Interlude, or: Cherry, Speaking
There are some who will doubtless wish that the story had ended that day, with an imperfect compromise, and with Stranger returning to wander the desert as a kinsman of the storms and companion of the desert demons. And there are plenty of stories, in the three years that followed, where that was the ending of what happened in Colony Five, where a boy who had once been a slave was picked up as a stray, and finally found a home. Those are the stories of my brother, the nameless boy, and how he grew into a man, and although I shouldn’t, I still tell those stories, by the light of the moon, when no one but the gods can hear me.
But this isn’t the story of that boy, or of the years that we spent together, my brother, our aunts and I. This is the story of Avenged, and everything I’ve told you up to this point is really just a prelude to the day when he was born, only to die, and in doing so, fulfilling his destiny.
But before we get to that part, there are still a few things I must tell you, for the sake of clarity. First, that the day Stranger left was far from the last time we saw him. He kept his promise to Cunning; he didn’t come to visit us in our home at The Rotten Core, ever again. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t visit him, and we did, some of us more often than others. When my uncle left, I was a child, barely turned eight, and to my great perturbation, that meant I didn’t get to go nearly as often as my brother, who was seven years older.
He started planning his bid for freedom almost the first chance he got, and his first choice of targets was, of course, our aunt Hopeful. As a bounty hunter, not only did she get to go out into the world, but she occasionally badgered Stranger into partnering with her on jobs that required more than one person. The way my brother figured, if she accepted him as her apprentice, not only would he get to experience danger, learn how to shoot a gun, and go on adventures. He would also get to spend time with the man who had saved him and, for all that he spit and cursed when anyone suggested as much, he clearly idolized.
It was a perfect plan…or it would have been if aunt Hopeful hadn’t shot him down blank every time he brought up the subject.
“What do you think my brother would say if I dragged you into a life of bloodshed, that’s likely to get you killed before you can grow brains enough to avoid throwing yourself right into the path of danger? No. Absolutely not. He would kill me if I got you killed, and if he didn’t, I’d wish he had. Forget it.”
So instead, he turned to the other adult we knew, whose job was exciting and dangerous, and would allow him to learn the skills he needed to travel. He turned to Serdia, and became a hunter’s apprentice. And he got what he wanted. After he showed aunt Hopeful he could handle himself, she did let him tag along on a few of her jobs, when she knew she’d be working with Stranger. She didn’t let him help her hunt down any criminals, or shoot any guns, but he came home from one of those trips completely full of himself, and told me he had saved Hopeful’s life, by taking down a bad guy with his bow and a well-aimed arrow.
After that, uncle Stranger promised my brother he would teach him how to shoot a gun. It was what they were supposed to be doing, the week after the bad things happened. But of course, after the bad things, my brother didn’t get to do any of the things he had thought he would do with his life. Neither did Stranger. Neither, I sometimes think, did any of us.
I can’t pinpoint exactly the event or the moment in time when things started to go badly wrong. I know it had been quietly building for a long time, as Cunning grew weak and old and his grip on his empire of flesh and sin and depravity started to falter. His son, Brazen, started taking over more and more of the business, and he was deeply resentful of his old man for the way he had damaged their bottom line, by suddenly deciding it was wrong to keep children as slaves and allow his customers to beat and rape them.
But maybe it would all still have turned out all right if Cunning, in an attempt to warn his son about what would happen if he tried to go back to the way things had been before, hadn’t told Brazen about that nightly conversation with Stranger. If he hadn’t told him about the deal. If he hadn’t given his son, who had all his father’s desire for wealth and power, but only a fraction of his father’s cunning and sense of self preservation, a target to direct his rage at. Maybe, if that last night when we were all together at The Rotten Core, and Brazen walked in the door, we hadn’t refused to serve him. If Serdia and her friends hadn’t driven him out of the tavern. If I hadn’t leaned out of my bedroom window to spit at him as he pathetically limped away.
Maybe, if, a lot of things. But everything happened the way it happened, and later that night, Brazen came back to the tavern, and he didn’t come alone. There was a fight. People died. I lost my eyesight and, as had always been meant to happen, became a Namer; the first of my clan, unless you count Stranger’s beloved nurse, my aunties’ grandmother, Cherished.
And the very first person I ever named, with all the innocence of an untrained child who doesn’t fully realize what she is doing, was my brother. I named him even though I couldn’t see him, and I’ve always been grateful for that, for going blind before the end of that fight. Grateful that the last memory I have of physically seeing my brother is of him fighting, wild and defiant, fearless and full of confidence. I’m grateful I don’t have to remember what he looked like later, when he was drowning. I’m even more grateful I don’t have to remember what he looked like dead.
I named my brother just minutes before he died, and for a long time I wondered if that meant I had doomed him. But the Namer doesn’t get to pick the name. I know now that the reason for my calling to claim me in that exact moment was so that I could name him, and have this story, this destiny, this deepest truth of my brother’s existence. So that I could keep it and so that, when I leave this world and stand before the gods in their great hall in the world hereafter, I can tell them this story, and win my brother a place of honor in the afterlife. The unnamed don’t get a Namer to speak for them, and my brother deserves to be honored in the eternal home of the gods. He earned it. He bought it, and he paid for it, and he deserves it.
But that doesn’t stop me from missing him, or from hating the fact that on that day, when my aunts took me and the rest of the kids and fled, we left the body of my brother behind for Serdia, to prepare, and bury.
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