I know it's been a few months since I posted the last of these, but such is the life of a writer, one as disorganized and at times, lazy as this one. But be that as it may, here is the next chapter of the Custodian.
Previous Chapters can be found here:
##The Custodian, Chapter 5
She had cried for so long, her eyes felt full of sand, dry, burning. She’d hid herself from everyone since the Ceremony, telling the Matron that she’d been sick the night before, that she must have eaten something that disagreed with her. Helgina sent her to her quarters and let her be the rest of the day, but now that time was running short. She had to get herself together. She ran a bath and climbed in, her tight muscles hurting with every move. She made the water hot enough to scorch and watched her skin turn pink, thinking of the Fire River at the Gorge, of how much it would hurt to feel that. The way Cal looked at her at the end, she couldn’t get over it, the coldness in it. It was as if he didn’t know her. She was angry at him for what he did, but she understood it too; knew he couldn’t strike at Greer. She couldn’t have done it either, she didn’t think, but she’d have found a way to say goodbye to him, if that’s all she could do.
She heard a knock on her door and groaned. She wasn’t ready to see anybody, not yet. She dried herself quickly and donned an evening robe, a pale green silk thing the Matron insisted all the initiates wear at night. She’d examine them to make sure they hadn’t put on anything under it either, getting them into the habit of it, she’d tell them. Sorana’s nipples poked out through the thin fabric, making her skin there feel tender, almost as if she were being tickled, only different. She remembered the one time Cal’s hand accidentally brushed against her breast and the strange ache she felt everywhere in her, a different kind of tingling than anything she’d ever felt before, and how they both stared at each other afterwards, embarrassed. She felt heat on her face now just remembering it.
The knock was louder this time, and she rushed to open the door to the Matron, only it wasn’t her. It was the hateful Custodian. She stumbled backwards away from him, feeling the chill on her barely covered skin. The man dipped his head and raised his hands to her, palms up, as if in an offering. Her breath caught in her throat.
“What is it?” she finally squeezed out. The man shut the door softly behind him and leaned on it, arms crossed over his chest.
“It’s nothing bad, Sorana, I swear, but I do need to talk to you, in private.” His eyes scanned the room, as if he were worried someone would jump out from behind the bed or her dresser, the only furniture in the cramped space. She stared at him, not understanding. The man sighed and then threw a small bag at her feet, the cloth bag landing with a soft thud on the hard floor.
“Get changed, please,” he said very quietly, and pointed to the still-open door to the bathroom.
She didn’t move. Couldn’t make her feet do anything. She didn’t want to go to the Gorge, and she couldn’t think of anything she’d done that would have earned her that.
“I haven’t done anything, sir, I swear,” she whispered. Gallard took a step to her and she froze. The man leaned his face close to hers, close enough that she felt the stubble on his cheek brush against her skin.
“It’s not what you think, Sorana, I swear it isn’t, but I can’t tell you any more here. You’re being watched. Please, get changed and I’ll explain everything. If you want me to bring you back here afterwards, I swear on Calysta that I will do so without argument, or may the Light take me.”
She gasped. This wasn’t the sort of oath one could back out of, not with all the whisper trees around them. She nodded and ran to the bathroom. She wanted to laugh when she opened the bag. The soft black trousers and tunic were the sort of thing she’d always wished she could own, the things boys were allowed to wear. She pulled them on and was surprised that they fit her body. It was as if somebody took the time to tailor them for her and she couldn’t think of why anybody would do that for an initiate. She pulled out a pair of soft flat shoes and put those on, wriggling her toes to make sure they fit. They did.
Gallard looked her over briefly and nodded then pointed to the door. She walked on ahead of him, expecting to run into the Matron or the other girls, but the hallway was empty. Gallard took her by the elbow when they got to the stairs and whispered to her to stay still. She did. He went on ahead of her, then pointed for her to follow, finger on his lips. They didn’t make a sound that she could hear, though her heart was thumping in her chest so loudly, she was certain someone would come running. She tried to take steadying breaths, tried calming herself, but she was simply too afraid and just thinking about it made her heart beat even faster.
They crossed the empty lawn and into the shadows of the brush leading into the woods. Gallard pushed her to the ground and she almost yelped at the surprise of it, only his large hand covered her mouth as she hit the ground and no sounds came out. She tried to pull his hand away but he wouldn’t budge. Suddenly, she was terrified that he brought her out here to hurt her. She flailed against him and when she couldn’t think of anything else, she sank her teeth into the flesh of his palm, tasting the salt of his lifeblood. The man didn’t flinch or move even then, but he looked down at her with a strange smile on his face.
“Now if you’re done trying to kill me, I’m going to tell you what this is all about, but I can’t let you go yet, in case you scream. We can’t afford to be discovered. I’ll make it brief,” he said. All she could do was nod, so she did.
She watched his face as he told her who he was and what he planned. Told her about Cal’s birth and how he came to be the Custodian to protect him, only he screwed up. He thought he could convince them to stop the Ceremony of the Forge, that there wasn’t a need to do it anymore, but the old masters were too fond of the tradition to let it go. Told her too about Cal’s mother and how he had to let her go after she was tried, that it was the only way to keep her safe. She saw the regret or guilt on his face when he told her that, his eyes looking past her. She put her hand gently on his, asking him with her eyes to let go of her and after a small moment, he did. She pulled herself up to sit and he crouched in front of her, his head bowed slightly.
“He loves you, I think,” Gallard said very softly. “What I’m saying is he won’t run if you aren’t safe--, if I can’t get you out of here. I don’t know how you feel about this place or what they are training you for, so I won’t presume that you’d want to run, but I owe it to him to ask.” He swallowed hard and then looked at her, his face surprisingly vulnerable.
“I’ll run.” She couldn’t think of anything else she could say just yet, too many other thoughts jumbled in her head, but she knew that she’d run if it would save Cal from the Gorge.
Gallard stood and offered her his hand. “Then we run,” he said. He turned her to face him and gripped her tightly by her shoulders. “What’s going to happen in a moment will be scary for you. You’ll want to close your eyes and just breathe. If you feel any pain, and you might, know that it’ll be brief, and I am not letting go of you. It’s the only way to get you out of here fast enough for them not to notice. Tell me when you’re ready.”
She wasn’t, but she didn’t feel she had any choice, so she nodded and closed her eyes.
She felt something warm and wet wrap around her, like a mist that rises from the sea grasses when the water cycle comes too early, only she didn’t feel the wetness of it on her skin. She still felt Gallard’s hands on her, but they felt cold and hard against her flesh, and then ice shards stabbed into her skin in all the places where his hands weren’t touching her, too many for her to block. She wanted to scream at the pain of it, but couldn’t find her voice. A whisper of something soft on her cheek let her know that she wasn’t being stabbed at anymore, and when she opened her eyes, she was looking up at the bluest sky she’d ever seen. It didn’t make any sense for it to be morning already or for her to be in a place where the sky could look like that. The sky at the city always looked white or gray, and sometimes purple, but that was only when someone displeased Calysta enough for her to unleash the fire from the sky. She blinked and sat up, looking around herself, not quite believing that she wasn’t in a dreamscape of some kind.
She was surrounded by trees that were covered in bright green leaves, but they weren’t speaking to each other. There wasn’t that feeling of being watched she’d always had in the city. She put her hand on the grass and was surprised that it felt the same, prickly at the tips of the blades but soft when she put her palm on it flat.
“How’re you feeling?” She jumped up at the voice, looking for it. She saw him then, the Custodian, off to the side of the little clearing, tending to a small flame.
“You slept for longer than I thought you would, so you’re probably starving. I’ll have some food ready for you in a little while. There is a stream just past those two pines, if you need to wash up.” He said it all without looking at her, and it surprised her how unlike him he seemed. There was nothing imposing about his manner, nothing of the Custodian they’d always feared.
“Where are we?” She stood, looking over at the fire. She could smell the smoke of it, but not what he was cooking.
“A short stop, Sorana. I can’t tell you any more than that.”
She took her time at the stream, letting her mind go still. She couldn’t wrap her head around that man being Cal’s father, though looking at him now, she saw it in those dark eyes, only Cal’s always looked at her with kindness and something else that made her feel flushed everywhere. The Custodian’s were cold, no light in them. She ran her hands through the clear water, watching the sunlight make golden lines on the pebbles below. She found it strange that she wasn’t afraid, and she hoped she could trust it.
Gallard was leaning against a massive tree, his legs crossed at the ankles, his eyes closed. She walked over slowly, cautiously, not wanting to startle him. She could smell something meaty and rich when she neared the flames and her stomach grumbled loudly. Gallard chuckled, and it startled her so much, she froze.
“Am I truly that scary?” He looked up at her, his eyes boring into hers. She didn’t want to offend him, but it didn’t seem right to lie to him either.
“It’s alright, kid. I get it. Come eat. I promise not to do anything terrible to you while I’m feeding you. No reason to waste good food, you know?” He smiled and pointed to the large bowl covered in tin. She picked it up and forced herself to sit next to him while she ate. The Custodian was a fantastic cook. She was almost done when she finally looked at him again and the way he was watching her made her want to smile. There was something of the old dock master from her village in his face, strange old Fisk, the man who’d taught her to read when nobody was looking. Something mischievous and oddly young, an amusement that didn’t feel like an insult.
“I don’t think you are as scary now as you were to me before, Sir,” she said, wanting to apologize for earlier.
Gallard shook his head at her, looked down. “I know what I am, kid. You’re not wrong. How I got to it really doesn’t change a thing. Doesn’t change what I’ve done, so don’t feel bad. A friend of mine is on his way to meet us. He’ll take you from here and keep you safe while I get the boys. Get some sleep if you can. The kind of journey you’ll be making with Cy will take a lot out of you….” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, dismissing her.
“Can I ask you something?”
The man sighed, but nodded.
“Cal…. How’d he take it? I mean when you told him you were, you know….” She stopped herself, feeling like an idiot.
Gallard looked at her for a moment, as if considering how much he wanted to tell her. Then said very quietly, “He challenged me to a blood fight, and he was right to do it.”
It seemed unlike Cal to challenge anybody, least of all this man. He had to know he’d lose, even if he’d agreed to something like that, which she couldn’t see him doing. Gallard was watching her.
“I granted it,” he said simply and closed his eyes again.
She knew somehow, felt it, that what he agreed to wouldn’t be a fight, but a surrender. He meant to let his son kill him. The vision of it blurred behind her eyes, quick and strangely quiet, but she could see the details of it, could feel the slight chill in the air as Cal stood in front of a very large riverstone house with his sword out, blood dripping from the edge, only she couldn’t see anybody else there, couldn’t see Gallard. She shook her head, but the vision stayed with her. She noted a new scar on Cal’s back, and his hair was longer. He stood so still he didn’t look like he was breathing, and nothing around him made any noise at all.
“Do I want to know what you just saw?” Gallard’s voice took her out of the vision so fast, she jumped. She shook her head, not looking at him, not wanting to tell him.
“All right.” He stood. “Does it always happen the way you see it?”
She didn’t know about all of them, but the ones she did happened exactly like that. Then it hit her. This man knew she’d had these visions before, must have known for a while, and yet, here she still was. It didn’t make any sense that the Custodian would allow someone like her to live among them.
“My wife, Cal’s mother, was like that. I didn’t go prying through your mind with serums or anything. I just know what to look for, is all. Your secret is safe with me, and you don’t need to tell me anything. Frankly, I’d rather not know. No need to worry about things I can’t change. Only--” He took a breath then swallowed. “If you do see something happening to Cal, I’d beg of you to please tell me that.”
She nodded, hoping that what she already did see meant Cal would be alright, and maybe it wasn’t Gallard’s blood on his sword. She hoped it wasn’t. Didn’t think anyone deserved to die by the hand of their own child, no matter what they’d done. There was a wrongness to it that she couldn’t explain to herself, but she felt it everywhere in her.
She heard a branch break and then Gallard was running through the clearing, arms out, then wrapping around a tall man garbed in the drab grays of a herder. It surprised her to see this man who’d never shown any emotion toward anyone before be so open with his friend, and she filed this along with other curiosities about him, something to tell Cal about so maybe he’d take that challenge back after all. She suddenly wanted him to see his father as he was here in this clearing, and not in that dreadful uniform. See him as someone who made fires to cook on, someone who hugged his friends, someone who smiled in a warm, curious way.
She watched the two men for a long time, and finally she let herself drift off, thinking of the boy with Gallard’s eyes, the boy who threw his sword at Greer’s feet, and then that same boy holding a bloodied sword in his hand, looking as if he’d meant to do whatever he’d done, as if he were all right with it.
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