Chapter Three- The Trees

I grabbed my sword and headed out to the training field where some mannequins were set up. I pulled the sword out of its sheath and dusted it off. As I started “fighting” the spinning mannequin, I saw Joeté walk out of his house and look around. I turned away so he wouldn’t see that I had seen him and focused on what I was doing. I had gotten out of practice in the months we had been gone, and that could be bad if someone attacked. 

“Antepi!” I heard Joeté call to me but I ignored him. “Antepi! Could we talk for a few minutes?” I still acted like I couldn’t hear him while hitting the mannequin a certain way. Right as he got close enough to touch it, I slammed my sword into it and it spun around, the wooden sword in its hand going down and catching him square in the knee. He grabbed his knee, but didn’t make any noise. I could tell he was suppressing a groan.

“I don’t see what we have to talk about. And I don’t really want to hear it if you think we do.” I kept hitting it. 

“I see a lot to talk about, and based on your actions, you do too.” He kept hold of his knee and stepped back, out of reach of the mannequin. “And really? You had to hit me? There wasn’t any, I don’t know, less painful alternative?” I rolled my eyes and continued hitting the mannequin. He grabbed the mannequin by the shoulders from behind and held it fast, stopping it. I stood up straight and looked at him. 

“No I really don’t think we have anything to talk about. because your face, your actions, and your eyes say everything we would ever have to talk about. They tell me all I need to know.”

“And what is that?”

“That you’re sorry, but you can’t do anything about it, and if you could you wouldn’t. You don’t get it. To me, you are an open book. Your eyes are like windows into your mind. They tell people- especially people who have known you your entire life- whatever they need to know before you even open your mouth. They did back then, and they still do now. Don’t think that because of time and you changing everything will stop me from being able to read you like a broki*. So no, there is nothing we need to talk about.” A fly landed on my shoulder and as I brushed it off, I shifted my dress, exposing the necklace I was wearing. My engagement ring. A simple steel band, it was practical with a swirling design carved into it. Joeté saw it and his gaze held it. I quickly tucked it back in my dress and turned away. 

“You still wear it… not exactly where you are supposed to- but you still wear it. Why?” He looked confused. 

“Well, if you weren’t aware, a long, long time ago- that no one would remember anymore, much less him-  this young man asked me to marry him. Being completely in love with him, I had the guts to say yes. And it terrified me, because even if I loved him, I never did anything other than train. I didn’t know how to love, how to pay attention and take care of someone like that. But he assured me that I was perfect for him, just the way I was. That nothing I could ever do would make him see me differently.” I paused and looked down at the ring that had once again come out from under my shirt. I sighed, shoving it back in, the circle leaving an imprint on my skin from clenching it so hard. I stared down at it a moment before looking back up at Joete and sighing again. I did not want to have this discussion right now. 

“You were. To me, you were perfect. And maybe you still are- I haven’t been around you long enough to tell what you are like now.” He broke the silence. 

I ignored what he had said, knowing that if I answered him, I wouldn’t be able to say anything else that I wanted to. “And then, in the blink of an eye, he was taken away from me. I was sad and scared, but I knew I had one job. If he was dead, I would carry out his last wish, no matter what.” He had been nodding this whole time, but he stopped now, and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I would take care of his sister-my best friend- until I died. I would make sure that she had the best life possible without her family. Without her mother and father and brother- because I knew how she felt, if not more so. Alone, scared, and with nowhere to go. No one to protect her. I made sure that I was there for her. Always there for her when she needed me. But that broke me. Because everytime she needed a shoulder to cry on, I would think ‘where is my shoulder?’. I couldn’t ask her to do that for me, because I had to be strong for her. Even if she is only sixteen, you know her. She is so naive and innocent. I- I couldn’t ruin that with all my pain. I couldn’t make myself do that to her, no matter how much she wanted me to. And maybe I keep seeing her as a little girl in my mind that I have to protect, but I don’t care. She was all I had- and I was not about to ruin her life and her innocence with my problems. So I shut everything out. All the pain and sadness that I was feeling, I ignored. But I couldn’t do it for long. And when I had to, I made the huge decision to come back here. After that,  everything became a little happier. You might not have been there, but I was home. For the first time in months, I was home, and I was so happy. I had my brother and I could lean on him. He could support and protect me from anything that came our way. And I knew that someday I would come searching for you, but for now, I was okay.” I turned around again and faced him. His eyes were downcast and he looked dejected. Almost regretful, like he didn’t know about this story. “But today, all that changed because you came back. And for the space of three minutes, I was the happiest girl alive. They were the longest three minutes of my life because you were here! But then, once again in the blink of an eye, all that changed. Because you helped this English girl off your horse- the horse that I trained for you- and told us that she is your fiancé. And that stunned me. But what else could I do? You made your choice, and it was time I made mine.” I shook my head and looked down. It was silent for a few moments, and the pressure was almost overwhelming. Even in the open air, it felt like something was pressing in on me. 

When I spoke again, it was softly. “Until today, I had no reason not to wear it. I wore it around my neck for privacy reasons, but why shouldn’t I have worn it? I was under the assumption that I was engaged. But I guess things change. And people change.” I looked him in the eye. “No; no, we have nothing to talk about, because I. Don’t. Care.” I turned on my heel and started to walk away.

“You obviously do care or else you wouldn’t have said all of that.”

I stopped and turned to look at him. “I would have said it, and I just did. I don’t care, no matter what, nothing can change. You have made your choice. I learned that very well today. The past isn’t something we can change.” I continued walking.

 As I walked, I found myself walking towards the woods that were at the top of the valley that faced the sea. It may be strange, but the way the valley is made, the east side is by the sea. The valley is almost completely circular, it slopes slightly down to the center, but enough that any attackers will have to be careful coming down. In the west side of the valley is a deep pass or gorge, that is the only weak spot in the valley. It slopes up slightly until eventually it levels out with the rest of the surrounding area. That was the way that the English got in the first time. Since then, we had built newer barriers to help defend ourselves. They had certain weak spots in them, that when pressured, would cause the area around them to crumble. These weak spots could only be broken with specific weapons that the blacksmiths had been perfecting since they got our forge working again after the attack. Thick metal sticks with large balls on the end and a spear head pointing out the top, they are designed to hit the weak spots in the walls perfectly. Our houses are specifically built on eleven foot poles, so they are high up enough that when it rains more than usual, we aren’t flooded. The meeting tents are easy to pick up quickly, so they are set on the ground normally. The forge is underneath the ground down in the caves. There is a large network of caves beneath the ground that we use as our dungeon and safe house for the children during an attack.

 You can not see the sea from the top of the valley because in between the sea and the edge of the valley is roughly a mile of tall, thick pine trees. No roads go very close to us so we are extremely hard to find. The only time we have ever been found was in the attack last year, and that was because there was an inside person somewhere. We grow our own food, raise our own animals, and have our own wells, so we rarely ever need to leave the valley unless we are called to the Capital by the King. We never needed to leave the valley before the attack, but that day changed a lot of things, so it wasn’t surprising that it changed our exposure to the world. 

There is one pine tree in particular that you can climb all the way to the top and still have limbs that support you. When I was a little gillo, I would climb up to the top and look out over the valley and feel free. I could be so high that I felt like I could fly. Sometimes I would tie a rope firmly to the trunk, tie the other end around my waist and jump. I would jump from it to the tree directly next to it, with no fear of falling, because there were so many branches. As I got older, I relied less and less on the rope, until I could just jump, and not be attached to anything. I would jump from tree to tree all the way around the valley, and come down in a completely different spot from where I got up.

 I walked toward that tree and climbed the hill to it and started climbing. I climbed all the way to the top and looked out over the valley. Joeté was walking back toward his house, while Hannah had come out of Matthias’s house and was walking swiftly toward him. I could see her waving her arm excitedly. No doubt Hypoleta and her were now fast friends. Joeté didn’t return her happy greeting but looked up at me and kept walking. I shook my head a little. He was trying to mend a relationship that was too freshly wounded right now. Once it healed over and everything calmed down, we could talk. But trying to stitch it back together would cause too much pain on both sides. I couldn’t do that to him or myself. I needed time. I needed to think things over and process everything before I opened up again. After almost a year of shutting out my feelings, it wasn’t easy to open up and express my feelings.  I heard the branches beneath me crackle and I saw Cat climbing up next to me. 

“Always was the most beautiful view.” She sounded breathless.”I saw that you were talking with Joeté.” She sat on a branch near me. “How did that go? He walked away looking like a sad dog.” 

“Just telling him the truth. Why I didn’t care that he was engaged to someone else, why I didn’t care that he was gone for over a year, and why I didn’t care that he is a completely different person.”

She raised one eyebrow skeptically. “Sounds kind of like you do care, Tepi. You know I am here for you, whatever you need, right?”

“Yeah I know. And it’s a good thing I don’t need anything, because I wouldn’t want to tell anyone anyway. Might scare someone away with my cold outlook on love, feelings, and anything in between.”

“Shutting people out isn’t helping anything.”

“Neither is worrying about something I can’t change.”  I reminded her.

“Antepi…”

“You know what? I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s in the past! It doesn’t matter and it can’t be changed. The fresh air makes me think differently. Up here, I am free. Finally free. Free of all the pressures to be strong and never let my guard down. Down there, there are so many problems. But up here? Up here, there is nothing but wide open air. Up here,” I stepped a little further out, toward the next tree. “Up here, you can fly.” I jumped and landed on the next tree, its branches swaying beneath my weight. As I ran and jumped from tree to tree, Catania jumped after me, her laughter drifting through the wind. It became contagious and I laughed. For the first time in almost eight months, I laughed. And I meant it. I meant it from the bottom of my heart. I meant it because I never thought I would be able to climb these trees again, because this was my home. Because no matter what happened in life, these trees would stand, reminding people that no matter what, there is strength in the things that God has created. And I didn’t stop laughing. I didn’t stop laughing until Catania slipped a little and started laughing. And then I laughed even harder after I saw that she was okay. I threw my hands up and felt my hair blowing in the wind. Nothing could ever make me come down from up here.

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