Heart Rot: Chapter 2
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The landing was enough to force the breath from his lungs. A skin of water webbed his mouth, filled his ears. Caught in a net of bubbles without an up or down, he lashed out randomly, contacting nothing. The shock of the cold constricted his fingers into claws, tearing as though the water would give underneath them.

Then his hand struck air, and he struggled to drag the rest of himself above it. Sodden hair slicked down into his eyes, stoppered his ears. He managed to snatch one glimpse through the hanging curtain: the ridge loomed above, with the well underneath it pure shadow and his brother silhouetted on top, kneeling and stretching out a useless hand towards him, as though he could pull him back up now. His mouth moved, but a wave slopped against Tliichpil’s head and wiped out whatever the sound was. “Co -“ he tried to call back but was submerged again, dragged down by the weight of his sodden tunic and aprons.

He splashed desperately, but the river was too strong. Under the ridge he passed, into the black line, roar growing. The current swelled and latched around his ankles, and there was only enough time to think oh, no, before it dove and hauled him with it.

The world blackened instantly. He tried to snatch a breath, got a mouthful of foam. Eddies flung his limbs around like a wool-roving doll. His right arm slammed painfully into a spur of rock, a vibrating jolt numbing it to the fingertips. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe - another current dragged him underneath again, the pressure a copper band fixed around his chest. The water had been caged by the weight of its greater upriver body here within the stone, and, just like any other animal caged, it was not happy about it, its anger buffeting his head, hammering on his back.

He was going to die. It was going to kill him. Sun-soaked rivers were different, calmer, purer, could be swum or bathed in, because Hualma’s power purified them day on day - but nobody dared to enter clefts or subterranean rivers or lakes, where his reach could not extend. Every soul that had not made it safely to his realm of Ilhuichan, of animal and tree and human, could percolate down into the waters and get trapped there in the dark, poisoned into wraiths by the tendrils of power Olin sent up.

Or perhaps more mundanely the river would force itself through a cleft so slender he could not pass through with it, and his body would stay pinned there by the current until it bloated and rotted entirely, and he would never get proper interment. Perhaps it wouldn’t, and Comalpo would find him dead on the shore lower down.

The river tipped over a shelf, and he managed to get his face out, gasp one lungful. Another contact with an edge of stone, bright flashes bursting behind his eyes, rattling his teeth.

A drag over a ridge tore at his flesh. An instinctive scream rent from his mouth and the river seized the chance to thrust a hand in that too, burning into his sinuses and down his throat. Dizzy, choking, blinded, face and chest burning, he managed to think one fragment of a prayer, Hualma -

And then there was light. The frothy reflection from the plunge pool’s bottom lifted him up, pushed him to the surface again. Too stunned to paddle, to move, he drifted motionless with the current over to the bank and bumped against the rocks, sending another flash of pain through his bruised face and shoulder.

“Pila!”

But they were grown. It was not really appropriate for Comalpo to be using that childhood nickname, he thought fuzzily. “Pila!” His brother crashed through the brush, clattered on the rocks. He fell to his knees before him in a shifting of stones against his face. “Oh, Pila, talk to me - oh, you’re bleeding -“

“M’okay,” he mumbled. “’M not -“ Well, dead, really. After that, everything else was bonus. He clumsily pushed himself on all fours, realizing guiltily that lying there still was probably causing Comalpo more worry than it was worth.

“Oh, your head -“ He reached out towards Tliichpil’s sodden hair, and then drew his hand back. He recalled the rattling blow - it must have cut into his skin as well, for Comalpo to notice. “Did you break it?” No. Or maybe? How was he supposed to tell that?

His brother took his face between his hands. “Look at me.”

He looked. Comalpo searched his eyes, looking for the slow focus or uneven pupils that would indicate a broken head. Evidently not finding anything, he moved his hands to his shoulders. “You’re shivering.”

“Wow, I wonder why.” After all, it wasn’t as though this river flowed all the way from the mountains, where there was sometimes even snow. As he had intended, Comalpo’s shoulders slumped in relief at the quip.

Tliichpil hesitantly shifted to his knees, wincing at the movement. Comalpo had been right - thinned by the water blood trickled down to cover his right hand, and his shoulders, and his thighs, turning the white-and-blue edging of his tunic an ugly brown and making yellowish stains on the damp rocks under him.

“Just a second -“ Comalpo clattered away again, and returned with a handful of plantain leaves. Tliichpil selected the biggest, held it against his shoulder, and pressed hard. He had always hated this - having to wait until his blood clotted, always wanting to peek and poke at it and reopening up any injury he had. But he shouldn’t destroy his tunic even more than it already was.

After what felt like an interminable amount of time, he peeled off the leaf. No rivulet of blood ran down.

Comalpo scooped up another handful of water and poured it gently down over his arms, washing away some of the drying smears. “Can you walk?”

“I think so.” Comalpo helped him to his feet. They made it across the bank and into the trees before his knees gave, and he sank to the base of a kapok tree.

“Pila -“

“I’m all right,” he said. “I just -“ His heart was thudding through every bruise, along his jawbone, in his ears - his body remembering terror, now that it wasn’t immediately in danger. “Just need a moment.” He wrapped his arms around his knees, laid his head sideways onto them. Comalpo put a hand on his back, rubbing circles like he was a spooked ass, which he guessed was pretty nigh the truth.

Gradually, his mind and heartbeat calmed. A finch twittered, somewhere up in the canopy above them. Eventually, when his body seemed willing to at least make an effort towards obedience again, he raised his head. “All right. I think I’m okay now.”

Comalpo gave him a twisted-lipped look, but did not argue with him. He rocked himself back on his heels and then stood up, reaching down to offer a hand. They linked wrists, and Comalpo dragged him to his feet and proffered his spear. Still shaky, Tliichpil took it gratefully, and they slowly began the hike back to the village.

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“Neli’s Landing! What happened?!” Lotlixya cried the instant she saw them, springing from her stool. Hurriedly she unfastened herself from her loom and rushed over, laying her hands on Tliichpil’s shoulders, cheeks. “Oh, brother -“

“Fell. The cataract.”

“Oh stars! Well sit down!” The exclamation was almost redundant; Comalpo had already led Tliichpil over to her vacated stool, and now pushed him down on it. She fluttered over him, touching his forehead, neck, hands, checking for twisted muscle or disjointed bone.

“Comalpo already did all this,” Tliichpil complained.

Lotlixya looked up to him. He nodded. “I don’t think he’s broken anything,” he said. “The only thing that really worries me is this.” He pointed to where the Tliichpil’s hair was already clotting over the gash on his scalp. “But his eyes are okay, so -“

She checked anyway, to Tliichpil’s very evident consternation, sucking on her teeth. Finally, not satisfied-looking but having apparently noticed no more unbalance in his pupils than Comalpo had, she leaned back. “Take off your tunic,” she ordered. Tliichpil did gingerly, and she poked at the bruises and scrapes that had been hiding underneath that as well. He winced and glanced up at Comalpo, sending him a silent plea.

Nope. There was no crossing Lotli when she was in maternal mode - one just had to give in and let oneself be taken care of. He sat down against the wall to wait as she snatched a bowl out of its niche and poured a splash of water into it, then stood on her tiptoes to haul her box of herbs down from the rafters. The sweet smell of bay drifted out. She rummaged through the small tied bundles, the dried leaves, the chunks of root and picked some out, dumping them into the bowl with the water and snatching up her pestle to crush them.

“Mala,” she said, and he looked up suddenly, nostrils flaring as his head came right into the way of a wisp of her yarrow-y, bay-y solution. “Grab me the cotton, will you? In the second basket - no, the next one,” she said as Comalpo rolled onto his knees and leaned over to open it. He propped the coloured lid against the rim and dragged out a two-handed handful of the downy filament, holding it up for her inspection. She nodded, and he dug into the basket beside that for cotton strip. She took both and tucked them atop her knees to keep them clean while she finished crushing the herbs, murmuring the appropriate incantations over them.

He had to remember to ask her for this knowledge, for these rites, as part of his inheritance, as neither Tliichpil nor the little ones had expressed any desire for them. Lotli had been especially beloved by their father, his only child from his first wife, and so it was her to whom he had spent the most time teaching healing. He knew - they all knew - that it was still only a very thin sliver of what he could have taught, before his death four years ago. But still, though - an uncelebrated skill, but so important.

Apparently satisfied with her solution, she twisted off a small knot of roving and soaked it in the mixture, then set to work squishing each small poultice against one of Tliichpil’s injuries, binding them with ripped pieces of cotton strip. Every movement, she asked another question:

“Do any of your fingers feel weird?” Above elbow.

“No.”

“Does your chest hurt at all?” Shoulder.

“No.”

Eventually, she took the last remaining wad of roving and sopped up the last of her solution with it, making a move to touch it to the cut behind his ear. He cocked his head. “You’re not going to tie that to my neck.”

She huffed in frustration. “No, you fool, just hold it there.” She grabbed his hand and pressed it down over the damp glob. “But you really feel okay,” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re not just lying because you are afraid to worry me.”

“No.”

“Honestly?”

“Honestly.”

Lotlixya pursed her lips. “Well, all right,” she acceded. She stooped again and kissed him on the temples and cheeks, then engulfed him in an embrace. He wrapped his bandaged arm obediently around her back and leaned into it. “I swear,” she sighed. “You two are going to be the death of me some day.”

Why was she bringing Comalpo into this? He hadn’t been the one to carelessly-or-not terrify the rest of them. It wouldn’t even be fair for Tliichpil to bear criticism for something that was an accident - why should he bear some?

“Why are you bringing him into this?” Tliichpil asked. “It’s my fault.”

Okay, shut up Tliichpil, he didn’t want that defense. In the hopes that it would distract them from bickering about fault and favour, Comalpo went over and joined in the embrace, nuzzling his chin into the top of Lotlixya’s head. Her pin rubbed cold against his jawline.

“Okay,” said Tliichpil calmly, “you’re all sort of suffocating me now…”

He chuckled and drew back. Lotlixya did as well. And looking down at his meekly-sitting bandaged brother, Comalpo’s heart clenched; now that they were safe, it smote him fully how close he had really come to losing him for good. How nigh the dark had come, and the water-wraiths, to stealing him to be theirs forever. His eyes prickled; to conceal it, Comalpo knelt down and embraced him again around the back, pushing his face into the undamaged side of his neck.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he whispered into his hair.

“Yeah,” he replied, leaning into Comalpo’s warmth. “Yeah, I know.”

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