Aris grunted as he lifted the bucket of slop up over the side of the enclosure and dumped its smelly contents into the tray below. It splashed upwards when it hit the bottom of the wooden container but none of the muck landed near Aris or his clothes. He was quite practiced at this. The pigs that had been idling about the mud filled pen immediately began trotting over to grab some food.
Aris smiled as he pulled the now empty bucket back over the fence. His heart lifted at the animals’ happy snorts and hurried waddling. They seemed so happy to receive the village’s kitchen castoffs. If only his own needs were so simple.
A sigh escaped Aris’ lips as he looked at his surroundings and his own problems came to mind. Around him were the crude wooden buildings that lay at the center of his village. Everything looked run down and dirty, although Aris had never seen them any other way. In fact, he had never seen any other buildings. Behind the buildings the settlement wall could be seen, and beyond that the tall trees of the forest loomed. It was a despairingly familiar scene that made him want to scream. The sight of the trees tormented him. They were a constant reminder of the outside world but also of all the barriers that shackled him here.
He had been born in the isolated village of Shelter over fifteen winters ago, and it was likely that he would die here. There had to be more to life than this! Aris grimaced as he carried the bucket back over to his house. Like every other home in the village, it was a squat structure with a thatch roof. There was only enough space inside for three cramped rooms. He dropped the slop bucket outside the front door before walking inside. His mother was working in the kitchen. There was a table in the middle of the room and she was chopping something up on top of it.
“I’m done with the morning chores, mother,” Aris told her as he stepped through the door.
“Ah, thank you,” his mother replied without looking up from her work. Although she wasn’t young anymore, the brunette was still attractive. She wasn’t slim but she moved gracefully and there was almost always a welcoming smile on her face.
“Is there something else you wanted me to do now?” he asked her as he came to stop in the doorway. There were always more chores to do.
“No, not right now. We can do some cleaning together later, but right now I need to focus on this. You can take a break for an hour or so.”
“Alright, I’m going to go for a walk or something then.”
“Oh, a walk? Are you planning to take it with anyone in particular?” his mother said as she finally looked up and grinned at him. Aris’ cheeks flushed slightly in response.
“Nah, no one in particular,” he replied unconvincingly as he quickly looked to the side.
“Sure, sweetie, whatever you say. Have fun with your walk,” his mother responded smugly. Aris quickly muttered something incomprehensible and then made a break for his room. He loved his mother but she could be so very embarrassing. Why couldn’t she just stay out of his business?
The room was shadowy and dark because the only source of light was one tiny round window, but it was enough to see by. Once inside his bedroom, he pulled out a drawer from his dresser and grabbed a clean shirt. It was still rough homespun and an ugly tan color, but at least it wasn’t covered in dirt and grime. He had to watch his balance as he changed because there was so little space in his cramped room. There was only a tiny piece of open floor between the bed and the dresser.
When Aris was finished, he tried to slip past his mother and back outside but she noticed him and spoke up in a worried voice. “If you end up going out into the forest don’t go too far, and make sure you obey all the rules, including taking at least two other people.”
“Yes, mother, of course,” Aris responded as he tried to hide a grimace. Did she think he was still a child?
“You don’t sound like you mean it,” his mother observed as she scowled his way. “We have those rules for a reason, as you well know. I shouldn’t have to explain them to you of all people.”
Aris simply nodded and smiled insincerely in agreement before hurriedly walking out the door before she could respond. He didn’t want to argue with his mother when there were better uses of his time. She was just being overprotective. Hardly any of the other villagers followed the three person rule. His mother was just paranoid about the forest because of how his father had disappeared. Years ago, he had gone out with one of his friends to do some trading in another village but had never returned. His mother was sure some sort of beast had taken him, but Aris wasn’t so sure. Maybe he had just grown tired of living in an isolated collection of hovels where there was no future and decided to leave his family behind. Aris barely remembered his father as more than a weathered smiling face with a brown beard.
As Aris was walking through the village towards his destination, a flock of small birds twittered and flew over the village. Aris watched them disappear into the trees on the other side of the wall and sighed again. The birds’ freedom filled him with envy. If his father had abandoned his family instead of dying then Aris wasn’t so sure he could bring himself to hate the man. He was more jealous than anything. Of course, since his father wasn’t around it was even more impossible for Aris to leave Shelter. Someone had to stay and help his mother. She was unlikely to remarry since there were so few unmarried men her age left in the village. Their life out here was hard and dangerous. Fatalities were far from unheard of, and men did most the dangerous jobs.
“Damn this place! Why did I have to be born here?” Aris swore as he moved. At least not everything was terrible. There were one or two good things about Shelter. Like Joan, whose house he was now approaching.
After a quick look around to make sure no one was within sight, Aris walked over to a window in the nearest house and looked inside. He didn’t see or hear any movement, so he grinned and moved to the door. He had wanted to make sure her parents weren’t home before entering.
“Are you here, Joan?” he called out eagerly. There was a shuffling sound from deeper in the house before anyone replied.
“Aris, is that you?” a girly voice asked. A young woman in a homespun dress then stepped out of one of the back rooms. She had long blonde hair that was tied up into a bun atop her head and a smile on her face. Her figure was slim in a healthy way.
“Yes, it’s me. I just finished my morning work, and I was wondering if you wanted to spend some time together,” he replied happily. Joan’s beautiful smiles never failed to fill him with joy. There were only about two dozen children his age in the village, so they had all grown up together, and Aris had known Joan forever. However, it was only recently that Aris had found himself being drawn to her and started asking to spend time with her alone.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m still working on finishing up some sowing and my parents are out,” Joan mused aloud. She sounded uncertain but tempted.
“I’m sure it can wait. I was thinking we could go for a short walk and have a nice talk.”
“That does sound fairly nice. A walk to where, though?”
Aris shrugged. He hadn’t really thought about it too much. “Just around the wall and then maybe over to the apple trees. No one will bother us over by the shed there.”
Joan shook her head, although there was still a smile on her lips. The movement did however cause several loose hairs to fall over her face and she had to brush them aside. “The orchard shed? That’s where all the grabby young men like to take their girls. I don’t think I want to go there. How about a real walk, like through the woods.”
Her response disappointed Aris. He couldn’t stop himself from pouting slightly. He had been looking forward to snuggling up next to Joan and seeing if maybe he could steal a kiss or too. The forest would be private but there was one huge problem with it.
“You want to go by ourselves?” he asked. Aris had a feeling that he already knew the answer, and that he wasn’t going to like it.
“No, we’ll definitely need a third person, silly. Those are the rules.”
That was what Aris had been afraid of. “Where are we going to find someone to go with us right now? We should just go to the orchard or go to the forest by ourselves instead.”
“I can just ask my brother. He’s just out back and it will only take a second. Wait here.”
Having said that, Joan smiled again and walked past him. Aris’ heart fell as she stepped through the door and out of sight. He had to wait there awkwardly for Joan to return a few minutes later, and behind her came her brother, Hassiol. Aris forced himself not to grimace when Hassiol threw him a cocky grin. Aris wasn’t thrilled by this new addition. Hassiol wasn’t overprotective of his sister, but he obviously enjoyed annoying Aris by getting in his way. He seemed to find the whole thing to be hilarious, which made Aris want to punch him. The two boys had never been close, even though they were only a year apart in age. They weren’t enemies but they hadn’t been really been friends.
“So you want to go out into the forest for a walk! That sure sounds romantic. Thanks for inviting me,” Hassiol told Aris as he smirked and his eyes glinted with amusement.
“No problem. I can’t think of anywhere else I would like to take you…” the other boy replied before muttering. “…and where I’d like to leave you for something to eat.”
“I’m so happy you two get along so well. Let’s get going!” Joan told them both. She seemed genuine in her excitement so Aris suppressed his own disaffection.
“I just remembered seeing some spring flowers the last time I went out into the forest,” Aris told her as he tried to ignore her brother. “I’ll show them to you. I think you’ll love them. They’re almost as pretty as you.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” Joan replied.
“Do you think I’ll like them? I can’t wait to see what color they will be!” Hassiol interjected in a tone full of sarcasm.
“I have no idea,” Aris replied crossly.
“Will they be as pretty as I am?”
There was a second of silence as Aris suppressed the urge to kick Hassiol in the balls. As much as the boy deserved it, it wouldn’t be a good idea in front of his sister. Aris was trying to leave a good impression.
“You’ll have to decide that on your own, or get one of the other girls to tell you. That’s if you ever find one that is interested in you,” Aris eventually replied as he stared hostilely into Hassiol’s eyes.
Joan laughed at their exchange before stepping between them and speaking up. “You two are so funny! But there will be plenty of time for joking around as we walk. Let’s get going. I want to see these flowers.”
The blonde girl then took Aris’ arm and led him towards the door. Her brother followed as they made their way towards Shelter’s gates. The warm feeling of her body pressed up against his overwhelmed Aris, even if her heavy clothes meant their skin wasn’t touching. His heart started beating louder and faster in his chest. He remained silent as they stepped outside the village, but then Joan let go of his arm and stepped away.
Across the barren fields outside the walls loomed the green trees that completely surrounded Shelter. Aris felt his good spirits drain away when they came into sight. He suddenly felt very alone, regardless of his company. His home village was a small speck in the center of an endless maze that he couldn’t escape. The outside world full of people he had never met and the grand cities that he had heard some of the elders speak of were all impossibly far away. Regardless of how well this little outing went he was doomed to die in this village where nothing happened but the slow grind of tragedy. None of the elders said it aloud, but everyone knew that the village was shrinking. Less planting was done every year, and life was constantly getting harder. Shelter was dying, strangled by the Green. It couldn’t survive on its own.
“Why did you stop? Let’s get going,” Joan asked from up ahead as she turned and gave Aris an inquisitive look.
“Oh, I was just thinking of how much I enjoy being around you,” Aris replied smoothly as he started walking again. Behind him, Hassiol gagged in disgust. They all followed the path to the edge of the woods and stepped into the shade cast by the branches overhead.
Birds twittered all around and leaves shook in the wind. Aris found himself praying as he followed Joan. “I wish something would happen, anything really. Tar-Galhd, lord of the Green, you’re the only god that could possibly hear me out here. I’ve lived my entire life in your embrace… Please, I beg of you, let me grow.”
Aris looked around. There was no sudden unnatural silence or divine sign, so he just sighed and kept moving. It had been stupid of him to suddenly be so dramatic. If he kept this up he was going to let a sour mood ruin a perfectly good date with a beautiful woman. The young man moved up next to Joan and smiled at her. When she smiled back he quickly forgot his prayer and the thoughts that had been dragging him down. He had feeling this was going to be a great day, even with Hassiol was around.