Tuesday, August 17, 2010
"We still don't know who this boy is!" Mibli's somewhat high-pitched voice carried throughout the village, seeming to bounce off of huts and back at Lakhoni. The small, powerful man seemed to jitter with frustrated energy.
Lakhoni stood with his back to the fire, facing the group of people and animals that had gathered. The scene felt familiar, although it took him a minute to place it. That first night. A hot back and cold front.
But much had changed. His energy had returned. After his first day in the sun, with Simra stopping by regularly to offer him water and food, his recovery had accelerated. His strength had returned enough for him to help carry wood for the fire and help with other work around the village.
He felt strong enough to run, to hunt. Which had precipitated Mibli's outburst.
"We still cannot trust this boy! He acts like his voice is gone, but maybe that's all it is! An act so he won't be caught in lies!"
Lakhoni mulled that point. It certainly helped that he hadn't had to answer questions. His conversations with Simra were much improved now that he had a method of communication, but he could tell she wanted to ask more about his past. He wanted to keep her friendship, keep her near him talking, so he worried that his not sharing more might push her away. There had even been moments where he wondered why he didn’t just tell everything.
Because they won't let me go if they think I want to kill the king. And if they know I was one of the Separated, they'll probably automatically kill me.
"But what reason do we have to distrust him?" Neas emerged from the crowd, Simra right behind him. "He has told Simra his story. He arrived here near death. Why would he lie?"
Lakhoni noticed that the rest of the villagers seemed content to let Mibli and Neas have it out. He wondered if this was a normal occurrence. And would they support whichever of the two won the argument?
Mibli stepped closer to Neas, anger visible in each quivering muscle. "You seem happy to allow a boy we don't know to just walk in here and live off of our hard work without question. You would let him hunt with us and join our village, our life, without knowing who he is?"
"I know who he is," Neas said. "He is Lakhoni. He is an orphan. And why shouldn't we let him join our lives. We have space, don't we?"
Lakhoni glanced away from the argument, catching Simra as she looked over at him. She offered him a small smile. He knew it was in support of him. He began to wonder if he should have been more open with her so he could deserve her kindness more. A faint feeling of shame washed through him.
He wished he hadn't chosen to work on his bow that morning. Simra had found a new deer gut string for him and he had decided to work outside near the central fire. Mibli had noticed what he was doing and had confronted him. When Mibli demanded to know if Lakhoni meant to hunt and Lakhoni had nodded, Mibli exploded, prompting the current argument. Lakhoni was glad Neas had come to his defense, but he wondered if he should have…
It was too late now.
"You trust too blindly," Mibli said.
"You fear too blindly," Neas countered.
"I fear for the safety of our village! That is my duty."
"And it is my duty to look to the health of our people here. We would be sick indeed if we allowed a dying boy to rot in front of our fire. And we are sick if we don't offer him our hospitality," Neas said.
"That's all fine, but that doesn't mean I should let him carry weapons and sneak around behind me and my hunters as we search for food."
"You make a good point, but what could he say that he has not already written that would convince you that he doesn't lie? That he really is an orphan who needs a new home?"
Neas' words pierced Lakhoni. He knew that at nearly sixteen years old, he was almost old enough to start his own family. He figured that his age had to be fairly clear to the villagers. The idea that Neas meant to provide him a new home had never occurred to him.
"So you want to adopt him?"
"Maybe the village should adopt him," Neas said, his voice quiet. The way the words were said seemed to give them more impact.
"Maybe you just don't think any of the young men of the village are good enough for your precious daughter," Mibli said, "and you want to groom this one to be her husband. First Fathers know you've had her spending a lot of time with him."
Silence followed Mibli's insinuation. Lakhoni saw many of the villagers nodding in agreement. There had to be a history here, something he hadn't detected before.
Mibli took advantage of the moment. "But with all that time closed up in the hut, how do you know he hasn't already tarnished your precious jewel?"
A current of shock at the accusation shot through the crowd. Lakhoni actually saw the red boil up into Neas' face. He glanced quickly, uncomfortably, at Simra. Her eyes glinted dangerously and she looked like she was about to attack Mibli.
"You can't say that about me!" Simra's voice rang out.
"Stay out of this. You have no place here," Mibli spat.
"You," Neas sputtered, "you… go too far!"
"You go too far welcoming what might be a wolf into our village!"
Neas stepped closer to Mibli, who took a small step backward. Simra looked like she wanted to explode.
This was getting bad. Whatever had happened before, it seemed like he was causing it to get worse. He had to stop it. It would probably mean he would be thrown out, and would surely mean… It didn't matter.
"Please," Lakhoni said. "I don't want to cause trouble."
His voice, rough and raw, seemed to cut through the tension between Neas and Mibli.
"He talks!" Mibli crowed, spinning to glare at Lakhoni. "You see! He was lying all along."
"No!" Lakhoni said. "Just for the last week." He stared at the frozen ground, not wanting to see Simra's face. He knew she would be hurt at his deception. He just hadn't wanted to answer all of the questions he knew would be asked. Writing his words seemed to slow things down. It was easier to keep things at arm's length that way.
"Why should we believe that? No, this boy needs to be confined until we can make sure we know exactly who he is and why he is here," Mibli said.
That sounded reasonable to Lakhoni. In truth, he agreed much more with Mibli than with Neas. He was happy Neas had won the initial argument, but if it were up to Lakhoni, he wasn't sure if he would have been so compassionate.
When there was no response from Neas, Lakhoni looked up. Simra and her father stood in close conversation, their words too muffled for him to hear. Neas had bent forward so his shaggy head was closer to Simra's. She shook her head firmly several times as they spoke.
"So since nobody seems to object, boy, confined you will be," Mibli said.
Lakhoni met Mibli's angry stare. "My name is Lakhoni."
"You're right," Neas said. He stood with his arm on his daughter's shoulders. "Now that Lakhoni can talk, we need to make sure he means us no harm. He can be kept in the sick hut for now, with a guard on the door."
"He should be bound," Mibli said.
"There are no weapons in there," Neas said. "Your warriors can surely stop a young, ill, unarmed boy, can't they?"
Mibli glared. "Fine." He gestured to a nearby man. "Take him."
As Lakhoni was led through the crowd, he heard Neas' voice behind him. "Mibli, you will withdraw the accusation you made against my daughter."
"Why should I?"
"Because you know it isn't true. I won't let it stand."
Lakhoni didn't hear Mibli's response, if there was any. He glanced over his shoulder, wanting to see what might happen. Simra's deep brown eyes, in the sun they were the color of red river clay, met his gaze. As he looked quickly away, he was sure he had seen pain in those eyes. He wanted to go back and try to explain. He wanted to help her understand that he didn't want to hurt her, that he wanted to protect her. He knew that if anyone knew the fullness of his intentions in Lemalihah, they would never let him go. And if they somehow did let him go and anyone near the king found out about any help he had received, Simra's village would be in danger.
But there wasn't time. He would be confined while a decision was made. No, they're going to question me. Lakhoni couldn't let that happen. He had to get away.
The man leading him grabbed Lakhoni's bow, wrenching it from his hand. He then pushed Lakhoni, hard, through the doorway and shut the door behind him. Lakhoni spun to the side and listened, watching for shadows and movement through the cracks between door and wall. He knew locking the door was not an option. The man shuffled to the right of the door. Lakhoni sensed him lean against the outer wall of the building.
He would wait. The man's attention would lag. Maybe he could wait until darkness was falling. Lakhoni turned to face the hut, searching the shadows. He would need food. A weapon would be helpful. First though, he would need a bag.
And he would need to listen for movement outside so that anyone coming in would not see him making preparations to leave.
Pleased that his body no longer protested much whenever he moved, Lakhoni searched the hut. It wasn't long before he found a pile of familiar items on a small wood table. Everything he had brought to the hut, minus his bow. His bag, a pair of breeches, his chewed cloak. Even the dagger he had carried from the cavern of the Separated. Neas had obviously forgotten about leaving Lakhoni's things in the hut.
Maybe he hadn't forgotten. Lakhoni wondered for a moment if Neas had deliberately made it seem like he would be helpless. Does he want me to escape? Does he think it will go badly for me if I stay? He held the bag open and shoved the dagger and breeches in. It didn't matter; he would leave if he had to. He scoured the hut for food, finding a small cache of dried, smoked deer meat in a heavy clay box that sat under a wood shelf containing bandaging supplies. He grabbed some of the bandages too; it never hurt to be prepared.
He would need more food. If he could get his bow back, he would be able to hunt, especially since winter seemed to be coming to a close. He sat on his bed, waiting for dark to fall and adding up the days. He had left the Separated in the dead of winter and had traveled for nearly two weeks. He had been in Simra's village for another three, or was it four?, weeks.
Spring had to be close.
It should be safe for him to travel, even if he left tonight.
He would wait until after someone brought him dinner. He hoped it would be Simra, but stopped himself. It would be easier if it weren't Simra. She would be hurt. She would ask questions.
He didn't want to see the pain in her eyes again.
As he sat waiting for nightfall and the moment for his escape, he practiced the breathing and centering techniques Gimno had taught him. He eased his weight backward slightly, straightening and firming his spine and crossing his legs in front of him. He rested his wrists atop his knees, breathing slowly through his slightly open mouth.
Finding a dark whorl on the pale wood door, Lakhoni focused on it, willing himself to breathe regularly and smoothly. He considered lighting a fire to ward off the chill of the waning day, but dismissed the idea. Better if the light source was outside if anyone came in—they would make an easier target and their eyes would take a moment to adjust. That moment could be the only chance he had.
He shook the thoughts away. Breathe. Focus.
It took him longer than he expected to find his center. Images of Simra's face, reminders of the shame he felt at hiding that he could speak, Neas' anger—they all crowded into his mind. Simra's kindness, and that of her father, reminded him so much of his first impressions of Gimno's wife, Vena. It reminded him of home, too.
He reflected on the possibility that he might actually stay in the village. Maybe Mibli would come around. Maybe he could have a new home. He could leave his journey behind. What were the chances of his finding Alronna, much less rescuing her, anyway?
He forced the thoughts away. It didn't matter. His course was set.
Breathe. Focus. What seemed like hours passed as he struggled against the turmoil in his mind. As he finally pushed all thought away, the whorl on the door seemed to become at once less defined but larger. He closed his eyes, opening all of his other senses to the world around him. Center. Breathe. Gimno had taught him that in this state, he could extend his awareness somewhat, almost see what was happening in the world around him, despite his eyes being closed.
Smell came first. Someone was cooking deer and maybe some other animal over the fire outside. Flatbread too. Then hearing and more. Children played with dogs nearby. Somebody walked close enough to the hut he sat in that he felt the tremor of the earth under their feet.
Now Lakhoni, still in his deepened state of consciousness, willed his muscles to relax, but remain ready to move at a moment's notice. He felt fully connected with the earth beneath him, as if he could almost feel its pulse.
Somebody was walking toward the door of the hut. Lakhoni quickly stuffed his bag of things under his blanket, sliding backward and to the side so that his back leaned on the stone wall. He glanced down, assuring himself that the bag was well hidden.
Voices came through the door, then the door opened outward. Simra stepped through the darkening shadows of the day, golden flame reflecting on her skin that was the color of fired clay. She held a plate of food in one hand, the other propping the door open. She stood that way for a long moment, her face seeming almost flat—as if she was forcing all expression away.
Lakhoni forced the guilt away, even as his heart leapt at the sight of her.
"They said I could bring you some food." Simra crossed the hut in a few strides. She lowered the plate to Lakhoni.
He took it with a flat smile.
She turned back toward the door.
"Simra," he said without meaning to.
She stopped, but didn't turn back.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
A few seconds passed. She took another step, then stopped. "Typical."
He could see the disappointment in the set of her shoulders. "What?"
"It's typical, that's all." Now she turned so he could see her face. "The first words you say to me are an apology. Because you lied. It shouldn't be a surprise."
He heard the anger in her voice, but there was more than that in her face. Pain in her eyes and mouth.
"Simra, I-…" he had no idea what to say. The weight of the plate in his hands seemed to match the heaviness in his chest. "I don't…I didn't want to hurt you."
"Nobody ever does." Moisture glinted at the edges of her eyes, but she appeared to will it away. "You're no different."
Something in the way she said that pierced him. He suddenly wanted to be different, although he didn't understand what she meant.
"Will you at least tell me why you hid that you got your voice back?"
Lakhoni's throat felt tight. He wanted to make he feel better, wanted to figure out what to say or do that would work. But he had no idea what that might be. Finally, he met her gaze and nodded. "It's because I was worried I would have to talk more about what happened to my family. And why I'm here."
Simra tilted her head to the side for a moment, her eyes searching his face. "Good start," she said. She waited.
It took him a moment, but he understood. "And… I just don't want to put anybody in danger. What happened to my family and village… it could happen here too."
"Is that really why?"
He considered for a moment. "Mostly."
Her eyes widened in surprise. He was sure she was going to spin around and leave, furious with the way he kept things to himself.
Instead she lowered herself to her knees. "Another good answer. Can you tell me the rest?"
He stared at her for a long moment, trying to figure her out. I guess honesty. Honesty even if I don’t tell her everything. And I tell her when I'm not telling her everything.
"Eat before it gets cold," Simra said.
He glanced down and automatically took a bite of the chunk of meat skewered on a two-pronged, smooth utensil. Chewing quickly, he spoke between breaths. "There is more, but I don't feel right talking about it. I think… I think it might put you and your village in danger."
"And you didn't tell me you could talk because…"
Hadn't he already explained this part? "Because talking is faster than writing. When I write, I can control our conversations better."
"Fathers curse you," she swore. She looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. "When you get honest, you really do it right."
He decided that was a good thing. He leaned forward, scooting out from the wall a little. "And, the truth is also that… I still don't like to remember what happened."
Her head bobbed as she considered his words. She glanced over her shoulder at the door, then leaned forward on her hands and moved closer, dropping her volume. "But maybe I can help you with whatever you're trying to do. Find your sister, I mean." Their eyes locked. Moments passed, measured in heartbeats. "I'd like to help."
He could see that she meant it. He wanted to trust her. He took a moment to watch the door, then moved closer to her, not wanting anybody outside to hear. "I don't think that would be a good idea. I think the people who… who took her were Lemal's warriors. I think she's in Lemalihah."
"King Lemal?" Simra sat taller, tension in her body. "You think your sister is a captive of the king?" At least she'd had the presence of mind to whisper, although it had been a harsh whisper.
"I think so."
"I told you. Somebody I talked to said they saw the raiders."
"Who did you talk to?"
Lakhoni stopped to think. "Someone in another village."
Simra's mouth went tight.
"Okay, look. Somebody I can't really talk about, but I know he was right." Lakhoni grabbed another bite of food. He still meant to get away this night; he would need plenty of food in him.
"And you think you can rescue her from the king's castle compound?" Simra asked.
"I don't know. But she's my sister."
The simple statement seemed to put an end to Simra's questions. The tension slid out of her body. As she moved from her kneeling position to sit on the ground, Lakhoni realized that in their desire to keep their conversation quiet, they had moved quite close to each other. Suddenly he felt awkward.
He jabbed at the next piece of meat to hide the sudden feeling.
"It's already dead," Simra said.
"Are you sure?" he said, "I thought it moved."
The air between them grew thicker after she spoke. He wanted to look up from his plate, knew it would be strange if just kept staring at his food. It felt like he was pushing through mud, but he raised his head and found her eyes.
"Lakhoni," she said. "I'm sorry about your family. I wish I could help you find your sister."
"Alronna," he said. He couldn't tear his eyes from hers. His heart thundered in his chest. He had to push it away. He couldn't let Simra, or how he felt, slow him down. He had to move.
"Her name is Alronna."
He tried to find his center, control his breathing, but he was talking before he could stop himself. "Simra, I… you… I mean, you're the most…"
"Please don't say it," Simra said.
"Don't say what?"
"Just… boys tell me I'm the most beautiful girl they've ever seen. But all they want is a woman. To keep the hut, to scrape their hides. To…" she looked down.
In that moment, Lakhoni understood her self-doubt and her directness. He finally saw why she seemed uncomfortable so often and the conflict he had seen in her made sense. He shook his head. No, she couldn't be allowed to think that he… no. He was different. He set his plate aside. It took all of his courage and him holding his breath, but he reached out with his right hand and took her left hand. "I was going to say that you're the most unusual, giving person I've ever known." He didn't know where the words came from, but they felt perfect.
In a heartbeat, her reddish-brown eyes filled his vision.
"You are beautiful, but not just on the outside." He swallowed and sucked in a breath, holding it. "You could never just be someone's woman. You would be a companion. A help-meet."
Simra blinked. She squeezed his hand and stared hard at him. The moment lengthened. "Lakhoni," she said. "You…" Suddenly she broke into a wide smile. It set his heart to renewed thundering. "You have a way with words."
He could think of nothing to say. If she hadn't been squeezing his hand so hard, he would have been trembling with the emotion that her smile and touch awoke in him. I love you, he thought, knowing he couldn't speak the words. Knowing he shouldn't be holding both of her hands now. He knew, as her eyes grew bigger and a force both outside and inside of him pushed him closer to her, that he had to get away from her village. Rescue his sister. He had to get away from her.
His heart seemed to stop as her eyes filled his vision completely.
The world dissolved.