Chapter Two

Chapter Two

A Chapter by Korteni Free
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Nicola runs away and spends her first day as a free girl collapsing in the desert and getting saved by a mystifying young man.

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I stumbled through the forest, unexpected tears running down my face. My father… he was my father… His speech had caught me off-guard. Behind me, I could hear the confused jabbering of the crowd. Who was his daughter? Who could it be? My foot caught on a tree root arching out of the ground, and I tumbled to the forest floor. No! my body cried out. I had to get away!

            But sitting there, amongst the streaming sunlight, and quietly floating motes, sobs took over my body. I was the daughter of the person that had enslaved and oppressed us my whole life. Longer than my whole life. I was one of them. I could never go back home. How could I? I would be chased out again, or even killed. I could still here the crowd behind me, their confusion starting to die down. I didn’t have long to get away, but my body didn’t seem to want to move.

            A bird alighted on a branch nearby. I took no notice of it, too wrapped up in misery to see that it was the same bird I had met by the pool. “Why do you cry?” it chattered. I ignored it. it hopped closer. “Please don’t cry. It makes me sad.”

            I jumped at the voice, finally hearing it. I looked around and saw the bird. “Go away,” I managed to choke out, wiping me eyes.

            It cocked its head. “I won’t, Wingless One. I don’t like it when you’re sad.”

            “You don’t even know me!” I cried, then sat back, realizing what I was doing. “I’m arguing with a bird… I must be insane…” I muttered.

            “No, you’re not!” it fluttered onto my knee, the gentle weight somehow comforting. “Birds have always been able to talk to Winged Ones, but you’re the first to ever talk back!”

            “I’m not a Winged One,” I protested weakly. It was almost a moot point now.

            “No, you’re a Wingless One! Which is much better because you talk back.” If birds could smile, I swear this one did. “You aren’t alone, even if those silly humans won’t let you come back.”

            I stared at it. That bird had taken my biggest fear and laid it out in front of me, then wiped it away. “Are you sure?” I asked, still uncertain.

            It bobbed its head so fiercely I thought it might pop off. “Of course, Wingless One!”

            I picked it up on my finger. “All right, then,” a little spark of hope flared inside me as I held its small weight. A fleeting thought passed through my mind, and I seized it with a vigor I hadn’t known I possessed. “There’s a whole world out there, right? There has to be.” I stood up, still holding the bird. “I’ll go find a home. I have to. I can’t exactly go back.”

            “Good good!” the bird chattered, “We go, we go!” he hopped up and down on my finger in delight.

            “You want to come too?” I asked, cocking my head. It bobbed its head vigorously, the green feathers of its breast rumpling in excitement. I smiled, the first one, it seemed, in an eternity. “All right. We’ll go together.”

            It chirped happily. “Thank you, Wingless One!”

            “One thing, though,” I said, moving the bird from my finger to my shoulder. “Stop calling me Wingless One. My name is Nicola.”

            “Nic! Nic!” it chirped again.

            I laughed, the sound light in my throat. “Close enough. Now, what shall I call you?”

            “Cheepechirpchippercheep!” it cried, bouncing up and down again.

            “Can I just call you Cheep?” I asked, smiling again.

            “Of course!” it cheeped, living up to its name.

            “Well then, Cheep,” I said, stepping lightly off into the forest, “Let’s go find somewhere to call home.” It chittered happily in reply, a string of happy nonsense, and we were off.

 

 

            My feet dragged on the ground, kicking up dust and more dust. My mouth tasted like sand. My patched dress was covered in the grainy stuff. Stretched out behind me: sand, and on the horizon a small smudge of green that was the forest I had left behind. In front of my: sand. I could see nothing but sand.

            “This is harder than I thought…” I gasped, my throat drier than it ever had been. Cheep was already passed out in my pocket, the combination of heat and lack of water tiring out his little body. I stumbled up another dune, my feet sinking into the baking sand. I made it to the top of the dune to see… more sand. I sighed, trudging down the other side, and up yet another dune. This one was taller than the others, and there, just on the horizon, there was a small smudge. I squinted, not wanting to believe my eyes. A tiny dot sparkled inside the smudge. Water. I let out a hoarse yelp and tumbled down the slope, trying to get to it. My vision began to blur as I ran up another dune, and spots began to dance as I stumbled down the other side. I tried to climb another dune and slipped, tumbling down and landing in a spray of sand. I rolled over to face the sky, breathing heavily. My fatigue and dehydration had taken over, making it impossible for me to reach that water that was just ahead. Through my haze I saw birds gathering above me; huge, hook-beaked birds of prey slowly circling lower and lower towards me. I only had time to register a dim yell and the dull THWOK of a stone hitting a skull before the darkness took me.

 

 

            I awoke to the moist taste of water on my lips and the cool night breeze on my face. I groaned and rolled over, feeling parched, and suddenly remembered Cheep was in my pocket. I shot upright, patting down every crease and fold in my clothing, my emerald eyes open and worrying.

            “Your little friend is fine,” a voice came from behind me. I jumped, twisting around. A young man, older than me, sat on a log behind me whittling a piece of driftwood. He lifted it to his lips and blew, wood shavings flying off into space. He inspected it carefully, then continued to carve, one dark curl falling over his caramel colored skin. “He woke up a lot sooner than you and flew off somewhere. Probably looking for food.”

            “Who are you?” I tried to say, but it came out as a croak.

            “There’s a waterskin over there,” he pointed his knife at a pile of what looked like animal skins. I crawled over to it and picked one up, only to find that it was heavy, squishy, and filled with the sweetest water I had ever tasted. He watched me as I gulped it down. Finally, having drunken my fill, I lowered the skin with a gasp and wiped a hand over my mouth.

            “Who are you?” I managed to ask clearly.

            “Thierry du Chaump,” he replied, going back to his carving. “And who might you be?”

            “Nicola,” I answered softly.

            He arched an eyebrow. “Just Nicola? Nothing else?”

            I nodded. Slaves weren’t allowed to have last names. They felt it gave us a sense of identity, which they never wanted us to have. “Just Nicola.”

            “Hm,” his hands kept moving in one steady motion. “And your friend. What’s his name?”

            “Cheep,” I said uneasily. This boy was making me feel unusual. Not scared, but nervous, more like. It was unfamiliar, and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

            “Imaginative,” he remarked, still whittling.

            “It really is his name!” I insisted. “He told me-“ I cut myself off quickly, clapping my hands over my mouth.

            He laughed then, his head falling back to reveal a smooth expanse of caramel neck. “And I suppose he also said you should go to ‘chirp’, and that water is at ‘cheep’.” He shook his head. “Childish. Those are just the sounds birds make.”

            “No! He told me! it was something really long, so I just call him Cheep, but he really did tell me!” I burst out. “He told me I wasn’t alone, even if I could never go back, and that made me decide to go find somewhere I can belong!” I was rambling, but I wanted to prove, somehow, that I wasn’t crazy.

            His hands paused in their movement. “Do you mean to say,” he began, “that a bird spoke to you, and you understood it?”

            “Y-yes…” I replied, my voice starting to shake.

            He set aside the piece of wood and sheathed his knife with a snap. “Funny,” he said, words biting steel and ice in his mouth. “You don’t look like you have wings.”

            My heart came fast in my throat, hammering against my voice to shake it even more. “I-I don’t. I’m n-not one of them.” I sounded so weak against the iron in his voice.

            In a flash, he was up and in my face. Crystalline blue eyes ringed with the thickest, blackest lashes I had ever seen glared at me. “Then how in hell can you understand what birds are saying?!” the words snarled out of his throat.

            “I-i… I just…” my voice failed me. How could I explain that I was one of the Winged Ones, but then again, wasn’t? It seemed impossible.

            Suddenly, he began to tremble. He raised a shaking hand to his face and his eyes went wide. “Get… back!” he spat, clearly struggling to hold something back. I skittered out from under his grasp as he opened his mouth. Ice-blue flames, the same color as his eyes, poured out of his mouth and turned the sand he was kneeling on to glass. I gasped, entranced by the awesome sight. The flames began to die away and he coughed, wavering dangerously. On instinct, I dove forward and caught him before he hit his head on the glass. More coughs shook his body; dry crackling coughs that reminded me of a bushfire on the plains. Finally, they subsided to trembles again, and his skin was ice cold. He opened his eyes to see me staring down at him. He tried to jerk away, but the flames, whatever they had been, had stolen his strength.

            “I’m sorry…” he rasped out.

            I leaned to the left and grabbed the half empty waterskin. I handed it to him and he slurped it down greedily, spilling it all down his chin and neck in his haste. “Those flames,” I asked as he drank. “What were they? They were beautiful.”

            He finished off the waterskin and let it fall to the ground beside him. “A curse…” was all he said before falling asleep, his strength spent. I watched him for a moment before remembering his head was on my lap. I gently lifted it, feeling the springy curls under my fingers, and scooted out from underneath him. I grabbed another waterskin, a full one, and replaced it where my knees had been. That done, I moved a few feet away and curled up to sleep; my first sleep as a free child.

            But it didn’t come. My mind wandered, wondering where Cheep was, what was Thierry, and where in the world would I go? Finally, as the sun came peeping over the horizon, I fell asleep.

 

            The gentle lapping of water on the shore roused me again. I opened my eyes and sat up, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. It wasn’t the same place I fell asleep in. A river calmly swirled about twenty feet away, its banks swathed with reeds and cattails. I was still in the desert, but in a rare spot of moisture. A blue coat slipped down to my waist, accompanied by the fluttering white paper of a note. Curling calligraphy covered the page, a script-like version of the language my mother had taught me to read.

            You sleep like an ox, it read. We rode all day, and you didn’t wake up once. There’s a village on the other side of the river. I left some coins for you to barter passage with some unlucky boatman. I apologize for scaring you. Good luck on your journey, Forest Eyes. Wherever it may take you.

          It was signed with a flourishing Thierry. I stared at it, frowning. He was a confusing person. First, he made fun of me, then he snarled at me, now he was being nice to me. And I still didn’t know who, or what, he was.

            I heard a small cheep and looked up. Cheep glided down and landed on the ground in front of me with a small hop-skip. “Nic is okay!” he chattered happily, delighting in the thought.

            I stroked him with a gentle finger. “Yes, I’m okay. Thanks to Thierry, whoever he was.”

            “I don’t like him,” Cheep said, puffing up his little green chest and flaring his nut-brown wings. “He was weird. He tried to hurt you.”

            I picked him up with a finger. “I don’t think he was used to people, that’s all. If he wanted to hurt me, he would have.” I set my little friend on the ground again and folded up the note to tuck it in my breast pocket. The blue jacket went around my shoulders as protection against the chilly nighttime desert air, and I stood up. The jacket was big. Where it would have fallen to mid-thigh on the person it was meant to fit, it tumbled down to my knees. The sleeves were at least two inches past my hands, but I was grateful for the warmth. It had three pockets: two on the sides, and one breast pocket. The breast pocket had an ice-blue firebrand on it, like an emblem of something. I put my hands in the pockets and felt the small, hard lump of a money pouch. I pulled it out and shook it into my hand. A few gold coins fell out of it, landing with soft thumps on my open palm. More than enough for passage down the river.

            I put the bag and the coins safely back in the pocket and brushed the sand off the coat and the patched dress that was almost luxurious for a slave. Maybe I can get myself something better to wear with the extra money, I thought as I stepped silently off over the riverbank.

            My bare feet skimmed over the cool sand, sending whispering grains scattering away. Cheep took off with silent wings to land on my shoulder, snuggling under my hair in a little brown ball. I stroked him with a finger and smiled, still walking. Grey shadows spread out in front of me, sliver shades cast down by a full, open moon surrounded by velvety-black midnight sky. Stars scattered by a giant hand glimmered around that great slivery coin, shamed into silence by their mother rather than singing out their songs in raucous chorus. The wind and the river made up for their silence, quietly conversing in their flowing language. After a few moments of traveling in this enchanted quiet, the river arched its great back, and I saw a small village nestled in the bend. It glowed on the opposite side of the river, catching the moonlight. Soft reeds bent their heads in submission to the mighty water on this side of the riverbank, and bumped against the intruder in their midst: a small wooden rowboat.

            It bobbed in the lapping water, bending the reeds around it and forcing them to soak their heads in the river. I crept closer and saw the old wooden post it was tied to, the soaked wood worn down to a mere sliver by water and time. A few more steps in and I was among the reeds, the riverbed sucking at my feet as they waved hello. A bit more, and the boat bumped against my knees. I grabbed it to stop it from moving and further, and there, on the hull. A small firebrand glowed in the moonlight, an ice-blue flame burned into the side. Mt fingers trailed over the mark and I smiled. Thierry. Even though he was rough (or so it seemed), and a bit unpredictable, he was still helping me: a complete stranger.

            Moving quickly, I untied the boat and leapt in. Pulling the oars up from the bottom of the boat, I dipped them lightly in the water to push off from the shore. Fighting the river’s current as I crossed was back-breaking work, but not nearly as difficult as the beatings. My arms slipped into a rhythm as I pulled, allowing my mind to sink into a haze of memory. As a slave, my back bore many scars, many beatings. They tugged on my back now as I rowed. The most recent weren’t even from the overseer. I never got whipped by the overseers. No, all of my scars were from the other slaves in the compound. Tauntingly, they pelted me with stones. “Freak,” they called me. “A rat without wings.” Rats were what we called the Winged Ones. Rats, for they were vicious creatures that didn’t care what they swallowed. They didn’t care who might be hurt. They didn’t care who might be killed. They only wanted more to eat.

            The boat bumped gently against the opposite shore, breaking through my reverie. I laid the oars carefully in the bottom of the boat and stepped out into the river. The current immediately tugged playfully at my legs, washing away the cobwebs that had started to gather in the corners of my mind. Thierry’s too-big coat trailed about in the water as I pulled the tiny boat ashore. When it was high enough that the river wouldn’t whisk it away, I let it rest and straightened to look around. A cattail as tall as I was hit me in the face, its swollen seed pod bursting all over me.

            “Pfff!” I spat out a mouthful of the fluffy seeds as I fought my way out of the stand of cattails I had so conveniently rowed the boat into. I burst out of the reeds and landed on my hands and knees from the unexpected force. More seeds floated onto the sand around me. I glared at them, and strongly resisted the urge to grind them into the sand. Getting up, I dusted off my filthy, patched slave’s garb and flicked the rest of the seeds off of Thierry’s jacket. That done, I pointed my feet in the direction of the village and walked into the new, growing dawn. My second day being free. It was a wonderful feeling.



© 2010 Korteni Free


Author's Note

Korteni Free
Credit for the picture goes to skpzeenho of deviantart

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Added on December 27, 2010
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Author

Korteni Free
Korteni Free

Ann Arbor, MI



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