[ TWO DECADES AGO ]
The front door of the one-room apartment burst open, the flimsy lock no match for the force of the two bodyguards behind it.
The crash startled the little boy, who was already buried as far back into the corner as he could get, a gash over one eye the remnants of his father’s rampage the night before.
Right now, that man was asleep on the ragged tick that passed for a bed — or at least, he had been asleep. The ruckus was enough to rouse even him.
“Who’s’ere?” he slurred, eyes half-open as his head lolled to one side, the effort to lift it more than he could afford at the moment.
The shadows of the immense men poured over him like black oil as they crossed the threshold, their silhouettes blocking out the light from the street. They stepped all the way in, and that prompted the man to roll his head up and over to the other side as he haphazardly pulled his limp body into a sitting position. He swung out drunkenly with one arm as his feet attempted to find the floor under him.
“Now wait just ah minute, who d’you think you are to — git the hell outta my house!” his mild protest midway through turned into a yell as he registered that these men hadn’t been invited. “I meanit — git the hell outta here or I’ll —”
The rambling died off in an instant. The voice didn’t belong to either of the towering giants; it had come from behind them. It was a dark voice, deep and overwhelming and smooth enough to calm a wild boar just before the slaughter.
The drunk man stopped his staggering and squinted past the bodyguards.
“Hatteras?” he asked confusedly.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” the other replied, stepping out from behind his guards. He wasn’t a small man, but next to the guards, he appeared minuscule — and yet, somehow, no less threatening. His deep-set eyes were small, conniving, capable of cutting into a man’s soul without hesitation. “Come now, did you really think you could hide from me?”
“Hide? Hide, who’s hiding, why would I hide, why would anyone hide?” shrugged the man Hatteras has called Demarc.
Hatteras smiled disdainfully. “You knew I would be coming. This was our deal, that you hunt boys for me to send to the Underground, and I pay you what they’re worth. But when they die in their first fight, well, I’m not getting my money’s worth, am I?
“Now did you really think you could shortchange me like that, four separate times — four, Demarc, four — and expect me to just overlook it, while you sit here drowning every cent I pay you at the tavern? Not that I much care what you do with the money once you earn it — but see, that’s just it. You have to earn it.”
He stopped, his eyes darkening. “And when you don’t, I expect reimbursement.”
The look on the drunk man’s face was blank, with a faint but growing sense of alarm. “Reimb — reimburz —” he stumbled over the long word.
With a flick of his head, he nodded for his guards to advance. As they began to obey, Demarc began to splutter.
“Wa-wait, no, hold — hold on,” he protested. “Not me, wait!”
His eyes were wild, his incapacitated mind along with his mouth stuttering through thoughts like a broken lawn mower engine that refused to turn over no matter how many times the ignition was pulled. Now he understood what Hatteras’ intentions were, and was, unsuccessfully, attempting to function enough to offer an alternative.
“But you — you need me, you need me out here! I’m not a fighter, I’ll waste your money in there worse than out here —”
“Who said I would bet on you when I sent you in?” Hatteras returned coolly. “You’d be going in as a man with a debt, not as one of mine. I lose nothing, and stand to gain quite a bit.”
“But — but —” Demarc recognized he was running out of time. The guards were upon him, Hatteras standing distant and indifferent behind them. His gaze swept frantically around the room, searching for anything to latch onto, to steady himself as the already unstable ground was disappearing under his feet.
He found it.
“Notmesir,” he begged, voice slurring. “How — how much you get outta me? One? One fight? That’s all, and it’s done — done! Even don’t bet on me, but how much you’ll make? One fight, thas all, thas all I c’n give ya. Jus’ one.”
He stopped, the wheels in his head, long rusted from excessive exposure to liquids of an alcoholic nature, clicking into something that resembled working order. “Wha’ you need — wha’ you need — ain’t a poor old hunter who can’t barely stand no more. You need a fighter that’s been with ya since the beginnin,’ someone you can make what ya want. Not someone who’ll die their first fight — someone you can, like I say, make what you want. He’ll fight for you, you bet he will — and he’ll win. He’ll win. And —”
“What are you getting at, Demarc?” Hatteras sighed with impatience.
“Start ‘m young,” Demarc waved his hands to convey his urgency. “When he can learn. Don’t wait until he’s too old, dumb, can’t be taught nothin’!”
Hatteras raised a hand and paused his bodyguards, but didn’t call them back. “And if I did, who’s to say I shouldn’t send you in anyway.”
Demarc stared at him, eyes blinking rapidly as his nerves tightened like shackles around his wrists.
Hatteras looked where he was pointing, and for the first time noticed there was a child in the room. The little creature couldn’t have been more than five years old. He was stick thin, cowering, so dirty and bruised it was nearly impossible to tell where the dirt ended and the bruises began. He’d been so quiet, motionless with fear that he’d been practically invisible in his hiding place.
But he wasn’t invisible anymore. The pointing finger of the drunk man had illuminated that dark corner like a beam of light. The boy was trembling, his skinny arms hugging his knees to his chest, his dark hair falling into his eyes but doing nothing to mask the fear in them.
Hatteras took it all in with a glance.
“So,” he said. “This is yours.”
Demarc nodded vigorously. “Yessir, yessir ‘e is.”
Leaving his station behind his bodyguards, Hatteras approached the boy. The child shrank as he got closer. When Hatteras was a step in front of him, he stopped walking, drawing himself up to his full height, as if he didn’t already tower enough over the boy.
The child clutched his knees tighter to himself, tilting his head all the way back until it touched the wall in order to be able to look up at him.
“On your feet,” Hatteras barked at him.
The boy didn’t move, too afraid to.
Hatteras’ boot was easily in range of the child, and without hesitation, he kicked the boy sharply in the ribs, drawing a whimper in response.
“I said,” his voice was menacingly low, “on your feet.”
He didn’t yell. He didn’t have to. The child was standing before he had a chance to.
Hatteras eyed his trembling form up and down, evaluating the drunk man’s proposal.
“Him,” he asked. “This, is what you’re suggesting.”
Again, Demarc nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes, start at the beginning. He’ll be —”
“He’ll be years before he’s of any use to me,” Hatteras interrupted. “Years.”
“But — but he’ll repay you better — better than any of the others,” Demarc insisted.
Hatteras seemed to weigh the offer again.
“Very well,” he said finally, slowly. “Somehow, despite your inebriated state, your suggestion has some merit. Amazing what the human mind is capable of when acting in self-preservation.” He stared at the boy again. “Let’s see if your brat is the same way.”
[ PRESENT ]
“Hatteras owned a plantation outside the city — outside Encidas. But that was just his cover,” Ethan explained. “It was his job, but it wasn’t where he made most of his money. What my father did for him didn’t have anything to do with the plantation.
“On the side, Hatteras was a Master in the —” he paused again and eyed Kierah. “You ever heard of the Underground?”
“Okay, I wasn’t sure how common knowledge it is … out there.”
“It’s pretty common,” Kierah said. “At least, well, we know it exists. It’s an arena where fighters, well, fight to the death. For sport, and for money.”
“So you know how it works then.”
“Enough,” she replied, but figured she was about to learn more.
“You know what a Master is,” he clarified.
“The rich guy who owns fighters and sends them in.”
“And has the most to gain if those fighters win. Yeah. That’s what Hatteras was.”
Kierah frowned. “So if your father worked for him, your father was a fighter?”
“No,” Ethan shook his head. “I eventually figured out he was the guy that got fighters for Hatteras.”
That didn’t sound like an upstanding occupation, Kierah thought. “I probably don’t want to know, but how’d he do that?”
“He kidnapped people,” he said bluntly. “I saw it happen with others while I was there — a transport would show up at the plantation with a half dozen young guys, mostly drugged or knocked out, that headhunters had collected in the Ends. Guys that nobody would miss, back where they came from.
“Traded you to do what, though?” she asked, not sure she wanted an answer to that, either.
“Training,” he said. “To fight.”
That was the answer she wasn’t sure she wanted. But it explained a lot. His strength, for one thing. His ability to keep himself alive here, despite all the threats against him and the boys. If he was trained to fight since such a young age, that kind of thing would be as much a part of him as breathing.
“How long?” she asked.
Ethan shrugged. “Long. The accepted fighting age was 18. If your Master thought you were good enough, 17.”
“Did he think you were good enough?”
“Training me since I was like five? Yeah. He thought I was good enough. He thought I was good enough at 16.”
“He made you fight at 16?” Kierah gasped.
“Well, that’s not quite how it went.”
[ TWENTY-ISH YEARS AGO ]
The little boy was brought to his room.
It was the last room down a long hallway, lined with servants quarters on both sides.
But he would be in his room alone.
Small, cramped, a straw tick mattress, a hard pillow. He was used to that, though.
“Change your clothes,” his new master barked at him, then slammed the door behind him.
Ethan wasn’t crying. He wouldn’t, not after being kicked, back at his father’s house. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to.
Tiptoing over to the bed, he saw a little shirt and pair of pants thrown on the blanket, which Hatteras had likely called ahead to arrange after realizing he was bringing home new cargo.
He slipped into it, then sat on the bed. The mattress was stiff, but it was better than the floor, where he usually slept.
Minutes went by.
He had little concept of time, but he knew it was long.
First he was scared. Then he was bored. Then he was tired.
But he didn’t move or disturb anything.
As the time dragged on, his fear ebbed, but only a little. The unknown loomed too large. He was too young to understand the transaction he’d been at the center of; all he knew was that he was away from his father. And regardless of how the man had treated him, he was still Ethan’s father. Even though Ethan feared him, he was who he knew. He was all he knew. This, whatever this was, he had no reference for, no way of knowing what to brace for.
Eventually, his eyes started to get heavy. He began to nod off.
He didn’t know how much later it was when he was jolted awake by a rough hand grabbing the collar of his shirt. His eyes flew open, but it was dark, the small room lit only by the light from outside the open door.
In front of him, that light silhouetted the dark outline of a man. Ethan let out a squeal, but it only emerged as a whimper.
The man’s hand was wrapped around his collar, dragging him off his bed and toward the door.
Ethan’s heart raced with fear as his feet tried to find their balance to keep from being knocked over. Looking up, he realized the man was his new master.
Hatteras didn’t say a word as he pulled Ethan along down the corridor, and Ethan didn’t dare ask why. Several hallways later, they stopped in front of a huge, dark door that loomed like an abyss before Ethan’s eyes. With surprising silence considering its size, Hatteras opened it and pulled Ethan into the room beyond.
There were no lights in the room. The only illumination came from the hallway they had just left, beyond the door.
Ethan’s fear choked any cries or protest as the massive portal closed behind his new master.
The room drowned in darkness.
Straining his barely awake eyes, he could see nothing. He could hear nothing.
The thudding of his heart racked louder and louder in his ears.
No sights. No sounds.
Terrified, the little boy hugged his knees to his chest.
And he began to cry.
“Silence!” a loud voice suddenly shattered the silence, causing the child to jump. “You cry, you are weak. You’re weak, you are worthless.”
Ethan couldn’t catch his breath, panting as he tried to stop crying. He didn’t know where the voice had come from.
He wouldn’t find out.
Eventually he managed to calm down enough to do as the disembodied voice commanded, and after a few minutes, a sliver of light cut through the black. The door had opened, and Hatteras came to take him back to his room.
Not a word was spoken, no explanation given.
All Ethan knew was, when he was returned to his tiny room, no one was there to yell at him. He let himself cry again.
Over the next few weeks, his life didn’t look much different from that of any of the other slaves on the plantation. He was given chores, learned routines, practiced tasks under the guidance of senior servants.
Except he wasn’t like everyone else. Aside from being the youngest, Ethan was allowed to wear only black, which stood out against everyone else’s gray uniforms. He didn’t understand why until he heard the cook whisper to one of the maids — “He’s the one Master is training for the Underground. That way we all know who he is.”
“The Underground?” the maid had replied. “But we’ll all be grandparents by the time he’s old enough to fight!”
The cook had gotten a good laugh out of that, and they’d carried on with their day.
Even the youngest boys were twelve or thirteen. Their fathers also worked for Hatteras, but not like Ethan’s father had. Their fathers lived on the plantation too, caring for the animals and tending to the fields.
Ethan’s father didn’t. He didn’t know where his father was, now. This, here, was his new home, his new life.
And his new death.
Every few nights, Hatteras would jerk him awake and drag him down to the Black Room. He’d never give him a reason, never any explanation. He’d just throw him in and close the door, leaving the boy to face fears he couldn’t see. Sometimes, there’d be silence. Sometimes, sounds would haunt the recesses of the room, or brush by near him, seemingly almost close enough to touch. There was no consistency or pattern; except always, a harsh, loud reprimand when any tears sprung up.
It was part of his training, Ethan would eventually come to realize. The Black Room would become part of who he was, just like the combat training Hatteras introduced a year later. As years went on, fighting and self-defense were woven into his daily routine. He grew taller, and stronger. Life was about strength, about pain, and he was learning his lessons well.
Ethan awoke to the sound of footsteps on the stairs outside his room. He always preferred those nights, the ones when he slept lightly enough to hear Hatteras approaching beforehand. Otherwise, the abrupt jolt out of a deep sleep by a harsh grip on his collar left his heart racing, and he had a more difficult time calming it down. Those nights, tears found him more easily once he was inside the Black Room.
But tonight, he woke up enough to hear Hatteras before he got to the door. Without opening his eyes, he pretended to still sleep, waiting for his master to get him.
Without a word, Hatteras took the boy, now about nine years old, along the familiar hallways.
The door to the Black Room opened.
And Ethan blinked. The room wasn’t black. It was dark still, to be sure; the edges of the room still faded away to shadows, and he still had no idea just how big the room actually was.
But there in the middle of the space was a faint light.
And it wasn’t just a light. Illuminated by it, in the center of the space, was a black, metallic pillar. It rose like a tree to the height of a man, then stopped, as if the air hovering above it had cut it off. The light reflected dully off its cold surface, from which hung a series of straps and chains.
The boy stared at it, curiosity and fear fighting for first place in his mind. Fear won.
“What — what is that, Master?” he stammered. “Why is it there?”
Hatteras didn’t answer. He rarely did.
Instead he grabbed the boy’s wrists and pulled him toward the pillar. Ethan fought the urge to cry, only barely successfully. Hatteras made him face the pillar and wrapped his arms around it like an embrace, as much as he could, given that Ethan’s arms were far too short to reach all the way around.
Using one of the straps, he lashed Ethan’s wrists together, with enough slack to allow him some movement but not enough for him to be able to turn around; he had to face the pillar.
Ethan choked back a sob of fear. This was like nothing before in his training. The unknown terrified him.
When he’d been situated to Hatteras’ liking, the man left him and exited the door, as always.
Ethan swallowed, pulling at his bonds, trying to turn around to see if there was anything to see. There wasn’t. There never was.
Minutes passed. He managed not to cry, not yet.
Then he heard it. A slithering sound, whooshing past him. He jerked around, but could see nothing, could feel nothing.
A second later, the sound came again, this time from the far end of the room.
This part, he was familiar with. Sounds in the darkness were nothing new; they’d taught him to remain calm, to keep his composure. After all, they were just sounds. They couldn’t touch him.
Then he felt it. A sharp pain lashed into his back without warning, a deafening crack that shrieked into the silence. It was like a knife, but longer, sharper. A snap of air preceded it and a searing agony followed, shredding into his skin, and he screamed. Out of hurt, out of fear, out of confusion.
Tears wouldn’t be held in anymore. He didn’t know what had hit him, or where it had come from. It touched him for only an instant, but slashed deep.
His ears rang with the sound, but it didn’t repeat. The room fell silent again, his sobs the only sound echoing through the vast chamber. Trembling, he clutched at the straps tying his wrists together, tugging at them, trying to pull away.
His skin stung, throbbing from the hit.
He had no idea what it was that had actually hit him.
Minutes passed. No more sounds disturbed the silence.
By the time Hatteras came for him, his tears had slowed. His face was red, his eyes puffy, and his back burning.
“What — what was it, Master?” he asked, voice thick, barely above a whisper.
He didn’t expect an answer.
Hatteras didn’t look at him. He untied his hands, and grabbed his shirt, pulling him along behind him.
The motion tore at Ethan’s back, where whatever it was had sliced through the fabric and his back had bled onto the shirt.
As they reached the door of the Black Room, Hatteras stopped.
“That,” he said, menacingly but calmly, “was your weakness.” He paused. “And someday, if you don’t fail me, it will be your strength.
“Strong men leave scars. Weak men take them. You will take them. You will take them until the day you’re strong enough to go into the Cage, and leave them.
“But you will never forget this: I own you. You will train for me, you will fight for me, and you will not fail me.”
It was hot outside, but he realized he was shivering. As he struggled to carry the heavy bag of feed, he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting back tears. His back screamed in pain, raw and stinging from the night before. Whatever had hit him, he didn’t understand. But it was going to leave a mark.
He gripped the bag harder, afraid he was going to drop it.
He stumbled. His eyes blurred. He shook it off and regained his footing, a bead of cold sweat trickling down his face. He was shivering. But it was hot outside.
Just then, the load felt lighter. He looked up to see a hand lifting it off his shoulders. At first, he was afraid, thinking Hatteras had come to reprimand him for moving too slowly.
But it wasn’t Hatteras. The hand was gnarled and wrinkled. It shook under the weight of the sack, but didn’t drop it.
Ethan peered over the top of it, and saw a face.
Her skin was so pale she looked pure white, with a strange tint of gray. She was hunched over, though from the weight of the sack or just from age, he couldn’t tell. But it was probably age. Her hair was the whitest thing he’d ever seen. She had to be at least 90.
“What — what are you doing?” he asked, curiosity momentarily distracting him from the stinging in his back and the fogginess in his head.
When she spoke, her voice carried an accent he’d never heard before. “Vhat are you doing, is de qvestion,” she countered. “So young, you are. And sick. Vhy you carry such heavy bag?”
Ethan blinked. “Sick?” he asked.
Slowly, the woman lowered the bag to the ground. When she stood up, she remained hunched. Ethan looked her in the eyes — she was no taller than he was. She reached out and felt his forehead with a leathery hand that felt softer than it looked.
“See? Hot,” she said. “Tsk tsk, vhy you vorking? You should be resting.”
Ethan wasn’t really sure how to respond. “I have to,” he shrugged, then flinched as the movement pulled at his back.
The old woman noticed the flinch, then noticed the tear in his shirt. “Oh my,” she gasped, gently holding him by the shoulder and turning him around. “Oh my.” She looked up and down his back. “Vhat happened to you? Your shirt! Blood!”
He didn’t know what his back looked like, but he’d guessed it had bled last night. Apparently it had soaked through his shirt, and had probably dried by now.
“You are not,” the woman frowned, deepening the wrinkles on her gray-tinged face. “You cannot vork like dis. No.”
Ethan blinked, fogginess settling in his head again.
“Come,” she kept a hand on his shoulder, and began leading him away.
“No,” he argued, slipping out of her grip and backing away. “I have to do my work. I have to. If I don’t, my Master will —”
“Mr. Hatteras vill get no vork out ov you if you collapse on de ground,” the woman returned, glancing again at his back. “You are just a boy. Vhat did he do to you?”
Honestly, he didn’t know.
Ethan shrugged again, and again was reminded that he shouldn’t.
“Come,” the woman waved a hand and began shuffling away. “You need rest. Also medicine.”
Ethan stared after her. Who was this old lady who thought she could overrule Hatteras just like that? He stood still, trying to figure out what to do.
His head was swimming. He knew he needed rest, no argument there. But he couldn’t just leave his work undone.
“Come,” the old lady repeated, not looking back. She just expected him to follow.
He blinked. And after a second more of hesitation, walked after her.
She brought him to a little room near the servants’ quarters, which he assumed was hers. After some broth, and medicine she retrieved from a cabinet, she instructed him to sleep. And sleep, he did, gratefully.
It took almost two hours for Hatteras to notice he was missing. Ethan and the old lady were made aware of this fact, rather disruptively, when the room’s door slammed open, startling the old lady and jerking Ethan awake.
Ethan bolted up in bed, and immediately regretted the action. His back still stung, and his head still throbbed.
“De boy needs rest, Mr. Hatteras,” the old lady said quietly. “It seems as though he’s been through qvite some pain.”
Hatteras scoffed. “His life is pain.” He stared at Ethan. “Get out of that bed. I expect to see you for training in ten minutes.”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
As Ethan watched him disappear through the doorway, he sank back into the pillow, feeling small. “I have to go,” he whispered, then coughed. He felt terrible.
Swinging his legs off the bed, he attempted to get up. But the old lady came up beside him, and pushed a hand down on his shoulder, with surprising force for someone so frail.
“No,” she commanded. “You don’t. You’re sick. Vhatever happened to your back has gotten infected, and you have a fever. You vill not go back out there.”
He didn’t have the energy to fight her. Without even consciously deciding to, he lay back down and passed out.
When he finally woke up again, he had no concept of how much time had passed. But when he opened his eyes, he was still in the old lady’s room. And he was feeling better.
Had Hatteras really not come for him? Or had no time gone by at all?
The old lady was standing in the corner, mixing up a paste in a bowl.
“What time is it?” he asked groggily. “Where’s Master?”
Hearing his voice, the lady turned toward him, her wrinkly eyes bright and sharp. “You avake!” she said, dipping a rag into the bowl of paste. “How you feeling?”
Ethan propped himself up on his elbows. “Everything hurts less,” he said.
“Where’s Master? What time is it?” Ethan asked again.
“Doesn’t matter vhat time it is. Mr. Hatteras has let you stay here until you heal.”
Ethan’s eyes widened. “You talked to him? He listens to you?”
The woman chuckled. “No, he does not vant to listen to me. But more, he does not vant to lose you. You are good vorker, I assume.” She motioned for him to roll over, which he did. “You seem important to him.”
Ethan bit his lip as she applied the paste to the cut across his back. He expected it to hurt, but it just felt cool and soothing.
“I’m not important,” he said.
“Vhy do you vear different clothes then?” she asked. “Your clothes are black. Everyone else vears gray.”
“All the fighters wear black,” he pointed out.
The woman’s hand stopped mid-application, hovering over his back. “Vhat do you mean, fighters?”
“My Master’s training me to fight.”
“To fight? Fight who? Fight vhere?”
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You’re just a boy!” she exclaimed, clucking her tongue in disapproval. “Fight? No, dis is not right. Is dis vhy you have dis mark across your back? As part of your fight?”
“I haven’t fought yet. Master said this was because I was weak.”
The woman exclaimed a sound that wasn’t in any language Ethan knew. Then they sat in silence as she used up the rest of the paste.
“Who are you, anyway?” Ethan asked at last. “I’ve never seen you around here before.”
“My name is Mahrya,” the old lady replied, smiling at him. “And your name is?”
“I’m Ethan,” he said, then asked, “Why do you talk funny?”
At that, her gaze darkened. “No,” she said firmly. “No. You do not ask me dis. It is not kind, de vay you say dis.” She proceeded to correct him: “I do not talk funny. I talk different. Dese are not de same thing.”
“They sound the same to me,” Ethan shrugged.
Ethan cocked his head. “Not kind? What’s that mean?”
“It means it hurt my feelings,” she said.
Ethan didn’t answer for a moment, processing this information. “My Master isn’t kind,” he said after a while. “He hurts my feelings all the time.”
The old lady’s eyes softened. “Oh my dear boy,” she said quietly, “kind does not begin to describe vhat your master is not. Your master is not kind, yes, but he is much vorse than dat. He is cruel. He hurts you, because he can. But you know something?” She got down on his level to meet his eyes straight on. “He can’t control you.
“He calls you veak, but dat is only because dat’s vhat he is. He can only see in someone else what he is himself.
After that day, Ethan healed quickly. He returned to his work, and Hatteras returned to his regimen of training. Including the Black Room. Dark nights and invisible attacks punctuated the hours upon hours of physical fitness and combat like the periods at the end of sentences, but with less predictability — sometimes interspersed throughout a paragraph, sometimes clustered together one night after the next like an ellipsis. Ethan never knew when they would come, or what would spur his master to choose the nights best suited for that particular brand of training.
That was probably the point, to keep him guessing, to prevent him from preparing or bracing for the blow.
Because that’s what the Black Room became, a constant reminder of what he couldn’t see coming, couldn’t brace himself for, couldn’t protect himself against. Hatteras told him it was his weakness. The scars left from those nights never let him forget it.
During the days, though, the lessons he learned were of a different sort. Whenever he got the chance, he visited with Mahrya, who was all too happy to welcome him to her little room in the servants’ quarters. He began calling her Mama Mahrya, after asking her permission.
She’d laughed at the suggestion. “Mama? Grandmama, more like! Or even Great-Grandmama!” she’d exclaimed.
But she’d let him. He was a child, and she was the only one on the plantation who was kind to him — now that he knew what the word meant. Each visit, he’d sit and listen while she cooked, or shared insights, or imparted morals. She’d feed him, and then it was his turn to talk. Whatever he needed to say, she was a listening ear.
He told her everything. But he was always hesitant to broach the subject of her accent again, after the way it had gone the first time he’d asked.
After one particularly rough night in the Black Room, he came to see her. His back was raw, with multiple new shreds.
“Oh my, Ethan!” she exclaimed when she saw him, concern deepening the gray wrinkles around her eyes.
He winced when she applied the healing paste.
“Dis is wrong,” she lamented. “I vish I could take you avay from here. I vish. But I cannot leave. Oh I vould if I could! Poor boy.”
“Dere is no place for me to go,” she sighed. “Besides, I am so old, I vould not get far. But even if I vas younger, I could not leave, not since my son died.”
“Son?” That was new information to Ethan. “You had a son?”
“I did.” She smiled at the memory. “Ah yes indeed, I had a little boy. He vas not unlike you, except, well, dat was a very long time ago he vas as little as you. No, he grew up, grew quite big and strong.”
“He used to be de one in charge of de stables here at Mr. Hatteras’ plantation, until only a few months ago. You may have seen him tending to de animals and speeders and transports. He took care of dem, and he took care of me, his mama.
“Until one day he got hit by a transport. Dat funeral dey held here a few months ago? Dat vas his.
“But before he died, he made a condition with Mr. Hatteras, to give me a place to stay if he ever died. So dat I vould be taken care of still.
“Dat is vhy I am here.”
“But why can’t you leave? Can’t you stay just anywhere?” Ethan asked.
Mama Mahrya smiled a sad smile. “Remember de time I first met you, the qvestion you asked me? You asked me vhy I talk different. Remember?”
“Dis is vhy I cannot live anyvhere else,” she began to explain. “You see, long ago, I vas from somevhere else, somevhere beyond Trythia. It’s a place called Etrusia, another vorld, another — how you say — planet.
“Etrusia and Trythia have been enemies for generations. They have fought battles and vars vithout end, for as long as anyvone can remember. Sometimes, for short bits of time, they made peace.
“One of those times happened vhen I vas a young woman. During dat peace, small amounts of trade vas established, and dis one particular trader traveled from Trythia to Etrusia, to my home. I met him, and fell in love vith him, and came with him back here.
“I married him, dis man from Trythia. Even though our homes were enemies, ve found that ve vere not dat different after all.
“But de peace between our vorlds did not last long, and vonce de war started again, I had to remain here. I became even more of an outsider, as I could never hide my accent.
“My husband protected me, vhile he vas alive. And vhen he passed, our son did de same.
“But now dat my son has also passed, he made provisions so dat I vould be taken care of. Mr. Hatteras has abided by dose provisions. Vithout dis place, I vould not be able to live out dere.”
“Because of the way you talk?” Ethan tried to wrap his head around it.
“If I vere to leave here, I vould not survive. Dey would not let me buy food, or shelter. Dey would judge and ostracize.
“Dis is vhy I cannot leave, vhy I cannot take you avay from dis place. I vish I could!”
“You’re a prisoner here just like me, then,” Ethan surmised quietly.
She smiled at him. “Perhaps yes, ve are prisoners. But ve have each other, do ve not? Ve are in dis together, my boy. No matter vhat life throws at us, ve can be stronger, yes?
“Remember vhat I told you. Life is like a mirror. You see in it what you bring to it. If you bring kindness and goodness inside of you, dat is vhat you’ll see. Sometimes it isn’t always right dere staring you in de face; sometimes you need to look for it.
“But if you do — if you look for it, Ethan — you vill eventually find it.”
[ PRESENT ]
“I learned a lot from Mama Mahrya,” Ethan reflected.
“She sounds like a pretty amazing person,” Kierah agreed, listening with rapt attention.
“She was. I owe her a lot of things. She taught me to see that life is what you make it. If she hadn’t been there, I think I’d probably be a different person.”
Kierah swallowed. “What happened to her?”
“She died,” he replied simply. “We’d been friends for probably four years by then. She taught me so much in those four years though. Without her, I don’t know that I’d ever have been able to see Hatteras for who he was. He would have — he would have won. And still, he almost did.”
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