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Rebekah King Rebekah King
Recommendations: 21

Lan and Sorraru


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These are the excerpts from my novel "A Girl's Hunter" in chronological order in case anyone was confused about what happened when.


Combatants


Sorraru ran as fast as she could through the overgrown forest. Though she was no athlete, she was fit and the knowledge of her own death pursuing her drove her forward. She knew that if she came face-to-face with her pursuer, her combatant, there was no way she would survive the confrontation. She had no training. She knew nothing of weapons or how to use them. She had to run. She had to escape.


Lan could hear his opponent rushing through the woods. They had to be only on the other side of the trees to his left. He had tracked them for a long way and now it was time to act offensively. He could see a break in the trees approaching. Judging by the fact that all his opponent had done was run since they knew he was chasing them, Lan assumed they were untrained and unskilled in the art of killing. Lan was a hunter, he knew how to kill. And here it was either kill his foe or die in this place.


As the break approached, Lan pulled his makeshift bow from his back and loaded it with an arrow made from animal bone. He would aim for the head – make it quick. The break was almost upon him now and he readied himself. He slowed as he came level with the opening in the trees, knowing he had a lead on his adversary. He kept his weapon ready and waited for a moment before he heard them approach his position.


Sorraru heard when her pursuer stopped running, but it only made her more afraid. This was it – this was the moment they would make their move. She noticed the break in the trees only once it was upon her. When she saw what was waiting on the other side, her eyes widened. She stopped dead in her tracks, and only had time enough to see her assailant pull back the string on their bow. Instead of trying to run, she covered her face with her arms.


“Please!” She screamed.


Lan did not release the arrow. In the instant he had seen his opponent’s face, something had made him hesitate. It took him a moment to realise what that was. She was just a girl, no older than he. He thought he knew this girl. Perhaps he had seen her before. He would have still steeled himself and sent the arrow flying, but something else stayed his hand. It was her scream, her beg for mercy had made him stop.


As Sorraru stood there, stunned and covering her face in fear, Lan hesitated. Something he knew he absolutely must never do. But he had not expected an inexperienced and clearly terrified teenage girl for an opponent. Were these even the kind of people The Man usually took? Now he wasn’t so sure.


“Would you please just do it quickly?” Sorraru begged. “I really hate being kept in suspense.”


Lan wondered, should he do her this kindness? It was what she asked. But he knew that it wouldn’t really be a kindness, just a better way for her to die. Death wasn’t kind.


“What are you waiting for?” She demanded. “I can’t fight you, and only one of us leaves here alive.”


She was right, of course. That was the rule. Everyone in the Tribes knew it well. Always two were taken, only one returned. And it was obvious to Lan that this girl couldn’t fight him. She had no weapons, and it was fair to assume that had she a weapon, she wouldn’t have known how to use it. She hadn’t tried to run once she saw him, just hid her face and waited for death to come. She can’t have been very courageous. Though she was brave enough to run from him in the first place, rather than just laying down and letting him kill her. Perhaps she had some drive in her after all.


His sustained indecision intrigued her, it seemed, as one of her eyes suddenly revealed itself through her hands. Lan looked straight at that eye, trying to see the person behind it. Why was he doing this? It would only make it that much harder for him to kill her. Her eye did not move, her gaze unwavering, locked with his. She was afraid, but courageous enough to take this opportunity to see her killer before he ended her life.


“You’re scared,” Lan stated.


She seemed taken aback by his addressing her. “You’re going to kill me soon,” She pointed out. “Should I not be afraid?”


Lan thought this girl a remarkable creature. She had done everything that Lan had been warned about his whole life. She’d made him hesitate by pleading to him, using her helpless appearance to appeal to his sense of humanity. And now here she was, conversing with him, causing him to procrastinate further. And she didn’t even know she was doing it. As Lan looked at Sorraru, standing not ten feet from him, frozen by fear, his resolve shattered. And he knew he had no intention of ending her life today.



Compassion


“What’s your name?” Lan questioned her.


“Sorraru,” She replied.


Lan thought this was an interesting name. It was characteristic of the western Tribes. He was from the north, so he wondered still how he could possibly know her face. They sat around a small fire in a camp Lan had set up some days before, not long after he’d woken up here. The air was frosty and the ground damp. Lan was used to such conditions, being from the north. But he supposed this place was rather different from the lush plains of the west. He looked at Sorraru and noticed that she was shivering a bit.


Lan did not get up, instead merely shuffled backwards across the ground to reach into his shelter. From it he retrieved a blanket made from several different animal pelts stitched together. This he draped over Sorraru’s shoulders. She was stunned at his consideration, but remembered herself.


“Thank you,” She said sincerely.


Lan only nodded his head once in response. He preferred not to speak unless it was necessary. Talk made noise. He shuffled back closer to the fire and watched for a moment as the flames licked at the still-damp wood.


“What’s yours?” Sorraru asked suddenly.


For a moment, Lan was confused as to what of his she was referring. He gave her a quizzical look.


“Your name,” She clarified.


Realising, he returned his attention to the fire. “Lan,” He replied.


Sorraru said nothing. She, too turned to stare at the flames as Lan was. There was something mesmerising about a burning fire, Lan thought. Mysterious – much like this place. Lan noticed from his peripheral vision that Sorraru was examining the blanket he had given her. She ran her fingers gently across the fur and stitching.


“Did you make this?” She looked up at him.


Lan gave her his attention and nodded once more. She continued to examine the stitching and Lan watched her now. There was something he admired about the way her fingers brushed over the material, barely touching it, but still absorbing its texture. Those fingers were expert at something. Lan wondered what that could be. Lan saw that she recognised the feel of the thread immediately.


“This stitching... argas?”


“The leaves of the argas plant.”


She had a keen sense of touch. Argas was the only plant that grew and thrived in all of the Tribes’ areas. Apparently it was the same for this environment. Lan briefly pondered the possibility that they could be not all that far from one of the Tribes, but he banished the thought immediately. Other Homecomers had tried to escape before, to avoid having to kill their opponent. But, for reasons they couldn’t explain, failed.


“Where did you get all these pelts?”


“Small animals. Retchens, naschens, thorars... very versatile.”


Lan retrieved his quiver from the ground by his side. He pulled out an arrow and handed it to Sorraru. She gave him a confused look, but then proceeded to examine the arrow. She ran her expert fingers along the smooth shaft, over the rough argas thread that attached the junbo feathers at one end, then the sharpened point at the other. Sorraru felt uneasy at viewing up close the object that had nearly taken her life. It would have pierced through her skin and skull and lodged itself in her brain for sure.


“It’s bone. The animal bones?”


“Yes.”


“It’s very sharp.”


“Rocks are useful.”


Sorraru handed the arrow back to him, unable to hold it any longer. She pulled the blanket tighter around herself and fixed her gaze on the fire. Lan returned the arrow to its quiver, keeping his eyes trained on Sorraru. She could see him doing this and it made her uncomfortable.


“Why are you telling me all of this?”


Lan did not reply,  unsure of why she asked this. She had asked him questions and he had answered. Nothing more to it. Lan’s silence only worried Sorraru further.


“If this is some sort of a sick game, you’d better tell me now.”


“What?” There was a note of amusement in Lan’s voice.


“You’re still going to kill me, aren’t you? Hit me when my back’s turned?”


“If I wanted to kill you, I’d have released the arrow.”


Sorraru stopped as she realised this was true. Lan was certainly capable of killing her – if he’d wanted her dead, she already would be. But why would he risk his own life by not killing her?


“Why didn’t you?”


“What?”


“Release the arrow. Let it bury itself in my head and be done with it? Why didn’t you?”


Lan considered this himself before answering. “I don’t know.”


Why hadn’t he just killed her? Even if he thought he knew her, which couldn’t be possible. What did it matter? She would have been so easily dealt with and he could be back home right now. He remembered what it was that had made him stop. It was her scream. “Please” she’d said. Her cry had made his sense of compassion show its ugly head. His mentor had always told him he was too compassionate. Lan was staring at the fire again. Sorraru waited for him to speak.


“I’m not going to kill you,” He said at last.


Of this Lan was sure. He’d already made his decision. Sorraru couldn’t comprehend what could have possibly brought him to his conclusion, but she was grateful nonetheless.


Training


“Why do you look at me that way?”


“I’m still trying to decide whether you’re playing games with me or not.”


“I am not the one playing games here, Sorraru, try and remember that.”


Sorraru nodded and pulled the string of the bow back into the firing position. She aimed for one of the trees about thirty metres away. The sun was out this day, a rare occurrence in this environment she had found, and she had spent most of it being trained by Lan. Trained in the art of wielding a bow. They had been going for hours, and she had yet to actually fire the thing. She wasn’t keen on the idea – just having the weapon in her hands felt wrong and scary. But also strangely natural.


Lan had observed her the entire time. He watched with his sharp eyes as she pulled the bow string back as far as her muscles were able. Though she was not particularly athletic, Lan saw the strength in her arms, her body. He saw how she could use this strength to her advantage, and also how it could work against her. At least she was not unteachable, she had taken his instruction very well to this point.


“Keep your elbow up,” He reminded her.


She obeyed immediately, and then she remembered all the other little pointers he’d given her: “Keep your shoulders square”, “Keep the fingers on the string apart”, “Imagine an arrow and look through the end of it to your target”, “Keep your arm away from the string, it’ll give you a nasty burn”. She remembered and obeyed. Lan was an experienced hunter – she would be foolish not to. Lan observed her stance a while longer. He was impressed at how her arms did not quiver much from the strain.


“I think you are ready to fire now.”


“Really?”


“You sound surprised.”


“Well, we’ve been at this a while.”


“There is no point in arming you with an arrow without you first knowing how to fire it.”


Sorraru couldn’t argue with that logic. She thought it was strange how most of what Lan said seemed very profound, but also not because it made perfect sense. He had wisdom beyond his years. He was the same age as her; this she found very difficult to believe. He even looked older, with his burly body and constantly focused expression. But when he smiled, she saw the eighteen-year-old boy. This didn’t happen often, though.


Lan pulled one of the bone arrows from the quiver and handed it to Sorraru. She stopped herself from gawking at it and loaded it into the bow, laying the point against the wood and gripping the feathered end between the two fingers on the string. Lan had made this bow as he had the arrows, from wood and argas. He’d used his bone knife to carve it. It was beautiful and looked like it had been made by the most talented crafter.


Sorraru recounted each of the pointers in her head and applied them as she held the loaded weapon. Lan couldn’t deny that he was impressed. She was handling this very well for someone who was terrified by the idea of killing something or someone. He saw her eyebrows pull together in concentration as she aimed for the centre of the tree. Her eyes turned to him, he nodded slowly in approval, and she sent the arrow flying.


She missed the tree. Only by a fraction, but were it a person, it would have been very wide. Lan knew what had caused this, and it had nothing to do with her technique. It was her fear that made her hesitate at the last second. She didn’t want to kill, so she missed. Lan said nothing as he handed her another arrow and strode towards the tree. He heard Sorraru ask him what he was doing, but gave no response. He continued walking until he stood but less than a metre from the tree’s base.


“Now fire,” He called.


Sorraru’s eyes widened and she wondered if he was mad. She did not take aim, just stood there in disbelief. Could he possibly want her to fire an arrow past him into the tree? She’d only fired one once. She would hurt him for sure.


“Fire,” Lan repeated louder.


“Are you insane?”


“Do you want to kill me?”


“No.”


“Then don’t. Fire.”


Sorraru continued to hesitate, terrified of accidentally harming him. But she knew why he was doing this. He’d seen her fear, her hesitation. He was giving her reality. So slowly, she lifted the bow back up and pulled back on the string. She took her time, aiming as precisely as she could. She wanted to close her eyes, but knew this was a bad idea, so she merely cringed as she released the arrow.


Lan felt the rush of air as the arrow soared past his neck and heard the clear thwack as it hit the wood behind him. He turned to observe her work. The arrow was lodged very neatly into the tree, leaving a decent split in the bark. He had to press his foot up against the trunk, pulling with his arm to retrieve it. He walked casually back to Sorraru who was staring at him in wonder and handed the arrow to her.


“Good.”


He went back to where he’d stood before, to Sorraru’s right and faced her as she stood with the bow lowered, still staring at him. He saw the emotion on her face – the panic that she could have killed him, and the disbelief that she hadn’t.


“Again.”



Thorars


Sorraru’s feet hammered against the sodden forest floor as she ran, the slick undergrowth and mud constantly threatening to slip her up. She turned to see the pack of thorars still pursuing her relentlessly, seemingly unhindered by the wet conditions. She turned back to continue watching her path for roots or particularly slippery patches of mud that would halt her progress and ensure her death.


Sorraru had been on her own, not ten metres from the camp when the thorars had attacked her. She’d managed to escape unharmed, but knew she could not run forever. She desperately wished that Lan would intercept them soon, but for all she knew he could be on the other side of the environment. Lan had spent many hours passing on his knowledge, arming her with the skills to know what to do in a situation like this. But most of those teachings had involved the availability of a weapon. Sorraru had none.


Sorraru’s only chance now was to run. She and Lan knew that there were checkpoints placed around the environment. If only she could run for long enough to reach one, she might find a weapon. She had to try – it was either that or lie down and be eaten alive. The very thought drove Sorraru forward. Sorraru had no idea how many of the four-legged, razor-fanged mutts were chasing her, but thorars typically didn’t hunt in packs of more than four or five. If she had a weapon, Sorraru thought she could take them on.


Just as Sorraru broke through the trees out into a clearing, she saw it. The building was sitting, black and domineering, in the middle of the meadow. She felt relief wash over her, but she couldn’t allow it to slow her progress. She ran harder still, heading in a direct line to the checkpoint. She knew she would only have seconds to search the offering table for a weapon before the thorars would be upon her.


Sorraru’s courage found her once again as her eyes rested upon a knife, gleaming brightly in the sunshine, sitting in the centre of the offering table. She reached out her arm and snagged the knife, turning to face the thorars just as one leapt at her. Prepared for the attack, she slashed the thorar across its breast, its blood spraying onto her face. The beast fell writhing to the ground, staining the grass with red.


She turned towards the rest of the pack, who were keeping back at the sight of Sorraru’s weapon. Sorraru was momentarily stunned at her first kill, but she didn’t lose focus. She stood with the knife in a backhanded position, staring down each of the animals. There were four more, and as they surrounded Sorraru, they looked more intimidating than she’d first thought.


Eventually, one of the thorars advanced and took a snap at her. Sorraru was prepared, swinging the knife at the beast, but it jumped back again. As Sorraru staggered from the momentum, another of the animals came up behind her. She turned and her eyes widened as the beast knocked her onto her back. She struggled wildly to free the arm that held the knife that was trapped under the creature’s heavy paws. It snapped its feral teeth at her face, but she thrust her knee up into its gut and it yelped and drew back.


Sorraru raised the knife and another thorar latched onto her hand with its jaws. She cried out in pain and felt the warm blood trickling down her arm. The thorar that had jumped onto her regained its composure and slashed at Sorraru’s chest. Sorraru screamed as its sharp claws cut deep into her flesh, and within moments, her skin and clothes were soaked with red.


Sorraru knew that this was it now. No one was here to help her and these beasts were going to tear her to shreds. She wished now that Lan had put the arrow in her head. That death would have been so much faster, so much kinder. As she thought this, the thorar that had a hold of her hand suddenly released her. Something awoke inside of her, and ignoring the searing pain, she brought the knife down into the side of the beast on top of her.


The thorar fell to its side and Sorraru scrambled to her knees. The creature wasn’t dead, so she brought the knife into its flesh once, twice more until its only sounds were the gurgles of it choking on its own blood. Sorraru looked around, expecting to be met with the thorar who had bitten her hand, but was bemused to find it lying dead on the grass with a long, bone-white arrow jutting from its head.


Sorraru stayed kneeling and watched with blurry eyes as Lan agilely slayed the remaining thorars. She watched with wonder at his grace and skill as he moved through the battlefield, taking the thorars down with almost invisible strikes from his knife. It was like a dance, so beautifully choreographed – a dance of death. It was over in moments.


Lan stood, looming over his final kill and turned. His combat-hardened expression changed to one of wide-eyed worry and deep concern as his gaze turned to Sorraru, kneeling, bloodied and defeated in the grass. Her gaze met his momentarily, then the knife slipped from her grasp, her head dropped and she swayed unsteadily. Lan rushed over to her, his sure hands breaking her fall.



Healer


Lan’s dark eyebrows furrowed over his blue eyes as he focused on tending Sorraru’s wound. His hands were gentle on her raw skin as he dabbed a wet cloth over the thick slashes just below her collarbone. Sorraru watched his face as he worked, wincing occasionally at the pain. She was impressed with him – as she was currently shirtless, Lan had a clear view of her chest, but he remained focused on tending her wound. Sorraru was not shy, but she appreciated him keeping his eyes on his work.


They were back at the camp, in the shelter, their light source coming from the makeshift torch in the corner. Lan reached behind him and retrieved his water canteen, which she had seen him mixing up something with argas in earlier. He opened it and poured some of the concoction onto the damp cloth, darkening the material.


“This will hurt,” He murmured.


Sorraru bit her lip and groaned through her teeth as Lan pressed the cloth to her wound. The liquid seeped deep into the cuts and stung her badly. But the longer Lan held the cloth there, the less pain Sorraru felt. Until, eventually, the stinging was replaced with a soothing, numb feeling. She knew argas was a versatile plant, but she had no idea it had healing properties.


Lan noticed her more relaxed expression. “Better?”


Sorraru nodded, it was feeling better. Lan put the canteen back behind him again and this time pulled out a patch, some bandages and adhesive.


“Where did you get those?” Sorraru asked.


“Checkpoint,” Lan replied simply.


Lan gently pressed the patch to the worst part of the wound, tearing off lengths of adhesive with his teeth to hold it in place. Then he began to wrap the bandage around it, winding it under her right arm and over her left shoulder. Sorraru continued to watch his face as he did this. He was very focused now, but she couldn’t shake the last image her eyes registered before she passed out – Lan’s worried expression as he saw the bloody mess she’d become.


Sorraru didn’t think of Lan as someone that cared about her. She thought of him more as a mentor who had taken her under his wing. But she supposed that mentors did care for their protégés in some way. But something told her that wasn’t it. His expression in the field told her that it was something more – a deeper kind of concern. She felt guilty for thinking less of him and suddenly felt the urge to say something.


“Thank you,” She said. “Thank you for saving me.”


“You’re welcome,” He replied.


“I’m sorry I was so careless.”


“Don’t apologise. I should not have left you defenceless. You did the right thing, running to the checkpoint. It was smart. It was not your fault.”


It was the most Lan had ever spoken in one go since Sorraru had met him. She wanted to keep him talking.


“It wasn’t your fault, either,” She reminded him.


“I should not have left you alone,” He repeated.


“It doesn’t matter now. I’m alive.”


His voice was low when he replied. “You cannot know how grateful I am for that.”


Something about Lan’s words left Sorraru taken aback. She wasn’t sure why – if anything his words should make her feel reassured. She soon understood why this was, because his words confirmed what she’d read in his expression at the checkpoint. Lan cared for her as though she were someone important to him that he feared to lose. She hadn’t expected this.


“Let me see your hand,” Lan’s voice broke Sorraru from her reverie.


He laid his fingers on her arm and gently lifted it until her hand was in his sight. Sorraru looked down at her hand. It wasn’t as ruined as she’d feared, but it looked like she wouldn’t be doing anymore training with the bow for a while. Lan began to work on it the same as he had the slashes on her chest. And once he’d wrapped a length of the bandage around it from the base of her fingers to below her wrist, it didn’t look so bad.


“Will I live?” Sorraru asked.


Lan chuckled and smiled, genuinely smiled. “I think so.”


Sorraru smiled back, pleased that he seemed to get her attempt at humor – he usually did. Lan turned to clear everything away, and once he was done, he helped Sorraru to get dressed, knowing she would struggle with only one good hand.


Lan pulled the torch from the ground. “I’ll go and light the fire,”


“Okay,”


Lan smiled again and Sorraru returned it. But something was eating at the back of her mind, and as Lan turned and left the shelter, her expression fell. She didn’t truly understand what was going on here, why Lan felt the things he did. But even more confusing was that she felt them, too. Was it really possible? Lan was a hunter, they didn’t love anything. But he loved her, in some way, and she knew she returned that love.



Names


“Is Lan your full name?” Sorraru asked as she popped another acreberry into her mouth.


Unexpectedly, Lan chuckled.


“What?” She demanded with a grin.


“You’re going to laugh when you hear my family title.”


“Tell me.”


“Thorar-bane.”


Sorraru’s eyebrows raised in amusement. “Of course.”


Lan laughed at her tone and ate another berry.


“Where did you pick up a name like that?” Sorraru wondered aloud sarcastically.


Lan laughed again. “My father was a hunter, and his father, I suppose that is the reason.”


“I suppose so.”


Lan grinned at Sorraru and her infectious sarcastic humor. She smiled back, pleased that he seemed more at ease than he did in the beginning. Sorraru watched him as he ate another berry, his lips pulled up in a smile, shaking his head slightly. And for once his eyes seemed here, in the moment, rather than far away. Those blue eyes, so full of a strength and wisdom that Sorraru could never understand, they were her only light in this desolate place.


“The environment will change again tonight, by my prediction.” Lan said.


Sorraru wasn’t listening, she was still staring into his eyes, searching. Searching, and finding something that wasn’t there before. No longer hard and focused, they had a softness, a warmth to them she hadn’t seen until now. Lan turned to her, wondering why she hadn’t commented, and noticed she was staring at him. Instead of turning away, embarrassed, as Sorraru knew she probably should, her gaze locked with his.


“You’re laughing a lot tonight,” Sorraru pointed out.


Lan’s eyebrows raised slightly, taken off guard by her statement, then he smiled.


“You are funny,” He stated. “It is my understanding that people laugh when someone is being funny.”


Now Sorraru laughed as he tried to kill her with logic again, his attempt ruined by his grin.


“People do usually laugh,” She confirmed. “But, then, you’re not like other people, are you?”


Lan furrowed his eyebrows as if this fact confused him, though it didn’t. What confused him was how Sorraru knew this so confidently.


“I do not hold you in high enough regard,” He said unexpectedly.


Now Sorraru was the one furrowing her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”


“You are more than you seem. You see the world around you. Not just the obvious, but everything. You see into people when others cannot. You always seem to know what I am thinking, but I never know what you are thinking.”


Sorraru took a moment to absorb all this. “You’re the first person who’s ever told me that. My father calls me his ‘open book’.”


“Because he is your father. He knows you.”


“Do you know me?”


“I would like to.”


This surprised Sorraru and it showed on her face. She began to think the same things she had thought the night he had tended her wounds. And what was worse, she began to feel the same things she had felt. Now she looked away, worried that her embarrassment would colour her cheeks. Lan watched her expression turn guarded, her fingers start to twist and writhe nervously, fidgeting with a loose strand on her clothing. He had seen this before, and he wanted to know the reason behind it.


“Does that upset you?” Lan asked.


“No,” She replied quickly, then sighed. “Yes.”


“Why?”


Sorraru wanted to speak evasively, but she already owed Lan her life twice over, perhaps she should respect him with the truth.


“Aside from my father, I’ve never really been close to anyone. I’ve never given anyone the chance to know me. The real me, not the sarcastic funny girl mask that I project. Not since my mother died.”


“I’m sorry.”


“I’m afraid that if I get close to anyone I’ll lose them. Stupid, I know.”


“It isn’t stupid. Why do you think a hunter spends his life alone?”


Sorraru considered this, she had always thought the hunters were alone because they preferred life that way. She never thought they estranged themselves from family for fear of losing them.


“Where is your family now?” Sorraru asked.


“Killed when I was young. By thorars.”


Ironic, like many things in life, Sorraru thought.


“Thorars took my mother as well. I couldn’t imagine life without my father now. We’re all each other has.” Sorraru’s expression fell. “And I’ve left him all alone.”


“You’ll go back to him,” Lan’s tone was suddenly very serious, determined. “That’s why we’re still here. If by my life or death, Sorraru, you will return to your father. You will not be forced to abandon him to a life alone. I promise you this.”


Sorraru was confused once more. Why was he suddenly promising to lay down his life if it meant she could go home? She came to the same conclusion she had before – it was love that drove Lan to this outcome. He was ready to die to save her. It was reckless and irrational, but it was a reality.


“What about you?” She asked softly.


“Ask yourself, Sorraru, what is more fulfilling? A life of solitude, or an honourable death in place of someone with the prospect of a future?”


Sorraru knew her answer to this. She could imagine what Lan’s life would be if he returned with news of her death. Already a hunter bound to a life of solitude, he would also be disgraced and shunned by the tribes, whether her death was by his hand or not. Better to fight and die than not fight at all, especially if it was at the expense of someone you loved. Sorraru knew that, if it came to it, she would do the same for him.


“Sora,” She said suddenly.


Lan turned to her. “What?”


She smiled. “My father calls me Sora. Short for Sorraru. I’d like you to call me that, too.”


Lan was confused at the honour he felt at this gesture. He realised it was because it was something she shared with her father, just for them, and suddenly she was extending it to him. He smiled comfortingly at her.


“Sora.”



Taken


The first thing Lan registered when he opened his eyes was the pain. The thudding pain pounding inside his head. What had that thug hit him with? His vision was blurry and he found himself struggling for breath. He managed to bring just enough to his lips to utter the one word on his mind.


“Sora?”


Where was she? He had to think, he had to remember. What happened? He pulled himself to his feet, using a tree for support. He shook his head, but it didn’t help. He remembered being struck by something hard. Where had they come from? He hadn’t seen them, hadn’t heard them until they were upon him. Sorraru was with him and now she wasn’t. They must have taken her, but where? He gathered himself and tried again.


“Sorraru?”


No answer. There was no one here. He had to find her before they killed her, or worse. If only the pounding would stop. He cursed himself and his weakness. What had his mentor said? When you’ve got a pounding head... something. It was hard to think through the pain. He’d wasted enough time already. How long had he been lying there on the ground? An hour? Two? It could already be too late.


No. If those men were meant for his and Sora’s deaths, he would be dead and her body next to his. He was alive, she was gone. She was bait. More games from The Man. Was this some kind of test then? An experiment to see what he would do? Regardless, he had to find her, he had to save her. Ignoring the pain, the fog, he pushed himself forward, stumbling through the forest.


He crashed through the trees for hours, the light of sunset came and passed and stars blanketed the dark sky. That was when he saw it. His vision back to him, he saw it clear as day, the pillar of smoke billowing into the air. He rushed up to higher ground, running as fast as he could up a steep hill. Out of breath when he reached the top, he saw the glow resonating from the very centre of the environment. She was bait, then. This was a trap, one he would have to outsmart.


He had no idea how many there were, he couldn’t very well charge straight in only to be faced with his death. There was no guarantee they would spare her, there was no guarantee she wasn’t already dead. His expression turned to one of fury as he gazed at that pillar of smoke. Awake, fresh, with new resolve, he charged back down the hill, not caring when he rolled to the ground at the base. He jumped back up and ran in a straight line towards the glow.


By the time he was in sight of the impressive bonfire the men had set in the middle of the plain, his head was pounding with such an intensity that he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. He crouched low to the ground for a few moments. He couldn’t fight like this, he was useless. Suddenly, he remembered: when you’ve got a pounding head... stab the trees.


He turned his head to the nearest tree, checking that it was the right kind, before he ripped off a piece of bark and stabbed his knife into the trunk. The yellow residue that seeped out was his goal. His mentor had taught him of it and how it soothed even the most intense of head pains. He ran his hand up the trunk, gathering the residue on his fingers, wrapped some of it in argas leaf from a plant nearby and forced himself to swallow.


He wasted a few minutes on his knees, retching and trying to keep the stuff down. That argas was going to make its way back up later, but eventually the pounding resided and he was able to think clearly once more. He turned his attention back to the bonfire. He made out figures, silhouettes of men surrounding it. From this angle he had no idea how many, but there were at least two on this side and more he could see across the plain.


Then his eyes rested upon a welcome sight. Not six feet from the men closest to him, she was there, standing against a tree to which she was bound. Blood was trickling from her nose and she seemed unconscious, but definitely alive. And not thirty metres from where Lan stood. He wasted no time, forming a plan in his head very quickly. He unsheathed his bone knife and made his way over to her.


He reached the tree unseen and unheard, even by Sorraru. He reached around and tapped her gently on the arm. She didn’t start, but slowly lifted her head and opened her eyes. Lan silently thanked her for her whit. He tapped again and this time she slowly turned her head to the side so Lan could see her right eye. The half of her expression he could see was not afraid, but nonchalant.


“Lan?” She whispered so softly he couldn’t be sure she’d actually spoken.


“Listen to me,” Lan saw Sorraru breathe a slight sigh of relief at the sound of his voice. “Take this.” He placed the bone knife in her hand. “Free yourself. There are more on the other side of the clearing. I’m going to head around there, then when you are free we’ll deal with the rest together.”


“I’m ready when you are.”


Lan positioned the knife in her hand for her so that all she had to do was cut through the rope. It was thick, so it would take time, but time was what he needed. He gripped her hand, closed around the knife, in a reassuring grasp.


“Do not fail me, Sorraru.”


“I won’t. Be careful.”


Lan closed his eyes, at war with himself. He wanted so much to free her himself and charge at those thugs with the unrequited fury of a warrior, but he knew this would only end in their deaths. If this was a test, he would defeat it. He and Sora would not be made puppets of today. He rested his head against the trunk of the tree, wanting so much to whisper the words on his lips. But instead, he pulled himself away and disappeared through the trees to begin the hunt.



Fury


Lan moved swiftly, watching the ground before him as he ran, his sharp eyes detecting the most noiseless path through the brush. He was like a bullet, fast and silent, focused on his target. He did not stop until he reached the other side of the clearing. He knelt down to catch his breath and analyse the scene before him. He could see them clearly now, three men on this side of the fire.


He watched the men as they walked slowly about, patrolling the area, planning his attack in his head. He needed to take them all out without any of them or the others near Sorraru knowing. He needed to do it swiftly and silently. Luck was with him, he found, as he saw one of the men heading for the trees near him. He hadn’t heard him, Lan knew, so it was another purpose that drove him to the trees.


As soon as the man stopped, Lan moved, soundlessly towards him. He drew a bone arrow from its quiver, placing each step as carefully as he could. He was focused now, focused on his target, with the arrow grasped firmly in his hand, he poised for the kill. He was fast, drawing the tip of the razor arrow across the man’s throat before he knew what was happening. Lan broke his fall and laid him on the ground, stealing a glance at the clearing. The other men hadn’t heard a thing.


Lan moved back towards the clearing, kneeling just in the trees, out of sight in the darkness, and waited. Eventually, one of the men came over to investigate why his friend hadn’t returned. As soon as he was in the trees, Lan swiftly ended his life as well. He then unsheathed his bow and quickly loaded it with another arrow which he sent flying into the heart of the third man in the clearing. As he moved out of the trees, Lan hoped the roar of the fire hid the sound of the body hitting the ground.


Lan skirted the edge of the clearing until he had a clear view of the other two men near Sorraru. He looked at her briefly and it seemed she was still sawing through the rope. Lan had to wait until she made her move before he took the men down, and that needed to be before the dead ones were discovered and the alarm raised. Lan willed Sorraru along in his mind, hoping she could move fast enough. Her concentrated expression suddenly turned to one of surprise and then anger as she reacted to one of the men calling something at her.


Lan watched as the man approached Sorraru. He could hear the man speaking, but he couldn’t make out the words. Sorraru’s expression remained defiant and she said nothing in reply. Lan heard the man’s voice raise as he took another, more aggressive step towards her. She jumped slightly, but her face betrayed no emotion. Lan saw her lips move as she said something back, then his own expression became angry as he saw the man strike Sorraru right across the face with the back of his hand.


Lan burned with fury, his hands twitching, wanting to strangle that thug until he turned blue. Lan watched Sorraru’s hand – she had stopped sawing. She couldn’t with the man watching her. She lifted her head and Lan saw tears in her eyes from the force of the man’s blow. Sorraru’s anger got the better of her and she spat right in the man’s face. He staggered, wiped his face with his arm, and strode right back over to her in a rage. He slapped her again and put an arm against her chest, then leaned his head down to her neck.


There was no more time – Lan had to act. He loaded his bow, ready to strike, then suddenly Sorraru was free. The rope fell away from her arms and she brought the bone knife up into the man’s throat. He staggered back and clutched at his throat, blood spraying between his fingers. Lan adjusted his aim and shot the other man in the temple. Lan charged forward from his position until he was level with Sorraru and they took on the rest of the thugs together.


Lan had never seen such pure fury from Sorraru before. She fought like a warrior, using her rage, but also her head, making her a deadly weapon. She took two of the remaining four men down on her own. The other two fell to Lan’s arrows, one to the neck and the other between the eyes. When Sorraru’s last victim finally fell dead at her feet, she simply stood, staring at the body. Lan saw, moment by moment, her rage starting to ebb and realisation take over.


Sorraru turned to Lan then with an expression that was somewhere between disbelief and gratitude on her tear-streaked face. She ran to him and threw her arms around him, a hysterical sob escaping her lips. He returned her embrace, holding her close to him, never wanting to let go. He would not let them be so vulnerable, he would not be so careless, he would never let them hurt her again.


“Thank you,” Sorraru whispered through her sobs.


Lan wanted to speak reassuring words to her, to let her know he was there, he was there and he would protect her. But words failed to form on his lips, sense and reason abandoned him, and his vision blurred once more. Lan felt his body grow heavy, his eyes droop and his limbs fail him, and for reasons he could not explain, Lan collapsed.



Feeling


Lan's eyes slowly opened to the sight of the roof of their shelter. He could hear rain gently beating against the wood. His body felt heavy and tired and his thoughts were slightly scattered. He was confused - hadn't he just been in a dark field fighting The Man's thugs? He looked to his left and forced his eyes to focus. Sorraru sat next to him, watching his face intently.


"Hey," She whispered.


"Sora?" Lan replied wearily.


"It's okay. We're safe now."


Lan furrowed his brows, fighting the confusion. "How did you get me back here?"


"I carried you."


Lan's eyes widened. "You carried me? How did you carry me that distance?"


"I just did. There wasn't much of a choice. I couldn't leave you in the field to be eaten by animals. I suppose all of your training has done something for my strength."


Lan smiled slightly at her, impressed that she managed this alone.


"Are you alright, Lan?"


"I believe so, Sora."
"I was worried when you collapsed like that."


"I am not sure what happened. I suppose I was just exhausted."


"Well I'm glad you're okay."


"I just wish I had been paying more attention, those men never would have taken you."


Lan reached his hand up and brushed his thumb along a mark on Sorraru's cheek from the man who'd slapped her.


"It's alright, Lan."


Lan was very serious, then. "Did they hurt you?"


Sorraru shook her head.


"I was afraid they would."


"So was I."


Lan furrowed his brows once more and willed himself to move.


"Easy," Sorraru warned. "You might still be concussed."


He managed to get into a sitting position. "I think you may be right." He shook his head, feeling the wearing effects of the concussion.


"You okay?"


"Yes, Sora. Don't worry about me."


"If you say so."


Lan looked out at the rain falling softly against the forest floor. It was around dusk, he thought, judging by the light coming through the treetops. He looked back at Sorraru who was now staring at the floor, biting her lip. He reached over and gently lifted her head back up.


"What is it, Sora?"


"Oh, I just..." Sorraru's voice trailed off as she searched for the words.


Lan brushed her hair back from her face. "You can tell me."


"Lan, I... I can't thank you enough for coming after me. You could have so easily waited for them to kill me, but instead you risked your life to save me."


Lan placed a finger over her lips. "Don't. You don't have to thank me, Sora."


"Why do you keep doing this? Saving me from Thorars, from those men, teaching me to fight and survive. Why do you want to keep me alive?"


"I don't want to kill you, Sora. I don't want either of us to die. It is not just about survival in here, it is also about the game. We cannot let him win, Sora."


"Are you sure that's all there is to it?"


Lan was startled by this question. Was she asking him if this was the only reason he was keeping her alive? Lan studied her face; something about her expression was different. He could see a faint trace of blush in her cheeks and she looked nervous.


"What do you mean?" He asked.


"Is that why you're helping me, or is there more to it?"


Lan considered this question himself. He already knew he cared for Sorraru, but was the way he felt more important to him than what was happening around them? Now he wasn't so sure.


"Please say something."


"I'm sorry, I..." Lan looked into Sorraru's eyes, becoming lost in her gaze.


"You've been acting differently ever since those Thorars attacked me. I thought maybe it was because you... wanted to protect me. That maybe you cared about me, in some way."


Lan was lost for words. He did care for her, but her words now, her face, the way she fiddled with her fingers while she spoke, made him realise that she cared for him as well. He hadn't known she returned his feelings, but he understood now.


"If I've misread you, then please tell me now, and I won't mention it again."


Lan saw her expression fall ever so slightly, showing her disappointment at his silence. Sorraru thought perhaps she had been misreading him all that time, that there was no love on his side. She suddenly felt so foolish for thinking he cared about anything but the game. Lan's own expression became agonised as he could see the rejection wash across Sorraru's face. He gently took her hands in his and she lifted her head to look into his eyes.


"I do care for you, Sora," Lan finally replied. "I care for you more than I have ever cared for anyone."


Sorraru's expression lifted again into almost disbelief at his words. She'd seen it for so long now, but for some reason she couldn't believe it was actually true.


"You do?" The disbelief showed in her tone.


"Yes,"


Sorraru smiled, feeling happier than she had in a long time. "I care for you, too."


Lan returned her smile, as pleased as she was. He caressed the side of her face gently.


"I want us both to make it out of this. I want you to return home to your father and the life you had before. I don't want your life to end here."


"What about you? Say we did make it out of here... would you go back with me?"


Lan was especially surprised at this. He hadn't thought of being with Sorraru after all of this. His mind had been so focussed on making it through.


"If you would have me."


"Of course. I want you to have a future too, Lan."


"My future is with you, Sorraru. Whether we make it out of here or not. If we live or die, we do it together."


"Do you really mean that?"


"Of course I do. Have I ever been dishonest with you?"


Sorraru chuckled. "No, you haven't."


Lan continued to stroke her face, her eyes were alight and she seemed relieved that he felt the way she did.


She bit her lip again and looked into his eyes once more. "I... I want to try something."


"What, Sora?"


Sorraru shifted closer towards Lan, he could hear shaky breaths escape her lips. She reached both her hands up and laid them on either side of his head, running her fingers gently through his dark hair. She slowly leaned her face closer to his until their foreheads touched. Lan suddenly found himself nervous, as he knew what was about to happen. He gazed at Sorraru, her face so close to his for a moment before closing his eyes and leaning in to press his lips to hers. They both felt the wave of something unfamiliar and pleasant flow over them as their lips touched. Sorraru wondered how the feeling could be so gentle and yet so intense. It was all over much too fast as Lan broke away from her. She heard him exhale deeply and felt the tickle of his warm breath on her mouth.


"Sora..." He whispered.


She opened her eyes, "Yes?"


After a moment, Lan opened his own eyes and drew back from her a bit so he could gaze into hers. He could see in her face that he had left her wanting.


"How do you do this to me?"


Sorraru chuckled ever so softly, a little confused by his question and still dazed from his lips.


"I, I don't know." She stuttered.


They locked eyes once more and both stared for a long moment, drinking in each other's emotions. Eventually, Lan drew back so he was no more than a breath away from Sorraru's face.


"I cannot lose myself in you, Sora," He finally said. "No matter how much I may want to."


She understood his words - they could not afford to let their guards down. But in that moment, she had felt him do so. The moment their mouths touched, she felt his outer layers start to peel away. She wanted to know the Lan that was underneath. In time she knew she would, but for now their minds had to be on their mission. It would only take one moment of distraction, no matter how pleasant, to bring them undone.


"I know." She whispered back.



Rain


Lan looked behind himself at her – Sorraru. She was sitting on the ground, her back against the wall. Water was dripping onto her leg. He looked up and noticed a hole that was letting in the rain that pelted relentlessly against the shelter roof. She must have been cold, but she didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care. Her eyes were closed, so she couldn’t see Lan’s worried expression. There was a sheen of sweat across her forehead.


Lan wondered how she could have gotten so sick so fast. There were no signs of her illness a week ago. Then again, if there was anything they had learnt in this place, it was how fast your situation could change in a week. Many times they had both nearly died of dehydration, starvation, exposure, illness, injuries. But Lan had not seen Sorraru this sick before, nor been himself. Then again, this was a whole different type of illness.


Lan wondered if Sorraru might die. What would happen to him if she did? With all they’d been through, he knew now he could not survive here on his own. What would The Man do if Sorraru died? Would he act before then and pull them both out? Or maybe just her? Many questions raced through Lan’s head. One thing was certain to him – he could not be without Sorraru now.


Lan heard Sorraru stir behind him as he faced the sheeting rain.


“It’s still raining?” Her voice was hoarse and crackly.


Lan turned and retreated back into the dry of the shelter. “Yes,” He replied. “It has been keeping up for over a day now.”


Lan crouched down and grabbed his canvas pack from the cold ground. He reached inside and retrieved his water canteen, shaking it to make sure it was still full and hadn’t leaked. He removed the cap and offered it to Sorraru who took it gratefully. It gave him relief to see she was still able to move.


“Thank you,” She said fervently and touched the canteen to her cracked lips.


Lan watched her closely as she drank in controlled gulps. Though she was clearly unwell, she did not seem unfit as he expected. She still looked like she could get up and hunt if the need arose. And the need would soon arise as their dwindling supplies indicated. His canteen was the only water supply remaining. They could fill their water containers from the falling rain, but there was no way of knowing if it was safe to drink. The Man had played tricks like that on them before. He’d poisoned the river at one stage and made them both sick for days.


Their food supplies would hold for now, especially since Sorraru wasn’t eating much for fear of bringing it back up. But they would have to hunt before the week was up. The most important things they needed right now were water purifiers and radiation meds. The only places they could get those were at Checkpoints, and who knew how far away the nearest one could be? They may have to abandon their shelter and some of their supplies to search.


Lan was patient at the worst of times, but soon he would insist they go. Sorraru would come with him even if she may not be fit. He couldn’t possibly leave her there, she may get attacked by wild animals or agents of The Man. He sent them sometimes to keep Lan and Sorraru on their toes. Sorraru did not take more of the water than she needed. She smiled at Lan appreciatively and handed the canteen back to him. He took it, managing a smile, and returned it to his pack. Sorraru leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes wearily. No, Lan wasn’t sure whether or not she would have the strength to leave. But one thing was for sure – he wasn’t prepared to wait until she got worse.



Cold


Lan looked at Sorraru’s pale face with worried eyes. He feared the worst for her. He feared that after all they had been through together, he was going to lose her now. He feared The Man would finally win. Sorraru groaned and coughed softly, her brows furrowing over her closed lids. The way her face contorted whenever she coughed disturbed Lan. He knew she must surely be in pain, but also knew there wasn’t much he could do.


As Lan watched her, he could see her body shaking slightly with stronger convulsions occurring intermittently. He reached down and took up the fur blanket off the floor, crossing the short distance and draping it gently over Sorraru. She shivered more strongly and opened her eyes. She took in the sight of him close now and the warmth of the blanket.


“Thank you,” She whispered.


Lan simply nodded in response, then he sat down by her side, back against the wall as she was, and wrapped his arms around her. She rested her head against his chest wearily, still shivering.


“You’ll warm up soon,” Lan assured her.


Sorraru nodded and stroked his chest gently with her fingertips. Lan liked the touch, but was unsettled by how cold her skin felt. It wasn’t long before Sorraru was racked with another violent coughing fit. Lan grabbed the water canteen again and waited, rubbing her back, for it to stop. When it finally did, he handed her the canteen and she took another grateful gulp. Lan couldn’t stand it any longer, seeing her like this. It was time to do something.


“Sora, we have to go.”


“I know. You go, I’ll be fine here.”


“I cannot leave you. He’ll send more men. Or something worse.”


“I can’t go with you. I’m a liability.”


“It doesn’t matter. I will carry you if that is what it takes. I am not leaving you.”


“I can walk, but I don’t know how far.”


“We will find out when the rain stops.”


Sorraru nodded, knowing Lan was right, knowing there was no time left. She was getting worse by the hour, she needed more radiation meds to prolong her life at the very least. But radiation meds were the least of Lan’s worries right now. Looking back out at the sheeting rain, he was already thinking ahead, beyond heading out and reaching a checkpoint. Enough was enough, they had to try. Sorraru was dying, they had to find a way out.


Sorraru noticed Lan’s far away but focused expression. One he always wore when strategising, planning. She furrowed her brows voluntarily this time.


“I hope you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”


Lan smiled at her strange way of speaking. “That depends. What do you think I’m thinking?”


“What kind of crazy stunt you can pull that will bust us out of here.”


Now Lan frowned, halted once more by her startling ability to read him. “There is nothing for it, Sora. Either we escape or you die and he sets me free. Not that there will be much to return to the North.”


Sorraru was confused at his words at first, then her eyes widened. “What do you mean? If I die, you’ll go off and get yourself killed?”


“No,” Lan looked straight at her, neither afraid nor ashamed by his words. “If you die, I will end my own life.”


Sorraru’s eyes went even wider, her expression not betraying her shock. “No, you can’t do that.”


“There is no point to life without you, Sora. Not only will I lose you, the only person I have ever been certain I love, but I will lose my own life. You know how Homecomers are treated when they return. No one will believe you died of an illness, they will despise me for trying to pass such a ‘story’.”


“But... but what about my father? You have to go back. You have to tell him what I couldn’t say.”


“Do you really believe your father would allow me the chance to explain why I had to let his only family die?”


“He’s not unreasonable. He’ll hear the truth.”


“A grieving father still healing from the anguish of losing his wife? I doubt that, Sora. Besides, what makes you think I could even face him if I returned?” Lan’s tone was starting to become angry, his frustration at the entire situation showing in his words.


“Hey, stop... stop talking like this,” Sorraru reached out and stroked his face gently, trying to calm him with her touch. “Everything will be alright.”


“No, it won’t, Sorraru. How could it be?”


Lan’s expression was more pained than Sorraru had ever seen it. She could feel his despair and anguish resonating out from him. She wanted so much to comfort him, but she was so weak, and the despair was weighing her down. She continued to stroke his face gently, hoping to bring him back from the fear and uncertainty of their future, back here with her. Lan peeled Sorraru’s hand from his face, taking it in both of his.


“You are so cold. You need to rest. The trek to the checkpoint will be hard.”


Much too exhausted to dispute him further, Sorraru nodded and rested her head back against Lan’s chest. She pulled herself closer to him, snuggling into his warmth, clinging to it. Lan wrapped his arms tighter around her, rubbing his hand against her shoulder to try and warm her.


“You can’t talk about that anymore, Lan,” Sorraru said. “I don’t want to hear about you doing such a thing. It’s unthinkable.”


“I am sorry I upset you. I will not speak of it again, I swear.”


Sorraru searched desperately in her head for a way to change the subject to try and diffuse his sullen, angry mood. She knew something that might work, but it might also make him worse. There was nothing for it, she decided.


“Lan, there’s something I have to tell you.”


When he spoke this time, his voice was soft and his breath warm against her hair. “What is it, Sora?”


Her answer took him completely by surprise.


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