The Illusion (a short story)
Torash ran in front of me, pushing branches aside or hacking at them with his sword when they wouldn't give way. Our pursuers had dogs tracking our smell anyway, so no amount of caution would hide our trail until we reached the river. Speed was what mattered now. Verain ran behind me, making no sounds while Torash and I crashed through the bushes that blocked our path. I couldn't even hear her breathing, but knew she was there, protecting my back just like before. My own heart thudded against my ribcage, beating for all it was worth; my lungs trying to give me the air I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Or legs, rather, because I still couldn't feel my feet.
I knew they were there. There was a definitive weight attached to my ankles that surely hit the damp earth repetitively as I ran. I just couldn't feel it. Slint had said this would happen. I'd tried to warn myself against it, to remember that lies flowed out of his mouth easy as blood from a wound. Then he'd forced my chin up and I looked into his eyes. They were all wrong, sometimes Slint told the truth. For certain, I couldn't feel my feet.
Sharp sunlight on the river water hit my vision like a spear. I flinched, lost my balance and tumbled down the bank. A hand grabbed my arm as my legs dangled over a great tree root. Torash hauled me back up the bank and forced me forward.
"We can't cross here, the water's too fast." Even while hurried, his voice contained a trace of humor. "They'll be on us before we reach the other side. I know your feet hurt, but keep running!"
I ran, with whatever reserves remained in my exhausted body. My legs felt like twigs, bending and about to break each time my…feet…met the ground. Verain ran alongside me now, flashing me an encouraging smile, one hand on my elbow to propel me forward when I slackened. Finally, we made it to a ford. Torash jumped down into the shallow water. Verain pushed me in after him. With one hand from each guiding me across the slippery rocks, we made it to the opposite side and staggered out of the water.
My mind registered the fact that we were climbing more tree roots, from the draka trees that grew often alongside flowing water. Their root systems held the banks together and provided us with opportunity not to make footprints in the mud for our trackers. What did it matter, I thought, since I don't have any feet? But then I had to concentrate on staying upright, even with the help of my companions.
Once we'd gained the cover of the forest again, Torash swept me up in his arms. Our trail was cold now, and we could afford to move more slowly. Verain chose the path, and Torash followed, neither making a sound as they crept through the undergrowth and briars. I do not know how long we traveled like that, it could have been a couple of hours. Although my weight was slight, especially after having been in captivity, I marveled at how Torash seemed not to notice the strain of bearing our supply packs and me.
Night had finished creeping over the sky when we stopped. Torash set me down near an oak, though I only came out of my stupor when a fire burned in front of me. Tentatively, I reached out to the warmth. My consciousness returned in full as my body regained feeling. Not my feet, though. Slowly, I dragged my eyes down to where my…feet…were. But they weren't.
I hadn't looked since Slint had told me that I was losing them, like I was afraid if I looked, it make it true. I looked, and it was true. Or mostly, anyway. I ran my hands down my legs to my ankles and brushed my fingertips on the blurry, flesh-colored things that were attached to them. My…feet…felt squishy, but hard, like wood gone rotten: firm on the outside, but press a little harder and it gives way to--. I pulled my hands back, rubbing them vigorously on my pants.
A sound made me glance up and I saw the Torash and Verain were staring at me. Verain moved round the fire a bit so that she was at my side.
"Is it your feet? How sore are they? I have some salve in my pack. Can I take a look?"
I realized I was self-consciously hiding my rotten wood feet. "It's all right, they don't hurt," I heard myself say.
Now Torash came from the opposite side of the fire. "Alline! Verain, why haven't you taken care of her?"
Verain shifted her eyes to meet his. "What are you talking about?" She moved my hands. "It's incredible. There's not a mark on them. I didn't know you were so tough. Is this a spell?"
I couldn't think of what to say. Yes, it's a spell, Slint did something to my feet! I can barely see them, I can't feel them, and you say that they're perfectly whole! But nothing came out of my mouth. Torash's face was incredulous in the firelight.
"Look at her feet. How can you say there's not marked? There're blisters all over them, and--, I can see her bone on this one!" Torash reached as if to touch my left foot, but I scooted away from him, pulling myself to a standing position by scrabbling up the tree at my back. As soon as I let go I fell over, though, and tried to ignore the strange knowledge of sticky liquid running from where my feet should've been, up my legs, almost to my knees. Was it blood? Can something bleed if it doesn't really exist?
Yet, Torash and Verain could both see them, my rotten feet. One said they were torn, the other perfectly assured of their complete health. Who to believe?
"Alline, what do you see?" Verain's voice brought be back to reality.
"N-nothing, really. I tried to touch whatever's there, but it's disgusting. Slint did something to them." This remark had an immediate effect on my companions. Torash's face changed from worry to comprehension. "What?"
Both of them gave me the same sad smile. Verain answered me gently. "Slint has no real power, Alline. The magic he uses is of illusion. There's nothing wrong with your feet."
I looked to Torash. He nodded. "I know the truth now, so I see past his deception. Your feet are normal. You just have to believe it."
"How can I believe it? I can't even see my feet, there's just a fuzzy outline! I felt them, and there's something wrong. Slint said this would happen!"
Torash nodded. "Slint lied."
Heat washed over my face and spread down over my chest. My heartbeats sped up, matching the pulsing feeling in my cheeks. "He lied."
I knew that. Everyone knows that. Slint is clever. He'll tell you what you want to hear, and his words will taste like honey but once you listen, you don't know when they will turn sour. His voice is mesmerizing. Don't listen. Plug your ears. Take every effort not to be taken in by his lies. That's all that ever comes out of his mouth: lies.
"Slint lied." I forced myself to say it. "It's an illusion." I shut my eyes and repeated the words to myself in my head, over and over. An odd, happy feeling started in my stomach and rose up to my heart. The corners of my mouth started to turn upwards. I realized that deep in myself, in every recess of my mind, I knew the truth. I could see through Slint's illusion.
My eyes opened and I looked down at my feet, whole, healthy and nearly shining.
I smiled. The truth felt so good.