Chapter 3:

His head was spinning painfully, and his normally acute senses were a mess. Cleave usually had a good idea of where he was at any given moment and what was going on around him, but the only thing he was certain of right now was that he was alive. He struggled against the velvet darkness of unconsciousness that tugged at him like greedy hands and forced his eyes to open – or at least one of his eyes. His left seemed to be swollen shut, but he managed to look around with his right eye. The only thing he could see was the flickering, yellow light of a lantern that was setting too close to his head for his comfort.

"So, you're finally awake," a voice said from the shadows, and Cleave recognized it as belonging to the woman he had seen before passing out.

She stepped closer, into the lantern's fickle light and peered down at him as if surveying his injuries. Cleave took this opportunity to study the appearance of the one who had saved him. All too often, people didn't look their best by the meager light of a lantern. The shadows cast would make their skin look sallow while their eyes and mouths would appear like ragged holes, but the tiny flamed seemed to love her. The wavering light caressed her skin as gently as a lover and gave extra color to her naturally fair complexion. Her eyes, which he knew were actually hazel, looked dark and mysterious, while her lashes cast shadows upon her high cheeks. She smiled as she pushed her thick strands of ebony hair behind her ears, only for it to fall forward again and curl up slightly about her chin. As she leaned over him, he realized that she was a tall woman with a slender but shapely build, although she didn't seem to try and draw attention to that fact with her dress. Currently she was wearing a large sweater of an indeterminate color, jeans, and a small scarf about her slender neck.

"You are awake aren't you?" she asked as an almost girlish giggle escaped her bow shaped mouth.

Cleave realized that he had been staring at her all this time and was embarrassed. "Yes," he answered, "I'm awake." His voice was so hoarse that it sounded foreign in his own ears. "Sorry about drifting off like that."

"That's okay," she replied as she sat down in a wooden chair, "It was really touch and go there for a while, and I was worried you were a goner. You were really bleeding. I thought you were going to have to have stitches."

Bleeding! Cleave touched his head where he felt bandages wrapped about as the horror of the situation slowly dawned on him. Despite the pain, he struggled to a sitting position and tried to stand. "What are you doing?" she cried, jumping up and grabbing his shoulders.

"I have to get out of here," he said.

"You're in no condition to be going anywhere," she insisted.

"You don't understand," he hissed, "The others will be drawn by my blood. They might be here any minute! I have to get out of here."

"No one is going to find you here," she stated calmly.

"You don't understand," he reiterated, "They will follow me here. I'm an Inbe-"

"I know what you are," she interrupted in a strangely flat tone, "I heard you talking just before you were attacked, but you're safe now."

"You know?" he asked, "Then why are you helping me?"

She looked down at her sweater and picked at a loose thread. "Because it didn't seem fair," she answered, "All of them against only you. I guess that doesn't make any sense, but that's just how I felt." Finally, she looked up to make eye contact with Cleave. "But, like I said, you're safe here. There's mint planted all around this sod house and all along this entire mountainside. They can't track you. Mint confuses their senses for some reason. Unless they walk through this front door, we are completely invisible to them."

"Really?" Cleave asked. He knew there were times he had felt disorientated, but he had never known the precise reason. "I didn't know that."

She smiled again, and Cleave's heart jumped at how such a simple expression increased her natural beauty. "It helps to learn all you can in the world if you want to survive," she said. Standing, she grabbed a woven basket from the floor before turning back towards him. "I'm going to gather a few things for supper. I want you to rest until I get back."

To his surprise, he returned her smile. "I'll do that if you do one thing for me first."

"What's that?" she asked.

"Tell me your name."

She laughed again, and it sounded almost musical. "Mariah," she answered, "My name is Mariah."

"Mariah," he repeated, "I'm Cleave."

She nodded. "I knew that," she said, "Now, lie down and rest. I'll be back soon."

"Okay," he agreed as he slowly lowered himself back down onto the bed. He must have been more exhausted than he realized because he quickly found himself falling asleep, but a single thought burned in his mind just before he drifted away.

Was this what it was like to have a place to call home?

Author's Note: I know this chapter is far shorter than my first two. Originally I had planned for Cleave and Mariah to have a longer conversation since that's how I'm going to explain exactly how the Inbetweeners function, but it felt right to end it here. That conversation will take place in the next chapter, and I promise they'll be more action in that chapter as well. Thanks to all who have taken time to read my story so far.