Atop the Tower

Once the flood of townsfolk mostly dried up, Reyan grew bored with the professor’s company. She wondered what Avalina was up to. She wanted to visit the horses.

She found her friend in the cool twilight of the stables. She was busy pitching hay and repeatedly blowing an errant strand of hair from her red face. When she saw Reyan watching her, she stuffed the tines of her pitchfork into the pile of hay and leaned her elbow on its handle. She wiped the long strand of hair back, fixing it in place with sweat. “How’s Rowe been treating you?”

“It’s fine. It’s good. Your people seem nice.”

“Do they now?” Avalina looked at her skeptically. “Must be nice traveling with the professors.” She took a deep breath and went back to moving hay.

“I mean, no one’s yelled at me or chased me away or anything like that.”

Between grunts Avalina said, “Sure. But I bet they haven’t been friendly either. Anyone offer you food? Show you the river? Take you to the tower platform?”

“Someone brought us lunch,” Reyan offered.

“They brought the professors lunch.”

It was true. There were three lunches wrapped in three cloth bundles. While Sevv thanked the boy for bringing the food, Parr divided his portion in two without so much as a word, and Kavi stepped into his truck and got an extra plate for Reyan, laughing and joking as he’d done so. No one had told him to do it, so she hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. But now that Avalina mentioned it, she remembered the boy’s smile grew wiggly and thin when he saw the food he’d brought for the professors placed before her.

“Do you need any help,” Reyan asked. Avalina looked around for something that needed doing. “With the horses I mean. Anything I can do to help with them?”

Avalina smiled. “No. All done grooming the horses for the day. But a couple more stalls need to be mucked out and have the straw replaced. You want to help with that?” When Reyan didn’t immediately answer, Avalina shrugged, “It’s not as nice as grooming the horses, but it’s something to do, and the sooner I get it done, the sooner I can get out of here.” She smiled, “Then I could walk you down to the river or up to the tower platform. Maybe offer you some food.”

At the other end of the stables, they heard an angry voice. The words were fast and muddled and hard to make out aside from the words, “told,” “you,” and “stupid.” There was a slap and a whine of protest.

Reyan held as still as a deer and listened.

“That’s just Benj being Benj. Come on. Let’s get done and get out of here.”

Avalina disappeared into a nearby room and returned with a work apron for Reyan. They swept out the old straw and replaced it with fresh straw. They brought in hay and water. It was hard work for Reyan, who had never really done anything besides tidying her room, which had almost nothing in it. This work involved moving and sweating and streaks of dirt on her face. She felt clumsy and confused, turning left instead of right, repeatedly bumping into Avalina, or dropping fork-fulls of straw in the aisle rather than the stall. Her arms were shaking after half an hour had passed.

When they’d finished mucking out the stalls, Avalina let Reyan guide the horses back in. She had been around horses all her life, of course, but this was the first time she ever remembered leading one. All that muscle, all that power, at her control with the lightest of tugs on its reins. It made her feel expansive, calm, and—for some reason—magnanimous.

“Thank you,” Avalina said as they hung the pitchfork, shovel, bucket and broom on the wall. “You want to go see the valley? We should be able to get up to the tower before the sun’s fully set.”

They left through the human-sized door built into the massive sliding barn door. They passed Jax shoveling manure into a pile, and mixing in old straw. Anger and pride kept him on the dry side of crying. His mouth was closed tight and his jaw muscles were working, his eyes fixed, not on his work, but on some preoccupying vision or memory just beyond it.

“Hey Jax,” Avalina whispered, “how are you doing.”

He looked up and shook off whatever thought was possessing him. His mouth softened into an easy dismissive smile. He was about to say something when Benj’s mocking voice came from behind them and said, “You slipping off early?”

“No Benj,” Avalina said, snarling but still looking at the ground, “The stalls are mucked out, the horses are back in, fed and watered.”

Benj chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment while he considered this. He looked over at Jax who had wordlessly returned to his work. “What about helping him out. He’s slow as snot. He could use the help.”

“You help him. I’ve done my day’s tasks.”

“I have more work than anyone here, and I’ve been helping him all day. Now I’m left with a million things to do before the day’s out. Throw your little apron back on and help out Jax for a while. It’s like your dad always says, ‘the horses don’t care who does the work.’”

“But we already cared for the horses, like I said.”

“Oh did you? You brush them and pet them, and tell them they’re pretty? I bet you’re exhausted?”

Reyan felt his characterization of their work was unfair. It had been hard, they’d lifted and shoveled and scrubbed. They had bent and strained and sweated. In that whole time, she had seen Benj walk past. She had seen him lean on walls and bark orders, and offer critiques, but she’d not seen him lift or move or repair anything at all.

“You just want me to do your shit work,” Avalina said.

“Like your dad always says, we’re a team, Avi. No one is above anyone else in the stables.”

This made Reyan angry. She guessed Avalina was right. Benj didn’t really want everyone to work together as she and Avalina had done. He wanted Avalina to do more work so he wouldn’t have to. And now he was trying to make her feel bad about it. It was unfair. And nothing made her more angry than petty injustice.

Avalina paused a while to think. Her face expressionless and stony except for a nut sized knot of muscle flexing in her jaw. Finally, she spoke, “No. I’m done for the day. We’re leaving.”

Benj stepped up to her, mere inches from her face. “Go put your apron back on. Get a shovel and get to work.”

She turned her face away, and looked at the ground, but she still managed, “No.”

A twitching excitement climbed Reyan’s back, and she found she wanted to cheer for Avalina.

Benj stepped back. He relaxed. He shrugged. “You could always bring it up with your dad. You should. See what he says about it.”

“I think I will.”

Benj’s eyes widened for a brief moment. He looked truly angry. Then he smiled mockingly. “Yeah. I bet you will. I bet you always do. I bet, when you go home at night and eat your nice dinner with your nice family, you complain about how hard you have it here. How mean I am whenever I try to get you to do your fair share of work.”

That wasn’t at all what meals were like with the Stablemans. It seemed strange that someone who knew Avalina and her father so well, knew so little about them. It occurred to her that Benj was making up the scene to mock her.

“I’ll bet he takes your side. I bet he says, ‘A stableman’s daughter shouldn’t have to work so hard. I’ll get Benj to take up the slack.’” He shrugged. “Can’t say I blame you. I’d do it. I’d tell my dad if I could. Complaining and being a snitch is a lot easier than working.”

Reyan took Benj by surprise. She drove her fist into the tip of his nose, and she felt and heard it pop. He fell straight to the ground. His hand shot up to his face and came away bloody. He stammered some noise that was part surprise and part indignation. Before he could recover himself, Reyan was down on top of him. She pinned his arms beneath her knees and began landing more blows to his cheeks and jaw and the sides of his head. The anger and the power came out of her like a scream. She wanted to keep punching until she was exhausted. Her knuckles were hurting. They were smeared with blood they’d picked up from Benj’s broken nose. He tried to buck her off once, but after a well-placed blow to the side of his head, he went limp.

Arms wrapped around her from behind and lifted her away. But she still flailed her dangling legs and managed to get one kick square into Benj’s ribs.

Avalina stepped between Reyan and Benj. She gently placed her hands on Reyan’s shoulders. Reyan’s attention snapped from Benj to her friend as though the other girl had appeared out of nowhere. She saw her friend before her, and Benj on the ground, now slowly moving and moaning. The anger and rage subsided. In its place came an understanding of what had just happened. She began to panic. She was scared of herself and what she had done. She was scared of what would be done to her.

Avalina turned Reyan around and marched her out of the stables. She wanted to run away. She took a few long strides toward…her tree, she realized. It was gone and she needed it. Now she was breathing harder. Avalina caught up to Reyan, stepped in front of her, and bent down to get into her line of sight. Her eyes were wide with surprise but she was smiling. “Are you alright, Rey?”

Reyan held up her hands. They were still balled into fists. She wiped her knuckles on her dress and most of the blood came off. Every one of her knuckles was raw and was turning an angry purple color. There was one cut over her right pinkie where she’d hit something hard and sharp, one of Benj’s teeth she guessed. But she opened her hands and closed them again. She flexed them and, though they were certainly aching and stiff, nothing was broken. “Yeah. Fine. My hands hurt a bit.”

“Not as much as Benj’s face I bet.” Avalina giggled and put her arm around Reyan’s shoulder. The arm was heavy as a wet rope and tingled her skin like it was covered with ants. Reyan shrugged it off. “Sorry,” Avalina said.

“Sometimes I don’t mind. But not now.”

Avalina nodded that she understood.

They made their way to the foot of the wooden stairs at the base of the tower in the town square. They spiraled up and around the tower as they trudged up the stairs. Soon they were higher than the roofs of the houses, then they were above even the taller buildings like the stable and the grain silo. As they curled around she was able to watch the entire town slowly fall away and more of the surrounding area came into view.

When they finally reached the observation deck that ringed the tower’s belly, they were as high as the tippy-tops of the nearby fir trees. They walked around the deck until they came to an iron ladder which passed through a cage that formed a long tube and went straight up the remainder of the tower. Reyan’s heart sank to look at it. Avalina smiled. “Come on, don’t be a chicken.”

Reyan noted to herself that Avalina had not said, “it’s safe,” or “there’s nothing to worry about,” or even “I’ve climbed this dozens of times.”

Avalina led the way. When she was about ten rungs above Reyan’s head, Reyan followed. Her arms and legs felt limp. She worried that her hands would lose their strength loosen their grip and let go. She decided to mirror the motions of the girl over her head. When Avalina moved a hand, Reyan did likewise. When she moved a foot, Reyan did as well. Eventually, and without having to think much about it, they made their way to the small platform that stood like an eagle’s nest atop the old tower.

This wasn’t the highest Reyan had ever been—that honor went to a craggy peak she’d climbed near Orloton—but this view was the most she had ever seen all at once.

The stark line of the hardroad described Rowe’s northern border. To the east, the town stopped at the line where the foothills dove beneath the level surface of the plain. The broad lazy river defined Rowe’s southern edge. It was hard to believe that this was the same water that tumbled past Orloton. But as the caravan had descended the pass, her own eyes had seen her tiny stream incorporate branches and absorb tributaries until it became a frantic trapped weasel of a river that only broke free from the sheer confines of the pass here at Rowe to spread out fat and calm as a snake in the sun. The rest of the town spilled out across the flood plain to the west. In that direction, the streets gave way to trails which gave way to pastures and fields, which vanished into the rising fog of the coming dusk.

She was unaccustomed to seeing anything at so great a distance. She understood, though it took some effort to believe, that what appeared to be mottled moss clinging to a far-away stone, was actually an enormous forested hill, that the tiny trees that carpeted its slopes were the same as the giants near enough by that she could hear the squabbling of their resident crows.

The sky, which she had only ever seen as a single blue ribbon bordered by stony ridges and trees, was broad and immense over Rowe. She imagined that she had shrunk down to the size of an ant and was gazing up at the inside skin of a soap bubble. But she adapted quickly to the expanding dimensions of her world. She grew thirsty for it. She wanted to pull in, examine, and comprehend everything she could see. Her curiosity unfurled across the plain and its momentum carried it up and over that distant forested hill and vanished into the world beyond. Reyan drew it all in on a deep breath which she held until it swelled and thrashed and felt ready to break through her ribs. She felt like a storm cloud cracked opened, or a river undammed.

“It’s pretty, right?” Reyan started, surprised to find that anything in this vastness could be so near. She couldn’t find words, so she made a weak affirmative grunt. Avalina leaned against the rail. “All the same, I want to get out of here as soon as I can. Maybe I’ll hop on the back of a professor’s truck and follow you to Seal Tooth.”

After a few moments of silently contemplating the view, Avalina seemed to conclude some internal conversation. “Come on. It’ll be dinner time soon.”

Reyan didn’t want to leave. The sun was inching closer to the horizon. She thought it would land just to the right of the lonely hill and she felt certain something amazing would happen when it did. But Avalina tugged on her sleeve and headed back toward the ladder. Reyan managed to turn away from the view and reluctantly followed.

They stopped by the caravan before heading to Avalina’s house. The last of the townsfolk had gone, and they found Sevv tidying up around his truck.

“Good evening Reyankaiya. Ms. Stableman. What are your plans for tonight?”

Reyan didn’t know there were any plans to be made. Avalina spoke for her, “Good evening Professor. Reyan and I were just headed back to my house to clean up before dinner.”

Sevv turned to Reyan. “Were you planning on eating with us? We’ve been invited to dine with Keeper Shalynn. If you’re coming we will need to let the keeper know.”

Reyan let slip, “Will that acolyte be there?”

“I’m sure she will be. I thought I detected a certain camaraderie between you two.” Sevv smiled. Reyan felt cornered. The last thing in the world she wanted was to spend an evening at another young persons’ table this time with Tamura. She was trying to find a good way to say as much when Sevv asked, “Ms. Stableman shall I tell them you’ll be joining as well?”

When Reyan looked at Avalina, she found her friend studying her sideways through half-closed eyes. It was a measuring look, a judging look. She smiled and said, “I would love to, if you don’t think it would be too much trouble, Professor.”

Sevv reshaped his surprised expression into delight. “I’m sure they would love to have both of you.”

“That’s wonderful,” Avalina said. She grabbed Reyan’s hand, “Come on, let’s get ready.”

As they walked across the square, Reyan said, “I bet the keepers don’t really want us to come.”

“Of course not. They certainly don’t want me to come. Professor Sevv figured I knew that. He didn’t expect me to accept his nice offer. But there’s no way I’m leaving you alone with Tamura. She’s awful. And since there’s no graceful way for the professor to uninvite me, and there’s no way Keeper Shalynn would say no to a professor, it will all work out. Mom will be happy. She’ll think I’m finally trying to move up in the world.”

Reyan felt unsure, like Avalina was setting up trip lines and traps instead of dinner plans, but the girl seemed to be enjoying herself, and Reyan decided to trust her.

Avalina had been right, her mother was very excited to hear that the keeper had invited her daughter to dinner. Neither Avalina nor Reyan corrected her mother’s misconceptions of how the invitation had come about. The woman ran around pulling various dresses from Avalina’s closet and holding them up against her daughter while the girl calmly brushed the tangles out of her damp hair. The woman fluttered her right hand at Reyan and said, “Try the green dress. The green dress.”

When the girls were clothed and brushed, Ms. Stableman stood the two girls next to each other and looked them up and down. She bit her lower lip when her eyes got to Reyan’s old boots. She dove back into the closet and came back out with a pair of soft brown ankle-high shoes. They had wads of old clothe stuffed into them and they were dull with dust. She smiled down at them, pulled out the wadding and used it to brush away the dust. “Here. Try these.”

The shoes were the right length and yet they didn’t feel right. They were loose around the wide part of Reyan’s feet, and tight in the heel, and the soles had been worn down by someone else’s steps. Still, they were the nicest things Reyan had ever put on her feet.

Ms. Stableman wet a rag and made a final pass over Reyan’s face, stretching out a cheek as she tried to rub away some speck of dirt that was probably a mole or freckle. Then she stood back and admired the girls. She sighed, “That’ll have to do,” but she smiled when she said it.

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