When Liam Joined the Band
This is a story fragment that we found on the first trip to Artistos. It is told by Mayah, Akashi’s wife, and is from long before the story told in The Silver Ship and the Sea started. Unlike many of the tales we’ve found there, this may not have been polished by years of storytelling. At least, it is far more personal than most of the community stories. There is another version of this, which may be the one that entered the mythos of the West Band. In that story, Akashi is not conflicted….
The child was no more than three. I watched him, looking for differences between him and us.
I sat on the end of a log, with Akashi standing beside me. The child, Liam, stood solemnly by the communal fire, a few feet between him and any of us. It was the band’s first night out of Artistos, and we had pulled hard all day up the High Road. Sweat ran in small rivulets down the boy’s bronze skin, and still he held his palms out to the fire as if he needed its heat.
I wanted to warm him in my lap even though a week ago we had tried to kill him and all of his kind. We had almost succeeded. He and five others lived.
Some of the band hated him. As if children between two and six could form up as an army and send killing machines at us. As if this babe would develop wings and fly from camp, or extra arms, or flex his fingers and produce knives that have been hidden under his skin.
We had faced all of those things from his kind. A third of our number had died. We had not known peace for so long I couldn’t remember it, and I didn’t yet smell it in the stances or conversations of the band.
His eyes were deep blue, and the reflected fire in them looked the sun rising through the sky in early morning. If I saw a difference between him and us it was simply beauty. His limbs had all the right proportions, his skin a deep sheen with no scratches or bruises or old scars from thorns. His muscles were more defined than any of our children at three. Perhaps more than any of ours at any age. Even though he had been in hiding, and must have been hungry, the only thing that showed deprivation was the way he kept his palms open and close to the fire, growing red with the heat.
He did not show his pain, but he must feel it.
I curled my arm around my mate’s leg, noticing how taught his calf muscles had bunched, the way his weight was planted on the ground as if it he forced himself not to move. When I looked up at Akashi, he too watched the boy. I could see the curve of his jaw and then his eyes, but from this angle, I couldn’t see the look in them.
I glanced again at the silent, stoic boy. “Sweetheart?” I whispered to Aksahi.
“Therese and Steven took in two of them.”
I did not have to tell him the subtext. That we led the band and we should take the child. The others had gone to leaders. Therese and Steven led us all. A girl-child had gone to Paloma who healed us all.
We should take this child.
But Akashi just stared at Liam, his jaw tight, and I didn’t whisper anything else. Something had turned inside me as the boy stood, and I didn’t want any anyone else to take him. I might fight anyone else who tried. Yet if I pushed Akashi to tell me no, I would not be able to change his mind. I was not – then – a co-leader in the way that Therese was, or a true leader like Nava, later. I was simply Akashi’s bride. Like Paloma, I had so far proved barren. That happened to many of us, maybe one or two in ten, and so we should be welcoming this perfect boy.
I watched around the fire, and saw at least two of the other childless women looking at the boy with curiosity.
I glared at them.
I rose and took his hand and led him to a sleeping tent. For now, he had been assigned to sleep with Old Maggie, since she lived alone in a large wagon. Two of the men had helped her fashion a small cage for him, so that he would be safe. He had slept there two nights already, and no harm had come to him or from him.
When Maggie took him from me, she shook her head and muttered. “No good can come of this.”
“Of course it can,” I replied.
“He brings back too many memories,” she said.
“They will fade.”
“Never,” she hissed, and took the silent child in with her, presumably to shut him in his cage for the night.
I went back deep in contemplation, hoping for a private conversation with Akashi. But by the time I returned, he was already in conversation with three of his Council, plotting out the route we could take into the mountains. I listened quietly. When Akashi and I married, I became an automatic member of the Council, but that night I had nothing to add, and my thoughts drifted over and over to Liam who slept in a cage.
Perhaps it is good that time passed. The moon Destiny had risen in the sky and hung bright overhead by the time Akashi took my hand and led me to the wagon. Even then, he did not want to talk. As soon as we went inside, he folded me in his arms and began to knead the stiff muscles of my back with his fingers. We had not made love since before the last battle, and it felt good and strange to be so close to him, to smell the smoke of the fire and his sweat. I leaned into him, moaning, but my back stayed stiff and even though he felt like love, I stepped away and turned to face him. “We should take that child,” I said.
He stiffened immediately. “We will have one of our own someday.”
“You are choosing not to understand.”
“I can’t do this.” He turned away from me and reached up into one of the cupboards above our head and took down a skin of water, pouring a cup and staring out of our small window, even though there was nothing to see but darkness.
“Someone needs to tame him, make him one of us.”
“I cannot forgive them yet.”
He meant the altered beings who flew down and demanded our land, and then killed so many of us. His own father had been skewered by a man with a sword for a hand. The child’s people had been liars. They had been bringers-of-pain-and-weapons. I put a hand on Akshi’s shoulder and kept my voice low. “If he sleeps in a cage long enough, he may become an animal.”
The muscles under my hand rippled, like those of a dog trying to cast off a flea.
I let my hand fall and turned away.
That night, we slept close but not cuddled. Moonlight fell on his face, which looked troubled even in sleep. His chest rose and fell with his breath, and he muttered unintelligible things from time to time. For the first time since our marriage, I wondered if I could obey him.
Before dawn, I woke to hear a small cry come from the direction of Maggie’s wagon. I knew immediately that it was something to do with the boy, and went out still in my nightclothes to hear her telling Khani that when she woke, the cage was empty. I peered into the wagon to see that the bars had been shattered, two of the stout wooden sticks snapped in half.
Akashi could not have opened the cage that way. Not from inside, not with so little room for leverage.
Liam had revealed one of the differences between him and us.
Strong or not, he was still three, and couldn’t possibly hide from us for long. I raced back to our wagon and dressed, alerting Akashi who cursed (he never cursed) and thus we were the first to follow his trail.
It turns out he was not only strong but fast. He has taken the main road back down, perhaps hoping to find the other children. Even though Akashi and I are two of the fastest members of the west band, it took up a long time to find him. We might have had to go all the way to Artistos if he hadn’t fallen and sprained an ankle. He sat in the middle of the path, clutching a rock in his tiny fist, staring at the forest. A demon dog bayed, and then another, the pack going away from us now that we had arrived.
Akashi stopped and stared at Liam.
Another few moments and he would surely have been dead. The look on my beloved’s face assured me that Akashi wished we had been slower. I could not hate Akashi for that, but I could not hate Liam for existing.
I left my husband’s side and went to the boy. We did not share a language, but he let me pluck the rock from his hand and pick him up. Akashi looked at me. “This is the price for you?” he asked.
“This is for the band,” I said.
He stared at me, and at the boy, for a long time. And then he smiled and said only, “I chose the right woman.”
And then the other members of the band started to catch up with us. I kept the boy in my arms as we walked back up the road, and the others followed, surrounding us but giving some distance as well.
There would be work to do.
stream created August 30th, 231.