"She'll be back," said Lolan. "I think we've built up enough trust with each other at this point to work past things like this."
"Still, I don't want this," I said to Lolan. He was wading in the water in front of me with all of his clothes still on. "I just want whatever we did to each other to go away. Why can't we all just forget?"
"It's not that easy," said Zef. He swam over to the edge of the water too, aware of the change in mood. He shook himself a little to dry off, but it just made long beard waggle about and stick to him once again. "If we could just forget, we'd never learn from our mistakes."
"So what are you saying? We should be fighting each other?" I asked. I kept my head on my knees and didn't look his way as I spoke.
"Not at all," said Zef. "I think that fighting is why we can learn to work together someday."
"What do you mean?" asked Lolan. "You really think we will all be buddy-buddy after centuries of hatred and lines being drawn?"
Zef shrugged. "I don't know if I expect it to happen like that. There is always going to be war and hatred, but maybe someday we can at least learn to stop counting ourselves so different just based on our appearances." He gave a half-smile. "Sure. I'm short, and your ears are slightly pointed." Zef pointed at Lolan. Then to me. "And you have rough skin, but at the end of the day, we're all people. We all still want love, and acceptance, and safety. Why should we separate ourselves based on lines that mean very little."
"But they do mean things," I said to Zef. "My entire people have nearly been wiped out. And that doesn't just mean that a bunch of arbitrary people were killed. They were my people. They had a culture of their own, unlike yours or Lolan's. And that culture is basically non-existent now. I'm all that's left of it."
Zef nodded. He seemed to be picking his words carefully as he looked down. "I agree. And I'm sorry that happened. And yes, we are different, very different in some ways. But don't you see? That's why we need to work together. As a world of people, we are holding ourselves back. By working together, we could accomplish so much more. We're more versatile, more adaptable. We need each other as much as we need air."
I got what he was saying, but it still didn't seem possible. What were we going to do? We were just a few outcasts on an island chasing down what the rest of the world thought was a lost cause. "So you think it's up to us?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Zef. "But I'm not waiting for someone else to show the world what we can accomplish." He ended the statement with a smile.
"Yeah, I don't know either," said Lolan. "I don't know why anyone would pay attention to us. How would we even convince others to work together?"
"We already have," said Zef. His smile was even wider now than before. "Those Dwarves thought about killing us, even after we saved their lives. But they came around. It took work. It took us putting our lives on the line for them, but they figured it out. Raffa too. With Lobo's help, he tried to have us killed. But now he's out here searching with us. He exiled himself to save us when the Beastfolk came after us.
"Even Tigala has come around. The first time we all probably saw her was when she attacked you in the town square at the colony. She tried not to join us several times, but here she is. I'd say she trusts you more than anyone out here." Zef looked at me.
"Yeah," I said. "A lot of good that does for us now." I shook my head and stared back at the water below, bubbling and foaming against the rock where I sat.
"It does do a lot of good now," said Zef. "She'll be fine. I'm sure she'll figure it out. We all have trauma. We've all been through horrible things. It's how it's been for a long time. But she trusts you and cares about you. We all do."
I looked at Lolan. His arms were up on a rock, holding him still while the rest of his body floated in the river. He nodded back at me, agreeing with Zef's statement. "Yeah, he's right," said Lolan. "Maybe you should go to her."
Zef nodded. "Go talk to her. I'm sure there is a history there, but there's also trust. Trust that we've all built with each other over the past couple of weeks."
I nodded back. "Okay," I said, and I climbed to my feet.
I was a bit cold from sitting in the spray of the falls, and a little shaky either due to the task I was about to take on or because of the cold. I told myself it was the cold. Honestly, I was a bit afraid. Sure, Tigala had jumped in the way when Lobo wanted to kill me. And fought a teleporting spider, though the jury's still out on whether she was trying to save me then or not. But when I first met her, she hated Treeks so much that she was ready to kill me right there. She didn't even know the sound of my voice when she attacked. There had to be more there than just the standard hating of Treeks because they killed a ton of people several years ago. I wasn't sure that this trust that we build over the past couple of weeks was enough to combat years of pain and anger.
Not to mention, Tigala was massive. I was happy to have her on my side because she is an imposing enemy. I have never been a warrior. Sure, I know some tricks, I can poke her feet with thorns, but if it ever came down to a one on one fight between the two of us, I wouldn't stand a chance.
I walked past another tree and spotted her sitting alone on a rock in the distance. It looked like she was at some sort of overlook, with the horizon visible beyond her. I walked closer trying not to be too quiet so that she wouldn't be surprised by my approach. She didn't turn around once. I wasn't sure if I should think of that as a good thing.
Once I was a stone's throw from her, I said, "Tigala? I'm sorry."
Tigala still didn't respond. She just kept staring into the distance. She picked up a small stone and threw it off the cliff in front of her. I never heard it impact.
"I was just messing around. I—" I didn't even know what to say. "I hadn't even thought of what that might remind people of." I trailed off. I wasn't sure I wanted to say the words, let alone have Tigala hear them.
Tigala threw another stone and then she took a deep breath. I was close enough now that I could hear her exhale. I took a few steps forward and she said, "It's okay," in a quiet voice.
I looked down. "It's not. I don't know why my people would have done such a horrible thing."
Tigala threw another rock. She didn't seem like she wanted to respond to that.
"Do you mind if I join you?" I said from a few steps behind her.
She nudged her head to the side, indicating for me to sit. I sat next to her on a lower stone and looked out over the landscape with her. It was a beautiful view. The forest stretched over hills and valleys and mountains rose to the east. The only thing that looked a little odd was a muddy patch in the middle of the forest, north of us.
I glanced over at Tigala as she threw another rock. "Do you want to talk about it at all?" I asked.
She watched the rock plummet into the trees below and disappear. Then she leveled her eyes on something in the distance. "You know that's where you turned the forest alive, right?" she asked.
I followed her eyes and found the muddy patch in the middle of the forest. She was right. It looked so different now that I had a hard time recognizing it. "Woah," I said. "They're all gone."
"Yeah," Tigala said. "Looks like they're headed to the shore."
I followed the trail as far as I could see in the direction of the shore, north of the colony. That was a scary thought.
"My parents," said Tigala. "I lost them to the deathweed."
My breath caught in my throat. I figured something had happened but I didn't expect that. That was horrible. I looked down trying to gather my thoughts.
I could relate, not to my parents getting killed by a toxic infestation of plants, but because they had been taken from me by the Humans for reasons that had nothing to do with something they had actually done. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything.
She threw another rock. This one left her hand with more force, like she was angry, reliving the memory.
"I was there," she said. "I was there when they got it. It was when the plague first started. My people hadn't even gotten wind of it yet." She shook her head and looked down, searching for another stone. "I wanted them to go in the water for me, and catch me some fish. I was hungry, and I was grumpy. I was a selfish kid."
The whole time she talked she didn't look at me. She just looked between the shattered pile of stones beside her and the horizon. She threw another stone and didn't even watch it fall this time.
"That's when we first discovered it. My pappa went into the water while I pouted on the shore because I was hungry. And when he tried to come out, something was wrong. He began heaving and retching in the water. He couldn't pull himself out. I didn't know what to do, so I yelled for my Mamma."
"Mamma and my sister came together. Mamma went in to save Pappa. She managed to get him out, but then it hit her too. She began to convulse on the shore. They were in so much pain, all because I was whining for a snack. Gatooli, my sister, went and grabbed the village healer to look at them. By the time he got there, they were so weak that they could hardly walk. I went to them, but there was nothing I could do. They were both foaming at the mouth, trying desperately to hang on to life."
"Pappa died in front of me, right there. I watched it happen. My mom made it back to our healer's hut. The healer did his best to nurse her back to health, but it was too late for her too. And you know what the worst part of it all was?" she asked the question, but there was no way I was about to answer it. She looked at me. I lowered my head and didn't look back at her. My eyes were full of tears and I didn't know how to tell her how I felt without sounding fake or like I was the victim. There was nothing I could do to help her with this. Nothing I could say. It was horrible, but it was inevitable. There was no way to stop what had already happened.
Tigala threw a final stone off of the cliff. It sailed through the air. This one hit something hard before reaching the forest floor though. A loud THWACK echoed across the landscape.
"Watching her suffer for so long. Watching her unable to eat and watching her body rot away while she still clung to life. Watching her try and survive just to protect my sister and me. And then watching her fail. Seeing the hope sucked from her when she realized she'd never be able to take care of us or watch us grow up. I didn't realize that's what those looks were then, but now I know."
Tears were streaming down my face now. I couldn't hold them back. I sobbed, and I hated that I was doing it. I didn't want this to be about me. I didn't want her to think that I felt hated because of this. I deserved it. For what my people did, we deserved to be hunted and killed. I had heard stories like hers before, but never one so personal. Never one so close to what had happened to me. I couldn't imagine how painful that had to have been for her—how painful it still must be. It was no wonder she attacked me without question in the colony. I would have too. And of course, I had to be my cocky self and act like it was a game. It's not a game. And it never was. It's a bloody, brutal war between races. A war with millions of atrocities on every side. But none of them were as bad as the Treek plague.
"I'm so sorry," I managed the words between sobs. I couldn't look at Tigala. My vision was blurry with moisture and snot streamed down my face. I couldn't help but think about my own parents. It was horrible. "I didn't know," I finally managed to speak.
Tigala sat there with her arms on her knees looking out at the view. We sat like that for a long time. Longer than I was comfortable with. Then, Tigala wrapped an arm around my shoulders and said, "I know you are." She pulled me in against her side for me to cry into her waist. "But it wasn't you. You didn't do that." She took another deep breath and said, "Your people did."
I cried harder. Not only was I reliving my own loss of parents, but now I had a Beastfolk, one that should hate me more than most people did, and she was forgiving me? She was absolving me of the charges held against me. She was freeing me of the chains that I wore throughout my whole life. The reason I had hidden for years in Brighton was because of that one act of my people when I was a toddler. And now she was saying it didn't matter? After it killed her parents?
I didn't know what to think, or what to do. I just cried, for a long while, with my head leaned against Tigala's side. She didn't move from her position, and I didn't get the sense that she was crying along with me. She just sat there, letting me cry.
We stayed there for a long time. When I finally was all out of tears, I raised my head and tried to look at her. I said, "I'm sorry," one more time.
She shook her head. "It wasn't you." She drew in a deep breath. "We're okay. I just don't like water plants much."
"I'll make sure I remember that for next time," I said. I looked back down at the ground and said, "So what happened to her? Your sister?"
She drew in another deep breath. "She didn't make it either. She and Lobo had a thing for a little bit, but I let her die on a mission against the Gnomes. It's when I lost this." She raised her stump of a left arm. "It's why Lobo sent my pack here in the first place, but I was too injured to join them right away and by the time I did, they had already disappeared."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry."
"Stop saying that," said Tigala. "It's over. You just reminded me of some stuff. Let's just forget about this."
"No, I don't want to forget," I said. I thought of my conversation with Zef and Lolan earlier. "I want to remember all of it so that I don't let those kinds of things happen again."
Tigala didn't speak. She just nodded. We both looked out at the landscape for a few moments in silence. The sun was on its way down, and we should probably head back to the colony soon to avoid being outside the walls in the dark. Strange creatures still lurked in this land.
I was just about to suggest that we head back to Tigala when we heard a loud yell and then a crash from the direction of the waterfall. Tigala and I exchanged a glance and then ran to the others.