Thursday, August 19, 2010
Simra broke the kiss, pulling back with a deep breath. Her eyes lingered on his for a moment, then dropped. "That… I don't know…"
Thoughts roiled in Lakhoni's head. Her name kept flashing through his mind, as if it were an anchor his brain was trying to grasp hold of. I can't leave her. But he had to get to Alronna. She had to still be alive. Even as he wanted to kiss Simra again, he knew he had to fight the urge. He was going to have to leave her—he didn't want to make it harder.
"I know you have to go," Simra said, her face in shadow.
"I…" Lakhoni didn't think he had the courage to say the words himself. How could he do this to her? Suddenly ashamed of himself, he looked to the ground. The sounds of activity outside returned as he searched for what to say. "I'm sorry." He knew it wasn't enough.
"No," Simra said. "I'm sorry. I should not have..."
Silence fell again. Lakhoni's thoughts raced. He couldn't lose focus; he had to get out of the village before Mibli did something serious. The longer he stayed, the harder it would be to go. But now there was Simra.
He shifted backward, his eyes flicking all over the hut, nervous about looking at Simra's face. Now there was Simra. His family and village murdered. Alronna taken. Months with the Separated. The terrible winter. And because of it all, there was Simra. Why?
Why would the Great Spirit set him on a path of justice and grief only to have that path end with… this? With Simra. But it can't be over. I have to find Alronna. And I have to get them… show them that they can't get away with murder.
He had to leave her.
Lakhoni leaned forward, tight energy building in his chest. He took Simra's hand.
But he would come back. He would survive and return to her.
"Simra," he said, his voice soft.
The shadows in the hut had grown quickly as night fell. As he waited for her to look up at him, he noticed gold and orange flickering on the walls of the hut. The cook fire had been built up; its light was squeezing through the cracks around the door.
The door. The guard.
"You've been in here a while," Lakhoni said.
She nodded. She raised her right hand, the one he wasn't gripping, to her face and scrubbed.
He hadn't seen the tears falling. A tight ache squeezed his throat, anguish filling his soul. What had he done? Impulsively, he rocked forward and knelt next to her, wrapping his arms around her. "I don't know what to say… or feel. I…" he searched for the words. "I know…" he cleared his throat, trying to push the tightness away. "I have to go, and I know I…"
He pulled her close; she seemed to resist for a moment, but gave in and leaned on his chest.
He could say no more.
"It's my fault too." Her voice was muffled, but he understood her words.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said.
She shook her head against him. "It doesn't matter. You have to go tonight."
Surprised, he dropped his arms and moved to a crouch. "Why?"
"Because you can't stay. Mibli wants his control and after their fight and what he said, my father can't oppose him. You challenge Mibli's control because you're still here—and my father has kept you here." Simra looked up now, eyes and face dry.
"I was going to leave tonight anyway," Lakhoni said, reaching under his blanket and pulling out his bag.
"Good. I don't know what Mibli would do to you, but he might just bind you and send you to the brick fields to rid himself of you."
She shook her head and stood. "It doesn’t matter. We've been alone in here long enough to raise all kinds of suspicion. I'm surprised nobody has come to question you more."
"What are the brick fields?" He saw an image of wide swaths of pasture that were filled with oven-baked clay tiles instead of green grass.
"Slave labor, basically," Simra said. "I have to go. Finish your dinner."
He stood quickly and grabbed her wrist, a sudden need that he couldn't deny overtaking him. He pulled her close and kissed her again. This is wrong. But it felt right.
She pushed away after a moment. "There's no time. Finish getting ready. Listen for the cry of a nightwing in a few hours."
Confused, he asked, "What are you going to do?"
"I'll get the guard away from the door. When you hear the nightwing, go out and turn right and go behind the hut. Find two trees that are twisted into one about a hundred paces north of the village. I will meet you there." She turned, and with the soft whisper of her dress against the stones of the doorway, she was gone.
Lakhoni stood still for a moment, a thick, confused fear beginning to well up in him. "What's a nightwing?" he asked in a quiet voice. He turned to his bag and hefted it, then opened it to see how much space he had left. He considered rolling the blanket up tightly and stuffing it in the bag too.
No, he wouldn't steal from the village.
She will meet me there? Why would Simra meet him at the trees? Was she gathering supplies for his journey? Or was she planning to go with him?
The fear he had felt earlier grew suddenly into a cloying, stifling sensation. She couldn’t come. He couldn't take her to Lemalihah, where he planned to kill the king. She would be killed or worse. He would not put her in danger. She had to stay behind.
But maybe she would just have supplies for him.
His center completely destroyed by the events of his evening, he turned back to his now-cold dinner and sat, trying to control the worry that roiled in him.
A nightwing. He had to listen for one. But what was it? He thought about the birds he had been familiar with. There were the colorful ones that sometimes sounded like a bunch of old women chattering. He mentally listed the birds he knew by name.
It must be a bird of the evening or night. Maybe it had dark feathers.
An image of a sleek, strong bird with a wingspan as wide as he was tall came to him. Maybe she meant the whisperbird. It only came out at night and it could carry off a month-old puppy if it was hungry enough. Its wings were usually dark.
That had to be it.
He stood again, moving to the door and peering through the gap between the door and the wall. The noises he had been hearing for some time now were matched by the activity around the fire. Some hunters must have returned at some point, because Lakhoni saw a haunch of what must have been a wild boar roasting over the fire.
The smell came to him, but he was too worried to be hungry.
He paced in the hut for a few minutes. When would she signal? It would have to be when people were sleeping.
Sleep. He should try to get some sleep before leaving; he would have to travel all night in order to get far enough away from the village.
He lay down and tried to fight worry and fear away. Had he been too long in his journey? Would he be too late for Alronna? What if Simra wanted to go with him? How could he say no? Did he even want to say no?
He had just begun to win his wrestle and fade into a light doze when the sharp snap of the door being slammed open roused him. He sat up fast, grateful he had remembered to hide his bag again.
Mibli stood in the doorway, his entire front half shrouded in darkness while firelight glimmered on his shoulders. "It's time to have some answers, boy."
Lakhoni said nothing.
Mibli advanced a few paces and stopped. He glanced over his shoulder and signaled. Another man entered the hut. It suddenly felt very crowded and Lakhoni felt very small as the two men towered over him. "Light the fire," Mibli said to the other man, "while I have a conversation with this boy."
Lakhoni stood, sick of having to crane his neck to keep his eyes on Mibli's face.
Mibli moved quickly across the hut and pushed him back down, the strength in the small man's arms surprising. "Sit."
Lakhoni had no choice but to obey. He thought furiously, trying to remember the story with the threads of truth and lie that he had told.
The fire came to life behind Mibli. "If you don't answer my questions, and answer the truth, you'll regret it." The man squeezed his hands into fists, his knuckles popping. "I can make you hurt without killing you easily." He produced a stone dagger from a soft sheath at his waist. "I'll know if you're lying. So you better tell the truth and maybe this won't get too bad for you."
Lakhoni felt as if the words were too forced, as if Mibli must have been practicing them for a while. "I already told you the truth," Lakhoni said.
"We'll see," Mibli said, settling down to a low crouch. He flipped the dagger a few times. His gaze wandering lazily over the hut walls and the hides, shelves and hooks that lined the walls, Mibli asked, "Why did you come to our village?"
"I told you," Lakhoni said. "I didn't 'come' to your village. I was trying to go to Lemalihah, but the winter caught me. I found your village. It saved my life."
"And where did you come from?"
"My village is far to the west, but everybody was killed. I have some family in Lemalihah."
"I know why you pretended to not be able to talk. You are a terrible liar." Mibli caught the eye of the other man, who somehow stood next to Lakhoni now, and nodded slightly.
Alarm filled Lakhoni, but before he could dodge, the other man was bearing him down to the bed, trapping his arms.
"But you're going to tell the truth. There's no way a boy your age could just 'find' our village in a snowstorm after coming as far as you say you came." Mibli moved closer. "I think you're from the Living Dead. I think you're here to spy on us and see where our weaknesses are."
"No!" Lakhoni said, wriggling wildly to get free of the man atop him. His hands were trapped under him and no matter how much he bucked with his legs and torso, the large man wouldn't budge. "I was just lucky! It's the truth!"
"I doubt it." Mibli moved fast, the point of the stone dagger jabbing into Lakhoni's nearest shoulder.
Lakhoni gasped in pain, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out. Mibli dug the point of the dagger deeper into his shoulder, as if Mibli were trying to reach bone. Each twist of the weapon sent blinding agony through Lakhoni. Then suddenly the excruciating pain was halved.
Lakhoni tried to find Mibli, unable to move his head. The stone dagger, now dripping with blood, hung right before his eyes. He tried to slow his breathing, his heartbeat and find a place to put the pain. He couldn't; fear at what Mibli might be capable of made it impossible for Lakhoni to concentrate.
"I'll do that for every lie." Mibli smiled the smile of a man who knew he had total control of a situation and enjoyed it. "Understand?"
Lakhoni grunted, "Yes." He had to get out of this fast. He had to get away without allowing Mibli to do too much damage.
"Let's start again. Are you one of the Living Dead?"
I would truly love to hear your thoughts on this book so far. Will you share your impressions and expertise by commenting on this post?