Those Left Behind: Part Four
After Else finished her story, we spent the remainder of the day on our separate tasks. I read one of the books I brought along, Lapnir and Else spent time chatting, and I didn't see Mellis or Haldan for the remainder of the day until it was time to go to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up seasick. This whole seafaring thing really had never been for me. We had what the crew was having for breakfast, and assembled once more. It was a sunny day, so we all gathered around a table on the deck. Breathing in the fresh air and focusing intently on the horizon, my nausea started to dissipate.
"So, who's next?" Else asked.
No one answered.
"Mellis seemed pretty eager to get everyone to share their stories," Lapnir said with a mischievous grin, "So it's got to be one of those two rays of sunshine." He shot a knavish look at Haldan, and then at me.
Still no one answered.
"Hm, but I wonder which of them it could be," Else responded with a similar tone. Whatever they talked about the night before, they must have really hit it off.
I dug out my slip of paper and flashed it to the table. "It's not me, I'm last."
Three pairs of eyes turned to Haldan. I turned back to the horizon. Haldan seemed to absorb all the stares directed at her and fire them all back at her attackers. Finally, the Tonu grunted and tossed her head back irritatedly, almost ripping the umbrella standing over the table with her horn. "All right, I get it." Without any more ceremony than that, she started.
Shenkuu was beautiful in the summer. The calls of a thousand kinds of petpets formed a rich symphony, conducted by the soft breeze that curled around the mountain peaks and swished through the trees. From atop the mountains, the valleys below looked perfect in the most fascinating way, and no amount of staring could ever reveal everything that went on below. From down in the valleys, the mountains seemed to rise up and pierce the heavens themselves.
I lived on the mountaintops, but I was no stranger to the valleys. I walked through them frequently, visiting the bustling market towns and traveling through the lush, misty farmlands. What I saw, I painted. What I heard, I sang. What food and crafts I bought, I would then reproduce myself.
As a daughter of nobility, these arts were expected of me. I was required to be skilled in elegance and grace. I was good at these things, but not excellent; however, I didn't resent these tasks like the young heroines of so many fairy tales. My life was a good one, and I enjoyed it.
I also had to learn to fight. My parents, while expecting me to hold to the tenets of nobility, still believed that I needed to learn to defend myself, in case of attackers. I was taught fighting skills particular to Tonu, such as horn techniques and proper footwork. I was good at it, but I never enjoyed it and didn't expect that I would ever need to use it.
My family was landed aristocracy: we owned a large amount of land, and employed workers to farm it. When I left our mansion at the mountain summit and walk down through the steep terraced farms, the workers would pause in their work and bow to me. They were so courteous and deferential, I wondered why my parents were so worried about my safety.
I don't recall exactly when it happened. It must have been a gradual thing. The bows of the workers when I walked through the fields became more stiff, their expressions more sour. I disregarded it as my imagination at first, but eventually it became too obvious to ignore. Down in the markets, too, the shop owners who once greeted me cheerfully became chilly, and as I walked through the streets I saw more and more suspicious glances from passersby. This bothered me, but there was nothing I could do about it. Throwing a fit about people not liking me would have been unbecoming for a young woman of my status. I started venturing outside less, spending more time practicing the arts of the nobility.
One night, several months after I first began noticing those distrustful glares, I was awoken by shouting. My father burst into my room, and I sat upright.
"You have to get out of here," he told me. "The workers are rebelling."
I stared, speechless.
"You have to run away. Wear this." He threw a dull, dark gray-colored hooded cloak at me. "Are you listening?" he snapped.
"What... why are they rebelling?" was all I could think of to ask.
"I don't know," my father answered quickly. "That isn't important now. Quickly, put on that cloak." Obediently, I put it on. It was heavy and dark, and the fabric felt rough. "Take this as well." He handed me a small pouch. Looking inside, I saw gold. "Make sure you don't lose it."
Still trying to process what was happening, a hundred questions ran through my head. "Where should I go?"
"Leave through the servants' exit in the back. Hide in the summer cottage; stay still and silent." I paused for a bit longer, trying to understand. "GO!"
The shock of being yelled at snapped me to my senses. I had seen my father angry before, but as a nobleman he was expected to remain calm and collected at all times. Without nodding, I left the room and ran.
The cloak blended in almost perfectly with the night. I watched the soft light of the moon reflect off of my horn, until I realized that it would give me away like a beacon, and pulled the hood low over my head. I made my way to the smaller house we used in the summer, when the weather was at its warmest. I didn't look back until I got there, and when I did, I saw a faint orange glow in the distance. When I realized what it was, my stomach felt like it had been hollowed out.
My home was burning. I wanted to run back, to find my parents and drag them with me, but reason stopped me. Instead, I hid curled up in a closet until day came, praying none of the attackers would come here. I didn't sleep at all that night. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and in time my ears adjusted to the silence. Every bird call or snapping twig made me jump. Every time I heard a shout in the distance, I hoped it didn't come from my family. Through it all, I could just barely hear the low rumbling of a fire, and that was the worst part. I let myself cry then, because I knew I might not get another chance.
Growing up, I loved the Shenkuu summers. The mornings were warm and bright, the afternoons brought cool rain, and the long evenings were clear and starry. They stretched on, as the grain grew taller and the trees started to bear fruit. But as long as those summers were, it seemed as though five could have fit into that one night. The attackers never came. But neither did my parents. The sun rose, and the glow from my burning home faded, to be replaced with a tall pillar of smoke. I waited, drinking water from the rain barrel behind the cottage and hiding as best I could for most of the rest of the time. There was no food.
Finally, after three days, my hunger won over my fear. I ventured back toward home, now guided by the smoke that still rose from the ruins. Even after all that time, the heat from the fire was tremendous. I couldn't get closer than three paces from what used to be the walls of the house. A few timbers were still intact, charred and lazily burning. I called for my parents, but nobody answered. I felt at my waist for the small pouch of gold, swallowed the lump in my throat, and went down the mountain for the last time.
I was honestly surprised that nobody tried to attack me. The workers stopped working when they saw me, as they used to, but now rather than bowing, they jeered. Some threw rocks--not hard enough to hit, but I picked up my pace nonetheless.
My situation didn't improve when I got into the valleys. The suspicious looks had become outright hostility. Doors closed in my face at every restaurant, shop, and inn. I continued calling for my parents, and asking for food or water, to no avail. I thought about taking out that pouch of gold and waving it around. Whatever had made these people hate me so much, surely they would overlook it for the sake of money? I shoved the idea out of my head, tempting though it was. I didn't want to risk getting mobbed. Not knowing what else to do, I kept walking. I decided to head toward the capital city. I had no particular reason for this, other than that there would be more people there.
Having had nothing to eat for three days, I quickly grew fatigued. Walking made me even more hungry than I already was, but nobody seemed willing to sell me any food. I also became thirsty and cursed myself for not bringing water along. There hadn't been any bottles to put it in, but eventually even the absurd image of carrying an ornate enamel fruit bowl full of water down the mountain became appealing. I passed by and over streams, but didn't trust the water to be clean.
Dusk fell, and people returned to their houses. I staggered onward, my body begging me to collapse but my mind urging me forward. Finally, I came upon an apple tree by the side of the road. Not even looking to see whether anyone was watching, I dashed to it, picked the first fruit I could reach, and shoved it into my mouth. Then another, and another, and gradually both my hunger and thirst waned. I kept walking until I found a wooded area, went into the forest until I could no longer see the road, and slept.
The next day, I returned to get more apples, but the Shoyru tending the land saw me. "If you want those, you're gonna have to pay for them," he called, rather roughly. Startled that he hadn't chased me away outright, I nodded, and fished a piece of gold out from the bag.
"I would like to pick two dozen, please," I said, displaying my payment. The farmer put down his tools and walked over to me, his eyebrows raising as he drew near.
"All right, d'you have a bag for those?" After thinking for a moment, I removed my cloak, tying the arms and hem together to make a simple pack. I handed him the gold piece, and he returned to tending his field. "Pick as many as you want." I filled the newly formed pack with as many apples as I could manage. Whatever had turned so many people against me, apparently hadn't spread this far. I continued walking.
Several days of travel later, I woke up to find my gold pouch missing. I scrambled frantically for it, wondering if it had somehow fallen off or if I had misplaced it. After tearing up the patch of forest where I had slept, I could only draw one conclusion: someone had stolen it. As I was cursing myself for being stupid enough to leave it out for anyone to see, I heard voices.
"...few more days, if we keep up this pace."
It was a large group, walking on the road. There looked to be thirty or forty travelers. They had several wagons. They were heading in the same direction as me, so I hoped that they wouldn't mind me joining them.
I stumbled out of the woods and onto the road. Several heads turned to look intently at me, and for a horrible moment I wondered if they would be more of the people who hated me for some reason I still didn't understand.
Several exchanged looks, and finally one of them asked, "Where are you headed?"
I turned to the speaker, a Korbat with a wing that looked like it had been torn and mended. "The capital," I answered hesitantly. "May I walk with you?"
"That depends, what can you provide?" I stared blankly, and eventually he continued. "We're a traveling party, everyone needs to pull their own weight. D'you have any supplies?"
I pulled the makeshift pack off of my back. "I have some apples. I had money, but it was--I can't find it." This somehow sounded worse than admitting it had been stolen. A ripple of amusement rolled through the crowd, and I got a better look at them. It was an egalitarian-looking group of many different species and ages. I even saw a few children younger than me, poking their heads out of the wagons.
"A few pieces of fruit isn't enough," the Korbat continued. "What about skills? Can you repair a wagon axle?" I blinked and started to open my mouth, then shut it again. "How about bandaging wounds? Building a raft? You at least know how to start a fire, don't you?"
"Torp, stop giving her trouble." A large brown Eyrie lightly batted the back of the Korbat's head, who frantically flapped his wings a few times to stay upright. The Eyrie turned and scrutinized me. "Don't mind him, he's messing with you."
"Was just having a bit of fun," the Korbat muttered.
"Of course you can travel with us," the Eyrie continued. "Safety in numbers and all that. But it would help if you did have something to contribute."
I looked down and thought. "I guess I can cook," I finally answered. "And sing."
He grinned. "Singing is good! Do you know any traveling songs?"
"A few, I guess."
"Well, maybe you can sing us one right now, while we walk. But first, you never said your name."
Oh. "It's Haldan," I responded.
"Haldan." The Eyrie held out his paw. "I'm Hephen, it's a pleasure to meet you." I shook it.
We walked, and I began to sing.
As we walked, I became acquainted with the group. Hephen was apparently the leader--or at least, everyone else generally did what he said. I gradually began to see what resembled a chain of command as the group made decisions about which roads to take, where to stop, who to delegate various duties to, and so on. But there was one important thing I still couldn't understand.
"What does your group do?" I finally asked. When I did, several of my new traveling companions seemed to share odd glances.
"We're professional travelers," Hephen finally answered. I responded with a puzzled look. "Nomadic seekers of fortune. Some of us chose to cast off mainstream society because it was too restrictive." There were several nods and grumbles of agreement. "Others just had nowhere else to go." I remembered the young children traveling in this group. "Now, we travel where we choose and take our opportunities as we find them. And if we don't find them, we make them."
Something bothered me about this explanation, but I couldn't quite figure out what. I realized it might have been a sensitive topic, and that I would find out more later.
That evening, we stopped at a clearing in the woods and made camp. Along with several others, I was asked to find firewood, and rocks to put together for a fire pit. Once the fire was started, food was brought out from the wagons and prepared. I made steamed negg buns, while other people cooked other dishes. Even outdoors, the mingling smells of the kitchen were powerful, and I suddenly realized how hungry I had been for the past week. It was delicious, and I went to sleep with a full stomach for what felt like the first time in an eternity.
To be continued...