The next day I had to push them harder.
The second day is always the worst.
“May I ask,” Enoah panted. “How much further?”
I stopped, boots planted on either side of a fallen limb. I pulled back the side of my hood to get a better view of my followers.
“It is not much further,” I said. Without giving myself time to think about it, I reached out and took the baby Yasri from him. The older man was having difficulty enough without the burden of an infant in his arms.
Both men stiffened, looking terrified. I set the baby in the folds of excess cloth around my chest, the wrappings of my hood, and held her there before going on.
The rest of the way there I heard murmurs from behind me, both heavily whispering to one another.
I looked down at Yasri. She had been watching me with those stark blue eyes, her lips pursed, a hand clenched around the rough material of my hood.
“What sort of life will you lead, Yasri?” I murmured. “Raised by men in the Sycamores? It was so for me. But I hope you do not turn out like me. I kill to easily. Let the men do your killing for you. You just stay safe and make more babies. Hopefully more boys, so we can finish the Sycamores promise.”
Yasri didn’t seem to like the idea. She squirmed in my arms, arching her back so that she was difficult to hold onto.
“You can’t fight anyways,” I whispered. “I do not believe an arm, no matter how disfigured, is a worthy cause for banishment. But you are not strong enough.” Yasri did not like this point either.
“So, Crest,” A voice called from above. “Some man finally did get their hands on you. Who’s the father?”
I looked up. Perched in a tree, leering down at me, was Jattar.
“That’s a crude thing to say,” Enoah said, holding up his hand in the peace gesture.
Jattar laughed brashly. “If he thinks that’s crude, wait ‘til he meets Bhar.”
“Bhar is dead,” I answered. Jattar’s eyebrows raised.
“Oh? The Great Bhar? Well that’ll be a relief to some.”
“Will you let them in?” I asked.
“No,” Jattar said flatly. “Haze’s rules. Rogues only.”
“And Lynch’s stronghold?” I pressed. Jattar only shook his head.
“It’s miles off anyways, Crest.” He dropped to the ground with ease, his quiver at his hip not catching on any limbs.
My brow furrowed. Yasri let out a coo, as though sensing my frustration.
“If it’s not Crests, which of you fathered the babe?” Jattar asked conversationally.
“Jattar, I must take them some place,” I insisted.
“Go back to Bhar’s house,” he said. “That’s where Bhar took you.”
“No,” I said. “It’s… not in a fit state.”
Jattar tilted his head. “What does that mean? The house is indestructible.”
“The Padlock drug,” I answered. “They gave it to me.”
“Bloody idiots!” Jattar’s eyes went wide. “It must look like a massacre in there!”
During the conversation, Alahn and Enoah looked increasingly confused. I knew I had once looked like that. Jattar noticed as well.
“Padlock drug,” he explained. “Is a nasty little thing. In the correct doses, sent by someone skilled with such things, it’s capable of more or less making molehills out of mountains. Everything looks small and distant, mentally as well as physically. Sort of calming, especially if you’ve been in a nasty accident or traumatic experience.”
“But too much and it makes killing someone seem as innocent as swatting a bug,” Alahn continued gravely.
“Yes,” Jattar said with surprise. “Same with too little, really. Wrong dosage and anyone who’s currently afraid or in a panic is likely to kill everyone in sight.”
Enoah looked at me cautiously. “You were on the drug, Crest?”
“They didn’t want me to panic and try to kill them. One of them was experienced with herbs, I’m sure. But after drinking Bhar’s ale for too long…” I trailed off. “We cannot go back to Bhar’s house.”
Jattar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How’d you get in this mess? Surely after watching Bhar take care of you, you’d avoid anyone new.”
“It happened in the way all things do,” I answered vaguely.
“Fate of the Sycamores,” Enoah said.
“Religious man,” Jattar noted. “That might win him some friends. The Elite boy, not so much.”
“How do you know I’m Elite?” Alahn asked.
“Thick muscles, soft hands. Hairstyle. Clothing. Etcetera.” Jattar waved a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter now. The infant could be a problem, what with the arm.”
Slowly, I traced along my side. Jattar’s face clenched up. “So the girl stays,” he said.
I nodded briskly.
Jattar paused a moment.
“I am on duty, Crest.”
“The Rogues fear an attack.” At the word Rogue, Jattar shot a look at Enoah and Alahn, as though it were a term they should not know.
“An attack? From the Elites? They would never venture this far.”
“A crew is returning.”
“I was not informed.”
There was more silence.
“After your shift is over,” I said softly. “Then you must help me find a place of safety. They are not fit for wandering.”
“We must leave,” I said. “Bringing you even this close to the stronghold was dangerous.”
“Stronghold? Of… Rogues?” Alahn asked with a frown.
Jattar pulled an arrow out of his quiver and pointed it at Alahn. “You heard nothing of Rogues. Nothing of strongholds. You’ve never been here, never met me. Safer for everyone that way. Go, Crest.”
I pressed Yasri closer to my chest and made my way back through the woods. The sounds of Enoah and Alahn crashing along behind me was almost a comfort. I was half-certain that I would be leaving with neither of them.
But I would rather that we didn’t have to leave at all.
* * * * *
When I handed Yasri back to Enoah, I felt as though a tiny piece of myself went with her. Infants are so impressionable, so fragile. They have nothing to them yet, little personality and few memories. They cannot help but take some from those who they are near, those who hold too much.
It made me fearful to touch her again. There were memories I had, things I had done that I would not want to give to her.
She left part of herself with me as well. Her spit was on the cowl of my hood, the smell of her sweat and waste on my clothes. Why did anyone want a child? Half were cast away, like Yasri and myself, and whoever was left would aggravate their parents in some way or another. You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.
Alahn was looking at me, almost awkwardly. Awkwardness was not something I had encountered often. In the Sycamores, everyone had their business and their right to it. You had no need to be ashamed, unless you were committing some crime too heinous for even the worst Outcasts.
“That is my name,” I answered. Bhar had told me that many times. I had soon learned to not prologue my questions. Simply ask. You’ll receive or not receive an answer regardless.
“No I- well, yes. But I had a question.”
“I presume you still have it.” I gazed at him evenly. His eyes darted from my cowl to the shaft of arrows at my hip.
“I- yes. I do. What’s with all the secrets? Rogues and strongholds.”
My hand flew out faster than my brain could catch up. Alahn raised a hand to his cheek, eyes wide. Perhaps the boy had never been struck. As an Elite, it was possible.
“You heard Jattar. You never heard of those. Not yet.”
Enoah looked up from Yasri at the sound of my hand impacting Alahn’s cheek. “What is going on?” His usually gentle voice grew steely.
“The Sycamores hold secrets that no Prevalant, no Elite could ever dream of. The Outcasts guard their secrets carefully. The Rogues even more so. Do not speak of them until you are one. To do so is to taunt death itself.”
Enoah seemed taken aback at the sound of such stern words coming from the mouth of a girl. But I felt older than this man had ever been. Alahn watched me quietly for a moment, then nodded slowly, hand dropping from his cheek.
Part of me, a part that hadn’t been awake in years, felt as though I should apologize for striking him.
But the lesson must be learned.
There were worse fates to be had than a simple strike across the face. I hoped to spare them those possibilities.
The Sycamores will run with blood.