by Esther Kao
Issue: Aphelion (Spring 2016)
She hid in the safety of the trees, her body drawn tight against a trunk. Her sweaty fingers rubbed at the fraying threads of her tunic and her teeth clenched together, as if she could suppress the short breaths shaking her body.
Around her the world lay swaddled in mist, its pink-cheeked skies streaked with wispy clouds. She exhaled, letting her solitary breath dissipate into the morning chill, but she could feel gooseflesh rebelling against her, spreading along her arms as if huddling for warmth.
Footsteps. Multiple footsteps.
Her grip on the tree trunk tightened. She could feel her heart thrumming, coming loud and fast like a splash of water. Who could it be? What did they want? She didn’t dare turn to look.
They were closer now; she could hear the underbrush sizzling in their wake. She heard the dull murmur of voices, the clinking of metal.
Metal. The chain grasping her wrist was ice cold against her fevered skin. So they, too—
No. She couldn’t know for sure. She couldn’t risk it. But if they, too, understood, then perhaps she could trust them.
Her heart thrummed louder at the thought. Its rhythm had changed, clip-clopping like hooves, slowing to match the pace of the footsteps. She clamped a hand over her mouth before she could allow her breath to escape and closed her eyes, letting the sound of footsteps wash over her.
Five. Five of them.
She thought maybe she should run. Her mind and body told her to run.
But she allowed the hand over her mouth to loosen and slide to her side. She allowed her breath to rise up into the air. This time instead of dissipating it pushed against the atmosphere longer, like a smoke signal, lifting out and over above the tops of the trees.
They were only a few feet away now. The chains on her wrist told her to run but her heartbeat stumbled, as if offering a plea to her. The forest was cold. Their voices were warm.
And she was stepping out from behind the trunk of the tree, her feet crunching along the forest floor as she turned. In the distance she could see the sun peeking out from between indeterminate mountaintops, its faint rays washing over the five figures standing before her. They were radiant.
He stood in the center of the group. His face was polished smooth and he gazed at her with golden eyes.
She took a trembling step forward.
“What’s your name?”
She stared dumbly. His golden eyes were large, piercing, luminous. She hesitated before pointing to her mouth and shaking her head.
“You can’t speak?”
A nod. He paused. She bit her lip, studying his face, watching his chest rise and heave as his misted breath met hers in the air. Her gaze fell on the rusted metal chain on his wrist, the black crown on his hand, and her breath caught, recalling the way her skin had sizzled when they pressed the molten iron crown onto her hand. Him too, then.
Her fingers formed a question against her will, pointing to her, then to him. He observed her without expression.
“You want to join us?”
He said, “Is there anyone else with you?”
She shook her head no. His eyes hardened but it was gone before she was sure. He turned to the other members. “It seems we have a decision to make.”
Behind him, a girl with hard eyes and slanted eyebrows crossed her bony arms. Jagged scars were etched onto her skin like tattoos. Leaning on her for support was a soft slip of a boy. His right pant leg billowed in the wind like useless spider silk. His features were blurred and his curly hair shaded his moist eyes.
The girl with hard eyes clenched her jaw. “Six is an even number. That’s no good.” Next to her the boy with curly hair closed his eyes.
“She looks strong,” remarked another girl, her eyes shriveled and parched, as if drained of all moisture. She licked her cracked lips. “And if she could survive by herself for this long she must know how to fend for herself. She wouldn’t slow us down.” She cast a sidelong glance at the other members.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” said the hard-eyed girl. “I’m against it.” As she spoke the scar stains on her face quivered.
“It’d be one more person to help gather food.” The other girl wouldn’t meet the girl’s hard eyes. “And one less mouth to feed.”
“That’s enough.” The golden-eyed boy’s face didn’t change. “Shall we?”
He turned towards the other members, lifting his hand. The girl with cracked lips licked them again, shriveled eyes darting to the side, and jerked up her hand, holding it high. The last member, a stocky boy with short blonde hair, clenched and unclenched his fist. Then he released a sigh and allowed his hand to join the others in the air.
There was something elegant, she thought, in the way their hands stood in the air together, silent and civilized. She could almost forget how the iron cuff scraped against her skin.
The girl with hard eyes and jagged scars glared at the raised hands. Then she clenched her teeth and spat into the ground, face twisting, lip trembling. The curly-haired boy buried his face into the girl’s shoulder and she held him, his empty pant leg flapping in the wind.
They lowered their hands. The first boy inclined his head. “It is decided.” Those golden eyes crinkled and his smile revealed straight teeth. She vaguely heard footsteps and crackling leaves as those eyes like gold and teeth like ivory and skin like marble approached. All sound melted away.
Something against her hand. She looked down and saw a hand in hers. It was his. It was warm.
“The group has decided. You may join us, if you like.”
Even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have been able to pull her hand away.
She rose with the sun the next day, feeling its golden warmth seep through her body like poison. Above her the wind colored the sky with leaves, stolen from damp mounds still carrying human imprints. It blew away her hazy breath before remnants could remain alone in the air.
She wondered where they had gone. Maybe it had all been a dream. She thought about that first boy, imagined those pristine golden orbs flowing with warmth. Maybe she’d been too long by herself to know what was true anymore.
She turned to see the hard-eyed girl standing a distance off, shrouded by shadow. But her eyes were soft eyes now, puffy and red. She lifted her head, protected by a net of dark hair, and scrubbed at her face with one scarred hand. The metal cuff was on her wrist.
Their eyes met. The girl with jagged scars twisted her face and narrowed her eyes into steel bits.
“Because of you,” she spat. “Because of you, he…”
She couldn’t finish, choking on her words. She turned away as three other figures drew near. One was the boy with golden eyes, whose face remained clean and unblemished even though his shirt was stained crimson. She frowned. Something was missing.
“It is finished,” the boy with golden eyes said. The girl with hard eyes hid her face at the words.
He turned to her. Those golden orbs reminded her of the sun. “I’m glad you’re awake.” His smile was kind. “Just in time. We have a decision to make.” He glanced around him. “Raise your hand if you want to bury the body.”
The girl lifted her head and scrubbed at her face with one scarred hand. She raised the other. Slowly, the other members’ hands crept up. Four hands in the air. Their eyes were all downcast, and the hard-eyed girl’s hand trembled.
She thought she had never seen anything as lovely as those hands in the air. Firm, long fingers speaking words in silent dignity. She held her right hand in front of her and turned it over, tracing the crown branded onto her skin. This hand had power.
Those golden eyes were looking at her. “So?” said he. “What is your decision?”
She released a breath as her hand rose. Liberated, it wafted upwards until it was lost in the glare of sunlight. She smiled at the five hands hung suspended in the air together.
“It is decided,” said the golden-eyed boy. “We will bury the body.”
They lowered their hands.
“This is the law by which we live,” he continued, face serene. “Everyone has an equal say in the decisions we make. ‘Majority rules.’ Such a simple phrase, but it is what sets us apart from the world.”
“Majority rules? Just for that?” whispered the girl with hard eyes. “We need an odd number—just for that?” She took shuddering breaths and her cheeks glistened with moisture.
None of the others would meet her gaze, their faces drawn. The stocky boy with short blonde hair had scarlet stains streaked along his tunic. The girl with cracked lips flicked crusted blood off her fingertips. As she surveyed the group it struck her.
There were but four people standing in the circle besides her. The curly-haired boy with the empty pant leg was gone.