“And you said my ideas were stupid,” I muttered. We were walking side-by-side through the forest, with a host of not-vie around us. I couldn’t see them … they had covered themselves in some kind of blackish paint, which matched them perfectly to the shadows … but I could hear their breathing, and the clinking of their weapons.
Spiderhands clapped me on the back, grinning to himself. “Well, your ideas all tried to get One in trouble. This plan is about getting revenge for what Mama Salli did to the vie. It’s much more noble.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right, ’cause you’re the picture of nobility.” His night clothes had been scuffed up while running from the not-vie, not to mention filthy from lying in the dirt while I was explaining everything to Mestra. His Mother would probably cry if she saw him right now. The thought made my fingers clench. I couldn’t wait until I could remember my own Mother again. But Spiderhands … “Hey, Spiderhands. When you were talking to Mestra earlier, you said that later, Mestra could give me back my memories. But what about you? I thought you wanted the Ventine poison out just as much as I did.” This made him go quiet for awhile.
“Well … how do I put this. I guess I don’t really want to remember. I get a feeling that a lot of bad stuff happened to me when I was younger. I still have nightmares about it sometimes, when little pieces come back to me.” He shook his head. “I definitely don’t want all of it in my head again. That’d be too much to handle.”
Nightmares? I narrowed my eyes at him. How come he had never told me about this? Come to think of it, the circles under his eyes did seem a little darker than they should be. And his hair did seem a little thinner than other people’s. The nightmares could be stressing him out … then again, maybe it was just me. I wasn’t used to looking at him at night.
Acting on an impulse, I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him closer until our sides were touching. It felt natural, easy. Like breathing. “You can tell me these kinds of things more often, you know. I want to be there for you,” I said. Spiderhands smiled at me, then put one long arm around my shoulders. We had never been this close before, since it wasn’t allowed in the camps. The supervisors would probably have bitten our hands off if we tried. Now, though, I could feel the heat coming off of him in the cold night air. I could even smell his sweat. I knew that smell from when we mined together, but at that moment, it seemed a lot sweeter than it had before. A smoky kind of smell.
Things were quiet for a moment. Then I felt something crash into my back. There was a flash of blue-black hair, and then I was lifted off my feet and speeding along so fast that things started to blur. “Hey, lovebirds! You walk too slow!” said Tan.
“Rab? Where are- hey get off me I can walk just fine so you just put me down right now-” Bumping along on Tan’s back, I could see that a not-vie female had come up behind Spiderhands and had thrown him across her shoulder, and was keeping pace behind me and Tan. It seemed darker out here, in the trees, so I couldn’t see much of her. Just the gleam of her knives, and her chest, slick with war-paint.
“Aw, gross!” I said, feeling some of Tan’s paint rub off onto the front of my uniform. “And who are you calling lovebirds, anyways? We were just … just …”
“This is the way you miners use to get to the camp, right?” I glanced straight down at a bare path we had come across, a stretch of dirt pressed into stone by hundreds of footsteps, criss-crossed with tree roots.
“Yeah. Camp shouldn’t be too far away.” I felt Tan nod to himself, then motion a hand at the not-vie behind him as he disappeared back into the trees. Me and Spiderhands had warned him that the supervisors sometimes went hunting at night. They had to eat, too, and what they ate – besides miners who tried to run off – was small game like rabbits and squirrels. So the closer we got to the camp entrance, the slower and more cautious Tan became, until we were just barely creeping along, silent except for the occasional crinkle of a dry leaf and my own breathing.
Finally we drew to a stop. Tan set me down in the grass, and I crouched, shivering and waiting for Spiderhands. When the not-vie female set him down, we sat together, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. Spiderhands glared up at Tan like he wanted to punch him in the face for picking me up without asking.
I put a hand on Spiderhands’s knee. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I whispered. One of the not-vie gave me a nudge with their foot, hissing ‘Shush,’ but I ignored him. It was a question that I felt I had to ask.
Spiderhands hesitated, and then his chin dipped down in a nod. The fire was back in his eyes again. But after a moment the fires dimmed a little, and he reached out a hand and brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” he breathed.
I shook my head at him. Come on, I wanted to say, you know me. I stick with my friends. And I don’t back down after I’ve made a promise. No matter what Mama Salli thinks my heart is like.
The sky was beginning to get a dusky, grayish look to it. I stared up, gnawing at my bottom lip. Mestra and the other vie couldn’t be out for much longer. Hopefully we would get the supervisors taken care of before the sunlight gave them a burn.
“You seem worried, miner,” a voice breathed in my ear. I clamped a hand over my mouth to keep in a scream, then whirled around to find Mestra, and a host of other vie, watching me.
“Yeah, well … a lot of things could go wrong,” I said.
Mestra glanced down at her arms, then began to roll up the sleeves of her cloak. “It will work,” she said. There were no doubts in her clean blue eyes. Only calculations.
Tan tapped my shoulder, then pointed with his eyes at the camp entrance. It was time to go. I groped for Spiderhands’s hand and squeezed it in the dark. This was the part I was worried about. I didn’t like the idea of being bait for creatures that half the camp thought were man-eaters. Like I had said to Mestra, plenty of things could go wrong. Namely, me getting killed.
Slowly, each step moving smoothly into the next, Spiderhands and I moved away from the trees. I shivered, and even with Spiderhands next to me, it felt like I was alone.
Back where the vie lived, me and Spiderhands had gotten our miner scent on the vie and not-vie coming with us – basically, we just had to rub our hands on their faces and they were all set. Supervisors trust their sense of smell more than their sight. And if they smelled a lot of miners …
Spiderhands disappeared somewhere in front of me. I rubbed my arms, the shivering getting worse until my teeth were chattering so hard I thought they’d crack my jaw.
Standing in the path, I could see supervisors right by the camp border. They were raising their noses to the wind. One by one, they were turning towards me. And I was completely exposed.
Suddenly a call rang out. “Prisoners! Prisoners are escaping!” Spiderhands shouted, in his best gruff-voiced imitation of a supervisor. Even though I knew it was coming, I almost jumped out of my skin; Spiderhands sounded pretty convincing.
The supervisors jerked like lightning had gone through them. Then their eyes locked on me.
Wait, that’s my cue to start running, I remembered, my thoughts blazing at a million miles a minute, so hot and white that it seemed that all I could do was just stand there and shake. Finally I managed a convincingly terrified shriek, then took off as fast as my legs could carry me away from the camp. I could hear the supervisors howling in surprise. Then the thundering of their feet started up behind me.
The thing is, the supervisors can work on their own, but they function best as a pack. So, Spiderhands’s plan figured that if we could split them up somehow, they’d be easier to handle.
From within the woods, the not-vie who had been rubbed with our scent began calling out.
“I’m here, you stupid dog!”
“Come and get us!”
“Hey, hey, I’m over here!” I didn’t look back but kept running, even as an ache seized my chest and I started wheezing. I could hear the confusion behind me, though; the supervisors were snarling, taking off after the voices of the not-vie in the woods. Supervisors were trained to act first, think later. It wouldn’t occur to them that anyone wanted to scatter them under the trees to pick off one at a time.
A moment passed, and then I heard shrieks of pain behind me, more animal than human. I didn’t want to think about what the vie and their allies were doing to the supervisors. I mean, I know they were evil, and they worked for Mama Salli and all, but … I wouldn’t want a vie mad at me, is all.
There was a snarl close to my ear, and a hot pain raked the side of my head, tearing out a line of flesh and hair. I cried out and clapped a hand to the wound. All of a sudden a supervisor was looming above me, his too-long nails bloody in the gray moonlight.
Then he staggered, clutching at his side. All I saw was a blur of blue; but a moment passed, and the supervisor made a gurgling sound and keeled over, disintegrating into nothing more than a pile of mud, fur, and a powder that looked like a watered-down version of Ventine dust.
Mestra hovered over me, her lips curled back so that her pointed teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “The magic that made them was done with Ventine,” she said, pulling me to my feet. “It is easy enough to undo. This will not take long.”
Other supervisors were streaming out of the forest, yipping in pain and with not-vie hot on their tails. There was plenty of blood flowing between the two parties, and some of them were even limping. Mestra moved – maybe shifted is a better word, since it was more like she was beside me one moment, and in the next, she was twenty feet away and raking her hand through supervisors.
Well, I thought. Now what do I do? If I stay here, I’ll probably get targeted again. Spiderhands hadn’t been too specific on what I should do after luring out the supervisors … “Keep yourself out of trouble,” I think he said. Wiping the blood from my head, I turned and scrambled down the path, almost immediately tripping over a root I had forgotten about before getting up and moving again. The farther I got away from the fighting, the safer I would be.
Even if the tree roots did beat me up a little.
Before long I had two scraped knees and a bad headache. I couldn’t tell how long it had been – no more than a few minutes, judging by the still-dark sky – yet for some reason it seemed like I had been walking for hours.
When would I be able to go back? How long would the fighting last? Where was Spiderhands? I shivered, picking my way slowly to avoid as many roots as I could. Maybe I should find a place to hide …
I passed a thin stand of trees, and a hand shot out of the shadows and gripped me by the wrist. I had a moment to stare at the hand – it was slender, brown with dirt and yet smooth to the touch – before it yanked me into an embrace that pressed a knife against my throat. “Don’t shout,” a voice hissed. I could hear the jangle of her jewelry as she turned her head back and forth, then retreated backwards into the trees, pulling me with her. There was the far-off scream of a supervisor … or maybe it was one of the not-vie, being roughed up a little. The supervisors weren’t going to go down easy, I knew that much.
“What the hell is going on?” said One. Her knife sucked the heat out of my neck, and I was suddenly aware of the pulse in my arteries, the dryness in my throat. It felt like I had swallowed a lump of sand. “You led them here, didn’t you?” said One, her voice sharp. Some of her hair brushed against my cheek, and I shivered. “Those are supervisors dying out there. We needed them, you idiot! To keep the miners in their place!”
“You’re a miner, too, you twit,” I muttered, more to myself than to her. One was working her way through the trees, and I followed her steps, not wanting to be nicked by the knife if I stayed in place too long.
One bristled. She didn’t say anything, though; instead, she took care to keep quiet, cushioning her feet on the ground and raising them again, noiselessly. She smelled like the earth, I noticed. Just like Tan and the other not-vie.
And yet, One wasn’t just like them. She could go out in strong daylight if she wanted. She didn’t have that blue-black hair, or those Ventine eyes, though they were a pretty blue all on their own. But Mestra had included her as one of the not-vie, hadn’t she? And, hang on a second. Why was she out here in the first place? Wasn’t she supposed to be asleep in the camp?
A stone caught my foot, and I stumbled before catching myself. “Careful, Rab, or you might slip,” One purred into my ear. Her voice sounded strange, a few octaves too high, a few shades too bright.
It was then that I realized that, beneath the high, sweet voice, One was wishing that I slipped.
Oh, shoot, I thought to myself. She’s going to kill me, isn’t she?
A few minutes passed in silence, the two of us making our way deeper into the woods, the edge of the knife always lingering near my neck. I was trying to think of what to do, but my thoughts came in bursts, and most of them involved the risk of getting my head cut off. Which, I decided, I didn’t really want to happen.
“Everything had been so perfect,” One murmured. Glancing down at the hand that held the knife, I saw that her knuckles were white, her fingers shaking. “And it’ll be perfect again, Rabbitheart. It’ll just take a little time, is all. Time and patience to fix the mistake you made with that long-fingered freak.”
“How do you-”
“Oh, please. Do you think I’m stupid?” One snapped. She stepped over a tree root, yanking me hard enough to scrape my foot against the bark. “I knew all about your little jealousy-fest. You were going to try to sneak into the mines at night, to ‘catch me in the act’ of stealing extra Ventine. Simpleton.” Her eyes began to turn from side to side, searching for something. Hopefully not a place to hide my body, I thought, with a shudder. “I knew that the vie would capture you. Personally, I thought that they wouldn’t listen to anything you had to say. They’d think of you as a thief, a liar, a stupid little human. As soon as they decided that, they would have killed you and your friend. But I miscalculated. They actually believed you; they let you live. So, I guess it’s my mistake more than yours. But that’s not as much fun, is it? Always better to blame someone else. You’ll have a happier life in the end.”
I couldn’t think of an answer to that. I could feel One smiling as we walked. It wasn’t a nice smile.
Another minute passed, and we drew to a stop beside a bent-over tree, its bark cracked and graying with age. One grabbed a fistful of my hair and steered me towards the rock under the tree. “I shouldn’t need to say this, but you’re an idiot, so I will; try to get away, and I’ll slit your throat. Hostages that disobey me are of no use.” Hostage? Idiot? Man, she was even more conceited than I remembered. More vicious, too, I thought to myself, wincing in pain.
There was a crack in the rock shelf beneath the tree, wide enough to see in the dark. One wiggled the point of her knife into the crack until the blade was wedged half-way inside. Then she leaned to one side and gave a push. Groaning, the rock split in half. One was able to lever it open until there was space wide enough for a person to fit through.
Then One shoved me inside. I fell maybe five feet onto a floor of hard rock. One leaped in after me, landing with the grace of a cat. The slit of gray light that followed us in was blocked out, as One moved the door back in place.
Sweat beaded at the back of my neck. We were in a small hollow in the stone, and I felt the darkness closing around me, like a cage. I could feel more than see the tree roots knotted in the ceiling, holding back the stone to keep it from crushing us.
One clambered down to the floor, then crouched beside me. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her stroking her knife, running her fingers along its edge. “Poor little rabbit lost its way, went with a fox to its den to play,” she whispered. Puddles of stagnant cave-water were soaking into my pants. I didn’t dare move, though.
“Why are you doing this?” I said. I was breathing too fast, trying to keep the terror from jumping into my legs. If I tried to run, I would die. Besides, there was nowhere to run to. The cave was too small.
One laughed in the darkness. “’Why?’ Why not? There was profit to be made from the hills. You know that as well as I do. Lots of sorcerers and wizards prefer Ventine crystals in their staffs, or amulets, or whatever the hell they use to make magic. Anyone can make a powerful kind of fortune off of the stuff. But the vie were too blinded their own traditions to see that. Too stupid.” One crawled away, and now I could no longer feel where she was. When she spoke, it sounded like her voice echoed from everywhere at once. It was getting louder; she wasn’t worried that anyone could hear us, then. “The vie are dying out. Why shouldn’t we take what we can from them? They’ll be gone soon enough, leaving us with nothing but their bodies. But, oh, no. Their morals are above that kind of thing. Why am I telling you this? It doesn’t matter, not anymore. Because Madame Salinium made the offer of partnership, if I helped mine the Ventine. And I accepted. I wanted money, and power. That’s all there is to it, little Rabbit.”
It was cold, underground. The miner uniform was too thin to keep in much body heat. Which was nice during the day, when you mined under the hot sun – but here, I was shivering, curling in on myself. I could hear the slither of One’s feet as she walked in a circle around me. She’s waiting until dawn, I realized, when the vie have to be hidden from the sun, and the not-vie kept in the shadows. Then she’ll go back to the camps and … and … give an explanation to the campers? Ask Mama Salli for advice? What’ll she do?
“You’re thinking,” One said. Her voice was right by my ear this time. “I can see it in your big rabbit-eyes. You’re wondering to yourself what the next step in this little adventure is. Well, Rabby, nothing’ll change. I’ll keep control over the miners until Salinium can put some new supervisors together. We’ll increase precautions. Cut down all the trees around the camp, so there are no shadows for the allies to hide in. And, of course, we’ll have to make an example out of you. A public execution; what do you think? You think the miners will try anything after that? Or will they all have little rabbithearts of their own?”
You’re making me sick, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I hated her before, but I had never been scared of her like I was now. She knew this place well, I could tell by her movements. She had been here plenty of times before. Which meant that she didn’t need her eye to see.
I closed my own eyes, and the darkness got a little better. More familiar, somehow, beneath my lids. I moved my hands against the rock, feeling the hidden mud-slime that felt like it had been there for years, undisturbed. I scraped it away, then rested the pads of my fingers on the stone. If someone walks above us, I should feel a vibration, I thought to myself. I remembered the cave-in me and Spiderhands had been in, what seemed like a long time ago. How we had all rapped our knuckles against the stone pressing in on us, and Jabber had heard the commotion, and dug down to where we were trapped.
This was the same thing, really. Except that no one knew I was trapped. No one would be listening for me.
“Those vie deserve everything they get,” said One, and I jumped. Her voice had resurfaced maybe five feet away to my left, where I could imagine her standing, her back leaning against the wall. “I hated them. And they hated me right back. So did their precious allies. My dad was an ally, did you know that? But my mother was a pure human, a traveler-type, that he fell in love with. They’re both dead now. With their deaths they left behind a nowhere-baby, too human to be considered normal, but not vie enough to stay with the others. That’s the real reason why I left, little Rabbit. I couldn’t stand being so separate from everyone.”
“That’s no excuse for mining bodies,” I said, before I could stop myself. I was scared, yeah, but I was getting angry. Mestra had said that One had betrayed them, not the other way around.
And yet … I felt a little pity, too. At least I had a home I could go to, as soon as I got the Ventine poison out of me. One never had a home in the first place.
One started pacing again, and I turned my head to follow her steps. “Poor little rabbit lost its way, went with the fox to its den to play. Now little rabbit won’t see the light of day…”
I have to get out of here, I thought. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my hands even deeper into the rock. One kept singing ‘light of day’ over and over again, chanting it almost, like she was trying to make the sun rise more quickly.
Against my hands, I felt a whisper. A faint vibration. Someone, maybe even several someones, were walking around the base of the bent-over tree above us.
My chest tightening, I curled my hands into fists, then began hitting them against the rock. Down here, down here! I wanted to shout. Yet if I started screaming for someone to find us, One would snap out of her insane chant and cut me into pieces. I would just have to hope that the knocking wouldn’t be enough to wake her up.
When I stopped, there was silence. Nothing. I slumped in on myself. They must have walked away, I decided. They hadn’t felt anything. How could they, anyways? The vibration must have been very faint. Only the worms and the moles could’ve felt something like that.
Then I straightened up, my palms pressed into the rock. Was that …Yes! There was an answering knock, tentative, only just strong enough for me to feel. Eagerly, I began slamming my fists into the rock, again and again, until the sound echoed and I felt the skin on my knuckles split.
“What are you doing?” came a voice. I stopped, my eyes snapping open. One was squatting in front of me. I could feel her hot breath on my face. “Hush now, little rabbit,” she said. “The fox is going to eat you soon. She wouldn’t want our dinner to be interrupted.”
Please, please come soon. And bring knives, I begged, to whoever was above us.
Everything in the hollow was quiet for a moment. Then One began running her hands along my face. Soft fingers, wet with mud, stroked the curve of my cheek bone. “You have such pretty eyes, little rabbit,” said One. I could feel her smiling. “I’ve always thought that. I’ve never said anything about it, since I always had to act well in front of the other miners. But I sometimes dreamed about cutting away one of yours, so that I could have two, like everybody else. It was sickness that ate it up, did you know that? It got scratched by a stick when I was little, when my parents were still alive. It got infected. But that’s all right, because sometimes I see things that others don’t, with one eye in light, the other in shadow. Yet … I would really like to have two. Such pretty eyes you have.”
There was a scrape as she slid her knife thoughtfully along her thumb. I was frozen in place. I knew I should be doing something, knocking her hand away, snatching up the knife … One of her hands gripped my chin, holding my head in place. “Relax, little rabbit. It doesn’t hurt much,” said One, her earrings jingling in the darkness.
Oh really, I wanted to say. I thought I could see her one eye gleaming.
Without warning, One dug the tip of her knife into the skin beside my eye. At the pain, my arms came awake again. I screamed, wedging my arm between her and my chest, shoving her away as hard as I could. There was a thunk as she hit the far wall. I heard the air get knocked out of her lungs.
The stone above our heads let out a hiss. There was a sound like a crack of lightning, and the earth above our heads split open, just in time for me to see a brilliant flash of light that left me blinded. Then the light faded, and fresh air wafted down into the cave.
I could make out One crouching against the far wall, growling under her breath.
Someone clambered down beside me. Callused fingers reached out and wiped the blood from my face. I blinked, squinted, and finally was able to make out a silhouette. “Spiderhands,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
He hugged me close, squeezing all the air out of me. “Don’t hug me, you idiot,” I gasped. “Get One! She has a knife!”
Just as I said ‘knife,’ One leaped at his back, her face twisted in a snarl. She wasn’t wearing her bandanna; I could see the sewed-together skin, covering the hole where her eye had been, once. How could anyone think of her as beautiful? I thought to myself, time seeming to slow for a moment as I stared. She’s … hideous. And it wasn’t because of the eye.
There was a flood of blue skin and black robe. Vie were here, I realized. Lots of vie. Maybe twenty, altogether. A male vie with long hair and a scarred face picked One out of the air and slammed her backwards against a wall, pinning her there. She began to howl. There was fear on her face. I could smell it, hot and sour. Like burning hair.
Mestra landed beside the scarred vie, her arms covered in dust from the Supervisors. “One,” she said. The word was strange, muffled. It made my blood go cold. “When your parents died, we offered you shelter; when you were hungry, we offered you food; when you cried out in loneliness, we offered you love. You accepted none of these things. And now you have betrayed us, in the deepest way possible. Our bones were meant to stay in the earth, to be a presence for the allies we leave behind. Yet you sensed profit,” Mestra said, spitting, “And sold our graves to a cruel and reckless human.”
Spiderhands’ arms were around me, but I almost didn’t notice. We were crouched together, transfixed. Something was happening to the vie … their black robes were stretching outwards, melting together into a sea of shadow. They were growing taller, taller. Darker. One was caught in the center of them all, screaming like a demon, kicking and gnashing her teeth like she wanted to bite the vie that held her.
Hands slid under my armpits and lifted me out of the cave puddles. Spiderhands? I thought for a moment, but, no, there was a different set of hands under him. The arms pulled us up the wall of the cave, out into the open, onto the grass. Tan and a group of not-vie stood there, bleeding from fresh wounds. Their faces were grave.
“What’s going on?” I said, feeling strangely dizzy. They had set us down, but were gripping our wrists and hurrying us under the trees, away from the cave.
“A trial,” said Tan. His voice was barely louder than a murmur. “One’s fate is being decided. It’s not for us to see.”
Spiderhands’s eyes widened. “What, are they gonna kill her?” As one, the not-vie paused, glancing over their shoulders back towards the hole in the ground, the place the vie had cut open.
“Most likely not,” said a female. She didn’t sound too sure of herself.
We moved quickly, but the echoes of One’s screams still reached us. They sounded like an animal being slaughtered.
Spiderhands and I left the vie camp as the noon sun fell into the earliest colors of afternoon. I had wanted to go sooner, but Spiderhands had insisted that we rest before going home. We hadn’t had a chance to sleep for an entire day and night, and both of us, he said, were exhausted. If we had left as soon as Mestra took the poisoning out of me, we would have collapsed. Besides, Spiderhands wanted the cuts on my head bandaged up and given a chance to scab over a little.
Mestra let us sleep on beds in their camp, mattresses made out of moss and covered in soft lambs’ ear leaves. She told us that our memories would need some time to settle in, after having been forgotten for so long. Sleeping would give them a chance to do that.
While we slept, the vie and not-vie went into the miners’ and smiths’ camps, and set them free. In my dreams, I thought I could hear the sounds of the de-poisoned workers pouring into the sleeping quarters, collapsing on the soft vie beds around us. I thought I could hear them breathing. It was a comforting sound.
I had strange dreams that night, after years of being too tired to dream anything besides nightmares. I dreamed in facts, rather than make-believe … I dreamed of my Mother’s face, and my Mother’s name, and my little brother, too. I dreamed of helping to cook and clean and trap small game. I dreamed of getting mad at my brother, and slapping him across the face. I dreamed of him crying. I dreamed of both of us crying, and then laughing, and then being so mad at each other that we wouldn’t speak for weeks.
The strongest dream was the one that happened right before I woke up. My Mother had glanced outside, and seen a giant rabbit in the vegetable garden. “For god’s sake, get that thing out of there before it eats everything!” she shouted at me. So I went out and found some rocks to throw at the rabbit. Then I saw it up close, and stopped for a moment. The rabbit only had one eye.
I was afraid. But I ran at it anyways, and chased it away for good.
When I woke up, tears of relief had soaked into my bandages. Spiderhands insisted that he change them. His long fingers worked in silence, tying the fresh bandages carefully, a little too tightly, but I wasn’t going to complain.
“Will your Mother like me?” he asked, after awhile. I let out a laugh.
“Of course. She loves having people to order around.” This made him smile. He finished the bandages, then leaned forward and kissed them. We held each other close for a while, not saying anything, enjoying the stillness and the sunlight.
We made a stop at my shack before we left for home. The camp was cleaned out, the covers on the beds thrown back, carelessly. The vie had come in the night before and announced (a safe distance from Mama Salli’s barriers, of course) that the workers were free to leave. The newest workers left right away, whooping with joy and starting on the way home. The ones that couldn’t remember went with the vie back to their camp, where the vie could shelter from the sun, and suck out the Ventine poisoning. (It’s a strange experience, let me tell you. A vie rests their hands on your shoulders, and press their forehead against your own. They breathe in, and you can feel the Ventine being drawn out of you.)
In the miner’s camp, Mama Salli’s house still loomed, dark and silent. She had sealed herself inside when the vie first came, with none of her supervisors to protect her. She was still there, I guess; I didn’t really care. A part of me hoped that she would starve or something. Or maybe the vie will put her on trial, like they had with One.
I went into my assigned shack, going to the cabinet of uniforms and cracking it open. I rummaged around until I found the smelliest set of clothes, thrust way in the back. When I came back out, Spiderhands pinched his nose shut. “Ugh! Why d’you want that?” I shrugged, smiling.
“It’s for my brother … he doesn’t think girls do things like sweat and go to the bathroom. I’ve always wanted to use one of these to prove him wrong.” Spiderhands grinned.
“Well then. He’s obviously never smelled you too closely.” I pushed his shoulder, smiling despite myself.
It was only after taking a drink from the fountain and leaving the camp that I discovered something in the smelly uniform’s pocket. “Hey,” I said, pulling it out into the open. “Check it out.” It was a Ventine crystal. Blue as a clean sky, soapy and glowing in my hands. But now that I knew where it came from … I shivered, and glanced at Spiderhands. He chewed his lip as he stared at it.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s put it back before we go.”
We left the Ventine crystal in the hole we had dug the day before in hill number three, covering it with sun-dried earth from one of the piles the miners had made. “We’re sorry for disturbing you,” I said, placing my hand over the spot. Spiderhands glanced up at me, then back down, and placed his hand over mine.
We spent a minute in silence, then stood up and walked in the direction of the stream, hand-in-hand. The forest was quiet. The not-vie were tired, and they were sleeping.
Still, I thought I heard the trees groan for a moment. Maybe they were saying thank you for putting the Ventine back.
Or maybe they were just saying goodbye.