A/N: This took longer than I expected to write, but I've finally done it. You should know, however, that from this point onward it's going to get very, very dark, so dark that I'm not sure that it's mild enough to have a T-rating anymore. There are graphic depictions of violence in this chapter, so if you can't stomach that sort of thing, you perhaps shouldn't read it. Anyway, here's 'Part Two' of The Shadowlands.
It was as their party was halting to rest for the night that Anna saw the girl. With dark, cropped hair framing a pale face, and an athletic body, she seemed almost unnoticeable as she sat curled in the dirt, eating her share of the measly rations the Guards allowed their prisoners. Anna thought her to be around twelve years in age. In truth, she reminded her a bit of Jasmine, with her lively spirit and innocence that showed in her eyes. Anna imagined that Jasmine would be somewhat like that girl if she ever survived to that age.
Though it had been some weeks, her heart still ached at the loss of her daughter. Jasmine, so young and so vulnerable, quick to laugh and run wild in the treetops. It was agonising to not know her fate, whether she was alive or dead. She tried to keep faith, but it was difficult. Jasmine was only seven years old. How could she survive in the Forests which had haunted Anna as a child?
She kept her gaze on the girl, who had set her brittle piece of bread down and turned away, as if choosing to block out the world. She looked lonely and afraid, and Anna's heart bled for her. It was not easy, to be alone in the world and to know that one was walking ever so closer to death. At least Anna and Jarred had each other. This poor, spirited, innocent girl had no one.
As the weeks had gone by, their party—originally consisting of just herself and Jarred—had grown. Bit by bit, as the Grey Guards drove their prisoners further into dry, muddy territory littered by weeds and thorns, unfortunate strangers became part of the march to the Shadowlands. In a village close to the border of the sorceress Thaegan's territory, a weeping young woman was snatched from the arms of her lover, as payment for a debt unpaid, and now lay curled into herself, staring out at the world with blank, hopeless eyes. A smiling little girl with golden hair had fallen prey to the Guards while skipping across a deserted clearing, a bundle of wild flowers in her hands. They had pounced on her as she moved into the shadow of a tree, and soon the only thing left of her was the carpet of petals that littered the clearing. She had not smiled since.
Then there was the shrunken man who refused to look anyone in the eye. He did not speak at all, not even when the Grey Guards had descended upon him in a grassy clearing the week before. Anna assumed that he was mute, or deeply withdrawn. Perhaps he had horrors in his past that rendered him speechless; Anna did not know for certain. She did not dare ask, for she knew she would not receive an answer. None of the prisoners were overtly friendly to one another—there was no sense in it. When one was marching to sure death, such things became trivial, just another burden on the heart. No person wished to feel loss at another's death.
Until now, Anna had felt the same. It was hard enough to know that she and Jarred would die, one after the other, and that one of them would live on, however briefly, without the other. She could not imagine herself willingly befriending another hapless prisoner just to have her heart bruised even more when they were killed in battle in the Shadowlands. It was unthinkable. But upon seeing the girl, all such thoughts flew from Anna's mind. That girl could have been Jasmine, she thought numbly. If Anna had not managed to warn her daughter away at the last moment, it would have been.
Anna suppressed a shudder at the thought.
She could not guide and protect her daughter any longer, but she could help this girl. It did not matter that they would all be dead within months of arriving in the Shadowlands. This girl needed love and friendship in her bleak life, and Anna would give it to her.
Sweeping branches overshadowed the moonlight, creating a dark, private space for them both to rest in. It was very comforting, reminiscent of the gigantic trees in Forests of Silence. Those trees had towered miles into the sky, she recalled, casting shadows at every corner—particularly at sunset, when the clouds reflected gold and amber. It gave the wood a mysterious, almost mystical appearance. At times, she would go with Jarred to the tops of the trees, carrying a sleepy Jasmine in her arms, and they would watch the sun drift below the horizon together, feeling blessed at their good fortune and comforted by the protection the forest presented.
'Who is she?' Anna murmured quietly to herself, sitting up against the trunk of the tree she and Jarred had settled under. Beside her, Jarred lay asleep, his head resting in her lap, the dark smudges under his eyes prominent. It had been a tiring day of marching. Tired though she herself was, sleep seemed far away as her mind churned, trying to make sense of what she had seen in the light of the day.
Anna had discreetly watched the girl for the past three days, waiting for an opportunity to present itself, for her to approach the girl somehow. She had watched as the girl walked with her head held high and a stubborn tilt to her chin, her eyes blazing. To Anna's surprise, she did not show any fear at all toward the Grey Guards, the lethal blisters they carried and the fact that she was marching toward certain death. In fact, she refused to look at anyone at all, preferring to glance around at the scenery instead. Not that there was anything to see—only dirt and mud and hedges of thorns. Thaegan had seen to it that all beauty in her territory was eradicated completely.
She was a fighter, Anna thought, much like Jarred. Her arms, though slim, were wiry in their strength; her hands were calloused, as if she had spent a fair amount of time wielding a sword or dagger. Her posture was that of a warrior, proud and upright, and her steps were sure. She would do well in the Arena. Almost at once Anna felt pity for her, for why else had she been chosen?
The Guards chose their candidates with care, only taking those who would put up a good fight or entertain the crowds. Sometimes, however, they would select weaker Deltorans such as herself, clearly unsuitable to fight. It baffled her; why would the Guards do such a thing, when they clearly expected their prisoners to fight a beast in the Arena? If they wanted a good fight, why choose people such as her?
'For entertainment,' Jarred had told her, smiling humourlessly. 'To send in a person who has no chance at all would please the audience. They revel in watching helpless people die.' His jaw tightened, and his eyes flashed with anguish. Anna knew what he was thinking. She was nigh on helpless herself, despite having spent seven years of her life in a forest where danger lurked at every turn. Though she knew how to throw a dagger and handle a sword, she had nowhere near as much skill as Jarred had. Her talent lay in healing, not harming.
This girl was not weak, Anna thought, gazing drowsily between the branches at the crescent moon that floated in the sky like a promise of doom. Even so, she had caught brief moments of vulnerability, of fear and uncertainty. Whatever else the girl was, she was just a girl, afraid and struggling to survive just like the rest of Deltora. It saddened Anna that a twelve year old girl was reduced to this death sentence. She had had her entire life ahead of her, and to see a young girl walking to her death made Anna want to weep.
'I will try to be her friend, at least,' she whispered into the darkness. 'I will try and talk to her. I know how she is feeling, how lonely and afraid she must be. I will try to be her friend.'
With that, she closed her eyes, and leaned back against the rough bark of the tree trunk.
There was a bed of jasmine flowers growing some feet away from their party's resting place, nestled within the roots of a dying tree. Early the next morning Anna crept from Jarred's arms toward the spot, careful not to let her chains clink too much lest the Guards wake and see her. She gently tore a bundle of the flowers from the earth, marvelling that they had been able to survive in such conditions for so long. Perhaps it was a good omen for its namesake, her own daughter, alone in the Forests of Silence.
All the others –Deltorans and Grey Guards—were asleep; all except the girl. She sat curled where she had fallen asleep the night before, her eyes fixated on Anna.
Her heart hammering in her chest, Anna rose and moved toward her, as silent as she could make herself despite the chains that rattled with her every movement.
She knelt beside the girl at a respectful distance; far enough to assure her that she was not a threat and close enough to speak without shouting. It would not do to have the Grey Guards overhearing.
'What were you doing?' the girl said, eyeing her warily.
'Picking flowers. There is a lovely patch just over there.' Anna gestured toward the dying tree, with the jasmine flowers growing close to it.
The girl cocked her head, but seemed inclined to believe her. 'The land is dead here,' she responded. 'Nothing grows. The sorceress Thaegan has seen to that.'
'Even so, I found them.' Anna smiled at her. 'Perhaps they were planted by a passing traveller, wishing to bring beauty to this desolate place.'
It was then that Anna noticed the girl staring hungrily at the flowers, the only piece of beauty in this barren land. She had most likely never seen anything as beautiful in her entire life, Anna thought, pitying her. Even in the Forests, there had been beauty, so Anna had never lacked it until now.
'Here,' and impulsively Anna proffered to her the pearl-white flowers, placing them on the ground before her when she made no move to take them. 'I think you might like them. They were my daughter's favourite.'
'You have a daughter?' Anna saw her face soften ever so slightly.
'I had, once.' Anna felt her throat tighten at the words, the reminder of her loss. 'She is long gone now.'
'I am sorry,' the girl said, sorrow in her voice. 'It must be… so painful. I could not begin to imagine how much.'
Anna looked away, out toward the Grey Guards' encampment. They were beginning to stir; soon they would wake and woes betide anyone who was unlucky to cross their path. Habitually the Guards were ill-tempered and unpredictable in the mornings, furious at having to awaken so early. They usually took it out on their prisoners, who endured it quietly. To protest meant certain death.
'It does not matter, not now.' Anna tried to harden her voice, but to her pique a quiver slipped out. She swallowed convulsively, blinking away sudden tears. At least Jasmine is not here, she told herself silently. This was no place for a child.
The girl smiled shyly at her, and reached to pick up a stem, gazing at the white petals. 'These are beautiful. I can see why your daughter loved them so.'
She bent her head over the bundle of flowers scattered on the grass, and Anna chose this time to creep away, seeing that the girl would not speak again. She made her way back to Jarred, who was by now sitting up and watching her with alert eyes. She could see that he wanted to ask her what she had been doing, but before he had a chance the Grey Guards were rousing with grunts and snarls, and it was time to march again.
That morning set in chain a number of encounters. Over the course of the following days Anna felt the girl's eyes following her, but didn't dare approach lest she scare her away completely. Let her come to me, she thought decisively. If the girl wishes to she can approach us. But Anna did not expect her to yet. The girl she had met was wary and shy of her, and would not be quick to trust. It would take time and a lot of effort on Anna's part.
She had not told Jarred of the girl, and was not sure when she planned to. There never seemed to be a good time for it—in the evenings sheer exhaustion prevented it, for usually they fell asleep as soon as their heads touched the ground. In the mornings they were hassled and harried by the Guards to continue the march, and on the march they were kept to silence and concentrated totally on marching quick enough to avoid the Grey Guards' sharp whips that flicked at their ankles every time they stumbled or slowed down. There was simply no time at all to speak to Jarred.
Somehow, she would have to make time to tell him, Anna thought. For now, however, she would have to do this on her own, for better or worse. She would be lying to herself if she claimed that she was doing this for purely selfless reasons. In truth, she badly wanted to mother that girl, to have the feeling of being needed, and not just by Jarred. She missed Jasmine; missed being a mother to her. If she befriended that girl, then perhaps the ache in her soul would fade and her loss would grow easier to bear.
It was all she could hope for now.
Three days after that precipitous morning, she awoke to find the girl standing over her, a hand held out. There was a sprig of a plant in her palm; one so lovely that tears sprang into Anna's eyes.
'Saffron,' she said as Anna gaped. 'It grows here. I saw it, once before, and now as we marched. It has healing properties.'
'I have never seen it before,' Anna murmured, wondering. 'It does not grow where I come from.'
'It does not grow in many places. Before…' and the girl hesitated. 'Before the destruction of Jaliad it grew there. I did not think it grew anywhere else, until I saw it here.'
Jaliad. Jaliad had been the main city of the Jalis, before the Shadow Lord had decimated that tribe. Jarred had told her so, long ago when they still lived in the forge. Anna stared at her, searching for signs but finding none. The girl was shorter than most Jalis had been, but she looked to be as capable a fighter and just as proud.
'Are you a Jalis?' she asked at last.
The girl shook her head. 'It does not matter now what any of us are. We are all going to die soon.'
Anna reached out and took the plant between shaking fingers. 'Why?' she demanded. 'Why give it to me?'
'To repay a debt,' the girl said steadily. 'You showed me beauty, and kindness. I wished to return the favour. It is honorable,' she added proudly, lifting her chin. 'You did me a kindness, so now I do you a kindness.'
Anna paused, staring at the girl, before saying, 'Thank you. That was kind of you.'
Before she could open her mouth again the girl was gone, and Anna was left with more questions than she would have liked to have. Frowning, she clambered to her feet. The girl looked nothing like a Jalis, but certainly acted like one. How could that be?
She resolved to ask Jarred about it, when they next made camp. He would know far better than she about the subject; he had studied more about Deltora during his childhood with King Endon than she ever had as a blacksmith's granddaughter. At any rate, he could tell her whether her new friend was truly a Jalis or not.
It was beginning to drizzle as they made their preparations to depart. Anna viewed the droplets and prayed that fate was merciful and left it at that. Nothing would make the Grey Guards halt the march—it seemed as if they would be walking in the rain.
By mid-morning the spitting had turned into a torrential downpour which drenched the prisoners' clothes and hair and made Anna completely miserable. The once-sure pathway was muddy and clotting with rainwater, making for a treacherous walk. Already several Deltorans had slipped and fallen, and had had to be left behind. The little girl with the flowing golden hair had twisted an ankle and now walked with a limp, her face a mask of agony with every step she took. The woman who had lost her lover had fallen prey to a Grey Guard's whip, and had tumbled into the mud and refused to rise again. Anna could not tell whether it was from defiance or injury, but it did not faze their captors. In the blink of an eye several blisters hit their mark, and the woman stilled. The party quickly moved on, cautious and afraid, and Anna silently grieved for the woman, whose life had been taken in a moment's notice, in such a fashion.
On that day alone, the Guards had lost seven of their prisoners, much to their irritation. The woman without her lover, the man who would not speak, and five others who Anna could not recall. The mute man had been the last to fall, a scant hour before they made camp. Anna recalled his death with a shudder. At the edge of the march, the man had stopped, but had not been noticed until the group was some meters ahead of him. Anna could see that he was trembling, but he did not flinch as the Grey Guards bore down upon him. He muttered something, and a Guard snapped, 'What did you say, tick?'
With a face bleached of colour, the man squared his shoulders and said, 'I…I s-said, I will not die on y-your terms.'
Anna hid her hand in her skirt pocket to hide its shaking. It was suicide, and most likely what the man wanted. He wished to die now, and quickly, in this wind-swept, rainy track at the hands of the Grey Guards and their blisters, rather than slowly in the Shadow Arena. She marveled at his audacity to stand up to the Grey Guards, and knew without a doubt that she would never have had the courage to do so. She was not alone in the world; she had Jarred to think of. She could not leave him alone, not willingly.
She clutched at Jarred's hand, feeling her face blanch as the Guards trained their blisters on the poor man. The man himself did nothing to fend the blisters away, as the six other prisoners had done. He simply spread out his arms and let them take him, without a scream or even a grimace of pain. As he fell, he seemed… at peace, Anna thought, as if he had finally escaped beyond the reach of the Shadow Lord and his servants. They could not touch him any longer.
As soon as they made camp, Anna felt the horror of the day overcome her and she stumbled toward a tree just in time, retching. Later she lay on the dirt, drawing comfort from Jarred's arms and the warmth of his body against hers. The sky seemed starless that night, starless and moonless. Dark and foreboding, it seemed to envelop her like a heavy blanket, tightening her throat and making it impossible to speak. Those who had fallen to the Grey Guards' blisters ate at her mind like gnats, their screams ringing in her ears. They had died so painfully, like animals. One throw and they were gone. It had been quick, as the silent man had hoped, but it could not be any less painful than being torn apart by a Vraal in the Shadow Arena.
Bile filled her mouth, but she swallowed the sickness back. Tears blurred her vision. They had not deserved any of it. Why was fate so cruel? Why did it have to be this way? These people had done nothing wrong; and yet they had been condemned to death. It was not fair at all.
'Anna?' Jarred's voice seemed loud in the silence. She felt herself jump slightly; she had thought him asleep. 'Are you alright?'
She turned to face him. 'Did that man have the right of it?' she said, her voice breaking. 'Is it better to die here at the hands of a Grey Guard's blister, than in the Shadowlands?'
Jarred said nothing, but she could feel his body stiffen.
'I thought it brave of him; and I envied him that choice. At least he was able to choose the manner of his death. But we… we have no choice. We are marching to our deaths, Jarred. Does it truly matter how we die?' She swallowed back a wave of sickness, and failed to suppress the shudder that went through her.
For a long moment, Jarred was quiet. Something flashed in his eyes; anguish, perhaps? 'I do not know, dear heart,' he said slowly. 'It may be so. But I do not wish to die at the hands of a Grey Guard.' He gave a hard laugh. 'By the Belt, Anna, do you truly think that I am not afraid? I am terrified. Every day I wonder. Which one of us will die first? You or I? If it comes to it, and you die first, I do not know what I will do. I cannot stand the thought of being without each other, even for a moment.' His arms tightened around her. 'If I die first you will be alone, and I cannot stand the thought of it, of not being there for you. It is just as well Jasmine is not here,' he added bitterly. 'It is like you said, she would not have lasted a moment. She would have died with those people on the march, and we would not have been able to help her. It would have broken me, Anna. It still pains me to know that she is either dead or growing up alone in First Wood.' He shook his head, and smiled ruefully. 'At least she is not here to hear her parents talk of how they are going to die.'
Anna trembled; she could not help it. The thought of death frightened her as it did Jarred.
'We are bound together,' she said. 'Trapped. If we did not have each other I would choose as the silent man did. I would choose to die on my own terms, in Deltora. I would want my last sight to be of our homeland.' She shuddered, feeling the tears sting her eyes. 'And you most of all. But I cannot think of dying now. I cannot bear the thought of leaving you alone.' She shuddered again, and felt the hot moisture slide down her cheeks, blurring her vision. Her fingers clenched, nails digging into her palms, and the sharp pain it produced was a welcome relief from the agony of the soul. 'I cannot,' she repeated, and almost choked at the words. And then she was shuddering and shaking and couldn't stop if she tried, and felt Jarred's arms around her and his body trembling against hers.
They both spoke at the same time and she could not understand what either of them was saying but she was too far gone to care. She leaned back against Jarred, weeping, and felt the dampness of his cheeks and closed her eyes, the pain of her heart too great to bear. Oh, by fate it was too much. Her daughter was gone, her beautiful Jasmine with the dark tangled hair and green eyes so much like her own that it hurt to think of them. She would never hold her again, never see eyes light up with pleasure and mischief over something or other, would never see her straddle a tree branch as naturally as if she were walking on the ground. She would not see her grow into the young woman she knew she would become one day. By fate, she was going to die. And she clung to Jarred, feeling the sobs wrack her body and felt as if she were dying inside already.
She felt Jarred's body tremble beside her and knew he felt the exact same way.
They awoke at dawn, bleary-eyed and feeling as if they had battled a storm inside themselves. Anna thought that perhaps they had. She certainly felt much less troubled than she had been for the past weeks, ever since she had left her daughter behind. Jarred seemed to be more at peace as well; the frown lines on his brow had smoothed away. The thought of Jasmine alone in the Forests still bothered her, to be sure, but the very thought that she would never see her again was less painful.
We have come to terms with our deaths, Anna thought absently, and then felt horror at the thought.
'Anna,' Jarred said in a hoarse voice. 'What is it you said last night?'
'I cannot remember,' she confessed, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips. 'I lost track of everything after a time.' In truth, now that she thought about it she may have said something along the lines of, 'I love you,' but she could not be sure. She could not be sure of many things about that night.
In the companionable silence that followed, she recalled the conversation she had meant to have with Jarred which had completely fallen out of her mind.
'Jarred,' she said urgently. 'I must tell you something.'
Before she had a chance to speak again, the Guards were rousing and ordering the march to begin again. Anna sighed at the interruption and looked at Jarred. Their talk would have to come later. For now, it was time to walk again.
To her surprise, the girl approached Anna at midday, as the sun was reaching its full zenith in the sky. Anna was not aware of it at first, concentrating as she was so much on just standing and moving her already aching feet forward inch by inch. Anna thought that she must have a blister on the sole of her left foot; there was a searing pain each time she set it down. Wincing, she barely felt the soft tug at her sleeve, and looked up to find the girl walking beside her, staring at her with fathomless brown eyes. Beside her Anna could see Jarred look on in interest, and wondered how she would explain this to him later. She had not expected the girl to openly approach her so soon.
'How did you fare yesterday?' she asked her.
'Well,' the girl said in a matter of fact voice. She tapped her foot briefly, emphasizing the large purple bruise that lingered on her ankle. 'I stumbled once and was whipped for it, but that is all. The woman beside me was maimed completely.'
'It is very fortunate that you were not,' Jarred said courteously.
'Yes,' she agreed, glancing warily at him. Quickly Anna realized that introductions were in order.
'I am Anna, and this is my husband Jarred,' she said gently. 'What is your name?'
'Jenara,' the girl said, after a pause. 'After my mother.'
'That is a lovely name,' Anna remarked.
'She is dead now. Both my parents are. There was only my brother, until I was taken.' The girl-Jenara-smiled. 'He is a great warrior. If he had been with me he would have defeated them singlehandedly.'
At this, Jarred raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Anna felt it best to murmur, 'I am sure he would have,' though she felt the same as Jarred. No person could surely a troop of Grey Guards by themselves.
She gave the girl a warm smile, hoping to off-set any awkwardness or suspicions. 'If you would like you can stay with us when we stop for the night. It would not be any trouble.'
For a moment the only silence was the stamping and shuffling of marching feet. The girl looked from Anna to Jarred, frowning slightly. 'No,' she said seriously. 'It is kind of you, but no. I will sleep by myself. It is better that way.'
'But...' Anna began. It did not sit well with her to allow a young girl to sleep alone, apart from a group. Surely it was safer to keep together?
Jarred touched her shoulder gently. 'Leave it be, Anna,' he said quietly. 'It is her choice.'
She turned toward him, feeling her head pound with her every movement. 'She would be safer with us. Oh, why would you agree with her?' She heard the desperation in her own voice, struggling though she did to conceal it. 'Why?'
'Despite it all, she is not our daughter, Anna,' he said roughly. 'She is free to choose what she wills. If she wants to be alone, then so be it.' He saw the frustration on her face and sighed, but said no more, much to Anna's relief. She did not have the will to converse at that moment.
Her thoughts lingered on the girl. Why would she choose thusly? Pride? Had she not wanted to intrude? Whatever it was, Jarred was right. It was her own choice, and she had chosen this, for whatever reason. Anna just hoped it was not an error of judgement in doing so.
That night they lay together under the stars. There was no shelter for miles to see, but there was no sign of a coming storm, so it did not matter in any case. Almost as soon as they were settled Jarred turned to Anna. 'What have you been up to, dear heart?' His voice was amused and curious, but not very surprised.
Anna smiled at him, and caressed his cheek. 'You know already.'
'Yes,' he agreed. 'I do. It was a kind thing you did, asking that girl,' he added quietly. 'You are right; it is dangerous out there.'
'I know,' she said somberly.
In the light of the moon, Jarred's face appeared almost ghostly as he frowned. 'Just be careful, please. If you are harmed, I do not know what I would do.'
'This girl is no danger to us,' Anna said fiercely. 'I would bet my life on it.'
Jarred shuddered at her words. 'Not your life, Anna. Anything but that.' He looked steadily at her. 'We know next to nothing about her. You may be right, and she is no threat, but we should not take that chance. There are the Grey Guards, as well. What if they see you?'
Anna met his gaze. 'They have not yet.' And they never would, Anna thought with determination.
'There is always a first time.'
'They will not care about two prisoners conversing. They only care if one tries to escape.'
'They will not notice the difference between a conversing prisoner and an escaping one. They would kill you on sight.'
Anna tried not to show how frightened she was at that possibility. She looked at Jarred head-on. 'You know I will do this thing, whatever you say,' she said. She felt a laugh rise up her throat, bitter and half-hysterical. 'We are doomed already, Jarred. What does it matter if I take this one risk? Either way I will die.'
A shadow rose in his eyes, dark and unfathomable. For a time he simply stared at her, and she could see the anguish in his eyes. 'I do know,' he said quietly. 'I could not stop you even if I wanted to. Just promise me that you will be careful.'
Anna lay a hand on his arm. 'Of course I will,' she said gently.
'And remember... she is not our Jasmine. I know you miss her.' He gave a short, rueful laugh. 'I do, too. But this girl is not her. You cannot think of her like that.'
'I do not,' Anna said, exasperated. 'You know that. No child could ever replace Jasmine in my heart.' She could feel her face soften and her heart ache as she thought of her daughter. It would always be that way. 'I do miss her,' she admitted. 'I do not seek a replacement, but I long to be needed again, as Jasmine needed me. I want to do something, care for someone, help someone. I can help this girl.' She gazed steadily at his, feeling her heart hammer with her every breath. 'I must do this, Jarred. It gives me... purpose. It stops me from wondering and worrying about Jasmine, about us. About our fates.'
She felt rather than saw Jarred shudder briefly. 'I know,' he said hoarsely. 'Just be careful.'
'I will,' she repeated, smiling at him reassuringly.
Later she would remember those words with a bitter irony.
Over the next few days, Anna met with the girl Jenara a number of times. The first time, it was after the march had halted for the night. Anna sought her out, and found her sitting by herself, looking out at the stars. She sat beside her, and they talked. At first, it was just Anna talking, about Jasmine, about her old life in the Forests of Silence, but as the girl began to warm to her she began to talk, as well.
She was in fact a Jalis, as Anna had suspected. Born in Jaliad five years before the Shadow Lord's invasion, she was the result of her father mating with a Plainswoman long ago. 'He loved her, you see,' the girl told her. 'He brought her to Jaliad and married her. They had my brother soon after. My grandfather was unhappy, but he could not do anything about it. It would not have been honorable.' Her eyes lit up, and she laughed. 'He got over it, after a while.'
Anna laughed with her. 'Is honor so important?' she said lightly.
The girl looked at her gravely. 'To us, it is.'
Anna learnt a great deal about the Jalis, as well. She had some knowledge from what Jarred had told her, but Jenara's animated accounts of her life in Jaliad painted a large picture of that doomed tribe and their customs. They held honor in the highest regard, even in battle. Tall and ferocious, they were also superstitious, carrying around family talismans to protect them in battle. They also did not believe in washing. The more Anna listened she wondered. The Jalis had always seemed like a myth to her, but hearing of them from an actual Jalis member made them ever more so. She could hardly believe that anyone would live as they did, communally and hygienically, without a pillow or blanket in sight. But she saw Jenara's pride at her tribe and its customs, and kept silent, not wanting to accidentally offend her.
There were some things they did not talk of, however. Anna did not tell of her capture from First Wood; it hurt too much to speak of it, even now. Of a surety she did not mention the reason she and her family had been living there in the first place. Jenara did not speak of her own capture, or the decimation of her people. The only thing she told Anna was that her parents had died when she was five years old, and she had been looked after by her older brother ever since. She gave no names but her own; it was safer that way, she said.
Safer for whom? Anna wondered.
The next day, it was the same, and the day after, as well. Sometimes Jenara approached Anna, and sometimes it was the other way around. Even so, Jenara never chose to stay with Anna and Jarred; always she said she would rather be alone. Anna never questioned it, for after all, it was her choice. But still she wondered, and worried.
The day after, it rained. Fortunately, it was only a light drizzle, and Anna felt relief at it. She had been certain that it would be another downpour, having seen the dark clouds on the horizon the night before. That night, she commented to Jarred that they had got lucky. They would never have been able to walk through another storm.
She spoke too soon. The next morning she awoke to the sound of ominous thunder, not far but close, closer than she would have liked. Then came the flash, almost immediately after. It lit the darkened sky like a flame, golden and threatening. Foreboding filled Anna, and she clutched at Jarred's arm.
'Do they truly expect us to walk in that?' she demanded, horrified. She already knew the answer, however. Of course they would.
They watched as the Guards rose and began to hammer their prisoners into submission, and Jarred said flatly, 'Yes.'
Throughout that entire day, rain fell in torrents, drenching them all, leaving them shivering and wet. Thunder rumbled unpredictably every so often, causing Deltorans to stumble in fright and find a whip lashing at their ankles. The lightning was even worse, blinding the party and making the road even more treacherous than it already was. Every few moments Anna would find herself slipping into a puddle of mud but quickly regained her balance and her speed, knowing the price of not doing so. Others were less lucky; the little girl with the fair hair slipped and broke her neck, and had to be left behind.
Was it any surprise that she did not see it coming? She could not see a thing in the darkness that was mixed with occasional flashes of light, and though she kept her head to the ground the entire time she did not see it, it was so dark. One moment, she was walking gingerly, stepping over puddles and loose rocks, and the next, she was stumbling, falling, her leg jerking and twisting as it landed. She stifled a scream as she felt the twisted, agonizing pain emanating from it.
Inwardly she cursed herself. How could she have not seen the pothole?
She felt Jarred at her side, felt his alarm as if it were her own. He said nothing, but grabbed her arm. With his help she wrenched her ankle free, gasping at the sharp jab of pain it produced, and struggled to her feet. It was imperative that they move on, and quickly, before the Grey Guards saw them.
She smiled weakly at Jarred, and took a step forward. A wave of pain swamped her almost immediately. Crying out, she stumbled again, and fell on her face. As she felt the mud coat her skin and the rain on her back, she knew she would not be able to get up again. As if from a long distance away she could hear Jarred begging her to get up, quickly, and the ominous sound of thunder masking the sound of the Grey Guards' approach.
Rough hands grabbed at her wrists, jerking her to her feet. Anna blinked up at the Guards, hardly able to process what was happening. Black dots hovered before her eyes, and she found herself swaying. The only thing keeping her from fainting there and then was the painfully tight grip on her arms.
Her sight came in fragments. In one, she saw a blister poised in a Guard's hand, aimed at her. She felt no fear, however; she was too far gone to feel anything now. She realised that she was going to die, and recalled her earlier question to Jarred. Is it better to die here at the hands of a Grey Guard's blister, than in the Shadowlands? She had said that she would choose to die that way, in Deltora, but for Jarred. Now she was going to die that way, but Anna felt no relief in it, only regret. She would be leaving Jarred to march alone to the Shadowlands. She would never see her daughter again.
She closed her eyes and waited for agonizing pain of a blister hitting its mark.
She was too exhausted to open her eyes again. She heard voices, Jarred's among them, arguing, shouting. She wanted to beg Jarred to stop, to think of himself and not put himself in danger, but her tongue was numb and would not move. And then she was being roughly handled, moved to one side of the dirt road. Calloused hands forced her eyes open.
For a moment she squinted, trying to see through the darkness and torrents of water that blinded her.
It came in fragments of rain-swept vision.
The Grey Guards.
She wanted to cry out, but nothing sounded. She wanted to break free, turn away, but the grip on her was too strong. She could only watch with a rain-drenched face as they grabbed at him, forcing him to his knees.
And then it came: one stroke, two, three. He jerked at the shock of it, arching his back slightly. Bile rose in Anna's throat at the slithers of blood that seeped from the fresh cuts. They splattered onto the ground, in heavy, crimson drops, forming small puddles at his feet.
She heaved, fighting back a sudden urge to vomit.
The whip crashed down again and again, until all Anna could see was blood, blood on Jarred's back and on the muddy dirt road. She felt herself sway, heard a moan come from her throat that mingled with Jarred's pained cry. Tears burned in her eyes and streaked down the side of her face. Please let it be over soon, she cried silently. She did not think she could stand any more. She heard him cry out again and felt his agony and anguish as if it were her own, tearing a gaping hole inside of her heart. Stop, just stop! she wanted to shriek. No more. Please, no more. She wanted to block her ears, claw the bloody sight from her mind, but the grip on her arms was too strong.
She did not know how long it went on for, but it seemed like hours. At last, they released him and he lurched toward her, questions on his lips. She fell into his arms, murmuring reassurances. She was alright, she was okay. But she was not alright. She was exhausted to the bone, frightened and aching all over. Her wrists still hurt from the Grey Guard's painfully-tight grip. Her ankle hurt so much she wanted to cry out but did not dare. She felt the tears sting her eyes and struggled to choke back the sob that shook her.
She did not know how they made it; she only knew that they did, clinging to one another, stumbling over the rain-swept ground as quickly as they could. Anna could feel the dampness in her hair, on her arms and the backs of her legs, but could not tell if it was rainwater or blood. And that made her recall the blood pooling on the ground behind Jarred's legs and the sharp sound of the whip cutting into his back, and this time Anna could not stop the vomit that burst from her mouth.
Darkness descended, and the Grey Guards called a halt. They stopped, swaying, gasping for breath. A sob of relief wracked Anna's chest. They had made it.
Black spots danced before her eyes, and she sank back against Jarred's chest. Dimly she saw Jenara standing alongside them, speaking, but Anna could not hear what she was saying. As if from afar, she heard Jarred reply in a weary, pain-torn voice.
'Jarred,' she whispered, praying that the Jalis girl could hear her. 'Help Jarred.'
And then darkness was descending, and she knew no more.
She awoke to find herself lying on a comfortable piece of grass a short distance away from the main group, in a moonlit clearing. Turning her head, she saw that Jarred lay beside her, unconscious and stark pale under the moonlight. To her surprise, she saw makeshift bandages made out of some sort of leaf wrapped around his middle. When she looked back to herself, she found her ankle cloaked with the same. Amazement colored her mind. How...
There was a sound of cracking twigs, and Anna's head jerked up to see a figure slip into the clearing. Jenara. At once Anna knew that she had done this.
The girl approached warily and quietly, coming to sit at Anna's feet.
'You saved both our lives,' Anna said softly. 'Thank you.'
Jenara looked at her with grave brown eyes. 'It was not just me,' she said. 'A woman helped-Kaldi. She was a seamstress once, and showed me how to make a needle out of bark and glue the leaves together. We did it together.'
Anna simply stared at her, unable to find any words. This girl- and that woman- had chosen to help them, despite the risks, despite the fact that they were all going to die anyway, in the end. Tears of gratitude stung her eyes. No words could express what she was feeling right now.
'Why?' she croaked out.
'You did me a kindness, once,' Jenara said. 'You gave me beauty, and then friendship. At first I was wary and afraid, but you changed that. I began to like you, more than I had thought I would. It frightened me, so I stayed away. I wanted it to be just me when I went into the Shadowlands.' She paused, took a breath. 'And then I saw you both wounded, and I just... acted.' Anna thought she saw trepidation in the girl's eyes.
'We owe you our lives,' Anna said, her voice shaking. She had been sure that they would not have survived the next day's march, with her twisted ankle and Jarred's wounded back. Of a surety, Jarred would have died without bandages to help stem the blood-flow from his cuts. Her vision blurred at the generosity and courage of the human spirit.
'It was honorable,' Jenara said steadily. 'I had to do it.'
'Thank you.' Anna felt exhaustion sweep over her again, and she let her eyelids close.
'Jenara?' She forced her mouth to form the words before she succumbed to the darkness. 'Will you stay with us now?'
Sleep was nearly upon her, and Anna awaited it gratefully. Just as the darkness descended, the girl's answer came to her ear, soft and hesitant in the silent night: 'Yes.'