Catherine was a substantial woman, but it doesn’t matter how towering or imposing you are when you’ve got that many blowguns aimed at you from that many directions.
“Hey, put the guns down and let’s use our big boy and girl words instead, hm?” she said with a stern frown, slowly turning to look at each and every one of the savages who surrounded her. She hadn’t jumped in fright when they’d suddenly appeared from the bushes, and her boldness earned their respect in a primal way. Primality, she’d decided, was key to getting what she wanted out of them.
Slowly, the blowguns were lowered as the largest one made a downward motion with his hand.
“What do you want?” he asked in broken English. “Do we know you from somewhere?”
“No,” Catherine shook her head, “but I know you. I’m here to talk to my son. May I?”
“Because he’s my goddamn son?” she asked, her voice remaining conversational. Her words seemed sweet, but in the same way as plants the young savage knew were poisonous. Her towering stature and posture helped imbue the words with a weight one couldn’t ignore safely.
Yet, there was a fire in them the young savage leader liked, and he was completely confident in his and his people’s complete power over the situation, so he smiled and waved for her and his followers to turn and head in a direction that, in Catherine’s mind, better have been the right one, or there’d be some serious consequences.
It’s alright, it’s alright… she said to herself as her heart started to rise, walking surrounded by these half-naked thugs who had casually taken everything from her and were now leading her straight back to it. You’re in charge here. They feared you back in the village for a reason… back when there still was a village.
The terrain they took her through was like a less tame version of where she’d always lived in these forests, and in this valley. The plants were all the
sampe but bigger and more numerous, particularly the poisonous ones. They all seemed to reach out and try to catch on Catherine’s voluminous dress, but none succeeded, thanks to freely given stompings from her large boots. The tribesmen eyed her all the way, but a few smiled or sniggered at her ferocity at such plants.
Oh, you think the murderous desire within me is funny, do you? She thought bitterly as she destroyed another troublesome thorn branch. We’ll see what’s funny.
“So, where are you from, woman?” the leader said, not turning his head to face Catherine. “What’s your name?”
“Catherine. What’s yours?”
“Yserti,” the man said, noting her failure to answer his first question with interest. “So, are you from one of the villages east of the Errotep valley?”
“Yes,” she answered. “My son is among your prisoners, and I know that your people have a sacred custom of allowing women to speak to their children.”
Won’t be a custom for much longer once I’m done here.
“We do.” Yserti nodded once. “It’s not as simple as that, but we do.”
Catherine frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Yserti said patiently, finally glancing over his shoulder at her, “that you can speak to him all you like, because you’ll also be made a prisoner.”
He obviously thought that would make Catherine’s eyes widen in horror, but instead, they rolled.
“Oh no, what ever will I do? What a surprising turn of events this is, I must say!”
Yserti’s anticipatory face faded and he looked ahead with a sour expression at her sarcasm.
“You wanted to be a prisoner, then?”
“I’ve nowhere else to live. I’m from east of the Errotep valley, remember? Your kind should know that better than anyone.”
There was bitterness and blame in her voice, and while Yserti usually found that satisfying to hear from his captives, it only sounded like his mother was scolding him when a woman like Catherine said it.
“Woman,” he said impatiently, “very few of your kind seek our hospitality.”
“For good reason.” she added for him, earning a glare.
At this point, Yserti and his followers could tell there was no winning any verbal spar with this woman, and so they settled for having won a fresh new prisoner, one that could probably help them keep another in check given time.
“Oh really?” Catherine said when she saw the tent her son was being held in. “That’s a large tent. Who’s he sharing it with?”
“About four other children,” Yserti explained. “They’ve all been well-behaved except for him. Fadal was his name, right?”
` “That was his name. Are there only children in there?”
“Not anymore,” Yserti said with a shove that Catherine would remember, and never let him forget.
After her unladylike mutterings had ceased, Catherine looked around the inside of the tent she was now inside at all the children Yserti had mentioned. Four boys, and one girl. They all had beaten, hungry, and tired expressions that made her blood boil and her heart soften. One of the boys had bandages all over his face.
“Fadal?” she asked, kneeling in front of him. “Is that you?”
The boy nodded once, his eyes teary as he hugged his mom. Catherine knew better than to ask how his face had gotten so damaged, and how anyone could ever be so cruel; the savages had attacked Errotep for a reason, and they hadn’t fired the first shot.
“Are you here to save us?” the girl asked. Catherine sighed heavily, not turning to look at her.
“No, I’m not. I’m just here to stay, like you. What’s your name, girl?”
“How did they catch you, mom?” Fadal whispered. His voice sounded raspy.
“They caught me politely, what’s wrong with your voice? Did they feed you something awful?”
Fadal nodded, his shoulders shaking. “Yes. Every now and then, everything turns blue, and then red, and then it all blurs away and I fall asleep. My throat hurts, mom.”
“What was it? Was it a purple flower that they ground up? Was it a green clove?”
“It was a flower…” Fadal whispered. “It was purple, and sharp, and it hurt my throat when I swallowed it.”
“They didn’t even grind it up?” Catherine frowned. “What happened to your face?”
“I… fell on it. That nice girl bandaged it for me.”
Catherine turned her head to look at Niri, who Fadal was pointing at. She nodded.
“They didn’t want to heal him, so his face was bleeding a lot when they put him in here.”
Fadal’s eyes were moist and his shoulders shook. “Everything still hurts, mom.”
Catherine held Fadal close as he wept, and glanced around the tent at the other children. She now knew that he was going to die, and she didn’t have any idea what to do about him or the other children. As she hugged Fadal, her vision started to shift slightly, everything around her becoming a deep, sad shade of blue.
No… this can’t be happening to me too…
The tent and children around her changed to red, hot and angry and suffering red. All except for Niri. She let go of Fadal and stood up quickly, backing away from each of them as if they were set bear traps.
Oh god… I’ve done it again…
“Mom?” Fadal whimpered, reaching up for her. “Please don’t leave me.”
“Please don’t leave us!” the other children cried, doing the same. Catherine backed away slowly towards the tent flap, but she tripped up and fell through it. The tent door flap from the rest of the structure and Catherine fell to the ground tangled up in it, struggling to break free as everything blurred into indistinguishable blobs.
When Catherine broke free and sat up, she was in bed, at home, her covers strewn about herself. After her breathing calmed down a little bit, she looked down at her trembling, large hands.
It was not just a dream. It had already happened, long ago. Catherine was incredibly grateful it had already happened; she didn’t have the strength to go through that again.
Catherine stood and dressed herself, then headed down the stairs and out the back door without eating breakfast, into the yard. The wind blew gently in this part of the valley, calming her nerves although its chill raised the hairs on her neck. She walked past the numerous graves her backyard was littered with, some with names and some without, towards the smallest one at the very end. She knelt before it and ran a hand along its lettering:
Catherine let out a deep sigh and hung her head, her eyes threatening to moisten. She heard footsteps behind her, but didn’t turn her head.
Catherine felt a soft hand on her shoulder. “Did you have that dream again? Where everything goes blue and red and blurry?”
Catherine nodded once, still not looking up.
“It’s been so long since I last had it… I didn’t think I’d ever have it again.”
“That flower never really leaves your system, mom.”
“I know that.”
Niri sat down beside Catherine and took her hand in hers.
“Mom, you’ve seen me shed buckets of tears. Could you do me a favor and cry in front of me instead? Please?”
Catherine laughed instead, finally raising her head to meet Niri’s eyes.
“You know I’m awful at that.”
“I don’t care. I’m bad at crying too.”
“Then why’d you do it so much?”
“Because before you came along and saved us, I’d been given years’ worth of reasons to cry. Now,” Niri said, squeezing Catherine’s hand, “so have you.”
“No, I haven’t.” Catherine shook her head. “Fadal is alright. He’s in a better place now. I don’t blame myself for his death at all.”
“Do you?” Niri said with a squint. “Do you really not blame yourself? You act a lot like someone who blames themselves.”
Catherine gave Niri a sideways look. “Oh really? Have you not considered the fact that I might not blame myself, despite the persistent dreams telling me I should, and that the real reason I’m upset is because-”
Niri waited expectantly. “Go on.”
“Nice try.” Catherine shook her head, then sighed. “Oh, what the hell. I’m just… it’s not that, Niri, it’s just that I don’t think I could ever do something like that again. Walk right into a group like that, scoop up a bunch of children, and then run away in the night like some fairytale, except instead of living happily ever my son is dying of a poisonous flower whose only cure is eating more,
birdfed to you, until it either cancels out, leaving you with haunting dreams for the rest of your life, or just finishes you off.”
“Do you think you’ll ever need to do something like that again?” Niri asked quietly.
Catherine shook her head. “No, but I shouldn’t be hoping for the best without preparing for the worst. What if someone else needs me, like Fadal did, and not only do I not have the strength to save them, I don’t have the strength to fail them? I don’t know which takes more anymore. For the longest time I thought it would be more draining to succeed than to fail, but Fadal’s taught me differently.”
“What about succeeding and failing at the same time?
“…hadn’t thought of it that way either, come to think of it. I guess I don’t know which is worse after all; I felt them both.”
There was a pause for some time as the two sat in front of the small grave. Niri and Catherine enjoyed the wind immensely; it had been a constant companion in this part of the quiet lands of Errotep they called home. The savages hadn’t come here in years, and Catherine and all of the other small settler families had learned their lesson the first time they’d tried to go east of Errotep.
“Mom?” Niri said after some time. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Niri.”
“I hope you know that if something happened to me, I wouldn’t doubt for a second that you’d do something about it, flower or no flower.”
Catherine looked down at the grave once more, felt her dead son’s presence in a cold, after-image way. It was a comforting cold, like the breeze, and like Niri’s hand squeezing hers. She bowed her head slightly, and tears appeared at last.
“Thank you, Niri.”
Niri held her large mother close, and the wind continued to blow for as long as the two stayed outside that day.
When Catherine awoke the next day, it was from a peaceful dream, one with her husband. She liked those dreams; spending enough time with the man who had made this house and helped her make Fadal was something she could never hope to accomplish. He’d been strong, smarter than her in a few ways she didn’t like to admit, and just as massive as his wife. Fadal’s tininess had been a surprise to both of them, but not an unwelcome one.
The day started normally enough; she had awoken earlier this time, and she knew Niri was still asleep. Catherine quietly moved her large frame through the house towards the kitchen to make breakfast. She wanted to make something special for the young girl who’d helped her so much yesterday, both inside her head and in the yard, so Catherine reached for the flour and eggs to make a pastry.
Catherine missed the other three children; she’d carried them all out to safety, all those years ago, but unlike Niri, the other three had gotten sick and died. They hadn’t been poisoned, so it was harder for Catherine to blame herself, but she still missed them almost as much as she missed her son.
It was a quiet twenty minutes of cooking later that Catherine frowned at the empty table she was setting. She turned off the stove, and headed for Niri’s room, not making any attempt at stealth this time. She didn’t need to, but not because she didn’t care about waking up Niri anymore.
Niri just wasn’t in her room in the first place. Instead, the window was broken and the sheets were all over the floor dragged towards it.
In that moment Catherine realized, as her blood started to boil and her fists clenched, that what Niri had told her yesterday had been perfectly correct. As Catherine made for the door, and the weapon beside it, she felt stupid for even doubting whether a surge of strength capable of rending mountains would fill her if Niri or any of the other children had disappeared like that.
Yserti was a confident kidnapper. He’d done it many times, in the heat of battle and the dead of night. He was much more seasoned now than he’d been all those years ago. He was used to every kind of trick and struggle a captive could make, being dragged along behind him, their hands and feet bound together with rope in a way that prevented running and manipulating things effectively but didn’t excuse them from slow walking.
But as confident and competent as Yserti was, what made him extremely uncomfortable was how cooperative this particular girl was being. She’d told him her name was Lucy, which was a relief because he didn’t recognize it, but the way she confidently made her way beside him
throught the night and into the morning made him very uneasy, as if she knew something he didn’t.
She wasn’t even angry at him either; most were either in tears or fuming for much of the journey. But Lucy had never given him any grief, and it was making him constantly look over his shoulder at her and his forested surroundings.
“You’re awfully nervous,” she noted as the sun rose. “Afraid someone’s tracking you?”
“Fine,” Lucy said with a yawn as they crouched under a fallen tree. “Have it your way for now.”
“What do you mean, ‘for now’?” Yserti stopped and looked Lucy in the face. “Are you threatening me? What’s your plan?”
“I don’t need one. You’re walking so fast, we should get wherever you’re taking me soon, and then I’ll be fine.”
“Fine, hm? You seem confident about that.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Aren’t you tribesmen hospitable?”
Yserti looked confused. “Where did you hear that?”
Lucy’s face fell. “Oh… maybe that’s just a story.”
“It was true, once, but things change. Come on, let’s keep-”
Yserti stopped, after taking the last few steps of his life, before he saw in the bushes an unmistakably large figure bearing an unmistakable weapon. A weapon she hadn’t had last time, a weapon that, with a sizzle and a boom, validated Yserti’s growing paranoia over that morning, and invalidated Catherine’s growing paranoia over the last several years of her life.