Fade to White
Morning light spilled into the room and onto the unpleasant task that Jerek stood looking down on, the task that only he could do. Tryne was outside far away from the cottage door, and he had gotten her solid promise that she wouldn’t try to come inside. It smelled atrocious, of burnt flesh and hair, stale and overwhelming. Jerek hesitated, holding the burlap sack in his hands as he blanched slightly. The detached head looked up at him, its eyes more like melted gobs that ran down its cheeks and into its blackened lips. Crimson and black splotches were all that was left of the skin, and a few strands of red hair came from the skull. Slowly Jerek bent down and placed the bag next to the head, feeling even more sick as he got closer to it. Pushing it slightly with the toe of his boot, it stuck to his foot and jumped slightly when Jerek quickly pulled his foot away, turning and rolling along the wooden floor.
Jerek’s head went fuzzy and he became extremely aware of the nauseating smell that choked his nose and mouth. He lurched, fumbling to get outside, tasting the vomit in his mouth before it came up. Hunched over with his face in the grass just by the cottage, Jerek breathed heavily, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Are you all right?” Tryne called from where she was standing, pushing her shovel into the dirt and taking a few steps toward him.
“I’m fine!” he shouted back, standing up. The outside air was already clearing his head, and although he felt weaker he also felt like he could accomplish anything he needed to do.
“I think I could help you, instead of just standing out here doing nothing.”
Jerek didn’t even respond, turning his back and walking inside again. She wasn’t going to dirty her hands with this kind of work, not if he could protect her from it. Quickly, without thinking, Jerek held open the sack and kicked the head into it, immediately carrying it outside and dumping it into the hole that Tryne had dug. Both of them stood staring at it for a full minute, before Jerek started taking a few steps away.
“I’ll leave you to say goodbye . . .”
“No, wait.” Tryne grabbed the shovel and began piling dirt into the hole. “We weren’t even supposed to have anything to bury. I’ve already said my goodbyes to her.” Dropping the shovel haphazardly, Tryne flung herself at Jerek’s back, wrapping her arms around him.
Touching one of Tryne’s hands, Jerek lowered his head and softly said, “I’ll stay then.”
Tryne didn’t answer, crying quietly into the back of Jerek’s shirt.
“Run away with me,” Jerek said after a moment.
There was a pause before Tryne’s voice came quietly, “I’ve always wanted to see the Ruby Village.”
“No, outside of the Twelve Villages, far away.”
“I’m not even sure if a world does exist outside of the Twelve Villages.”
“Apparently Nosaj has a stronger grip on you than you thought.”
“Shut up! Nosaj doesn’t have any hold on me.”
“What were you saying just now?”
“Nothing” Tryne pushed Jerek away from her. “Go heat up some water to help me clean up.”
“I thought you intended to leave with me.”
“Not until after I make contact with Ken. I just can’t pick up and leave without telling him. That would be irresponsible.”
“Running away in and of itself is irresponsible.”
Pausing, Tryne sighed. “Okay, so maybe it’s not about responsibility, but I still want to tell Ken goodbye.”
“It’s unsafe for us to stay here.”
“I have confidence that you can protect me. Go on now, get the water and put it on the stove. I’ll light the fire and get the scrub brushes.” Stepping inside the cottage, Tryne wrinkled her nose. “Whew, it stinks in here. I would’ve thrown up too.”
“Don’t remind me,” Jerek grumbled.
“Are you embarrassed by it?”
“Shut up.” Jerek disappeared, coming back a few minutes later with a bucket full of water, which he poured into the kettle sitting on the cast iron stove. “Do you think we can get the smell out?”
“I don’t know, it’s worse than I ever imagined. I’m sure if we keep the window and door open for several days, and maybe steam up the room, the smell will die down.” Tryne laughed. “Or we’ll just get used to the smell and not notice it anymore.”
Jerek shook his head. “You’re a strange girl. I can’t understand why anyone would want to get used to a horrible smell.” Putting his arm to his forehead, Jerek leaned against the wall near the stove, looking down into the water in the kettle. “How hot are we getting the water?”
“I want it to at least start boiling.” Tryne paused and placed a finger against her lips, also looking at the water. “We have some time to wait.”
“You mean to say we’re going to use scalding hot water to wash your floor with? I don’t know if I want any part of this.”
“Of course you do. You may want to pull off your shoes and roll up your pants and sleeves though.”
“Because it’s more fun that way.”
“Hold on one second.” Kneeling down on the ground next to his bed, Jerek pulled out his sword and clothes from underneath and carefully laid them on top. “Just in case you get carried away.”
“If I get carried away, it won’t matter where you put your things. Don’t worry though, I’ll restrain myself.” Laughing, Tryne wrapped her arms around herself as if she was holding herself back.
Sitting down on the bed, Jerek narrowed his eyes at Tryne. “Are you taking your shoes off too?”
“Yes. Like I said, it’s more fun that way.” Bending over, Tryne pulled off her shoes and socks one by one, also bundling up the bottom of her skirt, tying it in a knot and exposing her legs. Keeping his eyes fixed on her, Jerek unlaced his boots, showing his bare feet as well. Tryne smiled coyly, dancing a little bit as she moved over to the stove. “Water’s ready!” she called, taking rags and using them to protect her hands as she pulled the kettle off the stove. “Watch your feet!” Then, splashing water all over, Tryne poured the contents onto the floor, steam filling the air. Picking up two scrub brushes, she tossed one to Jerek, then got down on her hands and knees.
“I’m not too sure about this,” Jerek said, watching her distrustfully.
“Come on, you’ll be fine. Besides, I think some hard work will do you some good.”
Cautiously, Jerek put one foot on the wet floor, then got down and began scrubbing. The first area he went over was where the head and been, and he soon found that if he quickly pushed the brush through a puddle that water would spray forward, traveling quite a distance. Looking over his shoulder, Jerek saw that Tryne was facing toward him with her head down, intent on cleaning. Twisting slightly, Jerek put his brush down and shoved it through a puddle.
Tryne yelped and fell back, completely caught off guard as the water went over her. Glaring at Jerek, who was smirking, Tryne took her brush and threw it at him, but Jerek dodged it, then slowly began crawling toward her. Tryne tried to move backwards, but she slipped and fell down, and with triumph Jerek planted his hands on either side of her head, leaning over her. Their eyes met, and Jerek moved one of his hands to brush a few strands of Tryne’s hair out of her face, her eyes closing at his touch. Leaning down, he kissed her lips softly and tenderly, then sitting back he pulled her up and kissed her again.
Putting her arms around Jerek’s waist, Tryne rested her head against his chest and murmured, “So this is for real. I was afraid last night was a one time thing.” Pausing, Tryne asked, “Why did you suddenly pull away?”
“I was afraid,” Jerek grunted.
“Afraid of what?”
“I’ve never felt this way before.” Jerek hesitated. Should he tell her the truth? He considered opening up, spilling out his heart to her and confessing who he really was. If it wasn’t for the fact that they were in love, they would be enemies. If she knew who he was, they would be enemies. He couldn’t tell her the truth, and it didn’t matter anyway because soon they would leave all of this behind them. It wasn’t necessary for her to know, it was a secret he was going to keep locked up inside him forever.
A shadow darkened the doorway and Jerek convulsively tightened his arms around Tryne. That was the only thing that stopped her from quickly pushing away and standing up. There was almost a guilty air around her as she stood facing Ken, clutching her hands together, not daring to make a move. It was Ken who spoke first, his voice dark, “Tryne, we need to talk, alone.”
“Yes, of course.” Tryne forced a nervous laugh. “Jerek, could you please finish cleaning the floor?”
He didn’t answer, simply watching as Tryne and Ken left, closing the door behind them. Then slowly Jerek picked up a scrub brush and began pushing it back and forth across the floor.
“Tryne, what the heck are you doing?” Ken said, fuming when they stopped a distance away from the cottage.
“What are you doing? I could’ve sworn you said . . .”
“I know what I said! This is what I’m saying now, and it would be in your best interest to listen to me. Don’t trust that guy! You should kick him out then disappear so he can’t find you, or better yet let me take care of him!” Ken suddenly stopped, then pleadingly added, “Please listen to me on this one.”
“Why are you saying this? What reasons are there on why I shouldn’t trust him?” Tryne asked, defiantly placing her hands on her hips.
“Because the orphans we recently took in said that a man with white hair took their big sister away, and in exchange let them all live. How many men with white hair do you think there are?”
“No, Jerek would never do anything like that!” Tryne shook her head.
“How well do you really know him? I tell you that he’s working for Nosaj!”
“You’re lying!” Tryne burst out.
“I would never lie!” Ken wrinkled his brow, his eyes looking hurt. “I care about you too much.”
“Our village was attacked yesterday . . .”
“. . . but they didn’t kill that very many people. It seems that they were just rounding people up to transport to Opal. Apparently Nosaj wants to split our forces so we’ll fall apart. He knows about our group, he knows it’s organized and that our town has some of the most active members. Any moment now they’ll be attacking your home as well.”
“They already have,” Tryne answered to be snarky, then suddenly stopped. They knew about her mother and where she lived.
“What did you just say?” Ken’s eyes widened in alarm. “They attacked your cottage? Where were you? What happened?”
“I wasn’t there.” Tryne faltered. “I was down by the stream. It could have been anyone, because the place wasn’t destroyed, just ransacked. I highly doubt anyone did it on Nosaj’s orders.”
Ken looked at her strangely for a second, then grabbed her wrist and started pulling her. “C’mon, we’re leaving right now.”
“No Ken!” Tryne tried to pull away. “Let go of me, I’m not going anywhere!”
“We don’t have time to waste, we’re in danger . . .” Ken didn’t finish his sentence, looking stunned and touching his face where Tryne had slapped him.
“I’m staying here, and I’ll be perfectly safe!” Tryne shouted, turning around and running. When she reached her cottage, she flung open the door then slammed it shut behind her. “If Ken tries to come in, grab your sword and stop him,” she ordered to Jerek who was sitting on his knees in a mild and curious confusion that was only enhanced by her words.
Tryne breathed deeply, then threw her arms around Jerek’s neck. “You’re not evil, are you?”
Jerek didn’t know how to answer. Instead he returned Tryne’s embrace, holding her tightly against him.