Lion Heart

The shadow world has always fascinated Kojo. From his mother's stories when he was young, to being certain Saskia is now there; this fascination has almost taken over his life. But can the mysterious Tsar's daughter help him? Can they together find out why he, and many other 15 year olds have been taken to this remote camp? Does anyone have the answer?


3. Chapter Three.

The next morning I woke with a banging head ache, my body screaming with pain. Yesterday had been tougher than I’d realised. There was no point complaining though. If any of the generals heard me talking about how tired I felt, I’d be made to work extra hours. The fairness of this place was undeniable.

I dressed quickly, in the bare grey uniform and blended into the rest of the mob walking down to breakfast. I call it breakfast, but what it really is a meagre slice of bread with the possibility of butter if you’re down early enough. This place doesn’t care if you’re well fed or not. Even if you’re fainting from exhaustion and hunger, you’re still made to work the horrendous ten hour days. We have a ten minute break at twelve for ‘lunch’, if anyone is lucky enough to have any food.
We’re here to be trained as soldiers, I think. We’re all put through rigorous training procedures, subjected to conditions we’d have to survive in if we were to go to war. My country isn’t involved in any conflict at the moment but we think they’re training us just so they know they have soldiers in reserve. I say ‘we’ think that, but it’s more that the other boys in my dormitory think that. I tend to agree with them silently in my head. I’ve never contributed to any of their discussions. Their conversations are normally vulgar anyway. I am not going to elaborate.

I don’t fit in here. I don’t want to participate in fights or be made to join in their sexist conversation. More than anything, it makes me angry. The generals try to encourage us to laugh at and degrade one another, fortifying hatred among us.
Every morning it’s the same routine; collect your helmet and make your way to the fields to pick fruit and vegetables then participate in whatever routine your dorm was set to that day. There must be about two thousand of us in the centre; all aged from twelve up to sixteen. At sixteen you’re sent away, to whatever your next post. I don’t actually know that’s what happens, it’s just what I’ve assumed. I can’t see any other logical explanation for their disappearances. Girls and boys are separated here. The girls are taught how to cook and clean to a sparkling standard. That was what Saskia called it. She often had red raw hands from cleaning nonstop every day. That was nothing compared to the injuries some of the boys had endured though. It made me sick to my stomach to think of the things that had happened to some of them. I hadn’t even known them very well but it still made my throat tighten when I thought of their pale faces in death. I had passed them at their funerals and blessed them silently with the shadow world chant.

“May the powers of the One, the source of all creation;

All persuasive, omnipotent, eternal, may the Goddess,

The Lady Moon; and The God, Horned Hunter of the Sun;

May the powers of the Spirits of the Stones Rulers of the elemental realms;

May the powers of the stars above And earth below.

Bless this place, and this time, And I who am with you.”

I had said that over and over again at Saskia’s funeral. I lingered long enough to say it over her three times, her favourite number, before I was hurried away by the matron standing behind her coffin. My fault. That voice was always there. Always reminding me. Always there taunting and mocking me. I was going insane.

The heat burned my face, making me stop and concentrate on what I was doing. I always did this, daydreamed off and then never completed my work on time. As you can imagine, I was a common favourite among a lot of the other generals. They probably swapped stories on how fantastic they thought I was. They definitely showed their affection for me through their whippings. It was touching, truly. I went back to the repetitive, mind numbing task before me. It was so boring it made me want to jump into the hole I had just dug and bury myself alive. I missed being in school. I had loved learning and finding things out about the world I lived in.

We were so isolated from every other country and there was no way of finding out anything else about any other place. We were so utterly confined to our small nation that it drove me crazy. I couldn’t understand why we were never allowed to know anything else about anyone. I wanted to move around, see places and discover things but that would never happen. I didn’t want this life. But it was the luck of the draw, it been handed to me whether I liked it or not. In contrast, Princess Alexcia’s life had been handed to her on a silver platter. Why did one person get all the luck? How in the heavens was that far? Maybe that was the reason that we switched positions in the shadow lands. It was all for balance. One person couldn’t be lucky forever. That didn’t weigh up right. You were both deprived and disconsolate in this life or you were in the afterlife. That was how it worked. At least, I hoped it did.

“Listen. Attention, you lazy shits. Why the hell weren’t you all out on the field at ten?” Oh the joys of General Deverick. He was the most repulsive man I had ever come across, which was surprising as I had known my father. His face was disfigured, his mouth drooping slightly giving him a permanent snarl. His black moustache looked permanently dirty, his hair constantly in tangles of filth. It was disgusting.

“Why?! Someone answer me. Did you hear what I said? I’m the one who’ll be for it if you lot are late, and you know how I like to treat people who enjoy seeing me inconvenienced.” He looked pointedly at me. Hilarious, really hilarious. The whip marks streaking my back began to throb. This man was made up of pure evil. And scum, evidently. He frowned at the silence, his threat still hanging in the air. He sighed loudly, picking at a stain on his jacket.
“Get back to work you worthless cretins. If I see one of you slacking off, I will make your lives a misery.” He meant every word, which made it even worse. I hated him, I really did.

Everyone gathered there things back up, after some boys literally dropping their tools in fright at the site of the general. He had this power over people which made most people quake in fear. It was bizarre to me. I would never let anyone have that kind of prestige on me. In the commotion of boys trying to find their things, I took the opportunity to slip unseen out of the gap in the barbed wire, slipping my shoes off and hiding them behind the fence in the process. I wasn’t sure if the generals knew it was here, but if they did they didn’t seem to be doing much about it. I suppose they thought people were too scared to disobey them, so they just left it. They should know better. Not fixing it meant they could spend more of the resources money on themselves. Drugs and alcohol were extremely dominant here. I would watch generals staggering about, the influence of alcohol clouding their brains. I had also seen stupid boys from my dorm steal the liquor and end up throwing up. They were always found. I was pretty sure that they counted how many bottles they had, so as soon as one went missing it was a red alert. The dorms were turned upside down and people were whipped if they refused to talk. Everyone was found out in the end.

I hated the stuff; it evoked all kinds of horrible memories. The smell of it brought me right back to the scared seven year old I had been, cowering under my bed, willing my drunken father to stop hitting my mother. The vulgar smell of it would always creep under my door, enveloping me in its sweet sickly scent. It made me want to throw up. I had seen what alcohol did to you, drugs too. I had seen the effects of drugs in more than one person in my village.
Their sagging skin, wild eyes and bony fingers. There was one man who believed someone was after him the whole time. He had terrified me as a child, the older children always tormenting us with stories of him. I remember once, Saskia had been out with brother Stefan and he’d told her stories about him which had given her nightmares for a week. It was during the time when I was living with them, and every night she would run into the room I was staying in and wake me up. She was often crying, convinced the man was going to kill her. It was the most vulnerable I had ever seen her. It broke my heart. Even as an eleven year old, I felt like I had to protect her.

The sky was darkening slightly, it looked like a rainstorm was on its way. I didn’t mind. I liked being in the forest when it was raining. The sound of it calmed me down. I liked to watch the way it slid off the lake, almost as if the dead were deflecting it from under the water. I saw Alexcia a lot whenever it rained. She seemed to like it as much as I did. I think the lake belonged to the Tsar, which was why it was such a common place for her to be. I feel like I know her, just because I observe her so much. I suppose it’s also because her whole life has played out in front of the media, meaning that everyone saw her every move. I don’t know if I would’ve liked that. Instant fame from the moment you were born. But then I guess, that had always been her life. She hadn’t known any different.

I reached the lake and sure enough Alexcia was sitting there, her back to me as usual. I climbed silently up into the branches, making sure not to step on anything that would give me away. I reached the top just as the storm broke, the heavens opening and showering us with droplets. My mother said that when it rained it was because the shadow people were crying. Crying at the state of humanity. I could feel the pressure of the droplets on my skin and imagined it was Saskia’s tears running over me. Saskia.

“Are you not cold?” I jumped, pinning my back against the branches. They stuck awkwardly into my skin but I didn’t care. Alexcia was looking up at me from the ground, craning her neck so she could see me. What in all of the shadow worlds was I doing? Why had I let this happen? This wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t happen.

“Are you? It’s raining hard. I know I am.” She smiled at me, her eyes dancing. Why was I noticing things like that about her?

“Yeah I suppose. But, i’m, i’m not cold.” I mumbled over my words. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her, I realised. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of the camp. But, they didn’t come here. It was fine. They wouldn’t know. I was Kojo Mashurati anyway, since when did I care what the generals did? I’d had enough whippings to know that.

“What were you looking at? You were looking at the sky for ages.” She’d been watching me, I realised. Just like I’d been watching her. How strange.

“Nothing,” I replied, “I was just watching the rain fall. I like it.” She smiled again. Her smile was like Saskia’s, I realised.

“Me too. It makes me think about things. It’s calming. Pretty, too.” She seemed shy. I didn’t know how you could be shy when every point of your life was documented by newspapers and you were constantly being talked about.

“What’s your name?” She asked me, her rain soaked hair shifting in front of her face. Up close, she was even more beautiful than I had originally thought. She seemed to move with an almost elfin like grace, as she walked over to the bottom of the tree.

The rain trickled down the branches and across onto the dry floor. It was the first rain we’d had all year. We needed it to.

“Kojo, ma’am.” I didn’t know why I called her ma’am, it just slipped out. She was so much higher in society than I was, that I felt rude not addressing her with some higher title.

She sighed; “Don’t call me that. I’m sick of being addressed as that. Just because you know I’m the Tsar’s daughter doesn’t mean you have to call me that. Pretend that I’m not. Anyway, I’m Alexcia.”

“I know.” Stupid reply. I felt myself blushing.

“Of course you do.” She said, a note of resignation in her voice. “You know, I could go anywhere in the world, and people would still know who I am. That thought makes me sick.” She sounded so bitter about that fact, that I almost felt sorry for her. But, that was a small price to pay in exchange for limitless luxury and money. She didn’t have it that hard.

“Yeah, but why would you want to leave? Surely you have everything you could ever want in front of you?” I asked her.
I begin to climb down the tree, taking care not to slip on the wet branches. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was barefoot. I must look like I was homeless. This, if I really thought about it, was in a sence true. I didn’t regard the camp as home and I wasn’t even sure if my real home was still there. To me, home was being with Saskia and my mother and as that was never going to be a reality, I was homeless.

“That’s exactly it. I have everything. I want to live without anything, explore places, go somewhere. You know?” She replied, sinking to the floor and crossing her legs.

I knew what she meant. I wanted to explore the world, find things out. But that would never happen. It was exactly how I wanted Saskia back. I seemed to have a talent for wishing for the impossible. I finished my descent and went and sat next to her.

“Why do you never wear shoes?” Her question struck me as odd. What did she mean why did I never? When had she seen me before?

“What do you mean?” I asked her, turning to look at her.

“Well, uh, I mean, like, whenever you’ve been here before...” She didn’t finish her sentence and started to blush. She’d seen me before, just like I’d seen her. Had she realised I’d been watching her?

“How long have you known that I come here?” I said cautiously. I’d had no idea that she’d been aware of my presence.

“A month or two? I didn’t want to impose or anything, so I never talked to you. You always looked so... distant.” I suppose I was. I was always in my own bubble whenever I came out here. This was where I came to think about Saskia. But I’d never minded that Alexcia was here as well. I couldn’t mind that she was here; it wasn’t my place to tell her where she could and couldn’t go. But it had never bothered me.

“So why did you decided to speak to me tonight?” I asked her, shifting over slightly away from her.

“I don’t know,” She was looking out across the lake, just as she usually did, “I just wanted to. I was lonely and you didn’t look as sad as you usually do.”

That made me flush. The fact that she had been able to gage my emotions, just from seeing me a few times over the past couple of months was bad. I prided myself on my indifferent expressions, the ones I would always slip into back at the camp. I let no one in and that way no one could hurt me.

“Oh.” I had nothing else to say, and I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t had a one on one conversation with a girl since Saskia’s death. It was awkward. I may be constantly on the cusp of torture, fearing for my sanity and skin most days but I still had trouble talking to girls. Typical.

“I better get going. They’ll be wondering where I’ve gotten too. I’ll maybe see you here, some other time?” I nodded.

She got up and went to pull her dress over her head. I was shocked. What was she doing?! She looked at me and started to laugh at my expression.

“I’ve got a swimming costume on.” She reassured me, but I could still feel that my face was as red as a shadow world feast.

“You’re going to swim back? It’s still raining.” I pointed at the sky, the starts pin pricking the dark velvet of the sky. It was late, really late, I suddenly realised. Late again. I was making this some sort of habit.
“I always do whatever the weather.” She didn’t seemed bothered by the fact the rain was still coming down and that the lake looked freezing. There was also the fact that I was sure she was going to get strangled if she swam in the lake.The shadow people were still down there. I couldn’t help her once she was gone.

“Maybe you should, you know, walk tonight? It would be nicer for you and less dangerous.” I’d given myself away already.

“Dangerous?” She asked me squinting. Why had I said that?

“Yeah, um you know, currents. And stuff.” I was flushing again.

“Currents and stuff,” She mimicked, sounding thoroughly unconvinced.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll see you, uh, some other time.” I mumbled to her, already backing away from the lake. I was late again, later than I’d possibly ever been. I had a fifty-fifty chance of being seen coming back in. I was pretty sure the odds wouldn’t be in my favour.

“Tomorrow.” With that she dived into the black water, her white frame dissolving into the water. I watched her swim away for a few seconds, then turned away from the lake and took the route I always took back to camp, trying not to think about how she was in the reach of murderous hands.

“Kojo!” It was Alexcia shouting me. I turned back to the lake, locating her waving arm. “I like that you don’t wear shoes!” I could see her grinning at me, and then she turned away as quickly as she’d spoke and melted back into the waves. I watched her swim out of view before I continued walking away again.

It was when the barbed wire that surrounded the camp came into view, that I realised I had been smiling to myself all the way back.

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