Blood trickled down their faces from the brambles slashes, mud streaked their ragged clothing from stumbling over roots. They were panting, their weary limbs sounding like horses crashing through the woods.
And still they did not complain.
I turned to keep going then froze.
The girl looked up. Blood obscured view out of her right eye and her legs felt heavy as clay.
“Please,” She whispered. The man twisted, looking down to face her. “You’ve never pushed me like this.”
The man turned away.
She plunged after.
“We stop,” I said in a strangled voice. Alahn instantly dropped to the forest floor, and Enaoh gently sank down, peering down at little Yasri.
“Thank you,” Alahn panted.
“For what?” It snapped. “You were scaring off the game.” Pulling an arrow from my oil-cloth quiver, I moved past them, deeper into the forest. “Don’t leave.” I added, looking over my shoulder.
Some Outcasts who were sent into the Sycamores later in life brought stories with them. Tales that had been told within the city walls. I had never liked them much, particularly any that took place in a forest.
You couldn’t run through a forest. There weren’t just random paths that sprouted from nowhere. Forests weren’t just trees. They were bushes, brambles. Roots and stones. Grass and vines. All that tore at your clothing and pulled at your feet.
Instead, I traveled by tree. Equally impractical, really, but it didn’t leave a trail, and it made for clearer shots at times.
Sycamores were built for climbing. They had low branches, thick and sturdy. Large leaves to conceal you.
I moved from tree to tree, leaping from limb to limb. It was dangerous and time-consuming. But it cleared my mind without the cost of an arrow. You had to measure your leap just right so that you’d land on the branch, you had to be certain they would all hold you and that your foot wouldn’t just slip over the other side.
It was difficult in this weather. The skies had decided to be gloomy, leaving the bark slick and slimy. Moss thrived, but it made getting a grip difficult.
Finally, I reached the top of a Sycamore, a good distance from the others. I couldn’t hunt from this height; few arrows could fly through such thick foliage from so far.
But I could think.
Without me, they’re doomed to die, I thought, fingering the fletching of an arrow. With me I am not sentenced to death myself. I could leave at any moment. Except that, of course, in time I couldn’t.
Leaving them meant cursing them with death. Staying meant cursing myself with caring for them.
I gritted my teeth, lowering myself down in order to catch some food. I think that my decision had been made for me the moment I met Alahn, Enoah and Yasri.
* * * * *
“We need to find a shelter first,” I announced, coming into the clearing, a small deer-like creature over my shoulder.
They were asleep.
I dropped the deer with a thud, fury and adrenaline racing through my veins.
“Wake up!” I hissed, kicking a bit too savagely at Enaoh’s side. He jerked awake and sat up, hand already on Alahn’s shoulder. Alahn stirred more slowly.
“What is it Crest? Is something the matter?” Enoah asked calmly, one hand trembling.
I pursed my lips to keep from spitting out profanity.
“Yes,” I said after a moment. “Or rather, there would be. If I had decided I was not your friend.”
“Good thing you are, then,” Alahn said nervously, as though he doubted this fact.
“Yes. It is.” I lifted my chin, eyes on his. He brushed hair out of his face.
“Perhaps, dear, you should tell us what we did wrong,” Enoah suggested.
Perhaps they would die even on my watch.
“You were lying here, asleep. Vulnerable. Not a look-out, not even an weapon in hand.”
Alahn gave a small grin. “I think we’ve been clear about our feelings on killing.”
“Feel free to share your feelings on getting killed. Or if you’re not concerned for yourself, think of Yasri.” I snapped.
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” The girl said. She peered up at the man with big eyes.
The man dropped on one knee. “Would you rather them die or you?”
“I don’t care about me,” she answered stubbornly, raising her chin.
The man put a thumb on her chin, lowering it. “Your arrogance becomes you. But what if you had to choose between them or your brother?”
The girl’s teeth instantly gritted, her fists clenched. “Anyone could die before him.”
“Yes,” Said the man, straightening up. “So goes the world of the Sycamores.”
I flicked my hand slightly, as though shaking off the memory. Then I turned and began preparing the deer.
“I’m sorry, Crest,” Enoah said gently. “But we’re peaceful. Not killers. Not like…” He trailed off.
Not like me.
Where had that little girl gone? And who was this in her place, in her body?
Had I become what I wanted?
Viciously, I sliced open the deer.
There is no place for philosophy in the Sycamores, I thought. There is survival. And there is death.
And there are plans for future revenge.