No one is born an Outcast. You are born an Elite or a Prevalent, safe in the city walls.
Yasri was born with a twisted arm, useless and atrophied. Her horrified father tore her from her mother’s arms and handed her to the authorities.
Her parents were so blinded by her arm that they never saw her bright blue eyes or her soft smile.
If you are born whole, then you live until your spirit is shown to be disfigured.
Alahn was a handsome boy, strapping and ruddy. He was his father’s pride and joy, an Elite worthy of his title. But he fell for a Prevalent girl, and in an instant Alahn was no longer his father’s favorite. He was thrown to the mercy of the Sycamores.
His parents were too caught up in titles and prestige to see love or joy.
There were worse crimes to commit, of course.
Enoah was a Prevalent man, with a wife and two children. But the Elites no longer wanted a man of his age to work when they could have a younger man with no family to care for, willing to take a smaller wage. Enoah’s children fell ill and his wife took as much work as she could. But Enoah had to resort to petty thievery. A slice of bread here, a cube of meat there. Until one day he stole from an Elite, and was punished with banishment.
The Elites were too occupied with their own comfort to see the life of another fading away, or to care if they could see.
Enoah found Yasri, who was being cared for by Alahn. Alahn had been trained to handle the trickiest of diplomatic affairs with a delicate hand, but never before had he been taught how to care for an infant. The once regal boy was now clumsy and awkward. Enoah and Alahn plunged deeper into the woods, spoiling little Yasri as much as they could. Then they found me.
I was not sweet like Yasri, or caring like Alahn. I was not gentle like Enoah.
But I was broken as the infant, rejected as the boy, and strong as the man.
“Hello there,” Alahn said, looking at me gently.
“Peace,” Enoah said. He held out his free hand, coddling Yasri in the other. “We are not here to harm you.”
My lip curled. “So said the ones that killed Bhar.”
Alahn tentatively reached out a hand and covered mine, lowering the knife. “We do not want to kill anyone.”
“Then you will die!” I said. “Outcast blood will water the Sycamores.”
I could see that such statements gave Enoah and Alahn no comfort.
“Are you not an Outcast?” Enoah asked.
“No Elite or Prevalent would dare leave the city walls. They know who would slaughter them.” I said. “We water the Sycamores, the Elites send us out to kill ourselves. But soon they shall water the Sycamores in our stead.”
I could feel the drug wearing off. Fatigue was straining my limbs, the cold logic of a night alone in the forest weighing on my mind as it could not when elevated by lunacy of a narcotic. The knife slipped from my fingers and my legs gave way. Alahn caught me, then carefully laid me down on the mossy ground.
“The blood… watering the Sycamores….” I insisted. And then my eyelids fluttered and the day grew dim.
* * * * *
When I woke, the moonlight was filtering through the leaves, casting the glade in an green glow. My mouth tasted like drugs and my body ached from futile fighting the day before.
Beside me was a man, in his thirties perhaps and very tall. He was slim from a life of near malnourishment, hair grey from a life of anxiety.
On his other side was a boy of my own age, four and ten years or so. Fair hair fell to his shoulders in Elite fashion, and thick muscles proved a life of strict training. But his soft hands proved he was no Prevalent.
And between them was an infant, a small girl with dark curls and smooth skin. Pinned to her side by a strip of cloth was an arm, twisted out of usefulness. Her eyes were open, shining a brilliant blue in the moonlight. Yet she gave no cry of hunger or pain.
I raised myself up on my elbows, watching them intently. The narcotics were all but gone, leaving my mind sharp as one could be after such circumstances.
Softly, I rose to my feet, my leather-bound feet rustling against the thick turf. None of them stirred.
They have been newly Outcast, I thought mournfully. They will not live long, not without someone to train them.
I would not have lived long, had it not been for Bhar.
Bhar had beat me, Bhar had tortured me, Bhar had made my slave away with no gain. But muscles grew taught, the mind grew strong, and the senses grew sharp. Bhar had broken me so that I might not die.
And now he was dead.
My fingers flexed, longing for the smooth riser of a bow and stiff fletchings of an arrow. They meant safety, food, avengement. I felt exposed. Anxiously, I tugged my hood over my face.
But supplies were at Bhar’s house, or rather what was once Bhar’s house. Now it was shelter for those who had killed him.
In the twisted sense of Outcasts, I held a sense of respect for those men. They had attacked and killed one of the most famous Outcasts within the Sycamores. He was never wealthy enough to be too much of a temptation for others, but he had luxuries others could only dream of.
Like my bow.
I gritted my teeth. I could survive without it. I knew this, deep down. I didn’t need my bow, not any more than one would need a pike over a mace. I could be just as deadly with a knife. Or as deadly as I needed to be.
But I also knew, just as deeply, that I couldn’t let it just sit there in the hands of the ne’er-do-wells who had taken his house.
With an internal sigh, I rose fully, standing over the sleeping trio. It seemed a shame to leave them here… they would be killed within a few days, if not by blades then by lack of ability to survive outside the city walls.
I looked down at the baby, who was watching me with those vivid blue eyes. She was clenching and unclenching a fist, her lips pursed in a very adult-manner. As I was trying to decide how I might be able to help them, she let out a coo.
My eyes flew wide.
“No, no! Hush…” I said softly, putting a finger to my lips. But she continued to make her baby-noises. Children! I thought with disgust.
Then the boy sat up.
The child presented no danger other than aggravation. The man was obviously weak and lacking in training. But the boy was neither of these things. If anyone could provide trouble it was this Elite Outcast.
“What are you doing?” He asked, a slight edge to his voice. He put a hand on the child’s chest, and she grew silent.
They are not siblings, I thought. They are not built the same, in details or structure. So then why does her care for her… perhaps his child? Did he impregnate some poor young girl? It is not altogether unlikely, although he seems awfully young.
“I must return to the house of my mentor,” I said. The boy frowned.
“You do not sound… as you did before,” He finally said.
“They gave me a drug,” I said in disgust. “No doubt I was acting as mad as a crow.”
The boy got to his feet. He stood slightly above my height, which irritated me irrationally.
“Alahn,” He said, holding out a hand.
I blinked dumbly.
“I mean, Alahn’s my name,” He hurried to clarify. “And yours?” He dropped his hand. What had he held it out for?
“I am called Crest,” I said. This wasn’t true. I had never been called one thing. But I liked the irony of the name. A Crest was the colors used on an arrow, to distinguish who it belonged to. I belonged to no one. I was no one.
This Elite boy would, of course, know what a crest was. He would know the name was a nickname, one given perhaps by a companion. Yet he did not press for my true name.
“Crest. Why had you been drugged?”
“Why do you need to know?” I reached for my knife, only to realize I had left it lying beside the tall man. Inwardly I cursed myself, almost as strongly as Bhar might have.
Alahn seemed a little taken aback. Was it supposed to be obvious? I could see no reason that he would want to know, save perhaps that he wanted to know my mistake so as to avoid it.
“I… well, most people like to talk about their troubles.”
“Talking does not take or save a life, in this case.”
Alahn’s brow furrowed. “And what gives you the authority to take or save a life?”
It was my turn to be taken aback. One did not question that sort of thing. Philosophy was not for the Sycamores. It was for those in the wall, those with nothing more important to do then drivel on about how you have no right to decide who’s life was worth more.
“Ask that of those who attempt to kill anyone weaker than they.” I said.
The boy’s eyes suddenly widened.
“Impossible,” He murmured. “It couldn’t have been a girl. It was a man, they said.” Rapidly, he snatched my left hand and turned it over, peering at my fingertips. His hands began to shake slightly. “He shoots with a left eye, with arrows that never miss a mark. He protects those too weak to save themselves, kills those who prey upon the defenseless. But his face is never seen.”
I yanked my hand back, smacking myself accidentaly in the chest. I winced at the impact on tender flesh and looked Alahn in the eye. “You sound as though you have been drugged!”
“You’re Robyn! Robyn of the Hood.”
My lips parted, but no words sounded. It was ludicrous. Robyn of the Hood was a fairy tale, spread by Outcasts and trickling back up the Elites. A romantic fairy tale for the bards to sing of.
I stood on my toes, leaning close to Alahn’s face.
“There is no Robyn of the Hood. There is no kindness, no defender of the weak. This is the forest of the Sycamores. We are the Outcasts. And if you do not learn to be as ruthless as those that will hound you, you. Will. Die.”
And with those words, I walked past, snatched up the dagger, and left to retrieve my bow.