I woke up to see Iyagi hunched over a tiny fire. It was still dark out. Without the sun, only the stars were competing with the moon to shine on the world below, leaving me with little to guess how long I’d been sleeping. I rolled over towards the warm flames and slowly propped myself on one elbow. I hissed softly under my breath. My bruises had not yet healed.
Iyagi turned sharply and rushed to my side. “Take it easy,” he whispered, helping me to sit up. “Here, drink this.” He reached behind me and pulled out a rock. The water from the cave’s walls had dripped into its center that it had been eroded hollow. It was filled with clean water. I realized then how dry my throat was and how thirsty I felt.
Taking the makeshift bowl in my hands, I lifted it to my cracked lips and guzzled it down. The liquid slid coolly down my throat with each swallow. I drank till all the water was gone, then immediately felt guilty for not leaving any for Iyagi. But he didn’t seem at all concerned. Just relieved.
“Better?” he asked. I nodded gratefully.
“What about you?” I asked, biting my lip anxiously, afraid that he would suffer from dehydration. I hadn’t seen any clearwater pools or lakes on our way here. However, I had been quite out of it with Iyagi practically dragging my body over here.
“I’ll get some more later,” he replied with a careless shrug.
I frowned. “From where?”
“There’s a little pool nearby.” Iyagi stopped speaking and began rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. “Actually, how I found it was rather strange.”
“Oh?” I prodded.
“Well, last night…” he glanced outside, “…I think, I heard a noise. More like a whisper. At first, I thought it was just the wind. But it grew so insistent that I knew it was coming from a person’s mouth. I got up quickly to investigate.” He shook his head in wonder. “There was no one there. I was about to go back inside when I heard some crashing in the woods. So, I went after it. Nothing. Then more crashing.” Iyagi glanced at me. “This is where it gets really strange. The noises continued in a pattern till I came upon the pool. It wasn’t very far, but well hidden. I would never have been able to find it on my own. I think…”
“You think someone was helping you?” I finished.
Iyagi nodded sheepishly.
“I don’t think that’s crazy,” I smiled and opened my mouth to explain about Raffi, when lo and behold the dwarfish man stepped inside and sat down in front of the fire.
Iyagi continued to stare at me, waiting for me to continue. I looked from him to Raffi, who sat smirking at me while warming his hands, then back at the prince whose eyes were full of patience and now a bit of worry. I turned to the dwarf for help, but he only shrugged and mimed that Iyagi couldn’t see him.
“Could he hear you?” I whispered softly over the fire. Iyagi frowned and felt my forehead. I pushed his hand away gruffly.
Raffi raised his brows. “Yes, but I didn’t want to freak him out without you around to reassure him.”
Iyagi jumped to his feet frightened.
Raffi sighed and gestured to the startled prince. “See, like that,” the dwarf grumbled.
I pulled the prince back down to sit beside me, suppressing a smile. “It’s alright,” I said soothingly like one would speak to a frightened puppy, “He’s a friend. Apparently a very old friend, back from when I was a girl.” I looked over at Raffi, who gave me a quick wink.
Iyagi looked at me, now puzzled as well as wary. “You’ve been here before?” He asked.
I nodded and began to tell him all that I had experienced in the last few days. How I had met Raffi and our journey through the woods together as we went on a quest to find the three items that could break the spell on my mind and restore my memory. Of Mother Willow and her children. Of the swirling black shadow-men. Raffi, chipped in every now and then in the explanations of how the Moon ruled the earth instead of the Sun.
However, even the dwarf’s eyes grew big as I went on to tell them both about my visit to the kelpie Underworld.
“I can’t believe you survived them,” Raffie shuddered.
“That was really brave of you, Kkachi,” Iyagi said proudly, placing a palm over my hand.
“Reckless, more like,” the dwarf scoffed in return, “You could have been killed! Good thing they believed you when you said you’d help them. Now you’re safe.”
“Oh, I’m going to help them,” I told Raffi.
The dwarf coughed furiously. “After all they did to you?!” Raffi spattered, “You don’t need to…they don’t deserve it; they are evil!”
“They are heartless,” I corrected.
“Same thing,” the dwarf waved off.
I shook my head emphatically. “No, it isn’t,” I insisted, “Without a heart, these kelpies operate with no emotion, empathy or love. They are powerful and gifted, but driven only by logic.”
“So, it’s logical to kill innocent people?” Raffi asked incredulously, throwing his hands up in the air. “I can’t believe you are defending them!”
“It’s logical to have people fear you,” I shrugged.
Iyagi nodded contemplatively. “You want to help the kelpies regain their lost hearts so that these creatures can feel again. Once they can do that they hopefully will have compassion and not be as dangerous.”
“Except this Agar says that once they have their hearts, they will be even more powerful,” Raffi pointed out.
“It’s a chance I have to take,” I said, “They have been wronged and I want to fix it. I promised.”
“An oath made in fear is sure to be invalid.” Raffi grabbed my shoulder. “No one would blame you if you went back on it. I surely wouldn’t consider you dishonorable if you did.”
I thought of Kion, the merman pleading with his last breath, his eyes full of hope even as he lay dying. He had never met me. Yet, he believed in me and depended on me to help his people. I didn’t know why, but the merman king’s surety that I could save the kelpies’ plight … it fed a piece of me that needed purpose, like drinking water when thirsty.
“I can’t.” I straightened my shoulders, shrugging off Raffi’s hand. “I won’t.”
“There’s no guarantee they’ll give you the fin of truth even if you do,” the dwarf huffed, crossing his arms.”
“Then it’s a chance I’ll just have to take,” I said, “So … will you help me?”
The dwarf looked hurt. “Of course I’ll still help you!” he shouted.
I giggled and took both his hands in mine. “Thank you.”
“Just don’t want you to get hurt is all,” the dwarf muttered shyly. He shook my hands away and crossed his arms again. But his face had turned red.
I turned to Iyagi.
“You know I’m always on your side,” the prince said solemnly with a little smile.
“Good, then we’d better get going.” I stood up, a little shakily but on my own and without any help.
“Where to?” Raffi asked grudgingly.
“Take us to Queen Malba.”