Chapter 17 (Part Two) - Choices

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Later I sat by the entrance to the mine in a patch of shade. A dry breeze ruffled my hair when I heard the telltale crunch of someone coming towards us. Mindy and Eluena were inside packing their backpacks. We didn't know if we would leave, but I pushed for us to be ready in case Tobin came back with bad news. If my travels so far had taught me anything, it was to be prepared at a moment's notice.

Tobin crested over the hill to my left, skirting through a copse of oak trees. Conscious of staring and assured it was him, I shifted my gaze to straight ahead of me. The wash there had a slight trickle of water running through it from the night's storm. It always amazed me how the earth guzzled the rain. Last night it had been churning and overflowing its banks.

Once he was close enough, I watched him take the last few steps. He stopped a few feet away peering into the mine. I stayed sitting on the ground my legs cross-legged while I played with a long blade of scrub grass.

"How's the valley?" I glanced up at him squinting, the sun bright behind him.

"Nothing seems to be coming our way. I'm sure the storm wiped out our trail and scent. If Redwater wants to catch us, they'll try to predict where we are heading and head us off." He moved to sit down in front of me, our knees only an inch apart.

"And where do you think they think we are going?" I scanned his features trying not to notice the beauty in the hard lines of his jaw. I was grateful that he had sat and not made me stare into the sun, but he was so close right now. It was as distracting with him being so close. At least the glare of the sun would have forced me to look elsewhere.

He sighed and leaned back on his arms. His shirt stretched across his chest. I swallowed and shifted my gaze to a copse of trees just over his shoulder. "I saw an entourage of riders heading South." He shifted to wipe away some dirt on his forearm before settling back again.

Towards home and my mother.

"It's possible they picked up enough of our trail last night to convince them we headed South, but that was the only activity I could see. I stayed and watched for a good half hour." He shifted his legs, lengthening them out, stretching his body. His legs were now off to the side of me, his foot resting beside my hip. "I wish I could tell you if I thought they were on our trail."

He hadn't skirted the issue. The riders could be for us or a group heading out for my mom, and he had been honest with not knowing which.

He glanced into the mine. "How were things here?"

"Surprisingly good." I thought back to the morning. Mindy had cheered Eluena up, and I'd never know if she realized I needed more time alone or not. But she had occupied Eluena, which let me sit in the stillness my mind craved.

My life had become a whirlwind since I had left home, and I'd had no time to process it all. But now I knew I couldn't go on the adventure I had wanted. My decisions since I had left home were primed to affect my family. Tel-Eile would never allow me to be what I wanted, and Shasta certainly would never allow it. But this couldn't continue. Tel Eile couldn't live under another's rule, forever making payments with their people, their children. And yet another nation had it even worse having to pay with their babies.

My morning respite had allowed my mind to catch up to what I knew in my heart. I was never meant to settle down, be someone's wife, stay in my place. That mold had chafed me my entire life, and now I saw why. Knowing what would happen to my mother only highlighted the injustice of it all. A mother helping her child in any way she could to not fall to this fate of becoming a payment.

I looked at Tobin who didn't seem bothered by my momentary silence. He was studying my face, and I could feel the faint blush stain my cheeks under his attention.

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