I’m hiding behind the counter as the noise grows and the ground shakes. Mother comes through the door and shuts it behind her. I watch her press her body against it as an unconscious attempt to keep them at bay. Terror is written in her eyes, in her furrowed brow. She doesn’t know I’m watching her. I see her through a hole in the wood front of the counter. She shakes her head and the terror is gone. Her hands smooth the front of her dress as she pulls her shoulders back and raises her chin.
“Aurelius?” She calls coming around the corner. I stand in front of her. I’m only ten years old, but the top of my head reaches her chin. I look up into her resolutely steady eyes. She places her hands on my shoulders, places a palm against my cheek. She is studying my face. I don’t understand why. It’s as if she is afraid she will never see me again. The army doesn’t take boys, does it?
Suddenly she pulls me tight against her. I have to turn my head to avoid being suffocated against the soft material. The rumble is quieting again, retreating. I feel her bend forward, her mouth against my ear. “You will do great things, Aurelius. I love you.” Why is she telling me that? She pushes me back as the sound of footsteps approach the door. I have no choice but to cower below her as her hand pushes down on my head.
The door opens as Philo rounds the corner and yips at the stranger. I hear, rather than see him get kicked. There is a solid thud, one sad yip, another harder thud as Philo hits the wall, and a final softer thud as his body settles on the floor. I see Mother flinch, but she says nothing. I peak through the hole in the counter front. Two men walk around the store, looking at Mother’s stock. They even taste some freely. I reach for the dagger that stays under the counter. It’s the only weapon under the counter I can handle. Mother pushes my hand away.
I look back at the men. They both have a harsh look. Dirt covers their skin from the time spent traveling across our dry planet. They don’t look like bad men. Their eyes aren’t mean. They are smiling and laughing as they walked through the store. One is wearing leather armor over soft under clothes. There is a shield on his back and a sword on his belt. The hilt of the sword looks old, worn from years of sweaty palms. The other is wearing a blue silk tunic. The fabric looks rich and smooth. I’ve never seen anything so fine from this short a distance. They are mostly worn from those in distant cities.
The one in the silk carries no weapons. He wears no jewelry, save the crown atop his bald head. The crown is thin and fits perfectly. I look closer and think I see daggers among the flames molded by the smith. He bites into a pirpusus and a dribble of purple juice slips from his mouth. He sighs and wipes the juice away.
“Will you join us?” He asks turning to Mother.
“I must stay and tend my shop.” She responds. His smile fades and he shakes his head, making a tsk sound.
“That is not the answer I wanted to hear.” He starts to walk toward the counter. I feel like my heart is beating harder than it’s ever beat before. Even more than it has after running around with Philo. At the thought of my felnus laying somewhere on the floor unmoving, tears spring into my eyes and blur my vision. I wipe them away quickly and try not to make a sound. The man is too close to the counter for me to see through the hole. “It would be easier-”
His sentence is cut off by the door flying open. A whirl of dust comes in at the same time as a boy that looks to be my age.
“Father!” He demands attention as soon as his feet have hit the hard floor of our shop. “One of the men said this is a pirpusus shop. I want some.” He states staring boldly at his father in a way I would never look at my mother.
“Aniketos, child.” The man comes into view again and rests his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “I would have come to get you.” The man sighs as the boy stares up at him with angry eyes. ” Of course you know I can’t deny you anything.” He takes a hand of the boys shoulder and swoops it over the room. The boy’s face widens into a smile as he turns and tries almost every item we have. The man moves back out of sight and I hear his hands drop on the counter.
“Forgive my son the intrusion. He is a high-spirited child who does not have a mother to teach him softness.” My mother’s face is stone.
“No apology needed.” I want to move, to stand. The boy has also moved out of my sight. All I can see is the man in leather resting his hand on his sword hilt. There is a moment of silence. All that I hear is a crunch and slurp. I assume the boy is eating a raw pirpusus. I’m watching Mother’s face for any sign of what is happening, but it doesn’t change.
“What an ugly felnus!” I hear the boy, Aniketos, say from the other side of the counter. It feels hard to swallow. Suddenly mother turns her back to me and I now can’t see past her.
“Was the fruit good?” She asks in a sweet voice. I resist the urge to peak my head out from behind her, but she has gone over this with me so many times since the war began that I dare not.
“Are you hiding something?” Aniketos asks instead of answering.
“Of course not.” Mother says. I’m surprised how gently and easily the lie came out. Mother never lies.
“Father. I think she’s hiding the best fruits back there.” I’m not even sure why I’m this scared. I just know if they find me something awful is going to happen.
“Every fruit and product I have is there in front of you.” She says with a steady voice pointing toward the shop displays.
“Well let’s take a look.” The man says. I see Mother’s body tighten. She backs further toward me. I curl into even more of a ball to avoid being stepped on. It would seem she will still try to hide me even if there is nowhere to hide. I am completely in the corner now, her skirts falling into my lap.
Time seems to stand still for a moment. I breathe in and her scent makes me close my eyes. I’m not sure why this is happening and I’m not sure what it means, but as I breathe in her familiar scent, memories flood my mind. She’s looking down at me with her arms wrapped around me. We’re laying in my bed as she tells me stories of her childhood. Her smile is beautiful, I remember thinking. Her eyes are filled with love. We are all there is in the world. No one else matters, just her and me.
Suddenly her skirts are whisked away and I’m brought back into life. Another silence fills the air.
“My son! You were right. She was saving the best fruit.” His strong hands lift me to my feet and I find myself staring into cold eyes. They had looked so warm before, but with them only inches away something is very wrong with them. I feel the insides of my stomach twist.
“Please!” Mother says softly, placing a hand on the man’s forearm. “He’s all I have.” The army doesn’t take boys. Mother said I would be safe. I look up into her kind eyes and see more fear there than ever before. Could she really have lied to me? The man looks down at her hand, then back at her.
In that moment the very air changes. The room seems to darken. The arm she was touching lashes out so fast I almost am not sure if saw it, but the crack in the air and Mother’s body falling to the floor is confirmation it happened. I try to run to her, but his other hand grips my arm tight.
“You dare presume to touch Deimos, God of all!” His voice sounds like thunder. Mother doesn’t move. She looks so weak and helpless. Anger fills me as I look back at the man who calls himself god. I yell and shove him as hard as I can. He stumbles and falls against the wall, losing his grip on my arm.
“Remarkable.” I hear whispered as I reach Mother’s side.
“Mother!” I say and shake her shoulder. She has to wake up. Tears blur my sight again as I look at her face. Her soft, beautiful face is now red and turning purple by her eye. Her eyes open and she blinks as she looks at my face. She reaches an unsteady hand up to touch my cheek. I am yanked to my feet by the back of my shirt. Mother is pulled up by her arm. The man shoves us toward the door. As we pass the man in leather I’m confused. A smile is spread across his lips, but his eyes look sad.
We are pushed through the door into the unforgiving sun. Mother shields her eyes with her free hand before being shoved to the ground.
“Hold him.” Deimos says shoving be toward the man in leather who complies quickly. I look around what was once our empty front yard. There are thousands of leather-clad men standing restlessly. Some of their faces are swollen, cut, or bruised. Some are smiling in anticipation. The boy steps leisurely out of the shop with his pirpusus still in hand.
“This is what happens when you defy the god of all!” The man shouts for all his men to hear. He picks Mother up by her throat. She struggles, her hands smacking the hand tightening around her airway, reaching out to grab at the man’s face. He doesn’t even need to turn his head, her hands simply can’t reach. Her feet are desperately trying to find the ground, a stump, anything to stand on.
“Stop it!” I yell struggling against my own captor. “Stop it!” I say again driving my elbow into the man’s groin. He let’s go and I run. I feel the tips of his fingers against my back, but he is too slow. I almost reach the man when his free hand shoots out and catches me dead in the center of my forehead. I fall back against the hard earth. Stars dance in my eyes and my vision is fuzzy. When it starts to sharpen, I see Mother’s eyes in her blue face. Her hand is reaching toward me.
“No!” I yell again as the sounds of her choking and trying to draw air fill my ears. I start to stand and arms wrap around me, pulling me from the ground and keeping my arms at my sides. I kick and yell. I struggle with everything I have, but it does no good.
“Mother!” I yell over and over. They can’t do this. They can’t hurt her. After what feels like an eternity, the man’s hand opens and Mother’s limp body falls to the ground in a pile. My voice is hoarse. My throat hurts. My eyes burn. “No!” I try to yell but it comes out as breath and nothing more.
The man in leather let’s me go and I run to her side. I shake her shoulder. Her eyes are open and bloodshot. They don’t move and I can’t see the love in them anymore. Her face is purple and the bruises on her neck make my own neck feel tight. I whisper to her.
“Mother. Wake up.” She lays motionless. I pick up her limp hand and put it on my cheek. It feels cold against the warmth of my skin. “Please wake up.” I beg again. I hold her hand against my cheek and it does nothing. Tears fall freely down my cheeks. She can’t be gone.
“Bring him with us.” I hear from somewhere behind me. “Aniketos needs a friend his age.” I’m lifted off the ground, gently this time. My mother’s hand falls on the ground, still stretching toward me. I look up at the man in leather as he cradles me in his arms. He stares forward. I look back at Mother’s outstretched hand and stretch my own toward it. You’re going to do great things. Her voice echos in my head.
“I’ll never forget.” I whisper to her lifeless body. The man in leather looks down at me with pity in his eyes as we walk into the crowd of men and they obstruct my last view of Mother.