I’ve Never Been So Alone
The sun had already begun to set over the horizon as Hollis approached Fort Praesidium. The last rays of light hung in the sky and back lit the tall and imposing stone walls making them appear as large, black, and threatening shadows. She clutched the strap of her worn leather bag with both hands and walked carefully into the southern entrance. The streets were sparsely populated by citizens in thread worn clothes and the occasional trio of guards watching the streets lazily.
After a week and a half of travel she had finally reached her destination and the adrenaline that had kept her going these past few days was working its way out of her bloodstream. Hollis was exhausted, both physically and emotionally and had no idea what she was supposed to do now. The trip here, while uncomfortable and filled with its own strife and hardships, had at least had a destination and goal. Her journey from Yulatc to the First Province had only required that she put one foot in front of the other and follow the rest of the group in her caravan. But now, she found herself alone, in a strange land she wasn’t able to leave for motivations that were not her own.
Hollis wandered through the dark streets, seeking refuge in the circles of light offered by the odd lantern speckled across the fort. She found it strange that the streets were not lit by electricity, though she shouldn’t have been surprised; even the streets were unpaved. This fort was a variable wasteland compared to the comfort and privilege she had come from and as this realization set in, her chest felt heavy with dread and anxiety.
She continued to wander in circles, going down each path in the main fort, her feet continuing to take her back to the steps of the local Inn, the Hearth and Hale, and each time found the same sign that said “Sorry, No Vacancy”. She pursed her lips together, staring at the sign and willing it to change its message in vain.
Hollis turned away and walked back up the main road, the anxiety in her chest welling up and threatening to spill over into panic. In the distance she could see a light on in a building with a sign that read “Signed and Sealed: Fort Praesidium Public Library”. Without really thinking she walked in, throwing the door open with more force than she had intended and strode in.
The interior of the building was dimly lit with shelves of books and racks of newspapers pressed up against the walls. Her sudden entrance had startled the three occupants who had been quietly reading at their tables. All eyes in the room fell upon Hollis and she realized then what a sight she must have been; her face flushed with panic, her eyes wide with fear and her clothing a patchy mess. Swallowing dryly she turned and took a seat at the first empty table she could.
Hollis tried to take in slow breaths to calm herself, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. To keep herself busy, she picked up a book in front of her without even reading the cover and opened it. The words inside may have well been in Nothryian instead of common Decusian for all she was able to retain from the text. Her eyes scanned over the same sentence three times before she closed her eyes and surrendered.
Tears escaped from her eyes as her lids slid over them and the large drops fell in splatters against the incomprehensible page. It was as if those two drops had been holding back a flood and with them came the rest of the storm. As she sat in the library she broke down completely, the anxiety that had been welling up in her chest flowing over in the form of heavy, uncontrollable sobs and shallow heaving breaths.
Hollis tried in vain to control emotions, wiping the stream of tears from her face aggressively, clearly frustrated with herself. She felt homesick, abandoned and she had never felt more alone than now. “You’re better than this”, she whispered to herself in a hiss as she held her blonde hair back from her blotchy face.
“Miss. . “, a small voice said from behind her.
The word was enough to draw her back and Hollis managed to compose herself enough to look over her shoulder with a forced smile.
“Miss, I’m so sorry but, the Library is a quiet space”, a middle aged woman who looked exceedingly uncomfortable said gently to her.
“Oh, of course. I understand. I’m so sorry”, Hollis stumbled over her words as she collected her things, her eyes falling upon the text she had been trying to read. The open pages were covered in tear splatters and the ink had run together in space. She motioned to the book and opened her mouth to begin a series of apologies but was stopped by the librarian.
“It’s alright”, the woman replied, her body language and singular hand that motioned to the door telling Hollis that all she wanted was for her to leave.
Back outside the night had only grown darker, an inky black fell upon the fort that seemed to threaten to even snuff out the scattered lanterns in the area. Hollis stood, her feet rooted to the dirt road under them. She didn’t know where to go or what to do now. Perhaps she could find a safe bench to sleep on for the evening and figure out her next steps at first light?
Through the darkness she could hear footsteps approaching and then from up the road the shining light of a bright lantern broke through the night. The tall, lean man dressed in flowing robes of burgundy held the lantern high, shining the light to illuminate the path before him and Hollis.
“Is this your-?”, Hollis began to ask, motioning to the library it had just been politely suggested she leave.
“תשלג צוא גלד חנןגזקגן םסלגס", the man had begun saying just as she had spoken, words in a thick accent and language she recognized to be Collatian.
“Oh, I-”, she motioned between the two of them as if to indicate she didn’t understand.
The young man stepped forward bringing the light with him and cleared his throat, appearing a little embarrassed and offering an apologetic smile. “Ahm, are you alright, miss?”, he asked in a small voice.
Hollis put on her bravest smile that was easily betrayed by her puffy eyes and her fair skin speckled with large blotches of red. “Oh yes I’m-”, she stopped half way through her lie and shook her head, “No, actually. I’m not”.
The man nodded with understanding and before he could speak again Hollis had launched into a frantic explanation.
“I’m quite lost- and it’s so dark, and there aren’t any rooms available at the inn. I jus- I just- I have no idea what to do.'', Hollis stumbled over her words motioning down the road to the Hearth and Hale and then behind her to the library.
The man calmly watched her as she finished speaking with kind green eyes. “I’ve a tavern nearby”, he said in a way that was a statement of fact but also a polite invitation.
“Oh, so you’re not a librarian then?”
“No, afraid not”
Hollis let out a soft sigh, “That’s a relief, I cried on three books in there”
The man grimaced before chuckling, “How bad could it be?” he asked with a reassuring smile though as his eyes flitted towards the library nervously.
Turning her head to look at the door she had just come from, she chewed on her bottom lip and glanced back at the man, “You know, lets just not talk about it again.”
The pair shared a laugh and with that Hollis felt some of the weight on her chest lighten.
“You don’t look familiar, are you newly arrived”, the man asked her just as an unintelligible yell came through the night.
“Yes, I’m fresh off the train”, Hollis responded, looking out into the night with unease. “Did you hear that?”, she asked as a second unintelligible yell followed the last.
The tall Western man turned at the second yell wordlessly and talked in the direction it had come. Not wanting to be left behind, Hollis followed the man to an alleyway where once they had rounded the corner they could see two people, one lying motionless in the grass and the other leaning over him.
A tall woman with tan skin and flowing black hair wearing a vest and red long skirt was hunched over the young shirtless man who, even in the dim lighting appeared to be heavily tattooed. The thin tattooed man was clearly unconscious and resistant to the woman’s attempts to rouse him.
Hollis watched the scene as the tall man she had followed and the woman they had come upon exchanged tense greetings. Hollis crossed her arms tightly around her chest and observed the scene. “Is– Is that man dead?”, she finally managed to say as continued efforts to rattle him awake were unsuccessful.
The woman tending to the unconscious man didn’t look up as they approached.
“No, he isn’t dead, at least I don’t think so. He has become prone to dis of late”, the man responded motioning to the man. “Last time I brought him back to dee tavern and got him a warm drink. He was easier to rouse them though.
The woman looked up at that and frowned, wetting her lips and shaking her head in what Hollis assumed was disappointment. “I’ll take care of him”, she said, her eyes flitting up to look at Hollis and the man before returning her attention to her work. “I’m sorry for the. . “, the woman gestured vaguely towards the man in the grass.
“Oh, it’s no worry”, Hollis responded awkwardly as the woman watched her, also unable to look away from the scene.
Drawing in a breath the man looked away from the pair in the grass and drew his attention back to Hollis, “I didn’t get your name, Miss. . ?”, he asked curiously.
“Maeby”, Hollis responded off-handedly, watching the group.
“I am called Constantine”, the man responded, motioning to himself before furrowing his brow in some confusion, “Maybe what?”
“Hm?”, Hollis responded
“Maybe I didn’t get it?”, Constantine said, the look of confusion still playing across his face.
“Oh no”, Hollis looked at him, her head tilting up to look him in the eye due to their height difference, “My name is Maeby, Hollis Maeby. I just tend to go by my last name”
Constantine nodded with a slight chuckle and motioned to the pair in the grass. “This is Doctor Drucilla and Ikashev.”
“And you’re sure he’s alright?” Hollis asked, looking back at the man in the grass.
“He’ll be alright in time, that is the important thing”, the Doctor responded, picking up the man’s wrist and keeping time on a small pocket watch. ”This isn’t a common thing in other places. In this quarantine zone, it seems people are eager to expose all of themselves to each other”, she said with a sigh and a nod.
“Oh. I see”, Hollis replied, unsure what to make of the doctor’s warning.
“No, really”, Drucilla said, looking up to Hollis and meeting her eyes, “Be careful. They’ve few boundaries, these refugees. These are strange times.” The woman’s eyes stayed locked on Hollis’, giving her an odd sense of dread with her words.
Constantine furrowed his brow at this, looking sidelong to Drusilla, who had finally dropped her gaze back down to her work.
“Well. . “, Constantine said after a long and uncomfortable silence, “I’ll leave you to it. I’m going to dee Risk”.
Hollis pulled her focus away from the scene and found that her feet followed after Constantine, the light from his lantern leading the way through the dark streets. He led her to an inviting and comfortable tavern and offered her food and drink that she had accepted readily.
As more people found their way to the tavern, Hollis moved from the bar to a table in the back. She opened her sketch book and began to draw those around her as she met them. Silvanas, a young man with white long hair, Luno a middle aged man with heavy frown lines and kind eyes and the woman Drucilla and Ikashev who she had met in the alley.
Hollis continued to sketch, filling a full page with an illustration of Constantine and as her eyes lowered to the bottom of the page to continue her drawing she felt her eyes grow heavy and begin to droop. Hollis settled into the chair, slouching low and decided to close her eyes for just a moment.
Through the reaches of her half conscious mind Hollis could hear people talking around her.
“Should we try to wake her?”, a raspy voice said.
“No, let her sleep. She’s been through a lot”, another responded as she slipped into unconsciousness.