Chapter Four: Strength and Burdens
Janelle sifted through the stack of maps on her desk, her forehead throbbing as she fought back a yawn. The dimly lit lantern she was reading by flickered, threatening to go out. She sighed, blinking slowly in an effort to stay awake.
I can't stop now. I have to decide… Evelyn's expecting an answer from me by the morning.
Rubbing her eyes, Janelle forced them open and glanced down at the maps in her hand. The largest map showed the Island as a whole with sparse detail. The other eight maps each showed a different area of the Island, with every single village, town or sanctuary receiving its own mark. The maps were hand drawn and the words carefully printed with small, cursive handwriting. Each had a signature in the bottom left-hand corner that Janelle didn't recognise.
I know that isn't Caleb's writing, so who drew these? Marina, maybe? Or Alistair?
She frowned for a moment, sifting through the papers again. Janelle could have sworn there was a map of the Fortress in Caleb's collection. Of course, the rebels had never gotten far inside, but they had managed to map out the walls and some of the places used for the Council's black market. She remembered Ben showing it to her, shortly after she had agreed to be one of Caleb's deputies.
I'm sure I've seen it since they've been gone… Maybe Sam took it. Although I don't know why she'd need a map of the Fortress but none of the others. I doubt they'll start their mission there.
Although 256 had yet to make his final decision about the mission, Samantha had spent the last couple of days packing as though it was unquestionably going ahead. She had been so busy Janelle had barely caught a glimpse of her. Even at meal-times, Samantha would take a small plate of food and leave the dining hall, barely glancing at Janelle or anyone else. Even Thomas had been left alone, with either Lena or Edward, the doctor, helping him with his meals. The few times she had seen Samantha Janelle had wanted to ask her about her brother, but she still hadn't managed to bring it up. It felt too familiar, too inviting. What if she gave Samantha the wrong idea?
What's wrong with me? I said I'd forget. Sam said she would too, so why am I still so cold about her? Why can't I just comfort my best friend?
Sighing, she pushed thoughts of Samantha from her mind and tried to focus on the task at hand. With many farmers no longer supporting them and rebels leaving or never returning to the group, Janelle was determined to start building their numbers again. She wanted to get back onto the mainland and try to drum up some support. However, simply visiting the inns and other sanctuaries like she had done in the past with her first group didn't seem like it would be enough. She wanted people to know who they were, that they were a group who would not budge until they achieved change. She wanted them to know that the rebellion was real and alive, that the Gifted had failed to crush them and never would.
If we looked more like a team rather than a group of angry villagers, they might take us a bit more seriously. Maybe if we wore a uniform?
Janelle pursed her lips slightly, thinking hard. She doubted they had the resources to provide everyone with a full uniform, but she supposed it was worth a thought.
Uniform or not, it won't mean anything if I can't decide where we should go.
Stifling a yawn and stretching, Janelle rubbed her eyes again and picked up the closest map. It showed the farming villages in the southwestern corner of the island. Two sanctuaries were marked nearby, one near the coast and the other in the centre of a small forest.
I suppose either of these'll do. I don't want to go too far, and the farming villages are probably the best place to start. Right now, they're the ones we need on our side the most.
Janelle leaned over the desk, resting her head against the wooden surface. She smiled briefly, relaxing her shoulders and taking a long breath. Even though it was only small and barely significant, she was relieved to have made any kind of decision. Sure, there was still a lot more to go through: when they would leave, who would come, what she would say and do. But at least there was one less thing for her to deliberate over.
Yawning, Janelle closed her heavy eyelids, determined to rest just for a minute before heading to the dormitories for bed. Evelyn'll be expecting me in the morning. I've got to be ready. She'll want to plan this visit. She… She'll want me to have ideas, and I'll need… I'll need to be…
Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud cough. Frowning, Janelle sat up, rubbing her eyes wearily. The lantern was brighter than it had been before she closed her eyes, but the room was fuzzy, the details hard to make out. When she looked towards the window she saw a man standing in front of it. He turned around slowly, his deep brown eyes fixing on her. Janelle's throat ran dry. She opened her mouth and closed it, swallowing hard.
"Caleb," she whispered hoarsely. "You – But you're dead."
He shrugged, stepping away from the window and gliding across the room until he stood directly in front of the desk, bathed in the lantern's golden light.
"Yes, I am," he said nonchalantly. He adjusted his coat so Janelle could see the dark red stain in the centre of his torn shirt. "You know that. You saw me die. You killed me."
"No I didn't. Victor killed you, not me. I was going to let you go."
"Your actions led to my death," he said. His voice, usually deep, had a slightly higher pitch than normal. "If you hadn't tried to stop me, if you didn't want power for yourself, I'd still be alive. Alice would still have a father."
Janelle swallowed. "I know," she said hoarsely. "But – what else could I do? I didn't have a choice. All you wanted was revenge. I couldn't let the rebellion –"
"So you did the right thing for the rebellion?" Caleb raised his eyebrows, folding his arms across his chest. "Wouldn't the right thing have been to kill me? That's what a strong leader would have done. That's what I would have done, given the chance. Instead I was killed by chance and you lied about it. You know that Evelyn'll find out eventually. She won't support you anymore if she does."
"But…" Janelle frowned. Her forehead throbbed. "I don't understand. You said my actions led to your death, but now… Now you're angry I didn't kill you?"
"I'm angry," said another voice. Janelle glanced over to the doorway and gasped. Reagan stood just a few feet away, his pale skin gaunt in the fuzzy light. His hazel eyes were sunken and a large gash cut into his neck, dried blood running in a trail towards his chest. Janelle stood up slowly, her arms trembling as she leaned against the desk. Even in this desolate state, she ached to reach out and hold him, to feel the warmth of his body as though the life had never left him.
"He had me killed," said Reagan solemnly, pointing at Caleb. "So why did you let him go? I thought you loved me, but… You let my murderer go free. You left me behind on the beach."
"I didn't," she said hoarsely, a tear rolling down her cheek. "Reagan… I still –"
"What about me?" A young girl stepped out behind Reagan, her long brown hair collected into a thin braid. "You couldn't save me either. Have you forgotten about me?"
Janelle shook her head. "Brooke… No, of course I haven't. I'll never…"
Her voice trailed off when she saw a fourth person step into the room. His greying, messy hair was more dishevelled than usual and his kind brown eyes looked at her with more disappointment than she could bear.
"Janelle," said Marvin in a heavy, scratchy voice. "Don't lose this rebellion like you lost the one we created together. You gave it away like it was nothing as soon as things got too hard. Because of you, I died for nothing."
She opened her mouth to speak, but her voice died before she could get a single word out. Instead, she nodded slowly, her throat so tight she could barely breathe. She felt hundreds of eyes boring into her. Most of them she didn't recognise, but some she did – Will, Anna, Emma, James…
"I'm sorry," she croaked. "I won't forget any of you. You didn't die for nothing. I'll make sure of it. I –"
A loud slamming noise split the room in two. Marvin and the rest of her ghosts vanished instantly as Janelle was jerked into a different reality. She winced as a bright light filtered through her closed eyelids, suddenly aware of the cold wooden surface pressing against her cheek. Janelle opened her eyes slowly, squinting.
"Sorry," said a distant voice. It took her a moment to realise it was Evelyn's. "I didn't think you'd be in here. Were you up all night?"
Janelle swallowed. She pushed herself slowly off the desk, her back throbbing as she straightened into an upright position.
A dream. That's all it was. Her memories were fading quickly. She could barely remember what Marvin and the others said, but their haunted faces stuck in her mind.
"Not all of it," she muttered, stretching her arms, her left hand prickling where her forehead had pressed against it all night. "I must've fallen asleep."
"I gathered that," said Evelyn dryly. Slowly, she came into view, her hands on her hips. She was standing by the window, forcing it open so a cool morning breeze blew gently inside. "Were you deciding where you're going to go? To find recruits?"
"Yes," said Janelle quickly. She gathered up the maps, sorting through them until she found the one she needed. Stifling a yawn, she stood up and hobbled over to Evelyn, her body feeling as creaky and stiff as someone four times her age.
"I thought we should start here," she said, gesturing at the two sanctuaries. "Maybe the one by the coast, it seems more sheltered. I thought the farming villages are where we should go first, since we need their support and supplies right now. I know Caleb mostly had support from the farmers closer to this base, and since we can't get a lot of them to help us… Maybe going a bit further south'll help."
Evelyn nodded, her eyebrows slightly narrowed as she studied the map.
"Makes sense," she said eventually. "What are you going to do though? Just talk to them?"
"I haven't worked that out yet," Janelle admitted. "I… I don't really see what else I can do, at this point. I do think we should wear some kind of uniform though. Not a full costume like the Gifted, but – something. Some kind of symbol, so people know it's us. Then, as time goes on, people will know who we are. We won't just be a bunch of rebels fighting a hopeless cause, we'll be an organised group. An ideal."
She paused, giving a small laugh. "I don't know. Maybe it's stupid. I know there's still so much to decide –"
"I think it's a good idea," said Evelyn. She tilted her head slightly. "There's still a lot more to plan out, but… That makes sense. I'll look into it."
Evelyn sat down at the round table in the centre of the room, grabbing a dip pen and an inkwell. She pulled out a small piece of parchment and started to write. Janelle stood still, momentarily stunned. She and Evelyn had been working together for over a month, but Janelle had never heard such an outright compliment leave her lips before.
What would she say if I told her about Sam and 256's mission? Would she agree? She said she didn't hate the Gifted, but… That's different from working with them.
"So are you going to sit down?" Evelyn asked.
Janelle cleared her throat, placing the maps in the centre of the table and sitting down in the chair next to Evelyn's.
"What are your thoughts?" said Janelle quickly. "I think you should stay here while I'm gone, to keep an eye on things. But who should come with me? I'll need at least three or four others."
"What about that tall woman?" said Evelyn. The steely look in her green eyes made Janelle shift in her seat. "You know. The one from your old group."
"Samantha?" said Janelle, hesitating. "Oh, she… I'm sending her on another mission. Sorry I didn't tell you."
Evelyn bowed her head. "I see. I did wonder why I saw her packing," she said smoothly. "What's the mission about?"
"I'm sending her to find someone," said Janelle, thinking quickly. "It's Marina. I thought we should know where she is."
Evelyn nodded. "Makes sense," she said, turning away at last. "She and Ben are a liability. Is she going alone?"
"No, Gareth's going with her."
"Gareth?" said Evelyn, frowning. "Who's – Wait. Isn't he the kid with the broken nose?"
"Well… Kind of," said Janelle uneasily. "He's not a kid, Evelyn. He's nineteen. And he's stronger than he looks. He and Sam will look out for each other –"
"Nineteen?" Evelyn interrupted, shaking her head. "But he looks so young. I don't believe it. I thought he was Brooke's…"
Her voice trailed off and she swallowed suddenly. She stared down at the map, her jaw taut. Janelle leaned forward and placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it lightly.
"It's fine," said Evelyn haughtily, sitting up straight. She cleared her throat. "We should keep going. So, they're gonna find Marina and Ben. That's good, they – we need to keep tabs on them if we can."
Janelle pulled her hand back slowly, her own eyes stinging. "Yes," she muttered. "We really do. And – it's not just Marina and Ben. There were two other deputies. Alistair and Ingrid."
"Really?" said Evelyn, her voice still shaking a little. "I… I don't think I ever met them."
"I only met Alistair once. He returned just before we raided Victor's lair, and by then he'd been away a long time. I never asked what he was doing on the mainland, which would've been useful. I wish I had, but… Nothing I can do about that now. And Ingrid I never even met."
"Great," Evelyn muttered. "Two unknown and possibly hostile people. Perfect."
"Yeah," said Janelle uneasily. The more she and Evelyn spoke of them, the more Janelle wished she actually did have someone searching the mainland for Caleb's deputies. But who could she send? Who could she trust?
I need to get to know more people here. There are still a few people around in the group Ben and I took to the farming villages. Maybe if I take them with me for this recruitment drive, I'll get to know them more. Maybe then I'll have someone I trust to send.
"We'll have to keep an eye out for them here, too," said Janelle hastily. "In case they try and come back. But… For now, let's get to work. If we can get more people on our side, we'll be stronger. It'll be harder for them to stop us then."
Evelyn nodded. She reached for her dip pen and scratched a few more sentences down. Her eyes were dry and her lips pursed into a steady line, but the slight tremble in her hand gave her grief away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
After turning in for the evening, 256 waited until at least a hundred snores filled the dormitory before sitting up. He wriggled out from under the covers, leaning against the cold glass of the window at the end of his bed. His heart quickened as he reached under the covers and pulled out the crumpled parchment he had been lying on. The map crackled as he smoothed it out. 256 held his breath, glancing nervously at the sleeping men in the beds closest to his, but none of them stirred.
It's okay. They don't know.
He breathed out slowly, squinting at the title of the map. It was etched into the top of the parchment in unfamiliar cursive writing, the letters only just readable in the pale moonlight. 256 traced the outline of the great stone walls gently, his chest clenching.
The map was roughly drawn and missing a lot of detail, but even so it was achingly familiar. The walls that enclosed the Gifted were mapped out just as he remembered, but the bulk of the main building was only lightly sketched. It seemed the only part of the Fortress the rebels had managed to enter was a small section that seemed to be attached to the western wall. 256 stared down at it, frowning slightly.
It doesn't look familiar. Could this place be somewhere the rebels created? Were they somehow spying on us all this time?
256 folded the map in half and stuffed it back under the blanket. Since Janelle told him her plan, he had been spending most of his time training with the new recruits, trying to decide what he should do. Most of the rebels were friendly to him, but he knew very well how differently they would react if they knew what he really was. And after living with Gifted for eighteen years, he knew very well that the Gifted were unlikely to ever turn against their own. It seemed so impossible he was surprised Janelle had even considered it. And even if the Gifted could somehow be convinced to turn against the Leader and the Council, he had no idea why she thought he was the only one who could do it.
The Gifted always value strength, over anything else. And I've never been strong enough for them.
He shivered, drawing his knees to his chest. The earliest memory he had was sitting in a grassy courtyard with a group of other three-year-old children, listening to a middle-aged Gifted woman's address. Her voice was clear to him now as it had been then, for he had heard the same speech over and over again throughout his childhood.
You are Gifted. You have access to powers the rest of the world could never imagine. You were chosen to lead this Island above all others. You may be young, but the time has come for you to train and fight and become strong. Only then will you belong here, where you're supposed to be. And if you can't… If you let yourself be weak, you are nothing.
256 opened his eyes, swallowing hard. He let go of his knees and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"I know I'm not nothing," he muttered under his breath. Too restless to try and sleep, he reached underneath the blanket and took the map before standing up. Clutching the parchment to his chest, he padded softly between the rows of beds, shivering as his bare feet touched the cold stone floor. He left the dormitory, wandering down the corridor.
Maybe I should take this back. I don't want Janelle to realise it's gone and think someone stole it.
Biting his lip, he turned and squinted down the hallway, trying to remember the way to the meeting room. The lack of windows or candles didn't help. Hesitating, he glanced around nervously and let go of the map with one hand. He lifted his fingers and conjured a small flame, illuminating the walls with its gentle glow. He smiled as he watched the fire dance in his palm and set off down the corridor, his pace starting to quicken. He turned a corner, startling when he saw a dark figure walking towards him in the distance. He turned around quickly, dropping his hand and accidentally setting the map on fire. He covered it quickly, extinguishing the flame, but it had already burned a small hole in the centre.
"Dropped my torch," he said quickly, his face burning. "Sorry if I –"
"Are you an idiot?" Samantha's voice radiated through the darkness. He could only just see the outline of her standing about a foot away. Rubbing the back of his neck, 256 stood up quickly and gave her a guilty grin.
"Sorry. I didn't think anyone'd be –"
"Do you want to get caught?" she continued. "If it had been anyone else you could have been killed. And Janelle, Tom, me – we might've been thrown out of here for hiding you."
"Yeah," he said sheepishly. "Sorry. It was stupid."
"What are you doing out here, anyway? It's the middle of the night."
He shrugged. "Couldn't sleep. What about you?"
"I'm packing," she said shortly. "For our mission."
In the middle of the night? 256 bit his lip, shifting his feet where he stood.
"I… I still haven't decided I'm going," he said. "So –"
"Of course you're going," Samantha interrupted. "And while you're here, there's something I need you to help me with. We might as well do it now. I assume you're not gonna go back to bed any time soon."
She brushed past him and strode down the corridor. 256 hesitated for a moment before following. He almost had to run along behind her to keep up with her strides.
"What do you need?" he said breathlessly.
"I need you to decide what weapons you want to take with us," she said, taking a turn towards the training rooms. "I'll be taking a couple of swords. We can't take too much since we'll have to carry it all, so… D'you want to use a sword, too? Or a dagger, maybe?"
"I don't need a weapon," he said as she stopped outside a wooden door, opening it and stepping inside. 256 followed her, reaching up and lighting the torch hanging from the wall. Samantha ignored him and started sorting through the weapons sitting on a rack at the front of the room.
"Swords or daggers?" she said shortly. Her grey eyes were slightly narrowed. "You can't not take a weapon. That's just stupid. You know how dangerous this will be."
"Well – Like I said, I haven't decided if I'm going or not," he said quickly. "But even if I do go, I don't need a weapon. I have my Gift, and my hands and feet. They'll do."
Samantha rolled her eyes. "The Gifted we meet will have their powers, but they'll have swords too," she said, picking up a dagger and twirling it in her fingers. "Are you really so good that you know you'll win in a fight without one?"
"Well – I don't know. Probably not," he admitted. Realising she wouldn't give in, he walked over to the pile of weapons and carefully sorted through them until he found a small, silver dagger in a leather sheath. "I guess I'll take this. Just in case."
He paused, attempting a small smile. "Besides, I… I know you'll be there, so – you'll be much better than any of the Gifted we face in a fight. If it comes to that."
Samantha pursed her lips and looked away quickly, the muscles in her neck tightening. 256 frowned, taking a tentative step forward.
"Samantha, what's –"
"You've never killed anyone, have you?" she interrupted. 256 blinked, clearing his throat.
"I – No," he admitted. "Why does it –"
"That's why you don't want to take a weapon," she said, her eyes narrowing again. "You're afraid you'll have to kill someone."
He shifted his feet. "It – It's not that I'm afraid. I just… I don't want to."
"This is a war," Samantha pointed out, folding her arms. "People are going to die. No point denying it."
"I'm not," he insisted. "I know it happens. I know it's unavoidable a lot of the time, but… I don't want to. I can't."
He sat down on the wooden bench beside the weapons rack, placing the map and the dagger beside him and clenching his fingers together in his lap. Samantha watched him for a moment before turning away, reaching down and picking up and unchosen sword, placing it back on the rack.
"That seems pretty naïve," she said, her voice steady. "What if they were about to kill you? Or me? Would you just stand there?"
"I…" He shook his head. "Of course not. But –"
"Well, what if it was Carey about to die?" Samantha interrupted. "Wouldn't you kill to save her?"
"I – I don't know. Yes, I suppose –"
"What do you mean, 'you suppose?'" she demanded. "I thought you loved her. But then, you don't seem to miss her all that much. You're pretty chirpy for someone who's girlfriend just left them."
256 swallowed, a lump rising in his throat. He clenched his fingers tightly, staring down at his lap. He could feel Samantha's gaze on him, cold and unforgiving.
"She - she didn't leave me," he mumbled. "And – Yes, if I really had to kill someone to save her or anyone else, then – of course I'd do it. But… If I can avoid it, I will. There's almost always another way."
"Trying to find another way is going to get you killed," she said dryly.
"I'll still try," he insisted. "Look, I… I'm not judging you, or anyone else. I know you're right. I know this is a war and people are gonna die. But this is something I have to do for myself. It doesn't make much sense, and maybe it is naïve, but… I…"
His voice trailed off. He shook his head. "Look, it doesn't matter. I'll take the dagger, okay? You can pack it with whatever else you want to take."
Samantha said nothing at first, staring down at him with raised eyebrows. He felt another blush creeping up his neck, but he looked up and held her gaze. Eventually she looked away, reaching down beside him and picking up the dagger. She placed it next to two slender swords and started binding them together with a soft rope.
"So you are coming, then," she said, stowing the weapons away in a thin leather bag.
"On the mission. You said you'll take the dagger, so that means you are going to come after all. I told you so."
"I didn't mean it like that," he said quickly. "I mean – am I really the right choice for this? The Gifts of Earth will never listen to me. I know they won't. Even if I shared their Gift, I… I'm not someone the Gifted would ever look up to. We all know that."
"Why not?" she asked.
256 glanced up at her, his eyes widening slightly. He cleared his throat and looked away. "Isn't it obvious? I'm small, I've never been that good a fighter. I'm not strong, and that's what the Gifted value, so – I won't stand a chance at convincing them to fight for us. I've never been able to inspire anyone to do anything, so I don't know why Janelle thinks –"
"You might not be strong, but you're all we've got," said Samantha. Her voice was as harsh as ever, but when 256 looked up, her eyes were softer and crinkled at the edges. "You say the Gifts of Earth will never listen to you, that they'll never fight for us, but… That's what you've done. You've left the Gifted. Why can't they do the same?"
"I didn't leave the Gifted," 256 pointed out. "I mean I didn't have much of a choice. I was injured –"
"Maybe you didn't choose to leave them, but you chose to stay with us," Samantha interrupted. "So – tap into whatever it was that made you decide to stay."
256 nodded, biting her lip. "Yeah, I guess so," he muttered. "But I still think 805 would be better –"
"805's not here," she said firmly, pursing her lips. "He's gone to Zeia, and – Who knows when he'll be back. You're all we've got, 256. And you know what? Maybe you're right. Maybe you – we – won't be able to convince any Gifted to join us. But at least we can try. So stop whining, and just say you're coming on the mission already."
"I…" He started, his voice trailing off. Samantha was looking at him expectantly, her eyebrows arching. He bit his lip, trying to say he'd go and do his best, but the words were stuck in his throat.
I know what she's saying, but… Is there even the smallest chance I'll be successful? I don't know.
He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. For a moment, he forgot about the Gifts of Earth. He forgot about any of the Gifted who had said he needed to be better, to be stronger. Instead, his mind turned to his trainer, 913. It had been more than twelve years since their last meeting, but their lessons were still as clear as ever in his mind. She had never told him he was weak. She had never scolded or hit him when he failed or cried. His eyes watered and he swallowed, his lip wobbling.
If we were to somehow to meet again, I… I think maybe I could convince her to join the rebels. So – there must be a chance, however small, that I could convince the Gifts of Earth.
"Alright," he muttered, wiping his eyes. "I'll do it. I'll go with you."
Samantha nodded. "Good," she said quietly. "I'll tell Janelle."
Their eyes met for a final time, her lips curving into a small smile. Bowing her head, she picked up the leather bag and left without another word.