by Eildon Rhymer
On the first day of spring, a young girl finds a badly injured man, chained to a dead man and caught in a trap
This was written for the flashfic challenge on the Sheppard h/c LJ community, for the prompt "traps/trapped".
In spring, they say, the thoughts of all young creatures turn to love and life and laughter. Birds don their finest plumage to sing for a mate, baby animals gambol in the sun, and people… Well, I don't know what people do in other places, but in my village, it was the custom for the young to rise long before dawn and head out into the wild green places to gather flowers touched by the first sunlight of spring.
I was fifteen that year, and had never been kissed. You know what it is like to be fifteen. Life was one of fierce joy and petty heartbreak. My parents would look grave at reports the traders brought from other worlds, but the fact that Jessamin Herris was boasting ceaselessly about having been kissed at midwinter was to me a cause for greater grief.
"This year," I declared, as I waded through the dewy grass, "it will be me."
"What will be you?" Arabeth was just a voice in the gloom. Was she my best friend only because she was slow and plain, content to follow and never to outshine? I hope I was not that petty, but things were different then. For one last day, things were different.
"The one everyone's talking about." I spread my arms and twirled in the faint light of early morning. "The Queen of the Spring Festival. The one with a year full of luck and love."
The ellyn blossom was the rarest of flowers, and it blossomed only for a few days in the year. It grew for one year only, and its seeds were as light as the air, and could travel for miles before seeding next year's blossom. To find one at dawn on the first day of spring was what everyone strived for.
"I've looked all over the usual places for weeks," I told Arabeth. "We need to go further away, to places no-one else will go. This year, I'll be the one to find it."
Someone other than Arabeth might had corrected me to 'we.' I had dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night, and had led her way beyond the limits of where we were allowed to roam. Normally you could hear the laughter of other people nearby in the woods, but today we were entirely alone.
"Slow down," I commanded her, as the undergrowth grew thicker around us, and the smell of flowers grew stronger. "This is a likely place to find it, but it's still dark. I don't want you to trample it before I've picked it."
We stopped and listened to the sounds of early morning. Birds sang in the trees, and creatures stirred in the undergrowth. Arabeth gasped, leaning closer to me. "Don't be a baby," I said, deliberately loud. "It's only animals."
"I thought I heard someone," Arabeth whispered. "A person."
Maybe someone else had come up with the same idea and was trying to beat me to my prize. Well, if so, it was too late to pretend we weren't there. "Is anyone there?" I shouted; Arabeth always made me braver than I was, and louder, and less shy.
This time I heard it, too. I wasn't even sure it was human at first. It sounded… broken, I thought, like Arabeth's uncle had sounded when he'd fallen off the Sharp Tooth Rocks.
Sometimes convicts escaped, fierce and dangerous and desperate. It hadn't happened for years, though, and the guards always took care of it, catching them before they could do any harm. "There's a whole lot of us," I called. "There's no point trying to hurt us."
"What are you saying, Faralith?" Arabeth whispered, grabbing my arm. "There's only two--"
"Shh!" I hissed, shaking her off, and it was that, perhaps, that made me walk forward, because I wasn't slow and afraid like Arabeth, but clever and brave and fifteen years old, and I was going to get that ellyn blossom and I was going to win myself a year of love and luck.
What I found was not a flower, but a dead man, and another man beside him.
There was death in the spring, the old folk said. New life came out of the death of last year's crop… but what young person is going to believe that, when the world is green, and they are young, and there is a festival to look forward to, with flowers and dancing and spring wine?
"What is it?" Arabeth called from behind me. "Faralith? Is anyone there?"
The sun was just below the horizon, and everywhere looked flat and grey, just waiting for the sun to give it light. Arabeth screamed from behind me. I wanted to scream, too, but managed not to. I had never seen a dead person before, although I'd seen people who were dying. My fingers, quite ridiculously, wanted to touch. I crouched down just out of reach, and grasped my right wrist with my left hand, pulling it back.
"Are they dead?" Arabeth whispered.
There was an enormous hole in the back of the dead man's head, and his eyes were glazed and open. The other man lay completely still, and if it hadn't been for the sound that we had heard, I would have thought him dead, too. His eyes were closed. I thought that perhaps he was breathing, but maybe it was just me trembling. When I looked at the horizon, it quivered, too.
"Who are they?" Arabeth asked.
The two men were chained together at the ankles with a long chain. "Convicts," I said. "Escaped convicts."
A sliver of sunlight appeared at the horizon. The second man stirred ever so slightly, his lips moving as if he was trying to say something, but was too weak.
I turned to Arabeth; my neck felt stiff, and my hand gripped my wrist hard enough to hurt. Arabeth was a screaming mess of emotions caged beneath a fragile façade. "We shouldn't interfere," she said, "not if they're escaped convicts. They're dangerous. The guards will come for them soon. We shouldn't have come. It's out of bounds. We're going to be in so much trouble. We need to go home."
Why didn't I nod in agreement and go with her? Because leaving was her idea? Bad as it sounds, I think that was part of it. But it was more than that, I think. When I was little girl, I once found an injured fledgling at the bottom of the tree, and I waited all day for its mother to come for it, but she never came. I took the bird home with me in the evening, and nurtured it for days in my cupped hands and a soft-lined box, but it died in the end. 'You should have left it alone,' my father had said, patting my head softly in response to my heartbroken tears. 'It was going to die, anyway.'
This was a man, of course, and not an injured bird, and I was fifteen and not seven, but… 'At least it didn't die alone,' I had sobbed into my mother's breast that long ago morning.
"You go," I told Arabeth. "It'll be quicker in daylight. Bring help."
And all the while the sun continued to rise, and everywhere around us went from flatness to a rich, bright depth. The hole in the dead man's head was blessedly in shadow, but the other man… I trembled; and even then, I was able to hope that Arabeth hadn't seen me do it. He was shockingly pale, and his leg… I gasped, and this time made no attempt to hide it. His leg was caught in an old, rusty trap, its teeth digging in deeply below the knee. I didn't know much about such things, but I was positive that his leg was broken, and the blood… oh, by the Ancestors, the blood…
"There's a trap!" Arabeth squawked. "A trap. That's why it's out of bounds. It could have been us. It was dark. We wouldn't have seen it. We would have--"
"Be quiet!" I screamed. I released my grip at last; pressed my hand to my face. "Go back," I said, my eyes open but shielded with my palm. "He's badly hurt. Get help."
"But the traps…"
I lowered my hand; even then, it was trembling. "Follow the path we came on," I said. Arabeth looked blank. "Crushed vegetation," I said. "It'll be obvious. Go." She stood frozen. "Go!" I shouted.
She always did obey me eventually. She always followed me in whatever wild scheme I came up with, even a night-time adventure into a place with traps, so I could win glory that I had no intention of sharing. Sometimes I threatened not to be her friend again. Perhaps it would be better for her, I thought suddenly, if I carried out my threat.
When I turned back from watching her go, my eyes were swimming with tears, perhaps from fear, perhaps from shame. I was slow to see that the man was awake and looking at me.
"Er… hello," I said. Stupid, I know, but real life isn't like the stories; even at the time, I think I began to realise that. In the stories, everyone says exactly the right thing; in real life, you say 'hello' to a gravely injured man who is probably a dangerous criminal.
"Hello," he replied. His voice was low and hoarse, as if scoured by screaming.
"I'm…" I swallowed; looked at the chains at his ankle. "Are you a convict?"
He nodded, just a fraction, as if too weary to do more than that.
"What did you do?" I asked. The sun was almost fully up now, and the scent of flowers was very strong, almost cloying.
"I guess you won't believe me if I said 'nothing,' huh?" The man gave a fragile smile. His eyes fluttered closed, then opened again. "'s true, though. Thought I was helping. Turned out I was breaking some law, interfering with justice. Then I added resisting arrest."
What do you say to a man who is probably dying? At least you can croon meaningless nonsense to an injured fledgling, and can soothe it with a song.
"How long have you been trapped here?" I asked.
The man frowned, as if counting had become difficult for him. I'd just decided that he wasn't going to answer, when he said, "Day before yesterday. Evening."
My father had taught me how to read tracks on the ground. The stems around the man had been broken more than a day ago, the grass already withering. So he had passed that test, but what difference did it make? Enough for me to remind myself that he wasn't going anywhere, and that as long as I stayed out of reach, he couldn't touch me.
"I don't care what you have or haven't done," I said with the magnanimity of someone who knew themselves safe. "I've sent my friend for help. Men'll be here in a few hours. They'll cut you free."
He shook his head slightly, though why, I didn't know. He pushed himself up with his hands, and shifted position slightly, careful not to move his trapped leg. He did it in a way that showed me that he had done the same thing many times before, desperately trying to find a tiny shred of comfort. His other leg moved, tugging at the chain attached to the dead man.
I didn't really want to look at the dead man in full sunlight, but I had always counted myself as brave. "Who is he?" I asked.
The man sank back to the ground, his breath heaving as if he had run for miles, rather than just move his upper body a few finger-widths. "Don't know," he said. "Prisoner 128. Wouldn't tell me his name. We were paired for working. I escaped, and he came as part of the deal."
The morning was still cold, but I could feel the sun on the back of my neck. My legs were going into pins and needles, so I sat down, wrapping my arms around my knees. My skirt, I saw, was thick with dew up to the knee. "Did you kill him?" I asked.
The sky looked down at me, the same as any spring morning. In the woods and fields nearer home, the other boys and girls would be weaving flowers into each other's hair.
The man didn't answer.
"Did you kill him?" I asked again.
"Yes," the man said quietly. "No - God! - not like that. He had to come with me. I said… promised… said I'd get him out. Then I stepped in this."
And with them being chained together, of course, the trap had trapped two. The sunlight had reached the dead man's hands, showing them criss-crossed with deep cuts. Had he tried to claw the trap open with his bare hands? Had he tried to drag his foot out of the iron band? And what agony had this man felt when the other man had tried to tear himself free?
Sometimes it is a curse, not a blessing, to possess imagination. The broken stems told a tale of desperate struggle. Since evening on the day before yesterday, the man had said. I'd been teasing my sister, and sulking about having to do too many chores.
I pulled my knees closer to my chest. "How did you kill him?" I understood why, I thought. Convicts were wild animals, and who wouldn't strike out at someone who was causing them such pain?
The man said nothing. The whole bottom half of his leg was soaked in blood, and as I watched, a fly came to feast on it. I flapped it away, but it only came back. The fabric of his coarse brown trousers hid the wounds from the jagged teeth. I turned from that to the man's face. His eyes were tight shut, his face clenched with endurance of pain.
"You should tell me," I said. "When Arabeth's uncle was dying, he said it helped him when people kept him talking. And you should confess sins before you… before you…"
"Die?" he said, his lips barely moving. "'kay. I didn't… kill him, not the way you think. Guards caught up with us. They killed him and left me here to die."
I couldn't think of a single thing to say. Had that been the night before last, when I had lain awake, cherishing my dreams of the ellyn blossom? Or had it been the next morning, when I had rushed through my school work and perfected my plans? How long had this man been chained to a corpse?
"I need you to do something for me," the man said, and even then I marvelled at how he rallied after his confession of the truth. "My people will come for me. I just need to get a message to them. Where's the Gate?"
"Gate?" I shook my head, baffled. We had many gates in walls and fences, and wrought iron ones at the entrance to the mayor's house.
"The Ring of the Ancestors," he said.
I shook my head again. "But that's beyond the sea. You get there by boat. It takes days." I looked up at the sky. Convicts came in by flying machines that filled the air with a rumble like thunder, but such technology was not for the like of us.
I wondered just a little too late what the effect of my words would be on him. By the time I looked at his face again, his expression was wiped clean. But I wasn't Arabeth, to believe the mask. He was hurting terribly, and the fact that he was trying to hide it made me want to cry, more than if he was screaming.
"It's going to be all right," I assured him. "My friend's gone for help." Think! I urged myself. This was a man, a real man, and I wasn't here just to give him comfort in his final hours; I had the chance to save him. "You need water; of course you do. Two days without it… At least yesterday was overcast, but today… You need shelter. And food. I know which plants are safe to eat."
There are many ways of hiding from unbearable situations. For the next hour, I threw myself into ceaseless activity. I found a stick, and tested every step for traps. Thus protected, I gathered leaves and blossoms, just like any young girl is supposed to do on the first morning of spring. Mine were not chosen for colour, though, but for nutrition, and the blossoms that I picked were cup-like, still filled with dew.
I had to get close to him after that. Was I afraid? Perhaps I was, but I sank down beside him and offered him drops of dew from a carrelyn flower. "I can do it," he said, but his hand trembled when he tried to take the flower from me. He tried again, though, and again and again.
I didn't quite dare to scold him, because he was a full-grown man, but, "Look," I said at last, "you need the water. Let me."
He went quiet after that. I dropped dew on his cracked lips, and he took it, but after a while, he stopped even that.
The sun was high now, well past dawn and heading into morning. Sunlight dried up dew. Even if I fed him all the dew in the meadow, how much would it add to the span of his life? An hour? But even an hour could make a difference, I told myself firmly. Arabeth would be half way home by now. As long as the man survived for a few more hours…
"What's your name?" I asked. He said nothing, so I asked again. When he still didn't answer, I touched him for the first time, just brushing my fingertips across his cheek. He started, gasping, as if he had been asleep. Then he murmured something that might have been a name, and mumbled, "Don't feel so good, buddy."
My fingers burnt with the touching of him. He was feverish; of course he was. He'd spent two days trapped here with a serious injury, and the trap was rusty. Added to that, he'd been on the run for an unknown length of time before that, and everyone knew that the convicts were kept in harsh conditions and half-starved, and sentences were for life.
"What's your name?" I asked again, suddenly desperate to know it.
His eyes fluttered open. A fly landed on his cheek, but he didn't seem to notice. "John," he said.
So that was that. You couldn't give up on someone once you knew their name. But he fell unconscious then, and stayed that way for hours. I touched his flesh as his fever rose. The sun went behind clouds, and I sighed with relief, but half way through the morning, the flies came thickly. "He isn't dead," I told them, flapping them away, but they came back, they always came back.
They were thicker on the dead man, of course. Even though the sun was hidden, the cloying scent of the flowers grew stronger. Half the morning had passed before I thought to wonder if it was the scent of death.
Arabeth returned alone. Busy swatting flies, I didn't see her at first, not until she was almost upon us. "They're not coming," she said. "They say it's none of our business, and that it's unthinkable to help an escaped convict. The guard'll take care of it."
"The guards already have." My own voice was strangely hoarse, sounding older than my voice normally sounded. "They've been and gone - washed their hands of him. They killed the other one and left John to die."
"You're in trouble," Arabeth said. "I had to tell them you'd gone out of bounds."
"We," I corrected. It was a petty thing to say, but I felt on the verge of tears. At fifteen, I had thought myself grown up, but I had pinned so much on the arrival of adults. It hadn't crossed my mind that they would refuse to come.
"I wasn't supposed to come back," Arabeth said, "but I wanted to tell you. If you hurry back now, it might not be too bad."
A fly landed on John's pallid lips. "Go away!" I screamed at it. "Leave him alone!" I scraped my hand across my eyes and it came away wet.
"Faralith?" Arabeth was looking as me as if she didn't recognise me.
The spring festival started in the middle of the afternoon, with singing and the crowning of the Queen. If I went back with her, I would be there in time, and although I would be punished, no-one ever missed the festival. Even without an ellyn blossom, I might get kissed. I'd done what I could, had handed the situation over to the grown-ups, and they had made the decision for me. Even when you were fifteen, that's still how things were.
"You go," I said wearily; of course I did. "I'm staying with him."
Arabeth argued, but I'd always been able to persuade her to do things against her will. That was the last day of our friendship. I yielded her to people who would appreciate her more, and I would like to think that she blossomed because of it.
Why did I stay? How could I not have stayed? No-one was coming. My people were too cowardly to save him, and his people were on another world. The guards had left him for dead, and with the pain and the fever and the lack of water, he had no chance of survival.
I had held my injured fledgling in my cupped hands as it had died, and I had felt the last fluttering beats of its heart. The last thing it had heard had been my voice.
And so I kept the flies away, and talked to him, and searched the shade for drops of dew and dripped them on his parted lips. Behind the clouds, the sun reached its peak, and started to fall again. The dancing would be starting soon.
All the while, my own thirst was growing. John woke up when I was chewing a fleshy stalk for its sweet-tasting liquid. "Still here?" he asked. "How long?"
Had I been older, I might have tried to lie to him for his own protection. Had I been older still, I would have known that he was not the sort of man who wanted to be lied to. As it was, still little more than a child, I told the truth. "You've been asleep for hours. Help isn't coming. We're on our own."
He was a grown-up, too. Had I hoped that he would take control, that he would order me to leave him and thus absolve me from the guilt? It was easier to be the one who obeyed. It was easier to be an Arabeth than to be me.
"Then why're you still here?" he asked, touching close to it.
"Because I don't…" Want you to die alone. I'd talked about death to him just that morning. I'd given up trying to swat flies from the dead man, and the smell was unmistakeable now.
He didn't say anything. His eyes started flickering all around, as if he was seeing strange and terrifying sights that weren't really there. Kneeling, I looked up myself, but saw only the sky.
When he started convulsing, hours later, I sobbed. I tried to hold his shoulders down, then realised the damage he was doing to his leg, and instead pushed his thigh into the ground with both hands, as tears fell down onto the backs of them, and the dead man's leg danced as if he was still alive.
I lost track of time. Even though it was spring, night still came early, and far away, I could see the fires of the spring festival. No-one came for me. The festival was a whirl, and it was easy to lose track of people. Perhaps they assumed I was already home. Perhaps it was inconceivable to them that I would stay out here for a dying convict that I didn't know.
"You should go." It was almost dark when he spoke to me, and my stomach was cramping with hunger. Gasping, I scrabbled away from him, since he sounded lucid, and I'd given up hope of hearing him speak like that.
I tried to shake my head; really I did. I tried to speak my denial, but I didn't have words.
"Listen, I appreciate it," he said, "but help isn't coming. I tried to get out of this. We both tried to get it to open again. My people… Thought they were coming, but it's been two weeks. I believe in fighting the inevitable, but sometimes…" It was not so dark that I couldn't see him look at the dead man. He didn't look away. "Shouldn't have tried to escape. I told him to stay positive. Told him we'd get away. He didn't want to try, not at first. I said it was better to fight than to give up."
It was still the fever talking, I realised; it was just manifesting itself in lucid honesty, not raving. "It is," I told him. "It's better to fight."
"Told him that." He reached out towards the dead man, then his hand fell back to his side. "He ran because of me. Trapped because of me. Killed… I couldn't… I couldn't…"
I was crying again, precious water drenching my cheeks. "No…" I began.
"Dangerous." I could see his eyes glittering with fever. "You should be at home. He died. I killed him. I killed him. I don't want…"
"I want to stay until the end," I wept, realising that it was true.
"The end?" he echoed, and he gave a strange smile, and his eyes closed.
Can a man will himself to die? Perhaps. Can a man stop fighting to survive? Definitely. John was the first person to escape the prison in years, and that meant that he was more determined than most men, but another man had died because he had escaped. He had survived for two days with a shocking injury, but now he thought that the best way to keep me safe was to die sooner rather than later.
There are more traps in life than those made of metal. Sometimes the worst trap that can ensnare you is your own nature.
"No," I begged him, "no," but I didn't leave him, even when full night came, and I was faint with thirst and hunger. I didn't leave him, even as my parents came from the village at last, chiding me and weeping over me, and bringing me spring garlands and food and blankets. Before them, though, racing forward from the shining vessel that they had come in, were his people, John's people, who had walked into the middle of the spring festival asking for news of an escaped convict, their missing friend.
Had they come too late? Of course not, or I would not be telling this story, for although there is death in the spring, it is a time for happy endings. They came in time, and they cut him free, and weeks later he came back to our village, walking on crutches, and asked for me.
I was shy of him then, for I had seen him in the extremity of his pain. I had seen him close his eyes and give up the fight to live, and the memory of that, I thought, was heavy in his eyes. But then I saw him laughing with his friends, and I knew that time healed bad memories, and that a man who could cling on to life for so long in such a trap could survive the trap of the aftermath, too.
What did he say to me? Not much. His friends said more. The woman, Teyla, hugged me, and the big man clapped me on the shoulder and thanked me for keeping his friend alive. Doctor McKay said many, many things, about the search for him, about how they'd visited the prison with bribes and diplomacy, but found him gone, and about how touch-and-go it had been for days back on At-- back home.
"But I'm still here," John said, and I looked at him, and said, "You're still here," and that, it seemed, was enough.
After they had taken him away on that terrible night, I had found an ellyn blossom where he had lain, crushed and covered with dried blood. Does it sound very strange that I picked it up, pressed it, and have it still?
I never went looking for ellyn blossoms again, for in the eyes of those who had not been there, my escapade gave me glamour. Even the mayor had to openly admit that the glorious new trading agreement with John's people was due to me. In that year, I had love and luck and laughter.
You can't have the beauty of spring without the death that is winter. Would it be trite to say that I grew up that day? I felt terror and despair and I saw death for the first time, but I appreciated the beauty of the spring that followed it all the more. I saw a strong man resign himself to death, but that only made me appreciate life all the more.
I had gone searching for an ellyn blossom, and I had found one. I only hope that John found his one day…
No, what am I saying? I saw the way his friends looked at him when they found him, and I saw them together several times after that.
John had already found his.
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