Honored (Book 2 of the In Search of Honor series)

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Chapter 2: Reverse

I wasn’t expecting everything to be ready so quickly for us to leave. I didn’t want to leave. I liked my home, and my neighbors and my adopted daughter and… and I didn’t want to leave now. I would be happy to die here among the people I loved and cared for. I wiped my eyes as tears leaked out. This building… this was my house. This was my home.

Kevin pulled me close and hugged me. “I’ll miss you Liv. Don’t forget, you owe me one for getting me into this mess in the first place. Get my family out of prison will ya? And give the king a kick in the arse for me.”

I nodded and held onto him tightly. I didn’t want to leave him. He was my best friend and had been there for me through everything. He was my first crush and had suffered exile with me. I did owe him one.

“I’ll get them out. I swear I’ll get them out if I have to destroy the whole damn city to do. Just like you once swore to help me get revenge and I got you into this whole mess.” I was there in that stable again, and he was swearing to help me get revenge. He was right. This wasn’t just about honor. This was about finishing what I started. I had to go back to the city for treatment. I should go back for honor. Why not get my revenge for my father while I was at it and free Kevin’s family.

“Don’t swear. Look where that got us last time. And I will always be with you Liv. Know that I don’t blame ya for what happened. In fact I’m thankful. I have a good life here, and I know what love is now. Back in the city… I was just a peacock strutting around claiming what I thought to be mine, but I love Sandy and our daughter. I enjoy my life here. If anything you did me a favor by getting me out of that God forsaken city.” He kissed me on the forehead and then pulled away from me. I hated farewells. I hated saying goodbye to him. My brother.

I turned to Sandy and gave her a quick hug wrapping my arms around both her and her daughter. We’d become fairly good friends. Sandy wasn’t my weapons instructor anymore, but we still enjoyed riding together. Often I would go riding with her when we had time off. She was a much kinder person when she wasn’t trying to force me to be proficient with a sword.

“I’ll miss our rides together, and I promise I’ll take care of Jade. She’s a good student and I think she’ll make an excellent scout,” Her voice was rough and I could hear the crack in her voice that she tried to hide. It was her way of saying I’ll miss you. She wasn’t the type of person to display extra affection.

I tried to smile, but I wasn’t sure if I succeeded. “I know. Take care of Kevin as well for me. He likes to act all big and strong, but as you know, he’s soft underneath.” She nodded obviously not trusting her voice anymore.

I saw Jade who was hanging back glaring at me. I had to say goodbye to her one last time, but ever since she learned I was leaving and not coming back she’d been hiding from me. Before I could head toward her I was inundated by a flood of neighbors with tears in their eyes saying goodbye and hugging me. I lost track of whom I’d said goodbye to and who I hadn’t.

Liz even came by and I pretended like I would actually miss her even though I could care less what happened to her. She’d stolen Rod from me, and even if I now realized how unstable he was, and how that was probably a good thing. I still couldn’t forgive her. It was part of her culture that people didn’t have to be with just one person, but it wasn’t part of mine and I simply couldn’t get over the fact that she had stolen him from me.

And then Rod was there in front of me. “I should say good luck, or I’ll miss you. But you know what, I won’t. Every time I see you I just think of how you betrayed me…”

“How I betrayed you? God damn it Rod, get over yourself. It’s been two years and you know what, you can’t put this on me. You did this to yourself.” How dare he come up to me and act as if our breakup was my fault. He never could take the blame for anything. He was a spineless creature of the Wall.

He laughed, “But Liv, I was simply adapting to our new culture... you don’t adapt. You don’t change. You expect others to change for you. Look at Dan getting good byes. You made him change for you. He loves you, and so that you will accept him he’s trying to learn your culture, for you. You don’t realize how selfish you are. And when things don’t go your way or don’t follow your high code of honor you turn into a controlling bitch. All these people with the fake smiles on their faces, they’re probably here to just to make sure you actually leave. No one likes you Liv. They simply deal with you.”

I stared at him in shock. How could he say that was I really that terrible of a person? Was it wrong to hold onto the morals that I’d been schooled in sense birth? I shook my head and backed away, but he wasn’t doesn’t done spewing his poison.

“Goodbye and good riddance Elizabeth. No one will miss you. Once you’re gone this crowd will dissipate, and they’ll go back to their lives without a second thought for you. That man you call a brother that actually isn’t your brother, he’ll be relieved that he doesn’t have to look after you anymore. He probably hated you for dragging him into your plots and schemes. You took him away from a life of comfort and dumped him here. You’ve always been a liability to whomever you hang out with. You will probably get Dan killed. He is so innocent to still believe you are a good person without selfish motives. One day though, you’ll rip his heart out too and trample it like you did to me if you don’t get him killed first. You know that’s what the city is going to do with you. They were probably so relieved to get rid of you, but you are going to come waltzing back in and they will just execute both of you. The king will probably say, ‘Oh, that traitor’s bitch daughter is back. Kill her.’ I wonder if they will even give you a proper execution or just cut you down in the street like a dog…”

I turned and ran toward Kingston who shied as I came running up to him, but I didn’t care. I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried because Rod was probably right. What had I ever done to make the people in this city like me? And I was a liability. I had gotten Kevin here. My sister had told me not to do anything stupid but I hadn’t listened. It was my fault Rod was here.

I felt small arms wrap around my waist and I looked down to see Jade hugging me. I released Kingston and hugged her back.

“Liv, don’t listen to him. He’s just an angry jealous man.”

“How…?” How had she heard what he said? How’d she notice? No one else had noticed. Everyone else was still gathered around Dan. All of his childhood friends begging him not to leave with me.

“I have my ways. But I heard a little of what he said. He’s a snake. I’ll miss your. I don’t want you to leave. I was… I was angry at you, and then I heard him spewing that poison, and I realized how ridiculous my anger was. I love you Liv.” It was strange how much her words made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but they did. They chased away the holes that Rod had torn in me.

He was right about one thing though. I was taking Dan to his death. “He’s right though Jade, I’m going to get Dan killed.”

“Or you’ll tear his heart out and crush it if you insist that he doesn’t come with you. I would come with you too if you’d let me. I don’t want ya ta leave me behind. If you ordered him to stay he would just tell ya that ya can’t order him to stay. And if ya told him ya didn’t love him ta try and make ’im stay he’d either see right through ya lie or he’d be crushed. He loves ya Liv. He’s coming with you because he loves you.” Tears were pouring down her face and I could tell she wanted me to give in, but she was just a child.

“One day Jade, when you are older, you can follow me to the city. Maybe I’ll succeed in over-turning the king, and you can join me there, or I’ll be dead and you can take revenge on the city for me. But not yet. Not till you are older OK?” I wasn’t sure why I was telling her this. I didn’t really want her to come to the messed up city. I would just have to hope that in time she would forget she ever wanted to come to the city.

I pulled her close against me and gently kissed her forehead, “Stay with Sandy, she’ll teach you to be the best fighter. I know you have it in you to become the best. One day you will be able to create change here. You will be able to destroy the marauding bands that come to the villages to steal children.”

I pulled away and gently detached her. I scrubbed away the tears sliding down my cheeks. Out of all the people here, I would miss Jade the most. I would miss other people too, like Kevin and Sandy, but I had grown so close to Jade over my two years here, and to be leaving her was just devastating.

She stood there, staring at me, not wiping the tears away that were leaving tracks down her sun-burned cheeks. She knew I had to leave. She knew I wasn’t going to take her with me.

Dan was still saying his goodbyes, but I went ahead and untied Kingston and mounted up. I would wait for him at the entrance of the village. I couldn’t stand the goodbyes anymore. I couldn’t stare into her accusing eyes anymore.

It was time to face my past. I rode out the gate to find the two sentries on duty waiting on either side of the gate. I recognized them as two more friends of Dan’s. I’d seen one of them drinking with him when he was depressed by Sandy breaking up with him. I couldn’t remember their names so I simply flashed each of them a smile.

A while later Dan rode out. His head was bowed and he was quiet. The two sentries who said nothing to me walked up to Dan. One put his hand on the horse’s rump. The other just stood there with his arms folded over his chest. I moved Kingston away so I wouldn’t intrude on Dan’s farewells. Why was he coming with me? Why would he leave all his friends to accompany me to a city he had never seen before where he knew no one?

He rode toward me on a small brown horse with a black mane and tail that his friends had given him. He normally shared Kingston with me, but we couldn’t both ride Kingston. He looked slightly silly on the smaller horse, but he had assured me it could carry his weight.

“Are you certain you don’t want to switch horses? You could ride Kingston and I could ride, umm…” I stuttered to a stop. I didn’t know the horse’s name.

“Jasmine. Her name’s Jasmine. And don’t worry, she can carry me.” She was extremely thick boned and sturdy looking. So he was probably correct.

I pulled out my compass that I still had from the first time I made the trek.

“I can lead us for the first part. I know exactly where you came out of the radiation area. I am often on patrol there.” Dan was right. He could lead us there. I always forgot that other people could help me sometimes.

“Oh. Ok.” What else was there to say?

Dan led the way and I followed behind him as we wound through the trees. I probably would have gotten us lost before even reaching the radiation zone. I tried to think of something to say to Dan, anything at all, but I couldn’t. I had no clue what to say. He was sacrificing his life to come with me on a fool’s quest.

“Why?” After trying so hard to think of something to say that slipped out of my mouth.

“Why what?”

“Why are you coming with me? You can leave me at the border of the radiation and go back to your regular life. You don’t need to sacrifice your life on this fool’s quest.” He couldn’t stay with me. I couldn’t let him die.

“Liv, I’m coming for multiple reasons. I want to leave the village. I always wondered what lay past the radiation perimeter. And you’re my friend. I wouldn’t want to live here without you. So leave it alone.”

That wasn’t good enough. He shouldn’t be coming just because he was friends with me. “You should head back. You have lots of friends back there. I saw how everyone was genuinely sad to see you leave. They could care less about me.”

“No. I dictate my own actions and I am choosing to come with you. Accept it Liv, you can’t make me leave.” He was so stubborn. I shook my head but didn’t fight.

Soon we came out of a clearing and I could see the warning sign we first saw on our way out the first time. It was my turn to lead. I pushed Kingston forward with my legs and then stopped him once I was in front of Dan.

“Head back. Thank you for leading me here, but you should head back. You don’t want to be involved in the politics of the city.”

He shook his head. “No. Liv you are so blind sometimes to what lies directly in front of you. I’m not leaving you OK? Get over it.”

I had tried my best. I should’ve tried harder. I could have refused to move till he left, but secretly I was glad he was refusing to leave me. I didn’t want to travel through the wastes by myself. I didn’t want to face the city by myself.

I led the way forward letting the compass guide me. It was time to go home and face the problems that I had left behind. So many years ago. So much had happened to me. I wasn’t the same person that had left. But I still wanted the king dead. I still wanted to destroy the political system. Now, walking back toward the city I could see his head held up by the axe man again.

Reese. I would kill Reese personally. I was a warrior now. An arrow was too good for her. No, I would slow her down with a dagger and then fight her with a sword and kill her. I still wasn’t that good a fighter, but I could bet I was better than her. She hid behind her guards and preyed on those weaker than her.

And I would see my sister again. Oh God. I would see her again. I… She had asked me not to do anything… Would she hate me? She seemed like she had turned into such a stuck up person… but I remembered her whisper to me… Had she really become hateful? Was she actually doing something, trying to change the city and complete what our father was accused of but never actually did? Would she get farther than me? What was she planning?

“Liv…?” Dan’s voice yanked me out of my reverie.

“What?” I snapped. I didn’t mean to… but I could see the surprise on his face from the strength of my reply.

“What will we find waiting for us in the city?”

It was as if he read my mind, “I don’t know. It could have not changed at all and still be the corrupt place I left, or a rebellion could have happened and we could walk into a city run by the people who cheer and praise us. I guess we’ll learn when we get to the wall.”

I pushed Kingston into a trot not wanting to talk anymore about this, but Dan rode up next to me. “So if the government is corrupt, what will we meet with when we enter the city?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the king will actually be excited to learn there is a place to send excess people so they don’t have to be killed off. Maybe we will be met with assassins who kill us a s soon as we enter or guards who take us and lock us away so that the people never know that there is a plausible escape from the city. Maybe the king will say you aren’t actually from the outside. I really don’t know how he will react. I didn’t actually know the king. I met him once or twice since I was the daughter of a noble, and I was introduced to his son who was a couple years older than me, but I wasn’t even eight yet and I didn’t get to know the royal family personally. And then I was dishonored…”

We rode on in silence for a while. The only noise was the clopping of the horse’s hooves trotting over the hard ground punctuated by my rough coughing fits. I kept looking over at Dan just to find him staring at me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he said nothing and we rode on at the same pace till our horse became tired from the constant trotting.

I slowed my horse back down to a walk and he also slowed down to a walk staying next to me.

Finally he asked what must have been bothering him for a while. “Liv, you should try smiling again. You’ve been frowning since you realized you were headed back to the city. Aren’t’ you excited to be heading home?”

“No, I’m not excited. I hate this place. What have I to smile about? I am going back to a city that offered me nothing but death. And I am slowly dying.” Why had I pulled that? But it was true. Who knew if the wall had medication left to help me? Or maybe they had it, but it wasn’t good anymore, or it didn’t work, or any number of things… And as if to prove my point I started coughing. A horrible wheezing coughing fit. A little blood splattered my hand.

“You can’t think in that downer way. Happy thoughts only from here on. Tell me good things that could happen.” His voice was fierce and determined, but I could tell it masked his own fears. He was trying to stay strong for me. We shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have dragged him away from his village where even if life wasn’t perfect he didn’t have to fear the unknown.

“Ummm…” I would mask my own fear for him. I would play along and play his game. “The wall will have medicine to help us with the radiation poisoning we are currently getting?”

“That’s a start. Still hints at not being positive, but definitely a start. Give me another one.”

Another positive thought that wasn’t a complete lie… Well he wasn’t asking for truth… “We are going to enter the city and everyone is going to love us because we have come back in from outside the gate? They will worship us like returning heroes.”

He laughed, and though his was a strong and full laugh it echoed emptily and falsely in the open air of this wasteland desert.

“Yes Liv, they will worship us like they worshipped Caesar coming into Rome. Before we know it the people will oust the King and we will rule the city together.”

And now I was laughing because that was the most absurd thing I had heard in a while, but it felt good to laugh. It felt good to be absurd.

I found myself enjoying this absurd fantasy, “Yes! And they will list our names as gods in mortal form in the future when we are written into history. We will be worshipped like the Japanese emperors.” I could see Dan covered in cold clothing sitting cross-legged with people bowing below our raised dais. A person was there, making a request of his emperor…

“The Japanese had emperors?” His surprised voice yanked me out of my own images.

“You learned about Caesar but not about the Japanese emperors?” I hadn’t learned about either one until I was learning about geography and a brief version of history. All I really knew about Japan was that it was an island chain, it had been ruled by emperors considered gods by their people, and that they had become a technology creating giant worshiped by the world for their technology before they were one of the first technology giants destroyed in the Great War. I really didn’t know that much about history.

“Well… I don’t actually know that much about him… We had history in school, but it was bits and pieces.”

“What do you know?”

“Well… There was this emperor in the long ago past that ruled an empire called the Roman Empire. It was so long ago that it was before the Great War and the American empire. It was before the world overflowed with riches and destroyed itself with its own wealth. It was its own golden age. Before it was ruled by an emperor, it was ruled by a council like our own. And then Caesar came to take over and they worshiped him and made him emperor before killing him.” And then he stopped talking. A look of horror coming over his own face “before they killed him…”

And suddenly I understood. He had related Caesar to our fantasy of entering the city triumphantly. They welcomed him, and then they killed him. Would they welcome us and kill us to?

“I… didn’t mean…” I had tried to play along. I had tried to be positive.

“I know. That one’s my fault. I guess we are both not thinking very positively.” He went quiet and he looked like he was clenching his jaw.

“So what are your worries? I shared mine.” It was only fair.

“I… I’m not worried. Just didn’t like that I made such a stupid analogy. It’s bad luck to make analogies like that.”

Luck. Ha. There was no such thing as luck. It was a term to describe doing well or doing poorly and it didn’t actually exist. It was simply the chaos of the world that decided things randomly. But I didn’t dismiss his idea of luck. “You are worried. I can tell that. Come on. I shared my own worries…”

“I… I’ve never been to this city. You say so many terrible things about it, and it frightens me. I am afraid of this place infested with the old technology and placed right in the center of this wasteland. And we can’t even see it yet.”

He was afraid of the unknown. He was afraid because my own stories painted it as a violent and terrible place where you couldn’t see the brilliant blue sky anymore.

“You see that haze it the distance? It looks like part of the sky around the setting sun?”

“Yeah, the sky close to the ground has a very pink tint to it.”

“Yes, that pink is partly the dome that protects the city from radiation and partly the setting sun’s sky. By the end of tomorrow we should see it’s lovely gray walls. And by the third day we should reach the wall and hopefully be at the gate if I have kept to the correct directions on the compass.” If I had the correct back azimuth. If I hadn’t forgotten the original coordinates. Oh all the ifs. I couldn’t escape them.

“We’ll make it. We’ll make it before the radiation kills us and they’ll have the medicine and everything in that Wall you were telling me about.”

“I hope so… I sure hope so.” I coughed again.

“They will. Remember. Positive thoughts. They will have the medicine. You will be okay.” He was looking over at me, at the blood on my hand, and I could tell he was worried no matter what he said or how he tried to ignore my coughing.

We had to make it to the city. I couldn’t stand not knowing what was going to happen. Before long it was dark and the horses were stumbling in the dark. I was so tired and my body hurt. Breathing hurt. I just wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t… “have to… have to keep… keep going”.

I came to lying on the ground. I tried to push myself up, but Dan was there pushing me back down. “Rest for a bit. The horses are tired and you are tired. You almost fell off when I caught you. You were mumbling and then suddenly tilting dangerously to the side of your horse.”

“Thanks.” I mumbled and let my tired body fall back into a deep sleep.

It was still dark when Dan woke me back up. “The horses are rested. It’s time to get going again.”

I nodded and he helped me stand and gave me a leg up onto a tacked up Kingston. I was still tired, but I wasn’t feeling quite as terrible… until a cough tore through my lungs. Then my lungs felt like they were on fire again. I hated pain. I hated being sick. I hated this constant need to ride and not sleep… We had to keep going. We had to make it there before the radiation poisoning was so bad that the medicine in the Wall couldn’t help us.

I pulled out the compass in my saddle bags and eyed it glow in the dark components till I got the correct heading. “That way” and I pointed just slightly left of Kingston toward where we were headed. Without the sun in the sky I couldn’t see the pink dome of the City, but I knew it had to be in that direction.

We rode straight across the waste land and when the sun rose it lit up the pink of the dome spreading across part of the far horizon. Below the pink dome lit up by the morning sun I could just make out a gray smear that would be the magnificently large Wall.

I felt like urging Kingston to go faster. It felt as if maybe, if I just pushed him a little bit, I could get him to go faster and we would reach the gates of the City quickly, within an hour or so, but I knew that wasn’t true. It was still so far away that it didn’t even fill the horizon yet.

I suddenly realized how eager I was to see my home again… home. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s what it was. As much as I hated being Dishonored, as much as I hated the political system, it was home and I felt pulled and drawn toward it with a yearning for the familiar. I had been claiming I needed to go back out of obligation. I was afraid of going back… But at the same time my yearning for the home I once knew was extremely strong.

“What’s wrong? You looked… I don’t know, shocked?”

I jerked out of my reverie. “Umm… I just realized that I actually want to go back, that for some strange reason I think of the City as home.”

Surprisingly, Dan just nodded, “It’s what ya know and what’s familiar and it makes sense. You will always long to be in a place where you know what to expect. This is no different.”

I wasn’t sure why, but it always surprised me how perceptive Dan could be sometimes. When I first met him, and he talked so strangely I had simply assumed that the speech patterns were because of lesser intelligence, or that he was a scout because of that. But I was wrong. Since getting to know him better I had come to realize that there was so much more to him. He had picked up on the city speech patterns very quickly and only sometimes a word here or there from his village’s speech patterns slipped in. He noticed patterns and things around him that no one else picked up on. Now I think he might have been a scout simply because it was such a necessary job and he was good at it.

“Look! I can see the first hints of the wall!” He exclaimed surprising me out of my thoughts.

I squinted and I could just barely see the gray peeking over the horizon. Again I felt that urge to go faster. “Yup, I see it!” It was just a gray blur beneath the pink dome, but I was excited. We were almost there.

I pushed Kingston into a trot unable to keep myself going slow. Maybe I could speed up our arrival time by an hour or two.

Within minutes my cough became too harsh and I slowed back down to take the time to cough, and cough, and cough. The iron taste of blood coated my mouth. It never went away, but this time it felt like it was coating my mouth.

When I finally stopped coughing I felt the urge to cough again, but I forced myself not to. That soft tickle in the back of my throat urged me to cough but I fought it. I couldn’t give in. I couldn’t cough up more of the blood, but everything in me wanted to cough. I wanted to get the gunk out of my lungs, but I couldn’t.

I forced myself to just breathe, but every breath scraped against my raw lungs and I found myself wheezing for air.

“Liv, Liv? You okay?” Somewhere in the background I could hear Dan urgently calling out to me.

I shook my head and raised my hand silently asking for a second. I felt a hand on my shoulder and a horse’s body against my leg.

“Deep breaths Liv. You’re hyperventilating. Remember how much easier it was to run when you took deep breaths?”

I tried but I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t stop breathing fast. Finally I managed to gasp out one large drawn out breath., and then I was coughing again. I couldn’t suppress them anymore. Finally the coughs died down again and I could see new blood splotches splattering my leather clothing. Damn, I couldn’t stop breathing heavy and fast and I had stains on my nice leather exile clothing. Well, at least it made it look like I really had been through something beside the wall and come back.

“Liv, stop breathing so fast!” I could dimly hear Dan calling out to me, but the world all blurry and I really couldn’t care anymore.

I had no strength to hold myself up and simply let my body slump against Kingston’s neck, but Dan’s hand gripping my shoulder held me part way up.

“Damn it Liv, work with me. Don’t give up now. We are so close to the city. We can see the walls.” He sounded… desperate. Upset. Nothing was wrong though. Nothing I couldn’t handle. I was just… so... tired.

I noticed we stopped but I really couldn’t care. I just wanted to rest and to stop wheezing, or maybe the wheezing was normal. Maybe it would never go away.

At some point I realized that he had gotten up on my saddle behind me, and pulled me tight against him. I let myself lean back against him and just focus on breathing. Eventually, at some point, I got it under control and fell asleep to the gentle movement of the horse and his arms holding me up against him.

I woke up at different points in the day, sometimes to cough and sometimes simply because something jarred me awake.

Eventually at some point slightly after midday I came into full wakefulness again, this time only with a mild fit of coughing tearing through my lungs.

“Dan… sorry I fell asleep. I was just… tired.” I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. I was supposed to be keeping track of the compass and the direction we were heading. I couldn’t have made this trek on my own. I would’ve died from radiation before I made it to the city. I would have fallen off Kingston and simply slept in the sand, and who knows if Kingston would have stayed with me.

And now, now Dan had kept me in the saddle. He held me there when I was ready to fall off and give up. He kept me going, and in the distance I could see most of the gray wall rising up above the wasteland.

“I know. Dona worry about it. You’re sick. You’ll be better soon though, as soon as we make it to the Wall they’ll have the medicine. We’ll get there.”

So much determination. I wasn’t so sure anymore. We were moving a lot slower than when Rod, Kevin, and I had left. I wasn’t sure how fast we had gone, or how much further we had to go, but I was fairly certain we wouldn’t make it to the city in the next day. Maybe not even in the next two days. And last time we had the pills that helped with the radiation poisoning.

I drifted in and out until the end of the day when again Dan set up a camp. I wanted to complain about how we were losing time, but I was too tired. Every cough took so much out of me, and breathing became so hard with each cough. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I wanted to die. I wanted to tell Dan to leave me to die in the wasteland and ride with haste for the wall and his own safety, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I was too selfish.

“Why are we stopping? We should keep going.” It was the only complaint I could actually voice.

“Yer tired, I’m tired. The horses are tired. We’re all taking just a short rest.” His voice was clipped and I could hear the annoyance in his voice.

It was all my fault. He was annoyed because of me, because he had to look after me. “Are… Are you mad at me?”

“No. I’m tired. Go to sleep. Or, you can watch for beasts that might attack in this desolate forsaken place since you’ve been asleep most of the day.” His voice was so harsh, so angry.

I hugged myself close with my arms and went over to Kingston. I didn’t mean to anger him, and he never seemed to get angry. He had insisted on coming with me. What was going on with him? Why was he so upset? There was something inside of me, a knot tangled in my chest. I wiped away a tear trying to leak from my eyes. Why was he so angry? What had I done? I threw arms around Kingston’s neck and let myself cry against his fuzzy black neck.

I found my crying punctuated by coughs, but Kingston stood there patiently as I hung on to his neck and gained strength from it.

Eventually I lost the strength to stand and simply collapsed at his feet. I knew it was dangerous to be near his giant hooves, but I had no strength to move. I had no want to move. I was dying anyway.

I was being carried by a cloud. “You shouldn’t sleep near the horse’s hooves.” A voice came from the sky above, and then I was put down on solid ground by the cloud. “Sleep here Liv. Rest up.”

I woke in the morning lying on the ground with a blanket over me.

“I found you over by the horses last night. They wouldn’t mean to hurt you but they still could. You shouldn’t be around them if you are going to collapse near their feet.” He wasn’t looking at me as he was talking. He was talking into the air.

I felt that tightness well up in my chest again but I didn’t let it out this time. This time I held it in. I would stay strong. I couldn’t be undone simply by the cold shoulder. So I said nothing. The bag with food was on the ground so I went over to it and grabbed some beef jerky to chew on. It hurt to swallow each bite, so I only swallowed a couple bites. Each bite I let it sit in my mouth till it was as soft as I could get it, but I still couldn’t get much down.

Dan packed up the horses and put his own horse on a lead. “I’m riding with ya again. Come on. Bring the food bag with you.”

I nodded, grabbed the food bag, and carried it over to him. “Why… why are you so mad?” I couldn’t help but ask.

He looked down at me, and I could finally see he was looking at me. For a second his face softened, but then he clenched his jaw and his face looked angry again. “I’ll lift ya up.”

He wrapped his hand around my waste and picked me up.

“EEP,” I squeaked as he put me up on Kingston.

For a second he stared at me, and he looked like he was about to laugh, and then I coughed, and when I looked at him again he was tying his horse to Kingston and not looking anywhere close to laughing again.

Was my sickness angering him? Was that… But he had seemed so caring earlier. He had seemed so kind and understanding, but now…

He swung up behind me and wrapped his strong arms around me and I enjoyed the comfort of his arms supporting me.

For a while I was awake and alert but eventually I drifted off under the warm sun, the gentle movement of the horse, and the comfort of Dan’s arms around me.

I came in and out of consciousness for a while, and eventually found myself jolted awake by the horses stopping, and Dan shaking me slightly.

“Liv, should we be closer by now?”

I squinted against the sun. Around us I could see dead trees fallen over and the melted bones of creatures. Still in this distance was the great city, but now its giant wall filled up the horizon.

“We… we’ve been traveling too slowly. Maybe another day. If we can last another day. I can’t see the gate yet. Maybe we’ll never reach it… shouldn’t have come with me… I don’t actually know much about how the radiation will affect us…”

“No!” His voice was harsh and angry and I pulled away from where I was against his chest. “No,” His tone was softer and he pulled me close against him. “We can’t think that way. We’ll make it.” His voice was rough, but it didn’t hold the anger it had held earlier.

“Mmm.” I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t hold his optimism. Or maybe he was trying to convince me he was optimistic when really he was feeling the same way as me. I was just glad that in these last days I would spend them with him. Maybe he was angry simply because he hadn’t actually thought that he might die before. Maybe he had only been angry at himself for coming with me…

But no matter what, he had always been there for me. He was the one coming with me toward the wall. He was the one facing my destiny with me. “We’ll make it Dan. Tomorrow we’ll see the gate in the wall, and we will ride up to it, and be welcomed in by the pale people that live in the wall, and they will care for us…” The small burst of strength disappeared as a cough took over. I wasn’t strong. I didn’t handle pain well.

“Kill me.” I coughed. “Kill me or leave me here and ride for the Wall.” Another cough punctuated my statement. “Save yourself.”

“No! You’re not dying on me. Ya got that? Ya’r not allowed ta die on me! Not yet! We’ll make it! We’ll both make it!” His voice sounded panicked, and I wished he could see the sense in my words.

If only he could do as I asked. He would save himself so much trouble. And if he would kill me I would be released from this miserable existence.

We jolted forward as Dan pushed the horses into a canter.

“Dan… horses won’t keep it up. Won’t get there much faster…” I tried to slow him down, but he didn’t seem to hear me. He was panicking. I shouldn’t have let on how desperate our situation was. The horses would only be able to keep up this faster pace for an hour, maybe two hours.

I found myself coughing as I was held like a ragdoll against Dan and my breathing became shallow.

Vaguely in the distance I could hear his voice, “Stay with me Liv, We’ll make it.” But the words disappeared into darkness.

I woke to Kingston stumbling and then getting his feet under himself. I could hear both horse’s harsh breathing.

By the light of the setting sun I could see the gate in the distance. “I see… I see the gate.” I whispered it, unable to speak any louder.

“Yes, we are closer. We won’t stop till we’re there. We’ll make it sometime tonight. And they will be able to help you.” He was so determined. So driven…

“Can’t… horses… rest.” It was the only words I could actually say.

“No. They’ll survive. We’ll keep going.” His voice was firm. He wouldn’t accept any argument, and I didn’t have any strength to argue with him anymore. I simply let myself relax against him again and fell asleep against his chest.

The world blurred in and out around me. Sometimes I woke up to the stumbling of a horse, sometimes I thought about how this was similar to when I was injured. Most of the time I drifted through dream.

I was seven again and in the small private family chapel on our property. My father stood before me with a proud smile on his face. “Elizabeth, we have formalized your betrothal to Kevin Konjack and sealed our family’s friendship with the Konjacks.”

I was horrified. How could my father arrange a marriage for me? Especially one with that annoying twirt Kevin that was always trying to beat me when we raced the horses. I stood there, staring at him horrified, but then he twisted, and his head fell off.

His body stood there headless for a second, and then it crumpled to the ground and I screamed with all my strength. I’m sorry father! I didn’t mean to kill you! I didn’t mean to, I swear!

“Shhh Liv, it’s okay, it’s just a dream. We’re almost to the gate. You’ll be fine.” A haze of sun and pink maring the blue sky.

Blue sky. There was no blue sky. The sky was pink. Always pink and the light dimmed by the pink light. I was in my father’s office. “Father, what is this?” I pointed at a pencil sketch on the wall.

“It’s nothing sweetheart, you need to leave my office. You know better. You aren’t supposed to be in here.” He was trying to keep his voice level and calm, but he was agitated and covering papers on his desk.

“There’s a man down stairs that wants to talk to you. He asked me to find you. I knew you were up here. You’ve always been up here recently.” I was curious about his office. It was always locked and we weren’t allowed in. The walls were mostly bare except for the sketch, but the desk was covered in things and the floor was filthy. Did the cleaning staff never clean his office?

He ushered me out and followed me out, and then ran down the stairs forgetting to lock the office. There was a cleaning person nearby. I gestured at her to come to me. Father forgot to lock his office, and it needed to be cleaned.

“Girl, my father’s office is filthy. Clean it.” She was much older than me, but because of my nobility I was a young miss, and she was simply a girl. My mother made certain that I knew proper etiquette. She often said that though I was a smart child I was a wild child and my father let me run around too much. Sometimes though I could remember my etiquette lesson, especially when I was ordering people around.

“Yes young miss.” She curtsied and scurried off to get cleaning supplies. My father would be surprised by his clean office when he got back.

Screaming. Cursing. My father was screaming curses. And then silence. Knocking on the door. No one was opening the door. Why was no one opening the door? I walked down the hallway. More knocking. I unlocked the big heavy oak door. No one stopped me. The door was thrown open and a man grabbed me.

“I got one of that traitor bastard’s little brats. I don’t know where the rest of them are.”

“Search the house. Tear it apart. Find all of them. Kill any maids or dishonored you find. Keep the family alive. It’s time these noble bastards know something other than the privilege they have lived with their entire life.”

My hands were on the bloody axe this time. My father’s body was kneeling below me and his head was staring up at me. “You killed me Liv. You let that maid into my office.”

I screamed in horror. My hands were bloody. It was all my fault. I backed away, but I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t get away from his bloody head staring at me accusingly.

“I killed him! I killed him. Oh God, I got my own father killed! I blamed the king, but I let her in. I killed him. I am dishonorable. I deserved to be dishonored! ”

“It’s okay Liv. You didn’t kill anyone, they are just dreams.”

“No, they’re memories. I let the maid into his office. There must have been documents or something in there that incriminated him. I got him killed.”

“You were eight Liv, you didn’t kill him. The King issued the order for his death.”

I shook my head but said nothing more. Strong arms held me close as I coughed. A hand gently wiped my face. I opened my eyes to a bright blue sky and a horse’s neck in front of me. I was 20 or 21, somewhere around that age. I wasn’t 8. I was dying of a disease, and the gate seemed so far away.

“It’s so far away.” I whispered, too exhausted to talk any louder.

“We’re almost there. We’re so close. Only another hour or so by my estimate.” His chest vibrated against me as he talked.

I was thirteen. Casia was huddled up with me, and our mother was across the cell with that lout she called a husband, a baby in her arms, and a toddler sleeping next to her. Our Dishonorable half siblings. We avoided him and tried to ignore what he did with our mother at night, but we couldn’t really. Our childhood innocence was gone.

Casia stoked my freshly shaved head. “We’ll get out of here one day. I promise you.”

“I don’t think so. I think we are going to die in this miserable place.” I had lost hope. Annie and I used to talk about escape, or creating an uprising, but our dreams had slowly died under hard work, malnutrition, and the beatings from the guards.

“You know I was betrothed to the prince?”

“What?” I had never heard that before. Why would Father want to kill the King when his own daughter was engaged to the King’s son?

“Yup. You remember that time when we visited the castle?”

“Of course. It was so large and such an interesting building.”

“Do you remember Zach?”

“Sort of…” I had been more interested in running off, but I could sort of remember the boy that had such a haughty stare but the second we were not in the throne room had become a completely different person. He had shown us around the place if I remembered correctly.

“We were there to formalize my betrothal to him. Neither of us knew it that day, but father made me visit the castle and him a lot after that. We left you behind. Those visits were so awkward. Both our fathers would sit there watching us, and both of us didn’t want to talk with our fathers there, so we sat there and listened while they talked.”

Her voice drifted to silence for a second, and I waited patiently. I had learned patience in the prison. My energy and defiance were gone. So I sat there quietly waiting.

“Father and the King often talked strangely, like they were speaking in some sort of code and Zach and I were simply an excuse for them to talk. I don’t think Father wanted to kill the King, and I don’t think the King would order him killed. I think there was something bigger going on.”

She was wrong! “Father planned to kill the King and he was right to want to kill that bastard! The King ordered him killed! We heard the decree read out clear and loud! That damn bastard. Pretending to be Father’s friend and then killing him!”

My sister froze and turned away. She wouldn’t speak to me for days, and when she spoke again it was as if nothing had happened, but she never mentioned visiting the King again.

“Liv, Wake up. We made it Liv! We made it! You’ll survive.” I slowly opened my eyes and saw the gate before me. I took one last long glance at that beautiful bright blue sky. I would miss it. A part of me didn’t want to go back. A part of me prayed those gates didn’t open and I could die in peace under the sun and blue sky. I was so close to death and so tired already. I could just give up. It would be so easy to just give up…

The gates slowly swung open to the darkness, and the horses balked not wanting to go into the darkness. Dan let go of me and I fell against the horse’s neck and grabbed the horse’s mane to keep my balance and to stay on even as I coughed into the neck that held me up. I watched from my perch on the neck as Dan blindfolded the horses with his shirt and some other piece of cloth from one of the packs.

He took the leads and led all of us into the city. We were back.


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