“What are you doing up so early?” Io’s voice was hush despite them being the only two around for miles. Those dark moments of dawn seem to demand a quiet voice.
“Look,” Erzo said pointing to the east.
She only knew it was east because there was the small sliver of orange buried under the immense rich purple of the night sky.
They were strangers in a strange land. Everything had fallen apart while they were away and the only word from civilization was clear enough, they were enemies of the state. Every one of their kind.
Anyone with the touch was to be shot on sight so the new plan was to keep from being seen.
The war had been be troubling enough before the Council got involved. The powers that be set out to establish peace amongst the provinces and it backfired. Hard. Hard enough to where they were now the common enemy of the entire nation.
There was now a blurry orange line that bleed over into the dark purples as they faded out to a soft lavender.
She hadn’t said anything. Not much had been said since they heard the news and not much needed to be said. She shifted over and began packing up her bedroll which was next to the dead fire that they had tried to keep as low as possible.
By the time she had her gear packed up the sun was a soft egg yolk resting on the horizon. She looked over and saw that Erzo’s gear was already packed. He was still staring out but they needed to move.
“Where to?” she asked.
“Northwest.” He said pointing the direction. “I’m not entirely sure but before…everything they were the most welcoming province to our kind.”
“Then northwest it is.”
As they made their way she pried for more. “You ever been there?”
“The Northwest Province?
“No. I heard things from others. It seemed nice. Great big trees. Rich verdant landscape.”
His voice fizzled out and his face returned to its normal grim. He was done talking and she knew it. Nothing much happened as they made their way through the rough and rocky terrain.
At midday Erzo stopped by a sizeable rock and sat to go through his pack. It was lunch. They had very meager rations. They were leftover from their original trek and were not meant to sustain them past their original journey. They had been asked to escort a group of students to the Eastern Province. The whole world had gone to hell after they left the Capitol. Erzo had felt it in the Capitol, the growing tension. The new Chancellor was a wildly popular man. He had risen to power by fanning the flames of hate within the populace against anyone but himself. He used dangerous rhetoric to keep everyone at each other’s throats. Erzo was angry that he hadn’t tried to do anything to save themselves while they were closer to friends.
Erzo looked over at Io as she gnawed on a piece of rock hard bread, his face fell.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “I mean besides the obvious?”
Erzo smiled, “I was just wondering if anything will ever go back to normal or at least something we’re comfortable calling the new normal. It’s funny. I was starting to get real used to a certain level of comfort in my life and now…”
“My father always would wrangle us…my sisters and I… to rough it by camping out in the backyard. Of course, it would always end up with mother coming to the rescue and bringing us back indoors.”
Erzo smiled. “Were your parents…?”
“My mother was, my father was a mechanic. I think about you know if she…”
“Was your mother active?”
“Not for years.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much over it then. From the sounds of it they’re only targeting the working ones or the high profiles.”
“Ignorance. Fear.” He listed them out not knowing which to credit.
“Fear is a very big motivator. Especially in a crowd. A single match that starts an inferno.”
“What if the Northwest Province isn’t safe?”
“I’ve thought about that.” He said and his brow furrowed in thought.
“The Province is populated enough that I’m sure there’s some pockets where we’ll be fine. If for nothing else just a soft safe place to sleep for the night. Then depending on how reliable of a hold there is we might be able to find safe passage out of the country.”
Io exhaled heavy and he saw her eyes were wet. “Sorry it’s just that…” She sniffed away the tears, “I didn’t think I’d ever have to leave my home.”
“It’s gonna be fine.” He reassured her “We’re still here and that’s saying something. I don’t want to think about what might have happened elsewhere. Hopefully there was enough of warning to get most of us to safety.”
“Yeah.” She said unsure if she believed herself.
They packed up their stuff pressed on.
The monotony of their voyage was broken when they crested a hill and saw below them a massive lake.
“Shit that’s a big lake.” Erzo stated the obvious.
“How do you want to go around?”
“Well go south. You see there on the north end just tucked behind that tree line?”
She squinted but saw nothing and silently expressed as much.
“There’s a village. It’s not very big but I’m not going to risk it.”
They walked down the incline, which was steeper than they expected bottoming out at a near run. They were breathless as they tried to gather themselves.
Suddenly the heard a noise. A horse drawn cart was coming.
Io looked to Erzo.
“Stay on the road. There’s nowhere to hide beside if anyone sees us it will draw attention.”
They tried their best to appear casual.
A panicked look flashed across Erzo’s face. He looked at Io and then eyed the patches on the breast of their coats identifying them as Provincial Mages.
Without a thought he tore it off and shoved it into his pocket. Io was more hesitant at first but Erzo’s gaze convinced her to do it.
She did just as Erzo had.
The wagon approached a few minutes later. A short little cart being headed by a short little man. As he got closer Erzo saw the man’s face was approachable and not outright hostile so he might attempt conversation.
“Good day to you,” Erzo said.
“G’day” the man answered back.
“We’re new to these parts. I saw a road from up on the hill is that the town you’ve just come from.”
“Aye. Craning Rock is just a bit further down this road.”
“Is it a large town?”
The man gave a short laugh “M’afraid not, they’ve only just received word of the war’s end.”
Erzo’s face was an unreadable rock, “Is that so?”
“Yes.” The man’s gaze stopped on Io’s expression.
“Is that your daughter with you?” he said not taking his eyes off her.
Erzo wrapped his arm around her “Yes, I’m afraid the war has taken a toll on her nerves.”
The man’s face seemed to relax “Well it’s done a number on everyone’s dear but don’t you fear. There’ll be peace someday. As soon as they get rid of those devil wizards.”
The man’s tone was jovial but landed hard on their ears.
Erzo kept up the farce, “Too true friend.”
“Well you best get on,” the old man said “sun’s getting low and it’ll be dark soon.”
“Much appreciated again sir.”
The old man nodded as he shook his team back into action.
When the old man was out of earshot Io turned to Erzo, “Are you familiar with Craning Rock?”
“No, but a lot of the small villages this far out are very…superstitious.”
She said nothing else as they kept walking down the dirt road.
When they got close enough to the village they saw a signal post. At the top of the post was the instantly recognizable blue from a Council Wizard’s robes. The cloak was torn and tattered stained with blood and mud. It was a warning. A warning Erzo meant to heed.
He tugged at Io’s arm but her eyes were fixed on bloodied cloak.
“Come on, before anyone sees us.”
He pulled her off the road and they made a straight line towards the massive lake’s shore. Some distance from the water’s edge they found a massive fallen tree that provided a small natural canopy. They wormed their way in as the sun began to set.
Erzo could see Io was still upset.
“Try not to think about it.”
It was hard not to, Io thought to herself.
The road had and the tension of the day had exhausted her more than she wanted to admit and after calming down her body relaxed and she fell into a light sleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night she awoke in a fright. She searched around in the darkness for Erzo. As her eyes adjusted she realized she could see more than she first thought. The moon was big and bright in the sky and she could see Erzo sitting just beyond the canopy’s cover looking out at the moon’s reflection on the lake’s glassy surface.
“Nightmare?” He asked.
She didn’t answer, “Have you not been to sleep?”
“I don’t sleep much these days.”
She formed a stiff smile and traced his eyesight to see what he was watching. She couldn’t find anything.
“What are you looking for?” She asked.
“I’m not looking for anything. I’m just watching the world. Look at it. You see there? In the lake? All of the heavens are reflected in the dark mirror of the water. An entire universe turned upside down. Some people might think it’s impossible to live like that. In a world turn round. But eventually everything right’s itself. It’s just a matter of waiting. And waiting can be hard.”
Io looked out at the lake’s surface and the universe turned upside down.