Warlands of Song

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Chapter Fifteen: Saige

She sat next to Glen, applying and reapplying iridescent liquid to the line of his spine. It absorbed for the thousandth time, and she sat back against a tree. Her next sigh came from the bottom of her soul.

“What’s happening to me?” she asked the forest.

The only answer she received was a gust of frigid wind whistling through the trees. She waited for her body to rebel and curl in on itself, but it didn’t come. Rather, sweat slid down one of her temples. She wiped at the wetness, then turned her attention back to the unconscious man beside her.

After a moment of hesitation, her left hand moved to his head. Her fingers slid into the brilliant ginger curls and combed right through. She could say horrible things about her life, and what she’d had to go through, but the fact was that Glen had helped her when no one else would. When no one else could. He’d gone against the grain, against the wishes and laws of his people, for no reason other than he wanted to.

And Robert. Her head fell back against the tree trunk and her eyes closed. The poor man had fought and fought against Glen’s decision to help her, yet he was the one to lose his life over it. It wasn’t fair to either of them. She’d done her best to give him a decent burial, but nothing would beat an official burial. He’d died a fugitive, not the hero he was. She would remember him as a hero.

But it wasn’t enough. Nothing she did or wanted to do would ever be enough. Robert was dead, she’d murdered a whole group of soldiers, and she’d knocked Glen out in the process. Because of her, he would never get to go home to his daughter and the rest of his family. He would die on the run.

Not if she ignored his wishes and helped him help himself.

Her gaze drifted over to the giant circle of freshly-tilled dirt she’d singlehandedly spun the night before. It was hard to imagine there were actually half a dozen man buried under the dirt. She squinted as though she could see through the dirt to each individual she’d imprisoned deep below the surface.

Her vision had flickered back into existence when she’d woken that morning. It took its time, coming back bit by bit, but when it was fully in place she could recognize the difference. She could see the tiny details that before escaped her. The new planet she’d found herself on had first seemed beautiful, but now she could see the little nuances that made it different.

Sputtering made her head turn in time to see Glen vomit all over the ground. She rushed to his side. Luckily, she’d turned him onto his stomach when she had, or he could’ve choked. She rubbed his back in small circles during the aftermath of his sickness. His muscles quivered when he attempted to push himself up using his arms. His body wasn’t quite cooperating.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Relax, it’s okay. You’re safe here. Just rest—”

He lifted a hand, one finger partially extended. A small dot of black hovered in the air between them. She jerked her hand back.

“Don’t,” he said, inching backward. He wore a grimace she didn’t understand. “Not now. Don’t touch me right now.”

“Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay. My best friend, the man I fought beside for centuries, is dead. And right now I’m alone with a girl who could bury me in seconds or make my head explode with a word. I can’t go home, my daughter thinks she’s going to see her father again...” He scrubbed both hands over his face. “Robert didn’t deserve to die. If one of us were going to die, it should have been me.”

She couldn’t do anything but sit back and witness his mourning. So she did. Her legs curled into her chest and her arms wound around them. What could she say? It was her fault. It could have been prevented if only she’d just...

“I’m sorry. It’s my fault,” she said, eyes on the ground. “I’m grateful for everything he did for me, even though he didn’t want to.”

She didn’t expect an answer, but Glen surprised her by giving her one.

“He liked you. He just acted like he didn’t. We’ve been taught to compartmentalize emotion. Since I made it known that I wanted to help you, he felt it was his duty to act otherwise. What you are... He didn’t know how to handle it. But he was learning.” He frowned. “They shouldn’t have killed him. They should have stunned him. It doesn’t make any sense. They were military. That had to be.”

He looked deep in thought for a long time. What was he thinking? Maybe he was wishing he could replace her with Robert, get his partner back. Who could blame him?

“Why do they want you so badly? Why are they willing to kill their own for you? And why do they want you alive so badly?”

She shrugged. It was tempting to give her opinion, but then he might suspect what she wanted to do. Her plans would be meaningless if he knew what they were. Otherwise, he’d never allow it.

He surged to his feet without warning, holding out a hand. She stared up at his fingers, frowning.

“Come on. We’ll find a place to stay the night, come up with a plan, and leave in the morning. We can’t stay out in the forest forever.”

Why not, she wanted to ask. For some reason she was not only reluctant to go, she didn’t want to go. She’d both seen and committed murder in the same night right there in that forest. It seemed unfair that she get to leave, though Robert didn’t.

Glen crouched before her. “You buried him?” he asked softly.

Her eyes welled before she could fully process his words.

“Why should I get to leave unscathed?” she asked. “I don’t deserve to. He should still be here. You should still have your partner.”

Glen remained silent for so long that she actually feared his anger. But when she finally chanced a glance, she was shocked at the sight before her. His eyes were rolled upward, and he stayed unnaturally still as his eyes watered. He blew out a breath, finally, as though giving up. The slight motion dislodged the wetness in his eyes, and tears streaked his cheeks. He nodded, meeting her eyes, resignation in his own.

“Yeah,” he said shortly. “I should.”

Her own tears fell at the sight of his visible emotion. But when she reached out to touch his arm, he took her hand instead.

“But you should still have your family, your home, your life. You shouldn’t be on the run from all these people. You shouldn’t have had to see him die. This whole situation is wrong.”

He pulled her with him until they stood. He didn’t release her hand.

“Show me where you buried him?”

She showed him, walking to the spot a few yards away where another long, narrow spot of freshly-tilled dirt sat. They knelt before the spot. She placed her palm on the dirt, fingers spread.

“I’m going to clear his name,” she said. Though the wetness on her face continued to flow, her voice was hard. “He died like a criminal, but I’m going to fix that. One day he’ll be seen as the hero he was, one way or another.”

Glen rested his left hand on the dirt next to hers. His other hand still held on to hers.

“I’m going to keep protecting you. That’s what he would want. If he were here now he’d probably be calling me stupid for letting you keep thinking about him instead of taking you somewhere for the night.”

His chuckles made her laugh a bit, and they both wiped their faces.

“I finally got you to smile,” he said. After all these weeks of knowing you, I get to see you smile.”

“I finally believe you,” she said. “You care about what happens to me. For whatever stupid reason.”

“Someone should. You deserve that much.”

They stayed for a few minutes more in companionable silence before Glen helped her to her feet again, and they began their journey. She didn’t know where they were going, but for the first time she truly felt secure in knowing she’d be taken care of.

If only she could get used to the feeling.

*_*_*_*_*

“Thank you,” she said that night.

She sat at the foot of one of the beds in the hotel room. Glen lay on the other bed, nearly sleeping, but his eyes opened when she spoke.

“Hm?”

“I said thank you. I don’t say that nearly enough... But everything you’ve done for me is overwhelming. I didn’t do anything to deserve it—”

“Hey.” He rolled onto his side, facing her. “You don’t have to thank me. We’re on our own now, okay? We watch each other’s backs. Okay? No thanks, just action.”

“Okay.”

“Get some sleep. We need to leave early.”

“Okay.”

He was fast asleep in a matter of minutes. She was jealous of his ability to sleep anywhere, but he’d once told her that it came with his training. Being a good soldier meant utilizing sleep wherever you could get it, in any situation. So why wouldn’t he fall under quicker in an actual bed? In this instance, she was glad.

She slipped off of her bed and padded past his, to the door. Slipping her shoes on, she listened for any change in his breathing, pausing when he shifted. Once properly bundled, she took one last look at him asleep in his bed before steeling herself and inching the door open, then shut behind her. To leave the hotel, she only had to keep her head down in her scarf until she exited the lobby and hit the cold air outside.

Then she started to walk. Guilt hit her hard in the gut, but she continued on through the frigid weather. Glen said they were to watch each other’s backs. No thanks, just action. So she was holding up her end. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t get to do the same for her. He’d done enough.

She was on her own now. She would clear his and Robert’s names, even though doing so would cost her the only thing she’d ever wanted:

Her freedom.

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