Lu woke to sunlight. It was in her face, warming her bare arms and exposed legs, filling Lu up with hope for the day. Inside she felt like she had been beaten. A headache throbbed against her skull and her stomach wouldn't unclench. But outside, Lu was fine.
With the sun out, it was more risky to be on the roof. Lu picked up her bright blue ribbon, smoothing the creases that had appeared overnight and rolling it into a small, fist-sized bundle. Her three rings went into the one pocket in her dress. Taking the small bag of crackers she had saved for emergencies, Lu carried everything she owned with her as she climbed down the side of the house, up the wall and down the other side, walking into the middle of the street.
The road wasn’t empty, but it was still early morning, so there was little traffic other than shopkeepers setting out their wares. Lu tried and failed to ignore the baker’s freshly baked bread and pastries, staring at the steaming food. It looked so warm and filling, Lu almost—
She shook her head to banish any thoughts of begging. She didn’t need to beg today, all she needed to do was walk. Northwest, to Ayren’s city. Her crackers would keep her going.
She just needed to walk.
Going through the city was easy enough, nobody really paid attention to the dirty girl in the ragged dress. What Lu did watch out for was other orphans. If they saw that she was holding anything, they might try to steal it. It wouldn’t be the first time her food had been stolen, but right now, she needed the crackers more than anything.
Lu didn’t see any other orphans, but several times she heard something behind her, only to look back and see nobody. Lu stayed in the middle of the main roads, trying to hide from the feeling of being watched, but it only helped a little. Someone was following her.
Lu sped up.
At last, the city gate came into view and Lu slowed a little. Here, she might have to sneak a little. To her relief, the guard was busy talking to another man, and the sight of someone leaving the city didn’t draw his attention. Lu was on her way.
Outside the forest was a scrubby, bushy expanse with no trees. To the south of the city, there was a small forest, but here, on the north side, it was practically a desert.
Almost as soon as she had left the city, a realization struck her: if she watched, she would see when the person following her left the city. Then she would see who they were. Lu dodged behind the first bush she could get to and glared at the gate through the twiggy branches.
Soon enough, someone—a boy—darted past the guard. Instantly, Lu knew he was an orphan. He moved like someone who had lived on the streets.
As he came closer, looking back hesitantly every few seconds, Lu couldn’t shake the feeling that she had seen him before. Everything about him seemed familiar, specifically the way he moved. Nervously, a little skittish, like he wasn’t sure what he was doing.
It was the boy who had given Lu her third ring! Suddenly it was blindingly obvious.
His eyes darted around, probably searching for Lu. He kept walking, down the road, looking more and more nervous. As he passed the bush, he sped up a little, still arching his skinny neck to try to spot Lu.
Lu stood quietly, moving to stand in the road before speaking.
“Why are you following me?”
The boy jumped, whirling around and holding his arms defensively over his face. After a moment of silence, he peeked out. Lu tried to glare, but she couldn’t help feeling bad for this jumpy boy. He looked so scared.
“I— I was just—” His eyes darted around fearfully. His lower lip trembled as nervous tears filled his eyes. Lu instantly regretted her intimidating approach.
“What’s your name?” She asked quietly.
The boy just stared at her, trying not to cry.
“My name is Lu,” she said with her kindest smile. “I won’t hurt you.”
He still looked scared, but now he reached up to wipe away the few tears that had escaped his eyes. Lu still didn’t know why he had followed her, but she needed to move.
“Well,” Lu said, “I need to keep walking, but if you want, you can come with me.”
The boy froze, looking straight into her eyes. Then, trembling, he spoke.
“Where are you going?” His voice was dry and scratchy, sending a spear of pity through Lu’s heart. It sounded like he hadn’t had water in at least a day, maybe he was even sick.
“I’m going somewhere with food, and water, and nice people.” With each word, light appeared in the boy’s eyes. The weak light of hunger, then the small, steady gleam of hope. “A good place.”
Lu reached a hand out, smiling again.
Tentatively, the boy grabbed her hand with his stick-thin fingers. A hopeful smile started to grow on his face, but disappeared as soon as it had come. Lu turned and started walking, and the boy followed.
Hand in hand, they walked towards the good place.
It had to be a good place. Because Lu was leaving everything she knew behind.
The boy didn’t talk the rest of their journey that day, not even answering when Lu asked where he thought they should sleep. Lu eventually picked a spot under a small group of juniper trees almost twice as tall as her. It was shelter, even if it wasn’t the best. The boy followed her as she crawled under the low branches, sitting cross-legged next to her under the scratchy bush.
Lu grabbed her bag of crackers out of the pocket they had been in all day. The boys eyes lit up again, and he tensed at her side. Lu took a handful of crackers, watching how the boy’s eyes followed her hand. Closing the bag, Lu slid it back into her pocket, then divided the handful into two parts. They were small crackers, a little bigger than a copper penny, so each handful had about seven pieces.
The boy just watched her hand as she held them out to him. Hesitantly, he reached out, grabbing Lu’s offering. He was trembling. Just a little.
Lu started eating hers, the dry crunching noise breaking the silence. More crunching came from beside her, and the boy’s crackers were all gone before Lu had even eaten three of hers. Trying to seem casual about it, Lu grabbed two crackers from her handful and handed them to her timid company. He ate them, still not talking.
By the time all of Lu’s ration was gone, the sun was setting. Through the branches of their juniper bush, Lu stared up into the dimming sky. Less focused on the sky itself, and more focused inward, Lu wondered if leaving had been a terrible idea.
What if the letter had just been a prank? What if it was a lie? What if there was no Ayren, no city, and Lu had nowhere to go? She had abandoned her safe places, everything Fin had left her was back in the city. In addition to those possibilities, this boy had followed her out.
Though, in his case, Lu didn’t know what kind of life he was leaving behind.
“Why….” Lu swallowed. “Why did you follow me?”
The boy didn’t look at her. Lu sighed. Why wouldn’t he talk?
“You can talk, you know.” Lu smiled reassuringly. “I won’t mind.”
Then, the same scratchy voice from before spoke.
The compliment was so sincere. Coming from this scared boy, it filled her with happiness.
“Thanks.” The word seemed an understatement. “What’s your name?”
He sat in silence again, twisting his fingers nervously. He muttered something, but Lu didn’t understand it.
“Sorry,” Lu said carefully, “I didn’t hear that.”
He looked straight ahead, speaking loud and deliberately.
“Everyone says it’s a stupid name. I don’t want to tell you” The flood of words was more than anything he had said to her before.
“I guess that’s okay. But it’s really hard to talk to you when I can’t call you anything. I won’t call it stupid.”
He didn’t acknowledge her.
“Who called it stupid?”
The boy turned away from her. Lu took that to mean he didn’t want to talk about it.
Lu stared up at the sky again. Making conversation had never been this hard with Fin. Or anyone, for that matter. Lu couldn’t even think of another topic to talk about.
Trying to ignore the silence she had created, Lu set to clearing the ground under the bush. It was mostly small sticks that needed to be moved, and Lu scraped away everything she could until it was mostly dirt around her. Laying down, she noted aloud that it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was almost better than the stone of her alley’s floor.
The boy was still silent.
He didn’t talk again that night. If he did, Lu didn’t hear it.
The boy was already awake when Lu’s eyes opened, and the first thing she saw was him, holding her bag of crackers. The sight startled any remaining sleep away, and Lu jumped into a sitting position, hitting her head on one branch above her. She grunted frustratedly, rubbing her head.
“What are you doing, boy?”
He looked at her innocently, confusion in his eyes. “I— I’m waiting. Can we eat more crackers?”
Now Lu noticed that the bag wasn’t open. He hadn’t been eating their food. Lu just sat there, waiting for the shock to wear off.
“Yeah, we can.” Lu rubbed her eyes. “Soon. But we need water first.”
He looked around, as if asking “Where?”
“We’ll have to keep walking a while, then we’ll come to another city. They’ll have water.”
Lu took the bag from the boy’s hands, crawling out from under the juniper bush into the mountain morning. The sun’s light was still soft, barely coming over the plateaus in the distant east. It shone past the juniper bushes, through the short sagebrush, seeming to flood through ravines and caress the gentle hills.
Even with only three kinds of plants, and few unique scenery elements, it was beautiful in the early morning. Lu stared at the sunrise until the sun had risen too far for her eyes to stand the light.
Grabbing the boy’s hand, Lu set off again. A silent unspoken wish rested on her tongue, a wish that there would be another city soon. Then her hopeful distraction wouldn’t be a lie.
All Lu could do for now was walk and hope. The boy wasn't talkative in the morning, only asking twice when the city would come. And water. Lu kept saying “soon” and staring ahead. It became obvious that the boy didn't believe her, but he didn't argue, so Lu kept walking, and he followed.
The sun rose to the middle of the sky, pouring midsummer heat onto Lu’s head, warming her dark hair until Lu felt like crawling under some sagebrush to hide from the sun. Lu’s already parched throat seemed to dry more with each breath. Like breathing through her mouth when sitting by the community fire with Fin. If he was here, he'd know what to do.
They needed to find water. Water would help them.
So where was the city? There was a road; there had to be a city.
The letter had said two days to the northwest. Today was the second day. They had half a day left. They could make it.
Gusts of wind picked up dust and spun it around, twisting it into images. Lu couldn't help but wonder if she was making the pictures up, or if the wind was really forming the image of a man, beckoning them forward.
Lu followed the road, ignoring the boy behind her. Seconds turned into minutes that turned into an eternity. Lu stopped looking at the sun, at the bushes, the hills, everything but the road in front of her. Time slowed into forgetfulness, the simple act of moving becoming everything.
Every time Lu felt like collapsing, the wind came back, bringing the dust man, ever beckoning.
The two children forged ahead through the desert. One step. Then another.
Until finally, finally, as an answer to everything, shattering the silence and bringing consciousness back to Lu’s mind, came a rumble like stone on stone. A mansion rose before her, seeming to appear out of the waves of heat, growing like a living thing, and Lu couldn't walk anymore.
The light dimmed. Maybe it had dimmed before. Lu felt the pain and darkness push against her heavy eyelids her aching legs.
Lu surrendered to the pain, only dimly aware as strong arms picked her up and carried her toward safety.
Author Notes: Part Two! Yay! I hope you like this story so far.
Important question! WHAT SHOULD THIS CHILD'S NAME BE?!? I'm an aweful author, promising a name without having one in mind, but I only delayed giving him one because I couldn't think of one.
Anyway, please give me any ideas you might have of names that could be seen as stupid, but also as a good name.