18. We Can Help
I felt a gentle nudge on my cheek, and I instantly recognized his whiskers as they poked my eyes. I sat up quickly, opening my eyes and looking around our camp.
Jakko was the only one awake, sitting against a tree, his eyes looking in my direction, “You were crying in your sleep, he was trying to wake you up.” He stood up, moving to collect his things, “We should get going soon.”
I nodded, though his back was toward me and turned my attention to the giant beast next to me. He eyes me softly, purring as I let my fingers tangle in his fur. It was weird, almost empty, knowing that Jakko wouldn’t stop my nightmares anymore, and it was something that I had asked him to do. Unfortunately.
Thijs and Sarn woke up and packed their things quickly as well, with Thijs passing out fruit for us to munch on. There were so many questions I wanted to ask Jakko about the creature he came on. It looked like one of the ones that had attacked him. How he convinced himself to be so comfortable around something that almost caused his death, left me in awe.
I moved my tongue around my mouth, feeling the length of it and testing its weight. A jolt in my heart spread through my skin when I felt how it had grown through the night. I looked to Jakko, ready to explain to him what I was experiencing, but he wasn’t even near me, let alone looking in my direction.
With a sigh, I called over Eko and climbed on his back, followed by Thijs and Sarn. Jakko quietly climbed on his creature and followed closely behind as I led Eko closer to the portal. It was a quiet and awkward ride, with only the sound of branches cracking under Eko’s paws, birds flying above us and the rustling of the leaves to keep our ears company.
To be so close to finally crossing back to the realm I grew up in was astounding to me. It was almost surreal, and I imagined someone would prick me awake from the dream I was living. The memories of Dastan and my time with him were almost faded into nothing. I could not remember his smell, I could not remember his voice. Maybe once I was in front of him, every doubt would disappear.
We kept going, listening to nature’s sounds, until a murmur of voices reached our ears. Eko stiffened under me and his ears jerked around, trying to find the source of the whispers. I looked to the man behind me, Thijs and Sarn completely unaware of the sound and Jakko, alert as always.
As we kept moving, the jumbled whispered turned into individual and distinct voices. I could hear a man yelling, and others complaining at the sound of his shrill voice. There was a pain I could feel in the air, a stale heaviness. With one final treelike to break, we kept moving forward, the voices growing in volume.
We moved until the dense forest lay behind us, and an open field lay before us. Though the endless grass on the floor was broken by small and crooked wooden sheds. They stuck up from the ground, looking as if they would fall down to a dusty mess any day now. It took me a while to realize that the gray and dull boulders that surrounded them were people.
Dressed in rags that barely held themselves together, they looked onto to us, fear written across their eyes. Thijs gasped loudly behind me, clicking his tongue in disappointment. The man that had been yelling, stopped and looked at us with the same fear. No one made a move, and we stood still.
"Do you know what this is?” I signed back to Thijs.
After studying my hands and with another sigh, he answered, “There were many rumors that villages have disappeared, starved out from the mistreatment of the royal family. There is no aid, no help in times of drought and famine.”
I studied the place once more, noticing the ruins of fallen buildings, dried out fields and lack of animals, ”This is a village?" My disbelief showed in the tremble of my hands.
“Yes.” He whispered.
"Do we have food we can offer them?"
There was a long pause, his eyes wandering around the people and vacant land, “We do but, but what if they do not want our help?”
I frowned at him, confused as to why he would think an obviously struggling and starving village would not want help from us.
“Th-they are Deema.” Thijs frowned, “We are not, and you are obviously royalty. We are everything they despise.”
“Enough to turn down food?” Jakko was now beside us, his eyes glued on those that still remained outside of their homes. They had begun to whisper among themselves, eyes wide and alert. The men began to send their wives and children into the shelter of the small and dingy sheds.
"We have to at least try.” I signed, grunting as I slid down Eko with Thijs and Sarn voicing their disagreement. They slid down as well, following me while muttering their concerns.
“They will try to kill you.”
“They don’t look very happy to see us.”
“We should just go, there’s not much we can do for them.”
I froze in my spot, eyeing the men that tensed at our approach. Their eyes slowly wandered to my side, Jakko slowly making his way toward them. Their shoulders seemed to fall, and their brows furrowed in confusion.
“We are here to help.” He passed me, standing a few feet away from who seemed to be the leader. He lowered himself down to his knees and slid his backpack off his shoulders, opening it up and digging out the fruit, placing it softly on the ground before him.
The man watched him with careful eyes, only moving to look back at us before focusing his eyes back on Jakko. “You are not from here?” He half asked, half stated, nodding his head toward Jakko’s dark golden hair.
Jakko shook his head, “I am not. But I promise, we are only here to help.”
The man sneered, his eyes narrowing, “Not with her.” The venom in his voice directed solely on me.”
Jakko looked over his shoulders, eyeing me carefully before turning back to the man, “She is not your enemy. Her parents might be, but she is not like them.”
The man frowned, “Parents?” His face twisted and he looked at me one last time before whispering something to the man that that stood beside him. He inhaled, making his chest rise and fall slowly, “How have you tamed the Slaatadger?"
With frowns plastered on our faces, we looked around until we understood that he meant Eko and his friend.