I stared at him, arms crossed. ‘Who cares?’ I said. He always worried about what others might think. ‘Go and ask her.’
‘What if she says no?’ he muttered at the ground, shuffling his feet.
‘Then she says no. It’s not a big deal. I think you could do better, but she’s expressed an interest, so I doubt she’d decline.’
Ullr timidly walked through the marketplace, trying his best to keep his posture straight. I watched them as they talked, smiling to myself. I’d thought that particular female was a complete bitch from the way she spoke to everyone, but I was glad to have something to keep me occupied. It was the hardest part of the year. Not only in terms of water supplies and temperature, but also entertainment. We’d only been at the village for a few years at this point. We were still learning the do’s and don’ts of The Hunt and were nowhere near being anything more than muscle men for the village leaders. I wandered through the platforms covered in moss and ivy, trying to find something good to buy. I passed Gaulis, the mushroom merchant. She was a shrunken thing who never made it unclear that she was jealous of us un-ageing types. I had tried once or twice to explain to her the hardships of the Silver City and the thought of never being able to have children. I made up most of the arguments for that one as I wasn’t crazy about offspring anyway. Despite being about a hundred, which for natural humans was a good age, she had only scatterings of grey in the short, thick, black hair she kept tied up in some sort of bun. She had olive skin, barely wrinkled, and a petite beauty to her. Everyone knew she was from a different part of the land but she never fully explained where. Her eyes were the giveaway. They were shaped differently to ours. We had our small spats, but she always kept a bag of mushrooms at the side for me. I was her main customer.
Even though we lacked many sources of food, water, and other materials, the market was the place to be. It was always crowded with village folk trying to swap some Hunt meat for a new quill, or some old berries for a statuette. We knew how to make use of the things around us and we were quite content. I watched through the branches as Ullr went off into the forest with his love interest. She hadn’t been with us long but had already made quite an impression. I didn’t particularly want to say it but she was one of the most beautiful females. She had luscious brown hair that she liked to keep quite short. I was envious. Didn’t take much to make me envious, though. She had an amazing set of muscles. I had no doubt she would pulverise anyone who tried to fight her. The only issue was her attitude. Even I thought she could come off as too up herself, which was kind of rich. She knew she was good looking. That was the problem. She treated almost everyone like scum, bar a few that she tried to impress. The leaders, the better hunters and of course, the handsome ones like Ullr. I’d tried to get to know her after she’d shown an interest in Ullr. All she did was insult the way my hair looked, scoffed at me, and strutted off. I didn’t care much at the time but her personality, in general, was starting to get quite a few of the villager’s backs up.
A few days later, after I’d tried to squeeze out every possible detail from Ullr, I ran into her near the gates of the village. They were shut but not locked at this time in the year. Villagers, especially hunters, were allowed to wander in the forest quite freely without much to worry about. All Ullr had really told me, that I was interested in at least, was that she was from the Green Forest. He didn’t know why. See, if I had been in his place, instead of flirting, I would have gone into detective mode, which is probably why I’m not often in his place. Although, I had met a very nice girl at the rivers a year or two before.
‘You’re from the Green Forest?’ I asked her as bluntly as possible. I’d always been one for small talk.
‘Ugh, he told you?’ she snarled.
‘Yes. Why wouldn’t he?’
‘As soon as he’s mine, he won’t be following you around like a pathetic dog anymore,’ she smiled.
‘Okay,’ I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say. I suppose I could have gone home to think about a retort for a couple of hours.
‘You think you’re so amazing, don’t you?’ she said as I tried to walk away.
‘Not really, why?’
‘Yeah right,’ she cackled. ‘Ullr’s told me all about you. Bet he just adds to your ego, doesn’t he?’
‘Why are you asking me to agree with you?’ I said, furrowing my brow.
She walked up to me with her hands on her hips, trying to rock them from side to side as much as possible. ‘You’re pathetic.’
‘You seem to like that word,’ I said, standing my ground.
‘Whatever. You walk around here like you’re invincible, which is hysterical. I could kill you with one swipe.’
‘Yeah, good luck with that. I really can’t tell why Ullr likes you.’
‘Why not? The only one around here that has a problem is you. And that’s only because you see me as a threat.’
‘I’m sure. Ullr is going to have a great time,’ I said, edging further away from her but still keeping my aggressive stance.
‘Please,’ she said, getting closer again. ‘The moment I have a daughter and heir, I’ll bury him next to you if you like. It’s the least I can do.’
I almost burst into laughter. ‘Wait, all you want from Ullr is his offspring? You’re more stupid than I thought,’ I snorted.
For some reason, which I cannot fathom, this seemed to upset her. She launched on me, using her sharp nails to tear at my skin. I instantly tried to do as much damage to her as I could, whilst simultaneously trying to get away. I was right beforehand, I was being pulverised. In a matter of seconds, masses of pain was shooting through my flesh. I could feel every drop of blood escaping my body already. Eventually, something pulled her off me. I dragged myself away from her as we both realised what was happening. She whirled around and instantly started to fake cry.
‘Oh, it was horrible!’ she wailed. ‘He pounced on me!’
Ullr looked at me, his eyes squinted. ‘Did you?’ he asked. ‘Did you pounce on her?’
I knew what he was doing. ‘Absolutely. Pure lust, you see.’
‘Understandable. What will you do now?’ he asked her, squatting next to her.
‘Excuse me?’ she said, seeming genuinely shocked that he wasn’t killing me.
‘I know what you’ll do. You’ll go back to the Green Forest. Brilliant idea.’ He winked at me as he walked over to me.
‘Oh, please.’ She figured it out. ‘You’re taking his side?’ She laughed as she stood up, then looked at both of us. ‘This village is full of cunts. You were right, Ori. I am stupid for coming here. No men. Why don’t you two have children instead?’ she smirked.
I’d never seen Ullr launch so quickly, but he’d obviously had enough. He was clearly angry, and when his girlfriend started battering him in return, I grabbed a fallen branch and whacked her with it. She leapt backwards and wiped blood from her nose, ready to attack again.
‘Leave now, or we will kill you,’ said Ullr, darkly.
‘You might regret giving me a chance,’ she said, smiling. She climbed the wall faster than a monkey and was never seen again. I waited until I couldn’t sense her footsteps anymore, then turned to speak to Ullr. He wasn’t there.
Later that same day, Ullr walked into my small hut alone. It wasn’t much. It was a huge nest of twigs entwined together with a couple of ledges to keep my weapons and food on. I kept the plants alive so that it blended in well with the forest. I heard him walk into the centre of the room.
‘Sorry for all that,’ he said quietly.
‘You have nothing to apologise for,’ I said, turning to him. ‘It just sucks that the first person you’ve ever been interested in turned out to be a bitch.’
Ullr looked at me weirdly. ‘I don’t know if I really liked her, to be honest,’ he mumbled, sitting down on my feather woven bed.
‘Aw, come on. You must’ve done. Otherwise you would’ve seen how awful she was.’
‘No, I knew. I just wanted to like her so much. I wanted to ignore the bad bits.’
‘Because it would’ve been right. I could’ve coupled with her and everyone would stop asking me who I plan to couple up with. No one would think it wrong. I didn’t want to love the… wrong one.’
‘Well, she definitely was wrong, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Anyone else would be perfectly acceptable. Don’t be afraid of loving the wrong ones. You can spot them a mile off.’
‘There’s always rules. Even with love,’ he said, fiddling with his own fingers.
‘Fuck the rules,’ I said, putting my arm around his shoulders. ‘Love who you love. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, love her if you want. Just don’t invite me to your coupling ceremony,’ I smiled.
He smiled back. ‘You’re a fine human, Orion. I won’t have a coupling ceremony without you there.’
I’m not as dense as Ullr liked to think. I could tell he meant something else by those comments, but I knew I didn’t want to know. He would sometimes do that. A small remark or look that would make me wonder. But I never wondered for long. If he wanted to tell me, he’d tell me. It wasn’t for me to figure out. It wasn’t for me to discover. It was for him to deal with, and if I could keep our friendship as the way it was, I’d do just that.
I keep waking up to the sounds of battle. Even though I have no doubt that the Shamans are powerful, I am expecting some kind of outcome to present itself soon. It’s sad that the ones that die won’t even get to see the result. They’d have died not knowing if it was worthwhile. Just as I’m drifting off to sleep again, having any energy I had zapped by the sun, I start to dream. I don’t know if it’s because I’m outdoors again or because of the battle raging around me, but one voice penetrates through the noise. I never once had it be so clear in my dreams over the past year.
‘Orion!’ it shouts, the voice breaking as it tries to scream over the explosions. I hear panting and running footsteps. A couple of the humans in the cart with me lift their heads. I don’t even know how they have the energy to do that. The voice gets closer, running and then stopping, running and shouting my name. My whole name. Not many humans know it. I don’t actually know how I got the name. Some say it’s the first word you utter, but that would be stupid. I would probably have been named ‘food’ if that was true. Others say you simply know your name when you are born. Born through wild ways or metal ways. Again, the difference between the humans has always been a point of debate. I’ve always liked to believe that we’re not that different at all. We can still die mortal deaths, we just don’t age. We can still bleed and have an illness, we just don’t have the same bodily functions.
‘Orion!’ he shouts. I know it’s him now. I both want it to be him and dread the moment when he sees me. I hate to be seen as weak by anyone… but Ullr? I’ve always tried to be the strong one. The one who can sort the situation out. The one he can turn to if he’s in a jam.
‘Oh gods, Ori!’ he blurts out, climbing into the cart. He steps over the other groaning humans and kneels down next to me. I feel sick with how relaxed I suddenly feel. I’m too comfortable now that Ullr is here and I don’t like it. All my anger should be rising to the surface. But it isn’t. I’m glad to see him. I want him to take me away from here. I want us to go back home.
I muster any energy I can and lull my head towards him and blink my eyes open. ‘It took you… a year… to come and get me,’ I say, my voice sounding weird after not hearing it for so long.
‘I’m so sorry Ori. You have no idea how hard it was.’
My energy is returning very fast now. ‘Hard? I don’t know how hard it was?’ I spit.
‘I mean… without you. I don’t know,’ he says, looking away and scratching the back of his head. ‘I know it must have been awful in there for you but… I’m just so glad you’re alive.’
I stare at him for a second and then turn my head, looking away. ‘I’m not.’
‘If it helps, it’s only been eleven months,’ he says. I don’t react. ‘What happened in there?’ he asks quietly.
‘They cut me.’ As soon as I say the words, my mind instantly remembers how Ullr told me the exact same thing. He had been in my position for years. I mean, perhaps not my exact position but he never knew from one day to the next whether he’d be cut, toyed with, beaten, maybe even killed. He was terrified when I first found him but he didn’t once play for the sympathy vote. He never once used his experiences as an excuse for an attitude. He never had an imperious demeanour about him just because he’d suffered. He had the courage to tell me and even when he did, he gave it to me bluntly. As facts. That is what had happened to him and he moved on. I remember that day in the marsh so well.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he says again.
I turn my head back towards him. ‘It’s fine. They didn’t break me.’ I gamble a smile. It was probably one of those half smiles. Something still doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to be smiling at him, even though I’ve just convinced myself I should. ‘What happened to you?’
‘There’s time for that later,’ he says. ‘You should… rest.’
‘You of all people know I hate being told to rest. I’ll rest later. Tell me what happened after I was captured.’ I scoff at the word ‘captured’. I never thought the Savages would be able to do that to me. I drag myself up into a sitting position, leaning against the edge of the cart.
He looks at me as though he’s not sure if he should tell me or not. ‘Well… it was scary and confusing for the first few days. Wo and I hid in the trees until we were positive they were gone. Morga…’ he sighs, ‘went insane.’
‘What?’ I ask. I’d forgotten about that name. I’d forgotten about them all.
‘She couldn’t take losing Byt. They’d always been a team. She kept muttering about revenge. Most of the survivors travelled back towards the lake. We didn’t know what else to do except follow Morga. She kept saying we should find the Shamans. They’d know what to do. Anyway, when we reached the edge of the marshland, Morga took off. We tried to follow her but she screamed at us to head for the mountains. Never heard from her again.’
‘Oh. That doesn’t surprise me. Byt died,’ I say as fact.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he says, sitting next to me.
‘You don’t have to keep saying that,’ I say, leaning away from him. I notice him notice.
‘How?’ he asks, looking at the leaf covered floor, which is when I realise the sounds of the battle have faded. We must be heading across the marshland right now.
‘She was put in one of those tanks,’ I say, knowing he’ll understand.
‘Ouch,’ he says.
‘So what about the others?’ I ask. ‘Peren, Wo, Sile…’
‘Sile died in the attack.’ The image of her death comes back to me. ‘Peren also died,’ he says.
‘You killed him didn’t you?’ I ask without hesitation. He doesn’t need to answer. I know he did and I’m glad he did.
‘Wo was brilliant,’ he continues. ‘She became a substitute leader when Morga ran off. We made it to the mountains with her guidance. Had a bit of a difficult time trying to let the Shamans talk to us but after their leader, Horus, saw Wo and decided he loved her, we were all accepted.’
‘Accepted?’ I ask, trying to understand everything he just rambled about. ‘I suppose they weren’t all like that bastard back in the cave, then. Or that girl in the jungle.’
‘No. Actually, Horus had banished them, which kind of explains why they were so horrible. Apparently, that cave idiot was a friend of the leader before Horus and tried multiple times to undermine Horus’ authority. Something like that. He wouldn’t even say what the female did.’
‘I can probably imagine. So, tell me, what amazing things did you learn?’ I say with a fake excitement. It’s the tone I usually use when I can tell Ullr wants to drivel on about something that I’m not interested in. But, you know, you have to be a decent friend sometimes.
‘Well, the Shamans call the Savages Naj’ra,’ he says.
‘Sounds awful,’ I say and he smiles.
‘As it turns out, Wo is able to use Shaman powers as well,’ he says wistfully.
‘Yeah. She has some weird component in her that she shares with the Shamans. A black liquid of some sort. Horus taught her how to wield it. Maybe he can do the same for you.’
‘No,’ I say sharply and Ullr nods, almost as though he was hoping I’d reject the idea. ‘But if that’s the case, it would explain what happened in the jungle,’ I shrug, still not really believing it. If I had any sort of strength like that, I would have been able to escape the city. But I didn’t. I sat there and took it for a year and forty odd years before that.
‘Yeah. There was another human like you in the mountains. Malef. She was a war leader. Man, she was powerful. She led the first attack on the city. She eventually died but she put up a damn good fight. She was so dynamic. So beautiful.’
‘Great,’ I say, annoyed.
‘The Shamans also found a way to gift their powers to Ageless humans. Something about injecting the black liquid into the bloodstream. I’m not sure exactly how it works.’
‘That must have been what the Shaman girl was on about. Not that it matters now. Did you-?’
‘No. Seems too freaky for me,’ he says.
‘So you think I’m a freak even though I didn’t choose any of this?’
‘No, of course not. I just- ugh. I don’t know. You’re just Ori to me. You didn’t even know you had the power to do anything like that. I guess I just don’t associate you with them. It seems rather scary. I didn’t want to mess with it. I mean, look what you did.’
I stare at the ceiling. ‘So now what? The Shamans are trying to take control?’ I ask, trying to change the subject.
‘In a way,’ he sighs. ‘The Savages have been making progress on their flying mountain machines. The scattered few that are left in the mountains have locked themselves away but we can all hear them working. With the Savages at a weak point, the Shamans have decided to try and take over the city.’
‘Sounds fun. I doubt they’ll manage it,’ I say bluntly.
Ullr looks at me, eyebrows furrowed. ‘Look, I know you’ve had a rough time but why are you being so negative? Did you not see what they did in there? They’ve been killing Savages for years. They know what they’re doing and they believe we can win.’
I look him dead in the eyes. ‘Have you forgotten what the Savages do?’ I ask him. ‘You think once the Shamans have killed them all, that’ll be it? We can live in a happy land with no worries? It’s never over. The Savages are always there. It doesn’t matter if you take their city, attack their machines, even set this whole land on fire. The Savages always win.’
Ullr shuffles over to the entrance of the rocking cart. I study his muscles. His body hasn’t changed. He pulls one curtain open. ‘You call that winning?’ he says, showing me the city. It’s not a city anymore. It is rubble. Smoking rubble. There are a few buildings left but they won’t last much longer. I turn my head away and huff. ‘What happened to you?’ he asks. ‘They did break you, didn’t they?’
This taps a hidden rage in me. ‘No, they didn’t. You did,’ I say.
I see Ullr’s face start to turn red. ‘What? Because of what Peren said all those months ago?’ His voice wobbles. ‘He was lying.’
‘No, he wasn’t,’ I say and then turn, looking at Ullr to get validation. His eyes flit from my right eye to my left eye, a worried expression on his face. There it is.
‘Fine,’ he slumps back. ‘But it’s not like I ever expected anything from you. You were always my friend first. Nothing more.’
‘So all those years when I was egging you to be with Wo, you were really just fantasising about me?’ I ask with a harsher tone than I meant.
Ullr’s eyes start to glisten. He slouches against the door frame. ‘No. I never thought of you like that.’
‘Then what was it?’ I ask. Ullr stays silent, hugging his knees. ‘You know what hurts the most?’ I say, feeling more of my strength return. ‘The fact that you never told me. Others seemed to know. Why not me?’
Ullr doesn’t stop staring at the ground. ‘I don’t know. It was too hard. What was I supposed to do, Ori? I wasn’t even sure what I was feeling. I just knew that I never wanted any females. I always wanted to be around you. I never knew what that meant. I didn’t know if it was sexual or romantic or just friendly but… ugh. I just couldn’t stand you seeing me differently. I didn’t want you to know because I didn’t really know myself. Not properly.’
‘But you do know now?’ I ask.
He glances at me. ‘You’re my friend. That’s all I want, okay?’
‘Is that why you killed Peren? Because he took that away from you?’
‘Yes. The moment he smirked at my comment about Zilo, I knew it was over. I could have been quiet, but I didn’t want him to have that power over me. That the threat of him telling you could control me.’
‘I understand, but how did he even know?’ I ask, but from the look on Ullr’s face, I know this topic is over. It isn’t a discussion I have the right to talk about anymore. It is Ullr’s. I exhale. ‘I’m still upset.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘I mean, if any of that is true, why didn’t you react to my capture the way Morga did? Very offensive,’ I say with a croaky voice and a small smile as I readjust myself, trying to calm him down. He breathes with relief, I can tell.
I found that whole conversation very underwhelming. With a year (or eleven months) to do nothing but think up how that discussion might go, my brain expected it to be a lot more dramatic than it was.
He cracks a small smile. ‘I was a mess, but I knew that getting myself killed wouldn’t help you. Wo was always convinced you were dead, but I think she just said that to try and help me move on.’
‘Wow, what a bitch,’ I say.
‘She did well for herself. I guess having someone pay her romantic attention agreed with her. She ended up pairing with Horus and became another leader.’
‘Wow, she works fast,’ I say.
Ullr laughs. ‘Yeah. If she could have kids, she’d probably have a whole fleet by now.’
‘I’d expect nothing less.’ I sit up straight to face Ullr properly.
‘I missed this the most,’ Ullr says.
‘Us. Oh, and by the way, here.’ He hands me my necklace. I touch his hand as he gives it to me. All is forgiven.