Alphonse hadn't spent time imagining what his homecoming would be like, but if he had, it wouldn't have involved being chased by a herd of angry cows. To be fair to the cows, he had cut through their field. Had he known it was occupied by such easily enraged animals, he wouldn't have climbed the fence.
Oh, Alphonse, he could almost hear his mother sigh, didn't you stop to ask yourself why there was a fence?
He'd noticed that Miller Stovkin had built a fence at some point in the two years he'd been gone, but since he had crossed through this field for most of his life, it had seemed of little importance.
It was now, however, very important as he tore across the field, his cloak flapping behind him and his travel bag banging painfully against his leg. The weight of all his books slowed him down, and the crashing noise of the cattle pursuing him grew louder as they gained on him.
The nearest place of safety was a large tree jutting out of the field like a finger pointing at the sky. Alphonse clambered up onto the lowest branch faster than he had ever climbed anything.
Fortunately, this ended the cows' pursuit, although Alphonse half-expected one particularly irate-looking cow to ram into the tree just out of spite.
Unfortunately, his bag caught on a sharp little branch in his haste to get off the ground. With a loud ripping noise, the seam split open and dumped out all of his belongings.
Dismayed, Alphonse watched as his books, clothes, food, and a few other items hit the ground. Loose parchment slowly bounced across the field in the light breeze. The books opened at odd angles, bending some of the pages. Alphonse groaned loudly when one of them landed right in a pile of cow dung. The cows all stood around nonchalantly, as though he no longer warranted their attention, except for that one cow who Alphonse swore was glaring at him.
His eyes swept the ground, frantically looking for one book in particular. He spotted it resting against the base of the tree. "No! Bad cow! Shoo!" Alphonse waved at the cow that was now attempting to chew on one of his books. "That's not food! What kind of demented cattle are you? Why don't you act like the Banders' cows? They never chased me and tried to eat my books!"
The cow, at least, agreed that his book was inedible and rambled over to munch on some grass. Alphonse's gaze moved back to his most treasured book. It was very old and worn, as it had belonged to his father and had been read countless times over the years.
Welcome home, Alphonse. Stuck in a tree less than a mile from home. Way to go. If only he had told his mother he would be arriving a day early, she would have been there to meet him at the train station and he might have avoided this. Instead, he had decided to surprise her.
Alphonse narrowed his eyes and gauged the distance between the branch he was clinging to and his favorite book below. He might be able to reach it. He shifted on the tree branch, hooked his knees around it, and carefully leaned backward until he was hanging upside down. His glasses slipped off his nose and dropped to the ground before he had time to realize they were falling.
"Great. Just great." His vision was so blurred that he could make out nothing in front of him except a fuzzy green and brown smear of the dirt and grass. He blindly reached out and his fingertip scraped his glasses, but they were just out of reach. And he couldn't even see if the cows were getting angry with him for dangling in front of them.
"Hey! Who's in my field? You'd best not be trying to steal my berries!"
Though Alphonse hadn't heard that gruff voice in a couple of years, it was unmistakable. "Mr. Stovkin!" he called, relieved. "It's me, Alphonse Redding!"
The sound of whirring mecha met his ears, followed by guffawing. A blur of brown moved into Alphonse's vision, and Miller Stovkin's amused voice came from right in front of him. "Alphonse? Why in the blazes are you hanging upside down from my tree?"
Alphonse's head was beginning to hurt from all of the blood rushing into it. "Mr. Stovkin, do you, um, see my glasses there?" With the turn his afternoon had taken, it was almost inevitable that Mr. Stovkin was going to step on them.
Alphonse's glasses were pressed into his hand, and he put them back on, holding them firmly in place with one hand. Mr. Stovkin came into sharp focus. His hair was grayer and his brown face more wrinkled than Alphonse recalled. He wore a huge smirk half-hidden by his bushy mustache. Carefully, so that he wouldn't again lose his glasses, Alphonse twisted and dropped down. His head spun and spots danced in front of his eyes as the blood flowed properly again.
The cow that had been glaring at him was gone, and the other cows were meandering innocently nearby, as though they were not at all responsible for sending him up a tree. Right beside Mr. Stovkin was his rusty old open-air vehicle, hovering several feet off the ground. The mecha looked as ancient as it had when Alphonse had last laid eyes on it and part of him wondered how it was still holding up.
"I don't think your cows like me very much," Alphonse said as he picked up his father's old book. It didn't seem to have been damaged from its fall. Some of his other things, on the other hand…
He woefully eyed the book in the pile of manure.
"Ah, they just don't know you. Smart cows, these ones. 'Course, could be some of them know they're about to be turned into food and it's made them a mite ornery. Come on, stick your stuff in my HV. I'll give you a lift to your mom's place, if that's where you're headed."
"Thank you. I would appreciate that." Alphonse used his ripped bag to pick up the book stuck in the manure and wrap it up carefully until he could get it home and clean it. He knew several of his classmates who would have squealed in disgust, but it was a perfectly good book, aside from being very dirty at the moment. He couldn't just abandon it to cow slobber and cloven hooves. He picked up the rest of his belongings and set them in the back of Mr. Stovkin's two-seater hover vehicle before climbing into the passenger seat.
Mr. Stovkin jumped up into the driver's seat, and soon they were zooming off across the field, around the cows. "Your mother mentioned you were coming home for the summer. She's been terribly thrilled."
Alphonse clutched the side of the HV as Mr. Stovkin drove across his fields and out a gate. They soon went through a thin patch of trees, and Alphonse's family house came into sight. It was just as he remembered it—the stone house, the well outside, his mother's birdfeeders and birdbath and carefully tended flowers. He nearly choked on a sudden wave of homesickness. Oh, he had seen his mother when she came to the university to visit him during holidays, but there had always been something to keep him from coming home, even during his last summer vacation: An exciting project, a trip to the northern caves to study the newly found drawings within, a chance to study with a renowned visiting professor. Maybe he should have made time to come home sooner.
I'll be out of university in six months anyway, he thought as the HV pulled to a stop in his mother's backyard.
And then what? Would I come back here? There's the program that Professor Inkler has been talking about, and there's that research grant…
"Alphonse!" His mother's startled voice brought his attention to the back door. There she was, standing in a patchwork dress, a bandana tied around her mess of black curls. Her face lit up and she limped barefoot across the lawn as fast as she could to meet him. He jumped out of the HV and she wrapped him in a tight hug. She smelled like flowers and bread. Like home. She stepped back, her hands on his shoulders, and beamed up at him. Her apron was dusted with flour. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you! I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow!"
"I found your boy here hanging from a tree in my cow pasture." Mr. Stovkin sounded no less amused than he had when he'd first discovered Alphonse in the field.
Alphonse pulled all of his belongings out of the back of Mr. Stovkin's vehicle, setting the wrapped book on the ground until he could get something to clean the manure. "Thank you for the lift, Mr. Stovkin."
"My pleasure. It's good to see you." Mr. Stovkin drove off back through the woods.
Alphonse turned to see his mother picking up the bag-covered book. She wrinkled her nose and held it at arm's length. "Dare I ask why this smells like dung?"
Alphonse rubbed the back of his neck. "I had a bit of a mishap in Mr. Stovkin's cow pasture."
"Oh, Alphonse." His mother sighed, but her eyes were twinkling and she waved him toward the door. "Why don't you take your things to your room and change out of those travel clothes?"
Alphonse carried his belongings into the house. The kitchen was the same, with its old wooden table and benches, dried flowers and herbs, and a counter that was currently covered in flour and dough. His feet found the familiar grooves in the well-worn stone floor as he walked toward his old bedroom. His mother hadn't changed anything inside of it in the past two years, though the lack of dust indicated she had kept it tidy for him. He set his armload of stuff on his bed and turned in a slow circle, taking in the desk, the bookshelf, all of the encyclopedias, old projects, and papers he had left behind. The model HV his father had helped him build when he was seven still hung from the ceiling.
Alphonse turned back to his bed and changed into the extra set of clothes he had packed. He went back out to the kitchen to discover that his mother had cleaned off the manure-covered volume and set it to dry.
"Mom, you didn't have to do that!"
"It was no trouble at all," she replied cheerfully. She rolled out the dough on the counter and nodded toward the table. "Sit down and talk to me." She had set out a plate of cheese and fruit, along with a cup of water. She began to make the dough into biscuits as he thanked her and downed the water. "How has school been? How are your friends?" His mother looked over at him and he saw the mischief in her eyes when she innocently asked, "I don't suppose you've become attached to any of those lovely young ladies I met last time I was there?"
Alphonse groaned. "Mom."
"I have to ask these things. You're my only child. How else am I going to know when to expect grandchildren?"
"Is there a polite way to tell you that having children is the very last thing on my mind?"
His mother laughed. "I don't think you need to tell me that." Still, he thought she looked a little wistful. More than that, it struck him that she looked lonely, and it made him feel worse that he hadn't been home sooner.
Later that night, as Alphonse was finishing organizing his belongings from the summer and preparing for bed, his mother poked into his room and picked up the only other outfit he had brought with him. "You didn't bring any more clothes home with you?"
Alphonse looked at her blankly. "I can only wear one set at a time, and if I had brought more, I wouldn't have had room for all my books."
"You sound just like your father," his mother said fondly. "The countless hours he would spend with his nose in his books, always talking about this artifact and that research paper." She gave him a tight hug. "Good night, Alphonse. I'm so glad to have you home."
"Good night, Mom."
She limped into her bedroom and closed the door, and Alphonse collapsed onto his bed. It was smaller than he recalled it being and his feet dangled off of the end of it. He was too tired to care. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The next thing he knew, he was falling out of bed, banging his head painfully on the wall. He tried to figure out where he was and what he was doing. It slowly dawned on him that he was sitting on the floor of his childhood bedroom and that someone was pounding on the front door.
He went into the hallway and found his mother coming out of her room, wrapping a robe around herself. Alphonse's brain finally jolted awake, but he still couldn't figure out why anyone would be banging on the door at this hour.
"Mrs. Redding! Mrs. Redding, are you home?" Though the male voice calling through the door was vaguely familiar, Alphonse couldn't quite place it. "Please be home! It's Nella!"
Alphonse pinpointed the voice. It was Bryce Derrin, one of his old classmates. Nella had been another classmate, and he recalled that the two had been very taken with each other during their school days.
Alphonse's mother's eyes widened and she ran to the front door to open it. "What's going on?"
Alphonse couldn't see Bryce with his mother blocking the doorway, but he was frantic when he answered. "She…she…she's leaking all over and she's in tremendous pain. It's time, I'm sure of it, and her mom's visiting her grandfather for the weekend…"
"Calm down, Bryce," Alphonse's mother said soothingly. "It's going to be just fine. I'll come right over. Is there anyone else there to help?"
"N-No, ma'am, you're the closest neighbor and I didn't want to leave Nella alone, but I didn't have any choice," Bryce replied.
"Wait right here. I need to get a few things." Alphonse's mother turned away from the door. "Alphonse, I want you to come with me. If nothing else, you can keep Bryce calm." She took him by the arm and pulled him into the kitchen, where she gathered a few jars of herbs.
"Um, why am I keeping Bryce calm?"
"Because it seems his wife is in labor."
Alphonse froze and his face slowly drained of color. "Wh-what? I can't…I mean, there's nothing I can do…" She expected him to go to a house where a woman—no, one of the girls he had grown up with—was having a baby? The very thought of it made his stomach swim nauseatingly.
"You can carry this." His mother shoved a stack of linens in his arms. "Now, if you please, Alphonse."
He certainly didn't please, but he numbly followed her back toward the door, where he got his first look at Bryce. He paced back and forth and twisted a straw hat around in his hands. He had once been taller than Alphonse, and was now half a head shorter. He looked momentarily startled when he saw Alphonse, but managed a nod and a mumble that might have been a greeting.
When they reached Bryce's house and went inside, a very pregnant Nella was doubled over in the front room, groaning. Sweat rolled down her face and plastered her red hair to her cheeks. Alphonse took one look at her and turned to walk back out of the house. His mother grabbed his arm and halted him in his tracks.
"I need those linens and then I need you to sterilize a knife for me. Bryce, boil water. And do you have a heater?"
"Yes, Mrs. Redding."
"Get that out and turn it on, and bring it into the bedroom."
Alphonse's mother led Nella out of the room, presumably toward the bedroom, and Alphonse's legs became too weak to stand on. He collapsed into the nearest chair and stared at Bryce, wondering if he looked as pale as Bryce did.
At least Bryce was on his feet and moving as quickly as he could follow Alphonse's mother's instructions. It would have been much handier if their small town had indoor plumbing like all of the major cities, universities, and even many other little towns, but Hale was behind on some things. Bryce ran outside to the well with a bucket in hand, leaving the door wide open. He returned shortly with water. In his haste to get it on the stove, he sloshed half of it on the floor and had to go back for more.
Alphonse was glued to the seat. He tried to stand up at one point, and then Nella screamed from the bedroom and he sank right back down again.
"So, um, Alphonse," Bryce stammered after he finally got the water heating up on the stove. "It's been a while. Back from university?" He dashed to a cupboard and pulled out a mecha heater, typically used for heating beds during the winter. He pushed a button on it to get it warming up.
"For the summer," Alphonse replied.
Another scream from the bedroom, and Alphonse had to resist the very strong urge cover his ears. Either that, or flee. Fleeing sounded like a very good option right then.
Knife. He was supposed to be sterilizing a knife and keeping Bryce calm. Right. Who was supposed to keep him calm so that he could keep Bryce calm?
"Where do you keep your knives?"
By the time Alphonse had finished sterilizing the utensil, Bryce had disappeared into the bedroom, so Alphonse took the liberty to run out the door. He would have gone home, except he was afraid his mother would need him (he prayed she wouldn't), so he sat on the ground and leaned against the side of the house.
He cursed the misfortune that had brought him home right when a neighbor had decided to give birth. Not that any other time would have been any better, but if it had been another night, maybe Nella's mother would have been there so that he wouldn't have to be. If only he had waited until the next day, when he was supposed to come home, he could have been comfortably in his dorm room at the university.
Even being outside didn't drown out the noises that Nella was making, and Alphonse tried to focus on something other than the sounds. Anything else. He ran through historical events, calming himself by going through names and dates. He would have thought going through the finer points in his country's history would have given him more than enough material to get through a baby's birth. Apparently this was going to take longer than he expected. When he had caught up to the present day in his mental history recollection, he jumped over to mathematical equations. Every time he dozed off, he was jolted awake by the sudden noises from inside.
By the time an infant's cries pierced the air, the sun was rising and Alphonse was ready to fall over—whether from exhaustion or relief that it had ended, he wasn't sure.
"Alphonse!" his mother called. "Alphonse, I need that knife!"
Alphonse dragged himself to his feet and ran into the house. He located the sterilized knife and took it to the bedroom door. When he knocked tentatively, his mother said, "You can come in. Meet our new neighbor."
Yes, because he wanted to see Nella for the first time in two years after he'd spent half the night listening to her labor pains. "I'd really prefer to stay out here."
The door opened and Alphonse's mother held out her hand for the knife. She looked exhausted, but there was both amusement and happiness on her face. "Very well. Thank you for staying close. You can—"
"Mrs. Redding?" Nella sounded equally exhausted and there was a sudden fear in her tone that made Alphonse's mother turn quickly, the knife in her hand pointed down.
This was the worst thing that she could have done, for it gave Alphonse a wide view of the bedroom and the bloodied cloths and sheets. He got a glimpse of Nella on the bed, holding a baby whose umbilical cord had not yet been cut. Coupled with the sweat and blood smell wafting from the room, Alphonse's nausea and dizziness overwhelmed him and his vision went black. The next thing he knew, he was opening his eyes from the floor, his glasses pressed uncomfortably against his face.
"Alphonse, are you all right?" his mother asked.
"I'm…unnnghh…" Alphonse scooted backwards out of the bedroom. He must have only been out for a second or two, because the conversation within the bedroom continued as though he had not just fainted like a coward at the sight of blood.
Alphonse pressed his face to his knees and decided maybe he should wait a moment before trying to stand up again. Though his mother might not know it yet, her chances of ever having a grandchild had just dropped to zero percent.
"What are these?" Nella asked. "These bumps on her back…is something wrong with her? Is my baby all right?"
There was a heavy silence, in which Alphonse imagined his mother to be examining the newborn. "Oh," his mother breathed. "Oh, Nella…these aren't bumps."
"Then what are they?" Bryce spoke this time, and he had more dread in his voice than fear, as though he already knew the answer and was afraid to say it.
His mother's reply was so quiet Alphonse almost didn't hear it. "They're wing buds."
"I wasn't expecting Bryce and Nella's daughter to have wings," Alphonse said after his mother came back home. He had left as soon as he was capable of standing, and he was much calmer sitting in his familiar house without any yells or crying or the smells of afterbirth. "Neither of them are Alatun, and their parents aren't, either."
"We don't know that." Alphonse's mother sank down at the table and rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Nella was raised by her mother and stepfather. She doesn't know who her real father is. He could have been Alatun. If that is the case, it's rather surprising that Nella was born without wings."
Alphonse nodded. Alatun genes tended to be dominant. "But not impossible."
"No." His mother sighed. "And I wouldn't blame Nella's mother for keeping it quiet, especially with Nella being so young during the war. You know how hard it was for the Alatun people then—and how hard it can be for them now."
"What are they going to do?"
"I don't know. There's little they can do. I like to think the people in our town will welcome Nella's daughter no matter what." She reached across the table and patted his hand. "Why don't we get some sleep? You look ready to fall over." She paused and added, "Again."
Alphonse dropped his forehead into his hands. "Thanks, Mom. Just rub it in."
She ruffled his hair. "That's what I'm here for."
He looked up at her through his glasses and his attempt at a reply was muffled in a yawn. "Right," he mumbled. "Bed." He dragged himself up from the table and barely made it to his room before he collapsed on the bed, sound asleep.
Alphonse discovered over the next couple of weeks that as nice as it was to be home—discounting, of course, crazy cows and the horror of childbirth—he had no idea what to do with himself if he wasn't working on an academic project. He alleviated his restlessness by helping his mother around the house and making his way through his father's enormous shelves of books. History, math, geology, geography, and plenty of other tomes full of knowledge. He would save the few books of fiction as a last resort.
His mother paid numerous visits to Bryce and Nella. Alphonse kept away. He had no interest in cooing over a squalling, messy baby when he could be home reading.
His mother did manage to get him away from the books long enough to help with the annual summer festival, as she had done every year he had been at home. This year, that meant helping her with several dozen pies, cakes, and other goodies for the town-wide meal that would be served there.
On the morning of the festival, Mr. Stovkin gave Alphonse and his mother a ride to town with their baked goods piled precariously all around Alphonse in the back of his old HV. The festival took place in the main square in town. It was stuffed full of games, booths, food carts, homemade trinkets, rides—some mecha ones and some more old-fashioned ones—and of course, the giant slides, which children were throwing themselves down, giggling madly and shrieking in delight.
"Alphonse," his mother said as he helped her unload pies from the HV, "I know you have a book hidden in your pocket, but would you try to be a little bit personable before you disappear with it?"
Alphonse gave her a long-suffering look. She only raised an eyebrow at him and added, "Everyone has been looking forward to seeing you."
He stared at her with unmasked skepticism. She just plopped a stack of pastries into his arms and motioned him toward the huge food tent. By the time he had set the pastries down on a table, he'd been clapped on the shoulder and received so many "Alphonse, welcome home!" comments that he began to think maybe his mother had a point.
He turned away from the pastry table only to have somebody leap onto him. He nearly fell back into the table and caught his balance just in time. There was a very soft, feminine body pressed up against him and pale, pale hair in front of his eyes and in his mouth. He spit the hair out before fighting to extricate himself from the death grip he was caught in. He thought he knew who had him, just because of the hair, and a feeling of dread sank into his stomach.
Sure enough, when the person pulled back, he saw the wide-eyed, beaming face of Arienna, another of his former classmates, and his dread plunged straight down to his toes. She held on to his hands, and he wondered if there was a polite way of shaking her off and disappearing somewhere to read his book. It wasn't that she wasn't nice. Arienna had always been very nice. Sweet. Polite. She had also, for some unfathomable reason, focused a lot of attention on him during secondary school and he'd had no idea what to make of it, or what to make of her.
"Oh, Alphonse, it's so good to see you! Look how tall you've grown!" Arienna squeezed his hands. "You look wonderful. How have things been at university?"
"Busy," Alphonse finally said. He looked around for help. His mother caught his eye and smiled encouragingly. Oh, yes, his mother was probably pleased as pie that he had a young lady hanging off of his arm. He gave her a 'please rescue me' look and she waved cheerfully at him as she chatted with Mrs. Gardner.
Arienna was saying something about Nella. Alphonse warily turned his attention back to her. "—heard the baby is deformed or something. Poor Nella isn't letting anyone touch her and when I went to visit her last week, she was a mess. She wouldn't even let me look at her baby. I feel awful for them. You'd think Nella would know that I wouldn't care if her baby was blue with scales. I'm not one to make fun of anyone, especially a child."
She seemed to be waiting for a response. Alphonse wasn't sure he had one. "Um, uh…that's great." Where was a wall when he needed to bang his head on it?
Arienna only smiled. She finally let go of his hands and he quickly stuffed them into his pockets so she wouldn't be able to grab them again. "So now that you're almost done with university, do you have plans to settle down and start a family of your own?"
Alphonse couldn't quite interpret her expression, but he was very sure of one thing. "I'm not having children."
She blinked at him in surprise. "Really? Why not?"
He tried to think of a proper, polite response. He said the first honest thing that came to mind. "I don't like them." Realizing that didn't exactly sound proper or polite, he tried to correct himself. "That is to say," he said, clearing his throat, "that children are noisy. And messy. And bloody," he added, thinking of that horrible, disastrous, wretched moment of Nella's afterbirth.
Arienna gaped at him. "Bloody?"
Alphonse rubbed the back of his neck. "Sometimes?" He needed to get out of there. Now. Desperately. "Will you excuse me? I have to go…do something. Thank you."
He left the food tent as quickly as he could. There. He'd had some social interaction like his mother had wanted and now he could find a quiet place to read his book. He retreated into the woods that rose up all around the town. He sat against a tree and opened his father's old, worn copy of A History of Ages. He got absorbed in reading about Alatia, the country to the east of Terrlan. It was tiny and mountainous, very maze-like and difficult for non-Alatuns to maneuver. Though Alphonse knew the history of Alatia backwards and forwards already, the idea of Nella's mysterious, possibly Alatun father had sparked his interest to reread it.
In the distance, he could hear the sounds of the town celebrating the festival, a vague background noise. It wasn't until it got too dark to read that Alphonse looked up in surprise. Was it already sundown? Sighing, he dragged himself to his feet and tucked his almost finished history book into his pocket. He was tempted to just walk home and avoid the crowd that would surely be in the food tent, but felt he should probably tell his mother he was leaving so she wouldn't send out search parties for him as she had when he was nine. (He'd fallen asleep in the woods while reading a book and hadn't heard the searchers calling his name.)
By the time he got to the food tent and located his mother, he was sure he had been bounced back and forth, questioned, and conversed with almost every single person in town. He was dizzy and disoriented, not to mention hungry. He got away from everyone long enough to grab some food and tell his mother he was going home.
"If you wait about twenty minutes, I'll come with you," she said.
He gazed at her beseechingly. "Fifteen minutes?"
"All right, fifteen."
"I'll be waiting outside." Alphonse left the tent and took a deep breath of the warm night air. He waved at a couple of people who called his name as they walked in and out of the tent. He was relieved when his mother finally emerged.
As they began walking home, his mother moved more slowly and her limp was more pronounced than usual.
"Mom, do you want me to go back to town and ask Mr. Stovkin to give us a ride home?"
"Mm? Oh, no, I'm fine. I had a busy day, and I think a storm is coming."
Alphonse looked up. The stars were shining and there wasn't a wisp of a cloud in sight, but he would trust his mother's sore leg over a clear sky any day.
"I saw you talking to Arienna earlier before you disappeared," his mother said. "She's a very sweet girl."
Resigned, Alphonse said, "I know."
"I think she likes you."
Alphonse opened his mouth to tell his mother that he was going back to university for six more months at the end of the summer. She continued before he had a chance.
"But," she said, "love is unpredictable, and sometimes it comes to some, and sometimes it doesn't, and how are we to know who it will choose? Some people spend their whole lives wishing for a love they never find. I think in some respects, there are those who would be very envious of you for being content all on your own." Her limping was getting worse, and Alphonse reached out and tucked her arm into his so she could lean on him. She smiled her thanks as she added, "If the right girl comes along for you, I think she'll have to upend your world to get you to notice her."
He gave her a look to express his doubt that it would happen at all.
When they reached their house and approached the door, Alphonse's mother gasped and clutched his arm tightly. It took him a second longer to see the man slumped over on their doorstep. The stranger's head rose when he heard the gasp.
"Madam." The word was hoarse and raspy. "I'm sorry for intruding in such a fashion." He pushed himself to his feet, holding his stomach, and even with only the starlight, Alphonse could see that he was bleeding from his middle. It brought on a sudden return of his nausea.
Alphonse's mother let go of him and took a step toward the stranger. "You're injured!" she exclaimed.
"I'll…be fine. Please…are you Saria?" He spoke with an accent Alphonse didn't recognize.
"I am," Alphonse's mother said cautiously.
"I'm looking for Lyle Redding. It's very important that I speak with him."
She froze and looked over at Alphonse, who had no idea what to make of the man or the situation. He hadn't tried to harm them, but that didn't mean he wasn't dangerous.
"I'm very sorry," Alphonse's mother said, "my husband died three years ago."
The man stared at her. "I see." He groaned and slumped back against the door.
Alphonse's mother made the choice. Stranger or not, she was a caretaker first and always had been, so she stepped forward and dragged the man back to his feet. "Alphonse, the door!"
Alphonse quickly unlocked the door as his mother assisted the stranger inside. He turned on the lights in the house, grateful that even though there was much mecha his mother went without, she had at least replaced the old oil lanterns with mecha lights.
His mother brought the man to the floor of their sitting room. She put a blanket on the floor and helped the man lie down on it. He was a little younger than Alphonse's mother, Alphonse guessed as the light illuminated the man's face. There was a scar that cut down his right cheek and continued down his neck, almost black against his already very dark face. His hair was in braids that were pulled back into a short ponytail. Alphonse happened to get a closer look at the gash across the man's stomach and pressed a hand over his mouth, trying not to retch.
"Alphonse, put water on to boil. Sir," she informed the man, "you need stitches. I can bandage you well enough until I can get you to a proper doctor. Nearest one is several towns west."
"My dear lady, whatever you can do to stop the bleeding would be appreciated, but I can't stay here. If Lyle is dead…I have no one else. And I have no time." The man's eyes fell on Alphonse. "Alphonse," he said, his voice slurring. "Your father spoke of you often." His eyes squeezed shut.
"Alphonse! Water!" his mother snapped.
Before Alphonse could comply, the stranger's hand shot out and grabbed Alphonse's shirt, preventing him from going anywhere. For an injured man, he had a tight grip. Alphonse looked down at the man, who was now staring back at him intensely. "Wait. You have to take it." With a trembling hand, he reached into his shirt and pulled out a small case used for holding papers. Alphonse often used a similar case to carry his papers between classes. "Terrlan's in danger. Alatia's in danger." He pushed the case into Alphonse's hand. "You have to take that to Dirsham. Give it to Councilor Berman. Only to Berman."
Alphonse stared blankly at the paper case in his hand. "What?" Perhaps the man was delusional. Why else would he be talking about this country and neighboring Alatia being in danger? They'd had a dozen years of relative peace since the war had ended. And surely if the countries were in trouble, the message wouldn't be brought to Alphonse's father.
"I can't stay here," the man repeated. "Too…dangerous. Alphonse…sorry. Hurry…take this to Councilor Berman. Be careful. There's a traitor among the councilors." He tried to get to his feet and didn't have the strength. Alphonse's mother pushed him back down.
"Reynold. Just Reynold," the man murmured.
Alphonse's mother froze and a startled expression crossed her face. It vanished just as quickly and she sternly said, "Reynold, you are not going anywhere until I can help you. Alphonse, water now."
Alphonse hastily shoved the paper case into the large pocket of his cloak and ran to the well to fetch water. As he lit the stove and heated it, he could hear the low voices of his mother and the stranger in the next room. He stared at the pot of water, his hands shaking and his heart pounding. The way the man had been looking at him, so honest and so adamant, he could almost believe that danger was lurking on the horizon.
He almost hoped that Reynold really was delusional, because he had no intention of taking anything to the Head Councilor. Not only was it a long journey, even by train, but what were the chances he would be admitted to see Councilor Berman? Slim to none. Probably none.
By the time the water began to boil, Alphonse had convinced himself that this was just a huge misunderstanding of some kind. Reynold was probably too hurt to really know what was going on.
This thought was shattered the moment his mother rushed into the kitchen. She was wide-eyed and maybe…frightened? "Alphonse." She grabbed him by the shoulders. "You have to go. Now."
"You don't know everything your father was doing during the war."
"He was a scientist. A consult for the Council," Alphonse replied.
"There was more to it than that. I knew bits of it. I didn't know everything, because your father told me there were some things he had to keep secret for my safety and for the country's safety. I know Reynold's name, though. During the war, your father told me if anything happened to him, I could trust a man called Reynold. I can't believe it's coincidence that a man named Reynold would show up looking for your father now. He's told me that he's just come from Ziphas—and now he's unconscious and I can't ask him anything else."
"Ziphas?" Alphonse echoed slowly. That explained the accent; he'd never met anyone from Ziphas before. "But…"
"Whatever he brought with him, I think we're going to have to believe that it could be important to our country. If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is that we should err on the side of caution. I'll get Reynold to a doctor. In the meantime, I think that you should do as he asked and take his package to Councilor Berman."
"Mom, even if there was some merit to what this man is saying," Alphonse said dubiously, "how would I get anything to Councilor Berman?"
"I don't know," his mother admitted, pouring some of the boiling water into a bowl, "though if this man knew your father, perhaps he also knew Councilor Berman. You must do your best. Now, there's one train that heads that way at midnight. If you go quickly, you can get to it before it leaves."
"Mom, doesn't this seem a little…" Sudden? Ridiculous? Insane?
"Err on the side of caution," his mother repeated, "and if nothing else, it will only take a few days out of your summer." She snatched up some cloths and picked up the bowl of hot water. "Hurry, Alphonse. Grab a bag, some clothes and food, and get to the station before the train leaves. I'll see to Reynold."
That was how, ten minutes later, Alphonse found himself setting out toward the train station in the black night, his repaired bag slung across his shoulder and the paper case in his cloak pocket. He felt very jolted and bewildered. He hated making rush decisions and hated even more not knowing why he was doing something. What a mess.
Alphonse kicked through the tall grass and startled a rabbit out of the underbrush. That startled him so much that he fell over.
"The animals around here must hate me," he grumbled as he picked himself back up and eyed his now grass-stained knees. He pushed his glasses more comfortably onto his nose and heaved a sigh. "I'm off to a great start."
The moon and stars were obscured by clouds by the time Alphonse reached the train station. Thunder rumbled in the distance. He was glad that he had avoided getting caught in the storm his mother had predicted.
Alphonse trudged up to the ticket counter. The man behind the counter smiled at him. "Good evening, sir. You here to catch one of the midnight trains, or are you meeting someone?"
"I'm here for the train. I need to get to Dirsham as soon as possible."
"Dirsham, eh? You do know that the trains here only ever go to Riley," the man said. "You'll have to change trains there."
"I know. And I'm going to need to put it on my Capital University account."
"Certainly. Just fill out this form." The ticket seller slid a form and a pen across the counter to him, and after Alphonse had filled it out, the man handed him his ticket. "The train for Riley should be arriving in a few minutes. Safe travels, sir!"
"Thank you." Alphonse took his bag and ticket to sit on the bench in front of the platform where the train would arrive. Another train prepared to head in the opposite direction. A few minutes after it had pulled away, his train came to the station and stopped with a squeal of wheels against railroad. It was very small, just an engine and three cars. Alphonse waited until the doors were opened. No passengers got off, so he handed his ticket to the conductor and stepped on board.
There were only two other passengers in the car where Alphonse sat. One was a very elderly woman whose taste in clothing was rather eccentric. She had a flowered skirt, a striped black and white shirt, and wrapped around her head and neck was a shawl that was covered in little stars and moons. Her pale face was colored with bright rouge and lipstick, which Alphonse thought looked a bit odd on such a wrinkled woman. Of course, he would never have said that. He politely averted his eyes. Not that she would have noticed if he was staring; she was sound asleep with her mouth hanging open.
The other passenger was a younger woman, perhaps a year or two older than Alphonse, with goggles propped on top of her head. In contrast to the old woman, her clothes were simple. She was very brown, from her skin, hair, and eyes to the sleeveless dress she wore over a long-sleeved shirt. She gave Alphonse a cursory glance as he settled onto a seat. He hoped that she would leave him alone. The last thing he wanted to do right then was field a hundred and one questions from some stranger.
Thankfully, she looked away and didn't speak a word to him, which left him free to dig into his travel bag for one of his books. He had brought one set of clothes, some food and water, and three books. He figured with all the train riding he was going to be doing, the books were a necessity.
He was so absorbed in reading that he was only vaguely aware of the whistle and the train moving. It wasn't long before the steady rocking of the train lulled him to sleep, his book propped on his lap.
He didn't wake up again until the train came to a stop. His book had fallen onto the seat beside him. Pushing his glasses back into place, he blinked and stretched. He hadn't expected to sleep all the way to Riley. Then he looked out the window and realized they weren't in Riley. In fact, they weren't in a city at all. Rain pounded against the roof and streamed down the windows, and outside in the black night, the blurry outline of trees towered over both sides of the tracks.
A calm voice came over the loudspeaker. "Sorry for the delay, folks. There seems to be some sort of trouble; just hang in there with us."
Alphonse blinked and rubbed his eyes sleepily, then tucked his book back into his bag. The old woman was still out cold, now drooling from her open mouth and making a horrible snorting noise that made him wonder how he had been able to sleep at all. The woman across from him was stifling a yawn in her hand. She looked like she had just been pulled from sleep, too. She stood and stretched, leaning over to peer out the window.
A moment later, the voice came back over the loudspeaker. "Excuse me again, folks. There are some soldiers here looking for someone. Everyone please remain calm and in your seats and we'll have this sorted out."
A trickle of unease ran through Alphonse. Why would the military stop a tiny train with only a few passengers? In the back of his mind, he wondered if there was any chance at all that they could be looking for him. If someone really had been looking for Reynold or his package, could they have tracked him to Alphonse's house?
Alphonse squeezed his eyes shut. Whatever was going on, the military had always protected him, his family, and his country. He saw men and women in the military all the time at university. It was going to be fine.
He opened his eyes when he heard the door opening. Two men in military uniforms stepped into the opposite end of the train car. They looked around and both fixed their eyes on Alphonse. "Are you Alphonse?" one asked.
The man reached out a hand toward him. "We need you to come with us."
Sweat prickled on Alphonse's forehead. So they were looking for him. Why did I listen to Mom? That Reynold character must be trouble, and now I'm mixed up in it!
Alphonse rose and slung his bag over his shoulder. "May I ask what this is about?"
One of the men held up his arm and pointed it at Alphonse. There was a strangled yell—not from him—and then he was shoved backward into the seat he had just vacated. It took him a moment to realize that the woman with goggles had pushed him out of the way. The train wall right behind where he had been standing was crackling with some sort of blue energy.
Alphonse was too stunned to move. The woman had no such problem. She yanked him upright with surprising strength, at the same time pushing the button that opened the door to the next train car. She shoved him through it, into a car that was empty of passengers. He had chosen a seat right next to the door, and the soldiers were on the opposite end of the car, which gave the woman just enough time to close the door between them. Her face was screwed up, as if in pain or anger.
The men were visible on the other side of the small glass window; they rushed to open the door.
There was a loud shattering noise as the woman stabbed something sharp into the button that opened the door, jamming it shut.
"Don't stop, you idiot! Move!" She was pulling him again, this time dragging him off of the train. Alphonse tripped on muddy ground and skidded into one of the trees rising up out of the darkness. The woman yelped as another crackle of blue energy struck the tree over Alphonse's head, and then Alphonse was moving of his own accord, slipping and stumbling in the black forest, his wrist still in the woman's grip as she ran beside him.
Rising Book 1: Resistance © Laura Josephsen
Cover Art © Holly Robbins
For more information on the book, please go here: Rising Book 1: Resistance