7. The Bitter Past
We were all sitting on logs beside a fire pit waiting for Rowan to show up. The group of handpicked Liberation recruits consisted of Rowan and I, and four others, including my two roommates Jesse and David, and Bridget. Out of the rest of our group, I was the only green recruit. Everyone else had served on multiple missions together. I fidgeted restlessly with the pack that had been supplied to me the day before, staring at the dying embers in the fire. Jesse had accompanied me to the kitchens and the provision tent to get stocks for our mission.
It was still dark, but the sky was gradually getting lighter as it got later and later. The sun hadn’t risen yet. Rowan had insisted we all get up and leave before dawn but of course, he was late. As I looked up at the horizon, I could see the sun starting to peek its face from behind the edge of the nearest ridge.
My anxious fidgeting caused David to glance at me and smile. “Don’t worry,” he laughed, seeing my face, “You’ll be fine.” I grunted in acknowledgement, afraid to speak for fear that my voice would tremble. I didn’t want to admit how nervous I was to be returning to Saffron mere days after escaping the Slavery. I didn’t want to lose the freedom I had just gained.
“Okay. We’re moving out,” said a voice behind us and I jumped turning to see who it was. Rowan, of course. I rolled my eyes. “Are you coming or not?” he asked viciously.
“Of course!” I snapped, whipping my head toward him. “You couldn’t leave me here if you tried!” Around me, the others were standing up and shouldering their packs. I jumped up and brushed my hands off before I did the same.
“What took you so long?” asked Carla, the one member of the group I hadn’t really met yet. Her short-short blonde hair flew wildly in a sudden breeze. It looked like a knife had cropped it off. She had dark, almost black eyes that seemed to x-ray everything around her. Her face was angular and she was short and slight. But what struck me most of all was that the same hunted expression adorned her features and everyone else's.
“Who else?” Rowan asked rhetorically, walking towards the entrance to the Tent City. “Come on, we’re late already.”
“But—” Bridget started to protest.
“If we want to get to Saffron by tomorrow we’d better leave now,” Rowan snapped. An uncomfortable silence seeped over the group and we all fell into step behind him. Bridget lengthened her stride to catch up with Rowan and they began speaking in quiet voices. I looked behind me to shoot a questioning look at David and Jesse but they just shrugged. They didn’t know what was going on any more than I did.
It was late in the afternoon before we finally stopped for a break. I was panting from the exertion of trying to keep up with the rest of the group. The rest of them had hardly broken a sweat. Rowan looked over at me contemptuously. “Tired?” he asked nastily. I directed a glare at him that made his look tame before collapsing on a fallen tree.
Jesse came over and sat down beside me. “Don’t pay attention to Rowan,” he said quietly, “He just thinks that we should be the only ones on this trip.”
I shrugged. “It’s hard when he’s so condescending.”
“Like I said, he thinks it should just be the five of us. We joined the Liberation together. It’s hard on him because even after all this time an outsider like you can butt into our group so easily.”
When I didn’t respond Jesse punched my shoulder lightly. “Look, Rory trusts Rowan completely. The two of them have led us through thick and thin and the last few years have been tough on us all. It’s hard to trust an outsider when you’ve been betrayed by someone you thought was your friend.” He broke off and continued hurriedly. “Besides I know Rowan and, believe me, you do not want to make an enemy of him. And he’s really not such a bad guy once you get to know him.”
I sulked beside him. “Yeah, sure.”
He narrowed his eyes at me and I stared into them defiantly. “Get over yourself,” David said sharply, coming up behind us, “You’re acting like a spoiled child that’s been let out of his room for the first time.” I glowered at him but I knew he was right.
The question was why didn’t I like Rowan? There was no base to my loathing for him. He’d done practically nothing but help me since the minute we’d met and I’d returned all his help with scorn. It was stupid and childish. And now I’d made a fool of myself in front of everyone else because of it. I was seething but I knew I had to make it up somehow. Jesse was right; I didn’t want to make an enemy of Rowan. I clambered toward where he was sitting reluctantly. “Hey! Uh… I’m sorry about how I’ve acted since, you know, we met,” I blurted out before I reconsidered.
He turned his head and looked at me composedly. “Yeah,” he said quietly his voice dripping with scorn, “I’m sorry too. I didn’t give you much of a break when Rory dumped you on me.”
I turned away from him, shaking with outrage, stalked back across the clearing, and sat down beside Jesse and David again. “I tried,” I announced harshly.
Jesse and David exchanged pitying looks. “You’ve got to give it time Luke,” Jesse lectured patronizingly, “He’s not going to become your friend easily. There’s a lot of water under that bridge that doesn’t have anything to do with you.” I snorted derisively and they shook their heads.
“Come on guys!” Bridget yelled, “Let’s get a move on!” I had tried to talk to her this morning but she had always been with Carla. Every time I approached them Carla glared at me, indicating that I was definitely not welcome.
I shifted in my seat and stood up slowly with the other two boys. Rowan was already standing and waiting impatiently by the trail. I trudged over to him and fell into line with the rest of the group. After a few minutes, I fell to the back of the group as I tried to put as much distance between Rowan and I as possible. Jesse walked in front of me and Carla behind me. I slowed down a few steps until I was walking beside her. She glanced at me hostilely but otherwise ignored me. I still hadn’t said a word a few minutes later when I finally gathered the courage to break the frosty silence between us.
“So,” I said, “You’re Carla.” I swallowed uncomfortably, perfectly aware of how brainless I sounded.
“That’s right,” she replied not looking at me.
“How did you come to be in the Liberation?” I asked.
“It’s a long story,” she said softly, her voice welcoming me to ask her more. Her eyes however dared me to push the subject. I wondered why. So far, except for Rowan, she was the only other person on this expedition who had greeted me less than cordially.
“We all have long stories,” I responded brightly still playing the fool and ignoring her silent warning. She looked at me strangely but I persisted.
Her black eyes stared deep into mine, dark and full of hate, “Some are more horrific than others,” she said stiffly, but shrugged her assent. She began hesitantly; her voice grew with strength with every word.
“You know that the five of us were Slaves before the Liberation. We all belonged to the same work-group and escaped together. Truthfully, our story starts there in the Slavery although we all entered it in different ways. It was the five of us, Rory, and four others.
“Rory was always the strong one. She was the one with a clear mind. In our group, we said she was decisive because her choices governed us but the Slavers called it stubbornness. Maybe you never had to watch the Slavers break someone. I don’t know if your work-group had anyone in it that was stubborn enough to warrant it. Stubbornness isn’t a good trait to have if you’re a slave. It just gets you beaten up or hurt. Except Rory.” Here Carla’s voice became bitter with anger. “Rory was never one to budge when she’d made up her mind. Ultimately, her rebelliousness was what got us into trouble so deep that we needed to get out but it was what got us out in the end too.
“You see there was one Slaver – I think his name was Gregory – that was notorious for being able to ‘break’ difficult slaves. Rory’s attitude got her, Rowan, Jake, and Bridget – they were in a Squadron together – sent to him so she could be ‘broken’ like countless other souls. The thing is I don’t think Rory can break. No one can bend Rory's mind to their will if she doesn't want to. I was already at the Slavery, with David, Jesse and the others. I’d been there for a few months already when Rory arrived and I didn’t think anything could get any worse. I was wrong, those few months we spent with Gregory after Rory came were the worst in our whole lives.
“He tortured us every day because Rory wouldn’t submit to him. She doesn’t mind physical pain for some reason but she can’t bear to see other people in pain. That’s always been her weakness, but it has also proven to be one of her virtues and strengths. She’ll go to any lengths to help the people she loves. Gregory eventually learned this and used it against her. It was terrifying. It was the first time I’d ever seen her come close to submission. That was when she discovered her power. She lost her temper and broke free one day when he was torturing Rowan.” Carla’s large black eyes closed remembering it. “It probably saved us. At that point, they didn’t really care if we survived so long as she broke. She killed him, freed us, and we made our escape. We left Neuvia, where the Magicians had imprisoned us, and made our way into the country where we thought we could live in peace, away from the Magicians. As it turns out, we couldn’t.
“Rory’s escape seized the Magicians attention and they tried to hunt Rory down like she was an animal to be studied. At first Rory tried to convince us to let her go off on her own in a mad attempt to lead the Magicians off our trail. She knew that the Magicians were more interested in her than the rest of us and she felt that if we were recaptured it would be her fault. Rowan and the others refused to let her out of their sight after that. They weren’t going to leave her behind no matter what she said. We ran for weeks. A sort of rabbling, scrambling game of hide and seek that we knew we had to win or we’d be thrown back into a position worse than our last. We finally ended up near Saffron two years later, desperately trying to seek shelter in the city. You see, Rory couldn’t control over her power at that time, nor did she have the training to use it so we had to rely on our instincts.
“We were almost recaptured in Saffron. Almost. Except then Aatiqah saved us. Over the next two years, he saved us several times. He was a Denounced Magician and the founder of the Liberation. When he found us, he took us to the Liberation and initiated us into its ranks. We all owed him a lot but especially Rory. Aatiqah took her under his wing and taught her about her power. Then when I was eleven, something happened. The Magicians somehow found out what he was doing. They tracked him down and captured him.” She blinked back the tears that were welling up in her eyes. “The last time we saw him he was being led to the gallows. They hung him for helping us try to survive. He died because of us!
“Aatiqah’s death changed everything. Rory and Rowan took over leading the Liberation for a time because that was what Aatiqah had said he wanted. But Jake quickly became dissatisfied, partially because Rory had never really liked or trusted him but mostly because he felt that we weren’t getting results fast enough. Not even three months after the Liberation had recovered from our leader’s death and it was in shambles again. That age in the Liberation’s history was named the Upris—” She broke off curtly.
She stopped talking abruptly and looked over at me. “I’m sorry,” she faltered, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No!” I protested, “What were you about to say?”
“Nothing,” she snapped and she picked up her pace until she caught up with Bridget.
She’d said something she hadn’t wanted to. She’d gone just a bit too far with her story. I could tell by the nervous glances that she threw back at me as she talked to Bridget. Another question to add to my growing list, I thought as I followed the rest of the group up the trail.ns 126.96.36.199da2