Panic Pale“This is the first quilt I ever made,” the woman said, gently stroking the flowing blocks of fabric on the bed. “You girls will sleep here.” She smiled. Gia and I cautiously met each other’s eyes.
The woman’s name was Zaida.
“Zaida is your mother now,” the warrior Mud Judd had blankly announced after his meeting with the chief. “You go with her.”
Zaida’s cotton dress stirred in the breeze. By now the sun sagged low and orange in the sky. She blocked it with her hand to see our faces. A nervous smile fought its way onto her lips.
“Come on, girls!” she called, beckoning awkwardly with her arm. I should have realized the dangerous significance of the word “girls,” but instead I instinctively reached for Ori. About five warriors rushed me.
Judd spoke. “This boy is not your brother. He is going to the other side of the camp.”
Ori looked up in fearful understanding. His face plummeted to a color like paste. His eyes begged me to help him and to hold him, but the warriors had pinned me to a cabin wall. My wrists and arms were crushed and helpless by their bulky heathen bodies. I felt their wretched breath on my face and their dirty fingers on my clothes. My warrior was nowhere in sight.
My eyes locked on my brother’s little face, and the fear and confusion in his expression were as distinguishable as colors on a palate.
Mud Judd plucked Ori from the ground, thrust his body over his shoulder, and marched off “to the other side of camp,” a side I couldn’t see, a side that I didn’t altogether believe existed. Ori strained his neck to look at me and Gia one last time. I wanted to tell him something, anything, but no words came to my head. Only threads of pain and separation seeped into my heart. I wished these threads could jump out of my skin and snatch my brother back, pulling him close to me and hiding him away in the depths of my soul. Instead he bounced away on Judd’s back, disappearing farther and farther into the distance. Suddenly, I noticed tension in Ori’s chin, the strain of a clenched jaw. My brother refused, even now, to ever let them see him cry. I had never been so proud.
“No! No, no!” Gia shouted in agony before the warriors raced to cover her mouth. She squirmed and fought as if for her life, but they eventually threw her to the ground and overpowered her.
“Just let him go,” one of the younger warriors muttered. I wanted to spit on him. The intensity and fury of Gia’s glare made him clear his throat.
Ori dropped his head and disappeared into the trees, thrown over the hunter’s shoulder like a lamb before the slaughter, innocent and bound.
That is the image I saw when Zaida walked us to her house. It’s what I saw when the warrior Eamon arrived to unbind our hands. It’s what I saw in every corner of Zaida’s cabin. It was the painting on every wall and the color of every square of fabric. My brother was a brave lamb. His last moments would never escape my memory.
“Feel free to make yourself at home,” Zaida said. “Please, please, put your packs down. I have a little shelf here that we can clear for both of you. I know you don’t have much now but we’ll make you some nice dresses in no time.” She smiled hesitantly and proceeded to scuttle nervously around the one-room house like a mouse, removing pottery and stacks of thick books from our shelf. “Just make yourselves at home.”
Gia and I sat stiffly on the bed as Zaida scuttled around for almost another hour, shifting the angle of a tin near the fireplace and then scooting it back, wiping the walls with a wet cloth and turning around to face us with a timid smile. Gia’s eyes danced across the space. She didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking. She was probably laughing about how easy it would be to sneak out that window by Zaida’s bed, especially now with our free arms. She analyzed the lock on the door and a gentle smirk snuck onto her face. The tools by the hearth were accessible weapons. They could certainly defend us against our slender “mother.”
But after a time Zaida disappeared out the door, promising to bring us food after the feast. “Please, please rest, girls,” she said. “You must be tired.” She watched us slowly tuck ourselves under her quilt. She closed the door.
Now we were alone.
After a few minutes Gia’s cold hand found mine under the blanket. I squeezed it, the last piece of family I had left.
“Gia,” I said slowly.
She put her finger to her lips and intently watched the door. She listened for close to five minutes. Then she whispered, “I don’t think she’s gone. Did you see how nervous she is? This is some sort of plot.”
“They’ve already separated us from Ori. I’m sure he’s dead by now.” Her hand was like ice. “But I can’t understand why they are playing with us. Why would they want us to feel comfortable? Didn’t it seem like she wanted us to feel comfortable?”
It was true. Zaida had seemed nervous around us, but I had assumed that she just didn’t know how to handle two teenage girls, that she didn’t want us to form a poor opinion of her. But Gia’s words rang in my mind, “I’m sure he’s dead by now….”
“And did you notice that she’s going to a feast, Arcana? Why do people hold feasts? To celebrate a victory! What victory have they won? Us! We are their victory!”
“Ori can’t be dead,” I said softly. Gia hushed for a moment.
“Arcana, they separated two sisters from their brother. Notice that they didn’t separate all three of us. What does that tell you? It means they took the weakest, most dependent one and left the strongest two together. Did you see the honors they offered their warriors? This is a militant society, Arcana. They left us together as a challenge. Ori means nothing to them. He is a little boy who cannot fight back. We have wit and strength. I don’t know what they want from us, but I’m sure that we won’t like it.”
“Gia, don’t think like that.”
“What do you want me to think, Arcana?” she snapped. Then glancing quickly towards the door she lowered her voice. “What do you want me to think?”
“We don’t know anything about them, Gia. Maybe you’re completely off base.” She had to be, I thought.
Gia’s voice lowered. “You don’t know what I saw yesterday, Arcana. You can’t imagine what I saw. They came for blood and shot for blood and if I hadn’t dashed under the mattress from the closet they would have killed me too.”
“But we can’t be sure that the Suprema have killed Ori. Gia, we have to hope that he’s still breathing. We can’t survive if we assume the worst!”
“I’m sick of hoping. Do you know how long I hid under there? I hoped and hoped that Mom and Dad were still alive, but I was just too terrified to move. Hope is cruel, Arcana. I’m done with it. Our brother is dead. They killed him.” Gia clenched her jaw. “And by the way, these aren’t Suprema.”
Her certainty startled me. I answered hesitantly, still wading through the swamp of Gia’s disillusionment. “What are they then?”
“I have no idea. But Suprema are nomads on the outskirts of the City. These people build permanent structures. Besides, we’re nowhere near the City. I figured it out. In the Auto, the sun was rising behind us, so we were traveling west, probably northwest. I couldn’t figure out how long we’d been riding until I saw that city off in the distance. Did you see it, Arcana? That patch of lights? Well if the Auto took the most direct route, it’s probably Skyta. Do you remember Skyta?”
I shook my head. Of course I didn’t.
“It’s in the middle of the continent. They speak Sky there. Don’t you remember? Rachel speaks Sky.” I vaguely remembered the slippery language of Gia’s friend. Gia started pulling off the covers. “Arcana, Skyta is our only chance. It’ll probably take us a month or more to travel there by foot, but we still have our supplies, and we can use Zaida’s fireplace tools as weapons if we run into anyone on our escape. But we won’t run into anyone, Arcana! They’re all at the feast! This might be our only chance. We need to get out of here. We need to leave now!” Gia slid into the straps of her pack.
“Gia, wait!” I sprang from the bed and grabbed her arm. “We can’t go without Ori.”
My sister sighed. “Arcana, we lost him. He’s dead.”
“We don’t know that!”
“What else would they do with him?”
I swallowed. “I don’t know.” Gia secured her shoes. “But that’s just it, Gia, I don’t know. I just can’t leave him here if there’s still any hope at all.”
Gia pulled my bag off the shelf and showed it to me. “Put on your pack, Arcana. We’re leaving.”
“Look at us, Gia! They took us too, and we’re still alive!”
“We are for now,” she said. “Put on your pack. Let’s go.”
I stopped. “We can’t just leave our brother. How can you abandon him like this?”
“I’m not abandoning him, Arcana! He’s dead! Do you understand? Dead!”
“We don’t know that.”
“Put on your pack.”
“Put on your pack.”
“I’m not leaving him.” Tears swelled in my eyes. I knew that if I resisted once more that Gia would leave without me, and I would be alone.
“Please, Arcana.” Gia whispered it. “Put it on.”
I wiped my cheek. “I can’t.”
Gia searched my eyes. I searched back. The split in her broken heart was filling in with hardness and fire. She slowly placed the backpack at my feet. She slipped her arms around me with a gentleness I’d never felt from her before. I tightly wrapped my arms around my sister’s body. I held her close to me, begging her in my thoughts never to let go. But too soon she broke the embrace. She stepped back and kissed my cheek.
“I can’t stay here,” she explained softly, no longer defending. “I’ll get help for you in Skyta. I know a few words that’ll help me get around, and I’ll learn the rest quickly.”
“I know you will,” I said, but I didn’t feel my lips saying the words. I just wanted to see her. Her speckled russet eyes shone with determination. Her jaw tightened in the wake of so much loss and fear. Her brown hair, now mangled and messy, sheltered the survival kit that hung so readily on her back. She was my very last, and she chose to leave.
Without another word, Gia stalked to the window. She carefully slid it open and threw one leg over the sill. Gia passed me one final farewell glance.
Then she was gone.