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|The Struggle Within|
April 15, 2012
The Struggle Within
Shu entered into a bar. The place was full. Two barmen paced up and down the crowded establishment. One of them hurried to serve him, not because he was excited for working actually, it was around five in the evening, and the tiredness of a whole day in the bar was already starting to be noticeable but he needed money and was desperate for any extra tip he could obtain. The twenty-three-year-old man asked for a mango; he had tasted it before in other bars, but it was the first time he visited this one. He had found it out while turning aside from his normal way back home, he had wanted to be there later. He didn't like much the idea of meeting his parents that early, a rest of some hours would do him some good. The barman took his two dao swords and brandished them nimbly and swiftly, making a movement Shu almost didn't see and producing a quick sound when the mango was pierced by the blade of the weapon; in less than a second the fruit was already cut in perfectly equal pieces on the table. He added some more ingredients and mixed them all in a glass container, and a straw and an umbrella were put to adorn. The man stretched his tattooed arm with the drink to Shu.
- It's done, sir – he said, sheathing the swords at his sides.
- Thank you – answered Shu, still amazed for the ability of the man. He had not seen a spectacle like this one before in any other place.
He sucked the straw, feeling how the icy liquid flooded his mouth; the touch of alcohol perfectly tuned with the flavor of the mango, he couldn't identify the other ingredients but it didn't matter, the drink was delicious. He thought of giving the barman a generous tip. Shu looked around: There was a couple behind him, each one drinking a glass of something, they didn't seem to want to talk much between each other; a young woman with glasses and black hair, carefree, next to the door, drumming a glass she strongly gripped; in the corner a group of men, most of them drunk, was commenting not too sneaky about an old man who was in the table next to them, an elderly man, around eighty years old, who was alone and trying to link both sides of his robe closing it to hide something underneath it. He might have stolen something, was what Shu thought. He shrugged and directed his gaze to the barman again, who was already serving a new client, who immediately left after he was asked for an identification to prove his age. A violent sound made him turn his head again towards the table of the solitary old man. The group of men of the corner had stood up and taken the elder, who tried to defend himself throwing kicks as he could, but the strength and the number of the drunk men were bigger, and they disappeared behind the door with the old man in their arms.
Shu looked at the barman, who didn't seem as astonished as him to what had just happened and seemed to understand that the expression of his client demanded an explanation.
- Don't care about that, it happens often. They probably found out that the old man was from Ab. I had already detected his accent when he asked me for a drink but I didn't say anything, I knew someone else had heard it and would do something sooner or later.
It was obvious, thought Shu. The reason why someone was commonly attacked that way publicly was almost always because that person was from Ab. The war with the neighboring town had originated hatred between the people of Ab and Xen. The two cities, separated by the Kolau mountain range, had been in war for more than sixty years already. Although, according to Shu, the continuity of the war made no sense at all due to it had started only because of two mad kings of that time, who acted completely irrationally and against the whole population's thought. However, at the present time, most of the people of both cities believed that the war should continue, the problem that had started all this had still to be solved. No one could endure the presence of a person from the neighbor city, which they could notice when speaking; the accent differed enough to identify someone's origin in a second, while people from Ab spoke in a screecher and louder tone, with the lips more half-close, without modulating much, with a hiss when pronouncing the letter 's', and a peculiar lilt at the end of every sentence, people from Xen marked every word more precisely, unhurriedly, and deeper, but more monotonous and with a lower pitch. It was complicated to try to imitate the accent from the enemy city, and this was the reason why it was so easy to be caught.
Sixty five years ago, Garmo III, king of Ab, known for taking unreasoning decisions and generally against people's will, learned that in Xen, the army had executed a ten-year-old girl born in Ab who lived with her family in the other city. When Garmo discovered that the sentence had been determined without a previous judgment but by a simple murder accusation by a witness which had sufficed for the final decision of the king of Xen, he, enraged, ordered to kill all the inhabitants born in Xen who lived in his city. Of course, the news quickly arrived to the ears of King Lin, who took this act as the beginning of a war; he called the general of his army and told him to burn down Ab, no one should remain alive after the attack. So did the general, and in less than three days the whole city burned and, besides the flames, no movement could be seen in the streets. However, many inhabitants could run away and hide in the outskirts, including the heir to the throne, now the present king of Ab. The son of Garmo commanded the reconstruction of the city and continued what his father had done: once he could make a new army with a good number of soldiers, he sent troops to attack Xen, starting this way the first years of the war.
And this lasted until now, the majority still felt offended by the old kings' actions. Continuously, attacks occurred in both cities, the current kings still sent troops now and then, and there were also many terrorist groups that crossed the mountains to plant bombs in different sectors. Despite all this, and the insecurity that roamed in the streets, people kept supporting the war. Besides himself, Shu didn't know anyone who was against this. Even his parents hated Ab. Of course, Shu had not shared his ideas with anyone, he could imagine what his father would say. In the mine, he had heard his coworkers talk many times about the war, but when they asked him for his opinion, he had always found a way to avoid the question.
The lowest summit
Shu finished his mango, paid, and thanked the barman leaving two silver pieces to him. He got out of the bar and immediately felt the heat of the hottest days in the last years. He started walking toward the mountains, he wanted to be alone for a moment and think. He chose the lowest summit to see Ab from there. He had never seen the 'enemy' city, and in that moment he felt like doing so, to see whom his people were fighting. He estimated it would take about two hours to reach the top of that mountain, he had time, as he didn't have to go to the mine tomorrow. The mine. . . he hated to work there, where the only things he heard were warmongering comments, where no one would ever agree with him. Could someone against the war exist in Ab? He thought about this almost remote possibility, finally concluding it was impossible, he was the only one who thought this way in the world, a normal person could do nothing against a whole city. But, even if he could do something, would he? Would he try to end the war if he had a group of people supporting him? But, how was the continuity of the war affecting him? Besides his own security, about which he didn't really care, he had never seen himself in danger for this cause and his parents almost didn't go out of home, what really bothered him was that people continued with something with no sense, people died for something with no sense, the reason to live for a lot of people was something with no sense. Anyway, why put himself in a hypothetical situation? The truth was that he was alone and he could do nothing about it, whether he had the courage to do so or not.
He arrived to the foot of the mountain he would climb, stopped for a second and looked up. He was right, about two hours, but the heat was intense and he was already drenched with sweat, although he hadn't even started yet. He wished he had another mango drink in that moment. . . . He started, following a way someone else had made before, probably someone who had done the same, of course not with the same intentions, no one else would climb a mountain just to see Ab, except to attack it or plan an attack.
Shu wiped the sweat on his forehead with his sleeve and took a staff to use as a crook and move aside all the hawthorns in the way, it could also be useful as a weapon if an animal attacked him. He was ignorant about the species that inhabited the mountain, but had once heard that boarcupines could be found in the area. Although a staff would be of little use when a creature like that attacked, but he thought it wiser to keep the stick close.
He had walked for nearly an hour and was already tired, he needed water, thought of going back, but he was half way. . . the thirst was unbearable. . . . His feet started to hurt, and an hour wasn't even that much time for him to be tired, he wasn't in a bad physic condition thanks to the mine work, but the heat and the slope were against him. Shu stopped for a moment to look back; there was Xen, although he was not that high, he could see almost the entire city, lying peacefully beneath him. It wasn't too big, but was, according his knowledge, bigger than Ab. He would soon ascertain this.
Each step took more effort, but he went as quickly as he could without running, he wanted to reach the summit and go back before it was dark, he was really worried for the wild animals. His right foot suddenly found a stone that made him fall face-first on the ground. He felt his entire body dash against the stones of the road and the chest against his staff, which had fallen before him, his left arm had rubbed a bush with thorns and his head was beating because of the hit; he quickly stood up jerking his clothes, took out one by one the thorns in his arm, picked up the staff, and went on his way. All this only to see Ab? At this point, even he didn't know why he kept going.
A year ago, Shu had watched the execution of three persons from Ab, the army had found out about them and the king had ordered to hang them. Every time the army caught someone from Ab, this was the decision of the king, but most of the times, civilians were the ones who found the "invaders". In these cases, suddenly a cry could be heard: "There's someone from Ab here!" and immediately there could be seen people crouching to take stones and then making a crowd around the future victim. Once they made sure to have finished, moved the body to a corner and continued their life normally. The corpse was later removed by soldiers, although no one knew what they did with all of them.
Shu was with Rikuo when he was passing by after a day of work at the mine. Rikuo was his best friend, they both worked in the same sector and, though obviously one of them was in favor of the war, this topic wasn't discussed much between them, simply because it wasn't necessary. They both were going back to their homes that day when they heard screams.
- What is that? – Rikuo was interested.
- I don't know – Shu said, walking away.
- Let's go see.
- For what? It won't be anything interesting. – Shu already suspected what all this racket was about.
- But hear, seems like a kind of spectacle – Rikuo insisted, pricking up his ears to try to understand the cries.
Shu finally accepted to see what was happening and found the execution being performed in front of the royal palace, thousands of spectators were around anxiously waiting for the moment of the opening of the hatches.
- What did I tell you? – said Rikuo enthusiastically, joining the crowd.
A woman and two men were in the gallows about to be hanged. Shu noticed how the woman, in the middle, trembled and how, despite the bag that covered her head, tears fell from her chin to the rope that tied her hands. Why would this woman, innocent most likely, have been in Xen? Shu felt sorry for her, she would die in just seconds, unless there was a way to escape, but nothing seemed to indicate this possibility, and she didn't seem to be thinking on this either. Would water serve to loosen the ropes? Of course not, thought Shu, but so the woman seemed to believe.
The sound of the hatches opening, followed by the thud produced by the tension of the ropes, made him close his eyes and bow his head while the crowd applauded celebrating the event. Shu slowly looked up to find his friend in the front rows; there he was, in front of three bodies suspended in the air that could no longer move.
Shu was only a few steps from reaching the top. The sun started to hide behind the mountain range in the opposite side of the city of Xen and the color of the day already had an orange shade. Due to the Kolau mountains being higher, it had to be dark in Ab, thus he couldn't see much of the city. He noted the slope decrease brusquely and a light in the sky above what was yet to be climbed: The lights of Ab. . . it was already dark. He finally reached the point where he could descry the other side of the mountain rage; so much time lost only to be able to see the lights of the houses and the little that the moon illuminated. . . it wasn't a bad scene, but not what he wanted to see. It was actually a much smaller city than Xen probably me more or less the half of it, he estimated, he could see not too far away the end of the lights. He sat on a rock and contemplated the view for a moment making his staff rest on his thighs and his hands to the ends of it.
him with anger, apparently having decided to
change its victim; the creature started running
A growl in the distance startled him. He froze for some seconds, waiting for another sound to confirm what he had heard. It could be a boarcupine, but it was too far away to worry too much, and it was also time to start climbing down the mountain. What did worry him was the cry of a woman coming from the same direction. He gripped the staff strongly with his right hand and ran to the place, imagining the worst without looking at the hawthorns or the rocks which he might have encountered. It was what he expected: A woman was being attacked by a boarcupine. She was on the ground trying to defend and the animal on her legs; the creature tried to thrust its tusks, one of which already stained with her blood, into her skin, but her movements avoided this and kept her still alive. The boarcupine was also injured, perhaps by a kick it may have received from the woman in its forehead, but it had not been enough. Seeing this, Shu took a rock and threw it to the animal, it bounced on its back and made it turn at him with anger, apparently having decided to change its victim; the creature started running towards Shu, who already waited for it with the staff leaning on his right shoulder and taking it with both hands from one end. With legs slightly apart and knees slightly bent to root firmly on the ground, Shu led the staff to the front with all his might when he calculated that its extension was enough to reach the head of his adversary, hitting it in its left eye and using the weapon as a lever to slip to his right and so dodge the boarcupine, who kept going, not being able to beat its aggressor. Upset because of the hit it had received, it showed its teeth and emitted a loud grunt, the saliva coming out profusely from its mouth, its hair bristling, and its eye started bleeding. It turned again to face Shu and, with the only eye that could see, noticed that he had moved away too much. Shu thought it was almost impossible to hit it in the other eye to blind it completely, especially if the first one had been luck, he had only tried to hit its head, to have left it one-eyed had been by chance; if he only had a better weapon: The staff could break any moment. It seemed like the woman, who was wounded in her leg, could read his thoughts, because at that moment she gave him a knife, sliding it along the ground. Shu stopped it with his foot and quickly crouched to pick it up, leaving the staff in the floor; it wasn't a large knife, but of course it would be useful. It was the man who now ran towards the animal. He jumped on its head, but the boarcupine rapidly shook it before he could do anything, throwing him against a tree. A pain in his back after the fall, added to the tiredness for having climbed the mountain, prevented him from standing up immediately, but the situation required him to do so as soon as possible, thus he stood up with the knife still in his hand, thinking how he could attack now while his legs trembled maybe because of the tiredness, maybe because of the fear, maybe because of both. He could blind it in other way. . . even if it was temporarily. . . with earth. He took a big handful and then moved closer to the boarcupine as the soil fell slowly through his fingers. Suddenly, he heard the sound of an explosion; it came from Ab, a bomb, another one of those that was common to hear every day; this one, however, had sounded not far away. To get the sound to the top of the mountain it should have been at the feet or, at least, close to it. The three looked toward the city, and the boarcupine, to Shu's relief, ran terrified and disappeared behind some bushes. Shu sighed, trying to breathe again, opened his hand, dropping the earth he still had and quickly walked toward the woman, who lay still on the ground. Once he was at her side, he bent down and saw the wound in her leg; the woman made the best effort not to complain, but her face revealed the pain she felt. Shu broke off a piece of his robe and wrapped it around her leg, making a tourniquet with a branch.
- This should serve for a moment, but it's necessary to replace it with something better in a hospital as soon as possible. I'll help you get there, let's go. - Shu said extending his arms to lift the woman.
- No. . . - she answered quickly. - I will go myself.
- But. . . you can't. . . - she didn't need to say more to make Shu understand and notice the accent. Even though she had tried to hide it, it was very obvious.
He couldn't leave this woman dying there. . . if he did this, she wouldn't be able to go alone to a hospital in Ab before it was too late. She was from Ab, yes, but he saw no need for her to suffer a painful death; leaving her behind would make him as bad as his fellow citizens. He didn't hate people of Ab, let alone this woman. She reminded him for a moment of the woman who had been hanged. . . . She was innocent, and so seemed to be this woman; she was not, or at least, didn't look like a terrorist or a soldier who was crossing the mountain to go to murder, she was only a woman coming up the mountain to. . . do something. Maybe just to see the other city like him. . . . She, however, wouldn't let him help her, thinking he would take her to be stoned to Xen. What could he do then? All he could think of was to take her to Ab, there was no way that she would think he would do something evil there. This would be a risk as he could be caught, but he wouldn't need to talk, just leave her at the door of any hospital and then return to Xen, if he still had the strength to keep walking.
- You can't, you will die on the way. I'll take you, let's go to Ab. - he insisted, lifting her carefully.
He was surprised she didn't resist him, yet she seemed to have accepted because she didn't say anything. Had she trusted him and believed what he had said? Maybe yes, maybe she saw she had no choice and this was her only chance to survive, or maybe she was waiting for a moment to take the knife, attack and finally escape as she could. He threw away the knife.
- Wait! - she almost shouted. - My plants.
Shu looked down: A group of little twigs with leaves lay a few feet away. He went and bent down slowly with the woman in his arms to pick them up and then deliver them. Now it was amazing how he still had strength, he thought. She thanked him.
He started then descending the mountain in direction to Ab. The woman wasn't very heavy, she was, actually, thin; her skin, still visible at this part of the mountain, was a little pale, and her dark hair swung from side to side at every step he took. He turned his eyes to her face and, now he wasn't worried by a boarcupine or a bleeding, he saw her beauty. She didn't sleep, but she had had close her eyes, which she opened from time to time when she felt the pain increasing quickly closing them again. They traveled to Ab that way during almost all the descent, in silence, without saying a word, only stopping a handful of times so Shu could rest; he put the woman down in the ground daintily and then checked her wound; she, always more worried about the plants than her own leg, maintained her indifference. They were already in the last quarter of the mountain when Shu finally broke that silence lengthy enough to cause his voice to appear to be the first sound he heard in years.
- May I ask about those plants that you carry and which seem to be as important as your life? – Another long silence followed his question. He wondered if she was asleep or unconscious, but by her breathing and her movements he knew she wasn't.
- Why are you interested? – she finally said without trying to disguise her accent.
- Well. . . – Shu continued, rather nervous – Why not? I believe to have the right to ask you at least something, I'm saving your life.
The woman opened the eyes and raised an eyebrow, a little confused at Shu's answer. She paused anew before responding.
- They are fumeworts. My mother is sick and needs them urgently. – she responded seriously.
- Is it grave? Will she live? – Shu immediately regretted his question.
- I hope so. – the woman answered, closing her eyes again.
Once they were at the city, the woman indicated how to get to the nearest hospital. The streets were empty, the curfew had already begun, and they were lucky to not encounter a guard.
They arrived to a house that looked exactly like any other one and he knocked the door thrice. An old woman soon opened it making them enter. She offered them a stretcher, on which Shu put the woman and three young ladies appeared out of nowhere, encircled her, and started healing the wound with different liquids and utensils. Another two stretchers were in the room, a boy slept in one and an adult man watched the arrival of the new patient from the other. The woman who had opened the door appeared next to Shu and asked him the name of the wounded.
- Err. . . she. . . – he wavered, scared.
- Oma! – Oma shouted from the stretcher. The elder approached the patient, completely ignoring Shu.
The old woman went to a table in a corner where she started writing the information. The three young ladies finished their job and scattered. Shu approached the stretcher.
- Thank you, you saved my life even if you didn't need to. – Oma said bowing her head.
- It was nothing. – he murmured, trying to avoid his voice being heard. – It was necessary for me.
- I'm glad there is at least one good person in Xen. – She beamed.
- Ditto. – Shu concurred, also smiling. – It was a pleasure.
And he left the hospital bound for Xen. Truly, he was glad to know there was at least one good person in Ab.
|Beyond the Cave|
For the collective works of the author, go here.