I rummaged around in the wicker chest that was pushed up against the far wall of the attendant's quarters. I needed armor today, what little protection it was. I pulled a bright saffron square of cloth out of the chest, clutching it to my breasts for a moment. It was a small comfort.
I didn't understand what was going on between Leander and Solomon, but I knew it wasn't good. If what Hafya told me was true, why had the dark lion come now? I didn't know what he wanted with Leander, or why Leander seemed so intent on competing with him. Weren't they brothers? I'd always thought brothers were supposed to be bondedfriends even.
Maybe they were in a way. Despite the fact that Solomon had nearly killed me, here he was, having a sleepover with Leander after all.
I shook my head. I didn't understand any of it.
I grimaced as I knotted the cloth around my waist, tucking the ends under and letting them dangle down to my knees. It wasn't as careful as I'd normally have made it, but my back protested each time I tried to reach behind me. In the end, I took comfortable over neat. I couldn't bend far enough to reach my ankles without crying out, so the gold bands were left in their box.
Hafya and my siblings watched on with concern in their eyes. Leander was probably right, though I hated to admit it. I could have used another day of rest, but staying in that room with the two lions wasn't an option. Let them duke it out without meanything was better than being stuck in the middle of their pissing match.
"Have any of you seen the children?" I asked as I reached back and began to weave my hair into a loose braid. It hadn't been washed in days and I wasn't going to deal with the frizzy mass right now.
Hafya shook her head. "They wander a lot during the daywe don't keep track."
I couldn't help but frown. I didn't approve of how the attendants had been raising the children, but then, they weren't my children. Whatever methods they used, they worked well enough. Hafya and the other attendants were obedient, I'd give them that. They followed unquestioningly, and perhaps that was what Leander wanted, but I didn't have to like it.
My parents had raised their children to have a strong sense of community. We helped each other, but it wasn't the same as what Leander was doing here. This wasn't community in the same way as what we'd had in the village. This was all for one, and that one was Leander. I'd never understand their lack of self, and I'd never be able to fall in line with it.
Maybe I was just trying to talk myself out of fitting in. I didn't hate it here, but it was
uncomfortable. I would have given my left arm to hide away in the caves near the village for an afternoon. With Solomon here I was out of my depth. I didn't know how to handle the situation to begin with, but this was getting out of hand. A dark hole was starting to look good.
I massaged the back of my neck to ease some of the tension in my skin. I was starting to get a headache.
"Sadia?" I turned towards my little sister and she shrugged.
"Great." I sighed. "I'll check in with you guys later. I want to find the children and get them back here. I don't think it's safe for them to be wandering around with Solomon hanging around the Hall. He tried to attack Sadia." I pointed out. "I'd feel better if we knew where they were from now on."
"Khet, you can't-" Mahir began to protest.
"I'll take it easy, I promise, but I can't sit around here all day and do nothing." I kissed Mahir's forehead and flashed them all a small smile. "I'll be back for the afternoon meal."
"Khet-" he started again.
I didn't wait around to hear them argue. Nothing was going to keep me in the Hall this day.
I strode out of the room, purpose in my step. I headed first to the open courtyard. Surely someone would know where the children had gone. Perhaps I should have taken Sadia with me, but I didn't. She needed the sleep, and I needed the quiet.
I stepped into the doorway of the courtyard, bracing myself against the stone of the archway and scanned the room. The young attendants were back to their training and didn't notice me right away.
"Has anyone seen the children?" I called across the open space. The sound of my voice brought a few stares and I waved a hand to stop their bows before they started. "I'm not staying. Has anyone seen the children?" I repeated again. There were a few shrugs and shakes of heads. No one here knew either. "Thanks." I called back and stepped away from the doorway, continuing down the corridor.
I couldn't even begin to imagine where a child would play around here. It wasn't as if there were all that many places for them to go. They weren't even allowed in one half of the Hall. I glanced in the children's pillar garden as I passed by, but wasn't surprised to find it still empty.
The next room I searched was the dining hall. There were still a few attendants huddled around the fire, and they turned to look at me as I entered the room.
"Has anyone seen the children?"
The attendant's eyes went wide as they saw me. I'd forgotten that they didn't know I was alive yet. I held up two hands.
"I'm okay. I didn't die. The children?"
"I don't think I've seen them since last night." One of the male attendants spoke up. "Why are you looking for them?"
"Just keeping tabs on them. Solomon, the Father's brother, seems to be staying. I'd feel better if we knew where the children were." I shrugged. "If you see any of them, tell them to meet me at the pillar garden."
The attendants nodded, and I turned to stride out of the room. The group gasped behind me and I winced. They'd seen the mess of my back. I didn't stay to answer questions and hurried out of the room and back into the corridor.
I was ashamed of the marks on my backthe teeth marks around my neckthe short gash on my belly, but I didn't fully understand whymaybe because it had been a quick jolt back into reality. Comfortable wasn't the right word, there was nothing comfortable about my situation, but I'd started to feel a bit more relaxed around Leander. Meeting Solomon had been a wake-up call.
If I had to glue myself to Leander's hide in order to keep me and my siblings safe, then I'd do it, but I couldn't let myself forget again that the brothers were not men. I couldn't afford to look at them like they were. They were lions through-and-throughno, even that wasn't accurate. They were gods. I needed to remember that.
The foyer was still empty except for the extra security at the entryways. The attendants fell to their knees once again as I entered, and I ignored them. I hoped it didn't become a habit. With quick feet I half-jogged down the wide steps of the Hall entrance and out onto the small plateau at their end, urgency in my steps.
I paced to the edge of the small drop off, my eyes scanning down along the hillside, and inhaled a deep breath. It felt good to get out of that place.
My gaze caught on a large dark puddle some distance below. Blood. I grimaced. There were drag marks in the gravel, and they were streaked with the thick black substance. I turned away and jogged back to the entrance, taking the left-hand path towards the laundry plateau.
I didn't want to remember.
The mid-morning air was already warm, and distant clouds hung over the western mountains, threatening rain. The air was clear today and I could see all the way to the bottom of the valley, but a crack of thunder peeled on in the distance. I stared at the dark roiling clouds that were just beginning to peek over the craggy peaks. There'd be a storm by nightfall.
Large beetles buzzed in the heat, irritated by the humidity, and I watched one fly across the path as I skirted around one of the large boulders. The steps up to the laundry plateau appeared around the bend of the boulder, and I climbed up them with heavy footfalls. I was more tired than I'd realized, and the small hike up the stairs took a greater effort than I'd anticipated.
By the time I reached the top of the plateau, my breathing was only short gasps of air. I had to stop, and I bent over, resting my hands on my thighs until I could catch my breath. The flat plain was empty. A few long saffron clothes were laid out in the sun to dry, but otherwise there was nothing to see. I frowned and glanced around the flat stone. My gaze fell on the brief steps of stone that made up the tumbling path of the waterfall as it fell from a high cliff above. Could they have climbed it?
I strode across the flat rock of the plateau, stepping carefully between the rows of brightly colored cloth. The steps of the waterfall weren't steep, but the water was cool. I sunk my hands into the rapidly moving water and stepped up onto the first step. The cold water ran across my stomach and down the length of my body as I slowly climbed my way up the short waterfall and pulled myself onto the rock above.
The land evened out here at the top, just a small platform that dwindled back between a set of boulders. The small river that fed the waterfall trickled between the rocks from some point higher up the mountain. I paused for a moment, listening for any sign of the children, but there was none; not a single voice or bit of laughter.
I climbed my way up the small path between the boulders; my bare feet sinking into the cold trickle of the river. There was a small fluttera flap of wings in between the rocks, and I turned towards the sound automatically. A small black and white bird with a bright red burst of color on its head darted in between the boulders and came to sit atop one of the rocks. It cocked its head to one side and then the other as it studied me.
I slunk forward on quiet feet, my eyes transfixed on the small bird. I hadn't seen any wildlife this far up the mountain since I'd arrived at the Hall. There was little vegetation here, and I idly wondered where the little bird had come from.
"Khet?" A small voice echoed down from the mountain above, and the little bird startled. It darted away, swooping down the mountainside and out of sight, and my gaze followed the movement until it disappeared behind a large gray rock.
I glanced up the embankment to find a hand full of small faces peeking over the edge of a short drop off. I'd been so focused on the little bird that I hadn't even noticed the sound of children just a few feet away.
"There you are." I half said it to myself. "What are you doing up here?" I called out to the small children. Two more faces peered over the drop off.
"Swimming!" Came a small boy's voice.
"Swimming?" I furrowed my brow.
The children looked between themselves for a moment, and they whispered fervently between them. After a minute they glanced back down at me from over the embankment.
"Come up!" One of the little girls shouted down at me, her pale blonde hair hanging around her face and over the small cliff.
I glanced around and spotted a small dirt path to the right. It was well hidden behind the bounders, and impossible to see from farther down the hillside. Clever.
I nodded towards the small children. "On my way."
The hill was steep, and the path narrow. I grabbed onto small handholds in the rocks as I wound my way around a sharp turn in the path where it shimmied between two dirt embankments. Roots of long-dead plants hung down the sides like long gnarled fingers, and my bare feet slid in the loose dirt that tumbled from the caving sides.
I reached the top of the embankment, pulling myself out of the narrow crevice to find six nervous faces staring down at me. The skin of my back burned like an open wound from the strain of the climb. I sat on the edge of one of the small walls, dragging my feet up onto the plateau where the children crouched in a semi-circle. I tried to hide my wince.
"We thought you were dead." a small girl, only five or six, exclaimed as I stood and dusted off the back of my saffron cloth.
"Well, do I look dead?" I asked, flashing a smile at the little girl.
She seemed to study me for a moment, but finally shook her head. "No."
"Sadia cried. She wouldn't play with us." A little boy, perhaps nine or ten summers, commented.
"She will. She was just scaredworried."
"Some of the grownups were scared too." A familiar little boy spoke up. What was his name? I paused to think. Ilyas. "They were really quiet after you disappeared."
I didn't know what to say to that. I frown twitched at the corner of my lips. You never forget the first time you see an adult afraid. My mother had been afraid the day Leander had given me my name. The look on her face was burned into my memory.
"Sadia said the other lion tried to eat her and you attacked it." Ilyas continued.
I nodded. "I thought he was going to." I explained. "So I hit him with a rock."
The children's eyes went wide.
"You attacked Father's brother. You're really brave." An older girl, perhaps eight or nine summers, spoke up.
"Brave." I nodded. "But also stupid." I pointed out. "I lost the fight. I'd have died if Father hadn't stepped in to stop his brother."
"I still think you were brave." The girl pouted. "I'd have run away."
"Well thank you." I smiled at the little girl. "But really it was my own fault. I shouldn't have been out that late at night while everyone was sleeping. If I'd been inside where I should have been neither Sadia nor I would have been in danger."
The children fidgeted quietly at my statement. I hope they'd made the connection. I glanced around at them now. There were six of them, their hair long and blonde against dark skin. They were thin for their age and a little mussed, but otherwise healthy. Their hair clung to their water-drenched skin and glistened in the late morning sun. I glanced around and found their clothes piled up in a jumble on the bank of a small pool.
The pool was deep, but not as wide as the plateau we stood uponmaybe twenty feet at its widest. Its waters were clear, and small round stones decorated the bottom in a mosaic of color.
"Do you children come up here a lot?" I wandered across the plateau to the edge of the water and stuck my toe init was just as icy as the waterfall below. The children filtered closer to the pool, wading back into the cool depths.
"Only when it's sunny." Ilyas offered a wide grin on his boyish face.
"Do the adults know you come up here?" I asked and untied the cloth at my waist. I tossed it away from the pool a few feet and waded into the pool. It was already soaked through from climbing the waterfall, but it could dry in the sun while we swam. My breath caught in my throat as I sank inthe water was startling cold, and I felt goose bumps raise on my arms. The burning in my back dulled to a dim ache as my body grew numb.
Ilyas shrugged. "Naw. They don't really care where we go."
I frowned at the statement. "Well I care." I took a deep breath. "I'm going to be taking over as your trainer from now on." I said, glancing from one small face to the next. "So please, from now on, make sure I know where you are."
"Why?" Ilyas frowned.
"Because I don't want what nearly happened to Sadia to happen to you too. I want you guys to be careful around the Hall while Solomon is here." I looked pointedly at the older children of the group. "Watch out for each other, and don't go anywhere alone. I lived because Father stuck up for meand just barely. If Solomon decides to come after one of you and no one knows where you are," I continued. "No one will be around to help you. All right?"
The children nodded one by one.
"Well then, do you have names? I should know what to call you." I grinned, but the children didn't return my smile.
Ilyas fidgeted. "We don't all have names yet."
I blinked. "What?"
"Father gives us our names." One of the little girls explained.
Ilyas interjected, "Sometimes we don't get named until we're in combat training." The little boy shrugged. "Hafya says it's because our names have to mean something." His boyish face squished up into a perplexed frown.
"Then what do the others call you?" I asked.
"Well," Ilyas pointed to himself. "I'm IlyasFather already named me." He shrugged. "It means one who serves the Father. My family's been in his service for the past eight-hundred summers."
I felt my eyes widen. "Eight-hundred?"
Ilyas nodded. He didn't comment further but turned to point at the youngest of the girlsshe could only be five or six summers.
"She's Alifa." He shrugged. "It means meek. Alifa doesn't like to talk a lot." The little girl was half-hidden behind Ilyas' back, and it didn't take much imagination to understand why her name was Alifa.
"The rest of them don't have names." He finished.
My brow furrowed. "Then what do they call the rest of you?"
"Child." A small chorus of voices answered.
I scrunched up my nose at the reply. "Well, that won't do. I have to be able to call you something."
The children looked between themselves nervously. "Won't Father be mad?"
"Maybe." I shrugged. I wasn't feeling particularly charitable towards the Lions of the hall at the moment. "But I think he'll understand if I give you temporary names until he can think up better ones." Maybe he wouldn't notice right away with his brother around to occupy his attention. I could hope.
"So for now
" my voice trailed off as I studied the remaining four children. I pointed to each one down the line starting at the eldest girl. "Minha," then the youngest boy. "Naim," then the last two of the girls. "Hakima and Laila."
"Minha." The eldest girl repeated the name, rolling the sound of it on her tongue. "It means
gift, doesn't it?" she glanced towards me.
I only smiled in response, and turned away to swim to the center of the pool. Goosebumps dotted my skin as a small breeze rushed over the plateau, lifting half-damp strands of platinum hair from the children's shoulders. The children continued in their play, shrieking and jumping into the water. They played games of holding their breath at the bottom of the pool, and skipping small stones in the far corner.
I drifted, staring up at the sky and watched the clouds roll in across the valley. The children left me alone for the most part; they weren't used to dealing with adults, though I was hardly that. It hadn't been too long ago that I'd been like them. I'd spent my days playing in the river that snaked through the valley, and avoiding my mother when she had that look that chores were sure to follow.
For some reason, being here made me forget that I wasn't any older than the attendants below training in the courtyard. Maybe it was because no one looked at me like I was child here.
A loud crack of thunder peeled on in the distance, and I turned to look towards the mountains across the valley. It was mid-afternoon now, but the sky had grown the deep gray blue that signaled the approach of rain. Even as I thought it, the sun disappeared behind the oncoming line of clouds advancing over the mountain, and the sky grew dark over our heads.
On numb feet I waded out of the pool, sloshing freezing water onto the dirt that ringed it. The youngest of the children, Alifa and Naim, watched the sky with wary eyes from their perch on a flat rock just a few feet away.
"It's time to go inside, I think." I said as I crossed to where my cloth still sat near the edge of the pool. I knelt down to pick it up, and as my fingers brushed the saffron fabric, there was a familiar sound of knees hitting stone. Great. I sighed to myself and tied the bright fabric around my waist in a haphazard knot before turning to the other end of the plateau where the trail led up to the isolated pool.
I wasn't about to kneel, and didn't think I could, so it was with Leander's name on the tip of my tongue as I glanced to the figure stepping up out of the crevice. I'd meant to explain why I wouldn't bow, but the name died on my lips when my gaze fell on the dark disheveled hair of his brother.