it was over. Then she ran far into the desert. She ran until her legs could turn no further and spilled across the cold sands. Tears ran down her face as she curled into a ball and lost herself to grief.
She dreamed of flying. Soaring through the sky with her mother and father. The sun was warm, and the air was cool as it whipped over her full feathers. Her mother and father zipped by her and flew high towards the sun.
“Keep up silly tamuga,” her mother called playfully as she flew past.
Dalila tried to fly faster but her wings became heavy. Her bright yellow and blue feathers began to molt, revealing petrified lesions. She began falling from the sky.
“That’s it. Now you’re keeping up.” Her mother turned to look at her with sad tearful eyes. The rest of her was stone.
“No. Mother!” Dalila screamed.
She woke up in Marjani’s arms as they walked back to the camp. Looking straight ahead Marjani said, “The sickness took your mother. We do not speak of what we lost.” That was all she said, and she would say no more.
Not long after an emissary of the Queen visited the Elfu. She told them the Queen offered hope, the last hope for a dying people. Revenge.
It was made clear that the time of the Ndegi was ending. They could die out slowly suffering until the end. Or the Queen could transform them into a new people. A people capable of taking revenge against the Iron Skins that brought the plague and war to the Ndegi. They were a prideful people and accepted the Queen’s offer. The Elfu had packed up what was left of their encampment and started the long trek to the Queen’s castle.
It seemed like they had walked forever through the torrid desert. Marjani told her it would be another couple weeks, but the desert would provide them safe passage.
“Marjani, if we will no longer be the Ndegi, who will we become?” Dalila asked.
Marjani let out a huff of exhaustion. “Your mother always had questions.”
Dalila looked at her surprised. “She would always ask of what can’t be answered. We will never be the Ndegi again. We will not be better than what we were. But we will be better than what we are.”
Dalila was confused. Marjani’s answers didn’t make her feel any better, or any surer of her tribe’s decision.
“They say several tribes have meet with the Queen of Swarau and accepted her gift. Those tribes have returned to the sky,” Marjani said.
She looked up at Marjani. Her head faced forward never wavering from their path. “We will fly again?” Dalila asked.
Marjani didn’t answer. Dalila noticed her eyes drift up at the sky for a brief moment, before falling back down. After that Dalila stared ahead too. She never looked back, and she never spoke of what was lost.
Crossposted at The Midnight Bards.