Chapter 4 - Raines
My need to roam the nearby islands was not supposed to be satisfied with this: a draft. A draft? I hardly know the word. The suddenness of our amassed army takes my breath away. There are hundreds of us, assembled apprehensively on the shore. Physical violence? For two hundred years past we have laid down our swords in favor of the dances. A beauty created to settle disputes.
“Next!” I am ushered up to the small wooden table, its surface strewn with ink-covered parchments. There are hundreds of names. I didn’t know there were that many young elves just crossing the threshold of adulthood. Who knew we would fall from the brink of our youth into this…. “Young man?” The woman sitting behind the table clears her throat. Her gentle brown eyes glitter with pity.
“Raines….here.” She scratches my name off the list. “You will stay at the barracks here for a week to prepare. The ships are being brought in for loading as we speak.” She hands me a piece of parchment. “Your barrack number is listed here along with the supplies you will need. Use this week to buy what you need and get your haircut. Spend time with your family if you can. This may be the last chance you have to see them for some time.”
I walk slowly away from the table as she calls forward the next in line. My heart pounds with the ocean, beating against the shore. I push everything down. I’ll get out of this alive. The war won’t last long. None of us on either side knows the right end of a sword! We don’t want to fight.
Why are we going to fight?
That day I am fitted for armor - uncomfortable, heavy leather and metal. I’m given a small satchel. It holds a waterskin, basic medicinal herbs, thin strips of cloth for bandages, and an extra tunic, brown wool, like the one I wear now.
I slump into bed that night. It’s a pallet laid directly on the sand, covered in a thin blanket. A second pallet lies a few feet away. No one has come to fill it yet. The sounds of voices and clattering cargo beyond the thin veil of my tent slowly die out. A murky dark settles over the world.
Somehow my heart is steady. What am I doing here? What do I do? No Caerinian belongs behind a sword.
Beat. Beat. Beat.
I have to see my mother again before I leave. Ask her what has become of Niamh if there’s been any word. I have to be with Persie. I have to say goodbye to Cal. Beat, beat. I push everything away, imagining the stars overhead. I breathe. Beat, beat, beat.
I open my eyes immediately. Cal’s face pulls into view. I don’t process what or why or how. “Cal!” his name flies from my tongue in a breathless flurry. My arms reach for him and he settles into them immediately, holding me tight, eyes bright with tears. We lay there, silent, chest-to-chest.
Beat-beat. Beat-beat. Beat-beat.
“What are you doing here?” My throat crackles like dry leaves.
“I also have a week to prepare.”
“The Warrior Dance Team is sailing, too. We’re going to compete. Quell smaller tustles.” He glances at the empty pallet. “You’ll have a bunk-mate soon.” He kisses me, hard, on the lips. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
In the next moment, I hear only sand skittering away to sea.
I wake with a start. The world is still dark. The ocean crashes. Persie is hunched on the second pallet.
She looks up at me, her face dark with an emotion I have never seen her wear.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been called for the draft.” Her voice is not bright, but low and sad. Tied down. A rock sinking into the sea.
I bolt upright. “What?! But you’re a girl!” My sudden shift of weight cracks one of the brittle boards of my pallet, pain slicing through my finger. I rip out the splinter, hissing.
“Yes,” she sighs. “They know that. But on paper…. I was still born with a man’s body. They said that’s all they need. They’re desperate.”
For the first time, I gaze at her body, forcing myself to acknowledge the pronounced angle of her jaw, her wiry legs, the way muscles stretch over her shoulders, naturally prominent. The shadow of stubble on her face.
I hear my heartbeat in my ears. A lump is riding fast in my throat. Eyes stinging, I insist, “You’re not a boy, Persie! It doesn’t matter how you were born, you’re not a man! You never were, they -”
“I know that, Raines!” Persie chokes on this tide of memories and fear. “I can’t go back to the way I was!” She looks up at me through the dim salt air. Her eyes glitter with tears. “They want to cut my hair. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the one thing that makes me look like the woman I am. And I’ve been with the Ordovicians. They gave me herbs to help. I have….” She looks down at the small growing curves of her chest. “I have breasts now. I’m not one of them.”
“Persie….” I search for words. “I’ll - I’ll cover for you. Vouch for a chronic illness you have, I can -”
“No.” I am pierced by her level gaze. “I’m not going to stay, Raines. I want to go back to the Ordovicians.”
“You’re going to run from the draft?”
She nods. A stone falls into my stomach.
“I want to go live with them, Raines. They see me. I could be myself.” Persie’s eyes are always honest, but so often they’re clouded with doubt. They are perfectly clear now.
The ocean laps at the shore. All the voices outside have died away. In the distance, a wood nymph hums her song.
I glance away. “I love you.”
She smiles, I can feel it, her excitement suddenly peaking through. “I can wear jeweled dresses!” She’s fighting to keep her voice a contained whisper. “And weave and sing and -” she breaks off with a giggle, rolling over to my pallet and leaning against me. “I love you, too.”
We lay there together, the ocean tumbling through our heads with this wild fantasy. We sleep.
The knife blade is cold against the back of my neck. Large swaths of my hair fall away, cut cleanly off with a deft shhink. I think of Persie, try to imagine her with short hair again, feeling its wrongness. It is so much more than hair. The glitter of joy in her eyes now was not always there….
She left in the early hours of the morning, a clean sea breeze sweeping her away to freedom. We held each other for a long time before she walked away. It’s hard to turn away, but I do.
“That’s it, son,” the kind hairdresser claps his hand on my shoulder. We meet eyes.
“Thank you,” I say warily.
“Thank you,” he gives me a nod of respect. I feel my burden grow greater, heavier. Back out on the soft sand, burned by the sun, I walk past the hastily-erected tents and stalls.
My hand twists through my hair, short now, thick. I frown. Any elf with short hair is unusual. Traditionally, it is only the mark of a priest. In the old days, it distinguished soldiers. And so it does again now.
I make my way to each stall, claiming the light metal-and-leather-paneled armor I was fitted to yesterday. A stout woman hands me a sword, a dagger, a bow, and a quiver of arrows. I wander like a boy lost in a dream. A man who can’t quite see his surroundings. The sun melts into the ocean, glimmering. I breathe in the safety of dusk.
Many of the young elvish men are drinking and subdued by a massive communal fire.
I let the wind guide my feet through the sand to my tent. Cal is coming. He can’t come soon enough.
I love him.
When he arrives we exchange no words, only the shared space of each other’s presence. We lay there together on my cracked pallet most of the night, holding hands. Silent.
The rest of my days of preparation pass in an anxious blur. The daylight hours are spent on the beach; lessons on the ships we are to sail, brief coaching of how to wield our weapons, basic blocks, and attacks. When dusk settles we are left to our restless minds. Fear hangs in the air, thick, like a heavy mist. Then, under the silver light of the moon, Cal holds me.
I look up into the midnight. For the first time, I wish I knew what the druids believed to be true. The grace of a god would be the only gift worth receiving right now. But I don’t feel the gods. I can’t hear them like most people claim to.
Ocean rushes in my ears and I try to let the wind lift the fear from my skin. Grains of sand slip between my toes. It’s cold. I relish the sensation. It grounds me.
“La, la, la, so hryi….” The sea nymph’s voice is alluring, calming. I let my eyes close, standing in the breeze of the night.
I sink to the sand...
Kchshh. Kchshh. Kchshh.
I think of Persie. Of Niamh.
The ocean is new. It comforts me. Breath, cool and light, enters my lungs, floats out.
He’s here. Cal. Next to me. His arms entwine me and I lean into his muscled body. We melt into the sand. Skin on skin, hot. Skin on sand, cold. Breath against the air, soft. Ears against the sea, calm. Time blows by us until the sky turns purple.
“I love you,” his words are murmured, fluttering away into the dawn.
Breath rushes into my lungs, rushes out. “I love you.”
Dawn rushes in and Cal is blown away by the wind. I open my eyes, cold grains of sand scratching over my arms and legs. The sand around me looks undisturbed. Was Cal really here with me? Lying on this beach, the cinder-lit night crashing around us...hearts beating twice as fast to make up for the heartbeats we’re about to lose to a roaring, angry mass of armor and steel and blood. I don’t think it matters how fast my heart beats before the sun reaches its zenith. Cal is already gone. And my hours left in Caerini are inconsequential.