Written for the flash fiction prompt “Clouds” for a Facebook writing group which may, or may not, involve badgers. Sparkly ones.
Layla whirled and leaped on the dry grass, skinny arms and legs flying as she threw back her head and laughed at the sheer joy of dancing. She watched the skies as she moved, squinting then widening her eyes to see how the clouds were developing above her. She raised her arms above her head and changed to a movement that would probably have been called a reel, in the time Before.
Not that Layla knew anything about Before. She’d been born in the throes of the sticky time, the time when there wasn’t quite war but there certainly wasn’t peace, when the stability of the previous 80 years in that part of the world had gradually tipped into chaos. Maybe if she’d have been born Before she’d have been different. Maybe she’d have had people care for her and help her through a much easier life than he could make for her. Maybe she’d have been cured by some of those miracle medicines he’d heard talk of and kind of maybe just about remembered. But now all she had was him. And all Malc could to for her was make sure she could dance every now and then.
He watched her ecstatic, loose-limbed spinning figure and remembered how he’d first found her, hands bound and dragged behind a family of Eaters, destined to be their next meal. He couldn’t stand Eaters, so he’d shot two of them as soon as he’d seen what they were, another two as the smaller ones ran and screamed and panicked, and the final ones he’d killed close up. One of those had been young enough that he’d hesitated, but the mother had been holding it and when she’d run shrieking at him with a knife he’d put the next arrow right through the both of them. Stupid Eaters never kept much of a look out, as if the act of eating human flesh somehow made them immune to any danger. He always left them for the scavengers – and maybe one day he’d eat the flesh of a creature that had fed on those Eaters. But he would never become one.
So he’d fetched Layla out of the camp, retrieved his arrows and they’d walked on. He wouldn’t do things quite the same now. Travelling with someone else had made him more cautious in some ways. Especially someone like Layla. He’d seen straight off that she wasn’t right. But she wasn’t stupid either. She’d held still in the midst of that camp as he killed her captors, and she’d not shied away from him when he went to free her, instead presenting her bonds to be cut. And she’d proven herself handy enough with a knife in the time since, too.
She was, he reckoned, maybe 17 – perhaps a little younger, perhaps a little older. But no more than a couple of years either way. Skinny, always, no matter if they spent time in a caravan of travellers – not that they were ever tolerated for long – or were just walking the roads alone, sometimes hungry for a day or two if the hunting luck wasn’t with him.
So they’d travelled together for the best part of a year now, first as companions and then when Layla came unbidden to him one night, as lovers. He supposed he was perhaps five years her senior, but she was the first woman he’d ever had, all the same.
As for him, he’d survived first because he was with a big group and his parents were still alive. Then they both died, one of a broken leg gone bad and the other of some kind of fever, and he’d been tolerated for a while because of his skill with a bow. And then the boss man’s daughter had wanted him and he’d seen the way that was going and run rather than have his throat slit some night.
Since then – until Layla – he’d been alone.
He looked up at the sky. Time they were going, more than.
Layla was still dancing, but even she could see that her dancing was nearly finished for the day. He sighed. He knew that sometime – and he should have done it already – he’d have to stop this. Stop her. She wound down and came to a slightly swaying halt, smiling that beautiful, relaxed smile she always got when she’d been cloud dancing.
The adrenaline of the hunt had gone now, replaced by the fear of the potentially hunted. The smoke of the pyre would be visible from a long way off, and soon others would come to pick over the corpses. Not Eaters this time, but Layla had been jumpy and snappish for days and when they’d come across this lot she was in amongst them with her knife and no thought for her own safety before he could stop her.
Still, he thought again, he really would have to do something about Layla. As they walked quickly away from the billowing smoke rising into the sky, drifting away like a host of small black clouds, she put her hand in his and smiled happily up at him, her blue-green eyes full of love and joy. Yes, he’d have to do something. Just maybe not yet.