"Tessa, throw me my shoes."
Tessa tightened her own laces again, slowly.
"Grab them yourself." She said, strapping one knee pad around her leg. "You have legs, don't you?" Her gaze stayed locked on her task. The pads were a gift from the darkness. Leather and metal, bound together to protect from the hidden dangers that came with safety.
"It's not that hard..." Win muttered under her breath. She would have said it louder, but something in Tessa's voice suggested that she was as tired as Win. Whenever Resting was interrupted, exhaustion followed. Complaining wouldn't help anything, though.
Win collected her shoes from where she had thrown them earlier. Whether she had actually managed any sleep, she couldn't say, but it felt like whatever she had gotten had done more bad than good. Mother had woken them up, as usual, before disappearing. After she left, Tessa and Win were supposed to join the gathering for Recitation and eating. Once they were both ready, they headed out, Tessa's torch lighting the way. Into the caves.
The gathering room was long, with a ceiling low enough for Win to touch if she jumped a little. It mostly stretched away from the entrance, more like a wide hallway than anything else. This was the room for Recitation and Eating. The Mothers were already gathered, as were most of the Young, like Win and Tessa. A few were even younger. They were so small. Win closed her eyes as she had been instructed so many times before, drinking in the sounds. So many subtle sounds. The tapping of feet on stone, the rustle of clothing.
A cry rang from the far end of the room. Even if her eyes had been open, Win couldn't have seen the person who made the sound. She had never been close enough to the front to see the man--and it did sound like a man--but seeing wasn't the point. She knew the words.
A hundred voices joined in unison.
Darkness sees. Darkness hears. Darkness knows. The darkness without provides, that within guides. The darkness is all. The darkness rewards all.
To it, we owe all. The darkness we obey.
Another shout from the hidden man. Recitation was over.
Then the man spoke. Words.
"Upon this waking, the darkness has given us another. His solitude has been blessed. He has obeyed, and has been guided to us again."
Could it be--It had to be!
"We welcome him."
The man shouted again, this time with finality. It had to be Jal. His solitude was over. Win had seen him three times before his solitude and promised herself that she would make him smile. If he was back, she could talk to him, get to know him.
Mother began passing out the venison as Eating began. The crowd of Mothers and Young parted to let her pass, waiting to put their hand out until she gifted them the food. Each person, in turn, received their meat, thanking the darkness before turning to eat it.
Win reached out, trembling as she felt the rough texture against her hand.
"Darkness be thanked."
Hearing Tessa give thanks, Win turned to find her sister. Taking a step toward her voice, Win smiled.
Then something hit her side, a weight, forcing her to the ground. Win heard her knee pads slam against the smooth floor.
Looking up, Win saw Jal.