Slipping in and out of consciousness, my mind did not register that someone was offering me water. I drank in large gulps, but my mind held a brown noise. Somewhat satiated, my eyes opened, though not fully. Through the slits, I noticed an old acquaintance. He was wearing the stripes of Town Commander. Revived by the water, I regained focus and realized it was indeed Lathlock.
“Is that you, Joel, my man?” he asked in a cautious tone. The tone was his signature. He sounded worried about something at all times.
“Yes,” I whispered, my voice still gratingly hoarse, even to my ears.
He was leaning over me, bent on one knee. I had been lying on my back on the scorching road, trying to sit up. He offered me a hand, which I grasped as firmly as I could. He straightened up. I tried to do the same, but my knees buckled.
“Joel, man, here, have some wheat chocolate.”
I gratefully took the bar from him and gobbled it up. I did not even chew it. For a minute I thought I was going to choke. Lathlock must have sensed it. He placed a hand on my shoulder and brought out his water bag again. I took it from him wordlessly.
“Wheat chocolate? What happened to real stuff?” I asked after I had had another sip of water. I realized my question may have sounded rude, but Lathlock appeared unoffended. He shrugged and said, “It’s all gone, man. All of it. Everyone took some with them when they left the town. The Eaglebacks from the North looted the rest.”
The flat tone was more horrifying than any words he had used. I remembered how much we would laugh at his expense because of his cautious way of speaking, but I would give anything to hear that instead of this resigned voice.
“Lathlock, what happened around here?”
“Didn’t you know, Joel, man?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” Lathlock scratched his forehead, as though bringing the memories up to the surface to narrate what happened, “we heard a rumour that the Eaglebacks were coming. Everyone panicked. I had been promoted to Town Commander just a while before. I could not leave, of course; captain and the sinking ship and all that. Sassa stayed back. So did Koop. Everyone else is gone, man.”
I stared in disbelief. This was my town, my Bafnamolos. How could this happen?
“Come on, now, there’s no use standing here in the sun. You’ll just faint again. Come on, wrap your arm around my shoulders.”
As we walked, I looked at the changed landscape before me. Bafnamolos was unrecognizable. The land was once lush green. Before me now lay a ghost town. Sadness seemed to palpitate from the earth. A deep weariness filled my heart. Where once we heard the laughter of children, there was emptiness and metal rods – skeletons of buildings. Where once lovers met, there was emptiness and metal rods. Where I first kissed Fragiara, my promised mate, there was emptiness. And metal rods.
Fragiara. My promised. She was to be mine, as was ordained. But I had betrayed her. As penance, I was ordered out of the town. At first, truth be told, I was relieved. I loved Fragiara, that was certain. But I always had the urge to leave this town. A curiosity to find out what was beyond the borders of Bafnamolos.
While I was gone, Fragiara married another man. I heard he was a gypsy, and he carried her off on great travels with him. She could not be faulted, for I had betrayed her first. Only when I was away did I realize how much she meant to me. I would whisper her name to the breeze every night, hoping it would be carried to her. When I heard about her elopement, I felt truly happy for her, with only a tinge of sadness for having lost her forever. She deserved it after all. She deserved better than me. I never stopped whispering her name though.
Lathlock took me to his quarters. Sassa was in the office, doing some paperwork. She appeared startled to see me.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out.
“Nice to see you too, Sassa.” I replied.
Sassa and I had a strange relationship. She was a friend, and a good one too. But she was a rude woman. On most days, I could not stand her.
“What brings you here now, Joel?” she asked in a more even tone.
“It was time for me to return, that’s all.”
“Surely you know there’s nothing left here.”
“I do now. Your Town Commander was just filling me in.”
I pulled a chair, while Lathlock brought me some more wheat chocolate and water. Sassa sat next to me and placed her hand on mine. “I’m sorry about Fragiara,” she said quietly.
“Thanks. I am sorry about Noah.”
Her eyes widened again, “How do you –“
I placed my other hand on hers to silence her. I knew her well enough to know when she would burst into tears. Noah was her promised, her beloved. While Noah had always behaved courteously towards her, I always suspected he did not return her love fully. A week ago, I received news that Noah had married another girl; in essence, Noah had behaved a lot like me. It was this news that prompted me to return to Bafnamolos. For all the word I received, I did not know the town had been so thoroughly abandoned.
“Who are these Eaglebacks?”
“They’re from the North,” Lathlock replied, his voice taking on that flat tone again, “Some of us worked for them. Eventually they decided, there was a lot more profit in silencing us. All of us. So they decided to simply take what they always felt entitled to. Wrongly, of course, but who’s to do the explaining?”
I pondered over this. I could not think of any response, so I stupidly repeated, “And they all left? Each one of them?”
Beside me, Sassa sighed loudly and said, “I’m surprised what your news bearers bring to you and what they don’t. Such misplaced priorities when it comes to gossip, isn’t it?”
It stung. She was right. I thought of all the times I had believed that of all people in the town, Sassa could never be right – not about one single thing. As each bit of news was brought to me, about the wars in other parts of the world, about a distant time in history, I realized Sassa had always been right. It was I who had been wrong each time.
When I didn’t respond, she continued, “You can stop feeling bad about what you did, Joel. Not because it wasn’t wrong. It was. But when the threat came, strangely it was exactly what everyone else did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Prikarius committed suicide. His promised’s father broke his word and married her off to someone else. He couldn’t take it. Paula’s promised got on to a caravan. I heard he reached a port and boarded a ship and sailed off. Paula dug a hole in the ground and closed her eyes. I heard the hole transported her to some other town, a lusher one. Looks like everyone thought it was okay to leave their promised ones in the lurch.”
Once again, I had no response.
“So why did you really return, oh great Joel?” she asked.
“This is my town.”
“Would you have returned had you known there was nothing left here? No one for you to return to?”
I did not know. Why had I really returned? What did I really want?
“You know, the Eaglebacks are going to come back,” Lathlock spoke up, “None of us will stay back then. There’s no point in being martyrs. We should’ve left with the others. We were hoping we would actually find you, in whichever town you had been sent off to. We have a few weeks. A month tops.”
“Is there no way to fight them?”
“There are five of us and a thousand of them. They have weapons and mutant eagles the size of sphinxes. What do you think?” Lathlock replied.
“Five? I thought only Sassa, Koop and you were here.”
“And me,” said a voice from the doorway. I looked up to find Amy, the woman I had betrayed Fragiara for. She looked frail. There was some grey in her hair. But her eyes shone and she reflected none of the resigned attitude I saw in Sassa and Lathlock.
“But we still cannot fight. We will leave the town,” she said, as if plucking my thoughts and replying to them.
“Why did you come back, Joel?” Sassa asked again.
“Because I was homesick!” I cried, “Who are these Eaglebacks! Why are they destroying my town, the only home I’ve known!”
“You can’t die here, Joel,” Lathlock responded, “It isn’t worth it.”
Sassa got up and sat at the chair behind the desk. Amy went back to the room she had emerged from. Lathlock walked to the front of the office.
I stared for a long time at the untouched wheat chocolates in front of me.
Unedited. Please excuse typos, if any. Please do share your thoughts. Thanks!