© Rey Allgayer
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*Ten years ago...*
Lying to a child was harder than I expected. Those wide blue eyes staring up at me, accepting anything I said as the truth; so trusting.
At first, Kaz would ask about her parents, especially her mother, and I justified my lies by telling myself that secrets were not for toddlers. They could not be expected to understand the meaning of a secret and how to treat it like the fragile thing it was. But as time went on, she stopped asking. And I was relieved, because I could stop lying.
We settled into our routine, and sometimes it did feel like we had always belonged in Delle’s End. The villagers welcomed us, cooing over Kaz with her blue eyes and chubby freckled cheeks, and accepting me because we came as a package deal. It was almost more than I could have hoped for when I chose this tiny, dusty town as a place to hide. The outskirts of the Territory; the last town on the river before the mighty waterfalls. Surely no one will think to look for her here.
One evening I was busy making dinner and Kaz was playing with her toys on the kitchen floor--always exactly where I needed to be with a hot pan, of course--when she startled me with a question.
“G, is magic really evil or did the Savages just use it wrong?”
I nearly dropped the pot of boiling potatoes. Carefully schooling my expression and trying to keep my voice even and calm, I asked, “Now why would you ask that?”
She shrugged her little eight-year-old shoulders, barely looking up from the dolly she was playing with. “The other day, we found a slug outside by the riverbank and Declan ran home to get some salt because he had heard it would make it explode. It didn’t though. It went all shrivelled and died. I told him he was being mean but he was just disappointed it didn’t explode.”
“And why did that make you think of magic?”
“Well, salt isn’t evil,” she stated logically. “But Declan used it to do something mean. So I thought maybe magic was the same and the Savages were the mean ones.” At this point she finally looked up at me expectantly. Whatever I said next, she would believe and never question it again. That’s how children’s minds work. They think you know everything and are never wrong.
This was my chance. I could tell her everything. Where she came from. Who she was. Who her parents were. Why she would never truly belong here. I could give her a connection to a history and a past that the Territory wanted to steal from her.
But in the end all I said was, “I don’t know, Kaz.” I don’t know. Three words and the biggest lie I had told her in the five years I’d been her Guardian. And in the ten years since.
Later, when Kaz was sound asleep, having no doubt easily wiped the conversation from her memory, I sat awake in the living room long into the night. I found it was easy to justify my lie, really. Eight years old is still very young to be expected to understand what is at stake; to realise that not just her life and mine would be in danger if she ran off to school and told the teacher her uncle said the history they were being taught was wrong. And then where would we be? She has to blend in to be safe. Yes, all good reasons to lie.
But I also realised that none of them were mine. In all honesty, I lied because telling the truth would mean I would lose that wide-eyed trust that she had lent me for this exquisite fraction of time. This most precious thing that, if I was honest, was, to me, worth the harrowing cost we had paid for it. Because I’d have to tell her everything. This wasn’t something I could explain halfway.
Does that make me a coward?
* Two years ago...*
Isolation does strange things to you. For the majority of your time, you take on this new role of just another villager with no secrets who wants nothing more than to serve the Territory in any way he can, just like everyone else. Time slips by like this until you realise your cover that you adopted a decade ago, has become a reflex. But all it takes is one little trigger and instantly you revert back to your true self, memories and motivations and all.
My trigger came in the form of a worn out traveller. He appeared at my house late at night and rapped on the door three times, paused, then a fourth time. I opened the door slowly, hardly daring to recognise the signal for what it was.
“Can I help you?” I asked him.
“Do you know where I can find a good cobbler? It’s hard going these days,” he replied, his voice natural and even, but his expression one of wary intensity.
I heaved out a relieved sigh and answered in the expected way, “Just down the road you’ll find one who will help you on your way, but why don’t you come in first and rest those aching feet?” The stranger nodded and stepped inside as I opened the door further. I led him to the living room and gestured to him to take a seat. We didn’t do introductions. He presumably already knew my name and it was probably better if I never learned his.
“I didn’t know if I’d still find you here,” he said, taking off his hat and traveling coat and draping them over the armrest of the chair I’d offered him. “The information Seb gave me is a good few years old. Not like one of us to stay put so long.”
“If I had left, I would have let someone know. Seb sent you?” I offered him a mug of Vivek, a sweet, dark honey liqueur I’m quite partial to, which he gratefully accepted and took a healthy swig of before answering me.
“In a way. I have business a few towns upriver and he said if I could make the trip, it might be worthwhile to see what the last few years have done to you.”
“Mostly just made me fat,” I replied, making him chuckle. “Delle’s End is stuck in time and forgotten. Nothing changes. But that’s why we came here.” A pause. I knew the question was coming, could feel the weight of it without even meeting his eyes.
“Has she showed any signs yet?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“In our case, a good thing.” I took a swig from my own mug, letting the liquid calm my nerves.
“Are you hoping that she won’t?” he asked after a moment, raising an eyebrow.
“Can you blame me?” I shrugged. “She would be so much safer.”
“But completely disconnected--”
“No more than she is now.” After a few more moments, he nodded, his expression grave and sad. Drinking my liqueur faster than was good for me, I asked, “What was Seb hoping to hear?”
Heaving a sigh, he answered, “I think he was hoping that different rumours trickle down this end of the river, and you might have heard something that could help us.” He set down his mug on the little table between us and leaned forward. “We’ve started hearing whispers about another player. Someone has been stealing Braxas’ prey. His puppets hunt down a Descendent, but before they can make the grab, this secret faction slips in and the Descendent vanishes into the night.”
“No idea,” he replied.
“I thought we had everyone accounted for who was left behind?”
“We do. Which means they weren’t left behind. They’ve come back.” He settled back into his armchair.
“Then there is a way,” I breathed, hardly daring to speak the words. “A way for us to go home?”
“Wherever that is now,” he replied darkly. All the unexplained mysteries of the last two centuries hung in the air between us, unspoken.
Eventually, I said grimly, “These strangers, whoever they are, sure would have been needed here about six months ago.” My visitor raised his eyebrows. Apparently news didn’t travel much upriver either. “Braxas’ men came and took a family away in the middle of the night. I didn’t even know until the next morning when they announced it at a town meeting. It’s a miracle they didn’t find us too, to be honest.”
“Who was it?”
“Salesh and Jochim. And their son, Osca.”
“They had a son?”
I nodded sadly. “He was good friends with Kaz. He started showing signs around the normal time. I guess that’s how Braxas’ men found them. Just bad luck.”
“And they’ve not been back?”
“Salesh had always been tough. They’d be hard-pressed to get anything out of her.”
I nodded. “But having a son does offer some incentive. We can’t in all fairness expect her silence.”
“Sleep with one eye open, ey?”
“You think I sleep?” The man raised his mug to that, and we again lapsed into silence. If this news he brought was true, this could mean a glimmer of hope for us. If these mysterious people had come back without being detected, maybe they could bring us all somewhere safe. But first, we’d have to find them. “This other player—what are we doing to find them?”
“So far, just waiting and listening, I’m afraid. It’s just bad luck they haven’t contacted someone who could have sent us a message. That would make all our jobs much easier.”
“I suppose we’ve done ours too well,” I muttered. “We’ve spent years trying to hide, and now we can’t be found, even when we want to be.”
“Double-edged knife, or whatever the expression is,” he agreed, nodding.
“But for how long? We can’t just continue to wait for them to come to us,” I bit out, frustrated. “Surely this is the time to put something out there to tell them how to find us!”
“Yes, them and everyone else who’d like to know.” He shook his head. “It’s too dangerous.”
“You don’t have to explain the risks to me, I took them on same as you. But just imagine what it would mean if they could send us all home! Kaz and everyone else would be safe. We already know every Descendent that’s left. These—these—people are wasting time trying to find them!”
“Gideon, we are working on it,” he hissed, raising his hand to tell me to keep my voice down, flicking his gaze up the stairs. “But if we act rashly, all our sacrifice over the last centuries will be for nothing. Be patient.” I scrubbed my face with my hands and ran them through my hair.
“Patient,” I grumbled in acceptance. My visitor put down his empty glass on the wooden table with a clunk.
“I’d better get going. Can’t leave my horse in your yard too long.” He stood to leave, collecting his coat and hat from the chair. Sighing, I also rose to walk him to the door.
Before he stepped outside, I stopped him. “What’s the tally?” For a moment, he paused, as though he was deciding whether to tell me.
“We lost Tonya and Sykes.” Then he was gone. Faintly, I heard the sound of hoofbeats on the dirt road, but they soon faded and the night was as it always was. Quiet and empty.
My mind, however, was a seething mess. The thrill of hope so abruptly extinguished left me frustrated and restless. How could I do nothing? How many more Guardians did we have to lose before we took action? Braxas was picking us off one by one. Descendants were being discovered and taken despite our best efforts. We needed help.
But it was no use. This visitor came from Seb, and if Seb said patience, patience it would have to be.
* Two months ago...*
Two years is a long time to go without information. The picture I could piece together of the state of things in the Territory from the newsletters and snippets of information from travellers passing through the town, was blurry at best. My letters never received a reply anymore, so either it wasn’t safe to correspond with the old circle or my contacts had relocated or died. I needed a new plan, and the only tiny speck of hope I had was that these mysterious strangers might provide a lifeline. Tenuous. Very tenuous.
I grew anxious. I couldn’t wait any longer for one of my own to give me permission. I had to give them a way to find me. A message of some kind that they would recognise.
The weight of possible consequences was almost suffocating. What if the wrong person found it? What if it made its way into the hands of one of Braxas’ men? What if this got yet another Guardian killed? What if? What if? What if?
What if I didn’t do it and Braxas found her and I had no one to turn to?
It was enough to allow me to bring my hammer down onto the chisel and carve the mark into the back of the beautiful, intricate brooch commissioned from upriver. A straight line leading into a spiral underneath it. Our best-kept secret, stamped onto a piece of jewellery and sent into a stranger’s hands. This was a desperate act. But I was a desperate man.
To keep her safe was my purpose. Still is. That’s why we came here after all. Delle’s End is a small town at the very edge of the Territory, one most people have forgotten about. It’s safe here, and safe is what I was looking for fifteen years ago when I arrived holding the hand of a toddler who had just lost her mother.
But soon it might not be safe anymore.
I haven’t heard anything. From anyone.
Time is running out.
* I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot lately, in the same way that I sometimes wonder why we are ticklish. It seems almost accidental, like a misfire somewhere in our minds and bodies. I asked my uncle once why we are ticklish and he said that long ago, when we were wilder things, it helped us survive by giving us a heightened sense of awareness of areas that are vulnerable to attack--maybe from crawling things like spiders? Is it the same with dreams? Do they help us survive too? But instead of our bodies, they protect our minds, allowing us to cope with our everyday reality by giving us an escape?
Someone once told me that you can’t dream of someone you’ve never seen. That stranger in your dream is actually what someone would look like if they had the nose of your next-door neighbour, the eyes of the town baker, and the haircut of that man you saw last week in the square. Your mind is making a collage of all the faces it’s ever seen, to fool you into thinking you’re seeing a mysterious stranger. Where does he come from? What does he want from you? Maybe the little mysteries in your dreams mean you can cope with the monotony of reality.
If your dreams are using people of your past to cast the actors, perhaps they are also using your everyday colour palate to bring them to life. So if all you saw was dust--dusty houses, dusty streets, dusty people-- would your dreams be dust-coloured, too? Like the pages in a child’s colouring book that have yet to be filled in, just the outlines of a washed-out reality. And if a dusty world is all you’ve ever known, would you even know there was something missing?
And if that’s true, could I be dreaming better? Is the world that I escape to inside my head actually a pale cousin of some other place where green things grow and simply breathing doesn’t make you thirsty?
If you were a fish, would your dreams be saturated with watery shades of blue and green, rippling in and around each other in golden beams of sunlight? What a wonderful thing it must be to dream as a fish would... *
The watery vibrations of a boat signal interrupt my thoughts. My head snaps up and I kick upwards, letting go of the brick I was holding onto to keep me on the riverbed. When I break the surface, I hear the signal again, loud and clear and very close.
“Oh, Savage!” I hiss to no one. A boat is coming to dock, even though it isn’t delivery day! If Jacen, the dock manager, finds me now, he’ll never let me back into the water here, so close to an incoming boat without having noticed a thing. I can already hear him above me barking orders at the dockworkers and heavy hurried footfalls. The slightly hysterical pitch of his voice tells me this boat is not on the schedule. I quickly move to the edge of the docks and peer out, careful to stay hidden behind a pillar and not leave the safety of the shadows. It looks like I missed the first couple signals because the boat is much closer than I expected.
The only way I can describe it is pretty. It isn’t a barge like the ones that normally come down here for the weekly deliveries, which are generally long, rectangular, and completely devoid of anything resembling design that isn’t purely practical. But it isn’t a merchant’s vessel either, which are usually well crafted and elegant, but sturdy and durable; made to last a lifetime and carry heavy loads up and down the river between trading posts. No, this boat that’s approaching now looks more like the ones that carry wealthy travellers, with its long, elegant curved sides dotted with wooden scrolls and embellishments just because it’s aesthetically pleasing.
The passengers on these types of vessels usually come with their heads full of expectations of wilderness and mystery for the last town on the river before the great waterfalls, having heard the nickname “the edge of the world”, and then inevitably leave thoroughly underwhelmed on the next available passage back upriver. Word must have spread because these days even these visitors are almost non-existent. Still, once in a very long while an eccentric person comes through who is absolutely persuaded that nowhere could be as unexciting as Delle’s End was rumoured to be, and that they surely could discover its small-town charm. I am convinced this concept is a myth. I can find very little charm here and no town could possibly be smaller than this.
As the boat draws nearer, I get a better view of the people on the deck. Even had I not seen the decorative boat, their white clothes would have told me they were from the north— most likely from either Castor Avon or Fallonstead, the largest trading posts, where the wealthy can stay far away from manual labour. Clothes are really the only way to tell where someone is from in the Territory; clothes and how they wear their hair, if they follow the latest fad of teasing the wild black curls into intricate braids to contain them. In all other aspects, everyone looks the same: dark skin the colour of well-brewed tea, even darker freckles covering our cheeks and arms. Fashion trends change too quickly for me to keep track, isolated as we are down here, so northern styles always just look bizarre to me. Either large amounts of cotton fabric in useless places make the bodies look oddly angular or the clothes are so tight fitting, it’s remarkable anyone can breathe let alone move in them. As a sign of status, these clothes are generally various shades of white or cream, with one item of a bright colour making a statement, be it a head scarf or a belt tied intricately around the waist. I can’t imagine ever wearing clothes like that. They’re completely impractical and anyway the amount of laundry would be unbelievable.
After only a glimpse, I have to duck back into the shadows of the dock and safety of the pillars. That would be all I need, to have one of the passengers ask Jacen about the girl hiding under the docks. Only a minute or so later, the sunlight reaching under the piers is blocked out by the bulk of the boat making port and I have to blink several times to get my eyes accustomed to the gloom. The beams above me creak and groan as the ship is tied securely, fighting the currents. Jacen’s muffled voice and that of another man, presumably the visiting ship’s captain or foreman, drift down to me but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Whatever it is initiates a flurry of activity on the dock. The usual stomping footsteps of the dockworkers now mix with the light clip-clip of ladies’ delicate heeled shoes—the most ridiculous part of their entire outfit, in my opinion— and the softer steps of gentlemen’s woven leather sandals. There seems to be movement to and from the boat. What could they be unloading? Luggage? Goods? Is it some odd off-schedule delivery after all? All I know is that it doesn’t seem to end.
No delivery, not even the ones right before celebrations like Midsummer’s Day take this long to offload. Jacen’s managerial methods might be a lot of things, but inefficient they most definitely are not, so whatever is taking them so long to load or offload, I’m sure it is causing him a great deal of stress. I can picture him perfectly, the strain of trying to contain his rather frantic nature in front of wealthy visitors making that vein in his forehead pulse dangerously and causing him to tug erratically at his neatly trimmed beard.
While the newcomers continue to shuffle about above me, a flash of movement off the end of the boat catches my eye. I stare at the spot for a good minute. Then two. No, my eyes must have been playing tricks on me. Maybe it was just the light reflecting off the--there! What was that? I swim to the next pillar to get a closer look. Could those have been legs I just saw dangling there? As quickly as they’d appeared, they’d vanished, so I can’t be sure. But there was something.
A splash. Some ripples originating from the other side of the boat come into view. The ripples are quite agitated, as though whatever had splashed is rather large and still moving. Then a hand comes around the corner, trying to find hold in a crevice between the wooden boards of the ship. I can feel my heartbeat start to pound as the rest of a cloaked figure comes round the edge of the boat. I duck hastily behind the pillar as I see the figure’s head turn in my direction. The hand is quite large so I think it’s a man, medium height from what I could tell in those few seconds, but other than that I saw no identifying features. The hood is pulled forward enough to shield any view of his face.
Peeking around the pillar again because I can’t resist another look at the figure, I try to move my arms and legs as little as possible, nearly clinging to the wood with hands and knees, so I don’t make too many ripples and attract attention of my own. Curiosity and apprehension both struggle with each other in my head. I want to see for myself who the stranger is, but I also want to shout out to someone to make them aware of him. Someone sneaking off a boat must have a reason for not wanting to be seen, and the only ones I can think of are dishonest. He could be dangerous! I need to bring him to someone’s attention!
But my curiosity wins, as it usually does, and I don’t shout. I just continue watching.
The figure is still there, hanging onto the boat, head turned toward the walkways, face still completely hidden by the hood. Surely being dressed like that would make it hard to blend in. Maybe in a bigger town, where people dress in all kinds of ways and come from different walks of life, a disguise like this would work, but here? He wouldn’t be able to walk down the road without someone taking notice. Then again, I can’t see his face so it is doing its job, I suppose. I still can’t hear anyone on the docks, so what is he waiting for?
Too late, I realise exactly what he’s waiting for and can’t move to a safer hiding spot before he darts across the open space between the boat and the docks and quickly swims for the shadows. Not seeing another option, I take a lungful of air and duck under the surface, cling to the base of the pillar, and hope that there is still enough silt in the water that he won’t notice me. Even though the sediment stings my eyes, I keep them open wide, hoping to catch a glimpse as the figure swims past me. But I also desperately don’t want to be seen. Apprehension has now fully gained control of my mind and is screaming at me to stay hidden. I can feel the water moving as he draws closer to me, the strength of the movement telling me he is dangerously near. Please don’t look down. Please don’t look down.
He’s right next to me now, his boots kicking up even more silt from the riverbed, and just when I think I might get away unseen, his boots abruptly stop about an arm’s length from my head. If I wanted to, I could reach out and touch him. But I don’t want to. I want him to just keep moving! I stare at the boots, willing them to take another step. Even in the gloom, I can see that they are brown leather boots with three buckles on the sides. The boots turn, the toes pointing directly at me, and my heart starts pounding in my throat. Has he seen me? Is he just waiting for me to have to come up for air? We could be here a while. Should I just make a break for the river without surfacing and hope I can outswim him? That might be my best option, considering... but then the boots move away again. In that slow-motion way that walking through water requires, they and the body attached to them retreat from my hiding spot.
Just as I think I’m in the clear and about to make my escape, his boot, now hidden in the silty gloom, kicks my shin, jolting anxiety through me like lightning. Without thinking, I let go of the pillar and swim in the direction of lighter water without coming up for air. Am I imagining it, or is there splashing behind me? Is he coming after me? I don’t stop until the wooden hull of the boat comes into view in the brighter part of the water, where sunbeams add an almost laughably cheerful backdrop to my still-pounding heart.
Ducking around the edge of the boat so as to be hidden from the docks too, I finally surface. After a few gulps of air, I brace myself for shouts of “Fish! Fish!” from Jacen, who usually prefers my nickname over calling me Kaz when he’s cross, or even worse, the stranger to appear in pursuit. But the shouts don’t come. Letting out a shaky breath, I allow myself to relax against the hull slightly, hanging on to its wooden boards so the current doesn’t sweep me away.
Out of immediate danger, curiosity is back in the fight and seems to be winning. Unable to resist, I edge along the boat’s side for one last peek at the docks. But I see nothing. No hooded figure, no sneaking stowaway. The docks look like they always do. Only now, for the first time in my life, I ask myself what they are hiding in their shadows.
I shake my head to clear it, and duck under the water to let myself be carried downstream by the current, only popping up and paddling to the banks when I know that I’ve rounded the bend and am out of sight of the docks and the sorting shed. I sit on the bank for a long while, waiting for my clothes to dry in the gentle late-afternoon breeze and the sun’s waning light. My heart rate slows and eventually I stop shaking. As the human mind does, I suppose, my imagination starts reworking the last hour’s events into something less frightening and wildly more exciting.
I feel the guilt of this thought almost before I think it, but this might be the most wonderfully exciting thing that has ever happened to me, or that I’ve ever heard happening to anyone else here in Delle’s End. A hooded figure sneaking off a boat that wasn’t even scheduled to be here and disappearing into the shadows. It sounds like one of those stories my uncle told me when I was a child, full of mystery and adventure. Really, I know I should tell someone about the stranger. It is my duty. Anyone in Delle’s End would be confused and disappointed that I am even hesitating. He could be dangerous, and I should think of the safety of Delle’s End before my own childish need for excitement. The good of the many over the needs of the few. That’s what I’ve always been taught.
But in all honesty, I simply don’t want to. I’ve been wishing for adventure my whole life, dreaming of a life outside of this town. Not that I could ever tell anyone that, of course. I would be scolded for having ambitions outside of what the Territory required of me and being ungrateful for what Lord Braxas and his regime have provided. But if I tell someone about the hooded figure and it turns out there is no mystery to him at all, where would I be then? Right back where I was this morning, stuck in the routine of everyday life. My adventure would end before it had even begun.