“What do you mean, Torien closed its borders?” barked one woman as she jumped to her feet. Her blonde hair whipped around her chin; her spittle flecked Mara’s face.
Stoically, Mara flicked spit off her cheek. She’d been expecting such a reaction; she’d responded the same way.
A dozen voices joined the blonde woman’s cry of dismay.
“They can’t do that!”
“Surely that can’t be right.”
“We have to get to the border right away, explain our situation!”
“We’re on the brink of extinction!” the blonde woman shrieked, flinging her arms wide.
“Calm down, Saundra!” Monroe lay a hand on the blonde woman’s shoulder.
The blonde, Saundra, swatted his arm away. “We have small children!” Here she pointed to Ian, who thankfully was too terrified by the raised voices to be paying attention. His face was permanently buried in Mara’s shirt, wrinkling the fabric as he clenched it with sweating fists.
“They couldn’t possibly turn away a half-orphaned boy!” Saundra insisted.
Mara felt her blood boil immediately. Leaping up, she stood toe-to-toe with the other woman. “Don’t call him an orphan!” Mara snapped, pinning Saundra down with a glare.
“Oh, now you care about stragglers?!” shouted a man across the table from Saundra: a lanky man with tangled red hair and auburn stubble. He leaned forward, his chest only a few centimeters above the burning candle on the table, to shout in Saundra’s face, “If you’d had your way, we would have left hours ago. You wouldn’t have any ‘children’ to hide behind at all!”
“I care about our survival, Alan!” Saundra clapped her hand to her chest.
“My family could still be out there!” The man protested. “How would you feel if—”
“And my family was executed! Because in case you’ve forgotten, I’m not a Vaerin murderer!” Saundra slammed her palms on the table. The candle trembled. Hot wax splashed down the candlestick and its brass holder.
Monroe set his arms between the two of them. “Both of you—”
Tears glistened in Saundra’s eyes; her gaze bored into Alan. “Their sacrifices mean nothing if we all get killed waiting. We had no way of knowing more Caders would show up while we were talking, so don’t pretend like you’re some all-seeing prophet or that your loved ones matter more than anyone else’s!” She reached out, grabbing a fistful of Alan’s dirt-smeared tunic—and knocking over the candle in the process. The flame began to lick the wooden table.
Shouts, scrambling, panicked cries of “The fire!” “Snuff it out!”
Monroe juggled the candle upright, hissing at the hot wax.
“Monroe!” Alan cried. “Are you all right?” Several others echoed the question. Saundra stared at Monroe’s singed fingers in horror.
Monroe clenched his hand before giving both Saundra and Alan a gentle shove. “Sit. Down.”
As Alan and Saundra stumbled backward into the Caders behind them, the room went silent. Every eye locked onto Monroe.
Massaging his forehead with his good hand, Monroe sighed. “Mara, where did you hear about Torien closing its borders? Many of us have been hiding here for the past few days.”
Mara glanced around the room. Monroe’s jaw squared with tension. Alan’s blue eyes cut into Saundra like a knife. The blonde didn’t notice; Saundra refused to meet Alan’s gaze, instead glancing from Ian to Mara and back.
Mara caught Saundra’s stare for a second. Then the blonde diverted her eyes… back to Ian.
I pity you, Mara thought, but I don’t trust you.
Deliberately, Mara bent down and picked the boy up, pretending she couldn’t feel Saundra’s stare burning into her skin. As Mara cradled Ian against her shoulder, she shot a wordless glare at Saundra. But there were others around the room who were eying Ian with the same starved look. Under the weight of Mara’s stare, each one of them glanced away.
So you’ll use a boy, but you can’t stand a woman’s gaze. Mara felt her stomach wrench. My brave countrymen.
“I read the statement on a public notice,” Mara finally answered Monroe’s question. “Nailed to the wall of a guardhouse, on the way to the second safehouse.”
“And that was three days ago?”
A few sharp intakes of breath.
Mara hesitated to say more. Should I? Despite the wolves’ looks, they didn’t deserve an additional blow any more than she had. But the notice had seared into her mind; its words almost came of their own volition: “‘The country of Torien does not condone the acts of violence committed against the Cader people,’” Mara recited, “‘but neither will it interfere in matters of Cadrean politics.’”
Insanity. It made her feel sick all over again.
The shack stood utterly silent. Mara watched her fellow Caders: brows wrinkling in anguish or in dark, quiet rage. No secrets here; they were all thinking the same thing she had been three days ago: Torien’s washing their hands of the matter.
That, and—They’re just as guilty as the executioners.
Sobs began to echo around the room.
Mara could handle seeing their anger, their hatred, the disgust and rage. But to hear the others sob over the news… Mara had to turn away; her heart throbbed with fresh fear. Suddenly it was real all over again. This whole farce.
Mara crumpled to the floor. And when Ian crawled into her lap, whispering if she was all right, she just blindly clutched him to her shoulder.
“So what do we do now?” asked one feeble voice across the room.
“But… you’re from Rhodan,” piped in the adolescent girl who had spoken earlier. “Aren’t you… a mage?”
Apparently Monroe wasn’t the only one who could turn heads. All eyes locked onto Mara.
Why are you looking at me like that? She nearly demanded. You really think one single mage would make a difference?
“No,” Mara replied flatly. “I’m not.”
Several shoulders drooped, the Caders deflating as they released pent-up breath.
The girl protested. “But Rhodan has—”
“—One of the highest rates of licensed mages per capita, yes,” Mara snipped off the end of the girl’s hopeful statement. “But I’m not a licensed mage.” And anyone un-licensed, who doesn’t have the appropriate schooling, would never be skilled enough in magic to be any help here. But she didn’t bother adding that; everyone here already knew.
Still, Mara could feel gazes burning her skull. Judging from some looks… they didn’t all believe her.
I guess I can’t blame them. Have to hold onto some hope. Or strangle some scapegoat. She sighed. “I was enrolled at the Cader Royal Mage Academy,” she confessed. “But before I could graduate, I was… forced to leave.” Mara shifted Ian in her arms, glancing at him self-consciously.
Everyone’s gazes rolled from her to the boy. There were a few understanding nods in the crowd. But everyone looked crestfallen.
“Adonai help us,” someone whispered.
“Adonai?” the man with sad eyes muttered. He was still sitting against the far wall, and now he offered a half-hearted, half-sane laugh. “You mean the one who’s letting Vaerin slaughter people in the name of their god? Who’s content to watch children be burned to death just because they were born Caders?” His cold eyes stared ahead, lifeless even if they weren’t actually blind. “If that’s Adonai, he can die too, for all I care.”
Mara’s jaw dropped. Pain squeezed her throat shut.
“As if he were ever ‘alive’ to begin with,” grumbled a pale young man. “This god nonsense is what caused the war in the first place.”
Others started babbling, arguing immediately. Monroe had to step in again, separating Caders before they turned on each other.
“We’re all tired,” Monroe murmured, barely keeping his voice low and even. “Let’s all find a spot to rest. Alan and I can take first watch.”
The direction was easy for Ian; he was already dozing from sheer exhaustion in her lap. For Mara, however, it was a tall order. She set her head against the wall in the corner of the shack, sitting upright because there wasn’t nearly enough room for everyone to lay down.
Even without the uncomfortable position, the little sounds of a dozen strangers, and the terror of death, her heart hurt far too much for sleep.
But what hurts worse? The thought whirled as she heard someone snuff out the candle.
What hurts worse, Mara—the fact that someone would say all that about Adonai…
…or that you’re thinking the same thing?
Mara reached out in the darkness, wrapping her arms around Ian and cuddling him to her chest.
She needed something, anything, to cover up the hole in her heart. I’m hemorrhaging.
Where are you? she wondered while the thick air slowly suffocated her.
Are you even there?
The long hours ticked away. But her ache remained, because of course there was no answer. No audible voice whispered to her in the darkness; no hand of God arrived to etch his presence on the shack wall.
Mara felt tears well against her shut eyelids, and she was too tired to fight them off any longer. Where are you? Her emotions rolled back and forth; her mind tipped. Her world was capsizing in the middle of the storm. Where are you? Where are you?
They were the last words Mara remembered before she mercifully fell asleep.
Want more? For a different take on this story, check out the microfiction from Ian’s perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre