Trouble In The Towns
Four years had passed with little excitement in the tribe. River and I had nearly completed training when the rest of children our age were just beginning. We would sit and joke about them, and couldn’t hide our jealousy. Although they were starting their training, it wouldn’t be like ours. They would be gradually pushed into it little by little, and it would be more like a game for them. They wouldn’t feel the full force of training until they were sixteen. It would be an occasional interruption for them. I was thrust into training full force out of necessity, and River out of loyalty.
I sometimes wondered if River held any animosity toward me, but if he did, he never once let on. He seemed to like being around me, even in the thick of the training. He told me once that he wouldn’t want to go through training with anybody but me, and that is why he asked for it when he was eight.
So River and I worked together, watching the others struggling with their new workload, and giving them impossible chores that we knew they would have a problem finishing. We called it “weeding out the weaklings” and the others our age put up with it because they saw that we could do the work, and they didn’t want to be outdone by us. The only reason we could do the work was because we had been doing it for four years. We didn’t tell them this. Eventually, Grandmother caught on, and sent us on a hunting trip to keep us away from the others.
“I thought she would never catch on!” River laughed hysterically as we headed deep into the forest. “She just kept running around asking them, why are you trying to do this?”
“I’m surprised not one of them said anything to her until now,” I laughed back.
“Man, they are going to hate us when she explains to them that those chores that we had been giving them are reserved for those that have built up their muscles for like two years!” River was holding himself up by a tree by this time.
“Well, let’s go get some game and bring it back for the tribe.” I smiled. “Time to grow up now. Let’s get serious.”
River straightened up and grabbed his gear, which had now fallen by his side. We always made time for a laugh, but I always had to be there to get us on a serious track again. That is why River and I worked well together. He was there to add a little fun to life, so that everything didn’t seem so hopeless. Then I would turn around and get us back to what we needed to do. River was humanity and I was survival. I doubt either of us would have survived so long without the other. Even when I was alone I would think about River and be able to make it through whatever problem I was having at the moment.
We walked through the forests, shooting small animals with our arrows. There didn’t seem to be any large game around today. It didn’t matter; the trip wasn’t one of necessity at this point. There was plenty of food back at the clearing. We were sent out for the sanity of the rest of the tribe. I doubt we would have shot a deer even if we had seen one. Sometimes they are just nice to watch.
“Let’s pick some of these wild berries here,” River said, stopping by a bush. “The tribe hasn’t had berries for a while. This is the first bush I have come to since we moved to this clearing.”
“Good idea,” I agreed and we began to pick the berries and drop them into our pouches.
There was a rustling sound as we stood at the bush picking as much as we could fit without squishing them all together. We paid no attention to it at first because it was the same as the sound of a small animal rustling around. Then it wasn’t. We heard the voice of a small child calling out to us. We turned around and saw a little boy of about age five. We could tell by the look of his clothing that he was the member of a tribe.
“Did you hear?” he gasped excitedly. “The King of the North has died.”
“No,” I said, “how did you get here? Do you need help finding your way back to your tribe?”
“You don’t know?” He frowned. “All the tribes have been sticking close to this area. The king has forced us into this little patch. We’ve all been around here for two years while he’s been following one tribe around. He didn’t want the tribe to get lost within our tribes, so he made sure to keep us in one place while he just let them wander. Doesn’t seem fair to me.”
“I think we might have been the wandering tribe,” I sighed heavily. “I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” the boy exclaimed. “Now we can all leave!” Then the boy ran off, undoubtedly to tell the other captive tribes the good news.
“How did we not know about this?” River pondered incredulously.
“No communication between us and the other tribes,” I answered. “The king wanted it that way. He was planning something, and I want to know what it was. I knew it was too good to be true that he never bothered us again after that day.”
“We better get back and tell Grandmother,” River sighed. “And I thought we were going to have a day off today.”
We went back to the camp and dropped off our kills and the berries with the tribe members who were preparing the meal for that day. They seemed grateful for the fresh fruit and promised to make a good meal of it for the night. As we made our way to Grandmother, we were stopped many times by others wanting to know the exact location of the berries so when it was their turn to collect the food they would know where to get it from.
“Grandmother,” I leaned over and whispered anxiously in her ear when we finally made it to her. “River and I have something important to discuss with you. It is very important that we speak privately.” This was the way that we did things in the tribe. If someone would come upon some disturbing information, it was always run by Grandmother first, and she would decide what to do with it. This would prevent widespread panic among the people in our tribe, and also stupid mistakes that had gotten other tribes wiped out entirely.
“Grandmother, I need to find out what was going on,” I told her after we had explained what the boy in the forest had told us. “I need to go to town. It won’t be as dangerous any more now that the king is gone. Let me go and I will come back with any information that I can.”
“I will let you go with me,” Grandmother agreed. “River will also come since he knows what is going on as well. We will tell the tribe that the king has died and it is now safe to go into town and start trading again. It will only be us three and we will bring all the extra materials we have collected over the last four years as a pretense for us going. I will tell the tribe that you two are coming along to give the new trainees a chance to relax. It was lucky that you two have been so much trouble lately, otherwise that might not go over very well. Many people would like to go into town. While we are haggling, we will all listen for some clues that might explain why we have been spied on for the last four years.”
“I know, Grandmother,” I said, eyes downcast. Grandmother shot me a warning look and then looked over at River, who was obliviously picking apart a blade of grass. Then I remembered that River did not know that the king was actually after me. I stayed quiet after that.
Grandmother explained everything to the tribe as we had discussed. There were a few complaints among the adults, who wanted to accompany us to town, but Grandmother quickly blew off their arguments and they got the message that she had already made up her mind. Even though there was always one person who disagreed with Grandmother, they all had enough respect for her to realize that when she made up her mind, that was the law of the tribe. She had always kept us safe, and whatever she was doing right now, was for the good of the tribe as a whole.
We set off for the town, which was about a day’s journey out of the forest, with all the goods that were piled up high on wagons led by horses. There were four years of goods that we didn’t dare bring into the towns to trade for fear of running into the king and his men. Now that we didn’t have to worry about the king, we didn’t see the harm in bringing everything in. We were sure that the towns would take at least some of it off of our hands.
We settled down and made a fire when it began to get dark. We would have to finish the journey in the morning. We only had about two miles to go, which took a little longer in the woods, but we knew that we didn’t want to get to town in the night. Members of a tribe are always a little weary of spending the night somewhere besides the forest.
“Grandmother!” A voice called excitedly out of the darkness. Grandmother stood up. A young man of about twenty ran out of the forest and into her arms as they opened up.
“This is my daughter’s son!” Grandmother explained to River and me. “She married a man from town and Joseph here returned to the forest, although he lives in a house, not a caravan.”
“What are you doing so close to town, Grandmother?” Joseph asked, eyeing our load. “It’s not safe to trade.”
“But the king is dead now, Joseph,” Grandmother replied.
“It’s not the king you have to worry about now, Grandmother,” Joseph explained, “It’s the people. For the last four years that king has been on a frantic search for a slave girl’s child. Nobody knows why. But since he’s been looking his men and him have been using up a lot of resources in the towns. Now the towns have nothing themselves. If you go into town with all of this, you might lose your life for it. At least when the king was alive, there was a little order in the towns.”
“Is it as bad as all that?” Grandmother sighed, looking more tired than I have ever seen her look before. Joseph nodded.
“Then shouldn’t we bring it in anyway? No trade required?” I asked. “We’ve always been taught to take care of each other. Shouldn’t we treat the people in the towns the same as we would treat each other?”
“Joby is right, Joseph,” Grandmother replied, looking at her grandson.
“Then let’s do it this way,” Joseph compromised. “We will bring everything to my house, and you will bring one small load at a time. Each load that you bring you will promise that you will be back with more. That should keep you safe. We will bring the first load tonight when there are very few people awake. That way the word will spread by morning that more is coming.”
We each grabbed an armful of goods and carried it into the town. We were swamped as soon as we arrived. People were reaching out for blankets, clothing, and anything they could get their hands on. We were almost trampled by the few people who were awake in the night. Joseph had been right about coming at the hour that we did. I don’t know how we would have survived the stampede if everybody had been awake.
“Listen,” Joseph called out to the group when our hands had been emptied. “We will return tomorrow with more supplies. Please compose yourselves by then, and make a point to tell others to do so as well. We cannot bring supplies if we are not in the shape to do so.” The group all murmured their agreement and went off in separate directions to spread the word.
We came back the next day as we had promised with armfuls of more supplies. We came back six times that day. By the time we were done, we were all sweating and it was clear that Grandmother needed to rest. We still had more at Joseph’s house, and we decided that since by this point the crowds of people had managed to coax themselves into a more orderly way of ridding us of our goods, they could be trusted enough for us to bring the rest of the supplies in a wagon.
As we sat down to rest, watching the happy people show each other what they had gotten from us, I realized something else about them. They were all starving. Everything we had brought them would keep them warm in the night, would keep them clothed, and would help them do chores around the town, but nothing would feed them. My attention was focused very intently on a specific little girl, holding a tiny crying baby in her arms, while her mother was trying to get the infant to drink just a little water. The baby was dying of hunger. I thought about how no little girl should have to watch something like that.
“Grandmother,” I began as I sat down beside her, not taking my eyes off the sad scene I was witnessing, “after we bring this last load, you go home and I’m going to stay here and see about hunting down some food for these people.” Grandmother didn’t even try to object.
“River will stay with you,” she agreed, “and you will both stay with Joseph. If we leave the clearing, I will try to leave you a trail. One that only someone from the tribe would be able to recognize. We don’t know that we are out of danger yet.”
“Fine,” I agreed, “are you ready to go yet?”
“I think I will just wait here,” Grandmother panted. “I’m getting too old to do things like this anymore. You and River and Joseph will just have to bring the rest of the supplies back.”
The three of us trudged into the forest after leaving Grandmother with some people who promised to do their best to liven her up a bit. On the way to the house I spotted a deer and shot it with my bow and arrow.
“It’s not much,” I told Joseph and River, “but it’s a start. At least it’s meat.” Joseph walked over to the deer and threw it over his shoulders. I was happy to let him do it after the day that I had.
We loaded the fresh kill up onto the wagon and then decided to cover it a little with the other goods. We didn’t know what kind of pandemonium would break out if the people of the town saw that deer sitting up there on the wagon, ready to be ripped apart and eaten. We thought it best to explain about the deer before the townspeople saw it, and to let them know that there would be more, and that River and I would train anyone who wanted to learn how to hunt and provide for the town before we left it again without giving them a way to keep themselves from going hungry. We never got a chance to tell them that there was even a deer to be eaten.
We heard the commotion from the trees before we knew what was going on. Joseph motioned for us to stop the wagon, but we didn’t need to be told. We all crept close to the edge of the forest, peering through the trees, careful to keep ourselves hidden from sight until we knew what was going on.
The king’s men were there, ravaging the town, stealing all the new goods that we had just passed among the people. In the middle of it all, was a boy who was a year or so older than I was, screaming out orders to the soldiers.
“Who is that?” I asked Joseph.
“That is the king’s son,” Joseph whispered back. “He’s the new king. Everybody thought that he would be easy to get around. I guess we were all wrong on that.”
“They complain about being poor,” the boy king screamed, “and then we come and find them with all these riches. Let’s show them what it is like to really be poor. Take everything! Kill anyone who objects.”
I closed my eyes and prayed that nobody would object, but the years of neglect and oppression had finally gotten to the townspeople. There were so many of them putting up a fight that the boy king finally just gave the order to kill everybody.
“No!” I heard Grandmother shout. “Stop this! Please! We were just trying to help them!”
“Get out of there, Grandmother,” I whispered under my breath. Grandmother just kept approaching the boy king. She made it to his horse, and grabbed the reins, and began to plead with him for the lives of all the townspeople. He seemed to listen to her for a moment, but then his mouth curled into an evil little sneer and he pulled out a sword and ran her through. She held onto the reins a little longer, despite the pain and confusion in her face, and then he kicked her and she fell over onto her back, still looking up at him in horror. He rode away, looking for his next victim.
“Grandmother!” I screamed and broke away from Joseph and River, who were trying to hold me back. I don’t ever remember running that fast toward or away from something before or even since that day that I ran to Grandmother’s side to be with her in her final moments of life. I was there to catch her final words that she would ever speak to anybody. I took her hand in mine and leaned in close to hear her above the chaos that was happening around me. The last words of a member of a tribe are the most important to hear. They are the words that they will be remembered by forever. I didn’t expect what I was about to hear from Grandmother.
“Tell the tribe that they have to take this king down,” Grandmother whispered. “We live in the forests for a reason, and that is to come out when we are needed the most. Right now we are needed the most.”
“I will, Grandmother,” I promised. Then her body went limp and I let go of her hand. I felt a surge within me and pulled the sword out of Grandmother’s body as one of the soldiers ran toward me, with his own sword exposed.
I’d never been particularly good at hand-to-hand combat, and I had never handled a sword before. The tribe prefers to carry lighter weapons, ones that can easily be moved, but I had never been an ordinary member of the tribe. I found my niche with the sword almost as soon as I picked it up, which was a good thing because I was able to protect myself as the soldier bared down on me. I managed to kill my very first enemy that day, and that kill would give me the confidence to be one of the most dangerous people that the new king would have to try to eliminate, at least for a while.
After killing the soldier, I looked around at what was happening, and I realized how outnumbered I was. I decided that I could fight another day and began to run back toward the forest.
“Stop her! She has my sword,” the boy king screamed, and I looked up to see him rushing toward me on his horse. I had to think fast, he was gaining on me. I wouldn’t be able to escape him on foot. I saw a long, sturdy piece of broken wood in front of me. I grabbed it and waited for him to get close. When he was within feet of me, I quickly positioned the ragged edges of it toward the horse’s neck. It was hard to hold onto it tightly, but my muscles had been well toned from the years of hard labor and the broken wood jabbed firmly into the horse’s neck. The horse threw the boy king as it did a somersault over its head.
“That was my favorite horse!” The boy king fumed as he glowered at me and got to his feet. “You will pay for that!”
“You have to catch me first,” I sneered and took off running again toward the forest. He could have followed me, but as I ran off I heard him screaming for the men to bring him another horse.
I was only about six feet from the forest when I heard a woman cry out for help. I turned and saw the woman holding the hungry baby I had seen earlier.
“I cannot find my little girl,” the woman begged, “and I can’t leave her. Please take my baby with you until I can find my little girl.”
“You can’t be thinking about going back into that!” I yelled at her incredulously. “You will be killed!”
“I know,” the woman replied desperately, “but I can’t live knowing that I left my daughter in that. Please take my baby.” She handed the pathetic looking thing over to me, and I stared at her only for a moment before looking up to see that the boy king had finally gotten a horse and was heading toward me and the woman. Without thinking, I tucked the baby as securely as I could into my shirt and ran off into the forest. I turned around as I heard a crack and realized that the mother of the baby I was holding had been bludgeoned to death by the boy king. I realized that now I was responsible for this child’s life and didn’t look back again until I was sure I was safely hidden in the forest.
There was a hollow cave that I knew of nearby. I had seen it and mentioned it to the others on our journey to the town. It was well hidden, and only visible if you were to stumble upon it, which is exactly what I had accidently done. I had told the others that it would be a nice place to hide if we ever got into any trouble, and so when the sound of men following me had subsided, I decided to back track and go there to spend the night. I was relieved when I found River and Joseph already there, and I could tell that they were happy to see me.
Then I realized something that horrified me; the baby that I was carrying had never made a sound the entire time I was running through the woods. I thought to myself that the baby must surely be dead if it was not disturbed by the abrupt movements and absence of her mother. I quickly brought her out of my shirt and looked at her. Her eyes were open, looking drowsily at me. She didn’t seem to be bothered by anything.
“We need to get some food into that thing,” Joseph said urgently, “she’s going to die if we don’t. She’s so listless.”
“What do we have?” I asked, panicked. “What can she eat?”
“Berries,” Joseph replied. “I think she might be able to eat berries. She’s not too young, I don’t think. If we squish them up good I think that would be fine.” So we mashed up the berries as well as we could. We fed them to her slow, knowing that she had been hungry for some time and we didn’t want to make her sicker, and we didn’t know if berries were something that you could give to a starving person. We had never seen anyone hungry before today. She seemed to like them, and she ate them well.
We stayed in the cave for a couple of days feeding the baby whatever we thought she might be able to handle. Her small size made her look younger than she was as we realized when she smiled for the first time and we saw a mouth full of teeth. We realized that she was probably close to two years old, although her small body made her look like she wasn’t even a year old yet.
“We need to go home now,” River told me the morning we left the cave. “We can leave the baby with Joseph.”
“No,” I argued, “I’m keeping her. She knows me, and I saved her. Besides, I don’t think Joseph can go back to his house anyway. It’s too close to the town. He will have to come back with us as well.”
“I think you are right,” Joseph agreed.
“Okay then,” River sighed. I got the feeling he didn’t like Joseph too well. “We’ll just go back and get the goods and then head home.”
“NO!” Joseph and I both yelled at the same time. We looked at each other in amusement for a moment.
“We can’t go back for the supplies,” I laughed, anxiously, “the soldiers probably already found it and picked it clean. What’s more is they are probably waiting for the owners to come back and claim it so they can do whatever they did back in the town to them.”
“It’s bound to be a dangerous time right now,” Joseph continued. “The boy king needs to assert his dominance over the land so there is going to be a few casualties. He isn’t going to take anything lightly.”
“Fine,” River fumed. “Let’s just go.”
We picked up the last of our belongings and put them in our packs. Joseph offered to carry mine so that I didn’t have to deal with the weight of the baby on top of the weight of my pack. She really didn’t weigh that much, but I could tell he really wanted to do something to help me, so I didn’t refuse.
When we returned to the clearing, we found it being packed up by the tribe. I had a feeling that the king and his men had found their way through here and had scared them enough to want to move on. Sheena confirmed my suspicions when she ran up to me and gave me a hug that spoke relief.
“Grandmother is dead,” I informed her. Her embrace was abruptly broken as she pushed me away to look into my eyes, hoping to see a glimmer of untruth in them.
“Are you sure?” Sheena asked, already knowing the answer. When the king and his men came through they had mentioned to the tribe about what they may have done in the town. They had all thought that we all had been lost, which is why they weren’t going to wait around for our return to pack up and leave.
“I need to talk to all of the adults, and those children who have started their training,” I urged, “it’s important. It’s about Grandmother’s last words.”
That night when all of the young children had been sent to bed, the rest of the tribe sat up and I explained to them what Grandmother had ordered me to. We all decided that we would have to unite all the tribes and come together as a whole. Training would be more fierce, and hunting and gathering would have to be largely taken over by those who could not fight yet, but still had some training, no matter how weak it was.
After the meeting, Sheena and I walked back to our caravan. I stared down at the sleeping baby that I had put to bed in the old wooden box that had been my crib twelve years before. Sheena asked me at that point where I had gotten her. She knew that asking me before than would have been too much for me to explain with everything else that had been going on. I broke down and cried and told her the entire story, and when I was done she hugged me and stroked my hair like she hadn’t done since it was decided that I would become an adult.
“What are you going to name her?” She asked me gently.
“Cub,” I answered immediately.
“Because when I became an adult by necessity I found out I had a lion,” I replied, “and now that I’ve become an adult by choice, I find that I have a cub.” Sheena needed no more explanation than that.