Chapter 47: Moonlight
All was quiet as Libus finished his story. Below them the raft trickled forward, while above the stars were beginning to twinkle as the sun set. A soft breeze blew through the forest, the sound of rustling leaves reaching them from the bank as well as the first hoots of owls.
“We’ll need to set watch,” said Jessica after several minutes, “just in case we we are pursued.”
“There is no just in case,” responded Libus. “Rest assured, we are being pursued. The only question is whether they are fast enough to catch us. I’ll cover for first watch.”
“Actually, I was going to take that,” responded Jessica. “After today I could use some time to collect my thoughts.”
“If you insist,” said Libus, and he rummaged through a nearby crate, removing a blanket. “Just don’t let the river lull you to sleep. I will claim third watch, to make sure that they don’t approach with the dawn.”
“That leaves me with second, then,” said Cinis. “In the middle of the night, at the center of the forest. Are you doing this on purpose, to try to give me the safe watch?”
“The safe watch,” said Libus, “No, yours is likely the most dangerous. And if danger should strike then, we will have very little chance of escaping alive and will likely be killed on the spot. So with that note I’m retiring, as I would rather be killed in my sleep than while awake.”
Cinis followed his lead, finding another scratchy, wool blanket from the crates and reclining on the raft’s wood, a sharp knot digging into his right shoulder blade as he shifted. He shut his eyes, the light of the stars above leaving imprints on his retina, and the sounds of the forest too quiet for his liking. In the city, there had always been some form of noise, whether it was the cats scrabbling over garbage at night, the carts passing through the streets, or the ramblings of the homeless who appeared after dark. But here, the sounds were more subdued. And despite his best efforts, he found it difficult to sleep.
He lay there for a half hour, perfectly still and breath regular, waiting for dreams that never came. Every so often he cracked an eye open to spot Jessica in her perch on the crates, her now blonde hair trailing in the light breeze, and her angular face unfamiliar to him. He had just started to grow accustomed to her old form when she had changed, and now she felt like another person entirely. A complete stranger. Though he had to remind himself that he had hardly known her for any time at all.
How do I even know that this face is real? he thought. What if it is just another layer? What if there is more underneath, something that even Libus could not spot?
And as he thought, she stood on top of the crate, and he silently watched as she stepped down to the boards without making a sound. Then she walked to the back of the raft, staring off the end into the night, where the reflection of the moon danced off the rippling water. Reaching a hand high into the air, she lifted two fingers to point at the night sky, slightly shifting her position as she craned her head over the water, her eyes searching as the wind pressed her clothes against the contours of her body, somehow making even her heavy gardening clothes appear elegant.
In a sweeping motion she dipped down, her movements fluid, like a bird swooping down from the sky, and trailed her fingers through the water, her fingers leaving the rushing water with a flick, sending water droplets splashing several feet upstream. She repeated the gesture, pursing her lips and loosing a low, barely audible whistle that seemed to come from the river itself. And when she finished the motion, Cinis felt a slight lurch as the raft accelerated, and the water just off the back of the raft roiled and flashed with silver reflections of sparkling moonlight.
Then Jessica resumed her post atop the crate, Cinis still watching her as the raft moved at nearly double its original speed, though she failed to move again besides the occasional stretch or yawn. And he turned his head slightly, stretching to see what was in the water below, but failed to make sense of the swarm of dark shapes wriggling underneath.
“Cinis,” hissed Jessica as she shook him awake, and his eyelids opened with reluctance. “Cinis, get up! It’s your watch. I’ll need rest if I’m to get us through the haunted forest tomorrow. Don’t make me splash you.”
He opened his eyes as she pulled the blanket off him and wrapped it around her shoulders. Shivering, he stood and took her spot at the top of the crates, groggily alternating from looking down and upstream for movement as Jessica settled into position for sleep.
He peered toward the edge of the raft, trying to see the movement that had been there earlier, during Jessica’s shift, and wondering if perhaps he had imagined it. Instead, the water appeared nearly motionless as it kept pace with the raft. Even the banks seemed still, gliding by at a slower and slower pace.
He yawned, biting the edge of his lip to push away sleepiness, knowing there was still a long night ahead. For a moment he was so focused on not falling asleep that he failed to notice the sound that was growing around him.
He froze when he heard it, the sound permeating the air around him, saturating the night itself. And underneath the raft, dark shapes raced by, splitting around the raft to swirl in a growing circle in front of him. The shadows danced with the sound, to the musical notes that skimmed across the water, and the voice that was now singing.
Atop the shapes moonlight drew together, racing across the water to form a thick, silver puddle that bulged out from the center, slowly growing upward until the silver split and fell in ringed folds down to the surface.
And a figure rose from the water, dressed in a gown of moonlight, and gazing with clear eyes that focused on Cinis.
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