She held up the backpack, once again full of food.
Demarc didn’t say anything as Kierah stood there, waiting for him to allow her in again.
Kierah blinked. It didn’t matter anyway.
“Kierah!” a small voice called, probably louder than he should have.
Kierah looked up as Rothan scampered toward her, and noticed that more eyes were now opening — and slowly blinking and settling on her.
“Shhh,” Demarc hushed the little boy as he got closer.
“Kierah’s here!” Rothan exclaimed happily.
“And everyone else was asleep — at least they were a few seconds ago,” Demarc shook his head.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Rothan informed them. “I’m glad I was awake! You came back!”
Kierah smiled at his enthusiasm. “Well, now you’re not the only one awake.”
He turned around and waved at his newly awakened friends. “It’s Kierah! She brought us medicine when we were sick!”
But he seemed to be the only one who was quite so excited. As Demarc took the bag of food and led her and Rothan further toward the center of the area marked off by the makeshift wall, she felt many sets of eyes watching her. What did they think of her? What had Demarc told them about her? At least one set she recognized. Over by the teenagers, Terrell was watching her like a wolf in the shadows. In his case, there was no question what he thought of her.
“Guys, we’ve been brought more food,” Demarc announced, though much more quietly than Rothan’s exclamation had been. “It’ll be here for breakfast in the morning. You should all go back to sleep for now.”
“Sleep?” Rothan scowled. “I don’t wanna sleep, I wanna see Kierah.”
Demarc didn’t approve. “You need sleep. She isn’t gonna be staying long.” He said it pointedly, and Kierah knew there would be no arguing.
“You need your strength, kiddo,” she forced a smile, not wanting to contradict anything Demarc said, particularly in front of Rothan.
The boy’s energy was eventually subdued, and he went back to bed. Other eyes were still watching Kierah silently. She tried to smile at them, but the gesture wasn’t returned. Were they all scared of her? She looked down at herself, remembering she was dressed like a guard. That, plus Demarc’s fairly brusque treatment of her, probably sent them all the message that she wasn’t to be engaged with.
Inwardly, she sighed. It was probably for the better, that way.
She’d come for Rothan. At least he still liked her. But the others — she shook her head.
Demarc showed her to the exit after emptying the bag of food near his cot again.
“You’re efficient today,” she commented as they reached the end of the makeshift wall.
“It’s late. Everyone’s tired,” he said.
She nodded numbly. “Well, it looks like you’re all feeling better. I’m glad to see that.”
“I guess I shouldn’t bother coming back for a while then,” she said. “You don’t really need me anymore, huh?”
Both she and Demarc looked behind them. Terrell had followed, and he was standing intimidatingly right behind them.
“Right,” Kierah nodded again. “I’ll let you all die next time, then, yeah?”
And without saying anything else, she turned on her heel and walked away. Her eyes burned. She wished she hadn’t said that, but she couldn’t take it back. Besides, it was true. If she hadn’t been there, at least a few of them would have died. Demarc almost certainly would have been one of them.
She understood that Terrell didn’t trust her, she really did. But this was her fourth time here, and none of her visits had been hostile on her end. She knew it was up to her to gain their trust, but she wasn’t sure what other way she could go about it than what she was already doing. They were just being so stubborn.
If they didn’t want her back, then she wouldn’t come back.
She stormed along the path to the exit, quietly but not slowly. She’d been down this way enough times that she was starting to anticipate the uneven floor, the dark spots where the lights had blown out.
Demarc himself hadn’t actually answered her question though, when she’d asked if they didn’t really need her anymore. She paused in her mental tirade. When she’d first gotten there that night, he hadn’t looked angry to see her. He’d just been business-like. But that didn’t mean rude, did it?
Either way, did it really even matter?
Even if she came back, none of them would ever see her as anything other than a stranger. They’d never be able to understand the risk she was taking every time she came there.
Then suddenly, from nowhere, something shot out from the darkness and clamped itself over her mouth. A hand.
All she could think about was the commander’s description from that tour of Kelmar — the worst of the worst were sent here … criminals … murderers …
She threw both hands over the one large one covering her mouth, trying to pry it off — trying to free herself — but the grip was too strong. Her heart was racing, fear all but paralyzing her.
The man was huge, but in the dark he felt even bigger. It only took one arm for him to restrain her, as the rest of him towered high above her head.
But she didn’t stop struggling. He clearly overpowered her, but she wasn’t giving up without a fight. Her heart raced in terror when she felt his hot breath on the side of her face as he leaned down toward her. “Going somewhere?” he whispered menacingly.
She squeezed her eyes shut, terrified.
This was how it was going to end. She’d pushed her luck too far. The reason she’d come here was to make sure Rothan didn’t die in this hell, but now she was going to take his place.
Without warning, the hand pulled away and she was thrown to the ground, so quickly that she barely had a chance to put out her hands to break her fall. On her knees, she whirled around and crawled backwards, her breath coming in short gasps. Staring back up at the man who had thrown her, she realized again just how gigantic he was.
But being down on the ground wasn’t exactly a good leverage point, so she scrambled to her feet and continued backing up, until she was up against another bunk post.
“Hey there,” came a dark voice from the bunk behind her, and she jumped and let out a sharp cry, backing away again.
Eyes darting from one side to another, she realized she was surrounded now. Burly men seemed to come out of the woodwork, their dark frames silhouetted against the forest of bunks. But none was as big as the first that had grabbed her, who now stood a half dozen feet away from her. His face was faintly visible in the darkness — his wicked grin missing a few teeth from past brawls, his head shaven clean to the skin, one of his dark eyes laced over by an ugly scar that stretched from his ear to his forehead.
Kierah swallowed hard, trying to calm her racing heart. And failing.
Another man on the side reached down and grabbed her empty backpack, which she had dropped where she had fallen. With a laugh, he tossed it to the first, who caught it with amusement. Turning it over in his hands, he glanced back toward Kierah. “What’d you used to have in this?” he asked mockingly. “Brought some food for your little friends, now, did ya?”
Her eyes widened. He had seen.
“Now wasn’t that sweet of you,” he sneered. “Did you feel bad for them, Demarc’s poor little brats? Hah.” He laughed. “No, I think you’re here for something else. You in your little pretend guard uniform. You think that’d fool us? You think we don’t know what real guards look like? The one who sent you, did he really think that would work?”
He crumpled the bag and threw it to the ground, his smirk disappearing.
“I know why you’re here, girl. And I don’t like it, not one bit,” he snarled, slowly beginning to advance toward her. “Demarc might be willing to risk his spineless hide for a pretty face, but I’m not. You’re gonna take him, be my guest. But if that leaves you the chance to come back and get around to me,” he smirked again as he towered over her, “think again.”
She backed away as he kept coming towards her, until she had nowhere left to go. The bunk was behind her, the shadowy figures hemming in on both sides, beginning to clamor loudly. And in front of her, the big man loomed.
This was how it was going to end, she realized, heart racing. Here, now, in the dark, where no one would care what happened to her. Back at the palace, Terula and maybe Ari would wonder why she hadn’t come back. Zera wouldn’t care. Zera wouldn’t even notice she was missing.
The experiment would go on without her. Rothan would be okay on his own; she wasn’t supposed to go back there anyway.
“What, you not gonna call your little guards to come save you?” he asked deridingly, grabbing the front of her uniform. “You’re pretending to be one of them. Look at you, all dressed up. They’ll come for you, won’t they? Come on, gimme a scream.”
He leaned in closer. She couldn’t get away.
Another voice rose through the noise of the men. Kierah’s heart leapt. She knew that voice.
“Demarc,” the big man growled, angry at the interruption.
Demarc was standing boldly at the end of the row of cots, his face cold as steel.
The big man dropped his jaw in mock surprise. “Let her go?” he repeated. “You don’t mean that, do you?”
“She’s with me,” Demarc narrowed his eyes uncompromisingly. “I said, let her go.”
“I know she’s with you. Ya think we don’t have ears, hearing your little brats yell when she showed up? Problem is, she’s not ‘with you,’ Demarc. She’s from out there.” He indicated the direction of the barracks doors. “She’s ‘with’ those people. Did you forget Kumaari?”
“No, but you forget what happens when you hurt someone I claim.”
“A lot of good that threat did last time,” the man smirked, glancing at Demarc’s once-broken arm.
“Last time you got off because we had a deal,” Demarc said evenly. “I’m not making a deal this time.”
The big man stared at him, the smirk on his face full of hate. His grip on Kierah’s uniform was still strong, but he seemed slightly less sure of himself.
“Let her go,” Demarc demanded.
After another moment’s hesitation, finally the man released his hold on Kierah. She realized she’d been holding her breath, and the release of her uniform was a release on her lungs as well. Gasping for breath, she scrambled away from her attacker and toward Demarc.
As soon as Kierah reached his side, Demarc turned and started walking away. She followed. The men surrounding them backed away enough to let them pass, silently, though their disapproval was obvious.
Kierah couldn’t believe she was alive — and unharmed. Her heart was still racing, but at least it was beating. And of all people, Demarc was the reason it was. He’d come for her. He’d said —
“You’re gonna regret this, Demarc,” the big man called out vengefully from behind them as they walked away. “Next time I’ll destroy you before she has a chance to. I’m gonna make you wish you never came after her tonight!”
And Kierah trembled as she heard him, walking close to Demarc, keeping her head down.
She dared a glance up at Demarc, afraid he would be as intimidated as she felt just then. But his face was blank. Stone cold, like it had been when he was facing the bigger man. It was like he didn’t even hear the man’s taunts, like they just bounced right off him.
“Don’t look back,” he told her, keeping his gaze ahead of them.
Whether or not he actually was as calm as he acted, she had no idea. She knew a thing or two about acting the part others needed to see. But seeing him appear to be in control took the edge off her fear, even if it didn’t do much to alleviate her guilt.
Finally, it was behind them. As they walked up to the entrance of the makeshift wall, Kierah was surprised to find they were greeted by faces. Not just the teenager on watch, but all the boys were wide awake now, waiting for them. All were out of their cots, watching as the two walked toward them, backing up and giving them room to come in.
There wasn’t a sound.
She couldn’t look at them. She knew they must all be staring at her, thinking how weak she was. And she felt afraid again — not for her life, but for theirs. Demarc might have been the only one that the big man — what had Demarc called him? Garn? — had outright threatened, but the kids were a part of him. Without him, she shuddered to think what would happen to them.
Then Demarc turned toward her, facing her for the first time since he had rescued her. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly. Not gently, but not coldly either.
She could barely face him, and didn’t know if she could trust her voice at the moment. So she just swallowed hard, and nodded. Yes, she was all right. Humiliated, afraid, embarrassed, but she’d live.
She didn’t know what his reaction was, since she wasn’t looking at him. She couldn’t imagine what he was thinking. He didn’t trust her, didn’t want her presence or her help, yet he’d saved her — and got himself in the crosshairs of a killer. Why?
A small voice broke the silence. “What happened, Ethan?” It was Rothan, of course.
“Garn got ahold of her,” he said matter-of-factly.
Rothan and a few of the smaller boys gasped. They knew this guy, apparently.
And that was it. Demarc had said it again. When the boys heard that, something changed. It was like one of the stoplights at the intersections of Encidas had turned green for the first time, and everyone that the red had been holding back suddenly surged ahead.
The eyes that had been staring suspiciously at her before suddenly were filled with curiosity. Some of the boys even started coming toward her, but none outran Rothan.
“You’re one of us now!” Rothan ran up to her, with a grin as wide as his face could contain. “Did you hear that?”
She wasn’t sure how to respond.
She’d found Rothan. She’d almost died, or worse. She’d been rescued, and even more than that, she’d been accepted by the people that Rothan now called family. She’d been accepted by Demarc.
Once before, he’d risked everything for someone he barely knew, when he’d protected Rothan — but Rothan was a slave like him. There was no risk that Rothan could turn out to be a threat. But Kierah could, as far as Demarc knew.
And now he’d put himself and the boys at risk with this Garn character, because of her.
But here was Rothan, his bright face shining up at her.
She dropped to her knees and hugged him. She didn’t know what else to do. He stiffened a little, and some of the other boys took a step back.
“What’s she doing?” she heard another little boy ask quietly. She looked up and was met with confused stares.
“Oh,” she released Rothan, “it’s just — it’s just a hug.”
“What’s a hug?” Rothan asked.
“It’s … something friends do,” she said, wondering how all these kids had gotten through life without something that simple. She and Zera used to hug all the time when they saw each other, though that had been much less frequent these days, as Zera had found herself preoccupied with Hudsen in her free time. But then again, these kids had had it tougher than even she and Zera had, growing up in the Ends. Maybe hugging really wasn’t in their vocabulary.
She glanced up at Demarc, looking for a clue for what to do next, but he looked almost as confused as the kids did. And he was her age. How was this possible?
“It’s just … something friends do when they’re glad to see each other,” she said again, standing up, not really sure what else to say.
“So,” Rothan’s mind was working. “Since you’re one of us, you’re friends with all of us, right?”
“I guess so?” she said quietly, desperately hoping to not step out of whatever bounds were appropriate at this point.
“So we should hug you,” he said decidedly.
She blinked. That would probably qualify as stepping out of whatever bounds were appropriate at this point.
But some of the kids started slowly coming forward. More and more actually offered her shy smiles. One little kid about Rothan’s age came right up and stood in front of her. “Friends?” he asked.
She gave him a small smile back. “Friends,” she nodded, and bent down to hug him too.
“I’m Shalin,” he told her.
He was waiting for her to tell her name. One of the kids wanted to know her name. They really were accepting her.
She’d left that evening practically kicked out, not expecting to come back for a long time, if ever.
That had changed quickly.
Following Rothan’s and Shalin’s lead, other little boys came up for hugs, as if this were a way of welcoming her into some sort of club.
Around him, the older kids kept their distance, still evaluating her. She’d had Demarc’s approval, but they weren’t about to come up asking for hugs.
And then, she could see Terrell sulking in the background. He was probably hating this, she thought, and the thought occurred to her that he might have tried to persuade Demarc not to go after her. After all, he’d been right there when she’d left. He must have been there when Demarc left, too. And he didn’t like her. She wondered what that conversation must have been like.
She also wondered what made Demarc decide to go after her. Nothing was making him; and if Terrell had actually tried to convince him not to, it would have taken even more effort to go out there and put himself in harm’s way for her.
He could have let Garn have his way with her. It would have been simpler for him. He could have been rid of her right then and there. But instead, he brought her back under his protection. He was the only one who could have convinced all the boys that she was worth trusting.
And somehow, for some reason she didn’t really understand, he had.
Finally, Ethan called them all off to bed. “Get some sleep,” he told them, suddenly feeling more worn out than usual.
Beyond the group that was clustering around the girl, he saw Terrell staring at him. He’d gone against Terrell’s advice, and it had been difficult. How many times he and Terrell would butt heads over this girl, he didn’t want to know. It had been too many already.
As the younger boys started moving toward their cots, passing between Ethan and the girl, Terrell came over next to Ethan.
“I hope you don’t regret this,” he growled, his voice low.
Ethan glanced at him sideways. After a moment, he replied quietly, “I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice.” Terrell looked up at him, and Ethan realized this was probably not the best time to discuss things, while the girl was still standing just a few feet away from them — but Terrell was too upset right now to put it off.
“He would have been doing us a favor then.”
Ethan stared at him. “She saved our lives,” he whispered.
“No one asked her to.”
“No one asked her to get caught by Garn either.”
“She did, the moment she came down here,” Terrell countered. “She came looking for trouble, and she found it.”
The kids were thinning out, Rothan saying goodbye to the girl.
He glanced over at where the girl stood, over near the door, but quickly turned away when he saw she was watching them. He hoped she hadn’t heard them.
Terrell noticed she was watching them, too, and fell silent. With a final apprehensive glance at Ethan, he slunk away.
And Ethan was alone again. He hadn’t told Terrell about Garn’s threat yet, and he wasn’t looking forward to that either. Garn had said the girl was a danger, and that was likely the only thing Garn and Terrell would ever agree on. But Garn had also offered a threat himself, and that’s what concerned Ethan at the moment.
But that would have to wait. The girl was still standing across from him, and he should probably say something. He just wasn’t sure what.
“You’re safe now,” he told her, meeting her eyes and trying to keep his own emotionless. “Garn’ll leave you alone.” He paused, then added, “So you can leave whenever you want, he won’t hurt you now.”
He didn’t know what else to say. It’s not like he could tell her why.
“Why?” Kierah asked.
So much that night hadn’t really made sense to her, and the parts that did, scared her. “I don’t understand. Why did he let me go?”
She wanted to ask Demarc why he’d come to rescue her, but that seemed too bold.
He looked away, seeming to be searching for an answer. “I told him you’re with me, so if he hurts you, he’ll pay for it. Just like with any one of the boys here.”
That had to mean Demarc would fight him or something, Kierah thought. She cringed. This was her fault.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“He’s gonna come after you now? Because of me?”
Demarc shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt because of me.”
“It isn’t because of you, okay? If I didn’t want to go out there, I wouldn’t have. I’ve been down here long enough, I know the risks. I went out there anyway. He thinks you’re a spy, which is a plenty good reason for him to want to hurt you. Aside from the very obvious fact that you’re a woman and he’s a murderer and a rapist. This was the only way to stop him.”
“He thinks I’m a spy,” she repeated. “Like the stories about Kumaari?”
He nodded. “Yeah. That’s what he thinks you are.”
“Do you?” she asked.
This time he met her gaze evenly. “If I did, I wouldn’t have brought you back here.”
Ethan went to sleep still apprehensive about what had happened that night.
The girl had left, but he had just given her a free pass to come back any time. She was one of them now. That’s what he had said.
What had he been thinking?
Maybe Terrell was right, he thought, staring into the darkness above. Maybe it hadn’t been worth it. Maybe he should have let Garn have his way with the girl. It would have taken care of two problems at the same time.
He sighed and rolled over restlessly. But he knew there was no way he could have let that happen. Somehow after all these years, he still had a conscience. And no matter who this girl really was, he was finding it harder and harder to believe she was the spy Terrell was afraid she was.
He didn’t want to admit it, but he was partially hoping she would keep coming back. Something made him want to see her again. But after nearly getting killed, he’d understand it if she didn’t. He’d saved her this time, but she might not trust his ability to save her again.
Frankly, he wasn’t sure he trusted his ability to save her again.
His protection was only valid so long as Garn held by the understanding that if he hurt one of Ethan’s, that Ethan would retaliate using his own methods. But lately, Garn seemed less intimidated by that prospect.
He glanced down at his arm, just recently healed. He’d taken the trade of his own hide for Rothan’s the last time, because the kind of retaliation Ethan had been using for years was wearing thin. If that had been the only thing he’d hung over Garn’s head, Rothan would probably have ended up in worse shape than he had.
When that happened, it wouldn’t matter whether or not he felt like fighting, whether or not he thought he could win. Regardless of the outcome, he would be there to fight.
He would be there.
He had to be there.
But he wasn’t there the next day when the guards called Garn away from his work.
He wasn’t there to see Garn brought to a room in the guard tower, where the door was closed behind him as he talked to a high-ranking military official.
He wasn’t there to hear the proposal and the promised reward, or to witness Garn’s eager agreement, a wicked grin on his face.
He wasn’t there for any of that. So he had no idea that Garn no longer planned to carry out any threats. Not anymore. He had something bigger in mind.
And Ethan had no idea.
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What did it matter what she looked like? What did it matter that she’d brought them food and saved their lives? She was an intruder and she couldn’t be trusted, end of story.
He wasn’t the trusting type — that had been beaten out of him years ago. He knew better. Continue reading Chapter 15: Not the trusting type, and yet …