Those Left Behind: Part One
They say a story is never truly finished, only abandoned.
I could say a few things about abandonment. I could also say a few things about phrases like that. But that's not important. Because I have many, many more things to say about stories.
Whose story, exactly? Why are you asking me? It all depends on you. There are many different characters, and all of them have something to contribute. Maybe it's my story. Maybe it's my companions' story. Maybe it's the story of the Kiko who says a few lines in the fifth chapter.
My name is Bren, and I'm a red Kyrii. I was traveling with four others; this could be the story of any of us. There's one other prominent player as well. This might even be that person's story. But I think it's more interesting if you find out about him as you go along.
I was startled by a whack on the back of my head. Combined with the unsteady rocking of the boat, it almost knocked me over. "Hey now, stop with the gloom." I turned around to see Lapnir rearranging his tail after using it to hit me. "This isn't like you."
"It's entirely like me," I grumbled back.
"Then you've changed a lot since the last time I saw you." He didn't look disappointed; only confused.
"So've you," I responded. It wasn't supposed to be a compliment.
"I sure have!" the green Chomby shot back, puffing out his chest as much as one can while standing on four legs. "I'm older, wiser, stronger--"
"And have more people than ever trying to catch you, probably." To my surprise, it wasn't me who finished the sentence, but Haldan, a gold Tonu. I hadn't heard her speak very much on this trip, but she always had the same look of contempt on her face when looking at Lapnir or me.
Lapnir flashed a grin that, I had to admit, looked perfectly suited for a dashing rogue. "Absolutely, and there's a great story behind it. I was in the Lost Desert, hiding behind a nobleman's mansion, getting ready to--"
"I don't want to hear it," Haldan interrupted.
"I want to hear it," Else chimed in with a broad smile. "It sounds amazing!" Lapnir turned toward his willing audience, then thought about discretion and valor and the connection between the two, and fell silent. His eyes still sparkled.
"Maybe some other time," he answered.
Silence lapsed over the room. I still felt unsteady, since I wasn't used to the waves just yet. We were taking a ferry from Shenkuu to Krawk Island on the cheapest ship we could find, and had been at sea for several hours.
Just as the silence started to feel awkward, Lapnir spoke up again. "What about you?" He raised an eyebrow at Else and gave a sly grin. "What made you come along on this merry journey?"
The starry Cybunny considered. "I'm... searching."
She gave a shrug. "I dunno. Answers, I guess. But it's a long story."
"Stories are made to be told, aren't they?" Mellis, the fifth member of our unlikely group, chimed in brightly. "I'm interested now."
"It's your story I want to hear more than anyone else's." I surprised myself by saying this, but continued. "You were the one who got us all together, but I don't understand why."
Mellis shrugged, which was a gesture I never thought possible for a Meerca. "Curiosity, I suppose."
"Are you sure it's good to be curious about a renegade thief?" I asked.
The orange Meerca looked at me intently, but he kept his face pleasant. "I collect stories, and the best stories are those that come with some danger. For the characters, or for the reader, or even for the author."
I nodded, but watched him suspiciously. I noticed Lapnir doing the same thing.
"We all have stories," Mellis continued. "I, for one, would like to hear them."
"Some of us don't want to tell our stories," Haldan said gruffly. I realized for the first time that her horn was covered with many small cracks, and the tip was chipped off.
"We're all trying to find the same man, aren't we?" Mellis asked. "We all have the same objective in mind, so if we share our reasons we may be able to help each other."
"I don't care about any of your stories or your reasons for doing this," Haldan persisted. "I just want to get this over with. Besides, I don't think my objective is the same as any of yours." She was probably right.
I had been on the fence about the idea, but her resistance to it somehow pushed me over to the opposite side. "We've got two days before we arrive at Krawk Island. We can kill time telling our stories, or we can sit and be bored."
Haldan threw back her head in exasperation. "Fine, fine. There's nothing else to do here. So who'll go first?"
No one answered. Even Lapnir was reluctant now, for some reason.
"We can draw lots," Else suggested.
We found a cup, a pencil, and a few pieces of paper. We numbered the pieces 1 through 5, and each drew a sheet. I looked at my own. 5. I might not have to tell it at this rate.
Lapnir stepped forward and held up his piece. A 1 was written on it. For a moment, he looked... disappointed? Worried? Or maybe just sad. I wasn't sure. The moment soon passed, and his usual brash energy returned. "All right, I get to kick this thing off."
I woke up to the sound of a Ponka's call in the forest.
Over the years, I learned that this sound means "Get up. Right. Now." Ponka are found in and around Geraptiku, and we mainly worked in Shenkuu and Altador. Someone was imitating the call--namely, one of the camp's night guards.
Some may accuse me of trying too hard, but I have practiced getting out of bed. In a line of work like this, where the slightest delay might mean capture or worse, you can never be too careful. During one particularly slow week set aside for rest and recovery, I perfected getting up, dressed, and equipped with weapons and gear. It takes 45 seconds, though I've done it in 37.
I listened carefully to the echoing chorus of petpet calls for anything out of the ordinary. A few others were already at the emergency meeting point when I got there. The calls had told us all the same thing, and it wasn't good: 40-50 Altadorian soldiers were on the move and heading toward us. They looked to me, the second-in-command, for guidance. I bowed my head silently, and they understood: we would wait for Hephen.
If it came to a battle, we could probably win. We knew the terrain, and had the elements of disguise and surprise on our side. But we would win only two things: injured comrades, and the whole Altadorian army looking for us. Neither was desirable.
Seconds and minutes meant nothing as we waited in silence. The only meaningful passage of time was heartbeats and silent breathing. The sounds of the forest gave us some protection, but not much. More and more of us gathered at the meeting spot--if the soldiers found us here, we wouldn't have any strategic advantage. The tension grew the more we waited. If Hephen didn't show up, I would have to make a judgment call. We could fight, defeat the soldiers, and then gain a bit of time to evaluate our next move. We could stay here and hope not to be found. We could go further into the forest. Or we could--
A set of faint shapes appeared on the edge of the meeting point. Wings, paws, a beak glinting in the moonlight that was nearly blocked out by the foliage. A brown Eyrie came into the small clearing. All eyes turned to Hephen. He lifted his front paws and held them together in front of him horizontally. Everyone understood: we would leave on the rafts.
It was a drastic measure, but this was a drastic situation. 40 or more soldiers in this barely populated backwoods region of Altador meant that they probably knew we were here. Our camp was next to a river, chosen for easy escape. Tied to the shore were a dozen large rafts. We would have to leave most of our supplies behind. We divided up food, supplies, and comrades, distributing each evenly across the rafts. They were sent off one by one.
Some think the life of a band of thieves is easy. It isn't. We were fugitives with no proper place in society. Some of us never meshed with the accepted rules and norms, many more joined because they were desperate and hungry. A small handful dreamed of being those dashing renegades seeking vast riches, but quickly learned better. Hephen rule number four: take only what you need, and only what others don't.
As the ninth raft was being pushed off the shore, we heard a cry. There were no words to the cry, but it was clearly a hail. I looked up from the crate of apples I was carrying, and saw a Gnorbu dressed in Altadorian armor staring directly at me. On instinct, I charged. On training, I hit the side of his head with the top of my own, and he fell over limp. Hephen rule number three: do no more harm than necessary. He would wake up.
Unfortunately, one unconscious soldier would not undo the damage, because the rest now knew exactly where we were. Any attempt at stealth ended then and there, and we scrambled to load the last few rafts. When the next raft was about to leave, Hephen pushed me onto it. I protested. "I can't leave yet," I whispered frantically at him.
"Rule two," he whispered back. I looked at the other five on the raft. Two were recovering from injuries, and only one could fight. I saw his point, and reluctantly got on board. Hephen rule number two: those with power look out for those without.
There were growing sounds of commotion now. The uninjured on the raft pushed it downstream with long poles, I looked back just long enough to see lantern lights illuminating the riverbank. It looked like the final rafts were out.
On the downside, the Altadorian government now knew where we were. On the upside, the soldiers had no way of reaching us on the rafts, so we would have a head start on them. Dawn slowly came as we poled our rafts down the river, and the sun climbed into the sky. Some time around noon, we realized there was another problem: Hephen was gone, and so was a kid.
After two days, we came to the mouth of the river. Hephen and the kid still hadn't shown up. We poled the rafts to the shore, and rigged them with makeshift sails of heavy canvas. Keeping the coastline just barely in view, we sailed north toward Shenkuu. We all knew exactly where we were headed, and hoped that Hephen would fly there and meet us.
The mountains of Shenkuu came into view to the east, and we headed back toward the shore. We poled back up another river, stopping at a bend that we had decided several months before would be our next campsite if we needed to leave Altador. After three weeks, he still hadn't come.
It was a gradual thing. I never announced my leadership, and no one did it for me. But I was second-in-command, so in Hephen's absence I took on more and more of his duties. We never found out what happened to him, and slowly accepted that he was gone.
Slowly, I realized that Lapnir had finished speaking. I shook my head a bit.
I was startled by hearing a different voice. It was Else, who seemed to be entranced by the story.
Lapnir looked as startled as I was. His face had changed, he looked much more serious than he had before telling his tale. Gradually, the charm returned.
"And then," he answered with a grand gesture, "adventure, thievery, danger, and innumerable hardships. But we overcame them all and strove forward in the absence of our leader."
"So that's why you changed," I said. Lapnir clearly tried to ignore the comment, but his look faltered briefly.
"What was number one?" Mellis asked.
"Huh?" Lapnir and I said together.
"Hephen rule number one. What was it?"
"Leave no crew members behind," I answered.
It was lunchtime by then, so we went to the galley to get something to eat.
To be continued...