Chapter 15: The Lies of Life
Rod kissed my forehead. The skin tingled where his lips had touched me. “Dearest, I have to work. With the number of people that were killed in this attack there is a lot of work to do. Do you want to stay here and watch the fire for us?”
I nodded, unable to speak. I couldn’t trust my own voice. If I tried to speak I was likely to start crying again.
“Why don’t you sit down? I know you are still feeling dizzy.” I looked up at him and I could see the worry in his face. He was probably right. I should sit. I carefully detached myself and slowly lowered myself to the ground and he stood there holding my hand as I sat down. When he let go I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs.
He leaned down and kissed my forehead. “Call out if it gets out of control OK? I… I’ll come back when I finish what I am doing.”
I nodded staring into the slowly dying flames filled with mostly burned bodies and timbers. Born of fire, taken from me in fire. Fire.
Two people walked up and I saw Sandy and the little girl that had to be pulled away from her mother. The girl had tear stains lining her face.
“This is da lil’ girl that’ll be livin’ with ya. Her name is Jade, n’ she is a rare a gem. I was hopin’ ya would look after her while we work since ya are da least injured of da injured, but ya are in no condition ta work. Jade this is Liv. She’ll be lookin’ after ya for a while.” Sandy was frowning, and I couldn’t figure out why. Did she disapprove of me, or the fact I couldn’t work, or the little girl that was now a problem for the community?
I forced myself to smile for the sake of the little girl, “Come,” my voice croaked and I cleared my throat and tried again, “Come, sit here next to me.” I unclasped my hands to pat the ground next to me.
The little girl plopped down next to me and leaned against me, and I wrapped my arm around her and held her. “Don’t worry Sandy, I’ll look after her. We both need more time with our grief.”
Sandy looked like she wanted to say something more, but she looked at the little girl and nodded before turning and quickly walking away.
The little girl started to cry and I held her against my shoulder unsure of what I should do, but she started to talk, “Mommy always told me I haf to be strong. She always told me she might die. I…”
What type of place was this that parents would tell children such things? I had no clue what to say. How do you comfort a child? How do you comfort anyone? So I just held her.
“She said… she said the child knappers might come one day, n’ she would… she wouldn’ ever let me go. They pulled me away from her! I didn’ wana let her go!” the girl was wailing now.
“Shhh” I gently stroked her shoulder length brown hair. “I’ll protect you from the child knappers. My family and I, we’ll protect ya now that she’s gone. But don’t worry, even though you can’t see her, she’s still protecting you. She’s just… She just can’t be seen anymore, but she’ll always be with you. Do you have anything of hers?”
The girl was hiccuping, but she wasn’t wailing anymore. “I…I… I got her knife. In my room.”
That would work, “When you get back to your room today I want you to put her knife on a belt and wear it. It will remind you of her and remind you that she is always watching over you now even if you can’t see her.”
“Really?” The little girl’s green eyes were wide and her six year old mind easily accepted the idea that her mother was watching over her.
“Yup. My dad’s there with your mom. He’s watching over me and protecting me.” Oh God. I… I had to eventually go back to the city. But was this a better life? This life where disease could strike and people died in battles for no reason?
“Do ya… ya have something of ye daddy’s?” The little girls eyes were wide. Her crying had stopped but she was still hiccuping.
“No, nothing but my memories of him. He died defending me from child knappers, but unlike you, I was taken by them. But they could never take my memories of him nor could they stop him from watching over me and protecting me after he died.” My mother used to always tell me that in the cell at night when I was crying. She would hold me close and shush me. She would tell me that he was there watching over me now, and nothing could tear him away from us now.
“I’m glad my mommy stopped the child knappers. I want to grow up to be big and strong and… and…stop them.” I smiled down at the little girl my arms were wrapped around. So much bravery and such grand ideas in a small child. I had been like that. I had thought I could solve problems even my father couldn’t solve.
“You do that sweetheart. Grow up big and strong and one day you can stop them.” It was highly unlikely that she would ever actually be able to stop parents from dying, but she might grow up to be a warrior like Sandy. Like all these people.
I realized the connection. These wars.. these people. No old. Few young. Child knappers. I want to stop the child knappers. It all made sense. The reason all the women were obsessed with having children. The man wanting to take me away to force me to have children.
Those people had attacked for the children. In a place without good medical care children were hard to have and often died. That was why there was so much honor in women having children, and why all the women learned to fight. I would have to confirm this, but I was fairly sure I was right.
I looked down at the little girl in my arms and realized she had fallen asleep. It had been an exhausting day for her and an emotional one. I held her gently and simply stared into the slowly dying fire. Tears slipped down my cheeks. One for my father. One for Annie. One for Fire. One for Jade’s mother. One for her father. And one for all those who were still dishonored.
I had to get back there one day. I had to go back to the city. The only problem was that I didn’t want to go back through the radiation zone. I didn’t want to go back. Who knew if the king would even believe me? I was a confessed plotter against the king’s life. But my honor. For honor’s sake I had to eventually go back. But this girl also needed me now.
It wasn’t Rod who came to get me nor was it Kevin, but Dan. “So everyone has important tasks right now or somethin’. Sandy sent me. Said I was supposed ta take ya ta ye new home where ya n’ Jade‘ll be stayin’. Ya’ll be my neighbor now. Me and my papa’s neighbor.”
I smiled up at him gratefully. I was tired of watching the fire burn down to small embers, “Thanks Dan. I think Jade here needs to sleep. It’s been a long day.”
I took my arms off of her and it was enough to stir her into being awake, “You ready to go home sweetheart?”
“Are ya comin’ with me?” I couldn’t help but smile down at the adorable little girl. I hugged her and held her like I wished my own mother had held me after my father had died.
“Yes sweetheart. I’m coming home with you.” I kissed her forehead and took the hand Dan offered me. He pulled me up and steadied me as the dizziness hit.
“Ya sound weird.” The little girl was standing next to me looking up at me with big innocent eyes, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little at her frankness.
“I’m not from your village. When I escaped the child knappers I found my way here and was offered a place to live by everyone here.”
“Oh. I’m glad ye ‘ere.” I smiled at her simple statements that held so much acceptance in them. She was a sweet child.
Dan walked me to my new home with my left hand on his shoulder for balance and my right hand gripped fiercely by the little girl on my right. I never wanted children. I’d never planned to end up loving someone either. But here I was in love with Rod and an adopted child clinging to my hand.
We walked in silence, but it was a comfortable silence. The type of silence that didn’t need to be filled with jabbering, but was filled with unanswered questions that couldn’t be answered in the present company. But for now there was simply nothing to say except for useless talk.
We came up to house that was a small cottage made with simple wooden boards and a grass roof. It was identical to the places next to it, but it would be a place to call my own.
Dan stepped forward and opened the door and gestured for us to enter, “It’s nothin’ fancy. Our village ain’t very old or fancy, but da house has sleepin’ loft, n’ a livin’ area down here with a fireplace for cookin’ n’ a couple cabinets n’ counters for storage n’ stuff. Even has a small room down here that Kevin can sleep in.”
Jade pulled me forward into the house with a childish excitement to be showing off her home. I smiled and let her pull me inside. I was starting to get used to the vertigo from my head injury. I could walk even though everything felt… off.
There was a table and three chairs on one side and on the other side of the large room there was a fireplace with two cabinets and counters near it. There was also a wooden bench in front of the fire place, but I wasn’t given time to admire the first floor.
“This ‘ere is where me momma n’ papa n’ I sit and eat. Afterwards they tell me stories n’ then I go to bed in da loft. Let me show ya my bed!” She was almost bouncing with excitement and I let her drag me to the ladder, and I gripped the side going up so I didn’t get dizzy. At the top of the ladder was a space with a low ceiling and two short beds separated by a piece of cloth.
She pulled me toward the side with the smaller bed “This is me room.” There were a couple carvings of different creatures set on a small table near a bed that was much fancier than the furniture downstairs.
This bed had carvings all over the foot board and head board. There was a kitten playing with yarn, a cow jumping over the moon, and a wolf howling at the moon the cow was jumping over on the footboard. All the rest of the footboard was filled with the impressions of trees and small creatures in the forest. The headboard was watched over by a beautiful unicorn standing in a moonlit ocean with a main and tail that fell into the ocean and became part of the foam. It was a work of art.
“My papa made it before he left. Or…” and her face scrunched up at this as if she didn’t like what she was about to say. “Or before she chased him out. Momma loved papa, but she was always a yellin’ at him and then cryin’ n’ papa… One day he just wasn’ ‘ere and momma said he left.”
The poor child. I wonder what had happened to her father. That was another question to ask Dan when I got back downstairs.
“Jade, are you tired? If you want you can sleep now and I’ll wake you for dinner.”
“Mhhm. I wouldn’ mine sleepin’.” Suddenly she gave a huge yawn and rubbed her eyes. Children changed from excited to tired so quickly.
“Come here. I’ll tuck you in.” she nodded happily and jumped into bed and I pulled the covers up and over her.
“’Night Liv,” She said as she snuggled deeply into her covers.
“Sweet dreams Jade.” I told her softly as left the room and carefully made my way back down the ladder gripping the hand rail for my life so I didn’t slip and fall down. I finally got to the bottom and breathed a sigh of relief.
Dan was there standing at the door scuffing his foot on the floor as if unsure what he should do.
“Dan, could I ask you some questions?”
He shrugged, “Sure. I’m certain ya have a couple question. I wasn’ sure if ya wanted me ta stay aroun’ or…”
“Thanks Dan, and I don’t mind your company.” I especially didn’t mind if he could answer the questions that were building up.
I sat down at the table and motioned for him to do the same. He sat watching me as if I was about to spook and run, “So, whatcha ya wana ask me. ‘Bout the kids parents or sometin’?”
“Partly that. Partly about this entire place and system. You said this village was new and didn’t have many big fancy houses. Why is this village new, and what are these other villages like, and why were we attacked…”
He interrupted me by bursting out laughing. I glared at him and he finally settled. “I hadn’ realized ya didn’ know anythin’ ‘bout the village. I thought Fire covered everythin’.”
“Fire taught me a lot, and she hinted at fighting and battles and there not being many children, but she never straight out told me anything. I think I’ve kind of figured it out, but I want to know everything.”
“Tell me what ya think ya’ve figured out and I’ll confirm or reset it ta da truth.” And for some reason I trusted him. I trusted him to tell me the full truth.
“The fight. That was about stealing children and women for another village wasn’t it. That’s why the women all learn to fight is so that they can protect themselves from being stolen. And so that they can protect their children. And for some reason many women don’t have many kids or can’t or something like that, so kids are a precious commodity. And this village is a small new village where a bunch of people left from an older large and bigger village that was well established and better able to protect itself and its citizens from thieving villages, but it was overcrowded.”
I hadn’t really thought about the last part much. I just realized it myself, but it made sense.
And he was nodding. “For da most part ya are correct. We do value our children. N’ other villages do want ‘em. We value women n’ children ‘cause children often ‘come sickly n’ die quickly. We donna know why this is, but it is. So we value our children greatly. N’ we did come from another village, ‘bout ten years ago now. I was just a kid then, but I remember it well. Everyone was just too ‘fraid ta leave da old place. They was too scared of the children snatching villages that were less peaceful n’ ‘stead of tradin’ they’d steal da children.”
“Wait, you trade children with other villages?” If children were so precious why would they trade them?
He looked away sadly and nodded. “When a child becomes an adult at fifteen, if they are related ta too many people they are sent away. Children from couples too closely related end up… messed up. My best friend, he was traded away when we was fifteen. Got Sandy out of the trade…” He trailed off and became silent. I guess the wound of her leaving him for Kevin was still raw.
It was also surprising that if she was the same age she was his instructor. “Why is Sandy a fighting instructor?”
He looked surprised, “I… well.. she was raised from birth ta fight. Same as me friend. That’s why da trade happened. Two fight instructors both too closely related ta the rest of da village. We just play at fighting, but for Sandy, it’s her life n’ livelihood, just as ya are a weaver n’ ya… ya… man, Rod… he’s a teacher.”
Was it just my imagination or did he seem to not like saying that Rod was my man or whatever they called relationships here. Probably just my imagination.
“So what about Jade’s father. Why did he leave?” I wasn’t sure why I asked this, but suddenly the question was there.
“He… didn’t leave. He died. He mom was plannin’ on leavin’ him anyway, but a raid happened n’ he died protectin’ them. She hid it from the girl and said he left. Even though she was often angry at him she still loved him, n’ his death hit her hard. She even convinced herself he’d just left and would one day come back to her. She was kinda a recluse.”
That would explain it. It would explain Jade’s explanation, her confusion, and the fact that Sandy had told me she was an orphan.
“What about the old. Why are there so few elderly?” Again that sad far off look.
“Most die in battle. When ya too old ta work, ya fight, or ya’ll die when ya canna protect yaself. My papa, he’s a strong old crazy man though, and he hasn’ died yet. Ya last till ya die. Ya mind if I ask ya some questions ‘bout ya own village or city or whatever ya call the place ya came from?”
He had turned the tables. Apparently he didn’t enjoy being drilled about the village.
I shrugged. I could tell him the truth and he would either believe me or he wouldn’t, “Sure, why not.”
“Ya said ya was taken by da child nappers, whatcha mean when ya said that? If ya place had child knappers why’d ya never learn ta fight?” I could see the curiosity and desire to know more, but he hit a nail with his question.
“I… Girls aren’t allowed to learn to fight in the city. There’s a king who rules over the city, and my father tried to bring him down, and he was executed and I was imprisoned for being his daughter. I was eight. Not the same as your child thieves, but they stole my childhood from me.” And I felt the old desire for revenge kindling in my heart. I only I could go back with my honor… No. I had a child to think about now.
“What is a king?” He looked so confused as if everything I had said was a foreign concept.
“A king is…” how would I answer that? A king is an ultimate controller of a place…?
The door opened and Rod walked saving me from answering that question. The second he saw Dan he was glaring at him, “What are you doing still here? Don’t you have anything better to do with your time? Go on, get out of here!”
Rod was yelling by the time he finished, and Dan was running for the door. I stood there shocked to see such strong emotion of dislike coming from Rod.
I could hear footsteps coming down the stairs and I looked back to see a startled Jade standing at the foot of the stairs.
“What was that about Rod? I thought you wanted to get to know the people of the village better?” Why was he behaving so irrationally?
“I don’t like the way he looks at you. I don’t trust him and I hate the fact that Kevin keeps turning to him to help you. That guy really bothers me.” He pulled off his cloak and swung it over and chair and turned toward me staring at me with his intense pale blue eyes.
“I love you Liv, and I don’t want you to get hurt.” And suddenly he was there with his arms wrapped around me and he kissed me, and I couldn’t help but kiss back. This intense side of him scared me and shocked me, but I still loved him.
“Why’s my teacher here with ya?” Jade’s simple question snapped us apart.
“Jade, I’d like you to meet my man, Rod. Rod, this is Jade, the little girl we’ll be looking after.” I didn’t know what to say about what she had just witnessed. Would she be able to make sense out of it, or would it completely bewilder her?
She simply nodded and padded down to sit on the bench. I remembered her own mother and father used to fight. It must have seemed natural to her.
“Kevin will be here with food soon. He’s planning on movin’ in with Sandy though. They’ve really hit it off.” He was looking at me as if expecting something, but I didn’t know what it was. I’d kind of been expecting Kevin to move in with Sandy.
“You loved him didn’t you? And he never saw it?” The look Rod was turning on me was so intense it was almost scary. It was like he was daring me to deny it.
“Yes, I had a crush on him. I thought I might love him. I was afraid of my own emotions though, and he only saw me as a sister. I… I wanted to think of him as more because of how much he had always been there for me, but Rod, I’ve figured myself out, and I don’t love him the way I love you. You… I love him like a brother, but you mean so much more to me. I enjoy your company, I like being near you. I… love you.” I could fear a tear trailing down my cheek.
I wasn’t sure why he was acting like this, but it was scaring me. It wasn’t how he used to act. This place was changing him. Leaving the wall had changed him.
And now I had to defend my own feelings for him to him. Did he think I didn’t actually love him or something?”
I reached out and pulled him toward me and into a kiss. I didn’t care if Jade saw it. I wanted to reassure Rod. I wanted him to go back to being the kind and naïve man he had once been. I wanted him to stop scaring me.
I could hear the door open, but I held Rod close to me till I heard a cough, and slowly I pulled away to see Kevin standing there holding iron pot. “I brought dinner home if anyone is hungry.”
“Dinner!” Jade’s excitement for food made me smile. For the moment her dead mother was forgotten.
“Yep, dinner is venison stew tonight.” Kevin put the pot on the table and went to the cabinet. “Jade, you want to help me set the table?”
She ran over to the cabinet and grabbed out four wooden bowls. Kevin grabbed four spoons from somewhere else in the cabinet and then both of them went to the table and set them around the table. There were three chairs though, not four…
And then the door opened and Sandy came in carrying a chair. Kevin took the chair, kissed her, and then she was gone as fast as she’d come. And Rod and I were still standing there just watching this.
I couldn’t help it. I was suddenly laughing. Fire had just died. I just ended up with and adopted child, Rod was acting strange, and suddenly Kevin is there as if nothing happened.
And the crazy laughter turned to sobs. My legs buckled and I went to my knees and then sat back with my butt on my heels, sobbing. All of it was so normal. So much as if nothing had happened. It was as if I had already forgotten Fire and forgotten everything. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act. Was I supposed to pretend like she simply hadn’t existed?
Everyone was staring at me. I manage to bring my sobs down to a controllable level, but I could see them all looking at me like I was crazy, even Jade.
“Sorry… Everything’s… just so… normal.” Or they were acting like it was a normal day, and yet it wasn’t. Just… this town was just attacked, I was just injured. Fire had just died. And today she had been burned, my room had been moved to a new house, and I now had a child to raise. I was still in my blue ceremonial dress and my head hurt like hell and the world was wobbling and they were acting so very normal.
I felt small arms hugging my front. I looked up at little Jade looking at me with large worried eyes. I had to stay strong for her. I had to teach her the value of honor.
Could I teach her honor with a clear conscious when I hadn’t fulfilled one of my own promises? I would go back one day. That had to be enough for now. I wrapped my arms around the little girl in front of me and felt warmth spreading through my chest. It felt good to hug this girl. Why had my mother always been aloof? Why had she not hugged me often? It was so harmless but brought so much comfort.
When she pulled away Rod was there with a handkerchief for my face and a hand to help me up. I grabbed his hand and he pulled me up and passed me the handkerchief. “Thanks.” I whispered to him cleaned up my teary mess of a face. Once my face was dry I pulled him close and gently kissed him on the cheek. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tighter than Jade could.
“I’ll always be here for you dear heart.” And then he just held me close till dinner was ready.
The four of us sat around the table, and suddenly I felt the warmth and closeness of a real family. This was my family; not those people sitting back in a cell back in a city I didn’t want to remember. Not those people who had only shown me the coldness and the hardness of the world.
I had an epiphany. I realized that this was OK. I could be happy again. Family and friends died, but there were still people out there to care for who cared about me. Those that had died wouldn’t want me to mope around and memorialize them in misery. They would want me to immortalize them in my thoughts by living my life well. I had to go on.
That night I slept soundly curled up against Rod. He was my rock that was always solid and that I could hold onto. He was there holding me and stroking my hair.
When I woke he was sitting there watching me. “You sleep OK Liv? How's your head feeling?”
I sat up slowly and I felt slightly dizzy for a second, but then it cleared and I felt fine. “I think I slept well. I feel... better.”
He nodded, “You slept like a rock. If you're feeling well enough Sandy wanted Dan to work with you on strengthening exercises that shouldn't be too sudden or jarring for your head but would help get you better.”
“Ok. Guess it would be good for me to get out of the house. I would be all alone here.” Why was he still here? Didn't he have to teach? “Are... Is Jade at school already?” Best way to figure out what time it was.
He laughed. “It's OK, the kid's have the morning off today, so I also have the morning free. Figured I would spend it with you. Jade's off playing with her friends from school.”
I felt relieved I hadn't had to ask more. He had answered all the questions I had. I looked down at myself and realized I was still in my dress.
“Umm, I need clothing, to work out in.”
“Oh, yeah. I have that for you. Your old clothing, the ones you were wearing...”
“When the village was attacked. You don't have to be careful. I know what happened. I saw...” God! I was getting choked up. I coughed to clear my throat, and it brought on a fit of coughing which eventually cleared. “I saw it. I was there. It's not something I'm going to forget.” I would never forget watching the mass funeral pyre.
He nodded. “Sorry, I'm just... it's still kind of shocking for me. I'd never seen...” He drifted off and looked away.
He'd never seen death and hard conditions up close before. He'd seen it only from the safe confines of the Wall and at night walking in the city.
He walked out of the room and came back holding a bundle of fabric that he quickly passed to me. “Liz passed this to me for you.”
I nodded and took the clothing. Liz again. That woman with such a similar name and such beautiful dark skin.
“Thanks. Where did you meet Liz? She seems like she's a good friend of yours now.”
He smiled some, but the tint of red on his cheeks made me think he was also embarrassed. What did he have to be embarrassed... no. Did he love her even when he was with me? No. I couldn't think that way. I wouldn't be the jealous woman always worrying about his female friends. He probably just hadn't had many female friends before and the attention was probably embarrassing him.
“She's umm, a school teacher. She works with me. She was traded as a child to this village.”
“Traded? Why was she traded?” I remembered Dan telling me about this, but he only told me about Sandy being traded
He laughed. “It's nothing bad Liv. To prevent inbreeding villages will trade children who have talents in similar areas. Liz came from a village a long way from here. Her village sent out a caravan with children to trade and at every village they traded. This was the last village they traded with. Her original village was one of the huge villages with lots and lots of people. Its’ almost the size of our city from what she was telling me.”
So that was why she was so different from everyone else here. Rod turned away from me so that I could change, and I quickly stripped off the dress and slipped into the pants and shirt. A sudden mischievous inspiration hit me as I was looking at him with his back turned. I sneaked up behind him and grabbed his shoulder, but he didn't jump. He simply turned and looked at me.
“Liv dearest, you shouldn't sneak up on people...” He was smiling down at me with that beautiful smile of his. At least I got a smile even if he didn't jump.
But I didn't smile, I put on my best pouting face, “You were supposed to jump. To be surprised you know...”
“Mhm.” He was staring at me, and then he was leaning down and he was kissing me, and I forgot about trying to scare him or anything else.
Then he pulled away with a satisfied smile, “Does that make it better Liv dearest?”
For a second I almost nodded, but then I thought better, “No... but another kiss...”
And he was kissing me again. I loved the feel of his lips crushed against mine...
Kevin's voice came drifting up to our part of the loft, “Liv! Rod! Where are you two. It's time to get going!” We sprung apart, and I started giggling. We were like naughty school children.
Rod pulled me close and put a finger to my lips. “Shhh.” He whispered to me. When I controlled my giggling he asked, “You ready to go down now? I'm sure they are all waiting for us.” I nodded solemnly, and then he started to head out, but I grabbed his hand. He stopped for a second and looked back at me, and then pulled me along behind him, down the stairs and to the front.
Jade and Kevin were both sitting there looking at us like we were crazy. Kevin gave me an especially strange look, but said nothing.
“Rod, can you take Jade to school with you? And Liv, do you know how to get to the training grounds from here? If you don't I'll walk you there. Sandy showed me the way.” Kevin had really matured from this experience. He wasn't trying to order us around, but at the same time he was providing suggested direction. And he was still devilishly handsome, but he wasn't ever going to be mine. He didn't see me that way, and he never would. And I had Rod now. And Rod was... God, was I thinking of him as adorable? Yes. But sometimes he was also manly. God, I wasn't sure what I was thinking. I just needed to be happy with this new life I was being given. One day I would have to leave it and return to the city, but not yet.
“Liv? Do you want me to show you to the training grounds?” Oh, right. Kevin had asked me a question.
I nodded, “Sure, that would be great. Thanks.”
“See you later Liv.” Rod pulled me toward him and gave me a quick peck on the lips before taking Jade's hand and leading her toward the door.
Kevin held out two slices of bread to me. “You need to get down here sooner to eat an actual breakfast.”
I nodded as I stuffed a slice of the delicious bread into my mouth. I would never get over how good this food tasted.
He sighed and motioned toward the door. “Come on Liv, lets go.”
I led the way out the door with my mouth still stuffed with the chewy dry bread, and then I stepped to the side and waited as Kevin exited the house and closed the door.
“You're working with Dan today. Sandy is working with some other people today and she thinks that Dan is good enough to train you. She might of also made some comments about how you impressed her with how terrible you are...”
He knew why I was so terrible! I had never learned to fight before getting to the village. I hadn't been allowed to fight! And he was laughing at me! How dare he laugh at me for how bad I was.
“You...you...” And I did the only thing I could think of, I shoved him to try to get him to stop laughing.
“Hey! You know it’s true!” He stumbled but caught himself. Too bad I would have liked to see him face plant in the dirt.
“It might be true but you don't have to rub it in my face. You know why I don't know how to fight! I am a girl and I was dishonored. Dishonored aren't allowed to fight!”
“I know, but it’s too much fun to see that indignant anger on your face!” He was intolerable.
“You! I don't know why I put up with you.”
“Because, you love me. Everyone loves me.” Someone was full of himself today.
“As if!” But then I saw it, the burned pyre. We were passing the center building of the village and the pyre. I grew quiet and Kevin didn't try to reply. People were cleaning up the burned fragments of wood.
“By tomorrow it will probably be like it never existed. Sandy told me they will sweep the ashes into buckets and carry them to a hole in the ground. They will put up a marker there with the date of the attack and all the names of the dead.” Kevin was quiet and serious. He had seen death, but we had both been so close to it ourselves. I guess the attack and the deaths were hitting him hard too.
“Liv, I killed some people in that attack... I've never taken a life before, but this guy was coming at me, swinging a sword, and I... I took his life first. He had his sword raised up and I ducked under and struck his heart, and I could feel it... and then more came, and... and I think I killed them too. I can't really remember.” Kevin was shaking. I hugged him. I had no comforting words for him. There was nothing I could say that would make this better. I had never killed anyone. All I could do was hold him like he had held me when I had cried, but he didn't cry. He clung to me for a second and then pulled away.
“Sorry. I didn't know it would be that hard for me to tell you. I felt like... you had to know. I feel like... a monster.”
“No Kevin, you could never be a monster. You care too much. If you didn't care you wouldn't feel this remorse. You would kill and feel nothing for the people you killed. Everyone has different coping mechanisms. You did what you had to, to protect me, to protect these people that have so openly welcomed us into their village.” I wasn't quite sure about what I was saying or if it even made sense, but it seemed to help. He nodded like what I was saying was reasonable.
“Come, let's get you to that lesson so I don't have to protect you anymore.” He was distant. It was as if he had shown me a part of him he hadn't actually wanted me to see. I guess he had wanted to tell me he had killed people without breaking down. I had already figured he had killed people though... It was part of... part of being an able fighter in a fight. Only a coward hid.
We walked on in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We arrived at a different training area from the place I was used to, and Dan was waiting there.
“Sorry ye stuck with me, but Sandy's got others she's workin with, ones with more training than ya.
I nodded. I didn't need anyone particularly advanced to work with me.
Kevin turned toward me, “I'm working with Sandy this morning. She said she saw me fighting and I was rusty. She's got a group of us that she decided need extra practice. Your Rod is only escaping because of his scholarly training in the Wall. So have fun and I'll see you at the end of the day.”
“See ya later Kevin,” He smiled at me and then left. So he was one of the people working with Sandy. I didn't mind not working with her. She was a harsh task master.
“Ya feel up to running?” Dan asked.
“I guess. I mean I've felt fine most of this morning. I haven't collapsed or anything yet.” I had been dizzy sitting up this morning, but that was part of just sitting up fast and all the blood rushing to my head.
“Alright, then we'll take one easy lap 'round da wall. I want ya ta stay at my pace n' if ya get dizzy or anything just stop.”
Dan took off at an easy light pace and he kept looking back at me to check on me, but I was there. I followed him past the gates and around the simple wooden wall. I was feeling dizzy at the end, but I didn't stop. I didn't want to admit to feeling dizzy and we weren't running that hard a pace. Sandy made me run a lot faster.
“Ya still feelin' OK?” He asked when we finished.
I nodded even thought the action of nodding made me feel a little light headed. “Could we get water?”
“Sure.” He led the way to a little well where he pulled up a bucket of water. There was a ladle on the ledge of the well and he passed it to me first to drink.
I quickly drank my fill and passed it back to him. He took a couple sips.
My chest was hurting from the run, and a couple coughs tore through my chest before I got my breath back.
“Dan, what is your job other than training, and what is Sandy's job.”
“I'm a scout. I work with me pa after mid-day. I just train in da morning so I stay in fightin shape. Many of the scouts and guards simply train together, and my pa train with 'em, but I like ta train with Sandy or train others 'cause I'm better than most of them.”
Someone was quite humble. I guess he simply saw it as the truth and saw no reason to think of it as otherwise.
“And Sandy... “ He sighed and I could see this wistful look on his face, “She is da best fighter. She is our fight instructor. Our village traded out my childhood friend Yonder for her, but she turned out to exceed expectations. It was between her n' I for the next fight instructor, n' when the old man that was the instructor died, she got the position. In the second half of da day she teaches the kids of da village fightin'”
So fighting was Sandy's only job, and also technically Dan's only job.
“Come, on, let's work on ye sword work using the practice stick. Ya can go over the blocks, lunges, and footwork ye've learned for 'bout an hour”
He picked up a stick and tossed it to me, and I actually managed to grab it from the air. He showed me what to work on, and then I worked on it. Every so often he would change what he had me working on. And before I realized it was already mid-day.
“See ya tomorrow Lively Liz.” He called out to me. It was funny how he still called me that sometimes. And surprisingly I didn't mind.
I laughed and waved. “See you then, Dan.” I was lucky Dan had been there that first day. I had a feeling a lot of guards would have simply killed us. We hadn't looked like a trading party. They might have thought we were scouts for a party of raiders, but Dan had trusted me.
I found my way to the cloth house and to what had become my loom. I found I enjoyed weaving, and I had even started using already died threads to make patterns on the fabric. No one commented when I turned in fabric that had a simple zig-zag pattern on it.
When I finished I wandered around the town till I found my new house. I went inside to find Jade sitting at the table working out something on a black painted board.
“Hi Jade, how was school today?”
“Fine. I like the second half of the day where I get to fight, but teacher Liz says I must work on 'rithmatic.” She glared at the board. “I think it’s dumb. I'm goin' ta be a fighter, I've shown talent 'cording to Master Sandy, but teacher Liz still says its important. Somethin' 'bout troop numbers.”
I smiled at her. I had no clue what she was learning about, but I would pretend for her sake. I looked down at the board and realized it was simple math problems. I had learned that... a long time ago. In another life. “Well, it is important. You need to be able to figure out about how many of your enemy there are, and what are the odds of beating that enemy with the troops you have, right?”
I was not sure if that was actually needed for a fighter, but it sounded like something she would need to know. Jade glared at me. Apparently I was supposed to support her. “I dona know. I guess. But I could be out playin', but teacher Roderick, umm, Rod... well, he told me I had ta work on this before I could play.”
“Well then finish your assignment and you can go play.” Jade glared at me and then went back to working on her assignment.
I cooked dinner that night with Rod's help. He'd learned cooking in the wall.
The next day went on a similar schedule, and again the days fell back into a rhythm. A month passed and things stayed the same.
I trained horse back riding, archery, and sword fighting. It was enough to keep me from ever getting bored with my lessons.
My weaving improved and my patterns became different and more complex. I was told I had a talent in weaving and Fire had chosen well when she had claimed me for the loom.
Rod and I stayed in the same relationship. We didn't go beyond kissing and sleeping in the same bed. It was comfortable and safe, but I could tell Rod wanted more, but I was afraid to go further. I think it frustrated Rod, but I didn't want to rush our relationship. And I liked it where it was.
One day after I finished training archery I decided to take a different path toward the weaving shed, one that went near the school and I could say hi to Rod on the way. He was probably cleaning up his classroom.
I poked my head in, but he wasn't there. “Rod?” I asked an empty classroom.
The building only had a couple classrooms, but he wasn't in any of them, and two of the teachers that I didn't know that well said they hadn't seen him. I knew he could take care of himself, but I was worried. I did need to get to the weaving shed, but I wanted to make sure he was OK. I decided to walk around the building once and if I didn't see him I would go to my loom without seeing him even if it did worry me.
I walked around to the back and then stopped. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Dark arms wrapped around a pale white person. He was... He was kissing her.
“Rod?” I wasn't sure why I spoke, why I didn't just run, but I think I was in shock.
He sprung away from her. “Umm, Liv, wasn't expecting to see you here...”
“No? What were you expecting, that I would never find out that you were also with Liz?” I had never expected this of him. I would never have guessed... he was as honor focused as I was... or I had thought he was.
I turned and started to stumble away, tears in my eyes. He was there, holding onto me. Trying to keep me from leaving. “Let go of me!” I yelled at him.
“No, Liv, it wasn't like that... I love you. I just... After I thought you had died Liz was there comforting me, and...”
“If it was just that then why were you with her now! How could you... I tried to never think badly of you, to never be jealous of your female friends, but you repaid my trust with this... this betrayal!”
“Liv, please listen to me. Liz is just teaching me so that I can make you happier.”
“As if! What, has she also taught you how... how to have sex and love another person? Do you love her more than me? Are you too frustrated with my honor bound city morals that shouldn't apply in this new life of ours?” I wasn't sure where the bold words came from, but I think they were coming from the big hole that had just ripped open inside my chest.
“We only slept together once...”
“ONCE! Once Rod? You shouldn't... I thought...” I found the strength to rip myself free of his hold and I ran. I wasn't sure where I was going till I ran out the gates and collapsed into a sobbing heap in the woods.
The worst part was that other than a couple small twinges of worry I had never actually really guessed what was between him and that despicable woman that shared my first name.
I was so blind, so dumb. Had everyone else known? Had they all thought I was some loose woman who was willing to share my man with another woman?
“Liv?” I recognized Kevin's voice but I said nothing. I didn’t feel like I could trust my voice. I heard him sit down next to me, but I didn’t look up from where I had my face buried in my knees. Why had I trusted Rod? I had thought... He had seemed so sweet and happy when we left the wall. He seemed to care about me so much.
Kevin’s arms wrapped around me and he pulled me close. “Rod?”
I nodded miserably. I couldn't bring myself to say more. It was my fault. If I hadn't been afraid to go farther he wouldn't have found comfort in another's arms. I must have done something wrong.
“He's a loser Elizabeth, and you are too good for him. He’s a no good, two faced, idiot that should have never let you go.” Kevin was saying that, but he didn’t love me. I had come to accept that, but maybe it was something about me. Maybe all men only saw me with sisterly love and didn’t see me as anything more.
“Kevin, what’s wrong with me? Am I that prickly and terrible?” I wasn’t sure why I was asking, or quite what I was asking but the words slipped out of my mouth muffled by the knees I was speaking into.
I coughed again. By now I was used to these persistent coughs.
“Elizabeth, you are one of the best women I know. You have more honor than any of the women in the city. No statuses created by the city could ever determine your honor. Even here you haven’t caved to any of the cultural excesses, but you live in your own world. You shut everyone else out of that world. Except Rod. You let him in, and he was a fool to turn on you. His leaving you isn’t your fault. You didn’t mess up this time. He did.”
So it was my fault. I must have unconsciously blocked Rod out. He must have sought Liz because I pushed him away.
Kevin held me for a second more and then pulled away. “I… I have to get going Liv. I need to get to the blacksmith shop for my work. You’ll be okay, right? You’re tough. You’ve been dishonored and nothing can be that bad. After the hell you’ve lived through you can survive anything.”
I wished he would just shut up and leave. I didn’t need his pep talks. I just wanted to be alone.
“Liv, If you umm, need anything, come find me, okay? I’ll either be at the shop or with Sandy, okay? Nod your head if you agree.” He was trying so hard to be my big brother. He was the same age as me. Yeah, he was like a brother, but right now I didn’t want his brotherly tough love, and weren’t brothers supposed to be protective and offering to kill the guy that broke my heart? Instead he was just sitting there offering, ‘if I need anything…’. Yeah, I needed something, peace and quiet and alone time.
“Kevin, go on, I’ve got this.”
Another cough tore out of my lungs.
I felt a presence next to me. He didn’t try and touch me, for which I was thankful, but at the same time there was a small part of me that just wanted someone to hold me, but no. I didn’t want anyone to touch me.
I looked out of the corner of my eye, and realized it was Dan. Oh God. Why was Dan here? I just wanted to be alone. And I especially didn’t want Dan, my fighting instructor, to see me in this state.
“Ye know it always hurts. When Sandy left me… I thought she loved me. Thought she would be mine forever, n’ I thought we was meant to be together. But then ye brother came along, n’ it was like I’d never existed. Sometimes… Sometimes thing, are just not to be ya know. But it hurts doesn’t it? Somewhere inside?”
I nodded my head. Maybe it was the crying, but I did feel like something had ripped open in my gut.
“Ya know, he didn’ deserve ya. Ya deserved someone who cared ‘bout ya n’ no one else. He was always off with her…”
I felt a wave of anger overwhelm me and sweep me under. I raised my head up, “You knew! You knew he was with that… that bitch, and you didn’t tell me? I was with you for training every morning and you couldn’t have the decency to tell me that he was with someone else!
Dan shook his head sadly and quietly, “Everyone thought you knew... I knew ya too well though. I knew ya didn' know. I tried a couple times, but then I just couldn'... I didn' want ya ta hate me. I couldn' bring myself ta tell ya.”
“So instead you let me look like a fool?” I tried to push him away from me, but he took the push, and then rocked back to sitting next to me.
“Ye no fool Eizabeth. Ye many things, but a fool ya aren't. He's da fool for not bein' faithful. Ye too good for this world. Too trustin' and good, but ye are da best woman I have ever met. Ya would never toss a man ta the side like me Sandy did when she met ya brother.”
“How do you know that? Sandy is a nice woman and you still get along with her even though she left you. How do you know I would be any different?” I wanted him to say that I was evil, that it was my fault, but at the same time I liked him defending me to me.
“Because Liv, ya've those strange thoughts ya carry with ya from that place ya came from. The two men in ye company aren't as bound to 'em, but ya.. Ya've not let them go. Ya go around with ye head held high but ye eyes down cast, but when ya look up ya've go this fire in ye gaze. This conviction in ye beliefs that no one could shake. I dona know what's different 'bout ya... but ya different.”
“I... I was dishonored, a slave before I came here. I chose exile so I could get my honor back... Even though I wasn't in the city... I didn't want to do anything to hurt that precious honor...” I stopped. I had nothing holding me here now. I had to go back and earn back my honor. I wanted to be a most honorable again, but this time I wanted to use my honor to change the city. I would start with exposing the corrupted spies.
“Dan, I have to go back I have to go back to show them there is a world beyond their Wall. And to fix the city. I left all those people trapped in its corrupt walls. I have nothing holding me here.
Dan looked lost, but he shook his head, “Nothing? What 'bout Jade? And I would hate ta see ya go. And ye brother Kevin? They all care 'bout ya. And why do ya care 'bout this city? I donna understand ya fascination with this city of ye’s and ye whole honor thing. Isn’ this place good enough for ya?” He looked as if… as if he was pleading with me to stay, to say his village was good enough for me, and that I would never leave, but I couldn’t. I had to go back to the city with its purple dome, high walls, and its people that needed me. I had to free the dishonored.
“I do, but I have to go back. I have to free the other dishonored from prison...” I stopped. I knew he wouldn’t understand. He probably didn’t even care. My world was foreign to him, and almost everyone here except for Kevin and… and Rod that… Oh God. God, why? Why did he seem to love me so much? Why did I fall for him when I’d carefully not let myself show feelings for any guys before?
“I have no clue what ya are talkin' 'bout, but maybe ya can teach me.” I looked over at Dan shocked. He had this thoughtful look on his face, and he was staring at me. As if… I don’t know, was he analyzing me? Maybe he was trying to gauge my reaction? He continued, “Maybe ya can teach me 'bout this city of ye's, and ya can teach me ta talk like one of ye city folks, and I will go back with ya as ye proof that an outside world exists, and I'll help ye free these people of ye's.” I looked up at his determined face. He didn't look like he was just here comforting me anymore.
He couldn’t. I couldn’t put anyone through that. The radiation, and why would he want to give up his strange way of speaking? Why would he want to use words like I did? “Why?” It was all I could manage to ask.
He shrugged, “Ye made me curious ye know, with all ye talk ‘bout ye city. I wanna learn more. N’ maybe, one day see ye strange city with ye.”
“Would you? Would you face the radiation with me? Would you cross the radiation to come to a city so different from your own that it would shock you?” suddenly I felt my situation might not be so hopeless... maybe I wouldn't be so alone.
“Yes. Ya... or how do ya say it... you?” He was already trying to correct his speech. I smiled slightly.
“Yes, it is pronounced you.”
“Well you can teach me, and when Jade is old enough ta be on her own, you and I can go ta this city of ye's.”
I found my smile getting bigger, it would be a long time before Jade was old enough, but it would satisfy all of the commitments I had made. Yes. I would teach him till Jade was old enough to not need me, and then I would go with him to the city.
I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him. “Thank you Dan. Thank you.” And in that moment, I felt better. The world wasn’t perfect, and I was still hurting from Rod’s betrayal, but I felt better, and I knew I could continue.
Another cough tore out of my lungs.
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