By the time we stopped my legs were a complete and useless mess, and I plopped to the ground with such a lack of grace that I ended up skinning my elbows. I was so exhausted I didn’t make a nasty statement when I saw him sneer at me in amusement. He didn’t look anywhere as tired as I was, but there were bags under his eyes and his muscles were still tight from stress.
“Tomorrow I might just have to throw you over my shoulder to keep you from killing yourself on a log,” he teased as he stacked wood and pulled a flint out of his pocket.
I shot up and put my hands in front of the wood before he could strike it.
“What are you doing?” I asked with wide eyes.
I watched as a smirk appeared at the edge of his thin lips.
“Keeping us warm,” he replied as he struck the flint, his eyes widening to match mine as his smirk grew into a grin, and he tipped from his crouching position onto his ass.
I glanced over my shoulder before looking back at him.
“Won’t it attract people?” I asked.
He chuckled to himself as he ran his hand through his hair. “Smell the air, how much smoke do you smell?”
I blinked at him. “There’s smoke in front of me, of course I smell a lot of it.”
“Walk a few yards out, then see if you can determine where it’s coming from,” he replied with a nod over my shoulders.
I looked down at my shaking hands, and I felt the trembling in my legs.
“I believe you.”
The man rubbed his neck. “Sore?”
“Listen,” he heaved a sigh; “these woods are thick, and the leaves are still on all the trees, plus there’s a shit ton of people out here—it’d be impossible to tell what direction one of the fires burning right now is coming from, even if you wanted to know.”
I cast my eyes down and stared at the fire.
“Why did you feel the need to explain?”
“I saw the doubt in your eyes.”
I scoffed a bit. “Why would you care if I doubt you? I’m not even sure if I’m going to wake up in the morning.”
I swallowed as our eyes met through the flames as they burst up in between us. I found my heart hammering in my ribcage because he seemed so human as he stared back at me. He didn’t seem like a killer, but at the same time I knew he was.
“If I was going to kill you, you’d be dead already,” he said as he licked his parched lips and looked at his sneakers.
“Why haven’t you? They won’t pay a ransom,” I pushed, going back to my questioning ways.
I needed to know why he decided to spare me.
He stood, and his hands went into his back pockets where his thumbs stuck out and accentuated his ass. I shook my head as I watched his head tilt back to the leaf blocked sky.
“If I was any other General you’d be dead already.”
“Why? Why would another General want me dead?” I asked as my breathing quickened.
The man turned, and his chest rose as he shook his head, biting his lip before he answered, “To prove to your father that he needs to stay away from us.”
I wanted to know more—to know what a General was, and what it had to do with the societies we lived within, and more importantly, what Father had done. Fear prevented me from pushing for more answers, though, and I watched as the man’s eyes darkened with worry as they rested on me and then darted to the surrounding forest.
“Thank you,” I finally said as I took a deep breath.
“For what?” he asked as he continued to stare down at me.
“Not killing me.”
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, or if you’ll survive it,” he said as he pressed his eyelids tight and lines of stress formed in his forehead.
I took a shaky breath as I fiddled with my black shoe laces. He didn’t know if I would survive, but he also didn’t look like he knew if he’d survive.
My body flushed hot and cold. I had no clue what was going on, and now I was faced with the fact everything my family ever taught me was quite possibly a farce. There were some things I realized were true, like the fact we were at war; at least enough that this man had been told to kidnap and kill me. Yet everything else had to be a lie, because he hadn’t killed me, and he had insinuated my family had done something to provoke them. My family had feigned innocence and acted as though they had nothing to do with The Fall and anything that happened after it. Bullshit.
I knew nothing of the world I was living in, and as I looked at the anger and pain that flashed in this man’s eyes, I knew he knew far more than me. As my heartbeat quickened, I wondered if I really wanted to know what he did.
“So at what point are we off my family’s land?” I finally asked, feeling it would be a relatively safe topic.
“We’re already in No Man’s Land,” he explained as he bent down and flicked a piece of wood into the fire. “We have been for about two miles. It doesn’t mean it’s any safer.”
His eyes met mine, and I bit my lip.
“You said the fire—”
His eyes softened. “The fire won’t bring them any more than anything else, darling.”
I swallowed as I rubbed my dirty hands against my jeans, which were just as dirty at this point. I opened my mouth as I tried to determine what to ask next. I looked naive, but I was. I didn’t know anything.
“What’s No Man’s Land?” I asked, keeping my gaze down but looking at him from the corner of my eyes.
His face remained expressionless as I watched his eyes narrow on me. “Am I an anomaly to you?”
I felt hollow as my eyes locked on him and begged him to explain this world to me.
“Everything about this is an anomaly to me. The extent of my knowledge is that The Fall occurred after a depression and the government turned to martial law. My family escaped before it all went to shit, and they hid us away for our protection. We were taught what to do if we were kidnapped, or robbed, but we were never given the impression it would happen. We were taught to listen and not question—I wasn’t good at either,” I replied.
“People who don’t keep their mouths shut tend to get killed very easily in our world,” the man said as he looked over at me. The harshness disappeared from his face. “But you already know that.”
I shrugged. “I pushed a lot until a few months ago. The answers never changed, so I just gave up—gave in to whatever life they were going to force on me. I didn’t realize there was anything else out there.”
He closed his eyes, his teeth raking over his lower lip before he opened them. They were ice as he replied, “There isn’t anything better out here. The way we live isn’t any better. The truth…the truth is probably a lot worse than living the lie you were.”
“Then you don’t know what it is to live a lie.”
He opened his mouth before closing it and clenching his jaw. “My whole life is a lie, too.”
“I guess we have more in common than I thought,” I replied as I tried to ease the tension that had steadily built around the conversation.
“So what’s No Man’s Land?”
“No Man’s Land is the area in between the Tribes. I guess in your case you’d just think it was families, but it’s not really. The society, including your family, is structured with army type rankings,” he explained as he finally took a seat across from me again. “Essentially, the area we’re traveling in isn’t specified or protected by any Tribes, so we could run into anyone. A lot of people travel through here, but it’s the ones in packs you have to worry about.”
“Packs?” I repeated with a trembling breath.
“Yes,” was his one word answer.
“So we have more to worry about than just my family,” I said.
“You said we didn’t have to worry about them.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think we do, but at this point, I don’t really know anything.”
“And you don’t want to go back?” he asked, his gaze clouding and becoming distant.
I looked up at the sky as I thought it over. I was more afraid of the lies they had told me to cover up whatever was going on than the man in front of me, all pulsing muscles and confusion. He didn’t have a reason to lie to me, and for some reason, I knew he wouldn’t.
I let my gaze fall back to his, and his eyes searched my face.
“No,” I replied.
He shook his head. “You’re a strange duck.”
“Quack,” I replied before rolling my eyes.
He put his head in his hand and laughed—laughed. The warmth hidden beneath his darkness put me into a trance, and I found myself with a smile on my face. I felt safer with this man than I ever felt with those who were supposed to love me.