13. AerynMature

Aeryn's understanding of the situation before her dwindled the next morning when she awoke to find high men and low men conversing on an apparently equal footing. They were leaning against one of the drier of the walls discussing light-hearted matters such as distant political problems and the personal lives of men of names she did not know.

A few of them had begun to stir. It was an odd fact of life that people in a group tended to wake together, regardless of their individual backgrounds and sleeping habits. The men stopped their conversations and straightened themselves out, making their way over to Aeryn and the other captives.

"Good morning," said the high man, "Though it is actually closer to afternoon. You are a lazy bunch."

"I'm surprised they didn't sleep until the evening with the ordeal they've just endured," said the low man next to him.

The two stood shoulder to shoulder, almost equal in height. They were both at ease, friendly and neither one seemed to carry the burden of responsibility or servitude. It was odd for Aeryn to see. A high man never stood next to a low man - it just wasn't the way of things. Although it was an overwhelmingly pleasing sight for Aeryn, it was also very disconcerting and made her tense. Tradition, however horrible, was a familiar comfort.

The only way she could tell them apart was by their physical appearance - high men had eyes that were blue, green or brown; whereas low men had either grey, purple or pink eyes. Also low men were of a more slender build and had smoky white or grey-black skin; and high men had skin that was beige, pink or light brown.

"Who are you?" said a very grubby-looking man near to her. He was a few years older than her and was covered in a mixture of hair, mud and blood from head to foot, so much so that it was difficult to decipher where his tattered clothes ended and his skin began.

"We do not have a name, because we think names are dangerous," said the high man, "It's a good way to keep hidden."

"We're friends," said the low man, "We do not wish to harm you or hurt you in any way. We're offering you your freedom."

"Funny way of showing it... kidnapping and blindfolding us in the middle of the night," muttered a woman with leathery-looking skin and piercingly dark eyes. Her hair was so ragged and unkempt Aeryn wondered whether she had something living in it.

"It's a necessary precaution. If we handed out leaflets about ourselves, or gave you horses and carts to travel in, do you not think it would arouse suspicion of the high men?" asked the high man.

"Last time I checked, sir, you're a high one," said the first, dirty man.

"Yes, that is my species. But we believe that a species does not define a man or a woman, it does not dictate what role they should take in life, it does not decide one's status. We believe in equality and freedom. And that is the life we have come to offer you now."

He spoke in an honest voice, free from charisma or oratory skill that was typical of a high man, but his words rang with a purer note than any that had come from eloquent speakers. It was clear that he was passionate about his cause and that he would not dress his beliefs up with pretty words and pampered phrases. Aeryn was a good judge of character and instantly saw the high man for a trustable fellow. She realised with surprise that this was the first high man she'd ever liked.

But of course, she was still uneasy. Relaxing made for careless actions and foolish risks - ultimately resulting in death.

"Why?" she asked, her voice echoing profoundly in the hollow chamber.

"Because he is a good man," said the low man, speaking directly to Aeryn, his pink eyes radiating with warmth.

He speaks truly thought Aeryn. But still...

"I do not believe in good men," said Aeryn, her own words upsetting her. It was true - she knew every person had a dark side. There were perhaps good children, she would admit that, but they were always the first to perish. No good man ever reached manhood in a world like this.

The high man laughed, "Damien flatters me. You are correct, there are no good men. People are always a mix of good and evil, it is human nature. I am not a bigheaded man, but I strongly believe I do have one distinctly good quality - of fairness. It is the ambition of my life to pursue a fair and equal world where all men can live alongside each other. My reason? Simply that that feels right. I do not understand the logic behind degrading certain people over characteristics they cannot choose for themselves."

The man finished speaking and the room fell into silence, though it was loud with people's thoughts. What the man was speaking of had been through every low man's mind, but Aeryn and the others had firmly believed that high men never thought of it - that they just saw low men as lesser creatures that did not deserve equal treatment. To hear a high man speak of such things was glorious and music to their ears - but it was so... foreign... that it could not really be comprehended.

"We are not asking anything of you at this moment," said the low man after a few minutes of hush, "I know that when I first came here I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It's a massive change in the order of things. I just hope that you will become more at ease as time goes on. For now we will let you adjust. There is food and water as you will it and also you are free to wander the nearby halls, though do not stray too far as this place is something of a maze to navigate. We will answer your questions in good time."

The low man suddenly frowned, spotting the chains on each of their wrists.

"Why are these people still chained?" he asked in a commanding voice so out of place on a low man.

The high man cursed, "No wonder they're so damn uncomfortable. I'll go find the keys."

He walked off and quickly returned with a set of partially rusted keys. He unlocked everyone's shackles and threw them in a pile in the corner. Aeryn noticed that his touch was tender and that his hands were hardened and blistered by hard work - not the usual markings of a high man.

Despite herself, she let her nerves leave her just a little. More food and water was presented to them - this time eggs and meat and slightly stale bread. She ate more heartily, her appetite ferocious.

Her head was dirty with all manner of emotions, questions and doubts; but in the middle of it a small white flower of hope began to bloom. Delicate and simple, but existing: the first trace of life that had ever sprouted in her otherwise dead and desolate mind.

The End

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