Barg, the harvest master and butcher of the village of Plum, stood in the crisp light of early morning with a number of men, waiting to murder his good friend the smith, his wife, and their two children.
Oh, none of them called it murder, but all knew that’s where this would lead. And what choice did they have?
The villagers had been joined by others in the district and divided into groups positioned around the smith’s. One group hid behind the miller’s. Another, the one lead by Barg, kept itself behind Galson’s barn. The third waited in a small grove on the outskirts of the village.
The men with Barg stood for an hour, checking the buckles of what armor they had, wrestling with the shock of the matter, and waiting for the signal in silence. At first, a handful of the outsiders had boasted of what they’d do. “Mark me,” a Mokaddian wearing the turquoise of the Vargon clan said. His Vargon accent was plain, rolling his r’s much too long. “I will land one of the first five strokes.”
Barg cut off a handful of his hair with a knife to show his mourning. “You’ll be one of the first five he guts.” He grasped another handful of hair and sawed through it.
“What do you know?” the Vargon said.
“I know that today I will help kill a man who saved my life.” He cast another clump of shorn hair to the ground. “The smith is a roaring lion. You had best beware.”
The Vargon said nothing in return, but what could he say? He was only trying to cover his fears. Sparrow the smith was a formidable warrior, and if the accusations against him were true, then it was certain some of those who had gathered today would die.
The approaching dawn silvered the fields and thatch roofs about the village and set the roosters to crowing. The cattle in the paddocks began to low, a stray dog outside the alewife’s barked at a snake trying to get to the tall grass, and down in the south field a few straggling deer decided it was now time to leave the fields and find cover. The men knew their signal was only minutes away.
* * *
On the side of the village closest to the forest and the Galson’s homes, the smith’s daughter, Sugar, stood in the barn feeding their two horses and heard the jingle of a trap bell in her garden. It was followed by the panicked cry of a hare.
Nothing ever got away from one of Sugar’s traps. And from the sound of the scuffling and ringing, this creature was big. All that commotion was sure to bring Midnight and Sky, her family’s dogs. She’d trained them to leave her game alone, but these two liked to bend the rules whenever they could. So Sugar put down the hay fork, and told Fancy, their mare, and Sot, their draft horse, she’d return later. Then she picked up her smothering sack and stepped out of the barn and into the yard in her bare feet.
The village homes looked like fat ships floating amidst a sea of grain. But it was not a quiet sea. Da had flung both doors to the smithy open and stood at the forge hammering away at his work. Farmer Galson’s cattle bellowed. They were the noisiest bunch of cattle in the whole district. Sugar saw them bunched up at the far end of their paddock, waiting for one of Galson’s grandsons to open the gate so they could go to the watering pond. But that was odd . . . someone should have led them out long ago.
Beyond the paddock gate stood the thatch- roofed homes for Farmer Galson, his children, and his adult grandchildren. Almost a village all by itself. The soft yellow light of hearth fires still shone in many of the windows. Outside, one of the wives made her way back from the privy in a pale nightgown. She held a wailing babe on her hip.
The woman looked up, and Sugar waved across the field at her, but she did not wave back; instead, she dashed for her house. Maybe she hadn’t seen Sugar. But then again, maybe she had. Some of the Galsons thought they rode a lord’s high horse.
Sugar walked to the garden, opened the gate, and stepped under the arch of climbing rose. The lemony scent from its pink blooms lay heavy in the air. She walked along the shadowed rows of vegetables until she came to the peas and salad greens.
There she found a large hare, a black- tail that was going to make a fine breakfast.
It was easiest just to brain them with a stout stick, but she didn’t want to chance ruining the fur about the throat, so she readied the smothering sack and approached the animal. This part of the garden was still wet with yesterday’s watering and the soil stuck to the bottoms of her bare feet.
When she got close, the hare began to kick in earnest. It was a monster. Twelve pounds at least.
She threw the sack over it to protect her from its kicking and clawing and quickly held its hind- and forelegs in place. It cried out in distress, but she kneeled on its side, pressing the air out of its lungs. She pressed until she knew she’d start breaking its ribs, then waited for it to suffocate.
The giant hare struggled underneath her. It bucked once more then lay very still. Sugar removed the snare noose from its leg. The hare felt dead. But she’d been tricked before. A number of years ago, before her moon- cycles had come upon her, she’d picked up a hare and carried it into the house and laid it on the cutting stone. The whole time it had lain in her hands like a limp rag, but the second she began to cut, it jumped up and knocked the knife right out of her hand. Then it flew off the table and bolted out the open door. And so she continued to press this hare.
Across the paddocks the Galsons’ dogs began to bark. They were joined by another group down by the miller’s.
The dogs would often bark this way when travelers passed through. Sugar looked up to see what was causing the commotion and saw a wide line of men on the far side of Galson’s paddocks.
The Mokaddians marched in battle order with bows and spears, their helmets gleaming in the early morning light. Those with spears also carried shields painted with a grotesque boar’s head circled by a ring of orange. It was the mark of the Fir- Noy clan.
It was not uncommon to see such things. All men, Mokaddian and Koramite, were required to regularly attend their clan musters. But something about this was not right.
She turned and saw another line coming up from the miller’s.
Then she realized: these men were converging, but not on the practice field. No, they seemed on a direct course for her house.
Fear ran up Sugar’s back. Not only were these men converging, but none of them wore the armbands that distinguished friend from foe during the practice musters.
Sugar stood, trying to get a better view.
The hare that had lain beneath her bucked free of the smothering sack. It bolted down the row of peas, pushed through a hole she’d missed in their fence, and fled to the short hedgerow that grew along a portion of Galson’s paddock.
The men marched toward the house. She could see the intricate Mokaddian tattoos around their wrists and forearms. She could see beards and naked chins under their helmets, but they were too far away for their eyes to be anything but dark pits.
She ran to the back door and flung it open.
Mother bent at the hearth building up a cooking fire. She startled when Sugar rushed in. “Goh, you do that just to set my heart leaping in my throat, don’t you.”
“There are men dressed for battle in Galson’s field,” said Sugar. “Others down by the miller’s. Was there a muster today?”
Mother picked up the bowl the potter had thrown just for Cotton, Sugar’s infant brother who had been stolen the previous season. “I’m sure I would have heard something.”
At that moment Da opened the front door. As the days turned hotter, Da had taken to wearing as little as possible. He stood there bare- chested with the morning at his back.
“Purity,” he said to Mother, “this beard is going to be the death of me. I’m sick of the braids catching fire. I’m not going back to the smithy until it’s shaved off.”
Sugar saw that two of his braids were indeed singed.
“Ach,” Mother said, undoing the shutter latch, “they’re so handsome on you. Half the men in this village would give a finger for such a beard.”
“I don’t want their fingers,” said Da. “They can have the beard for free.” His massive back and arms glistened with the morning sweat. He smelled like charcoal smoke.
Mother walked to the back door and looked outside. “That’s odd,” she said.
Da spoke to Sugar. “I heard the hare trap. All this time I’ve been lusting after beef. Why can’t you catch one of Galson’s steers? I’d even settle for one of the old ones.”
“There’s the matter of Farmer Galson,” said Sugar.
“Bah,” said Da, dismissing the farmer. “Make a trap for Galson as well.”
“Sparrow,” said Mother, “did you forget today’s muster?”
“None that I know of.” He walked over to her, but instead of looking out the doorway, he reached out with one of his massive arms and grabbed her around the waist. He nuzzled into her side and began nibbling.
“Stop,” she said and pushed at him. “Sparrow, what are those men doing?”
Da looked outside.
Midnight and Sky began barking out front. Sugar looked through the front door Da had left open. “There’s another group coming down the lane.” As Koramites, Sugar’s family had no legal clan. The Mokaddian and Koramite fatherlands were far across the sea. The Mokaddians had beat the Koramites there in a great war not long ago, and one of the Mokaddian prizes had been the Koramite settlements in the New Lands. Of the nine Mokaddian clans that came to claim the prize, the Fir- Noy seemed to hate their Koramite vassals the most. Not two months ago a group of Fir- Noy had beat a Koramite woman until they’d ruined one eye and half her teeth.
But Da had said that wouldn’t happen here. Those were upland Fir- Noy that had beaten the woman. They didn’t have sway in the village of Plum, and Da had the assurances of the territory lord on that.
“They’re surrounding us,” Sugar said. The men were close enough for Sugar to see the set of their mouths— bitter as garden rue.
When Sugar was a child, a gang of four village boys had tormented her until Da confronted the boy’s parents. But that didn’t end the issue. So Da took it to the village council. He demanded the boys come fight her one- on- one. Mother was furious, taking him to task for making Sugar fight his battles. But Da stood his ground. Da himself was a fighter, and for one week he sparred with Sugar, preparing her as best he could. Then the boys had come, some grinning, some all business. They brought most of the village with them. And in the wedge field, surrounded by grandmothers, children, and dogs, Sugar had taken a beating. But the boys had not left unscathed either. There was a black eye, a bloody nose. She’d kicked one so hard in the gut that he’d vomited in the grass.
Afterwards, some of the villagers cheered for her. A few of the fathers of the boys who had started it all came and made peace. Da was satisfied. Mother was not. She would not speak to him for two weeks. But even with her heavy fury on him, Da did not give up on Sugar’s lessons. “There are those who act,” he said. “And those who are acted upon. I’m not ever going to leave you in a position again where you have no choice.”
Two years later when her moon- cycles came, Mother convinced Da he was ruining her chances of a good marriage, for what boy wanted to bed a bruiser? So he stopped teaching her how to use her feet and hands as weapons, and began to teach her knives.
That was a number of years ago. She’d never had to use the knife Da forged for her protection and made her wear. Not to draw a man’s blood. Although she had let a few of the boys she’d been introduced to at Koramtown know she wore it. But mostly she’d used the knife around the yard in her chores. Now, even though she knew it would be useless against a host of men, she was glad she had it.
Mother turned to her. “Get Fancy saddled.”
Sugar moved to obey, but Da held his hand up. “No. Running will only raise their suspicions or prod them to act. This might be nothing. Leave it to me. I know how to handle these men.”
“And then it will be too late,” said Mother.
“Woman,” said Da in warning. Then he walked out the front door.
When he was only a few paces into the yard, Mother turned to Sugar. “You get
“Do you want saddlebags?” asked Sugar.
“All I want is a horse. The Fir- Noy are not what they once were.”
Sugar dashed out the back door.
The troops in Farmer Galson’s fields had fanned out and were now walking as a line toward the house.
Legs, her younger, blind brother, stood in front of the chicken house, his head cocked at an odd angle as if looking off into space, which was what he did when he paid fierce attention to every sound and smell. His wild hair stood up. In his arm he held a basket of onions and eggs.
“Legs!” she said. “Get in here.”
“I can hear men,” he said.
“Move!” she said.
Holding the eggs to the bottom of the basket, Legs jogged for the back door. He needed no stick to navigate the house and yard. If he knew a place, he could walk about as if he were sighted. It was only when he was in a new place that he might stumble, or when things were lying out of place. And so they all had learned to be very tidy.
Sugar ran to the barn. Fancy nickered. Sot had already moved out to the watering trough. Sugar grabbed the harness, slipped it over Fancy’s head, and fitted the bridle in her mouth. Then she led the horse out and tied her to the post by the back door.
The Fir- Noy stood with their hideous shields only a few paces beyond the chicken house. They’d formed up into a loose circle that ringed both the house and smithy. “Mark the horse,” one of the soldiers said.
For a moment Sugar thought they were going to shoot Fancy right there. Perhaps shoot Sugar herself. She rushed into the house and shut the door behind her. She went to her mother who stood in the doorway to the front yard.
“Fancy’s not going to be enough,” she said.
Mother gaze was fixed on Da out in the yard, but she reached out and smoothed Sugar’s hair. “You did just fine. Now, if anything happens, you and Legs need to be ready to ride. You’ll have the most cover in the woods. So it’s straight through Galson’s fields, low on Fancy’s neck. And if someone stands in your way, you ride them down.”
Fear seized Sugar’s heart. Had it really come to this? “What about you and Da?”
“You ride them down,” said Mother. “You flee to Horse.”
Mother had always told her that if the Mokaddians ever attacked, she was to flee into the Shoka lands and find the farmer many called Horse. His given name was Hogan. And that’s how she addressed him out of respect. Sugar didn’t know him well, but she had been to his farm a few times. Still, how would she ride through that ring of men? They’d fill her or Fancy full of arrows before she’d galloped a rod.
“Do you hear me?” asked Mother.
“Yes,” Sugar said.
She looked past Da at the soldiers out front. They’d stopped a number of paces from Da. Those with bows had strung them, and that was something fearful. Because keeping a bow strung all the time only ruined the weapon. You never strung your bow unless you were going to use it.
Midnight and Sky barked at the men until Da whistled sharply and called them back to his side.
Two men on horseback faced Da. She recognized the leader and the orange and blue patterns painted onto his armor. It was the territory lord, a man everyone called the Crab for his ruddy complexion. Next to him sat the district lord. Behind them stood Barg, the butcher and village harvest master, holding his spear.
Da bowed to the Crab. “My Lord,” he joked, “have you at last come to wrestle your humble servant?”
But the Crab did not smile. “Sparrow, smith of Plum,” he said. “You have been accused of dark magic. We are here to take you and yours to prove that you are whole and without spot.”
Dark magic? Sugar did not believe she’d heard him correctly.
“What?” said Da.
“If you’re clean,” said the Crab, “you need not fear the ordeal.”
An ordeal was designed to flush out Sleth. Supposedly, when such a creature was on the point of death or overwhelming pain, through drowning or torture, it would multiply its strength with its dark magic to save itself and thus reveal its true nature.
But how anyone could think her family was among such was impossible to fathom.
The Crab reached into a pouch tied to the front of his saddle and pulled out a thin collar, almost a necklace.
“I have here a king’s collar. I want you to put it on.” He tossed it. The collar shimmered in the early morning light; it landed in the dust two- thirds of the way between the Crab and Da. “When it’s about your neck, you will bind your wife and children in chains.”
He motioned to a man behind him who brought up a number of leg and neck irons and tossed them toward where the collar lay.
A king’s collar was a magical thing, wrought by a special order of Divines called Kains; it not only prevented a person from working magic, but it weakened them and made them easy to handle.
Sugar realized the men did not come closer and bind the family themselves because they feared some kind of evil trick.
“This is ridiculous,” said Da.
The Crab’s horse danced to the side a few steps.
Then the district lord tossed a large sack towards Da. It landed heavily on the ground. “The contents of that sack were found last evening on the bank of the Green by a group of mothers and children doing their laundry. Open it.”
Da walked over to the sack, squatted down, and pulled the mouth open.
“Whose child is that in the sack, Master Sparrow?”
Sugar heard her mother take in a sharp breath.
Da hesitated for a moment then gently worked the body out. He knelt there for quite some time, not moving, not saying a word.
Then Sugar knew who was in that sack. She could feel it from the crown of her head to her toes. Her fear fled and she raced out the door.
Da turned and motioned for her to stay. “Get back!”
But it was too late. Sugar saw the baby that Da had exposed.
It was Cotton, her little brother. She knew it. Little Cotton, stolen out of his crib earlier this spring. By woodikin or slavers or wild dogs, nobody knew. Yet here he was.
She came closer and saw that the body was bloated and partially decomposed. It had the lighter Koramite coloring and Cotton’s curly hair. Cotton, their bonny little honey man.
Then Da opened the sack wider and slid the body of a stork out.
From the uncommon kidney- shaped spot of dark feathers on its shoulder she knew it was Lanky, the young stork with a wounded wing that she and Legs had found. They’d wrapped him up in Legs’s tunic and brought him home, careful to avoid the sharp yellow beak. Mother had nursed him back to health. And when Cotton was born, it seemed to think he was its brother. Mother was always shooing it away from him for fear of that long beak. And the stork would go, but only to perch on a fence post or the limb of one of the trees. It pestered them for weeks.
Lanky had disappeared the same day Cotton did.
Sugar had thought the mad bird had finally departed because Cotton had gone. But this was awful. Somebody had taken both and killed them.
Da turned the bird over. Something was wrong with the carcass. She looked closer.
The bird had wings and feathers. But where the talons of the right leg should have been, a misshapen human foot curled. And where short feathers should have graced the beast’s head, patches of long blond hair grew. And underneath that hair lay what surely was a small, twisted, but human- shaped ear.
Sugar’s sickness turned to revulsion.
“Look closely at the foot of the child,” said the Crab. “Notice the nails. Notice also the few patches on its back. That’s not matted hair; it’s the beginnings of chick down.”
Da stood, horrified.
“And now,” said the Crab, “you will put on the collar and chains.”
“Sugar,” Mother called.
But Sugar was rooted to the spot.
Da found his voice. “You think we are soul- eaters? You think we would spend our child’s soul like this?”
“What I know,” said the district lord, “is that someone buried these two. And when the recent floods came, the waters opened the grave, tasted its contents, and spat them out.”
“My Cotton was stolen,” said Mother.
“Yes, yes,” said the Crab. “Snatched by one of the woodikin and taken to the swamps or into the wild wood over the mountains. It’s a fine story, but here he is.”
It was common enough for the Divines of the many glorydoms to draw the Fire that fueled the days of a man’s life. But not the soul. Never the soul. Sleth, on the other hand, stole Fire and soul from men and beasts. The singular nature of the soul was what gave each type of living being its distinct attributes. Consuming bits of another’s soul transferred random aspects of that soul, aspects that manifested themselves in mind and body, slowly twisting the one that had consumed it.
Sleth stole from humans, but because animals couldn’t tell their secrets, Sleth stole most often from them. So if one had stolen Fire from his goat, then he would also have traces of that goat soul in the draw, and over time that soul would manifest itself. Such a thief might develop the nubs of horns on his head or a slit iris in his eyes. If one had stolen from fish, he might one day find patches of scales instead of skin. Someone who stole from his cattle might be inflamed with lust by a heifer in estrus. Someone who had stolen from a bird . . .
But this was all wrong. How could a babe steal soul?
“You cannot controvert the manifestations of Sleth- work upon both bodies,” said the Crab. “Nor can you claim the child is not yours. The other Koramite children who died last season have all been dug up and accounted for. And no other has gone missing.”
The bowmen trained their arrows on Da’s heart. Some pointed their arrows at her and Mother.
Barg spoke up. “You haven’t been sick in many years. And the tale your wife tells is suspect. Your dogs were in the yard the day your child went missing. This she swears. Yet she also said they did not bark.” He motioned at Midnight and Sky. “We all heard today how they react to strangers. There could have been some charm put upon them. But it could also be the one snag in an otherwise well- spun lie.”
“Purity does not lie,” said Da.
“Then you have nothing to fear from the ordeal,” said the Crab.
“My Lord,” said Da. “I respect your office. But you are no Divine. An ordeal—”
“Master Sparrow,” said the Crab. “Would you rather I let a mob deal with the problem? This is what prudence demands. Now, pick up the collar.”
“There’s not one of you that can revive us if the ordeal turns fatal. Let us wait for a Divine.”
“That is not an option.”
Of course, it was. But they thought Da was Sleth, and everyone knew you did not bargain with Sleth. You never gave them any quarter. Sleth were both fearsome and wily and too quick to escape their bonds.
“You live with me all these years and suddenly conclude I’m one who could devour his own children?” Da pointed at Barg. “Who was it last autumn, after those bloody battles on the Fingers, that cast aside prudence and rowed back at night to an island crawling with Bone Faces to save three doomed friends?” It had been Da who had rowed back. Da who had saved, among others, Barg the butcher.
Sugar looked into the faces of the soldiers. There were a number she recognized. Some had laughed with Da in the yard. Others had eaten at their table. Many of the villagers of Plum had drunk ale and been entertained by Legs singing his ditties. All had accepted the water he drew and delivered to the villagers as they worked the fields, him leading his goat and cart, feeling the road as he went with his stick. But those smiling faces were gone. They were replaced by faces grim and
fixed on their purpose.
Mother grabbed her arm and pulled her back toward the house.
“I’ve drunk and danced with you,” said Da. “I’ve shoed your horses. I probably fashioned most of those spearheads. You’ve nothing to fear from me. My heart is as clean and fresh as well water and you all know it.”
“What we know is that all the evidence points here,” said the Crab. “And now we’ve come to the end of our discussion. If we were uplanders bent on murder, you would already be dead. I’ve done more than give you the benefit of the doubt. This is the last chance I’m giving you. Pick up the collar and irons.”
“You will kill us and learn nothing.”
“Zun,” said Barg, using the title of honor meant for warriors who were equals. “Just pick up the cursed irons.”
Da did not move.
“Bowmen,” said the Crab. “Ready yourselves.”
The bowmen drew their strings to their cheeks.
Sugar could not believe her eyes.
She and Mother now stood at the doorway to the house.
Da looked back at Mother. Some communication passed between them that Sugar could not decipher.
The Crab raised his arm to signal the bowmen. “Let all here witness that Sparrow, smith of the village of Plum, has refused an ordeal.”
“Stop!” said Da. “I’ll take your wretched collar and irons. But you know only Divines can conduct hunts. The only reason you haven’t killed us already is so that you can avoid the fines levied on mobs like this. Let it be known that on this day the laws of the Glory of Mokad have been set aside. Your blatant disobedience will be made known. And your own Divines will come to collect the debt of blood.”
The Divines would come. And they would punish these men, for the laws on this matter were clear and ruthlessly enforced: no man could take upon himself even the slightest part of the honor of a Divine. But the Divines would come too late.
Da walked forward and picked up the collar and irons.
They would almost surely use water for the ordeal. And Sugar’s family would drown. She’d once touched the cold, bloated body of a boy who had drowned. She envisioned Legs as that boy, and panic ran through her.
Da examined the irons and said, “It looks like your smithing is as bad as your judgment. I’ll need a hammer to assemble these pieces properly.”
“Those pieces are just fine,” said the district lord.
Mother turned to Legs and in a quiet voice said, “Get the shutters. Slowly now.”
Da began walking toward Mother and the open doorway.
Legs closed the shutters on the front of the house then moved to the back.
The district lord called out, “Stop!”
Da stopped only a few paces from the front step and looked back.
“Put on the collar,” said the district lord.
“Of course,” said Da. He dropped the irons in the grass. And then he dashed toward the house.
At that moment Mother moved back from the door and pulled Sugar in with her.
A cry of alarm rose from the soldiers.
“Shoot him!” commanded the Crab. “Shoot!”
THE COURAGE OF WOMEN
At the moment of the Crab’s command, the bowmen released their arrows, and Sugar saw the arrows fly.
Da took three, four strides. He leapt to the porch. Then an arrow struck him in the back below the ribs. Another flew like an angry insect into the house above her head and struck the wall behind her.
“Sparrow!” Mother called.
Da’s momentum carried him into the house, and Mother slammed the door shut.
More arrows struck the door. A man cried out, “I got him! I got him!”
Midnight and Sky had not followed Da. They barked viciously outside.
Mother pulled the crossbar on the door in place.
More bows thrummed outside and the dogs’ barks turned to screams. Then the dogs fell silent.
Da winced and looked down at his side. The arrow had not gone into the thick of his back, only cut the flesh on the side. But the blood still spilled from him like water. He pressed his hand to the wound.
“Those cursed blackhearts,” he said. He pulled his hand away wet with blood. “Get me a wrap,” he said to Mother. “All these years, and then they treat me like some feral dog.”
Mother took a knife to her dress and cut a long strip. “We should have ridden when I first suggested it. Why you can’t listen to me I’ll never know.”
“Well, you won’t have to fret about that much longer, will you?”
Mother was furious. She made the final cut, then came and tied it around Da to cover and hold the wound. When Da took his hand away it was dark red. Heavy drops of blood fell to the floor.
“Did you get your mother’s horse?” Da asked Sugar.
“I did,” she said, and the enormity of that almost overwhelmed her. One horse was not enough for all four of them. She cursed herself for not having thought to get Sot.
Da nodded. “It’s enough.”
From outside, they heard the Crab yelling at his men. “I want all here to witness that Sparrow has refused the proving. Fire the smithy and the house.”
Moments later Sugar heard arrows snake into the thatch above their heads. Those would have their points wrapped and burning with pitch- soaked rags.
“Fetch me my armor,” said Da.
“What are we going to do?” asked Sugar.
Da looked down into her eyes. “You, my dear, along with Mother and Legs, are going to ride Fancy out of here.”
“You fool,” said Mother. “It’s too late for that.”
Sugar thought Mother had said that in anger, but when Sugar looked up, she could see Mother was not angry— she was wracked with grief.
“I’m going to draw them away from the back,” said Da. Then he took Mother’s hand and kissed it. “It’s not too late. Not for a fool to remedy his foolishness. You three will ride away, and not look back.”
“I don’t want to ride away,” said Sugar. “Besides, where can we go that they won’t find us?”
“Mother will know,” said Da. “Now fetch me my tunic.”
Sugar hesitated, but Mother nodded, so she ran and brought the quilted undertunic and helped Da tie it shut. Then Mother dressed him into the mail tunic that extended down to his thighs.
Da couldn’t rout so many men. They were all going to die, yet Da made her cinch the buckles on his breastplate as if he were dressing for a parade.
Legs found his way over and grasped Da’s wrist. His hair stuck out, and fear shone plainly on his face. Da took Legs’s hand and kissed it. “Be brave, Shen, son of Sparrow, son of Sparrow, son of Shen.” Shen was Legs’s given name. He was an ancestor who had been a powerful man, and Da loved telling his stories. Da kissed Legs’s hand a second time.
By the time they had the breastplate buckled about him, Sugar could hear the fire above their heads and smell the smoke coming in through the cracks of the shutters.
“Peer out the back and tell me what you can see,” said Mother.
Sugar looked out a small hole in the shutter and surveyed their garden. Fancy neighed nervously and clopped about trying to pull free from the post. The soldiers stood away from the border of the yard.
“They’ve backed up,” she said.
“Did you see their faces?” asked Da. “Half of them are petrified. Those are not children out there. I should be stuck like a pincushion with arrows. But their fear has affected their aim. Would that I were a soul- eater. Then this whole so- called hunt would be at risk. With average luck, I’d kill the lot of them and green our garden with their blood.”
Mother came away from the window. “Perhaps we can make the break together,” she said to Da. “You can take off this armor. The children and I will ride off first. And in the confusion of them chasing us, you can get on Sot.”
Da fastened his helmet on. “It’s too risky. We need to split them. I should have run to the smithy to draw them away from you, but none of the pieces there would have fit me well. There’s no armor there but what’s made for these short whoreson Mokaddians.”
Heat began to press down upon them as if they were loaves in an oven. Smoke hung about the room in hazy streaks.
“It’s time,” he said. Then he took Legs’s face in his hands and kissed his cheek, embraced him, then kissed him again. He did the same to Sugar, but she could not let him go.
She would not. Lords, she would rather die with him. She had her knife.
“You are a delight and solace,” he said. “We named you perfectly. Take care of your brother.” Then he gently forced Sugar away.
He stood and looked at Mother with a fierce light in his eyes. “I could never have found a better woman,” he said. “Even in your arguing.”
“Take off the armor,” Mother said.
“We’re not going to be able to make the break together,” said Da. “It won’t work.”
Mother seemed oddly calm. “Sparrow, my heart. Haven’t you learned yet that I’m always right?”
What was Mother thinking? Then Sugar realized she had given up. She’d always said that if her babies died, she wanted to go with them. Sugar saw this logic extended to Da as well. And perhaps that was right. They would all die together.
“No,” said Da. “We’ll not take that route. We’ll not walk into their spears and arrows without a struggle. If they want my blood and the blood of my fine wife and children, then they will pay for it. You’re feeling battle dread; hold your course until it passes. You have a chance, Purity. A slim one. Don’t throw it away.”
“I’m not talking of giving up,” said Mother. “We do have a chance, but not in this way. They’ll cut you down before those out back even know what’s happening. You’re a mighty man, Master Sparrow, but even you cannot stand against fifty spears.”
Da’s face was full of confusion. “What better plan is there?”
“I will face them.”
Da’s face softened. “That, love, is my task. Now ready yourself.” He turned, but Mother grasped him by the shoulder and held him back.
She had gone mad with panic and grief.
Da tried to pull her hand away.
“I will face them,” she said calmly.
“Purity,” he said. “Love.” He removed her hands and tried to stride to the door, but Mother grasped him again.
“No,” he said and removed her hand. But she took him by the rim of his breastplate and, like a man heaving a sack of meal, threw him across the room. He stumbled over a chair and slammed into the far wall.
Many men came far and wide to wrestle Da. Few had thrown him. None had handled him with such force.
Da looked at Mother, his face full of shock. He shifted his mail tunic, then tried again to reach the door. But Mother planted herself in his path. He tried to push her out of the way, but could not budge her. He renewed his efforts, his arms and neck straining. But it was to no avail.
His expression turned from shock to angry determination.
He took a step back and then lunged at her, but Mother simply stepped out of his way and with one sweep of her foot took his legs out from underneath him.
Mother reached down to take his war maul. “I will face them,” she said calmly. “Take off your armor so you can ride more easily.”
Da grasped the head of the maul. “Purity,” he said.
“I will draw them to me,” she said. “And you will ride with the children. It will be best that way. They will not be orphaned or caught and sold as chattel. You can provide for and protect them as I never could.”
“I don’t understand,” Da said.
“Yes, you do,” she said, then she tugged the maul out of his grip.
Sugar stood back, confused and alarmed.
Mother turned to her. “The way to the woods will be clear. Be ready to fly.”
Then she walked to the front door and put her hand on the crossbar. She paused, taking them all in with her gaze. “I will be waiting for you in brightness.”
She lifted the bar, and in one fluid motion she flung open the door and raced outside. Clouds of smoke billowed in. The roar of the fire above them surged. Out back, Fancy cried with wild panic.
Luckily, neither Sugar nor Legs were standing anywhere within the line of sight from the doorway, for moments later more than a dozen arrows hissed through the smoke, some sticking into the walls, others glancing off a table or chair. Da had only just gained his feet when two struck him. One glanced off his breastplate, the other hit him in the mail over his thigh. He grunted at the second, but it did not have an armor- piercing head, and the arrow fell away.
Da stood and raced after Mother, but halted at the door. He coughed at the smoke and squatted to get under it. “Goh,” he said with a look of wonder on his face.
“Da,” said Sugar and rushed to shut the door. But as she grabbed the door, she saw what Da was looking at.
Mother had already reached the soldiers. Two men lay on the grass. One was dead. The other screamed out at the wound that had nearly taken his leg. She moved like a snake, like the wind. She was graceful and absolutely horrible.
She swung into another man’s wooden shield and sent it flying. He cried out and stumbled backward, but before he could reach the ground, she smashed in the side of his head.
Sugar could not believe her eyes. She would not. Such speed and power was unnatural.
“Purity,” said Da, and Sugar could see the horror and disbelief on his face.
The great bulk of the men were falling back, some stumbling over one another. In his retreat, one of the bowmen loosed an arrow, but it flew wide of Mother and struck one of his fellows. Another man charged her with a spear, but she swung the maul with blinding speed and cleaved the spear into two.
The Crab yelled for his men to stand and close ranks.
Mother was about to put the whole mob on the run, but two men yelled and rushed her from behind, their javelins held high.
“Mother!” Sugar yelled.
Mother turned just as they cast them. She dodged one, but the other caught her in the shoulder and knocked her back.
He had been in shock, but fury now burned in his eyes.
Mother removed the spear and defended herself from the sword blows of the man who had thrown it.
A dozen archers came running round the corner from the back of the house. They began to form a line. Mother would not be able to dodge their arrows.
The flames thundered overhead.
“Get to Fancy,” Da commanded, “and ride.”
Then he rose and stepped out onto the porch and put his helmet upon his head. Someone shouted out a warning, and the mob turned to look.
Da stood in his dark, shining armor, the fire raging above his head, smoke pouring off the roof.
The men in the yard froze.
“You’ve met the mistress,” Da bellowed. “Now face the master!”
A man dropped his spear, panic shining in his wide eyes.
Da roared and and charged into the fray.
“Da!” Sugar called after him.
He had no weapon, and at first, Sugar thought that he too would fly into the soldiers as Mother had with that awful strength and speed. But Da did not show any sign of dark magic. He charged as a normal man would, an actor playing a role.
But the soldiers did not see through Da’s bluff, and they began to scatter.
Just then the Crab yelled out and galloped across Sugar’s view toward her parents, his sword held high and at the ready.
The house burned like a furnace. The heat began to scorch her lungs with each breath, and she dropped to the floor.
She watched Da run to one of the dead men and pick up his spear. Then he turned just in time to meet the Crab’s charge. Da yelled and shoved the spear into the neck of the Crab’s mount. The horse screamed, reared, and threw its rider.
“Sugar!” Legs called out.
She turned and saw him holding his hand to his chest. His hand was bleeding. She’d been wrong: one of the arrows had found a mark.
She could do nothing against soldiers. But she could help her brother.
“Open the door!” she shouted.
“I can’t,” he said.
He could, but was too frightened to do anything. The wisterwife charm he always kept about his neck had falled out of his tunic. Sugar hoped the wisterwives were indeed looking out for them. But the wisterwives would be able to do nothing if they let the house burn down on top of them. Sugar tore herself from the battle that raged out front and crawled to her brother.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“We’re going to the woods,” said Sugar. “And then . . .” And then she didn’t know where. No, they’d go to Horse.
She opened the door.
Fancy was gone. She looked out through the haze and billows of smoke to the edges of the yard and could see her nowhere. But neither could she see any soldiers. They all must have run to the front of the house to join the battle.
A log above them made a deafening burst.
“Take my hand,” said Sugar. “We’re going to run to the pond, and from there the river. Are you ready?”
There was an immense whoosh, and the heat at Sugar’s back seemed to increase tenfold.
“Now,” she said. And she and Legs bolted from the house. Down the path they went between the barn and the pheasant house.
When Legs knew a course, he only needed to know where he was at any moment and whether any new obstacles lay in the path. He did not count steps or need to feel about him.
They had taken the path to the new pond many times, for Legs loved the feel of the sun- heated water. And so Sugar only needed to call out his orientation points as they came to them. They ran past the garden and privy to Mother’s pheasant house.
Three of the soldiers far to her right fled the battle. She looked back, hoping to see that Mother and Da had scattered the small army.
The whole roof of the house raged with fire; the immense flames wheezed and roared dozens of feet into the sky. Beyond the fire, Da and Mother stood side by side. With one hand Mother pressed her wound; in the other she held a sword. Da held an axe and shield.
It appeared they had put the soldiers to flight. But then the soldiers stopped and turned, forming a line. They weren’t fleeing, they were making a space so that the bowmen could shoot without killing a number of their own.
Legs tugged on her.
Mother tried to charge the line, but Da stepped in front of her to stand between her and the soldiers.
The bowmen loosed their arrows. These did not fly wide this time, and despite Da shielding her from most of the shafts, Mother fell to the earth.
Da’s battle cry sounded over the raging of the fire. He too charged. The arrows did not penetrate his armor, but a multitude of spears did.
A shout of triumph rose up from the mob.
“Sugar?” asked Legs.
The fire blazed into the sky. The heat, even at this distance, burned her face. She could not catch her breath.
The soldiers converged upon Da like a pack of wild dogs.
She watched their weapons rise and fall. Some began to run toward Mother, but the Crab shouted and brandished his sword to keep them away.
It was a nightmare, but Sugar could not tear her eyes from it.
A man raised a black sword high over Da. That was a Fire blade from the temple.
No, she thought. No.
Then the man swung the sword down like he was chopping a mighty block of wood and hacked Da’s head from his body.
She could not move. Could barely breathe. The Crab waved the black- bladed man away from Mother. Then a soldier pointed at her and Legs.
“Sugar,” said Legs. “Why are we stopped?”
She realized he had been asking her that over and over. His voice seemed to come from a great distance. It seemed she was watching the whole scene from a great distance.
“It’s too hot,” said Legs and tugged at her.
She took a step; Legs followed. She broke into a jog. “To the woods, straight through Galson’s fields.” That’s what Mother had said.
She glanced back and saw a number of soldiers running toward them. “Then to the pond,” she said, her voice sounding strange to her ears. “Over the fence and to the pond.”
Hand in hand, they ran across Galson’s paddock. She felt the knife at her waist. The knife Da had given her. A voice in the back of her mind told her to fight. But the voice was small, so very small.
She saw Fancy lying in the grass, arrows sticking from her, but Sugar only noted it. Her mind was filled with the image of Mother and Da and that terrible black blade. Twice Legs stumbled because of her inattention.
When they reached the pond, Sugar looked back. Soldiers ran through Galson’s paddocks toward them. On the far edge of a paddock the district lord rode atop his horse looking for a gate through. She snapped back to the task at hand.
Sugar knew the woods well. She’d played hide- and- seek here and foraged for acorns and firewood. She’d hidden here from the village boys before Da taught her how to fight. The wood was old and in many places did not allow enough light to the ground to support much more than mushrooms. But mushrooms would not hide them. And even if they had cover, the mob would bring dogs.
So Sugar decided they would take the forest creek for their path. She and Legs had a small craft there they sometimes floated on. They would ride the water downstream. And just before they reached the confluence with the main river, they would leave the craft and escape into the woods on the other side.
Sugar looked down at the wisterwife charm Legs wore about his neck. Wisterwives were servants of the seven Creators. It was said that even Regret, the Creator who wanted to destroy the world, was served by them, but neither Mother nor Da had ever seen the creature that had left this charm. “Let us hope the wisterwife is watching us,” she said.
Sugar looked back one last time to where Da and Mother had fallen. One of the village women bent over Mother, probably stripping her. It flickered through Sugar’s mind that this was hopeless. She should stand here and meet her fate. But she quickly pushed that idea aside and faced the woods.
“You’ve done this a hundred times, brother. It’s over the bluff and to the river.”
Hunger lay under the towering, fat spruce that grew in his glade and felt some small thing, a very small thing, scratching about the grass on his chest. The Mother had said not to devour the men, but she’d never said anything about small things, so he cracked one eye and spied the creature.
It was a . . .
The name floated away.
The names always floated away. His thoughts continually ran from him. Everything fled before his appetite.
Hunger could smell the creature’s Fire, its tasty little Fire. Not much, not enough for a meal. But enough to taste.
He watched the creature grasp a stalk of grass on his chest and bend the ragged head of seeds to its mouth.
Before it could take a bite, Hunger snatched the creature up.
The little thing struggled, but in moments Hunger separated it. The Mother had shown him how to do that down in her cave. Fire, soul, and flesh: these three made up all living things, even him with his body of earth and grass. The Mother had shown him what bound the parts all together, and then she’d taugh him how to pick and pry until the binding unraveled in his hands. Of course, there were some things he had not yet been able to separate. But the little thing he had in his hands, he knew its secrets.
The tiny body he cast away. The Fire he bolted, increasing the hours of his life, but the soul— the soul he nibbled, oh, so slowly for it was sweet with thought and fear.
Above him a swarm of insects made their comforting click and buzz. Farther up, the tops of the ancient spruce trees moved with a gust of wind. He could smell the Fire in the trees. But their binding resisted him. It was very hard to steal from trees, and he thought that this must be because they had a hunger greater than his. Why else would they hold it so fiercely?
The wind gusted again, and the scent that it carried made him pause.
Could it be?
He opened his mouth to smell it better.
He stretched wide his great maw and felt the scent fill him, felt it pool alongside his tongue and down his throat. He began to tremble in anticipation.
Magic. The stink of human magic.
Mother, he called. Mother!
He’d caught the scent before, but each time he followed it the trail had vanished before he could find the source. The Mother had told him that was to be expected. He was still young, still growing into his powers. She’d said she made him to smell and see for her, and so there was no doubt that’s what he’d do. It was just a matter of time.
He called again. It’s strong this time, strong like a river.
Soon words came into his mind: Yes, and can you smell a human female in it?
You are ripening, the Mother said. You are ready. Find the female who wields the powers. Bring her and her brood to me.
Will you give me some? he asked.
No, she said.
I’ll eat them then, he said. I’ll eat them all.
You’ll bring them to me, and I’ll know if you take a bite.
I’ll eat them, he said. But he knew he wouldn’t.
Hunger wanted to taste their souls. He craved their thoughts. Even the thoughts of a little thing full of fear tasted good. So what must it be like to feed on a human?
But if he did, the Mother would know. And she would hurt him. She would send him to the others who had asked her if they might lick and nibble bits of him.
No, he wouldn’t tempt himself. He would find the woman and her brood and carry them back whole.
Hunger stood, dirt falling from him to the ground, and lumbered out of his dark glade toward the source of the scent.
* * *
Barg did not want to stand watch around the burning ruin of Sparrow’s house. Not in the dark. Not on this night. The hunt had gutted Sparrow, his horses, pigs, fowl, and dogs: every living thing. All of the organs went into the raging fires of the smithy and home, followed shortly thereafter by the chopped parts of the various carcasses.
Normally, a criminal’s flesh would be left to the vultures and foxes and beasts of the woods. And if no beast would touch it, there were always plenty of maggots. But the hunt dared not leave Sparrow to such a fate. No trace of him could remain. His bones, if any survived the fire, would be scattered on the sea.
They’d obtained a Fire sword from the temple in Whitecliff and used it on Sparrow and his beasts. And that gave them some comfort because a Fire sword, forged by the Kains, severed more than flesh. But they had no Seeker, no Divine with the powers to hunt Sleth, to confirm that the soul had fled, and the soul of such a man would be full of wrath. It would linger about. It might even try to possess and ride some weakened man or beast in an effort to exact vengeance. No, Barg did not want to go out. But some things had to be done.
He got up off the floor in front of his hearth. The cups and stones of a game of transfer lay before him. His daughter had just taken her turn and ruined his next move.
Their censer of godsweed had stopped smoking. So he picked up the tongs and fetched a hot coal from the fire. He put the coal in the censer and blew until the weed began to smoke again.
They’d burned godsweed until the air was thick with it. Burned it in every room as proof against the souls of the dead. Even so, Barg did not feel safe.
They’d done a wicked thing today, killing the smith. Everyone had said he’d fought with the strength of twenty men, but Barg had seen it. He’d been there with his spear, and he knew Sparrow. The smith was clean, may the Six bless him. And that was all the more reason for his soul to seek justice.
The smith’s wife, however, she was something else. She’d probably trapped Sparrow, trapped him like a spider. And like a spider, one day she would have eaten him. The clan lord had demanded they keep her alive for questioning. For bait. They placed the king’s collar they’d taken from the royal house around her neck, laid her in the back of a wagon, and had taken her away to the healers.
And it was a good thing, for those that were sent to chase the girl and boy had searched past the river, they’d scoured the woods all the way to the swamps. Lords, they’d even used dogs. But they found nothing. It was impossible— a girl and a blind boy! But the hunt had come back before dark, haggard and empty- handed. That right there was evidence the children knew her wicked ways.
No, Barg did not feel safe. But he wasn’t a coward. He felt a great welling satisfaction, for when others had run today, he had stood his ground. The Crab had noted it. And he wasn’t going to ruin that honor to night.
Barg looked at his daughter. She grew brighter each day. He was actually trying to win this game and failing.
He turned to his oldest son. “You’re going to have to take my place,” he said.
“Why should you go?” asked his wife. “Nobody else will be there. Nobody would dare.” She sat at the table braiding the youn gest boy’s hair for bed.
“They will,” he said. “They’re counting on me. But I’ll be back soon enough. And I think I know a way to take this whole bloody mess off of your mind. We’ll go fishing tomorrow.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “Fishing?”
He leaned in close, then whispered in her ear so the children couldn’t hear. “Happy plans will put the children at ease.”
She looked down and said nothing.
Barg kissed her gently on the cheek. Then he considered his girl and two boys. The firelight sparkled in their dark eyes. To think they had played with that woman’s hatchlings.
“I’ll be back soon enough,” he assured them. “We’re taking quarter watches is all.” Then he belted on his sword and picked up his spear. Foss, their hunting dog, rose to go with him, and Barg opened the door.
The smoke in the room curled out into the night. Barg pointed at the children. “You do your chores and get to bed and when you wake up in the morning, we’ll be off.”
“To the river or the beach?” asked his oldest.
They loved the beach. It would be a long day, but it would give them something to think about.
“The beach,” he said. “We’ll roast crabs.”
Then he shut the door behind him. He took a long drink of water from the bucket at the well then set off down the path that led to the smith’s ruin, Foss padding along at his side.
He could see the last flames of Sparrow’s house burning at the other end of the field. The fires burned low, but they still cast enough light to silhouette the remains of Sparrow’s barn and outbuildings. The smoke of the fires hung heavily in the air.
Barg glanced back at his house a few times as he walked. The shutters were latched and snug. His wife had barred the door. They would be fine.
As Barg got closer to the flames he could see that something was amiss—nobody was there. There were supposed to be ten men on each watch.
Perhaps they were all bunched up behind the barn.
He rounded the corner of the barn and looked across Sparrow’s yard.
Nothing. His wife had been right. None of the others were here.
The house and smithy had burned down to coals and ashes. Here and there a few fires still burned, but they were small. Much smaller than it appeared from his house. Still, he could feel the heat of the coals. The whole mess still produced a blistering heat.
A small flame rose at the edge of a blackened log close to him only to disappear moments later.
All was silent except for the crackling and popping of the fire. The circle of light did not extend far into the swallowing darkness.
He’d roust them out of bed, every one.
Then he saw someone standing in the shadows at the edge of where the house had stood. The man moved aside a log, kicking up sparks. He reached into the hot coals and pulled something out.
“Ha,” Barg called to him. “It’s good to see there’s more than one stout heart among us.”
Foss stopped and began to growl.
Then the man straightened up and turned, and Barg got a look at him in the firelight.
He was taller than anyone Barg had ever seen, but his arms and legs were thicker than they should be. And his face— it was all wrong. He had a mouth that was dark, ragged, and huge. A mouth that seemed to crack his head in two.
This was no man.
A tuft of hair on the creature’s arm caught fire. The flame sputtered, flashed, and receded into red and yellow sparks that fell to the ground. Then Barg realized it wasn’t hair. It was grass. Patches all along its arm had burned, some of them still full of dull red sparks. A clump of smoldering grass fell from the creature’s arm to the ground.
Barg saw what the creature held. It was Sparrow’s scorched leg, reduced to bone.
The creature flung Sparrow’s leg aside and began to walk toward Barg. The ashes and coals of the smithy stood between them, but the creature did not walk around them. It walked straight into the blistering coals, over a tangle of charcoal logs, and through one of the remaining fires. The long ragged grass about its legs began to burn and smoke, but the creature did not waver or cry out.
Gods, Barg thought. Keep your calm. Keep your calm.
The thing’s mouth gaped like a cavern. Its eyes. Lords, where were its eyes? And then he saw them— two pits all askew.
Filthy rot. Filthy, twisted rot. Regret himself had sent this thing.
Barg set himself for a throw. Then he took two steps, yelled, and, with all his might, hurled the spear.
The creature did not flinch or step aside, and the spear buried itself in the creature’s chest.
“To arms!” Barg shouted and unsheathed his sword. “We’re attacked! To arms! To arms!”
There would be others here shortly. And together they would dispatch this monster. All Barg had to do was keep his courage. Keep it like he’d done this morning and not run away.
The creature strode on as if nothing had happened. It plucked the spear out of its chest like a man plucking staw from his tunic and flung it into the ashes.
Foss surged forward to the edge of the coals, but Barg took a step backward, turned, and fled.
Foss snarled and barked. Then he yelped.
Barg heard the dog’s footfalls behind him. He turned and saw Foss, neck stretched out, galloping for his life. Foss caught Barg up and sped past.
And behind, the creature loped after them, a thin line of fire burning up one of its sides.
Barg realized he was running the wrong way, away from the the other houses and help. But to go back to the houses meant he would run back toward the beast.
Then he saw the door to his house open, the firelight behind, and his wife standing silhouetted in the door.
“No,” he yelled. “Go back!” But it was too late and he knew it. The creature would have seen her. Even if he were to change his direction now, the monster might not follow him.
“Get the children!” he yelled as he ran into the yard.
“Barg?” his wife said in alarm. Then her face twisted in horror and she backed into the house.
Barg heard the creature chuff behind him.
He turned around, holding his sword at the ready.
It stood not ten paces away. The fire had risen and burned the creature’s shoulder and head.
Courage. All he needed was a bit of courage.
He saw movement in the village. He heard men shouting. But they were running the wrong way, running to the smith’s.
“To me!” he cried. “To me!”
The creature opened its mouth wide and drew in a hoarse breath. It turned its head toward the door of the house.
“No, you won’t,” said Barg. “You filthy abomination, you’ll feel my steel first.” He let out a yell and, for the second time today, charged, his blade held high.
The creature took a step toward him.
Barg brought his blade down in a cut that would have cleaved a man from collarbone to belly.
But the creature simply grabbed the blade in midswing, reached out with its free, rough hand, and took Barg by the face.
Barg struggled in its stony grasp. And then he was slipping, twisting, falling into another place entirely.
* * *
Miles away, Sugar crouched in the moon shadows at the edge of the forest and looked across a river at the farmstead of Hogan the Koramite. The man she knew as Horse.
“Is the water deep?” whispered Legs.
“I don’t know,” said Sugar.
“Do you think he will help?”
“This is where Mother sent us,” said Sugar. But in her heart she knew the chances of him helping them were slim. If Horse harbored them, he put his whole family at risk. But if he delivered them to the hunt, he, even as a Koramite, would earn a fortune.
“I think I’m wicked,” said Legs.
“You’re not wicked,” said Sugar.
“I should have listened to the wisterwife.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Sometimes, when I held the charm, she would call to me like I was lost.”
Sugar looked at her brother. She’d never heard of such a thing. “She called to you?”
“In my mind. I could see her. She was beautiful. And sometimes I could see something else with her. Something made of earth, dark and wild and . . .”
Sugar waited while Legs found the words.
“Something in her voice,” he said, “it was horrible and wonderful. Every time I heard her, fear stabbed me because I didn’t want someone to think I was like old Chance. I didn’t want to be mad and taken to the altars for hearing voices in my head. And so I never answered. She said that the fullness of time had come. She promised to make me whole. Promised all sorts of things. Lunatic promises. But I was too scared. I think she wanted to help.”
Sugar thought about the wisterwife charm. All this time they’d thought it was a blessing, a gift. It was an annual ritual for most people to fashion a Creator’s wreath and hang it above their door to draw the blessings of the wisterwives. It was fashioned with rock and leaf, feathers and bones. Many set out a gift of food or cast it upon the waters. But Regret had his servants as well. So who knew what this charm really was? She thought of Mother and her horrible speed, her terrible secrets. That charm could be anything. “You think it was real?”
“I don’t know what to think.” No sound escaped him, but his eyes began to brim with tears, and he ducked his head the way he always did when he was in pain.
Sugar wanted to cry with him, wanted to feel overwhelming grief. But she was empty, as desolate as rock. And that pained her as much as anything else. What kind of daughter was it that had no tears for the butchering of her parents? What kind of daughter was it that ran? She had a knife. She knew how to use it.
“Da always said you were an uncanny judge of character,” said Sugar. “If your heart tells you to be afraid, then let’s trust it. Da always did.”
Legs leaned into her, and she took him into an embrace, putting his face in her neck and stroking his hair.
Things to act and things to be acted upon. She had a knife. Lords, she’d had at least six, for there were a number in the kitchen. She could have done something. She could have sent Legs to the pheasant house, gone around back herself, and surprised that line of bowmen. She could have distracted a whole group of men. She might have tipped the battle.
Why? Why had she run?
And if she hadn’t run, if, beyond hope, she’d tipped the battle, what then? She’d seen Mother. Seen her horrible power.
Legs gently pulled away. “Will we talk to Horse?”
They had no tools to survive in the wild. Besides, an army of hunters would be combing the outer woods, expecting them to run there. If Horse helped them, and that was a desperate if, then maybe they might be able to survive until all but the most patient hunters gave up dreams of a bounty and went back to their normal labors. If she and Legs survived that long, that’s when they would escape.
“I don’t know,” said Sugar. “Let’s just take this one step at a time. Right now we need to find where they ford this river.”
Copyright © 2009 John Brown