Guarding our border is a mind-numbing task. The aggressors rarely dare to sneak into our territory; but, we can never be too cautious. We can never cease in patrol. They’ve burned us too many times. That’s what my teachers told me, anyways.
The quiet crunch of leaves and twigs under my boots is usually the only thing that breaks the silence as I’m left to search for remnants of the war that are half-buried in the soil to remedy my boredom. But today, there is a scream. Deep. One of a young man, by the sound of it. He is not far away; I know the trap he fell into. I glance behind me down the path. The next guard in our procession is precisely two-and-a-half minutes away. My hand hovers close to my earpiece. Satellite connectivity is always weak, but with the press of a button, I can establish a faint signal long enough to send out an alarm to the other guards. With my limited experience, they would expect it. Even if I wasn’t female. But my hand drops down to my side as I imagine how my family would react. My grandmother would be relieved that I escaped with my life, same with my parents and brother. They claim to support me, but they wanted me to be a jail guard or a fighting instructor or anything else that didn’t put me in any life-threatening danger. But at the border, anything can happen, technically. At least I didn’t become a warrior like my sister. Like I wanted to.
I sprint into the trees, finding bare patches of earth to place my feet. I am silent, scouring my surroundings for movement just the way I was taught. Nothing. My toes barely touch the ground. Approaching the trap, I crouch, peering inside with my sword drawn. He must’ve been too oblivious to notice the deliberate placement of the leaves hiding the hole. Typical. My light hair hangs down rebelliously; I force it behind my ears.
His leg points the wrong way, broken from the fall. Grimacing, he leans helpless against the wall, breathing heavily. Rings glitter on his ears and his clothes hold a certain ignorant swagger that I can only associate with them… He is one of them; I’m sure of it. If my friend was here, she’d call it a shame that such a beautiful, symmetrical face belonged to an enemy, and I would probably agree. His skin is light and clear of deformities, framed by a head of messy brown spikes. I never pictured them that way. He seems too pretty to belong to a legion of murderers and thieves.
Who knows how long I stare at him before he looks up, revealing long-lashed gray eyes that make me freeze before I have the sense to flatten myself on the grass, out of his field of vision. He is one of them. My chest heaves as I think about it, and I almost call for help. But what kind of a soldier am I if I can’t capture my first real intruder? If I give up now, my sister will surely hear of it. And the last thing I want is for her to come strolling in just in time for dinner tonight, smirking as she hangs up her official warrior jacket because she knows she was right. I can picture her smug expression as she kicks off dirt-covered boots, excited to berate me after Mom prides her on doing her part to protect the community. No. I can’t let her win.
Gathering my courage, I peer down at him again. Noticing my weapon, his eyes widen and he presses himself against the wall, trying and failing to stand. “Please don’t kill me,” he gasps. “I was just looking for my brother; he disappeared two days ago. I mean you no harm. Please, I…”
How intriguing that a man of his strength and stature would be intimidated so easily. He doesn’t seem to be lying, but my teachers warned me of their deceiving nature. I remember the young boy found wandering the border two days ago. That part of his story, at least, is true.
I find the ladder rolled up in a dying tree and secure it before climbing down, my palms sweaty. When my feet hit the ground, I twist my face in an expression my sister would make and grimace once I realize it. Yet again, I’ve proven that she’s better than me. She would make use of this man’s broken leg until he talked, but doing that would more than likely make him scream, which would alert the others, so that option’s out. I get into character, thinking instead of my brother for influence. He helped me a lot during training, especially with more uncomfortable stuff like this. I square my shoulders and imitate my brother’s interrogator laugh for good measure. Turning around, the trespasser cranes his neck to watch me, staring with an expression of fear. Or maybe it’s awe. I can’t tell. Maybe both. Either way, whatever I’m doing is intimidating.
“I, um… I don’t agree with the others,” he stammers as I unsheathe my sword slowly. “It’s our fault, this feud. I don’t think you’re the enemy. Please don’t kill me.”
I’m not supposed to talk to him. The language barrier is supposed to remain intact. But I can’t help myself. I’ve never encountered one of them before, and this one is surprisingly curious. I still have minutes before the next guard comes by.
My sword skims the trespasser’s throat. “Lies,” I hiss, my chin high. My voice is cold and controlled, thank goodness. “Are you not assuming we captured your brother? It is our border that you are searching.”
He pauses. “I… I guess you’re right.”
I roll my eyes, trying not to smirk too much. “Sure. But tell me, what do you plan to do now that I’ve caught you?”
His nose twitches once, like a rabbit’s. He shrugs. “Hope you show me mercy?”
Are all aggressors like this? So weak? So soon to quit? I refuse to believe it. This one must be a particular disappointment to his family. My teachers told me they’d stab me in the back. That if I saw one on our land, I should report it immediately or kill on sight, because they surely wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. Like soulless, blood-crazed animals, they would save their own skins before bothering to think of me or anyone in my clan. But this man is no wild animal, no heart-blackened warrior from the east. He’s just a scared brother looking for his kin.
Taking a deep breath, I sheathe my sword. The trespasser visibly relaxes. “Why don’t you fight back?” I question, remembering to straighten my back to make myself taller.
He frowns, raising an eyebrow like it’s obvious. “Because I’ve been caught? Because I’m in a hole in the ground with a broken leg and a girl who I’m assuming could easily take me down?”
The complement causes me to hesitate; I stutter to remedy it. “A-And you would surrender so easily… without even attempting to free yourself?”
“It wouldn’t do any good.” He laughs suddenly, one side of his mouth quirking in a smile. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?!” Is my luck gone? Is he no longer frightened of me?
“Like I’m not what you expected.” I step back, and he notices the change in my expression. “Because I’m not,” he realizes. “Whatever you think I’m going to do, it’s not going to happen. Trust me, I wouldn’t try something with a girl like you to beat me up.”
A laugh bubbles from my mouth. “Flattery won’t help your case.”
“Doesn’t hurt, though.”
I crouch in front of him. The only weapon he has is a knife at his belt, and a sad one at that. He gives me an odd look. “You are just an ignorant fool,” I recognize, “wandering the forest with only your hope to guide you. Right?” Without warning, I force his leg into its original position with a pop.
When he cries out, I cover his mouth, my own heart pounding hard against my ribs. His eyes brim with tears; I listen for the next guard. The trap is far enough away that he won’t be able to see it from the path. I struggle to hear him; his footsteps are whispers. It takes all my willpower to stay still and listen. Stay still and listen. Once I’m sure he’s gone, I pull the trespasser to his feet and push him over to the ladder. I’m being too tough on him for my liking, but I can’t help it. I have to make up for my break in character. I shouldn’t be letting him go anyways; the least I can do for my clan is scare him away. He hesitates, so I climb up first, crossing my arms as he flops onto the dirt a while later.
“Why are you helping me?” He breathes.
I tower above him, pondering the question myself. He is one of them. I should want him dead. But he is not like the people I learned about. And, what’s the point of capturing more innocent hostages? Right? “You’re not a threat,” I finally answer, and he takes it as a joke, his face lighting up briefly. I turn my head and hide my smile until it passes. “Go home,” I order, “and don’t return here. Understand?”
He is struggling to stand, so I haul him to his feet, grabbing his shoulders as he sways. “You’re kinder than the others,” he observes. “I know you’re trying not to be, but you are.” He does have a nice face.
Be scary. Be scary. But it no longer feels right. I turn away, taking a shallow breath. “Same to you,” I mumble to myself as I glance at the path, hoping he can’t hear me. I find a fallen branch for him to support himself with, cutting the twigs off to make it smoother. The silent forest sends shivers down my spine. I’m behind schedule.
Rushing back to the trespasser, I toss the branch to him and gesture for him to move on, not meeting his eyes.
I turn to leave, but he grabs my wrist; I bury the instinct to draw my sword. His hand, scraped and bleeding, warms my skin. “Thank you,” he says, and my pulse quickens. “I won’t see you again, will I?” His eyes, seeming sad, hold my gaze.
“Probably not,” I respond softly. Too softly. “If you do, I’ll have to turn you in. Or kill you.” Now I’m too forceful, too unconvincing. I could get fired for this.
He smiles again, and I’m momentarily relieved from the guilt coursing like acid through my veins. “I won’t forget your mercy,” he says.
His knuckles white as he leans on his new walking stick, he limps away with a grimace, disappearing into the brush. I attempt to memorize his appearance: the spiky hair, the earrings, the fur-lined hood of his coat, his eyes… His smile. What am I doing?
I bolt through the trees, staying hidden from the others, and eventually return to my spot two-and-a-half minutes ahead, but I am not as alert as I should be.
When my shift ends, I meander home, unable to get the trespasser out of my mind. Mother’s face lights up when I enter the house; the worry is erased from her expression. I quickly hug her and retreat back outside to my favorite tree, where I relax with one leg dangling, inspired to sketch. But I can’t get his smile right; I draw birds instead.
At some point, a giant of a girl comes to stand below me, a crossbow in one hand. She waits for me to notice her before saying, “Hey, Ell!”
“Hey.” I look back to my drawing.
“We scouted outside the border today,” she brags. “Found an old war bunker and captured the guys hiding out in it. Who knows what they were planning, but we got their weapons and supplies. They were pretty loaded.” She groans loud enough to draw my attention as she examines the the broken, bruised skin on her knuckles. “I got one of them to reveal where more weapons are. It was pretty fun, honestly.”
“That’s nice,” I mumble.
“Anything exciting happen on patrol today?” Her tone sets my mouth in a line as I force myself not to tell her the truth.
I flip back to the picture I drew of the trespasser, my attempt at his smile frustratingly erased. “No,” I eventually lie, and flinch at her immediate laughter.
“Didn’t think so,” she sneers, resting the crossbow on her shoulder. “Dinner’s ready. Mom wanted me to tell you.”
She struts off, and it’s minutes before I can climb down to join my family. And they are the same as usual. And life’s the same. And the following weeks, while on patrol, I amuse myself not by scanning for war memorabilia, but for the curious man in search of his lost brother. Every day is another chance, and every day is a letdown. I will never see him again. And I never asked his name. Maybe it’s a good thing.
But one morning, I trudge down the path until I spot a figure wedged in the crook of a nearby tree. He’s high enough that I only saw him by chance. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t need to. I see the weapon on his belt, an upgrade from that simple knife. I know the innocent boy he’s here to save. I have to remember that English is not allowed.
Passing by, something gnaws at me until I stop, feet away from his tree. “Don’t kill my people.” I know, somehow, that he isn’t capable of murder, but I need assurance that he won’t betray my trust. And, somehow, I know he will provide me with it.
He shoots me a half-smile, one to replace the image that has long-since faded from my memory. “Wasn’t planning on it.”
And I believe him.
Later, my sister tells me that one of the prisoners escaped with help from an intruder. No one was badly harmed, and no one saw where they crossed the border, but there are people searching the forest for them. Feigning concern, I examine the drawing in my hands. I finally got his smile right.