Chapter 5: Welcome Home
I opened my door to the main living area to see Lok standing by the table staring at my door. Dan was next to him in clothes very similar to the ones he wore when we left the village, except they looked a little too even to be true village clothing. I could also see the pommel of a sword showing under his brown cape.
“What is all this for?” We still had three more days here, or at least I thought we had three more days.
“Liv, today is the day you are leaving. Didn’t Cat remind you last night?” Lok said in that bland tone that reminded me of why I was so very glad I hadn’t seen him in a month.
Had she said anything? I remember hitting the bullseye with the compound bow, shooting one of those single shot pistols, and then firing off ten rounds from the fancy magazine loaded pistol. And then after we finished that I had my ass handed to me in hand to hand combat before being ordered to go run around the training area until ordered to stop. Nope. No mention of leaving there.
When she told me to stop running I walked up to her. She shrugged and said, “You’ll do okay.” It was probably the closest thing she’d given me to a complement the entire time I was there. But no, no warning notice of, by the way, pack up your stuff, wear your damn exile outfit again, and prepare to go meet your fate.
I shook my head.
“Do ya need any help packing, I’m all ready to go. They’ll give us our bags if we survive entering the city,” Dan spoke as if this was a given.
Of course, he didn’t know the city. He had no idea how they treated people there. What had I gotten him into?
I smiled out him, “Thanks, but I’m mostly packed. I just miscalculated which day we were leaving.”
I didn’t want him to realize I wasn’t prepared at all. One month wasn’t enough time. I had no idea how to be an awe inspiring leader. I wasn’t someone that could stand up and make great speeches about fighting to overthrow tyranny. What was that speech, Liberty or Death?
“Well, mind if I keep you company while ya pack?”
I had no clue how to respond to that. I tell him yeah, sure come keep me company and he would see I hadn’t packed up anything. Or tell him, oh yeah, I would prefer if you waited outside even though Lok is a terrible conversationalist.
And I also had to change. I had a good excuse. “I do have to change…” Not like plenty of men hadn’t seen me naked before, but as I suspected he just nodded.
“I’ll just wait out here then. Hurry up though.”
With that agreement reached, fast packing was in order.
The truth was I didn’t really need much. The bag they gave me wasn’t that large anyway. The ten shot pistol from the bedside table and the single shot muzzle loader pistol went in along with the belt dagger, thigh strapped dagger, and boot dagger. The compound bow was strapped to the outside as well as a quiver of arrows for it.
I didn’t really need much else. Maybe one practice outfit to change into. I’d come to realize that the exile armor really wasn’t that practical. It was more for show than anything else. Some pieces might be good to strap over the practice clothing, but not the whole blasted thing that yelled, “I am the exile.”
If I’d learned anything about revolutions with Emalda it was that the best way to win was to blend in. Once we started fighting, I would probably steal a uniform from a dead guard. To win we would need guerrilla warfare tactics. Blend in, and then kill from pre-ordained ambush spots. Have regular city clothes to slip into so we could slip away and blend in with the people.
First, we needed to survive entering the city. I pulled on the tight leather exile outfit that was recently cleaned and oiled. Cat saw the condition it was in when she followed me back to my room after a practice a couple nights ago. She collected up the components and ran off with the stiff, grimy, and slightly white from the dried sweat, leather suit. I’d found it back in my room yesterday, soft an supply and a dark brown color. She’d put a lot of work into making it wearable again.
I walked out to find Lok and Dan silently siting at the table. Dan had a cup of tea that he was slowly sipping out of. Both of them looked up at me, and Lok nodded.
Dan stood up, “Well, guess its time to see this city of ye’s.”
Lok lead us through the winding dark halls of the wall, taking us to one of the moving devices. Dan sat next to me, and I could feel the slight shaking in his body where his shoulder touched against mine. Was he excited or afraid?
Once we were moving, Lok spoke to us, “In about 10 minutes we will be in the large room that leads to the main gate into the city. Here you will find two horses waiting for you. We will open up the gates and make an announcement though the old loudspeaker system that one of the exiled has returned with a wild man from outside the city.
How could he make an announcement to the whole city? “What is a loudspeaker system?” I asked.
“It’s a system that will project the speaker’s voice across the city. Think of it as more of the science in the Wall.”
I shrug. Sure, makes as much sense as anything else. Even after living there and studying there all this time, I still don’t understand most of the things or the people of the Wall.
He continues, “Once you ride through that gate you will probably not see me again. It will be up to you to secure allies and to bring down the King.”
“I’m certain my sister can help us. I think she’s been planning for something just like this for a long time.” She seemed so confident when I last saw her, and she warned me not to do anything stupid. She must have been afraid that I would do something when she was already planning something.
Lok stared at me with a blank, almost condescending expression. “If she was planning something she hasn’t acted on it since you left. I wouldn’t put too much faith in your sister.”
“You don’t know my sister! My sister can do anything, and I wouldn’t put it past her to have a secret rebellion that even you wall dwellers don’t know about!” How dare he dismiss her? He had no idea how brilliant and amazing she was.
“Maybe, but the council chose you, and this is your rebellion to lead. The council does not want her leading it.”
He’s wrong. Who’s leading it didn’t really matter. All the council wanted was a change in leadership. It didn’t really matter who delivered on it.
Lok stopped and I realized that we reached a large chamber where I can see two horses tied up and ready to go. Looking around, I could see this was the same place where I first entered the Wall and the place where I first left it.
I didn’t want to continue. A hand reached into my gut and twisted. Acid coated the back of my throat before I swallowed it back down. I couldn’t do this. It was impossible to change the system. I would just die out there, another useless dead dishonored.
Dan grabbed my hand and said, “You’ve faced a bandit attack, nothing to it, right?” He released my hand, and it was suddenly cold, the warmth that had enveloped it for a short moment ripped away.
I nodded and stepped forward. A bandit attack was also extremely scary. I would prefer to be hiding in a corner right now than facing all those people down. There would be so many people there. They would all be looking at me, judging me, again.
And they would be judging Dan. They might even try to kill him. No. I couldn’t let that happen. It was up to me to protect him from them.
Dan headed to his mount, and I found myself facing a small little reddish brown colored horse. It reminds me of the color of leaves right before they detach from the trees in the cool season before the frozen season. Fall I think is what they called that season.
“Does he have a name?” I asked.
“No.” Lok gave one of his ever so informative answers.
“I’ll have to name him something then.” I think of how he reminds me of the leaves outside the Wall. “Fall. I’ll name him Fall.”
“Doesn’t matter to me. He’ll just be confiscated by the city guard anyway.” Lok said.
I untie Fall, and clamber up onto his back. He’s a lot shorter than Kingston was. Kingston was so solid and kind. I couldn’t believe that he was just gone like that. It seemed like he could survive anything.
Dan’s horse pushed against my knee, and I see Dan standing next to me.
A bright light blinded me as it came rushing in through a crack in the Wall. Slowly it invaded the large chamber, blinded me, and made my horse spook into Dan’s. He frantically backed away from the light as if afraid of being touched by it.
The doors reached the fully open position with a thunk.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and for my skittish mount to calm down and stiffly move forward. He balked again at the edge of the light, but I pushed him forward, and soon enough he was standing in the light next to Dan and his patient mount.
The din of the city swirled through the air. It was so long since I was here last. I couldn’t even quite remember how long it had been. Two years? Three years? The hardest part to figure out was; how long was I living in the Wall? Between the first time there and this past time, it was probably close to an entire year in the Wall.
The din from outside seemed to decrease, and I pushed my horse forward, curious as to what causing the sudden drop in volume.
All around, people were staring at me. At the open gate. At Dan. The hush was caused by us. It was caused by the great gate suddenly opening.
Something crackled overhead.
“Today, people of the city, we of the Wall announce to you that one of the exiled has returned.” It’s Lok’s voice that I hear, all crackly and strange sounding, coming from the dome overhead.
I look over at Dan, and see that he is staring with open mouthed shock at the City. I guess nothing I said could truly prepare him for this city.
“The exile has brought with her a man from the outside. This barbarian is proof that there are people living out there and that there is land that can be lived on. There is still a swath of radiated land between here and the people outside of this city, but it is crossable. The journey is survivable. Those who wish to leave the city and make the trek need only come to the great gate where exiles are sent through, and we will send you out.”
People cheer, and one woman grabbed my leg. “Returner! Most Honored Returner! Bless my family.” Others called out similar things. Their hands reached out and touched me, touched Fall. He sidled as close to Dan’s horse as he could.
Dan was breathing hard. He looked pale, and his eyes were wide. His horse snorted and kicked out. Someone screamed.
Everywhere noise erupted in a whiling windstorm of voices, and Fall reared up on his hind legs, and I clutched the mane, desperate to not fall.
He landed and jumped back into the air, my hands slipped through his mane, and I lost my already tumultuous seat.
It hurt. Stinging rays of pain ringing up my back and left arm. I was sitting on the metal street, and I could see the back side of Fall retreating back into the darkness of the Wall. I guess that was the end of our short relationship.
Dan jumped off his horse, and the creature yanked its reins and bolted for the wall. So much for our glorious return parade.
“Liz?” A familiar voice asked my name.
There was a man standing to my left, looking down at me. A familiar man in the uniform of the city guard. Even with his silky black hair now cut at the top of his neck instead of cut above his ears and his face clean shaven I still recognized him.
My old pack Leader, Henry, was standing there, staring down at me, and calling me by that old hateful name I gave his so long ago.
“Hello Henry. Nice to see you again.” I stood up and brushed off the dirt, forcing myself to ignore the aching in my back and the pain from my bruised rear end.
“Liz, you left the city. You died…” He stopped, and starred at me, and I wondered what he saw or was thinking that was causing him to just stand there slack jawed.
“You’re the one that the voice just… You came back.” He looked around frantically and then grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward a nearby building.
“Henry, stop. What are you doing? I have to go present what I found about the outside world to the King.”
“You’ll be killed. We have to hide you quick.” His voice sounded so frantic, but I yanked my wrist out of his hand.
“I know, Henry.”
“What?” His voice rose and squeaked like cat whose tail was stepped on.
“I know they will arrest me and try to kill me.” But I could use him. If he walked with me, and showed sympathy to my cause, maybe I could gain more of the people as revolutionaries.
“Could you help me?” I asked, and it sounded strange, almost sad. Like the voice of a person asking someone to walk them to the site of their execution.
“Wha – What can I do for you.” His voice sounded shaky.
“Walk with me until they come to arrest me. Help me make it through the crowds with my companion Dan. And after they arrest me, cry out to the people about how wrong it for them to arrest me for being honorable and bringing hope. How they, the City, have taken away the one person who had the answers to leaving this city. Figure out who will fight with me.”
I stopped. I couldn’t ask more of him. This was already more than I should have asked, and he looked troubled.
“Liz, I…” The left side of his mouth twisted down and scuffed a foot against the ground.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I know we haven’t spoken for years.”
He nodded, “I have my family to think about. Guard salary is good pay.”
“Why did you try and hide me then?” I asked, not quite understanding his sudden switch in behavior.
He looked stunned for a moment. “I – I felt bad. For when we were kids. I now know that you didn’t do anything wrong, and now – now you’ve come back honorable and everything, but…” He looked around, as if the scenery of the tall six story honorable cement buildings with crumbling stone facades can help him find his words.
He continued, “They have just been killing everyone recently. They stopped offering exile, and I afraid for you. I don’t want to see them kill you for being honorable and coming back. I can hide you, get you back to the Wall, and you can escape back to wherever you came from.” He paused again. “But – But Liz, I can’t disobey orders. That’s a whole ’nother deal.”
He’s afraid, and yet he’s trying to help me. A person he hasn’t seen for three years, and hasn’t had an actual conversation with in over a decade. We were hooligans. We were evil children, but people change. I could still help to have his presence. He could pretend to be confused when the other guards came to get me. And the city was more ready for an uprising than I had thought before.
“Then just walk with me. When they come to get me, and ask why you are there guarding me, tell them you are just following protocol.”
“Walk with you? How does that help? You should just leave now, while you still can. Before they start guarding the gates to prevent people from fleeing into the Wall.”
That’s what I was counting on, but I couldn’t tell him that. Instead I smiled at him, “I just want the company. You know, a friendly face for my willing walk to the executioner’s block.”
I want as many people as possible to see me coming back from exile. To see Dan, the barbarian from outside the gates standing in the city. And I wanted them to see me with a city guard. To show the city wasn’t united.
He closed his eyes, and for a moment I thought he was going to say no, but then he opened his eyes and nodded, his mouth twisting in mocking half smile that looked forced. “Well then, Honored Exile, I welcome you back to the city after your exploration on our behalf. I will escort you to the City Market square where we can proclaim that the city is now safe to leave.”
His speech sounded scripted, and I wondered if they taught the guard’s some small speech if they should be the ones to welcome back an exile. But what guard would actually remember that? Did he come up with that on the spot then? I didn’t know he could sound so formal.
He offered his arm to me like a Most Honored Gentleman might when walking a Lady to a ball. He led me back toward the main roadway, and I could see a bewildered Dan surrounded by a herd of people all interested in the outsider barbarian.
A few of them saw me and ran over toward me.
“Honored Exile, what was the world outside like?” One older man with gray hair and leaning on a cane asked me.
I noticed the excitement in those old tired eyes. Did he once dream of a world beyond the confines of this wall?
“The sky is blue for one. Not like the color here, but a light blue that glows with the brilliance of unfiltered light.” I couldn’t find the right way to describe how blue the sky was. I won’t ever see that sky again.
“Outside the wall there is just dirt and barren land, but beyond that is a land that reminds me of the park, but is much larger and wilder. It was amazing.” I told the old man.
The old man is smiling and starring off in the direction of the park. “I’d like to see that. To leave these walls behind and see that sky you talk about. I might not even make it to the lush land, but I think I’d like to die out there.” He turns to look at me. “Thank you Honored Exile for coming back. Thank you for opening up the Wall for us.”
From what the Wall dwellers told me, the City won’t open its gates. The King will deny what I have said and refuse to let people leave. But I smiled at the man anyway. “This is why I came back, so that everyone can appreciate the world outside.”
It felt wrong to lie to this man by telling him a partial truth and weaving the words to make me sound so kind and caring, but I needed him to believe me to have no ulterior motive. I needed the people to see me as a martyr, or an almost martyr since I didn’t plan on dying.
Tears sparkled at the corners of his eyes and made them shimmer in the dim sunlight let through the dome. I didn’t deserve this.
“Thank you,” the man said again, and then turned and walked away, his arm trembling as he leaned against his cane.
There was such a crowd around Dan, and I didn’t want to force then aside, but we needed to move forward. More people needed to see us before we were intercepted.
“Just go up there, grab his hand, and start walking. The people will move away.” Henry gently shoved me forward as he said this.
I turned toward him, and he gestured for me to move on. “Go, save that poor man you dragged into this hell.”
It felt wrong to try and push my way through a crowd, but I could see Dan scanning the faces, looking for me, and when his eyes finally landed on me, he looked desperate and slightly terrified. He was lost in this world.
The first couple of people in my way I had to gently push aside, but then the crowd parted for me with murmurings of, “Honored Exile.” Hopefully the whole city would see me this way.
I grabbed Dan’s hand, and Dan only had a moment to give me a grateful look before Henry came up from behind and lifted our clasped hands up. “This is the Honored Exile, Elizabeth, who returns with a Barbarian from outside the Wall.”
When did Henry learn my full name? Did he learn it when I was Dishonored, or before that. I’d only ever told him my name was Liz.
He dropped our hands, and they fell back down like a pinecone from one of the trees outside the Wall.
“Head toward the market. We’ll meet with the most people taking that route,” Henry whispered in my ear me.
Dan looked at me quizzically with one eyebrow raised, “Who’s he?”
I’d never told Dan about Henry or anything to do with his pack. “Dan, this is Henry, the leader of a pack of children I ran with when I was younger. Henry, this is Dan, a man I met in a village outside of the Wall,” I gave a quick introduction.
“Hello and welcome to the City,” Henry said holding out his hand to shake Dan’s hand in greeting.
Dan glanced at me, and then released his death grip on my hand, hesitantly reaching out with the strange gesture of greeting I’d taught him.
Henry grabbed his hand and shook it. “So the people outside the Wall aren’t total barbarians,” he said, dropping Dan’s hand.
Dan gripped my hand in his again. I could feel the tremor running through his hand, but he looked perfectly calm and composed otherwise.
“I’m glad ya’re protecting uns ’ere. Bit crowded.” He shrugged as if it was no big deal.
Henry stepped in front of us and started walking. “Move out of the way!”
I froze, his voice like a whip from the nightmare of my past life. A voice always directed at me. Dan’s grip tightened on my hand for a second. Henry’s voice wasn’t directed at me. He wasn’t a guard.
“Form up on the side of the road if you want to stare at the Honored Exile!” He yelled out, and the people parted, murmings following us, like the voice of the stream that ran through the forest near the river…
I remembered when we left. When Kevin and I rode out in our exile gear. It was such a mirror of that moment, and yet it wasn’t. The once new exile armor was now battered and stained with sweat. The people lining the streets. And me, dragging someone else on a mad scheme that had no chance for success.
More and more people filtered out of the shops and houses along our path. They stare, they whisper, their voices rising up, joining, intertwining to float around us.
“An Honored Exile has returned!” One woman shouts.
“How’s the outside look?” a voice climbs over the others.
“Why’d you come back to this despot!” A woman’s spits on the road we are walking toward the town center.
They rise, louder and louder. Less voices make it out of the press.
“Move out of the way!” A voice is shouting in front of us. Hands reach out as if to touch us, some brush lightly against my shoulder as I pass.
“Thank you for coming back,” some people murmur as I pass.
A sheathed sword forces it way forward through the crowd into our cleared street. A guard follows behind it, and then more file out onto our path. So organized, so different from the chaos of battle.
They are here.
“Henry,” the first guard through yells out, “what’s this commotion about?”
Henry looks at me, as if he wants to say something, but he says nothing and turns back. “It’s an Exile returning with an outsider barbarian. I found them at the Grand Entrance gate. Figured I’de take them to the square and we’d figured out what to do from there.
The guard walks forward, and he’s not someone I recognize. Of course, it’s hard to recognize people with their helmets on.
He squints at me. “That’s the last exile we sent out!”
The man looks disturbed. “What with our orders… Exile isn’t a thing anymore.”
“I know.” Henry says. “But this one was sent out when it was still a thing. She knows nothing of the orders, and she survived out there. I didn’t know if the new laws applied to her or not.”
“The law is death for traitors now. She was a traitor. She had a plot with some noble boy to kill the King! Sarnson!” He waved his hand at one of the men in the line. “Shackle those two. They can enjoy the prison’s facilities while a decision is made!”
This was it.
The people screamed and swarmed around us. We were pushed back by the mob. Would this ignite the spark of rebellion was the city in that bad of a state?
BANG! A gun released a single shot of anger quieting and stilling the masses. “Quiet!” The guard’s voice boomed through the silence after the shot.
A woman screamed, a shout of pure horror ripped from the bricks of the street. I knew that sound. “My son!” she vocalizes the horror.
The people are frozen, and then they panic, running, shoving us with them. I get pushed into a building, and a hand grabs my right arm, and something cold wraps around my wrist.
I look back to see the blank face of a guard staring at me, holding me, snapping the other end the shackle to Dan.
The people fled around us, to terrified to notice us, and before long all that was left were the sobs of a woman bent over a form on the ground, Henry, standing where we had been with a horrified expression on his face, and the guards.
“Damn, these rats are really starting to annoy me. Come Sarnson, bring those two losers with you.”
He was holding a single shot pistol. He pulled out a rod and worked on reloading the pistol from its muzzle. The guard who captured us yanked us forward toward his squad.
“Henry, clean up this mess, it’s your fault anyway. If you had dragged her off like prisoner from the beginning this wouldn’t have happened.”
Henry was staring at the woman.
“Henry!” The guard shouted, pulling his attention away from the weeping woman.
“Did you hear me!?”
“Yes, sir.” Henry snapped to attention and saluted the other guard who just nodded and turned back toward the way they had come.
The guard, Sarnson dragged us after the snarling guard. Snarl. A good name for him. Sarnson could be Blank.
I started laughing, dragged along next to Dan. I was back. I was truly back in the city. Back to my role. Back to the prison I go.
I glanced back and I could see Henry kneeling next to the woman.
Laughter bubbled from me hysterically. Yes, I was home.