It was twilight the first time I saw him. We had been travelling for years since, settling down for no more than a few months at a time. After our village burned down, we had tried to move into the one a few days journey east. We arrived after 3 days, a hundred lost souls trailing pain and cherished belongings, and the townspeople took us in without a thought. We had been here for 3 years, and I knew it wouldn’t last much longer, not the way we were being treated. I felt like we had overstayed their hospitality by a year or so.
I was hanging laundry outside the wooden building we had been given, my back to the village and eyes to the forest. The town’s council had said a new building would be put up for us, but that was years ago. We were still living in the rickety wooden barn, our numbers diminished greatly. Too many were injured or sick, and didn’t last too long after moving here. A sudden gust of wind whipped around the building, making all the laundry fly off the line and towards the trees.
I sighed and glanced around to see if anyone else would be going to get it. Nope. No one anywhere close by.
That’s odd. Usually someone’s on patrol out here at least. We are the edge of the village after all. I set down my basket, making sure my own remaining laundry wouldn’t blow away before walking towards the forests edge. Some people were scared of the forest, said they’d seen things in it that they couldn’t believe, that couldn’t be true. These were also the people who had found a way to get high off poppy dust. I, however, was not one of these people, and had wandered in these woods for many an hour. But something that night made me pause and listen.
SNAP. I stopped yards away from the forest and swung my head to the left, expecting to see an animal. I’m pretty sure I gasped when I saw him step out from behind an elm tree. Hair so fair it shone like gold in the fading light, face a maze of angles from cheekbones to jaw. Tall and lean, he stood like he owned the very ground he stood on, hands in the pockets of worn brown trousers, dark green shirt untucked. The breeze picked up again, making his golden hair and my ebony blow. I forgot all about the laundry. I knew he wasn’t from the village, because he wasn’t in my lessons, and I knew everybody in them, for at 17 I was one of the oldest there.
He was watching me, too. Eyes scanning my face, lingering on my black eyes and fair skin no doubt, a curiosity even in a village where it wasn’t that common, but present nonetheless. I realized my hands had gripped the sides of my patched and worn dress, creating wrinkles in its crimson fabric. My bare feet shifted on the hard ground to a more defensive stance. He noticed, pale brows drawing together in confusion, or anger, I couldn’t tell. The light was fading too fast.
“Who are you?” I called to him.
“Who are you?” He called back.
I hesitated, not wanting to give my name, but wanting to know his. “Tarren.” Better my middle name than my first.
“Well Tarren, I see you’re a strong girl.” He looked about, sizing up the ramshackle buildings we had built only months before, chickens running wild, laundry flapping in the wind. He looked back to me, eyes glowing in the last rays of sunlight. “Are you happy here, Tarren?”
‘Was I happy here?’ What kind of question was that? Of course I was happy there. I mean, sure, we didn’t always have enough food, and the villagers still didn’t fully trust us for not knowing why our village had been razed. So maybe I was tired of wearing the same patched clothes for over a year, having let the hems out so much I didn’t even have hems anymore. And I am beginning to grow weary of chores and washing and food preparing and sewing. But I was happy there, wasn’t I?
My confusion must have shown on my face, for while I was thinking he had stepped closer, his face more readable. “I can take you to a place where nothing is wanted, and everything you’ll ever need is right there. I can take you to a place where all you have to do is believe, Tarren.” His voice was deep and soft, calming and assuring with every word. His eyed shone with a passion I’ve never seen. “They don’t let you take up arms here do they? A strong and willing girl like you should be able to at least handle a bow. Do they think it’s only for men? Some of our strongest and most faithful fighters are women, Tarren.”
He had stepped closer while speaking. We were almost at a distance to reach out and touch one another. His silver eyes stared into my black, hypnotising me with promises.
“And where exactly are you from, stranger without a name?” This was too intriguing, too falsely hopeful.
“A place I cannot tell, for fear that those we do not wish to find us will overhear. But I can show you.” The stranger looked at me, waiting for an answer to his ridiculous proposal.
“How can I go with a man whom I only know to make strange promises and who has no name?” I whispered, eyes locked on his.
He took one more step towards me to stand directly in front of me. I hadn’t realized how tall he was from so far away. I could barely see over his shoulder, with my head tilted up to see him.
“My name is Jaydlin, and I belong to the Freemen. We fight to release this country from the throes of an evil king. We fight to free the people, not only workers and farmers, but merchants and nobles, too. We are nomads, never staying in one place for too long, travelling for days, sometimes weeks at a time.” He spoke with such conviction and such passion I could almost see it.
“Why are you telling me this?”
He paused, still staring into my eyes. “I tell you because I believe you to be like me. Strong willed, passionate, caring.”
“How do you know this about me?”
He smiled, his face lighting up with mischief. “It’s amazing what you learn about people when you sneak up on them in the night.” The smile slipped, his face becoming serious again, hands gently wrapped around my wrists. “So will you join me?”
Do I go with this man? A stranger with a dangerous pastime but the promises of a new life? One with a cause? Or do I stay here, and be the house minder, marry a villager, never escaping?
I had to ask one last thing. “When do we leave?”