The hills, huge mounds of grass-covered earth comparable to small mountains in altitude, were not far from the village, but if one was to travel the winding road zigzagging between them, one would eventually come to a sort of valley. That was where we hoped to be during the attack, hidden from view.
Preparations for departure were a collective effort, and took the better part of the next frantic week. People retained official possession of their property, but most were willing to give up whatever Samuel deemed potentially useful to the councils control and thus towards the interests of the village during this time of crisis. It was heart-warming to see the community at work, strangers and neighbours helping each other out without expecting payment. Here was the good side of humanity. I was sure you wouldve liked to see it too. From what I had picked up, you werent especially well-liked, but you wouldnt have been turned away. There was no reason to hide.
For my part, I contributed by helping load the first few wagons and carriages. What with all the people and the goods being moved out to the hills, there simply werent enough vehicles or horses. It was obvious that more than one trip would have to be made. As we stood assembled before the small number of carriages that we had managed to gather, taking in the reality of having to compete for space, Samuel stood up and narrowly avoided conflict by declaring that the elderly and those who could not do physical work would be the first to leave, along with a few tent-pitchers who would begin setting up camp. No one found reason to argue.
As I reached for another sack of potatoes, my mind was elsewhere. I would be among the last to leave. That was not the result of bad luck, but a request I had made. I began to wonder why. Maybe I really was more attached to this place than other adventurous souls my age. Maybe I simply didnt fancy camping out on the ground in a small cramped tent with other people. Or maybe I didnt want to abandon you just yet. Every so often, I would glance in your direction, at a wall of plant life. You were so close, yet so far from sight.
Finally, we sent off the first group. Samuel was at the head of the troupe, leaning into the window of the first carriage, giving last-minute instructions to the leader. Then we saw him back off and the company set off. We watched them roll past the town gates and disappear into the distance, leaving tracks in the dust.
And so they were gone, and there was little to do but await their return, so we were temporarily relieved of duty. I welcomed the break from heavy lifting; physical exertion was not my thing.
My arms aching with a terrible weakness, I let myself have a seat on a crate next to some of my fellow townspeople, and took a passive role in their ongoing conversation when a few of them nodded at me. Its not quite eavesdropping if they acknowledge your presence.
Someone, I think it was the doctor, held out a water skin. I absently muttered my thanks, then took it with one of my shaking hands and drank. It wasnt as cold as I wouldve liked, having been left in the sun, but it still did wonders for my itching throat.
My attention was on the discussion. While we worked, we had been focused on the task at hand. Now, without anything to distract us, our minds were free to roam and question the reasons behind all this activity.
Really, we wouldn hafta do any o this if i wern fer tha so-called king, complained one man. His rebellious comment was met with mutters of agreement and a few curses on the royal bloodline.
Aye, said a shorter man, the Raiders were always vicious, but they left us alone. Its his fault for enraging them alright.
Dja see how tax rates wen way up afta e came?
Of course, growled a voice from behind me. I jumped before recognizing Dalton, the blacksmith. I felt in the middle of all this, despite my silence. I think I may have been adopting your philosophy of non-involvement. Only a damn fool wouldnt have made the connection. The spoiled brat is sucking us dry, and what does he offer us in return? Protection? Well, wheres the royal army now? Where are those noble knights were supposed to be so proud of?
The doctor, who had left to get more water, returned in time to catch that last bit. He mustve guessed what was being discussed, because he cut in, Its not his fault. The armys already suffered a lot of casualties. Besides, the capital is top priority. If thats taken, the entire kingdom falls.
So that means he can ignore us? Selfishly focus all of the kingdoms resources on his majestic self and leave us insignificant peasants to fend for ourselves? Dalton countered. It was getting heated. I tried to make myself small.
Tha ain fair, said the first man as he reached out to take a water skin from the doctors arms.
It could be worse, the doctor protested meekly, They could be keeping us uninformed. And then wed all be murdered in our sleep. At least theyre giving us the opportunity to prepare ourselves.
Dalton snorted. Well, I dont know why youre so loyal towards a man whos no better than any of us in anything but birth, but he hasnt done anything for me but cause trouble. Id rather be rid of him and his fancy castle he made from our money.
I winced. If he had pronounced such words publicly in the capital, he wouldve been executed for sure. I had only been there once, but it was a lasting memory. Imposing guards stood diligently at every street corner, their purpose to uphold the will of the king. I wondered if Dalton wouldve even dared open his mouth in such a setting. All the same, I admired him for speaking his mind. But then again, he had back-up.
The outnumbered doctor, seeing suspicion in the eyes of these defiant commoners, wisely backed down. His loyalty had its limits.
I downed the rest of my tepid water. If the Raiders were trying to promote anarchy, or at least contempt for our monarchy, they were doing a wonderful job.
I wondered if you honestly planned to hold out against the invaders on your own. It was a foolish idea and we both knew it, but ever the dreamer, I clung to the nearly unfathomable possibility that you would prevail. Curious to know how you were faring, I decided to pay you one last visit. I had hoped to see you empowered and ready, so that I would have been able to leave with a light heart, reassured of your safety. That was not the case.
Stepping past your obscuring hedges was always like entering another world, a secluded section of space. As soon as I set foot on your grass, I sensed that something was wrong. The brightness had faded from your magical dimension. Trying to put my finger on it, I found that your flowers seemed sad. Their heads were drooped and their backs bent. Some were lacking richness in their petals, others losing them altogether.
I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say to you. There was still an itch in my throat, a discomfort that discouraged speech. It had been lodged there ever since our last conversation. Maybe it was my guilt for having been the one to shatter your sense of security.
My knuckles tapped against the wooden door steadily. The vines, I noticed, had browned. A few of them fell away from the force of my feeble knock. They were dying, a sure sign of neglect. I wouldve rather they been wrapped possessively around the entire building, restricting access by blocking the doorknob from reach, overwhelming and sprouting large thorns with which to slice open my skin in fierce defence. I wished for them to be strong and intimidating; if they managed to repel me, there was a fair chance they would also discourage the Raiders from defiling your home. Instead, they were sagging in hopelessness, and I felt fear for you.
There was no answer. I gripped the doorknob and pushed. The door creaked open. Hello? I ventured.
Still no answer. How unexpected. Had you left your yard then? Were you planning to join us? My heart missed a beat. Then I realized you had to be around back.
Loathe to enter your dwelling without your permission, I gently brought the door back in place and released the handle before going around the building, stepping gingerly on the balls of my feet to avoid the ferns, some of which were fighting a losing battle with disease. You had left them to fend for themselves.
The tomatoes were ripe and long overdue for picking. Even when offering you gifts, your children received no attention. Why was that? Had you been eating? The questions swarmed, and I asked myself why I cared so much. Truth was, you were the first person in this friendly town I actually connected with. I was intrigued by your self-imposed seclusion, and while I could never do it myself, I wanted to see it succeed. Here was a different way of living, for a different kind of person, and here you were, miserable.
Crossing the vegetable path, I began to hear faint sobs. Smaller and a full head shorter than you, I had little trouble squeezing through the passage to the rose garden without being given away by rustling leaves.
You were kneeling in front of that one rosebush in the center, and if I strained, I could hear you talking.
Im so sorry. I dont know what Im going to do. Theyre fleeing, all of them. Most of them have already left. Of course, thats the smart thing to do. But Im still here, and Im still trying.
These Raiders sure have bad timing. I just want to be left alone. But only the strong get what they want. All I can do is cower behind my hedges. Even so, I thought Id at least try to give you what you wanted. And Im so close... so close
Its budding. Did you see? That bit of potential life. I
You paused. Its all about time. The time it takes for the flower to bloom, the time itll take for the Raiders to get here
Theres none left. Still. I promised.
Then you fell silent, though you remained motionless and deep in thought.
Treading carefully, I backed away from what seemed a private moment I would never understand. I returned to your main garden, leaving you undisturbed. Then I found some water in a corner and distributed it to the withering plants. I amputated dead branches the way you showed me how, but I feared my unpractised hands were doing it wrong. Finally, I plucked a soft tomato that looked about to fall and walked off. I wanted to do more, spurred by memories of your gardens former splendour, but like you had said, its all about time, and there was none left.
The world was empty. The only movement was my own as I traipsed down the main road and that of the wind. When I froze, silence hung heavily in the air. For a moment I was panic-stricken. Standing alone in front of the town hall, a tomato in one hand, I thought I had been forgotten.
Relief flooded though me, and I could think again. Dalton! I exclaimed, turning to see him jogging towards me.
Weve been looking for you. Samuels not happy. Youre lucky he sent me to get you; some of the others were ready to leave you behind.
I chuckled nervously. Well, I sure owe him.
You sure do. Come on. The wagons are lined up at the gate. We oughtnt to keep them waiting.
I let the gruff man lead.
As we walked, he looked back at me coolly. Whatre you hiding in your pocket, kid?
a tomato. I withdrew my hand to show him I wasnt lying.
Well Ill be. He laughed. Snack for the trip?
I really dont know. What was I to do with it?
Maybe you should give it to Samuel to as a token of your gratitude.
I tried to imagine myself offering the high official a vegetable. Difficult. Ah, well, you can have it.
He gave another chortle of amusement. Sure, why not?
I pressed it into his outstretched palm maybe a bit too hard.
Wow, this things ripe. It feels like its going to fall apart. He brought to up to his astonished face and took a bite. The juice, mixed with seeds, dribbled down his chin and hand. Huh. Its still good though.
The surprise in his voice made me smile. Yeah. Good gardener.
Did you say something?
No, nothing. Forget it, I said. I watched him take another bite. Hey
can I ask, whatre you leaving behind?
He didnt even flinch. What do you mean?
were evacuating, right? It feels so unreal. I cant exactly bring myself to believe well never be back.
Oh, were coming back.
Well, yes, but
everything will be gone.
He took his time chewing his mouthful of your tomato. Then he swallowed and said, True. I suppose I understand why some people are so reluctant to leave. A few of the younger souls are treating this like an adventure, but most boarded the carriages with grim expressions. Some were even in tears. And I dont blame them. They probably had solid, peaceful lives. In their shoes, I might be more devastated. It depends on who you are and how you look at it, I suppose.
And how do you look at it?
Oh, dont think Im enjoying this. I had no illusions of the sort. The irritation from earlier had snuck back into his voice. I was quite comfortable in my forge. I see it as needlessly troublesome. Its all the kings fault. We shouldnt have to pay the price for his bad decisions. We never had anything to do with the Raiders, so we shouldnt be getting tangled in this mess now. I think you mightve agreed with Dalton on that. Its unfair, thats what it is. But I can survive. Well rebuild, kid. Well rebuild. Rulers always mess things up, but my familys been enduring for generations. He grinned.
I couldnt help but smile back. He was more outspoken than you and even the way he walked gave off this aura of confidence, but you shared similar views on the injustice of the world. Except while he could brush it off, you werent as lucky. There would be no way for you to rebuild your magnificent garden if it was ever destroyed.
All His Majestys fault then?
Yeah. Well. Ive been talking to the good doctor, and- Here he took another bite. The vegetable was vanishing fast.
And hes got a point. Its technically the Raiders who are disturbing the peace. He licked the red-tinted liquid off his fingers. But I still dont get why we have to give such a ridiculous fraction of our earnings to a man who doesnt give anything back to us. Hey, there they are! He waved.
Sure enough, I could see the line of vehicles now, each fully-loaded behind a pair of fidgeting horses. The metal gates were open. Someone yelled at us to hurry up, and Dalton broke into a sprint. I struggled to keep pace.
As soon as I reached the last wagon, I felt that same someones arms hoist me up, and we immediately started moving. Dalton required no assistance.
I got a few remarks about being late, but no one seemed terribly bothered. I tried to make myself comfortable. I sat at the back of the wagon, legs dangling off the edge. Bringing up the rear, I could see the tracks being made by the wheels on the bumpy road. I lifted my head and surveyed all the empty buildings. There were your tall hedges, swallowing up my fence again. They really stood out. I knew you were somewhere behind that wall.
And then there was another wall separating us, as the wagon passed through the tall gates, taking us farther away. The old brick wall surrounding the entire town was not nearly as interesting or as visually-appealing as your hedges, but perhaps more useful against enemy attack. I wondered whether we mightve stood a slim chance against the Raiders if we used all of the towns resources. But no, these guys were aiming for the capital; they were on an entirely different playing field.
There was no one to close the gates behind us, so they remained open. The town seemed inviting that way, begging us to return and refill its empty streets with life, but we just kept distancing ourselves from home, abandoning a place that meant so much. Guilt clogged my throat again. I realized no one else was speaking either. Glancing to my left, I saw Dalton sitting next to me, gazing at the town wistfully. He would miss it too. We watched it disappear in silence.
All too soon, it was but a speck in the horizon.