Written Dec. 21 ~ 31, 2008, for pyrefly
Ranulf's cane was rough and knotted. It had started out as a thick branch found on the canyon floor, probably blown down in one of the winter windstorms. Mikel had brought it back after yet another of his scavenging missions and passed it on to the weary old mantor trainer. He scraped at the hard wood with his pocketknife, shaping it bit by bit in what little free time he had. Even after several years the cane was still thick, but whenever Iku watched her grandfather pick away at it further, she worried that it would end up too thin and weak and snap in half while he was leaning on it. When she told him about her concerns, he had looked so sad, the corners of his mouth drooping, and said, "For a little girl like you to always be so worried..." that she had done her best not to mention it again.
She still looked at the ever-shrinking cane nervously when they went out to walk around the village. For a moment she thought she could see the wood trembling under the pressure at the slimmest point. To distract herself, she rubbed her fingers over the smooth surface of the mantor flute. It wasn't really a flute, but more of an ocarina. "mantor flute," was just what they had come to be called. Iku was still learning how to use it properly to call and calm the mantors. Her grandfather was something of a master at insect handling and he was doing his best to teach her all the things he knew one small piece at a time.
It was probably his skill was the mantors that had allowed him to live at the end of the war. There was no doubt that it was his skill that had kept him in the village where he could pass on his knowledge to a handful of students. He had really started to like that boy Franz, but it seemed that his education was going to be interrupted now, if not ended completely.
"Oh, they must be going already," Ranulf sighed. Clustered toward the front of the village were three young boys and their families. The Harmonian standard hanging over their heads gave a decent indication of what was going on to Ranulf. It wasn't like he hadn't already known this was coming, it had just been a matter of when.
"Gran'pa? What is it?" Iku looked up from the ocarina into her grandfather's anxious face. He was squinting across the bridges at the mournful group near the edge of town. There was Finn and his mother, Alric with his parents and sisters, and Franz with his grandmother. Finn's mother had her head in her hands, and Alric's father was holding his wife close. Ranulf looked away from the painful scene. The Harmonian beneath the banner, probably not a bishop, just a local priest, presided over the solemn scene, flanked by several attendants and guards.
"What's going on?" Iku repeated. The people speaking to the Harmonians were obviously quite upset at the proceedings. And her grandfather had such a strained expression on his face...
"They're going to take those boys away from the village for their... 'apprenticeships,'" he responded bitterly. It was a harsh practice, disrupting life at all levels of the community. The boys would be missed by their friends and families, would have their training interrupted, and would likely return sour and sullen over their lot in life. Ranulf couldn't say that the Harmonians even got much out of the deal when it came to the people of Le Buque, since eventually most of the boys would return to carry on the business of raising and training mantors.
Stuffing the mantor flute into her pocket, Iku began to tug her grandfather along the path toward the boys and their families, but Ranulf pulled his hand free. "Go on, Iku," he encouraged her. He knew how close she was to Franz. Girls were taken from Le Buque as well, but usually not as far or as long. This separation would be the hardest.
"Franz!" Iku rushed to grab her friend by the arm.
He jerked around quickly, his mouth hanging slightly open as though he hadn't expected her to come. The strap of his knapsack slid down his shoulder and he pushed it back up in a daze, wrinkling his long, off-white sleeve. "Iku, you came!"
Franz seemed as solemn as her grandfather, his thick eyebrows tense and his dark eyes troubled. He reached for Iku's hand and she wrapped both of her hands around his, looking up slightly to gaze into his eyes. "I didn't think you'd leave without saying goodbye," she said, her high voice trickling out the words as soft as a whisper.
"I meant to," he shot back defensively, "I didn't know they'd come today. And when I went by your house, your mom said you were taking a walk. I didn't have the time to go look for you. Grandma wanted to give my hair a last bit of work with the scissors before I left. 'You have to look decent when you get to the capital,' she told me."
"If you look unkempt, you won't be doing the image of our people any favors," Sekoa sighed to herself, loud enough for her grandson and his friend to hear.
Scowling slightly, Franz did his best to ignore her. He'd heard more than enough from his grandmother on this matter already. "Don't forget where you came from," "Be on your best behavior," "Look out for Alric and Finn." She had inundated him with advice.
Iku squeezed his hands tighter. "It makes me scared, Franz. What if you're completely different by the time I see you again? ...What if you never come back?"
"Iku, don't worry! No matter what happens, we'll always stay friends," he assured her, sounding braver than he felt, "And I'll come back to Le Buque, I promise! I'll become a warrior, so wait for me!"
"Oh," the girl gasped, feeling her eyes begin to well up with tears, "Franz! I believe you! I'll think of you everyday!" Her close-cropped hair brushed against her cheek as her head drooped. It was the short style of a child. Franz was leaving as a boy, but he'd be coming home a man. "I'll let my hair grow," she promised him, "I won't cut it until you come back." By then it would be the long tresses of a woman, looped or rolled or braided to be a bride.
Franz reached out his hand to touch her hair, barely beginning to grasp the meanings of her words, but was stopped by the rough, crinkled hands of his grandmother on his shoulders. "Franz dear, you have to go," she told him quietly. Alric and Finn stood resolutely between the Harmonian soldiers.
He squared his shoulders and swallowed hard, looking over the assorted villagers who waited to see them off. "Goodbye," he mouthed. He had meant to speak, but no sound came out.
The priest waved him over impatiently and reluctantly the boy complied. The round-faced Harmonian looked over the small group one last time and saw that everything was in order. "Yatte dou!" he snapped and the soldiers stood to attention, before responding to his business-like nod to march forward. The boys could not quite match their pace and quickly spread out, trailing between the soldiers and the priest's personal assistants.
A lone crow swooped down to perch on a dead dried tree on the other side of the main chasm separating Le Buque from the mountain path. The dry ground broke up beneath their feet and scattered into a thin amber dust as they disappeared from sight. Iku kept watching even after she couldn't see them anymore.
The choking sobs of Finn's mother, Madri, were distracting. Sekoa put her arm around Iku's shoulders. With her grandson gone, she had no family left in Le Buque. Ranulf hobbled to her side and smiled at her sadly. They had known each other a long time. They had cried together and aged together. Ranulf couldn't honestly say there had been many good times shared between them in decades. The Harmonian occupation had seen to that. All they could do now was continue to live, holding their heads high, and do their best to support the younger generations.
Iku sighed, worn out from sadness. She leaned her head against Sekoa's side and wondered how long she would have to wait for Franz. How long would it take to feel like forever?
In the dim light of her room, Iku perched on the edge of the bed, brushing her long, deep red hair. Wearing it braided and rolled up kept it from becoming knotted and kept out the majority of the dust in the air as well. It wasn't very convenient to wash with the trouble involved in hauling the necessary buckets of water up from the well and heating them on the stove, but she did her best to take care of it. Long hair was the traditional style of the women of Le Buque and in a time of so many troubles, Iku did not intend to break with tradition. Anyway, Franz liked it long. Perhaps his inability to manage his own hair added to his interest in hers.
The door leading into the small, rounded house slammed noisily, shaking the knickknacks on the shelf. Iku frowned and set aside the brush. The angry noises didn't stop. She could hear Franz tossing his spear onto the rack beside a pair of battered umbrellas and pulling off his heavy boots to leave them beside the door to avoid tracking dirt all over the floor.
Iku leaned toward the open doorway to look at him. "What's wrong?" she asked sensitively. Their involvement with the Fire Bringer had done little to soothe his frustrations. Bishop Sasarai might have stopped the expected repercussions of their support of the Fire Bringer, but despite his positive remarks about the future, in Le Buque, nothing had really changed. He was faraway in the capital. Either he wasn't trying hard enough...or he wasn't trying at all. It wasn't an implausible conclusion.
"I hate Harmonia so much!" Franz growled. He couldn't raise his voice much more than this without their neighbors (or his grandmother, weaving hats in the next room) hearing him. "We can't become Second Class Citizens! We can't get married! I can't appeal the decisions to a kinder bishop because they've had us in a stranglehold since the war!" he listed his grievances, squeezing his fists so tightly than his knuckles went white with rage.
He leaned his head against the wall and tried to clear his mind. Iku sighed deeply. The lack of approval for their marriage hurt her the most at this point. There were some things they couldn't fix. Things that could only be accomplished by a bishop. But why couldn't they live their lives the way they wanted within this one little village? They were living together like a married couple. They had the blessings of her parents and grandfather, as well as Franz's grandmother. But in the eyes of Harmonia it was still meaningless without official approval and the right paperwork.
"Don't you have anything to say?" he asked, sour, but no longer so sharp. A lack of energy was sapping his vitriol.
"I'm sorry," was all she could muster. Her thoughts were unclear, swirling around like a gray fog in the canyon.
Unsatisfied with Iku's response, he turned away again.
Iku had always been the kind of person who kept their problems locked up inside, doing her best to work them out on her own. The only person she ever discussed her arguments with Franz with was her mother. Ina was always sympathetic, but even so, it made her feel weak and embarrassed. She loved Franz, she really did, so shouldn't she be able to deal with any wave that rocked their relationship? Shouldn't they be able to weather any storm?
As soon as Ina spotted her daughter approaching from between the round houses, she could tell that something was wrong. She hated to see Iku in pain. There was strife enough in this world. Couldn't Iku at least have as much as happiness as possible in their current situation? ...If only she would speak up, Ina was sure she could do something more for her.
"Things are Franz are tough as ever," Iku admitted. The words came so quickly and suddenly, Ina was taken slightly aback. Iku stood beside her mother, looking down at her shoes.
"I know things have never been easy, but I miss the little things..." the young woman continued. It was almost as though she were speaking merely to sort things out with herself, not as a complain or comment directed at her mother. Ina wiped her hands on her bluish apron and leaned the long wooden spoon she was using to stir food for the mantor larva against the inside of the metal tub.
"Once when I was taking some of the young mantors around the village and the cliffs for some exercise with Mitaiya, like I usually do," Iku glanced up from her shoes to her mother's face before turning her eyes to the blue sky. Some clouds were drifting in from the east. "Well, Franz came up the side of the hill out of nowhere. I thought he'd be busy with his duties, but there he was, free for the afternoon with a big smile on his face. Mitaiya must've known how happy I was to see him, because she told me not to worry, that she'd take the mantors from there.
"Franz gave me his hand and we hiked up the hillside to the highest flat area of the mountain. It was rough footing, with lots of loose dirt that slid out from beneath our feet, but Franz- you know he'd good at keeping his balance and moving around on that sort of terrain- he kept me from slipping the whole time. And when we reached the top, we just together and talked. It was nice to be alone.
"As alone as you can get around here, I guess. Most of the village was straight down from there so I couldn't really see it, but you could see mantors buzzing around below and some Harmonian soldiers at the guardpost across the canyon. Up there, with the wind blowing around us, we felt so...free. That was the first time Franz kissed me."
Waves of nostalgia rushed over Ina as she pictured the scene. "Oh, my, that reminds me of when your father and I..."
"Mom," Iku gently cut short her mother's reminiscence.
"I'm sorry, Iku. I understand." She paused a moment to think out the best way to convey her feelings to her daughter. "Life...is never as easy as we want it to be, but if you truly love each other, you can make it through anything. You may be a little worse for the wear afterward, but you'll still be standing."
It was comforting to hear Ina say these things. No matter how often Iku told herself this, it was never as powerful coming from her own mind as from the lips of someone she trusted.
"But you can't expect Franz to carry the load alone," Ina added, "You have to keep the romance alive on your end as well."
Though it was harder to hear than the initial pleasant words, her mother was right about this as well. Sometimes the hard work of everyday life made it hard. Sometimes Franz's temper made it hard to convince herself to do anything out of the ordinary. But if life was hard, she would just have to strike back harder. Someday, things would be better. The people of Le Buque would become Second Class Citizens. She and Franz would get married. But what would those things be worth if she didn't do her utmost to make her life and the lives of those around her, happy?
"You're right, Mom," she said slowly, "Thank you."
Franz wasn't exactly happy with the dinner he had scraped together. Iku knew a lot more things to do with a bunch of lumpy potatoes and whatever other food was left in the kitchen.
Sekoa poked a particularly misshapen chunk of potato in her bowl of what she took to be stew...or was it soup? It was awfully thin after all. "Where's Iku?" she queried, doing nothing to disguise her distaste for her grandson's cooking. If Iku had something keeping her away from making dinner, he should've just spoken up. She would have been happy to make something, if only to avoid this steaming mess.
Franz glanced over his shoulder at the front door. Iku hadn't said anything that would lead him to think she'd be gone at an unusual hour, but he didn't see any reason he needed to be worried about her yet. They had eaten lunch together in the shade of the mantor nests. Mitaiya and Catalina had teased him about how lucky he was to have someone taking care of him. Iku had happily joined in their jesting- what did those Harmonian households teach the young men of Le Buque during their "apprenticeships?" Certainly not anything about cooking!
"I...I don't know," he shrugged, and choked down a spoonful of the stew (maybe he should just lie and say that he meant it to be a soup). His lip twitched at the taste. Definitely too salty. It would've been better to leave it a touch on the bland side than overdo it with this rock salt. ...It just looked so cool in that glass jar by the window and he'd felt like he finally had an opportunity to use it.
"Did you have a fight? ...You didn't say something cruel, did you? ...Franz, I don't think there's another girl in this village how would put up with you, so it's in your best interests to be kind to poor Iku..." Sekoa interjected her own advice as she interrogated him, just as she often had in his youth. "And I like that girl too. I want her to stay a part of my family."
"No," he responded a bit too harshly. He regretted his sharp tone immediately. "Sorry, but no, I didn't do anything out of the ordinary. Maybe something happened with the mantors that left her extra busy. I'm sure it's no big deal. She'll probably walk in anytime."
Franz smiled with relief as his prophecy was fulfilled by the the turning of the doorknob. Iku entered the house, demure as ever, with a shy smile returning his own. She wore her hair loose- she had still had it braided and pinned in its usual style when he saw her last- and had a black reed basket over her arm. "Sorry I'm late," she apologized.
Her deep red hair, left slightly crimpy by the braids she had undone only a short while before, rolled over her shoulders, like a cascade of water from one of the many small waterfalls that dropped off the cliffs overhanging the mountain path. "After we finished with the mantors for the evening, I went down into the canyon with Mitaiya and Catalina."
"It's good that you didn't go alone," Sekoa spoke up, "That can be dangerous, especially in the dark. I hear even the Inquisitor General's had a close call down there with the creatures of the night."
"I wasn't scared. We brought our mantor flutes, so we could've easily gotten help." Iku's smile brightened as she reflected on their relative bravery. "I wanted to do something special for you, Franz, and I know two simple things that you really like..."
"Seeing your hair down," he glanced into the basket, "...And wild strawberries! Iku, thank you! Thank you so much!"
"Strawberries, hm?" his grandmother took the basket off Iku's arm and appraised the tiny berries. They were red, but still a bit on the small and pale side- early. She looked back up to ask if the young women had left any behind for later in the season, but when she saw Iku in Franz's arms, just about to kiss, she turned her eyes down to the strawberries once again.
Iku's soft hair brushed against Franz's neck and shoulders as they kissed. The hair she had grown for him. He would try again to get official approval for their marriage as soon as he got the chance. Until then, he'd enjoy what he had.