Serene and Traek had long ago left the fire ravaged woods for the thriving and living forest. Birds chirped high above them. Their colorful feathers only visible for an instant before they darted back into the leaves. Over yonder a squirrel chattered none stop to his neighbors, and somewhere else a dove cooed. Deer tracks could be plainly seen in the soft earth and every once in awhile signs of a bear, or a pack of dogs, could be seen.
Tarek felt rejuvenated with every mile they walked, until the use of his walking stick was almost needless. Suprisingly with his better health came endless talk; he described the world around them with fascinating detail. He explained what everything was and sometimes why it was, while occasionally throwing in an old story about his people. Serene devoured every word with a ravenous appetite.
The constant dialogue helped in another way besides vital information. It served as distraction from Serene’s constant agnony. Her eyes, even though tightly closed, burned and in addition her head ached from the ceaseless effort to keep them closed. Her feet hurt from walking so far. And though her heavy clothing kept the sun’s rays from her, they couldn’t save her from the heat. Her skin was boiling, so that even Tarek’s gentle grip left her wincing in pain. She could only pray that the Cruz village wasn’t too far.
But morning passed into afternoon and afternoon into evening, while Tarek’s talk became whistling and her grief became excruciating.
Suddenly Tarek stopped.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, trying to keep the fatigue from her voice.
“There’s a slight drop-off here,” he explained, “I’ll go down first and then help you.”
He let go of her arm and half slid, half jumped down . Turning around, he firmly placed his hands on Serene’s hips and lifted her. The ensueing cry of pain, caused Tarek to drop Serene on the hard ground.
“Serene are you alright?” he rushed to her side.
“No,” she said, choking on tears.
“Keep your eyes closed,” he warned as he turned her over. Serene let out a sharpe gasp every time he touched her and at first he couldn’t understand why. When it finally did dawn on him, he cursed himself and swiftly looked for shelter, which he found in the form of a hollow tree.
“Serene I am going to have to pick you up-”
“Can we not rest!?” she accused him with disgust.
Tarek cringed at the anguish in her voice, “There’s shelter not far from here. I’m going to carry you there,” he explained softly.
“Oh,” she sighed.
Tarek wasted no time in scooping her up as gently as he knew how and starting forward.
An excess amount of leaves had gathered in the tree and the whole thing smelled of damp decay, but at least it was cool. Serene was laid among the wet leaves.
Kneeling beside Serene, Tarek helped her to remove the mask and hood, exposing horribly burnt skin. Tarek hated to see what the rest of her looked like.
“Why did you not tell me you were burning?”
All sympathy had left his words. He thrust a water jug into her hands, while he doused her blisters with the other.
“I did not think your village was so far away,” she answered, after chugging down half of the container, “It’s so hot,” she panted. Her face glowing red, even in the darkness.
Tarek growled and rolled his dark eyes. He should have known she couldn’t handle that much sun! But why didn’t she say anything? It wasn’t like he was gifted with the power to read minds.
“Maybe her people are,” he mumbled.
“How long will we rest here?” she cut into his thoughts.
“We wait till night fall.”
“If you move again you will die, understand? Sleep if you can,” Tarek draped the heavy curtain over the enterance. Deep darkness took hold of the small space, to the emmesnce relief of both.
“I can’t,” she said right away her voice still coming out is quick gaspes.
Tarek sighed, but said nothing.
“Will you tell me now, why the Foul invaded?”
“You want me to entertain you?” he chuckled.
“Are you always so bold?”
“Fine. What do you want to know my little friend?”
“Why did the Foul invade?”
“How many do you have in your family?” he asked.
Serene didn’t see the correlation, but answered anyway, “I had two brothers.”
“Had?” he frowned. She didn’t answer, so he decided it was best to move on, “Is that a large or small family to the People?”
“To the Cruz, three children is extremely small. I only have my sister, but an ordinary Cruz household will contain seven to eight children.”
“Eight?” Serene was overwhelmed.
“For Foul’s it’s much bigger. They can have eighteen or twenty children. And that is why the Foul have invaded; they are running out of room and require more land, which they think they can steal from us.”
Serene thought that made sense, “I cannot believe so many people exist.”
“Are there not many of your People?”
“No more than two hundred.”
Tarek was stunned, “Why so few?”
“The caves are a dangerous place to live. There are cave-ins, acid pools, killer insects, snakes, floors that give way under you, lava flows, sudden floods and some people simply disappear in the dark. Death is always expected and rarely fails to deliver.”
“What an evil place,” he stated, horrified by all he’d heard.
Serene laughed, “You do not know the caves. You mentioned you have a sister?”
“Banta,” Tarek spoke her name with true fondness.
“You said she was your only sibling, but what about that boy at the creek? You called him your brother.”
Tarek’s voice fell, “Garb was my best friend. He was like a brother to me.”
Serene asked the next question that came to mind, “Are you and your sister close?”
Tarek would have perferred not to talk of his sister, but something about Serene’s question struck him as funny, “How could we not be close? Banta is my sister.”
“Well sometimes families are not close,” Serene defended.
“To the Cruz family is everything. It is not so in the Deep?”
Serene would have liked to have said ‘yes’, “Tell me; what are Cruz families like? Besides for them being large.”
For a moment Tarek was silent as he carefully thought out his reply, but when he did speak it was in that tone of voice he used to speak of his forest. And Serene knew he could now easily talk for hours.
“A Cruz family is tight knit and well ordered. The father provides for the family and he specially trains his son to be a warrior. He also works a trade for the service of the tribe. My father works with skin and weaves. He made that shirt you’re wearing and the armor that I wear.”
“He is a very skilled man,” Serene said as she fingered the material in her shirt.
“As much as any Cruz man,” Tarek replied softly, “A son’s role is to honor his father and to focus on his training, until his Coming of Age.”
“Coming of Age?”
“It’s a ceremony in which a boy becomes a man. At twenty years of age the boy goes through a covenant ceremony. And then there’s feasting and music and dancing. The celebration literally lasts all night.”
“What is ‘dancing’?”
“And what is ‘music’? Was that the sound you were making earlier?”
“My whistling?” Tarek smiled, “In a way, I suppose… Excuse my curiosity, but what do your People do for fun?”
Serene shrugged her shoulders, “We climb things and we swim. We also have a yearly tournament.”
“As in combat?”
“In a way. We hold competitions and then anyone who is older than thirteen can take the Test.”
“Well in the darkness part of the caves there is a thin bridge that crosses a pit. Beyond it is a cave filled with wonder and light and your true calling. Everyone of the People is given one chance to cross the bridge and to come back. Many never try and many others die. Only a select few have been found with the courage to pass the Test.”
“Have you made it a cross?” he asked with true interest.
“No,” she hestitated, “But my father and both of my brathers have made it,” she let her words fall off, “So this Coming of Age it obviously involves a great deal of celebration. Anything else?”
“The man marries.”
“You mean you have to marry at twenty?”
“Aye,” Tarek smiled at her shock.
“How is this accomplished? Surely not everyone can fall in love by twenty years!”
“Fall in love?” Tarek laughed, “You Cave Dwellers are very strange. No music or dancing, but you relay on love for marriage. Our marriages are arranged by the fathers years in advance.”
“Take my sister for example. Two days after she was born my father went to a friend and promised Banta to his eldest son. When that son comes of age he would marry my sister.”
“And neither he, nor she has any say in the matter?”
“No, of course not. I take it things are done differently in the caves.”
“Indeed!” she exclaimed, “A man can marry any woman he wishes and so can a woman. Or you can choose not to get married at all.”
Tarek huffed, “No wonder there are so few of you.”
That quited her, that is until she thought of something else, “What happens if your marriage partner dies?”
“Some men choose not to remarry, but most go back to their father’s house and allow him to select them a new wife.”
“I suppose the woman automatically goes back to father?”
Tarek grunted an affirmative.
“The Coming of Age Ceremony is very important.”
“‘It seems,” a yawn broke her words, “It seems so strange.”
“Strange to you maybe, but it has worked for hundreds of years among our people. Maybe if you Cave Dwellers had a little more structure to your marriages there would be more of you… Serene?”
No response came.
“Serene?” it was then that he heard her soft snore on the air, “Finally.”
Darkness was behind her. Sweet, comforting darkness, yet it was to the light that she ran. The Council of Five was around her. All at once voices shouted out.
“You are chosen! You are chosen!”
She couldn’t move and she let out a blood curling scream. But no one could hear her. Blinding light.
“Serene wake-up,” Tarek called from far above her, “Serene we have to keep moving. Wake-up.”
“What? What’s wrong?” she sat up. The cobwebs of sleep still clinging to her mind and eyes.
“We need to go.”
Serene’s vision cleared enough for her to see Tarek’s face. She stilled it was much too pale considering his dark skin.
“Are you alright? Is your wound bothering you?”
He froze and looked past her in the oppressive blackness. Finally however he huffed, “I feel fine. I didn’t sleep very much… Too many nightmares,” the last was said so quite she almost missed it.
“Nightmares? Why didn’t you wake me-”
“I don’t need to wake my mother every time I’m scared,” he balked.
“That’s not what I meant,” Serene defended.
“That is what it sounded like,” his face was a mixture of embarrassement and anger.
Serene looked down, even though she knew he couldn’t see her and spoke softly. Her own grief still near, “I know what it is like to lose a loved one… Violently. You can’t stop thinking about it during the day and your mind won’t let you forget at night.”
“Is that what you were dreaming of?” Tarek’s voice had grown soft as well, along with his dark eyes.
“That’s all I ever dream of,” she sounded so weary.
Tarek stood and moved away, “We need to move if we are ever going to get back.”
Nodding, Serene pushed herself up only to yelp at her burns.
“Are you alright?” he was right back at her side.
“Yes,” she gritted her teeth to stand, “Just tender.”
In the painful moments that followed, Serene ate and readied her garments. She stood waiting to go, but Tarek only stood there with misgivings written on his face.
“What’s the matter?”
“How do you feel about rain?”
“That’s what I thought. I can’t explain it in words,” Tarek yanked down the curtain.
Serene was flabbergasted by what she saw. It was like the utter darkness of the caves and yet falling from above was water. Almost like the whole sky had decided to become a waterfall. Suddenly a light lit the skies, followed by the loudest bang she had ever heard.
Serene jumped back into the tree, her eyes wild with fear, “What was that?!”
“Lightning,” he explained, “We should be safe, if it doesn’t strike us.”
“If what doesn’t strike us?”
“Lightning,” as if on cue the blinding light returned, followed in quick succession once again by the bang.
“What is that noise?”
“It’s thunder. It is caused by the lightning- Look don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t even understand it all. But can you handle the flashes of light?”
“I… Yes, I think so.”
“Good, because I can’t see anything.”
Serene looked at him in disbelief.
“You are going to have to lead me,” he held up his hand.
“But I don’t which way to go,” Serene protested refusing to take his hand.
“Just head straight ahead,” he pointed blindly into the dark, “It will be slow going but we have to try.”
“This is madness,” lightning and thunder.
“I’m going with or without Cave Dweller,” Tarek stepped out into the rain his hand still extended.
Grabbing it without a second thought, Serene charged deep into the storm. They ran through mud puddles and over fallen trees, or under them. Sometimes they would have to double back, because of a swollen creek but always they moved.
Serene quickly decided, that though she loved the cool rain on her skin, she utterly disliked thunderstorms. It was not only the lightning and his faithful companion thunder. It was the strong, never relenting wind. It roared like a mighty beast and even the strongest tree bent to it’s will. Serene watched in utter horror as the heaven bound trunks were thrust back down by this invisible enemy. All at once the wind picked-up some more and began blowing the rain sideways in mighty gusts. Serene could no longer see. Slowing to a tentative crawl, she carefully lead Tarek along when the ground gave out beneath them and they fell down a ravine.
“Tarek are you okay?’ Serene called over the strom, her hand reaching out for his.
A firm hand ripped hers from the air as he coughed out, “I’m at least alive,” he laughed.
“How much further is the village?” she yelled.
“It’s a three day hike to the village,” he replied as he stood and pulled her up as well.
“Tarek, I thought it would be closer! We cannot keep going.”
“Silence,” he hissed and stilled, his hand closing over her mouth
Serene listened intently and heard a lone howl mingled admist the wind.
Pushing Tarek’s hand aside, she dared to whisper, “What is that?”
“Hounds,” his body had gone ridged, “Quick, do you see them?”
Serene spun around, “What is a hound- Duck!” she tackled Tarek just as a massive head of teeth leapt for his neck.
“Run!” Tarek yelled, whacking blindly at the monster with his staff, “Find a tree! Climb!”
Serene spun around again, but this time she saw a pack of eight grey beasts of enormous size surrounding them. The only tree close enough was equally enormous. Grabbing Tarek’s arm, she dragged him to it’s base. Serene ripped the stick from Tarek’s hand and wildly, but effectively, fought off the hungry hounds, who’s green eyes glowed eerily in the storm and who’s thick tuffs of hair swirled about them.
“Climb on my back and I’ll carry you up-” Tarek began, but never finished.
For at that exact moment Serene leapt onto the tree and made an effortless climb up. The stunned Cruz had to quickly recover and start up after her, or get eaten. And after some effort, he finally caught up with the ‘Cave Dweller’, who awaited him on the first suitable branches to support their weight. Though he was slightly winded, she appeared to be completely unaffected by the thrity foot climb in a thunderstorm.
“Care to explain how you did that?” he barked.
Serene laughed, “I told you my People could climb. We do it for fun.”
“I’m impressed little friend. Very impressed,” he relaxed and stood on his branch. The storm was abating.
“What were those things?”
“Mountain hounds. The storm must have driven from the hills. It’s been many a moon since they’ve been this Far East.”
“Charming,” Serene watched as the lumbering masses of dark flesh bounded away with the wind, “What now?”
A devilish look entered Tarek’s eyes, “How do you feel about Tree-hopping?”
Serene looked at him as their tree swayed slightly in the wind, “And what is that?”
“Watch,” he grinned and leapt into a neighboring pine, “It’s faster and safer than walking!” he yelled back over the expanse, “Think you can handle it?’
The girl beamed and jumped, landing right in front of Tarek, or rather right into Tarek.
Rapping his arms around her for stability, the Cruz boy laughed, “Hello there.”
“Hi,” Serene laughed as well, “That was fun,’ she declared.
Tarek let her go with a playful shove, “You’re crazy.”
“You wanted to run through the rain and you jumped first,” she pointed out as he perpared to jump again.
“We could race,” he offered without looking back at her.
“So we could,” her eyes went ablaze with excitement.
After she had taken up her position the race was on. And though Tarek was infinitely more graceful than she was, she could keep up with him in a very close Tree-hopping race.
The sun hung high in a blue sky. It’s warm and dazzling light piercing deep into the forest. Yet between two boulders it had no power and so it was here that Serene and Tarek slept off their previous night of travel. Nestled into the tight cleft, both travelers struggled between sweet dreams of peace and huanted dreams of the past. It’s amazing how a dream can take an already painful reality and turn it into a horrific and inescapable illusion.
It was during one of these particularly violent nightmares that Tarek awoke with a start and a cry of torment. Looking over to Serene, who’s small head rested on his shoulder mercifully undisturbed by his fear. Tarek leaned back against the cold rock.
He’d relived it all. All the death and the blood… The fire and Garb. A cold shiver rean down his spine. Would he always remember Garb’s death with such clarity? Or would it fade with time? But did he want it to fade? Garb had showed his ultimate love for him in dying in his defense. How could he ever forget that?
“Why is your world always so bright?” Serene asked softly.
Tarek’s brown eyes swung down to her, “I thought you were sleeping.”
She smiled, “I just woke up,” her smile turned sad and sympathatic at the hurt she saw so plainly in Tarek’s eyes. Her mouthed opened as if she intended to say something. But when no words came, she closed it again and looked away.
Tarek remembered his harsh words last night and now that he thought about it, sharing his sorrows with her didn’t seem at all that riduculous. After all she had lost a loved one to violence as well, maybe she could answer some of the questions that plagued him.
But how to begin? He had a pretty good idea who she had lost, but he didn’t want to insult her by bringing it up so suddenly. Maybe if he asked about her exile first, or her homeland. Which would be less painful? Or maybe he should just dive right into the hard stuff.
“Serene?” he spoke at last.
“Would you mind… Tell me about your brothers,” he didn’t mean to sound so demanding, but frankly he didn’t know how else to ask it.
“My brothers,” she smiled softly, “They were twins and were three years older than me. They always tried to protect me. Two of the bravest men I’ve ever known. They were so much like my father. He is a great man,” she stopped, having lost herself in the ever fading dreamlike image of her father.
“What happened to them?”
“They died,” she said bitterly.
Serene sat up, her body stiff, “They died within minutes of each other. I watched and did nothing to save them,” tears spilled over her lashes as a chill raked her body.
“And your mother?”
Serene flipped away from him, “I have no mother.”
Her words were filled with such betrayl that Tarek knew better than to press further, instead he let the silence rule once more.
Soon night again took hold and the two travelers emerged from their hide-away, cramped but rested. They ran to a near by tree, scurried up and tree-hopped away. As hours ticked by the forest grew in density, until Serene found herself unable to breath. She slowed and then stopped all together.
“It’s so thick in here,” she gasped, Tarek stopping beside her.
“We’re nearing the heart of the forest. The Cruz tribe lies in the very center.”
“How can you stand the pressure? The air is so old. It coats your nose with a stagnant odor.”
Tarek laughed as if he hadn’t a care in the world, “This smells and feels like home to me,” he took a long whiff of air, “But come on, follow me,” he started to climb upward.
“Where are we going?” Serene called after him.
“Even to a Cruz the forest can be oppressive,” he explained just as they broke through the canopy to the endless night sky above, “So we come up here.”
The stars at this vantage point were stunning, but Serene was far too busy breathing in the sweetest air she’d ever known, “This is amazing,” she exhaled and closed her eyes.
“I agree,” he cocked his head to one side as he studied her in the pale light, “But how can you say the forest was oppressive? I would think your cave would be worse.”
Serene grinned at him, “But as you said it was my cave and this your forest,” she looked out a cross the endless tops of trees, “And what a forest.”
Every direction she turned the sea of green spread on, except far to the West. There the mighty trees were forced to stop, before an even mightier force the mountains
“Those are the White Peeks,” Tarek said, following her gaze, “They encirle all lands, not just the Cruz.”
“Does no one know what lies beyond?”
“Water. The ocean lies beyond.”
Tarek just smiled.
“Does the whole forest belong to your people?”
“It does,” his air was proud and confident, “From the Western peeks to the grassy plains in the East. North the forest ends before a river that runs deep inside a gorge and to the South a vast desert of death.”
“It’s so big,” Serene breathed.
They fell silent for at least for a time.
“How long until we reach your village?” Serene questioned.
“Probably by the end of tomorrow night. We’ve made good time.”
“And how many villages do the Cruz have?” Serene had grown thoughtful.
“Just the one.”
“I thought you said the whole forest belonged to you?”
Tarek frowned, “It does.”
“But you only live in a small portion of it?”
“Then why do you fight the Foul for land, when you clearly have more than you need?”
Tarek’s ire rose, “Don’t speak in ignorance Cave Dweller!”
Serene however, did not back down, “It seems you are wasting the blood of your sons on causes that don’t make any sense.”
“Don’t make any sense?! And what happens when the Foul pull down the trees to make way for their farms? What happens to our way of life then? And what happens when the Foul out grow their bounds again? Am I to do nothing when they march on my village?” Tarek’s voice boomed with a passion that reminded Serene of her father, “If we don’t stop them here, we never will,” he stood, “This land was given to us in the Great Conference.”
Serene’s interest was peeked, “The Great Conference? What is that?”
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge you in your quest for knowledge,” he seethed, “Let’s keep moving,” he dived back below.
Serene sighed and followed, “Tarek wait!”
“What is it now?”
“There’s no reason to act like a child,” she chided.
“I’m not acting like a child,” he growled out.
“Aren’t you? Look I’m sorry for speaking in ‘ignorance’. But this war makes no sense to me. If there’s so much land, why fight?”
“Great question,” Tarek crossed his arms, “Why don’t you ask the Foul-” Tarek stopped, looking past her.
“What?” she began to turn, but was thrust back against the tree by Tarek, “What is going on?” Serene cried louder than she had intented to and was rewarded with Tarek’s gigantic hand clasped over her mouth.
“There’s someone down there,” he whispered and slowly removed his hand.
“How do you know?”
“Something reflected the light for a moment.”
They waited in silence for sometime, expecting to hear something, but to no avail. It seemed not even the wildlife in this part of the forest was stirring. Of course this was only more alarming. After several more minutes, Tarek determined it was time to find out what was wrong. He pushed away from Serene and in one fluid motion dropped onto a soft, cushion of leaves. Serene was impressed by the action, but even more by the fact that he didn’t make one noise in committing it.
Watching from her perch, Serene followed his moventments as he crossed to a small tree and knelt down. He stayed on his knees for awhile, before motioning for her to join him. Knowing she could never recreate his trained fall, Serene chose the old fashion way of actually climbing down the tree. She quickly found herself standing beside Tarek and standing over a disfigured Foul and an equally dead Cruz.
“They haven’t been dead long,” Tarek whispered looking around them cautiously, “They were both scouts. They must have stumbled upon each other.”
“But we heard nothing?” Serene asked.
“We wouldn’t have,” he pulled out a small, but lethal blade from the Foul side. It was slick with blood, “Since these are recent deaths I’d say the Foul force was three days ahead of us.”
“But wasn’t the last battle meant to stop the Foul from getting this close to the village?”
“It was,” he stated as he searched the bodies throughly, “Gloves!” he declared after a moment. He jumped up and slipped them on Serene’s far too small hands, “They’re perfect.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘perfect’,” as if on cue the sun began to rise. Serene looked to the clearly distraught warrior, “We can travel alittle while, after all I have gloves now.”
“No,” he responded adimently.
“I promise I’ll tell you if I start to burn,” Tarek started to protest again, so Serene held up her hand, “I have to get used to the sun sooner, or later. Besides if your village is in danger, we have to warn them.”
Tarek nodded, “Very well, but if-”
“I promise, alright?” she held out one of gloved hands, “Lead the way.”
Her hand was snatched from the air and so began their break-neck run through the forest