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I shouldn't have come this far. The gnarled roots writhing across the ground seem determined to trip me as I stumble through the forest. Moonlight sprinkles on the ground in patches, wherever it can get through the branches. It's the only source of light.
I'm not welcome here. The trees seem to glare at me as I avoid their roots. I'm already far outside of Tame grounds. The Tame don't come here. Especially not young Tame. And certainly not alone.
I have to get away from the others though. I have to escape my boring, numbing life that never seems to change. Even if it's just for one night. One night of excitement. Of danger. I'm not supposed to think that way. It isn't normal. The Tame are supposed to be passive with an instinct for sheltering under any safety they can find. I pause and tilt my head up to the sky, only to find it almost completely hidden by the cage of leaves and branches. Even under their shelter, I feel anything but safe.
Shouts from above. I look around wildly, turning in circles as I try to locate the source. A root catches my foot and I stumble. Coarse, chunky dirt and fallen twigs dig into my hands and knees as I catch myself.
I look up again just in time to see a figure falling toward me. I scramble out of the way, and he lands at my feet. He groans, rolling onto his back. His shirt is torn, revealing his muscled chest and strange claw marks.
He's one of the Wild.
More rustling. Looking up, I spot another figure descending in a controlled fall, arms shooting out to swing from branch to branch. It lands on a low branch only a few body-lengths away.
Torn animal skin drapes loosely over the tall, lanky form, shielding parts of his charred gray skin from view. Unnaturally long nails extend from bony hands, stained crimson with blood. He gazes at the Wild boy with a look of sadistic pleasure, lips curled back to reveal uneven yellow teeth. An angry, protruding scar streaks down one side of his face.
He's hideous. Cruel.
I've never seen a Savage before. Only the Council does when they negotiate.
He turns to look at me, a sick grin still plastered on his ashen face. He seems to be sneering, laughing even. His back arches into a predatory stance, and his sneer fades into an expression of hunger and desire. I stand in front of the Wild, frozen, wondering if this is what it's like to be a sacrifice – a Tame chosen to die at the hands of the Savages as part of our treaty.
The Savage launches himself off the branch and dives toward me, hands curled like the talons of a bird about to snatch up its prey.
Strong hands are suddenly shoving me to the side. Just before I fall, I catch a glimpse of the Savage flying into the standing Wild.
Roots dig into my shins as I fall for the second time. Ignoring the dull throb, I twist around and find the Savage attempting to pin the Wild boy to the ground. Less than a body-length away, something is throwing off the moonlight's glare. Something sharp.
I don't pause to think. Gripped by an instinct I shouldn't have, I pick up the Wild's dropped weapon and fling it at the Savage. It buries itself in the Savage's shoulder, and he screeches, turning to give me the most hateful glare I've ever received. He wrenches the blade out, drops it to the ground, and charges at me. I know my end has come, but I am not afraid.
The Tame don't fight. But I've always wanted to.
The thought startles me. It's the thought that sets me apart from my people. The thought that no Tame should ever have. The thought that often makes me feel alienated and uncomfortably conspicuous in an ocean of gray conformity. I've never really fit in. Perhaps I wandered out of the safety of Tame grounds knowing that my life is over. I can't pretend to be Tame for the rest of my life. I would rather die fighting than die afraid.
Suddenly, the Savage's steps falter. A bloodied point sprouts from his chest. With a choked snarl of shock, he collapses, dead. The Wild boy hovers above the body, his eyes on me.
In the growing light of dawn, I can see an intensity in his amber-gold eyes that's rarely present in the Tame. And even when it is, it's nothing more than a mere flicker, a faded ember shrouded by the fog of Tameness.
I want that intensity. I want to feel alive, and I want to look alive like this Wild boy.
“Why did you kill him?” I rasp through my acrid throat.
“He would have killed you,” the Wild boy responds. We stare at each other for another drawn-out moment. “Why did you help me?”
“I-” Does he think I'm strange too? After all, he must know that Tame don't fight. “I didn't want him to kill you.”
He steps around the Savage's body, careful to avoid the pooling blood. He's so close. I've never been near anyone aside from the Tame. “You're different,” he says. “Aren't you? I've never heard of a Tame fighting before.”
“I've always wanted to fight,” I blurt before I can stop myself.
His eyebrows raise, but I can't tell if he's impressed or concerned. “You might have talent. Not many people can aim and strike so well without training.” He nods at the deep wound in the Savage's shoulder. “It's a pity you don't get a chance to explore that talent.”
He's so calm. And he's perfectly articulate. Suddenly I realize that the stories about the Wilds' uncivilized ways are lies. He looks just like one of us, only more fierce. More brave. More wild.
I want to be more wild.
“Teach me how to fight,” I say. “Teach me to be Wild.”
My body aches from all the training. My eyes ache from lack of sleep. Yet, standing here with Zane of the Wild next to me, I feel alive.
“You remind me of myself, you know,” Zane tells me. “You're a quick learner. A natural.”
I know I'm not supposed to be with him. The Wild are our opposites. Flames can burn next to a pond, but when fire and water come together, one has to go. We can coexist, but we cannot mingle.
Regardless of what the others would say, I still meet him almost every day. I know the truth now. I know that the Wild are not violent, reckless people as I've always heard. Like us, they struggle against the Savages. Except they don't have a treaty. They fight for survival, rather than giving up food and sacrifices like us. But the Wild are starting to lose. The Savages are growing, and Zane knows the Wild can't survive much longer.
“Maybe we can help,” I say, sitting on a thick tree root. The forest seems less hostile now that I come every day. My sore leg muscles sing in ecstasy as they relax.
Zane shakes his head, sighing. “The Wild would never accept the Tame's help. They're too proud.”
I pick up a twig and start breaking it into pieces. Maybe the Wild are too independent.
Suddenly, screams pierce the still air. Fearful. Desperate.
I leap to my feet, my stomach clenching in horror. The screams are from Tame grounds.
“I have to go.”
Blood is everywhere. On the ground. Splattered onto the tree bark. Soaking into the once pristine Tame grass. Three figures lie face down with lacerations covering what is left of their bodies. One is missing half a limb. Tendons and white bone sprout from the stump. Yet there is too much blood painting the area for just three people.
Acid pools in my mouth. I fight the urge to vomit, swallowing convulsively as I recognize one of them – the only one with an untouched face. Blood bubbles out of a slit in her throat. Her moss green eyes, mottled with amber, stare unseeingly into the sky, searching for the life that has been torn out of her.
“What happened?” I ask.
“They've broken the treaty!” a Tame elder cries. “We upheld our part, but they still murdered a dozen of our people!” As more Tame gather, frantic whispers ripple through the crowd.
“What do we do if they won't honor the treaty?” they fret.
What were we thinking? How can we expect such cruel, heartless monsters to honor any treaty? Much less with us, the poor, defenseless Tame!
Someone touches my arm. I nearly throw a punch, my nerves are so strained.
“What are you doing here?” I hiss, realizing he followed me.
“In case the Savages are still around.”
I stare at him, at his human face, again marveling at how similar we are. He would fight to protect us. We have a common enemy.
What are we doing making deals with the Savages? Feeding them. Strengthening them. By making them stronger, we put the Wild in more danger. Why are we helping the heartless Savages instead of the Wild?
Out of fear. The Savages wouldn't hesitate to kill one of us, or all of us. We help them in hopes of preserving ourselves. Of keeping our people safe. But the Wild have never so much as laid a finger on us. So we keep our distance, because there's no need for a treaty with them.
And yet, we aid the Savages. Without meaning to, we ally ourselves against the Wild, against the people who leave us alone, who ask for nothing, who have never hurt us.
We aid the Savages for free. And why? Because we're too afraid to fight for ourselves.
This is all totally wrong.
“We fight!” I cry. The commotion abruptly dies, spluttering out like a flame splashed with cold water. They're shocked by the prospect of fighting. The mere suggestion. Fighting is the one thing the Tame never do. They give up innocent lives in honor of an unbalanced treaty. But fight? Unthinkable.
“We won't be like the Wild!” comes the first of what is sure to be an eruption of protests. Passive as the Tame are, they will not be quick to change their ways.
“There's nothing wrong with the Wild!” I answer. “They're like us!”
“How can you suggest such a thing?!”
“They're nothing like us!”
“Yes, they are! Compared to the Savages, they are!” I assert.
“We won't fight,” the Tame elder hisses. “It's not the Tame way!”
“Then we must change the Tame way!” I shout. “Violence isn't always the answer, but sometimes we are left with no choice. We have to fight for what we believe in! We have to protect ourselves!”
“The Tame have been this way for centuries!”
“And where has it gotten us? We're like slaves to the Savages! We share our food with them, and in return, they kill one of us as a sacrifice every year! What do we get from this treaty?”
“The rest of us stay alive!”
“No! We get nothing! We can stay alive by fighting them.”
“Fighting only causes more deaths!”
“At least the Wild die fighting! We die as pathetic, mindless slaves!”
“She brought one of the Wild with her!” the Tame elder exclaims, jabbing a bony finger in Zane's direction. He stands in the middle of the Tame crowd, calm, gazing steadily into the eyes of my people. An unexpected surge of pride wells up in my chest and explodes into confidence.
“Look at yourselves! Look at him! Are we really so different?” I shout with even more certainty.
“The Tame do not fight!” the Tame elder repeats, but the others have quieted and are murmuring amongst themselves. Most of the Tame have never seen a Wild, and are undoubtedly as baffled by his strikingly familiar appearance as I was.
“The Tame must fight!” The crowd has grown quiet. “The Savages no longer honor the treaty. There's only one way
left for us to survive. We've been helping the Savages for too long. It's time to change! The Savages are our enemies,
and to defeat them we must make the Wild our allies!”
The crowd explodes into commotion again, but it's different this time. The protests have faltered. Their voices are fearful but thoughtful, unsure but musing. Change is taking hold of them. Instinct is wrestling to be heard. They know we cannot survive this way any longer. They know that change is our only choice.
If we face the Savages alone like we always have, we will perish. But if we stand together, united, we can do much more than just survive. We can truly live.