TWO YEARS BEFORE THE SEVERING
“Melyah take my eyes!” Rend Rahid shifted on the loose terrain, uncertain if he could trust his vision as another ship departed from the valley below. He could feel heat from the glow of the engines and the roar was deafening, forcing him to let go of his rifle so that he could shield his ears. The belly of the Hunwei destroyer was soon overhead. It was capable of holding over five hundred people. Rend resisted the urge to try to scoot deeper into the bushes that were covering him. He’d spent several minutes picking his position so that he couldn’t be seen from the air. If he’d messed up in selecting his hiding place, moving now wouldn’t do him any good.
Out of instinct and old habit, Rend aimed his rifle at the ship, preparing to fire but the ship had already begun its ascent. After it was clear that the ship hadn’t zeroed in on their position he lowered his rifle. It was the tenth ship he’d seen leave during the last two hours. Rend and his team had arrived in the late hours of evening, intending to raid one of the Hunwei encampments. They’d been hoping to rescue some of the captives but instead they were witnessing an unprecedented event. As Rend watched the ship disappear into the sky, he wondered how many captive men, women, and children it held.
The thought made Rend think of his youngest son. How many years had it been since little Lief had disappeared? He felt moisture forming in his eyes. He didn’t think about the rest. It had been long enough that he’d been able to accept the deaths of his wife and two other sons. He’d never been able to put Lief’s memory to rest. Lief’s body hadn’t been with the others and there hadn’t been anybody left to answer questions.
Tira, who lay next to Rend, let out a sigh as the ship disappeared. She had pulled her brown hair into a ponytail to keep it out of the way. She’d refused to cut it short like many of the other women. Perhaps that was the reason why he’d been so drawn to her. Call Rend old fashion, but he liked a woman with hair.
The others in their group murmured and Rend resisted the urge to tell them to be quiet. The noise from the ships in the valley more than covered the noise they were making. One of the nearby metalmen–Rend hadn’t bothered to learn its name–reported that this was happening all over the world. The Hunwei were leaving.
“It’s true then.” Tira leaned over, shifting her blaster so she could put her mouth to his ear. “We’ll live.” She was always cautious. This was why he loved her. It was hard enough to find a good woman when the world wasn’t being torn apart by war. Most people didn’t bother to form attachments these days. Rend couldn’t blame them, given the present mortality rate of humanity. He’d fought his feelings for Tira for a long time before he’d succumbed.
“They’re quitting,” Rend whispered. In a way, he was almost disappointed. When he’d set out on this mission, he’d been convinced they wouldn’t survive. The rescue attempt had been a fool’s errand from the beginning. Rather than cower in Rarbon waiting for the inevitable end, he’d decided to face it head on. The unfilled expectation left him baffled; surely, he’d prefer to live? He wasn’t ready to give up on life.
Rend thought of his only living child. Arile. He’d left her behind in Rarbon, the last remaining stronghold of their people. The hope that he’d had for her future had kept him fighting all these years. Once the hope had all but faded, he’d fought on still. He’d never have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t. A man has to protect his own, even if he knows it’s futile. He imagined the look of joy on his daughter’s face when she saw him again and it filled his heart with hope.
“The war’s over.” Tira’s breath felt warm and moist, then after a pause. “Some are saying we won.” The last statement held the hint of a question. Rend didn’t bother to answer. Tira knew the truth.
The others could no longer restrain themselves and broke into cries of gratitude. They left the forest where they’d been hiding and congregated in a little clearing. Rend could make out a prayer as an older woman he didn’t know by name chanted “Praise Melyah.”
Rend held his breath, expecting the Hunwei to come. They didn’t. Tira began tugging on his hand and he let himself be pulled out with the others. Rend kept looking back down at the valley. There were still several ships, but they were preparing to leave.
Tira put her hand around Rend’s waist. He realized that he’d have to make good on that promise now. He felt too old to be starting over. At the time, he hadn’t given it much thought. It had been impossible until today, but had made Tira happy. Happiness had been in such small supply that he couldn’t have possibly denied her.
There was a roar as another ship shot into the sky. Even more voices joined the celebration. Rend was caught off guard as Tira embraced him. It was a struggle to get Tira off, but she stopped when she realized that he hadn’t been caught up in the moment. He touched her face to soothe her hurt look and gazed into the valley. The excitement of the others failed to touch him. Tira, sensing his mood, sobered a bit.
When the final ship lifted off the ground, the cheers became deafening. Nobody else seemed bothered by the fact that there had been little between them and death only a few hours before. Rend made out the word victory and shuddered as the call was taken up by others. Before long, it was on everybody’s lips.
He was reminded of the ocean surf pounding the beach. The last time he’d taken joy in the sound had been many years ago. Their world had changed shortly after that with the coming of the Hunwei.
The sun had just gone behind the clouds when he’d heard Lief shriek. Rend had looked up alarmed but relaxed when he noticed that the ocean surf had begun to wash away the small buildings Lief had been fashioning in the sand.
Rend had smiled down at his son. “Don’t worry, you can build again, let me help you.” He offered Lief a hand and pulled him back out of the surf. It wasn’t long before the others had joined in; the whole family came over to help. Lief was soon laughing.
“Victory! Victory! Victory!” The call broke into his revelry, ripping away the memory. It took several seconds before he could rejoin the present. Rend relaxed his grip when he realized he’d been crushing Tira’s hand. A glance her way showed she was too happy to notice. As he watched the last ship disappear, he couldn’t decide if he hoped that somewhere up there Lief was still alive or that he’d died that day as well. His words to Lief seemed to echo in his mind. Don’t worry you can build again. Rend didn’t relish the idea of having to build again, but he knew that he would. If only for Tira and Arile.
He didn’t raise his voice with the others, he knew better. This hadn’t been a victory. It wasn’t even an act of mercy. More than twenty years of fighting taught him that the Hunwei always had a reason for their actions, but he was at a loss to explain the sudden departure.
Text Copyright © 2014 Dan Decker
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