With sunrise, the once slaves wash off the dirt and blood of the Arena and put on new clothes, provided by caring villagers. They feel more alive, like different people. The younger slaves, including Cal and Bon, play with the children of the village.
Ime awakens, rolls over, and rubs his eyes. He freezes when he senses movement, drowsiness immediately gone, and looks at the figure lying next to him.
Still asleep, Meah adjusts to Ime’s movement and takes a deep breath. He carefully sits up, trying not to disturb her.
The beating of his heart quickens as he watches her still form. Light from the window reflects off her auburn hair. The corners of her lips turn up slightly giving her face a childlike expression of ease. Ime wonders if her lips are soft to the touch.
“Ime! Meah! Wake up!” Daniil’s voice calls from outside, tearing Ime from his thoughts.
“You two gonna sleep all day? What are you doing in there?” Kylii adds.
Roused by the commotion outside, Meah slowly sits up. She yawns and her tired eyes focus. She sees Ime and smiles. “Morning.”
“Afternoon, I think.”
Meah looks at the window and laughs. “It feels nice to sleep in.”
“Ime! Meah!” Daniil and Kylii yell, frustrated.
Ime jumps to his feet and crosses to the window. He throws it open and glares at the two standing outside. “We heard you the first time! What do you want?”
Tanith lies next to Daniil. Her fur, now clean, appears several shades lighter. The cleaning of her front paws of dirt and blood reveals the graded lightening of her fur. Much darker at the top, it fades into a light tan. The gradation is reversed for her hooved back feet, gorwing darker until fully black.
Daniil crosses his arms over his new clothes. He wears a blue shirt with black pants and matching boots. “Everyone keeps asking where you two are. We told them you were probably working on a strategy.”
“And here we find you two still in bed. Doing only the gods know what,” Kylii says. His clothes match his brother’s clothes, except his shirt is red.
“Sleeping. That’s all!”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to speak delicately. We’re all adults.”
The flush on Ime’s face brings eruptions of laughter from the brothers. Meah walks to the window and smiles at the two.
“You two look nice.” Meah laughs.
“And you look beautiful, Tanith.”
Tanith’s tail pats the ground appreciatively. Daniil leans his head to the side. “Unlike some people, we’ve already washed up and dressed in fresh clothes.”
“I think Ime’s earned the extra sleep.”
A snicker escapes Kylii’s lips. “If that’s all you two were doing.”
“Why did we bring these two with us, again?” Ime asks Meah.
“Because you love us,” Daniil and Kylii say together. “We’ll see you two at the feast. Remember, it’s just a few hours away, sleepyheads.” They lope away with Tanith following.
“I see you two are finally up,” Pu’ah says, carrying two small piles of clothes. He places one pile on a chair against the wall and hands the other to Meah. “These clothes are for you. They were donated by a young couple and they’d feel honored to have you wear them.”
“And, because you are no longer barbarians, here is water to clean yourselves up,” Jaxon grunts, carrying two large buckets of water and washcloths. He puts them at either end of the room, spilling small droplets onto the floor. He smiles and places his hands on his hips. “If you need anything, just shout. We’ll be outside…reminiscing.” He meets Meah’s eyes before leaving.
Laughing quietly, Pu’ah turns to Meah and winks before following Jaxon out. Shutting the window, Ime crosses to the pile of clothes left for him. Meah moves to her pile, but decides to wash up first. She grabs the washcloth and dips it into the cool water. She turns away from Ime and removes the dirty Arena clothes.
Reaching for his bucket of water, Ime turns and sees Meah undressing. He stares at her bare back with wide eyes. She moves the wet cloth across her skin, over her tanned arms and pale back. Ime tears his eyes away, grabbing the bucket of water without turning around. He calms his breathing and removes his shirt to begin washing the dirt from his skin.
The villagers bustle about preparing a mighty feast for the group. The large hut is filled with the delicious aromas of grilling meat and boiling vegetables. Warm fires keep the hut full of light. Long tables are arranged to seat the entire group as well as those villagers brave enough to speak with the new guests. Villagers at one end of the hut play music, while others dance gaily in front of them.
The fear of death is gone and many of the escapees are more outspoken. Laughter fills the hut. They talk openly with villagers, thanking them over and over for their kindness.
One table is set slightly separate from the others along the wall of the hut closest to the back door. Pu’ah sits with Jaxon, Meah, Ime, Daniil, Kylii, Bruer, Bern, Mava, Rava, Skara, Tristan and a few villagers. Tanith lies on the ground between Daniil and Kylii, staying relatively out of sight so she doesn’t frighten the villagers.
Ime wears a well-fitted black shirt with matching black pants and boots. Meah wears a green dress, which brings out her emerald eyes. She braided her hair over one shoulder, using her silk bracelet as a hair tie.
A strange silence falls on the table after Ime describes their escape.
Pu’ah breaks the silence. “You were very fortunate to escape after facing the Blood King. Now that you have, what are your plans?”
Ime stares at him with confusion on his face. “Why should there be any plans? The plan was to escape the Arena. We did that. Everyone is free now.”
“Do you really think those men and women who followed you only wished to be freed?” Jaxon asks, taking a drink from his cup.
“Why else would they risk their lives to escape?”
Mava, Rava, Bern, Skara, and Tristan look at each other and then to Meah. “We want to protect Meah. She saved us and we will give our lives to make sure she remains safe,” Bern says.
Jaxon meets Ime’s eyes. “And, with Blood King Klaeon still alive, it is only a matter of time before he comes after us.”
“Do you really think he’ll come after us?” Meah asks.
“You escaped from his Arena with most of his slaves. A beast and an ex trader defeated him before his own men.”
Pu’ah leans forward to look at Meah. “He fears your power, Life Healer.”
“Why? All I can do is heal. What is so dangerous about that?”
“Life Healers can do more than heal. They can bring the dead back to life. Stories say they can even grant immortality. He wants that power. But if he can’t have it, he will destroy it so no other may possess it.”
“That sounds like enough reason to come after us,” Kylii says. Daniil kicks his brother under the table. “What?”
“He can’t be left to do as he pleases. He will hunt us down to the ends of the earth destroying those in his path if he must,” Jaxon says.
“Are you suggesting we start a war with Klaeon? He has an army too large for us to possibly fight,” Ime yells, furiously.
“But you do want to kill him, don’t you?”
Ime is silenced by Jaxon’s words. Meah places a comforting hand on Ime’s shoulder, but his eyes grow distant.
Jaxon sighs. “I’m not saying we should fight him now. I’m suggesting we build an army. The Blood King isn’t loved across this land. Many would join forces against him. All they need is someone to lead them.”
Ime thinks carefully, considering his words. “Where do you suggest we go to gather an army?”
Jaxon looks at Pu’ah. The Elder reaches into his cloaks and pulls out a scroll. “There are legends that speak of a great city carved into the cliff walls of a distant canyon in the south. The people of this city are powerful and know the way of war and magic.”
“We start there,” Jaxon says, handing the scroll to Ime.