Refugees from the War of the Tandonni, a boy and his sister search for a way out.
Photo credit: Slevin Aaron
Farred peeked around his sister to look inside. In the candlelight, the man’s scruffy beard looked wild, dangerous. Farred had never seen his father unshaven, or any of his father’s friends. Even the men in the city’s foreign sector kept their beards neatly trimmed. But then, before the war, he’d never seen a hovel like this either, much less envied its occupant.
Mother had been leading them west, toward Thoronit. Surely they had escaped the worst of it there. Now that she was gone, Farred and Amalae held tightly onto this plan as though it were her hand, guiding them still.
It had been Amalae’s idea to move into the far-country. Too many other refugees on the main road, she said, stripping the woods of anything worth gathering, attracting bandits, clogging up the towns with filth. Still, enough refugees had come this way to soil the path for them. Fields that still had crops were well-guarded. People hid inside when they approached, cursed at them from behind closed doors, chased them off with dogs and crude weapons.
They’d tried four other houses tonight. This man was the first to listen this long.
Amalae recited the same offer as always. “Please, we can work for it. He’s stronger than he looks. We can work your plot, or chop, or carry, or—“ She eyed the grimy interior dubiously. “—clean.”
Farred’s legs screamed at him to rest. Still, for a bit of food to eat now and a place to sleep protected from the wolves, he would commit to any manner of work come morning.
The man frowned. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
His sister wilted a moment, then pulled her shoulders back. “We eat first.”
The man considered it. “He eats first. You eat after.”
* * *
The barn was larger than the hut, but only one scrawny donkey lived there now. Farred was happy for the shared warmth.
He sat cross-legged, eating the man’s fried bean cake, his scarf spread on his lap to catch any stray crumbs. The bean cake was cold and stale, but Farred nibbled it slowly, chewing each bite as long as it could last.
Not everyone was bad. Like that old woman who let them stay two nights just for a little work on her plot. She gave them five dried apricots for the road. Amalae let Farred have the odd one out, because he’s a growing boy, she said. Farred ate his first apricot in one bite. Then he copied his sister, rationing the remaining ones, cherishing them, making them last two more days.
Sometimes the men gave Amalae extra food and she shared it with Farred. At least she said it was extra. This man didn’t look like one of the nice ones, though. Not one of the meanest, either.
Farred remembered that night well—Amalae slamming open the door and yelling for him to run, him jumping up half-asleep to follow her. The man ran out too, but didn’t try that hard to catch them. In his hurry, Farred left behind his little knife. He still regretted that. A dull blade is better than no blade at all.
Later, while Amalae washed the blood off in a stream, she collapsed into sobs. Farred looked away, frozen, pretending not to hear. She’d always been so arrogant, so pushy, so always-right. What was he supposed to do if she cried?
It took two weeks for the bruises on her face to fade.
Farred raised his hand to his mouth for another bite and realized the bean cake was gone. Already. In the meager moonlight, he searched for crumbs by feel. Finding none, he lay down, shifting around on the lumpy hay. He hadn’t slept on a real mattress in so long. But this was better than the cold ground.
A part of him knew what was happening in the hut, with his sister and the man. He didn’t want to know, though. And he was sure Amalae didn’t want him to know. So he tried very hard not to think about it.
He hadn’t seen Amalae cry since that night he lost his knife. He was careful not to break down in front of her, not to embarrass himself. She wasn’t here now, though, and the donkey wouldn’t care.
He let himself cry. Mostly for himself, because he was so tired, so achy, so hungry. Because he missed his parents and his home and even his bossy big brother. Because he had no idea what would happen next. Because he was scared.
Then he thought about Amalae. He cried for her too, because she didn’t, because she was so stubborn, so brave.
He could be brave too. He wasn’t little anymore. He would… Well, he didn’t know what he could do. But he’d help her. He’d help both of them. Somehow, they would get to Thoronit. Then they would find a place to live, and decent work to do, and eat a regular meal every day. Everything would be normal again. Somehow.
And if they ever had an odd number of dried apricots again, he’d give the extra one to Amalae.
Inspired by the photo given above, from The Blog Propellant’s Thursday Picture Prompt #31. Click that link to see the full prompt and to read other stories written in response.