Trust is a Fragile Thing
Trust is a fragile thing. It takes a long time to build trust, and none at all to break it. All my trust has been crushed, torn into pieces, and trampled underfoot. To me it is nonexistent, one more thing that the world has taken from me, a luxury I do not have. Trust too often leads to betrayal. It makes you weak, gets you hurt. It gets you killed. I would know better than anyone. How many loved ones have I lost because someone betrayed me? How many people have been hurt because I betrayed them? I stopped counting a long time ago.
That is why tonight I must trust no one but myself and Cato, and he won’t be here for me until I free him. I need to stay strong. Stay alert. There is too much depending on how this night goes.
The dusk is a silent one, the only sound the whispering breeze and rush of the river behind me. The last slivers of sun are fading from view, blanketing the world in darkness. There is no moon, but the sky has been reprieved of its clouds, letting the stars shine down in all their glory, making this one of the brightest nights I’ve seen. The world seems to be at peace, but behind the beauty and the calm, I sense death hovering, patiently waiting for blood to spill, for the chance to carry souls away on the wind.
I shift in my spot atop a huge boulder, aching to stretch out my cramping limbs. Comfort is yet another thing I rarely have time for. If I move too much, I will break the silence, and when a silence this deep is broken, it’s like a siren, loud and screaming, leading you right to the source of the noise. Over the years I have learned to run, climb, jump, without ever making a sound. My life depends on it.
Suddenly, I pause in my silent complaints, listening to the night. The thrum of hooves comes, faint at first, but drawing nearer every moment. I begin going over my plan in my head one final time. I check that every knife is in place. It feels as though the whole world should be able to hear my heart beating frantically in my chest. I remember his last words to me before they took him away. Come for me. Here I am, coming for him. I’ve made it this far. I can’t fail him now.
My hands have started shaking. I dig my fingernails into my palms and whisper that this will all go according to plan. I have no room for error. My throat tightens as worry sets in deep. I lower my eyelids and focus on breathing. Slowly, I begin to relax. I remind myself why I’m here and become still once again.
The convoy’s outline is just visible in the distance. I rise from my position, every muscle stiff and aching. My feet are silent on the ground as I move through the trees, closer to the river. They will take a break, refresh themselves, then go about crossing the freezing water. I will make my move when they are distracted, then hopefully escape into the trees, across the river, and disappear on the other side. We will have soldiers on our heels, but we are faster, smarter, or at least I hope we are. I frown, realizing that this plan relies on a large amount of luck.
Hidden by the foliage, I watch the convoy travel up the dirt road. There are two steel cells with small, barred windows being pulled by the horses. A couple of the higher-ranking soldiers have saddles, but most are traveling on foot. As they reach the forest’s edge, I see that the faces of those walking are devoid of any emotion, like they have no thoughts, no feelings, not even any complaints. That is because of the serum, of course. It’s everywhere now. Not much longer and the formula will reach the north, and after that, other countries will hear of it if they haven’t already. We don’t have much time to set things right.
If I fail tonight, there will be no one to save us. Our leader will really be gone, I will be dead, and I don’t have much faith in the others. They haven’t yet been told the arrangement, and they believe their leader is irretrievable. That’s why I’m the only one here. Cato and I have a plan, and it will work, too. But if we don’t get back, it dies with us.
The convoy takes several minutes to reach the river. I count 14 soldiers, two of which are on horseback, one leading and one at the rear. The others are divided evenly between the two cells, surrounding them on all sides. They halt by the water, and the leaders come forward. The remaining soldiers stand straight and still, facing forward, not caring about what’s coming next or the long time they’ve spent walking. No one slouches, leans against a tree, or rests their feet. No one gets a drink of the fresh water, though they must be parched. This is what the serum does to you, and if tonight doesn’t go as planned, I may very well be joining them, trapped in my own body but completely unaware of it.
The leader that traveled at the front of the group comes forward and speaks in a deep, commanding voice.
“Give the horses and prisoners food and water and fill the canteens. Then start a fire and hunt for some game to eat for dinner. We are done for the day. Get some rest, and be ready to cross the river tomorrow.”
I expected them to cross tonight, but this is one of the other possibilities I planned for. They won’t be distracted by getting across, but they’ll be busy readying for sleep, and if the right moment doesn’t present itself, I’ll act once they’ve drifted into unconsciousness. The only problem will be whoever keeps watch. Also, I realize with dread, the soldiers will take off their caps for the night. There could also be some light conversation, and I must not reveal my voice.
The soldiers disperse, and I track one that heads into the forest in my direction. I silently come up behind him, raising the handle of my knife over my head. I leap out from the cover of the trees, and before the soldier can react, the handle arcs down and he’s unconscious on the ground. I then strip him of his uniform and pull it over my body. My hair is hidden under the cap, which I pull low over my face. I wipe all traces of humanity from my expression, keeping my eyes blank, carefully hiding the ideas spinning through my head. As I wander between the trees I remember every detail, come up with every turn this night might take, all possibilities and what I will do should they occur. You can’t trust a situation to go the way you think it will. Something always goes wrong.
I take the soldier’s pack and find a bow inside. I could shoot everyone their own rabbit if I wanted to, but that won’t help now. I doubt the soldier is a decent hunter, so I get a nice fat squirrel. It only takes a few minutes, so I then turn to ambling through the forest, going over plans in my head, trying to figure this all out. No matter what happens, I’m going to have to be smart about it, and I’ll have to hope luck is on my side tonight. I hate relying on luck. It isn’t trustworthy in the slightest. What I’m really not fond of, though, is how a good plan never seems to work without it.
Someone started a bonfire back at the camp, and I settle down next to it to skin the rabbit. Several minutes pass before one of the others joins me with a squirrel, and a while yet until a third man joins with his kill. Almost an hour of hunting and all they’ve got is a squirrel and a rabbit. Pathetic. Any idiot on the continent could manage that.
I do my best not to glare daggers at the two leaders when they take a whole squirrel for themselves. Then not to snatch their food right out of their pretty little fingers as expensive dried fruits appear out of their bags. The rest of us share the rabbit and some hard cheese. The final squirrel is cut up, and the soldiers stare at it for a minute, and I realize it must be for the prisoners. I take a chance and bring the meat up to the cells. The first one has two older men that scramble for the food, hardly acting human. I doubt they’ll both make it to the convoy’s destination. They stink of death.
I try not to run to the second cell and who I know must be inside. I go to the window and find Cato’s familiar face staring back at me. His eyes widen when he recognizes me.
“After dinner.” He whispers, his voice a barely audible rasp from lack of use. “When they bathe down the river. I’ll be ready. If the leaders give you trouble, show them what you’ve got.”
Alright. I give the slightest nod, my heart pounding in my chest. He’s okay. I want to heave a sigh of relief, to grab his hand through the bars and squeeze it tight, to tell him I’m going to get him out of here. All I do is keep my face blank as I give him his food. My legs feel heavy as I force them to walk away before the others see I’ve been standing here for too long. I can’t even let myself glance back a final time.
I scold myself for being so weak. The orphanage made me strong. It made me hard. What I learned so many years ago has guided me my whole life, but when it comes to Cato, my armor melts, evaporates into the open air, and I have to build it up again. This time I build it as quickly as I can, almost haphazardly, and since I have to do it so fast I can feel the cracks in it. I tell myself I’ll work around them. I am strong. My life has calloused me, not only my hands, but my heart. My mind. I will be strong. I will save him. I can’t let him down. Anger boils in me, anger at the world for doing this to us. I know I have more than deserved what life has given, but Cato… he hasn’t deserved one bit of it. All he’s ever had is compassion, empathy, and determination. For most of my life I’ve had darkness in my heart and vengeance in my soul. Scraps of it remain, pieces I have yet to pick up. They threaten me now, and it is all I can do not to attack those leaders, hold knives to their necks and demand that they let him go. I could try, but they would just order the others to take me down. I could hold my own against five, but not twelve. Not alone.
The head leader eyes me as I come back to the fire, sensing something off. I focus on keeping all expression at bay even as a growl settles deep in my throat, taunting me. I notice with a start that the soldiers are about to leave for the river. Dread sets in when I notice them taking their caps off and some even stripping off their jackets on their way downstream. I follow them, keeping all clothes on as I do so, and I am the last to leave the camp. When I pass the leaders, which is inevitable, I turn all my attention to my appearance. I am a soldier. The serum runs through my veins.
I freeze when a cold, rough hand closes around my wrist. A chill runs down my spine and panic sets deep into my bones. My head turns to see the leader’s face glaring down at me. I do not struggle when he marches me across the camp, his partner grinning at us from his perch by the fire. His eyes meet mine for a terrifying moment, and all I want to do is look away, but my stupid pride makes me hold his murderous gaze until I am yanked around and shoved into the trees.
“Who are you, and why are you here?” His voice is a deep growl, thick with hate. “And what did you do with my soldier?”
I move slowly, hands above my head, to where the soldier lies, still unconscious. When the leader bends down to examine him, I make my move. A knife slips from its sheath on my arm. Without ever making a sound, I come up behind the leader and press the cool blade to his exposed throat. he goes very still beneath me.
My voice is low, my words soft but clear when I say, “My name is Aroya. I want to know about the serum. How does it work? Where did it come from?”
He chuckles, a low, venomous thing. “Haven’t you heard the rumors? It’s made from a plant only found in the southern deserts. No one knows how it works but the men who created it. I’d put my money on witchcraft. Some kind of magic. If you came here looking for answers, my love, I’m afraid you might be disappointed.”
I tighten my hold on my dagger. Something about his words makes fury boil in me, hot and merciless.
“I don’t believe in magic, but that’s hardly the point. Where did your soldiers come from? Are they your own kind? Or did you turn our soldiers into slaves to do your dirty work for you?”
A devilish grin creeps across his face. “Some of both. Really, if you don’t want us stealing your men, you should make them less easily retrieved. Besides, are they even your soldiers? I’ve heard rumors about you, girl, and it seems like your people and mine are the same.”
Now it’s my turn to go still. I shouldn’t have told him my name. Everyone knows about Aroya. The villain turned hero. Orphan named princess. Some say I’m a witch or an enchantress, using my power to seduce Cato and take over the country. They say I’m working with the south. I’m no witch, but the rest of the rumors at least used to be true, and that’s the worst part. I can’t deny the fact that I grew up with the enemy.
“I may share your people’s blood,” I say, my voice the freezing, razor edge of a shard of ice. “but I am not of your kind. I do not have your heart. Your soul.” I tighten my grip on him with each word. “Or lack of one.” I amend. “Now, we both know I’m not here to chat, though this has been a lovely conversation. I want Cato. Release him and I may spare you. Refuse, and you and your soldiers won’t live to see the light of dawn.”
I’ve noticed that he’s been too still. Too compliant. I knew not to trust him, but my anger is clouding my senses. Even still, I have enough warning to anticipate the attack.
His elbow thrusts backwards, slamming into my side. He rolls out from underneath me in the split second it takes to get my bearings. I run.
He will call out for help now that he’s free, and I can’t fight them all alone. He did an excellent job of acting and hiding his plan. But try as he might, he can’t outsmart me. I’ve been through twice as much as he has and more. Only a fool would think he could get away that easy. He was too distracted with my words and his plan to have noticed a clever hand sneak into his pocket and grab the ring of keys inside. I find the right key and insert it into the heavy lock on the cell door. Cato looks surprised, not having expected me to come this quickly.
“Aroya.” He rasps. “What are we doing?”
I would like to throw my arms around him, but no time for that now. “We have a bit of a change in plans.” I say.
His brows furrow, surprise and confusion dancing on his face. “And that is?”
“The leader saw through me. He’s getting the others.”
“We need to get across the river,” he says.
“That might mean fighting, so here’s some knives.” I hand him two daggers. Blazes, I’m an idiot. I should have brought more weapons.
His shackles fall to the ground thanks to that key ring, and I throw them in the cell and lock the door. I stuff the keys in my pocket, and we begin racing towards the river. The sky is now at its darkest, and though that means the stars are at their brightest, it’s difficult to see all the details of the river. We might not notice some of the rocks jutting out of the water. This is a dangerous time to cross, but we have no choice. When we reach the river’s edge, I hear the soldiers running towards us, and I shove Cato in front me and urge him to move quickly. He does no such thing. What he does do is crouch down and drink some of the cool water. I want to kick him.
“Cato! What is wrong with you?” I demand. “We need to move.”
He whirls around and dodges past me, quite agile for just having been in a cell for multiple days in a row.
“We need to thin them out,” he explains. His voice has mostly returned to the deep, smooth cadence I remember. “First, we fight, then we cross, then we pick off any that manage to follow us.”
I hesitate. We could leave now and get away, and though we’d still be in danger we wouldn’t be carrying the guilt of lives we took. Cato must want them dead. It’s a reasonable aspiration, but somehow doesn’t settle well with me. Even still, I nod and turn to fight. Now it’s too late to argue. We cannot run. The soldiers attack, and my knives slice through the air, my body falling into a dance of violence. I try not to think about the fact that some of these soldiers have done nothing wrong; they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were captured, injected with the serum, and now are nothing more than living corpses, slaves who don’t even know they are in captivity. I focus on those thoughts as blade meets flesh, ignoring the threat of tears, swallowing my distress. I don’t aim to kill but to incapacitate. I stab where it will hurt most but damage less. It is more mercy than we would be offered. I consider that the best thing might be to put them out of their misery, and so I start being less precise with my blows. What I need to do is find their leaders.
I try to search for them as I fight, glancing away from the battle when I can and paying attention to my periphery. The soldier attacking me nicks me on the side, and I am forced to give him my full attention. He swipes for my neck. I duck and roll, swiping out a foot to trip him. A good kick to the side keeps the soldier from springing back up. I thrust the knife forward. A stab in the side will keep him down, but I am sure not to hit any vital organs. He grunts, and I turn away from his pained face to see Cato struggling with three of them. I take one down and start going for the next one when I feel a prick on my neck.
The world spins and I’m on the ground. I look up, and through my blurry vision I can see the officer grinning down at me. My hand goes to my neck. Oh, no. Blazes, no. Not now, not here. The pieces click together just before everything goes blank.
The officer tells Aroya to get up, so she does. She stands at attention before him, awaiting her orders. Her mind is clouded, her only clear thought the anticipation of another task. The officer points to something behind her and looks her in the eye.
She turns to see who he is talking about. His finger points to a boy around her age, although she can’t recall how old she is. Not that it matters. She has orders. The boy looks almost familiar, but she doesn’t know why. All she knows is that he must be bad since she’s been ordered to kill him. The boy gets the last soldier off of him and turns to Aroya, his eyes widening in surprise.
“Aroya,” he shouts urgently. “Behind you!”
Is he talking to her? She glances over her shoulder, but there is only the officer. She shakes her head. He was the one that gave her orders. His words come back to her now. Kill him.
She takes a step forward and tightens her grip on her dagger. The boy doesn’t move, he just looks confused. She doesn’t know why. He must be her enemy, so this should make sense. Then, on her next step, something changes in his eyes. He starts shaking his head, and he looks scared. She feels bad for him. He must not want to die.
Kill him. The words echo in her head.
“Aroya. You know me. You love me, you’ve said it yourself. Don’t do this.”
That voice pierces through the haze in her head. It sounds so familiar. She realizes she does know him, but she’s not sure where from. She doesn’t love him, though. What is he talking about?
She doesn’t have time to figure it out. The haze returns, and with it her orders.
The boy anticipates it and dodges her easily. She takes another swipe, and misses him again. Aroya huffs in frustration, and the boy resumes speaking.
“I’m Cato. You were trying to rescue me, remember? We were going to fight the soldiers and then cross the river. We can still do it. Let’s leave, Aroya. like we planned.”
Once again, the fog thins, making way for tendrils of curiosity. She thinks she does remember. They were going to run away, but why would they do that? Was the officer going to come with them? Too many questions and not enough answers.
She strikes again, and this time her knife grazes his arm. She feels a bit of satisfaction, but the job isn’t done yet.
“You do remember. I can see it. Then you should also remember that the officer locked me up in a cell. That’s what he wants to do to you, too. Stay with me, Aroya. Don’t betray me again.”
His words slice through the void in her head. She can’t make sense of what he is saying. Aroya betrayed him. She remembers meeting him and betraying him and falling in love. She remembers him in a cell earlier. The officer’s cell.
The order blares through her mind, racking her whole body. She doesn’t think she should kill him, but with the order comes the fog, and though she fights it, she is not strong enough to stop it from blurring her thoughts.
The words resonate deep within her, a force so strong she can do nothing but comply with its wishes.
She feigns right, then attacks from the left. She pretends to lunge, then tucks into a roll. He is thrown off, and she kicks his feet out from under him. She pins his arms down with her knees and presses a blade against his neck.
Her breath comes in shallow gasps. She looks into his eyes, and mercifully, the fog recedes. Her head spins, trying to put the pieces together. Cato speaks one last time.
“Aroya, I know you’re in there. You can hear me. You remember everything, don’t you? So, put that dagger down. You know that the officer is your enemy. Why would you have to follow your enemy’s orders? You know you don’t want to kill me. I love you, Aroya, and I know you love me back. You will regret this if you go through with it. Trust me. Aroya,” he pleads, his eyes terrified and full of tears, just like her own. His next words are a whisper, barely audible. “Please. Just trust me.”
Trust me. She hesitates, trying to think this through. Why would you have to follow your enemy’s orders? She doesn’t know. Trust me.
Something inside her shifts. The haze is gone. The wall around her mind cracks, then crumbles. Her senses come hurtling back, and she remembers who she is.
Trust is a fragile thing. It takes a long time to build trust, and none at all to break it. Almost all my trust has been destroyed, but maybe not all of it. Cato sees the realization in my eyes and smiles, releasing a breath of relief.
I hear a sound behind me and throw my dagger back at the officer, fire in my eyes as I do so. I see his grow wide just before the end comes. As we stumble away from the scene, I take a final look at the gore. I see the officer covered in blood, and I have to look away.
Cato and I cross the river.
“Let’s head back home,” he says.
He puts his arm around me when we reach the other side, and I feel I prick on my neck, but he murmurs an apology. It must have just been his fingernails. I see him slip something into his pocket. It looks like the officer’s syringe. He must be saving the serum so we can study it.
Unless… My eyes widen and the pieces begin to click together. I stare at Cato, trying to make sense of everything. The prick. The syringe.
As soon as I piece things together in a horrifying realization, my thoughts unravel. A wave of dizziness hits me, and though I try to stop the haze, I am simply too weak.
The fog fills her head once again, chasing away her thoughts, and she can’t quite recall what just happened and who she is.
Cato brushes against her and murmurs four lovely words.
“Let’s head back home.” Good idea.
His words stay with her as they walk, dancing around in her head, calming her, bringing a reassurance that everything will be alright.
Let’s head back home.
The dawn is a silent one, like the world is holding its breath. Everything seems to be at peace, but strangely, she can sense death behind them, the ghost of events long lost to her memory. Beside her, Cato grins and takes her hand.
Let’s head back home.
Trust is fragile thing.
Let’s head back home.
About the author: Ellie Santeusanio is a fifteen-year-old attending Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Missouri. This is her first publication. In her free time, she enjoys many hours of dance classes and is an aspiring artist.