Chapter 21 - Raines
It’s a somber evening that follows. Occasionally, for brief moments, we pass around a strained smile, but it is weak.
Talia and Helen come to accept our plan after little more persuasion, recognizing it is for the best. Calix and I will depart for the coast in the morning, seeking aid and shelter in close proximity to Caerini’s warrior dance team. His mothers will remain here, keeping a low profile while they are - as yet - free of suspicion and public wrath continues to fall solely on Cal.
We while away the evening, putting off the inevitable with subdued conversation, Cal and I sharing a seat on one couch, Helen and Talia sitting close on the unlit hearth. Darkness sweeps over Volcin’s rural terrain outside the window and smears into a fade of sunrise purple. It is then that we finally retire to our rooms.
“Goodnight Mom, Ama.” Cal kisses their foreheads each and we slip into his room, exhausted in several senses.
Cal envelopes me in his arms and a warm kiss. It’s like curling up in the cloud of warmth by the Caerinian fire pit. I look to the left, bedroom fading away, sparkling into a stage, a ring of trees, a soft area of grass, tamped gently down by celebratory feet.
Shaking back to the present, I breath in Cal, safe and cedarwood. He lifts my chin with his hand, smooth fingertips against my roughly-stubbled jaw.
Offering me a sweet, sad smile he says, “I’m sorry.”
How can I search his eyes a thousand times over and find nothing but selflessness?
“For all of this. For what you’re sacrificing to help me. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
I take his hands, draw us across the room, and fold our bodies into bed together. “Calix.” In the murmur of my voice I hear a tiniest tremor. “I love you. And I’m scared…. I’m scared out of my mind for you. For both of us. But take everything away and we’re more than a couple of confused kids facing a war. We’re a true family. We have become….” I hesitate, reaching for how best to explain the impossible thing I feel. I come up empty-handed, and I finish lamely. “More.” My eyes dart between his. Cal’s eyebrows raise, then scrunch together, then smooth over.
Yes. I think…. I think I understand. Raines?”
“Hmm?” I tuck closer, against his lean body.
“I love you. Can we sleep?”
I almost giggle. “Hmph.”
A golden, nectar-swept morning rises, at odds with our journey ahead. Helen and Talia have stayed up, sleepless and prepared us two leather backpacks stuffed with food and wool blankets.
Standing at the door against a sunrise pulled up short by a stand of clouds, Cal, his mothers, and myself hover tentatively before the future.
“It was a pleasure to spend time with you, Raines,” Talia squeezes my hands, the warmth of her energy flooding my fingertips.
“Thank you, for everything.” While I am grateful for their hospitality, there is a strain behind my words, borne of their history with Cal. No matter how many times he assures me it was his choice, I still feel the overlay of abandonment.
Helen is speaking, draping a carved necklace over her son’s head. “Find a way to send word when you are safe with your team.”
“I will, Ama.” Fingering the necklace with his slender hands, Cal glances at me.
“We are so proud of you. And you, Raines.”
They both take turns embracing Cal and I touch their shoulders out of respect, but Talia sweeps me close. I feel Cal’s hand uniting with mine and we turn our backs to the last few days. What a sight it must be: discharged soldier linked hand-in-hand with recently accused ‘Volcin sell-out,’ a traitor among his own people, rising over soft rolls of Volcin countryside.
Compelled by the abundance of space, I take a huge gulp of air, filling my lungs.
“Thank you for talking some sense into me.” Smiling, Cal grazes my face with his eyes.
“You’re ever a martyr,” I say, squeezing his hand. He glances to the ground.
“Mom says it’s my fatal flaw.”
“It can’t be quite that dramatic,” I grin, but the smile drips from my lips as I think of the world we’re in. A world at war.
“Nothing quite so lovely as Volcin hills, is there?” Cal takes in his homeland, eyes glinting with reminiscence. For the first time, I truly take it in. Across a vast sea of lush, swooping hills, we appear to be standing above all of them; gods surveying their realm. The palest of blues cradles a distant smudge of trees lining the horizon.
Miles ahead of us while away the inevitable seconds before violence reclaims us with vicious jaws. We’ll be desperately exposed among the plains, yet still exquisitely alone.
There’s something about the moment washing over me that calms my flitting spirit. For the next sweet, sweet seconds, Cal is by my side and I by his. We are with each other.
Our feet swish through grasses, creating a soft rush, rush that floats away on gentle wind.
With each following breath of wind, Volcin’s rolling countryside unfurls into golden-crested plains of drying in brush.
“A drink, my love?”
I smile at him and nod, even though the honeyed warmth of his voice is drink enough.
It is only a moment after my first sip of clear, sweet water that I feel its pleasant coolness seeping down my throat, across my chest, into my stomach.
And only a moment after that when I see the soldiers.
At first, it is only a handful - perhaps half a dozen - traipsing up the distant hill opposite. But then they keep coming, until almost twenty armored dots are swimming against the horizon.
“Cal!” It comes out a rasping hiss. I grip his arm hard, above the elbow, pulling him to a stop.
I watch him watching them, his eyes sharply taking everything in.
We have grown roots, a fearful foundation sticking us to the ground.
I whip my head around. Trees? A sheltering cliff? The coveted valley between two swooping hills? Any hiding spot is either leagues away or an obvious destination for two panicked travelers seeking any scrap of safe haven. We are cornered in this wide open Volcin field-scape.
Cal bolts. I jump, several seconds tumbling by before I have the wherewithal to sprint after him, slipping on the scrub.
“Cal! Where are you going? Cal!” I holler uselessly. I already know - his mothers. He can’t see them hurt. But that’s what these soldiers are after. It’s only a short hop from thought to thought to figure out who they’re after; the scandal in town, the posters. “Calix!!” I roar. “Stop!”
“Help!” He stops short, surprisingly, breathless with the flitting, dilated eyes of a frightened beast. I don’t believe that’s what he meant to cry out.
I force my feet into the ground, ripping up a clod of dirt, but my momentum stops.
I gasp, “Cal.” Look up. “Cal, you have to stop. They -” I’m choking on air, too much of it. “Keep running and you’ll lead them straight there. They’re not after your mothers they…. They’re after you.”
I never knew self-endangerment could taste so sweet, but I see it now on his face. A potent relief.
Looking to the horizon, Cal lifts his chest. “We run. We run right past them in the direction of the shore - between those two slopes.”
“But -” The ravine is too narrow, too close to the soldiers’ trajectory.
“Raines. We don’t have time for other plan.” He grips my hand. “Let’s go.”
When you shoot an arrow, you know the second the string snaps off the pads of your fingers whether it will sink into its intended target. And when you realize it won’t - that horrible, awful split-second - a cold fire eats through your stomach because you’ve lost.
It is the only feeling I can liken to the present moment: watching Cal take off in a sprint, his hand ripped from mine with the force; myself keeping panicked pace on his heels; the soldiers adjusting to intercept us.
Go, go go! I push harder, shins reverberating with the force of my feet hitting the ground. Grasses that appeared so graceful at a distance are now shredding the skin of my legs.
Two paces ahead, Cal breaks his trajectory, swerving closer to the soldiers.
“What are you doing?!” I cough, turning to follow.
“Buying us time!” he swipes at my shoulder, throwing my balance. “No! Keep going that way!”
Step by step we divert soldiers to different directions. Their yells are compounding, chasing us down just as much as the oiled boots that shod their feet.
I slam my own feet into the ground, propelled off rocks, clods of dirt, clumps of grass. Air is wheezing in and out of my lungs. It’s becoming hard to breath.
I whip a glance backwards. Few soldiers are on my tail, and they’re dragging behind; no use in catching a discharged coward.
Silhouetted by a rapidly-declining sun, Cal heaves on with half an army on his heels. I’ve slowed my pace. I feel sluggish, watching lightness disappear from his sprint, replaced by desperate determination. I increase my speed, aiming to join him, but a flick of distant green eyes, pleading me to safety, ties my feet down.
He is tiring. I see it.
Willed by cruel fate, my eyes magnetize to one soldier, a half pace ahead of the others. He raises his arm. Raises the jaded, slate-gray rock.
Blood blooms over Cal’s head and he is falling, falling, tumbling horribly into the dirt. Soldiers swarm over him like ravenous single-minded ants.
“Cal!” his name rips from my throat, searing my vocal chords. Those green eyes flicking to me with concern still hold my limbs to solid earth, a hostage in my own body. One soldier stands erect before Cal’s fallen form while he is tied and hefted upon fighting shoulders.
The man’s gaze spears into me, daring me forward and I can’t do anything, can’t help, can’t scream…. Can only stare, horrified.
Abandoned by any choices - by the fucking gods who don’t exist because how could they possibly let this happen, this whole shitty goddamn war - I turn, and run.