Chapter 18

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By the end of dinner, I've gotten three offers of swim lessons, five offers of self defense lessons, and one offer from a scrawny boy named Edmund, who quietly tells me that he knows a way to make sure Maddox never wants to mess with me again. I'm so intrigued by the look in his eye that I almost take him up on the offer. But I catch Gareth's eye and he frantically shakes his head so I decide it's better left as a mystery. Edmund looks slightly disappointed when I turn him down. 

The only thing bothering me is Hale. Remembering his exit and the fact that he isn't here now puts a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. I need to make things right with him. 

So I excuse myself and leave dinner early. There is only one place I can think of that he might be. I just hope Maddox isn't lurking outside waiting for me to do something stupid like wander into the woods by myself. As I head towards Hale's clearing, I try my best to walk quietly and pay attention to my surroundings, just in case. 

The gods must finally taken pity on me because I make it up the hill and to the clearing without being attacked by murderous young men or demonic, flesh hungry hounds. Not only do I make it there unscathed, but Hale is sitting on the boulder, sharpening his sword.

Apparently I wasn't as quiet as I thought because he doesn't look remotely surprised to see me step out of the trees.

"What are you doing here?" he just asks flatly, gaze fixed on his sword. I take a tentative step closer, not sure how to proceed. His attitude is confusing me and twisting my stomach. But when in doubt, go straight for the throat.

"I just wanted to thank you- you know, for earlier." No reaction from him. "And ask you what your problem is." Still no reaction so I keep barreling forward. "Because you're being a jerk right now, and I have no idea why. Are you trying to make me feel ashamed of myself or something?" I can hear the hurt in my voice and I flush but don't look away.

He just keeps sharpening his sword, ignoring me like a child. It's getting dark and his face is shadowed so I can't see his expression. He certainly hasn't looked at me once though.

I felt like Hale and I had formed a tentative friendship over the past week. We chatted sometimes during our morning sessions, never about anything important but still, it was something. Often enough, we sat near each other during meals and paired up to spar. He joked around and teased me, and we had lots of friendly banter. It felt like friendship to me but maybe I was wrong.

"Seriously, why are you being like this? What's wrong with you?" I step forward and put my hand on his shoulder, intending to give him a good shake until he at least looks at me.

The second my hand lands on his shoulder, he knocks it away angrily. He stands up suddenly and throws his sword in the dirt at his feet.

"What's my problem? Are you seriously asking me that?" A muscle ticks in his jaw, telling me that he's not just angry; Hale is pissed. "You are my problem. You're letting Maddox push you around and treat you like a beat dog. I don't understand what's going through your head!"

"What's going through my head is that I don't want to get kicked out of the recruits for starting a fight. Or have everyone hate me because I snitched," I retort hotly. He has no idea what he's talking about.

"That's bullshit and you know it!" He spits. "People like you let themselves get beaten down and abused and don't do anything about it. You just take it or wait for someone else to step up for you. You're cowards, the lot of you."

I get the feeling that this is about more than just what happened earlier. There's a personal wound here that I've somehow ripped open and he can't handle it. Hale is so furious he's shaking, and when he takes a step towards me, I flinch back.

"Look at you! I'm scaring you and you're just cowering. You say you want to make it here but you can't even stand up for yourself! I don't think you want this at all." 

He's scaring me but that fear swiftly turns into anger. How dare he question my commitment, my dedication. "I'm not going to stand here and be judged by you. You think that I like letting Maddox push me around? I want to smash his face in, but I can't! It takes strength to be the better person and avoid a fight!"

"Oh really? And it's strong of you to let him push you down every morning, to laugh at you, to nearly drown you? He's doing this because you're an easy target, you're letting him get away with it! He could probably see what a coward you are on day one and that's why he went after you."

"I'm not a coward." Each word slides out from my clenched teeth. He's wrong. Maddox is the problem here, something is wrong with him, not with me. How dare he say these things to me, after all I've done and had to deal with over the past week. I'm sick and tired of people treating me like garbage.

One second I'm standing in front of Hale, blood pounding in my ears; the next, he's staggering away from me, hand clasped over his nose, crimson trickling between his fingers. I stare at my clenched fist in shock, a dull pain radiating from where my knuckles connected with his face. I didn't even realize I was moving until my fist had already gone flying.

I look up, meeting green eyes filled with surprise and something that looks almost like triumph. I spin around and run back into the forest. He doesn't say anything to stop me.  

_______________

I make it back to the barracks, telling the boys that I'm tired before crawling into bed and pulling the covers over my head. No one bothers me. 

I feel sick to my stomach, sick down to my core. It wasn't right for Hale to say those things to me, for someone I consider a friend to tear me down like that. I can't deny that some of what he said rings true though.I don't know what I'm going do with Maddox, with Willow, with anything right now. But how I'm handling it now isn't working.

I want to stand up for myself but I'm stuck in a place where my decisions don't only impact me. I have Willow to take care of and I can feel the council breathing down my neck, waiting for any opportunity, any excuse to get rid of me. How can I defend myself knowing that?

I feel like I'm losing myself. The Talia from our little town would never let herself get pushed around. She would have stood her ground and fought. I don't know who this new Talia is or how she's supposed to react to things. But I don't want her to be a coward, for weak to be the thing people think when they looked at her. I want her to be strong and worthy of respect.

How can I be the Talia I want, strong and bold, confident and outspoken, if I can't even stand up for myself?

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