I met Alan through the most horrible way. It was not a good day. It was dark and harsh, and from my window in our house on the hill, I could see how the rains pelted down. I felt almost like one of the gods up there. I could almost imagine I was the one who'd started the storm, taking old anger out on the town below, the town of Misay.
I lived with my mother and my grandparents in that house. We were a ten minutes' roundabout, sloping walk from the level of the town, but we had never felt like a part of Misay, and Misay had never been able to accept us either. We were outcasts, all of us, even though I was doing everything I could do to fight against it. I didn't like confining myself to the top of the hill. I didn't like fearing the Misay people. I didn't like having to study at home when there was a perfectly good schoolhouse below us.
On that black afternoon, I was, in fact, reading one of my books from school – before Mama had been forced to pull me out and teach me at home. I had been willing to stay amidst the taunts and bullying. But she had been frightened for me.
So there I was, staring at geography maps, my hands running over paper seas, when I saw it. From up here, we could see everything – the houses, the forests, and probably most dire of all, the border between Misay and our neighbor, Finis. The two towns had never gotten along, and both sides had barbed wire and guardhouses on the fringe. There was an empty patch of earth between them with nothing on it, a zone simultaneously neutral and dangerous.
What I saw on that day that so alarmed me was a man from Misay slipping through the wires and running out onto the zone. I dropped my pencils, staring on in disbelief. It took me a number of seconds to recognize him – it was Jacobi, the loner who had lost his wife, and later his mind. For the past few months, he had been wandering around Misay, unkempt and unbathed, getting food and water from pitying souls. He was supposed to be harmless, really. This was the first dangerous thing I'd ever seen him do.
My eyes flitted to the towers across the zone, where I could already see Finisses taking aim. The Misay soldiers called after Jacobi, but he continued running, continued calling and yelling as if talking to someone on the other side. Even from where I was, I could see the happy expression on his face. It was as if he was seeing a loved one that wasn't there. His wife? He had really gone mad, and I felt a throb of sympathy for him.
The Misay soldiers – were they going to do anything? Could they do anything? By venturing out into the zone after Jacobi, they would be risking their own lives. It was an unsaid allowance that any man from the other side that stepped onto the zone could be killed. Immediately.
It thus didn't surprise me that despite all their shouting at Jacobi to return, the soldiers did not run after him. Jacobi kept going, entering the range of the Finis soldiers.
I thought I spotted one of the Misay soldiers stepping over the line into the zone, but he stopped, seeming unsure. Then I saw it – the neat burst of an arrow being fired. Before my eyes, old Jacobi fluttered like a butterfly blown with a strong breath. He fell forward on his stomach, his limbs suddenly so weak and awkward they didn't seem attached to him anymore. He lay there on the dirt in his year-old-clothes, drops striking his back without response.
I turned my head slowly, checking to see if anyone was around me. My mother was far away, probably in the kitchen. My grandmother was nowhere to be seen, and my grandfather was asleep in his stiff chair, undisturbed.
I got up, and silently, I made my way out the front door. I jogged down around our hill, ignoring the rain that was seeping into my clothes – a flowered blouse and beaded leggings, both made by my own hand. My family did not have money to buy new clothes, so I had to settle for sewing my own. It was my hope that the people in Misay – the younger ones, to be more exact – would see my work and admire and like me. I knew I had good designs, and I believed I wore them well enough. But this had never seemed to work. The girls in Misay remained cold to me.
I reached the bottom of the hill quickly with my urgent pace, and, running even faster, managed to reach the guardhouses in no time. The soldiers there bristled the moment they saw me, looking surprised that I had even dared to come near. I could just see in their eyes the word leaping around in their heads – witch.
At first, I wanted to turn away. I wanted to run from their stares and go back up to my geography books. But then I looked to the zone, and I realized that the soldier – the one who had put one foot past our border – was heading out across the earth. He was alone, the only one braving the risk, a white flag carried high in his hand.
I knew him. Or at least, I knew about him. He was Alan Sheares, the not-too-tall, dark-haired, green-eyed favorite of Misay. We had been in school together, the same class, and now we were both the same age of eighteen. While I, however, had drifted from the school and the town, he had become popular, excelling at fighting classes and becoming a guard.
I knew he was well-liked among the townspeople, particularly the girls, and his being out there on the zone was a good example why. He was, very simply, a good person. Maybe even a hero.
For a moment, I forgot about the others and watched as Alan took his death walk. I was sure the merciless Finnis men would shoot him down too, but they didn't, though they were aiming, ready in case he tried anything.
Alan stopped in front of Jacobi's body, pausing carefully. He switched the flag to his left hand, and with his right, held on to the man's coat, starting to pull him back towards Misay lines. He didn't want to leave the corpse out there. I supposed he wanted to make sure Jacobi was properly buried.
We could all see that Alan was having problems, but none of the other soldiers moved to help him. I was disappointed, and ashamed of them. I might have said something to try and urge them to help, had I not been sure that they would have turned on me, called me names, and chased me out. Instead, I went out by myself to Alan. I ran, blinking water out of my eye, panting more for fear than fatigue – I had no white flag, would that kill me?
But I found myself at Jacobi and Alan before I knew it, and I was still breathing. I lowered my head just as Alan raised his, and our eyes met. I couldn't help but feel struck; though I had seen him around many times, he was much nicer-looking up close, with his good skin and glimmering eyes.
I stared tentatively at him for a moment, but got no sense of unwelcome from him, not at all. More confident, I reached out and grabbed Jacobi's coat. It surprised me that I didn't feel any fear at this corpse trailing a red stream on the ground, though that fear would set in a little more later. As I started to pull, Alan stopped me. He took my hand, gently, and gave me the white flag.
"I'll do it, Lavina," he said, startling me with my name. "You hold this."
I answered with nothing, obeying instead, straightening up and clutching the crudely, quickly made peace-flag. Alan dragged the body back to our border, and once there, his friends finally moved to help him. I noticed that Alan didn't even chide them for leaving him to go after Jacobi alone. He was not resentful in the least.
While the soldiers talked and fussed, deciding amongst themselves who would leave their post to bury Jacobi in the cemetary, I set the flag down on a stone, turning back for home. I was not far past the barbed wire when I heard footsteps coming after me. I pivoted, and Alan almost collided right into me.
"Oh!" he went, both of us drawing back quickly, breaking into sudden, sheepish smiles. "I'm sorry."
I couldn't help but blush. "That's alright."
He paused, his gaze discerning. He looked so smart in his uniform, I thought to myself, standing straight in his black coat, the collar high and straight round his neck. "Why did you come down?" he asked me. "You could have been killed out there, you know."
"I … " Why had I come down? "I don't know. I wanted to see what was happening. I saw everything." I pointed to my house. "And I just had to come and see."
He said nothing, looking like he was thinking over my words.
"They shouldn't have done that," I added, very quietly.
"They didn't know what they were doing."
"They didn't really think he was dangerous, did they?"
Alan wiped smooth, damp locks out of his eyes, stepping towards me. His hand found my arm. "Come on, Lavina. You should get home."
"I'll walk you."
I turned to him in surprise. Did he mean that? Was it some sort of joke? He had to know what everyone in Misay thought of my family and me. For him to talk to me, to have anything with me, meant he could end up being shunned himself. Then again, he was Alan Sheares. Was his popularity immune enough to a family of supposed witches?
I said nothing, allowing him to come with me towards the foot of the hill. We walked up together, shoes eating soft mud, both of us curling our arms into our chests for warmth. We were both quiet until we got to the top. Once I saw my house, flat and spread and angular, with its green-white walls and slanted windows, I felt something. I turned to Alan, getting a little smile from him.
"Why don't you come inside?" I asked, regretting the words the moment I said them. What was I thinking? As if he would want to. Even if he did, how could I be so selfish as to do that to him?
Alan shook his head. The gesture I expected, but not his reason. "I'm abandoning my post. I should get back."
"But thank you. If it were not for that, I'd come right in." He shivered, and I believed him. "Thanks, Lavina."
"You don't have to thank me."
"Of course I should. You're a sweet girl."
I smiled bitterly at this. "Thanks for walking me back."
He cocked his head slightly at me, then, turning on his heel, started back down the hill.