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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Beyond Wisherton

 

Beyond Wisherton

Amanda Hamm

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2017 Amanda Hamm

All rights reserved. Before Someday Publishing

Shakespir Edition

 

Beyond Wisherton is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, events, etc. are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1 – Yavic and Lolly Find Out

Chapter 2 – Samtry Finds Out

Chapter 3 – No One Else Finds Out

Chapter 4 – Under the Wall

Chapter 5 – Not Alone

Chapter 6 – Still Not Alone

Chapter 7 – Tames

Chapter 8 – The First Night

Chapter 9 – The Second Night

Chapter 10 – A Dark Day

Chapter 11 – After the Rain

Chapter 12 – Mud

Chapter 13 – Fewls

Chapter 14 – Sevra

 

Chapter 1

Yavic and Lolly Find Out

 

 

“I think I have a gift,” Sevra said, her eyes pleading with her brother to understand, “but I swear I don’t know how I got it.”

Yavic couldn’t make any sense of what his sister said. She never did anything wrong. She was the last person who would ever be tempted to join the Herders. She was the last person who would even joke about it. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“A gift,” Sevra hissed. “I have one.”

She did not have a gift. Yavic was quite certain of that. Sevra had barged into his room while he was trying to do his homework. She’d looked into the hallway and closed the door behind her. She was sitting on the end of the bed, wringing the corner of his blanket tightly between her hands. Sevra was clearly upset about something and whatever it was, it was probably more interesting than the equations he was supposed to be solving. Yavic turned in his chair, away from his desk and towards his sister. “What makes you think you have a gift?”

“I don’t think it,” she said. “I know it.”

“You said you thought it.”

“I was… trying to prepare you.”

Yavic sighed at her overly dramatic tone. “Prepare me for what?”

“For…” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “This.”

“This? You wanted to prepare me for a boring conversation?”

“No, for…” Her head jerked sideways to look at the door as it opened.

“What are you guys talking about?” Their little sister poked her head through the door. Lolly’s deep brown eyes were wide with curiosity. Everyone else in the family had green eyes. And a safer level of curiosity.

“Get out!” Sevra snapped.

The eyes shifted in response to the reprimand. Lolly closed the door slowly, watching her siblings the whole time.

Sevra was battling too much fear at the moment to register any guilt for dismissing her sister so roughly. She still wasn’t sure it was a good idea to tell Yavic. Lolly was only eight years old. There was no way she could keep it a secret.

“Sevra,” Yavic said, “what is going on?” He was looking at her with more concern now.

“I have a gift.” It got a little easier to say each time. Easier, but no less terrifying.

“You said that already. Why do you think you have a gift?”

“I’m too strong.”

“How strong?” he asked.

“Too strong.”

“How do you know you’re too strong?”

This conversation was not going at all the way Sevra had pictured. She expected Yavic to be as freaked out as she was as soon as she told him. She felt an odd sort of gratitude towards her older brother for peppering her with annoying questions instead. She suddenly wanted to laugh. “Stand up,” she said.

Yavic did as she requested.

Sevra also stood then she picked him up.

Yavic didn’t think that proved anything. Though he was fourteen and Sevra was only twelve, she was two inches – all right three – taller than he was. It wasn’t inconceivable that she would be able to pick him up. The fact that she didn’t appear to struggle at all only made Yavic embarrassed about possibly being too skinny and not concerned that his sister might be “too strong.”

One look at her brother’s face made Sevra put him down. “What do I need to do to prove it to you?” she asked.

“Um…” Yavic surveyed the items in his room. There was a chest in the corner. It was mostly full of books, and he knew he couldn’t lift it. “Try that chest,” he said.

Sevra nodded and walked over to it without a word. She lifted the chest easily. Then, to make absolutely sure he believed her, she balanced it on one hand like a waitress with a tray of drinks.

“Wow,” Yavic said.

But his voice had an echo. Lolly’s face was back by the door. Her expression awed. “How’d you do that, Sevra?”

Sevra quickly put the chest down. The damage had been done though. She sank to the floor with her head in her hands. Panic threatened to swallow her whole. They would find out. This night could be the last she spent in her own home.

Yavic motioned Lolly into the room and tried to take control of the situation. Sevra had a gift? He knew in his heart it wasn’t possible. There was no way she could have done anything to earn a gift from the Herders. But how else could she have lifted that chest? They had a serious problem. Lolly knew, too. That made the problem about three hundred million times more serious. Maybe four hundred million times.

He looked up and down the hallway before he closed his door again. The last thing they needed was for Samtry to wonder what the rest of them were doing. He put a chair in front of the door to at least give them some warning. “You cannot tell anyone,” he said to Lolly. He tried to convey the importance of the command with his tone and his expression. Though if Sevra’s crumpled form and whimpering sounds didn’t convey that they were in trouble, there was probably nothing he could add.

Lolly’s initial amazement had already disappeared. She swallowed hard before she addressed her brother in a faint voice. “Are they going to take her?”

He shook his head firmly. He had no idea how he could make that true, but he was going to try. “Not if we can help it,” he said.

Yavic lowered himself to the rug to sit next to Sevra. Lolly followed his lead and looked between them. No one said anything for what felt like a long time. Sevra quieted at the show of support. Her hands still mostly covered her face though.

“How did she get it?” Lolly asked.

Yavic glanced at Sevra, who did not have her ears covered. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sure it was a mistake. Some kind of mistake.”

Lolly nodded with conviction.

Sevra saw it between her fingers. She saw that neither her brother nor her sister believed she had crossed over. A bit of the pressure squeezing the breath out of her loosened. She put her hands in her lap. “You believe me when I say I don’t know how I got it?”

“Yes,“ Yavic said.

“Of course,” Lolly added.

“Thank you.”

The way Sevra was looking at Yavic made him uncomfortable. It looked as though she was about to hug him or something. “Look,” he said, “we all know you’re the good kid. It’s really obnoxious the way you go around trying to please everyone all the time. It isn’t shocking to think you haven’t turned your back.”

“Maybe it was an accident,” Lolly piped up.

“You can’t turn your back on the Creator by accident,” Yavic said. “Everyone knows that.”

Lolly stuck her chin out stubbornly. “Maybe the Herders didn’t know it was an accident?”

“Really? They have the power to read the direction of our hearts right through the wall. The power to mysteriously deliver the rewards. But they can’t tell who means it?” Yavic thought he laced the words with enough condescension to deflate Lolly’s idea.

She was forcefully shaking her head though. “Maybe,” she said, “maybe it was the Herders’ accident. Maybe they meant to give it to someone else named Sevra.”

Yavic just rolled his eyes at that suggestion.

Sevra had been letting them talk, but it wasn’t doing them any good. “Okay,” she said, “I don’t think it matters how I got it. The important thing is what I’m supposed to do now.”

“Should we tell Mom and Dad?” Lolly asked.

“No!” the older siblings said together.

“Why not?” Lolly looked at Sevra. “They’ll believe you, too.”

“That’s exactly why we can’t tell them. If they try to defend me, they’ll be taken, too. Just like Mom’s parents.”

Keeping this from their parents didn’t feel right. Lolly reluctantly agreed. She hated the sadness that invaded her mom’s eyes whenever anyone spoke of her brother or her parents. Sevra’s gift would hurt her. “What are we going to do?”

Yavic turned to Sevra. “Can you hide it?”

“I’ve been hiding it for at least a year,” she said. “But there have been some close calls, and it’s getting harder and harder and… that’s why I had to tell someone.”

He thought maybe he should be honored that Sevra had chosen him to tell. This was too big though. He sort of wished someone had been someone not named Yavic. “What close calls?” he asked. Talking felt a little bit like doing something.

“A few weeks ago was the worst. Remember how I got in trouble at school because I wouldn’t do something the teacher asked?”

“Of course we remember,” Yavic said. “Mom and Dad nearly fell over in shock when you brought home the demerit.”

“She asked me to bring over the fitness box. I knew it was full of balls, balls that anyone in my class could have lifted easily. But I got this fear – just out of nowhere – that it was some sort of trick. I convinced myself that she’d replaced the balls with something really heavy to trick me into displaying a gift in front of the whole class.”

“You couldn’t just open it first to see what was in it?”

Sevra glared at her brother. “Of course that makes sense now. I was way too busy panicking at the time to come up with any reasonable ideas. In fact, I’m almost always panicking. Every time I pick something up, I’m wondering if I should be able to. And should I make it look difficult? What if I make it look too difficult? What if that makes someone guess that I’m faking? What if something heavy falls near me and I catch it without thinking?”

That last one sounded pretty unlikely to Yavic. He was beginning to think his sister thought too much. She needed to relax. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to relax if he was the one with a gift though. It was scary enough to know someone. “I wonder if it’s true,” he said rather absently.

“If what’s true?” Lolly was eyeing him hopefully, sort of as though she was hoping he’d change the subject altogether.

Sevra was looking at him without hope. It was unkind to grasp at straws in front of her. His instincts were telling him to grasp at anything though, anything that might fix the problem. “Well,” he said, “people were talking at school a while back. They were saying – I didn’t think it could be true so didn’t pay close attention, but – well, they were saying that they’d heard of a person who got a gift and managed to get the Herders to take it back before anyone found out.”

“Really?” Sevra sat up much straighter. “How? I’ve never heard anyone say that. How’d he do it?”

“I don’t know.” Perhaps Yavic should have done a little more thinking before he brought it up. “It might just be a made-up story.”

“But what if it’s not?” Sevra said. “What if there is a way?”

“Ask them,” Lolly said. “If they can see when you turn to their side, then they can see the question. Just ask them to take it back.”

Sevra closed her eyes. “Lolly,” she said, “don’t you think I’ve tried that? If it was that easy, I’d have given it back months ago.” Tears dripped from her eyes as she opened them again. But there was a frightening determination there as well. “I must need to give it back in person. I must need to ask – to beg – in person.”

“That’s crazy,” Yavic said.

Lolly backed up slightly.

“No, it’s not,” Sevra said. “I can’t live in fear of being discovered any longer. I need to go to the Herders, and I need to make them take this gift back.”

Now Yavic was sure he should have thought more before he opened his mouth. “You’re talking nonsense, Sevra. They’ll make you a slave if you won’t join them. You can’t negotiate with Herders. How are you even going to get past the wall? The guards? What are you going to tell Mom and Dad? You’ll never get the Herders to take it back. What if they just kill you for asking? How would you explain that to Mom and Dad?”

Her resolve appeared to soften a little with his questions. Or against his lack of logic. “I have to do something,” she said meekly.

It was Yavic’s dumb idea. If Sevra was going to do something, he was going to have to go with her. He could at least try to protect her. That sounded silly knowing that she could pick him up. But it still sounded like the right thing to do. “All right,” he said. “But not yet. We’ll need time to… plan. I’ll ask at school tomorrow to see if I can get any more information. You… maybe… look for information at the library. Maybe a map.”

Sevra looked at him like he was a toddler. “You really think I could find a map beyond Wisherton?”

“No,” he said, exasperated that she thought he would think that. “But maybe there’s one of the wall itself or the guard towers or… we know so little, anything might be an improvement.”

“How do I help?” Lolly asked.

“By keeping your mouth shut. You know how important it is that you don’t tell anyone, right?” Yavic waited for confirmation.

Lolly gave only a dismissive nod. “Yeah,” she said. “I can pack some food for our trip, too.”

“Our trip?” Sevra’s eyes bugged out. “You’re not going.”

Yavic had been about to say the same thing. Before Lolly could even protest, he realized how unfair it would be to ask her to stay behind knowing what she knew. As soon as their parents discovered they were gone, they’d grill Lolly and Samtry until everyone knew. There was no way around it. Lolly would need to come in order for the secret to come. Sevra nodded at him quietly. She understood. She also understood Lolly could not be trusted to be discreet about anything.

“You can come,” Yavic said to Lolly, “but don’t do any packing. Mom and Dad will be suspicious if we start packing too early. Let’s try to be smart about this.”

Lolly nodded more seriously.

“We’ll find some information.” Sevra waved her hand between Yavic and herself. “Then all of us will meet back here tomorrow night.”

“Okay.” Lolly appeared satisfied to be included in the meeting phase of the plan.

Yavic stood and motioned to the unfinished assignment on his desk. “I should get back to my homework.”

“We’re going to help you, Sevra.” Lolly hugged her sister, then ran to unblock the door and leave.

Sevra moved more slowly. She paused at the doorway and looked back. “Thank you, Yavic.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. He wasn’t sure she had anything to thank him for though. He had a bad feeling that they were about to make the problem a lot worse.

Chapter 2

Samtry Finds Out

 

 

Sevra did not sleep well that night. She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since she began to suspect the gift of strength. This was a different sort of restlessness. Before she told Yavic, it was isolation and despair that kept her awake. The Herders were a constant threat to all in Wisherton. They lived outside the wall, but it provided only a physical defense. Their gifts could seep in if you opened your heart to them. Once you had a gift, it was only a matter of time until you were corrupted and convincing others to join you. That was why the council acted swiftly whenever anyone was identified as having a gift.

If someone was found to have a gift, there was no hearing, no delay. There was death. Council soldiers took the gifted immediately to the gas chamber. It was considered an act of mercy. If you died before your soul was fully corrupted, you could still meet the Creator. If you argued against a death, it was a sign of initial corruption. Anyone who interfered or attempted to defend the gifted was taken as well.

That was what Sevra feared the most. Her parents wouldn’t be able to stop themselves if soldiers came for her. Yavic would likely defend her, too. Lolly and Samtry would be spared due to their young ages, but the family would be destroyed.

The idea had always made sense in the past. She had seen the mercy. But now she had a gift she couldn’t explain and a soul she was sure belonged to the Creator. She thought of turning herself in many times. She could go to the council and not give her parents the chance to interfere. Sevra was ashamed of the fear that held her back. If she was willing to risk the lives of people she loved because of fear, perhaps she deserved the gift after all. The thoughts seemed to chase themselves in a useless circle in her head.

Everything was different after telling Yavic. He’d given her hope. He’d given her a chance to act instead of waiting. Sevra couldn’t stand any more waiting. Of course she knew that what Yavic heard might only be a story. That didn’t matter. Even if something had never been done before, that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. She would find the Herders. She would do whatever it took to remove their mark on her.

Yavic had a pretty rough night, too. He’d come to his senses about five minutes after Sevra and Lolly left his room. They could not leave Wisherton. They could not run away from Wisherton. The wall kept them safe. No one ever went to the Wasteland that lay beyond it. The Herders had scorched the ground for miles and miles in their fury at not getting past the wall. That wasn’t a place anyone wanted to go. And they weren’t allowed to go there anyway. Disobeying their parents was likely to get them all gifts. How would that help anything? Starting a journey with no clue about the destination seemed like a really good way to end up someplace really bad. Were they going to run off and get killed to avoid being killed at home?

No. The idea was completely insane, and Yavic was going to tell Sevra to forget it. She would simply have to keep hiding the gift. She said she’d already been doing it for a year. It couldn’t be that hard. It wasn’t as though she had the gift of fire. If she occasionally sprouted fireballs from her palms, she could make a case for that being hard to hide. But a little extra strength? That was no big deal.

“It is a big deal,” Sevra said. She was back in Yavic’s room for the planned meeting. “I want it gone because it’s all I can think about. What if Mom and Dad find out? What if my teacher finds out? What if I hurt someone? I was pushing one of the little kids on a swing today and she fell off. She said she let go to scratch her nose and it might have been her fault, but what if it was mine? What if I accidentally pushed too hard? She could have been hurt.”

“Was she?” Yavic asked.

“No, she was fine.”

“Can’t you control it? I mean, I may not be as strong, but I can tell how hard I’m pushing something.”

“Well, yeah…” Sevra lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I can control it.”

“Then why are you so worried about not controlling it? It’s like you’re inventing reasons to be upset. The one thing you’ll never have to worry about is being able to think of something to worry about.”

Sevra eyed her brother for a moment. He was trying to be funny about something that wasn’t funny. She knew he was only trying to calm her down. But she would not be talked out of her decision. She stood and began to march towards the door. “The one thing you don’t have to worry about,” she said, “is helping me. I’ll go on my own if I have to.”

“Sevra! Sit down.”

Sevra let herself drop back to the rug with her brother. She actually felt some relief that he had stopped her. As determined as she was, she would go on her own if necessary. She just hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

“I’ll go with you,” Yavic said. It was clear Sevra could not be persuaded to stay. He wouldn’t go back on his word to come with her. “Did you find any helpful information today?”

“Not really. Not much. Okay, no.” She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. “I copied some notes about when Wisherton was first settled. Three hundred years ago. Pursued by Herders. Built massive wall. Nothing we didn’t already know from school. I wrote it down anyway.” She shrugged. “Wish we had a map of the Wasteland.”

“We’ll bring paper,” Yavic said, “and make a map as we go.” Though he wondered as he said it what sort of landmarks they might find in a place called the Wasteland. Probably no street signs. “Then at least we’ll have a map to get back home.”

“What did you find out?” Sevra asked. She held her breath. She didn’t think the story was true. But if it was… if Yavic had gotten even one clue about where they were going or what she might need to do…

“Nothing,” he said. And he didn’t even bother to brace her for the disappointment. “I asked the boy I know I heard the story from and he said he didn’t remember talking about it. I didn’t want to press it and risk him asking me questions.”

“Okay, so… when?” Sevra recovered quickly and stared at her brother. If they were going to do this, it had to be soon. The anticipation was killing her.

Yavic stared back as he searched his head for an answer. He had hoped Sevra would insist he ask more people for information. Give them time. She looked as though she wanted to leave as soon as possible – that moment even – whereas he was thinking they needed at least a year. Six months to plan and six months to talk her out of it.

Sevra’s question of when was still filling the room as Lolly squeezed through the door. A near copy was right behind her. Samtry was older than Lolly but only by a year. People regularly mistook them for twins. The hair skimming their shoulders was exactly the same, very straight and dark with a hint of red that mostly showed up in the light. Sevra’s hair was also that color but longer and wavy.

Yavic’s hair might have been wavy if it was longer. Because it was short, it had one piece going this way, one going that way, another sticking out the back and so on. Their mom thought he should cut it even shorter to control the curl attempts. Yavic liked it the way it was, just long enough to stick his fingers in and grab hold when he was frustrated. Like he was when Lolly brought Samtry into the room.

How were they supposed to plan – or talk sense into Sevra – in front of someone who didn’t know about the problem? He was trying to think of a nice way to tell Samtry to get out. It was for her own good that she didn’t know anything.

“Samtry knows,” Lolly said as she took a seat next to Yavic. She sat calmly, clearly unconcerned that her brother kind of wanted to smack her for being calm.

“Samtry knows about…” Sevra pointed to herself as her words seemed to dissolve on her tongue.

“You told her?” Yavic said. He was pulling even harder on his hair.

“Yeah.” Lolly still looked calm. “I had to tell her what the meeting was about.”

“We said Don’t Tell Anyone,” Yavic said, “and you told Samtry? How does that make sense to you?”

“You said we were all going to meet again today.”

“I meant… It doesn’t matter.” It didn’t matter. They couldn’t untell Samtry.

Samtry had begun to sit on the floor and was frozen with one leg tucked under her and one still out to the side. She thought Lolly had said Sevra had a gift only to get her interested in meeting. But Yavic and Sevra were looking at each other as though… as though it was true. That wasn’t possible. Sevra was the kindest person in Wisherton. The Herders could never find a reason to mark her. Could they?

Her older sister began to nod slowly, as though she understood Samtry’s unasked questions. “I have a gift,” Sevra said. “I don’t know how, but I have it.” She locked eyes with each of her siblings in turn. “I’m going to ask them to take it back and none of you has to come with me.”

“We do,” Lolly said. “We have to come because Mom and Dad already know something is wrong, and we can’t stay without telling them. Besides, we want to help you.”

Yavic tried to offer Sevra an encouraging nod, to say that he also wanted to help her, but he was more concerned with the other part of what Lolly had said. “Why do you think Mom and Dad know something?”

“I heard them talking,” Lolly said, “just before we came in here. Dad said he thought we were all acting strange during dinner. Mom agreed and said she was going to sit us down after school tomorrow to see what the problem is.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” Sevra began to rock forward and back in her agitation. “We have to go now. We have to go before they find out. They’ll try to hide me from the council. They’ll be killed for it.”

“We’ll go in the morning,” Yavic said. He hated the idea, hated how angry and terrified their parents would be when they discovered their children had run away. But he had to be the one to suggest it, to control what he could control. Mom and Dad would forgive them… eventually.

They could tell them everything when they got back, after Sevra had returned the gift. If Sevra could return the gift. If they made it back. Yavic forced the doubts from his head to focus on practical planning. “We’ll take everything out of our school bags and fill them with… supplies.”

What would they need? “Food,” Yavic said. “Keep the lunches and cram in as much extra as you can.”

“Coins,” Sevra added. “Take any coins you have and anything else that’s small and valuable.” She was speaking to the younger girls.

Yavic was the one who answered because he didn’t understand the suggestion. “There aren’t any shops in the Wasteland,” he said. “Coins will be useless.”

“You don’t actually know that, do you?” Sevra tried to distract herself for a moment with the thought of a lonely ice cream stand in the middle of the desert that surrounded most of Wisherton. She couldn’t quite find humor though. “I was thinking it might be a way… that we could offer the coins to the Herders. They might want to be paid to take the gift back.”

“They might,” Yavic conceded. They might also ask a lot of things scarier than payment. “Okay, bring food, coins… maybe a change of clothes. Do you think we can stuff pillows in the bags without looking suspicious?”

Sevra shrugged. “We do have a lot of books to replace.”

“Maybe if we rolled them up and tied them, they’d be less… bulgey.”

All three younger sisters nodded at his suggestion. It made Yavic feel as though he was in charge. He wanted to be in charge of something. If he couldn’t be in charge of a situation that got more out-of-control than an avalanche every second, he could at least be in charge of pillows. “Use as much rope as you can to tie them up,” he said. “Rope will be useful to have anyway.”

“Okay.” Lolly looked as though she was committing the list to memory.

Yavic nonetheless had doubts about her packing anything sensible. He’d try to discreetly check her bag before they left.

After a few more minutes discussing supplies, Sevra brought up a much more uncomfortable aspect of planning. “What should we tell Mom and Dad?”

“What!?” Yavic grabbed his hair. The whole point was to keep this from them.

Lolly and Samtry also looked confused.

“I mean,” Sevra said, “in a note. We can’t tell them why we’re leaving of course, but we have to tell them something. We have to at least assure them we hope to return.”

Samtry got up quietly and left the room. The other three tried to think of what they could say to their parents without thinking about their parents at all. She returned a minute later holding a paper and a pen. She said nothing as she sat at Yavic’s desk and turned to her siblings for help at what to write.

“Be vague,” Yavic said.

“Tell them we love them,” Lolly said.

“Tell them…” Sevra wiped a tear from her eye. “Tell them it’s not their fault and that we’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Samtry wrote a brief note with those thoughts and passed it to the others to read and approve. Yavic was the last to see it. “I’ll hold on to it for now,” he said. “We can’t risk them finding it until after we’re gone. Pack quietly and secretly. We won’t discuss any of this again until we leave tomorrow with everyone assuming we are on our way to school.”

Four heads nodded silently. Four hearts squeezed with panic, determination and love… and still managed to continue beating.

Chapter 3

No One Else Finds Out

 

 

Wisherton was large enough that there were places in the interior where the border wall could not be seen. The four Say children – Yavic, Sevra, Samtry and Lolly – had never been to those places. They had trouble even imagining they couldn’t see the wall. Their house was barely a quarter mile from the base.

It’s possible that if the wall hadn’t loomed ever-present in their lives, they might not have even thought to try to get past it. It was there though. And they did hope to get past it. They lifted school bags onto their backs and left without saying goodbye to their mother. Not even Yavic thought he could do it without shedding a tear. Tears would ruin the plan to avoid alarming her too soon. Tears were not a normal part of the morning.

They began to walk down the dirt path in silence, mostly because they were too busy thinking about walking to talk. Each of them thought the others were walking too hurried or too slowly or too choppy. A natural pace had never been harder to set. Once they cleared the neighbor’s barn, the point at which they should turn left for school, they moved slowly to the right. After a few steps, Sevra stopped altogether.

Yavic tensed. He prepared himself not to yell at her for changing her mind at this point. They’d have to explain how all four of them managed to “forget” to bring books to school.

“I need to go back for the tent,” she said.

“What?” More supplies did not sound like giving up or changing her mind. Going back in that case sounded like a horrible idea.

“Yeah. The poles stuck out of my pack so I stuffed a few blankets in the tent bag and left it outside the back door. I need to go get it. You all wait here.”

Sevra turned and Yavic stopped her. “You can’t go back,” he said. “Mom might see you.”

“She was already washing the wool,” Sevra said. “She won’t be anywhere near the back window.”

“The first step in a plan to run away cannot be ‘go back.’ It’s just… it’s not a good plan.”

“You said the tent was a good idea,” she said.

“That was when I thought…” Yavic tried to stop himself from saying anything stupid. It was obvious that the tent wouldn’t fit in a school bag. How had he thought she would bring it? “It was when I thought you had a better plan than ‘go back.’”

“I could be halfway back to the house by now.” Sevra’s patient tone sounded amazingly like their mom. “Do you want me to waste more time arguing about it?”

“Fine,” Yavic said. “Hurry! And be careful.”

A horrible thought seeped into Yavic’s brain as Sevra hurried away. A small part of him wanted her to get caught. A small part of him wanted their mom to see Sevra and demand the truth. She’d stop them from running away. She’d keep them safe.

Mothers couldn’t always protect their children though. She’d want to keep them safe, and it would hurt deeply when council soldiers eventually showed up anyway. It was better for her that she didn’t know. It was only Yavic’s burden that would be made lighter by passing it to their parents. He didn’t want to think about the part of him that wanted her to get caught. He didn’t want to think it might not be that small.

Yavic distracted himself by asking Samtry and Lolly about the items they’d packed. He hadn’t had an opportunity to check their packs. Their supplies sounded mostly reasonable if they weren’t overstating how much food they brought. Checking the exact contents now would be rather pointless though. They weren’t about to add ‘go back twice’ to the plan.

The tent was strapped to Sevra’s back as she returned, its poles sticking over her shoulder like a quiver of arrows. She approached at a run. Lolly, who couldn’t bear to stand still any longer, started running before Sevra could stop. All four of them ran. They ran towards mounds in the distance. There were mounds of dirt and salt near the wall from a mine. They had played among those mounds in the past. They were a good place to hide while they figured out how to get over the wall.

They didn’t stop running until they were between the bases of two salt mounds. They were farther apart than they remembered. The mounds felt like excellent shelter when they only hid from each other. The children huddled at the base of one while Yavic studied the wall. Of course it hadn’t grown since he last stood next to it, but his eyes were trying to convince him of that. He’d been awake all night wrestling with the question of how to get over that wall. He’d occasionally pushed it aside to wrestle with other questions. How long would they have before the Herders captured them? Would it be worse to starve to death first or be killed by the Herders? What type of animal might eat their carcasses? It’d been a real fun night.

But most of it had been consumed with the question of getting over the wall. Yavic had come up with a list of ideas. He’d dismissed as unworkable the exact same number of ideas. Most of them involved using Sevra’s strength. She could probably climb the wall. How would the rest of them get up? Ride on her back? Use a rope to pull them up? He hated any idea that involved them being separated. And most of the ideas involved Sevra – who they were trying to protect – being the most visible for the longest period of time.

Whenever Yavic felt himself begin to panic that he’d never think of a way over the wall, he stuffed it down with the conviction that a plan would present itself when they were actually facing the wall. When they were facing the real pressure of getting over it or getting caught, they’d know what to do. He was sure of it.

Now he was standing at the base of the wall trying to figure out what sort of inspiration he thought was going to strike. Panic should have been unavoidable. Yavic couldn’t seem to muster it. The brickwork was smoother than he remembered. No amount of strength would help if there was nothing to grip. There was no way over the wall. It was time to panic.

Yavic tried. He wanted to panic. He wanted to feel the rush of adrenaline that would spark a brilliant idea or at least the desperation to use a bad one.

All of a sudden, Sevra began to laugh. She was biting her lip against it. They all heard her though. Her whole body was trembling, more from the effort of holding back the laugh than the laugh itself.

“What’s so funny?” Yavic asked.

“You,” she said.

He rolled his eyes. “Why?”

“You gave me such a hard time about having ‘go back’ be part of the plan and apparently all you’ve come up with is ‘stare at the wall.’” She used both hands to indicate the wall, as though the giant obstacle needed to be pointed out.

A snort came from Yavic’s other side as Lolly and Samtry began to laugh as well. Yavic didn’t get angry. He had three sisters. This wasn’t the first time he’d been laughed at. But the main reason he didn’t get upset was that the laughter reminded him that he wasn’t alone.

“All right,” he said, “does anyone have any thoughts on how we can get over that wall?”

The laughter stopped. The silence that replaced it began to get uncomfortable before Lolly said, “I think we should go under it.”

“Under it?” Yavic wondered if that would be any easier and why he hadn’t considered it.

“Yeah,” Lolly said. “Morgy’s dad is a guard. He said sometimes they have to go along the wall and fill in holes because animals try to dig their way under it. Maybe we can, too.”

Yavic stared at the wall again, considering this idea. Digging would take a long time. The base of the wall was more concealed than the top though. They didn’t expect anyone to start looking for them until they didn’t come home from school. They might have time. And he still didn’t have a better idea.

When he saw that the others were looking to him to implement the plan, Yavic began to make one. Surely a salt mine had digging equipment somewhere. “I’m going to look for a shovel,” he said. “You three try to figure out where along the wall is most shielded from sight by the salt mounds.”

They nodded at him.

Yavic didn’t want to separate from his sisters, even for a short time. One person could avoid being seen more easily than a whole group though. Going by himself was safer for everyone. He turned back for a moment. “Don’t go far,” he said.

They nodded again. It didn’t shrink the growing pit of fear in his gut. Yavic ran from mound to mound, keeping the salt between him and the buildings near the mine. He stopped at the last one and crouched down to peer around it. He was looking at the back of three buildings. The closest one was the smallest, a shed of some sort. To the right of that was a building with a lot of open windows. The buzzing of many voices drifted on the air. That seemed to be the best building to avoid. The largest one, to the left of the shed, had no windows on the back. There were vents near the roof. Yavic wouldn’t have any trouble staying below those.

He sent careful glances right and left and over his shoulder. No one was around. He sprinted to the shed and stood with his back against its back, his breathing ragged and quick. That would certainly raise suspicion if he was spotted. He took a few minutes to force his lungs to expand and contract in a more normal manner. He was still panting, but it was the best he could do.

Yavic stepped sideways, towards the larger building. He took small steps and stayed so close to the shed that his shirt brushed against it. He stopped at the corner. He tried to prepare for a quick peek around it, but he was growing more tense – not less – the longer he waited.

“Meow!”

Yavic’s stomach tried to jump out of his mouth as a white cat rounded the corner. A friendly beast, it mashed its forehead against Yavic’s legs.

Yavic was not a friendly beast at the moment. He kicked lightly at the cat, careful not to really hurt it, but enough for it to know it wasn’t welcome. It might give him away.

The cat meowed its displeasure at being shooed before it stalked away with its tail in the air. Yavic recklessly threw his head around the corner after it, thinking he could pretend he was only trying to pet the cat if anyone saw him. There was no one between the buildings. Yavic made a run for the larger one.

From his position pressed against the whitewashed surface, the voices became louder. He could hear words mixed in with the general roar of voices and some sort of pounding. Nothing that made any sense and certainly nothing that would help him. No one said, “There’s a shovel right here if anyone wants to borrow one.”

Against the larger building, Yavic could now also see the front of the shed. He saw that the door was not only unlocked but slightly ajar. He looked around again. As long as no one looked out one of those windows in the next few seconds…

He dashed to the shed, through the door and closed himself in almost total darkness. He opened his eyes wider, trying to will them to adjust faster. When that didn’t work, he strained with his ears, listening for any indication that someone had seen him. There didn’t seem to be any change in the murmur of voices. He didn’t detect anything that sounded like concern over someone sneaking around outside.

Faint gray shapes began to appear as his eyes became acquainted with the lack of light. Yavic took his hand off the door so that it fell open an inch or two. The light that streamed in let him see fairly well, but there was too much to take in all at once. Shelves lined the walls and were crammed with rags and bottles and tubes and he didn’t know what half the things were. In a back corner, several taller items were braced against the front of the shelves. There were several brooms and Yavic’s eyes stopped seeing anything else when they landed on a shovel.

He hurried to it and repositioned the items leaning against it to take the shovel as quietly as possible. He listened at the door with the shovel gripped so tightly in his hand that his fingers ached. He ran straight for the back of the shed and waited. If anyone was going to catch him, they would do it here where he could pretend he was alone. When it seemed no one would catch him, he retraced his steps to the place he’d left his sisters.

The cat was with them. The same cat that Yavic had chased away was in the middle of the three girls, basking in their attention. Their attention was so fully on stroking the soft white fur that they didn’t even notice the triumphant return of their brother. He felt a brief touch of annoyance that they didn’t appear worried about him. Then he convinced himself they simply had confidence that he could do it.

“Did you find a good place to dig?” he asked.

“Yeah. Right over there looks good.” Sevra straightened and pointed.

Samtry stood and nodded at her side.

Lolly kept petting the stupid cat.

She wouldn’t be much help in the digging anyway. Though it emasculated Yavic to do so, he handed the shovel to Sevra with the admission that she’d likely be their best digger. “I’ll be lookout,” he said. “Give it to me as soon as you get tired.”

Sevra accepted the tool and quickly broke ground in the place she’d picked. No one could see her there except her siblings. And the cat. She didn’t think about getting caught though. She didn’t think about what they might find on the other side. She only thought about digging. She moved fast. The gift let her move the dirt as easily as if she were spooning pudding out of the way. When the hole was deep enough, she jumped inside and dug to the side, lifting dirt out as she went. She thought only of the next shovel of dirt. She finally let herself wonder how wide the wall was just before she found the answer, a bit of light broke the surface on the far side of her tunnel.

She said nothing while she worked and none of her siblings did either. The cat meowed occasionally. Sevra put down the shovel only when she was confident she’d made an adequate tunnel.

Yavic, Samtry and Lolly all stood staring at her holding their packs. They were ready to follow her. Sevra had felt alone and helpless when she decided to tell her brother about the gift. She hadn’t expected anything to change. She just couldn’t hold the secret in anymore. Now, with her siblings behind her, anything seemed possible. Maybe they really could face the Herders. Maybe they really could give the gift back. Maybe they could do it and return in a matter of hours, with only one missed day of school to explain to their parents. Maybe she was simply so scared she’d become completely irrational.

 

Chapter 4

Under the Wall

 

 

Sevra blew out a quick nervous breath and inhaled determination. She knelt in the hole and pushed her pack of supplies under the wall. She took her sisters’ bags, pushed them through the dirt tunnel one after the other, then held out her hand for Yavic’s bag.

He wanted to push it under the wall himself. But the threat of being discovered suddenly felt more real. There was no time to worry about who was or wasn’t doing a fair share of work. It was a little late after Sevra did all the digging anyway. He’d asked her to hand over the shovel as soon as she was tired, and she still didn’t look tired. He passed her his bag.

Sevra pushed it and began to crawl after it without looking back. Yavic swallowed hard and motioned the younger girls to go next. He wasn’t sure if it was gallant to stay last and have the most time to be caught or if he was urging them towards even greater danger.

Lolly crawled through the tunnel on Sevra’s heels. Samtry felt her heart knock against her ribs as her turn came. She looked around desperately, realizing that she wanted to be caught. She wanted someone to stop her – stop all of them – from leaving Wisherton. The Wasteland was dangerous. The Herders were dangerous. Her home was safe and loving and where she wanted to be at that moment.

But it wasn’t safe anymore. If they were caught, they’d be killed for helping Sevra. She had no choice. Samtry put her shaking hands in the dirt and crawled after her sisters.

Yavic didn’t take the time to look around. He rushed under the wall. The packs were piled up right in front of the exit. Lolly and Sevra were sitting with their backs against the wall on one side, Samtry on the other. He gently pushed Samtry aside to make room for himself next to her.

All four of them took in their new surroundings with some surprise and a lot of confusion. No one had ever really described the Wasteland to them. It was something people rarely talked about. The foreboding when it did come up – along with the name – conveyed a sense that the Wasteland was desolate and somehow completely different from Wisherton. The children had expected to emerge on the other side and feel as though they’d entered another world.

The first eight or ten feet of ground extending from the wall was hard, packed dirt. Nothing grew there. But beyond that the landscape – apart from an absence of buildings – looked very much like Wisherton. Grassy rolling hills covered much of the area with patches of trees and shrubs scattered about. The sky was the same crystal blue it had been on the other side of the wall. That made perfect sense because how could a wall separate the sky? Yet it was unexpected all the same. Sevra looked up and watched a cloud drift back onto the Wisherton side.

Yavic was the first to snap out of the daze. On this side of the wall, it was easy to tell where the guard towers were positioned. The wall curved out where it was wider on top. They were closer to the one on the right. A thicker copse of trees felt like the best way to hide. It was slightly to the left and maybe four hundred yards away. Maybe five hundred. He really couldn’t judge. It just looked like the best place, the only place, to hide while they thought.

“Can we make it?” he whispered.

Samtry was the only one close enough to hear him. “Where?” she asked.

He didn’t hear her word, but he saw her lips form it. She was trembling from head to toe. Yavic took hold of her hand. “I think we should run for those trees.” He nodded towards them.

Samtry said nothing. She continued to shake. Lolly and Sevra noticed the others were talking and crept closer to hear. The cat poked its head through the hole under the wall, then seemed to think better of joining them.

Yavic pointed at the trees. “We run that way?” he said. He hadn’t intended it to sound like a question. He really wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but if they were going to do this then they had to do it. Not just sit against the wall forever.

Lolly nodded. She reached for her bag and put her arms through the straps.

“What will they do?” Sevra asked, looking up towards a guard tower.

Yavic shrugged. That was something he couldn’t answer. Would they shoot at them? Send someone after them? Was there even the slightest chance they wouldn’t be seen?

Sevra didn’t ask any more questions. At least not out loud. Her head was full of them. She tried not to think too far ahead. They would move one step at a time. Right now, they needed to prepare to run. She handed Yavic his bag. When she picked up Samtry’s bag, she noticed how violently the 9-year-old’s hand shook when she reached out to take it. She was so pale it was almost as though she was fading away.

“I’ll carry this for you.” Sevra wrapped her arm around her sister’s bag without waiting for approval.

Yavic had stood up as he put on his pack. He grabbed Samtry’s hand again and pulled her to her feet.

They lined up against the wall and cast quick glances back and forth. It seemed that each of them was waiting for someone else to give the signal. In this unfamiliar place and unfamiliar situation, Yavic was still the oldest. He would take charge. He nodded to his sisters.

They all nodded back.

But no one started running.

He looked to each of them in turn. They all looked back expectantly.

“That was the signal to run,” he whispered.

“Oh.” Lolly barely breathed the word. “We thought you were asking if we were ready.”

“Are you ready?”

They all nodded at him. Samtry’s grip tightened on his hand.

“Okay,” he said. He looked again at the trees. The goal seemed farther away than it had earlier. They could make it though. He nodded again at the trees and waited.

All his sisters nodded back.

No one started running.

“Should we go now?” Sevra asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay.” She didn’t start running.

No one started running.

Yavic took a deep breath and prepared to lead with action. This time when he nodded at the trees, he moved his legs, too. He propelled himself forward as fast as he could and pulled Samtry along. It took only a few strides to realize he’d need to go slower to avoid dragging her. That let the other girls get ahead. Yavic didn’t mind. With two in front and one on his arm, he could easily keep track of his sisters as he ran for the trees.

Samtry ran as though her life depended on it. It was entirely possible that her life did depend on it. She ran hard, pushing herself to keep up with her brother. She felt that whatever was coming for them would surely get her first.

She listened intently. Besides her harsh breath and the footsteps of her siblings, she heard nothing. No shots were fired. No one was shouting. Everything behind them sounded calm. Still, she couldn’t escape the feeling that something was pursuing them. It would get her if she lagged. Something would get her, and she was too terrified to look back.

Suddenly, the only thought in her head was the fact that her hand was getting sweaty. Or Yavic’s hand was sweaty. Either way, her grip was slipping. It was getting more difficult by the second to hang on to her lifeline. She tried to push strength to her hand, but her legs needed it. They’d run so far and had so far to go. The trees weren’t getting any closer. How could the trees not be getting closer?

Yavic. She tried to call his name but didn’t have the energy to spare for her voice. She couldn’t keep up, couldn’t hold on. Her hand slipped out of his. The unknown thing felt closer than ever. Samtry was nearly overcome by her own desperation in the instant she lost her hold on her brother.

But Yavic didn’t leave her behind. He crouched down and yelled, “Get on my back!”

Samtry threw her arms around his neck. Yavic’s bag felt lumpy and awkward between them. Something hard was jabbing against her chest as he ran. She closed her eyes and fought tears of relief all the same.

Sevra was ahead of the others. She kept glancing back to make sure there was nothing behind them. No one seemed to be chasing them yet. The trees that didn’t seem to get any closer were all around them. Sevra didn’t know exactly when they’d entered the forest or how much farther into it they should run.

“Wait!” Lolly’s voice met her ears. The urgent note stopped Sevra in her tracks. She turned to see Lolly also stopping. The 8-year-old bent forward, panting hard, and braced her hands against her knees.

Yavic came up right behind her and unceremoniously shook Samtry off his back. There were red welts on his neck where it looked as though she’d been nearly strangling him.

They all needed a break. Sevra reached to a side pocket on her pack, took out a tin bottle, and unscrewed the cap for a few sips of water. The others watched her and gradually helped themselves to water as well. Samtry needed to take her bag from Sevra for a drink. She looked stronger now and kept it.

The marks Yavic was rubbing on his neck and shoulder certainly indicated some strength. The four Say children stood around catching their breath. No one wanted to ask the obvious question. Now what? They all faced the direction from which they’d run, watching for signs they needed to keep running.

A rustling sound came from behind them. Lolly knew she wasn’t the only one to hear it because three other heads turned that way. “What was that?” she asked quietly.

Yavic shushed her with a sharp look.

Sevra shrugged. Then they all stood perfectly still and listened. Faint noises seemed to come from all around them. A scurry here. A rustle there. Dry leaves blowing on the ground made a different noise from the colorful ones overhead. A bird screeched as it took flight. There were so many noises, it was impossible to tell if any should be considered a warning.

Lolly had looked up to watch the bird exit the tree. When she looked back at her siblings, they were standing closer together. She wasn’t sure how many of them moved to make that happen. She took another step closer to Yavic.

“Don’t. Move.” Yavic was staring straight ahead and seemed to be speaking to all of them, not just Lolly.

She followed his eyes and didn’t see what he saw. She followed his instructions anyway, standing as still as she could make herself.

Sevra tried to find what had her brother telling them to freeze. A low, rumbling growl finally brought her eyes to the threat. There was an animal between some trees not more than ten feet in front of them. She didn’t know what it was. It was about the size of a bulldog, with a similarly shaped body. Its snout was long and it was covered with black, scraggly fur. More than any other feature, Sevra focused on the pair of foot-long horns on its head. The points were so fine, they’d easily pop a balloon. Sevra wasn’t worried about the danger to balloons though.

The creature wasn’t moving. Yavic wondered if they could wait it out. Samtry wondered if it would chase them if they ran. Sevra wondered if they could use food to distract it. Lolly wondered if they could scare it away. Being the most reckless of the bunch – either because she was the youngest or because that was her natural personality – Lolly was the first to act.

She slowly pulled back the arm still holding a water bottle. Then she threw it hard at the ground in front of the animal. It flinched but held its ground.

All four of them were relieved it didn’t charge. Sevra carefully moved her pack off one shoulder. The creature eyed her warily. Her brother eyed her just as warily. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“I’m going to try to feed it.”

Yavic shook his head. He didn’t think that was a good idea.

Lolly said, “I don’t think you can make that a pet.”

Yavic rolled his eyes at her. Whatever Sevra had in mind, adopting a pet was surely not it.

Sevra unzipped her pack as she patiently explained her thinking. “A lot of animals only attack for food. I thought maybe if… if we give it something and make sure it’s not hungry… then it won’t be tempted to make us food.”

“I don’t think that thing is big enough to eat more than one of us,” Lolly said matter-of-factly.

“Are you volunteering?” Yavic asked sarcastically.

Lolly glared at her brother. “Well, it’s not.”

“Grapes?” Sevra asked, pulling a bunch from her pack.

“I don’t know what it eats.” Yavic still had doubts about the idea but figured it was worth a try. “Toss one at it. But not too close. Try not to scare it.”

Sevra plucked a grape and made a gentle underhand throw.

The animal watched the grape hit the ground in front of it, then immediately returned its gaze to Sevra and the others. Its beady little eyes seemed to somehow take in all four of them at the same time.

Sevra tossed another grape.

The animal didn’t even look down.

“Try something else,” Lolly suggested.

Sevra slowly and deliberately put the grapes away as she reached blindly for something else. She kept her eyes on the animal. All four of them watched it tensely, ready to run if it showed signs of coming towards them.

Sevra pulled out a bag of ginger cookies next. “If this doesn’t work…” She attempted a light-hearted shrug. She pulled out a cookie and gently tossed it to the ground in front of the animal.

The creature took one step forward and lowered its nose to sniff the cookie while it kept its eyes locked on the children. Slowly, it raised its head. The cookie also was rejected.

“I don’t think it’s hungry,” Lolly said.

“Is that good or bad?” Samtry’s voice was almost a whimper.

No one spoke. No one knew the answer. No one wanted to guess. Sevra put the rest of the cookies away and carefully returned her bag to both shoulders.

“Should we run now?” Lolly asked.

“No!” Yavic and Sevra both quietly hissed the word. It was emphatic enough that it counted as a yell.

Samtry was momentarily relieved. If they tried to outrun the creature, she’d be last again. And this time she’d know exactly what was chasing her.

“Let’s see if it moves first,” Yavic said. It seemed wise not to provoke the animal. It hadn’t attacked when Lolly threw something at it. It didn’t appear to be hungry. Maybe it would get bored of the standoff and walk away. Better yet, maybe it would get bored of the standoff and run away.

Time dragged on. Or maybe it didn’t move at all. The children watched the animal and occasionally glanced at each other. The creature only stared back. Was it waiting for them to move first?

Yavic took a small step back to test the theory. He didn’t look first and stepped on Samtry, whom he hadn’t realized was so close.

She was so tense, she squealed and jumped.

The animal growled louder than it had the first time. Everyone froze.

In the silence that followed, a tiny mewling sound was heard. Just behind the shaggy black animal, something similar but much smaller poked a head out of the grass.

The children looked at each other with fresh understanding. This creature was guarding its young. Yavic put his hand back to warn Samtry he was coming as he stepped backwards. Together, the children moved slowly and carefully away from the animal. Just before it was too far away to be seen, it lay down.

A collective sigh of relief was felt and the children turned their backs on the animal and began to walk towards the edge of the forest. Now that the immediate danger seemed to have passed, the obvious question returned to all of them.

Lolly said, “Now what?”

Chapter 5

Not Alone

 

 

When faced with the question of which way to go, the four children turned in unison to look in the direction of Wisherton. That was of course the only way none of them would suggest. They could see hints of the wall through the trees. Above it, two mountain peaks were kissed by clouds. The taller one they knew was October Mountain, the highest point in Wisherton. The shorter, flatter one next to it was Little Sister Mountain.

“We’re not going that way,” Lolly said.

Something about her simple statement of fact made Yavic burst out laughing. It felt like the tension of the morning trying to escape in the most inappropriate way possible. Rather than look annoyed with him, Lolly laughed, too. Sevra joined in and even Samtry managed an uncomfortable chuckle. They all knew there was nothing funny. Samtry simply showed it the most.

Lolly caught her breath and said, “So?” with an impatient look at her brother.

Yavic wiped the humor from his face and tried to think smart. As two more girls showed him the same impatient expression, he began to think through the situation out loud to prove he was thinking. “The forest seems like a better place to stay hidden. But clearly there are animals hidden in here, too, and that’s…” Scary was the first word that came to mind. There was nothing cowardly about being afraid of an animal that could rip a person to shreds or pop a stomach like a balloon. Yavic still knew it wasn’t only a desire to keep his sisters calm that made him reluctant to use the word. “Troubling,” he finished instead. “The same trees that hide us could let us be ambushed. I’d feel better being able to see a threat coming. I say we try to keep near the edge of the forest as we move away from Wisherton. Then head out into the open when we get to the other side.”

Sevra nodded decisively and began to lead in the direction Yavic suggested. Movement felt like progress. Movement kept her hoping they could succeed.

Lolly scampered after her sister, confident in her big siblings.

Samtry watched her boots as she followed. She felt a sudden, crushing fear of tripping over twigs or fallen branches. She welcomed the fear. It was the most comforting fear she’d ever felt. Fears of wild animals and guards with arrows and demonic minions… those she couldn’t do anything about. But she could pick her footsteps carefully. She focused on that.

Yavic took up the rear of their single file line, keeping his eyes on his sisters and scanning side to side on the off chance that advance notice would help against whatever might threaten them. Mostly he was looking for assurance that it didn’t matter whether or not advance notice would do any good.

“What are you doing here?” The voice was hoarse and Sevra turned as it came from behind her. She stepped closer to Lolly in case she needed to protect her. Though loud and startling, the voice did not immediately convey aggression. Samtry and Yavic stepped forward before they stopped so that the siblings were clustered together as a ragged woman emerged from behind a tree.

Yavic tried not to think he might not be very good at watching for threats in advance. She was close enough to grab Lolly before any of them saw her. Instead he studied the woman for clues on what they should do now. She was an adult though she was no taller than Yavic and possibly skinnier. He thought she might be younger than their mom, but a layer of dirt on her face made the amount of lines hard to see. Her tunic was torn in many places and hung loosely from her body. A four-inch gash on her shin looked fresh, while other scrapes on her hands and arms had partially healed.

“The berries are mine,” she snapped. Her voice cracked as though it hadn’t been used in a while.

Lolly, who as usual was way too curious for her own good, asked, “What berries?”

The woman eyed her closely. “Never you mind,” she said. “They give you the worst stomach cramps of your life if you eat them before they’re ripe anyway.” She smiled slowly and appeared to find pleasure in the idea of Lolly doubled over in pain.

Yavic inched closer to the younger girls and noticed Sevra doing the same on her side.

Lolly seemed unaffected by the woman’s nasty smile. Her curiosity wasn’t dented either. “Are you from Wisherton?” she asked.

A hard glare was the only response.

Lolly kept trying. “How did you get out?”

“Ha.” The woman shook with a laugh that held no joy. “Getting out was the easy part. I even thought it was romantic.” She choked on the word and began coughing. “My boyfriend had a gift. I didn’t know it at first. When he told me, I thought it was love that made him share his secret. I believed him when he said he’d repented for the things he’d done to earn a gift. That he had no intention of ever joining the Herders.”

“What gift?” Lolly asked.

Sevra kicked her lightly to shut her up. The woman was clearly bitter and her story would be unpleasant. They didn’t need too many details.

“Foresight,” the woman said. “He knew the council was coming for him. What he really knew was how gullible I was. I agreed to hide him. Then they dragged us off together. I thought I was going to die for a man who loved me. But instead of putting us in the gas chamber, one of the guards handed me a bag with food and… things. They took us over the wall and said we’d be killed if we tried to come back. We ran until we’d put miles between us and Wisherton. I was exhausted that night and slept soundly. When I woke up…”

The woman was still looking at the distant wall, not paying any attention to whether anyone was listening to her. The words came out with no emotion. “When I woke up, Jock was gone. I worried he’d been caught or hurt or… then I realized he wasn’t the only thing gone. All the food was gone. He’d taken the blanket right off my back. I cried over the betrayal but not nearly as hard as I cried over my own stupidity. I thought I could just go back. After all, I wasn’t the one with a gift. What threat would I be?”

She turned hard eyes on the children. “They won’t let you back either,” she said darkly. “No matter how much you beg. My brother is a guard. My own brother refused to hear my pleas. I’ve been trying for days, moving along the wall looking for a weakness, for any possible… Which of you has the gift?”

This was one question Lolly wouldn’t answer. She glanced around to get the support of her siblings. They stayed silent as well.

“Doesn’t matter,” the woman said. She laughed that horrible laugh again, the one that took pleasure in the misery of others. “You’ll turn on each other and none of you will be able to go back. Once you’re banished, you stay banished.”

“We ran away,” Lolly said, lifting her chin in defiance.

“Thought you’d come out here for a lark? Some prize to brag to your friends about going to the Wasteland and—”

Her angry words cut off abruptly. Her eyes traveled over each of them as though seeing them clearly for the first time. “You’re clean,” she whispered.

The children exchanged confused looks at her sudden change in demeanor.

She fell to her knees and grabbed Lolly roughly by the shoulders. “When did you leave?” she demanded. “How!?”

“Let go of her!” Sevra yelled, trying to pull Lolly free without hurting her.

Yavic lunged forward and tried to pry the filthy hands off his sister.

“Did you leave today?” the woman asked frantically. She was fighting to keep her grip on Lolly, shaking her. “Is there a rope?”

Sevra was still screaming for her to let go and Samtry was just screaming in general.

“We left this morning.” Lolly answered in a tremulous voice that only sounded calm compared to the pandemonium around her. “We dug a tunnel under the wall.”

“Where?” She shook Lolly again.

Lolly didn’t answer, but she lifted an arm to point, as best she could, to their starting point.

The woman let go and sprinted that way. A tree branch slapped across her face then snapped back into place. The woman kept running as though she hadn’t even noticed it. The children shifted closer to the edge of the forest to keep her in view. They couldn’t look away. They just stood there and watched her run. She eventually reached the wall and ran along it before she fell to her knees.

But she did not disappear under the wall. Though the sound was faint from the distance, they could still make out the frustration in her sobs. Had the hole been filled in already?

A sickening feeling invaded Yavic’s gut. What if getting out really had been the easy part? He’d thought it some sort of miracle that they’d made it to the trees without being seen. Maybe the guards had seen them. Maybe instead of trying to stop them, instead of sending anyone after them, they simply made sure they stayed out.

He looked at Sevra. Her troubled gaze seemed to reflect his thoughts. Then she set her jaw and began walking the way they were headed before the woman stopped them. It was possible that getting back in would be difficult. But they had other difficult tasks to worry about first. No sense worrying about something they might not live to deal with.

Yavic smiled at what was actually a pretty disturbing thought. Not much had made sense since Sevra told him she had a gift. Maybe this would all turn out to be a bad dream. His smile faded at that thought. He knew it wasn’t a dream.

Sevra was still leading with the younger girls between her and Yavic. She stopped when they’d walked only a few minutes. She’d come across a bush with leaves like flat needles. It was covered with yellow and green berries. “Do you think these are the berries that…” She could only think of unkind words to describe the woman. “The berries she meant.” Sevra didn’t need to be more descriptive than “she” for her siblings to know whom she was talking about.

Lolly nodded. “Probably.”

Yavic didn’t see any other berries.

“What ones are ripe?” Lolly asked. “The yellow or the green?”

Sevra shrugged. “That’s what I was wondering.” She gently fingered several of the berries. “A lot of fruit gets softer as it ripens. These all feel about the same to me.”

“We have food,” Samtry said as she backed away from the berries.

“I know.” Sevra took her hand away from the bush and tried to sound reassuring. “I wasn’t suggesting we eat any. I just thought it wouldn’t hurt to remember the information in case… for later.” She bit her lip. Suggesting they might run out of food probably didn’t count as reassuring.

Lolly didn’t appear concerned. She waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t think we can trust anything that woman had to say, except the part where she claimed the berries. She was trying to scare us away with the other part.” Lolly reached out and picked a yellow berry. Before anyone could stop her, she popped it into her mouth.

“Lolly!” Sevra’s eyes went wide with shock.

“Spit it out,” Yavic said.

She gave him an obstinate look as she swallowed it. He kind of hoped that one berry would give her just enough of a stomachache to teach her a lesson without causing real pain.

“Come on,” Sevra said. It seemed like a good idea to get away from that bush before any other berries got picked or eaten.

“It’s kind of hard but doesn’t taste too bad,” Lolly said as they started moving again.

Yavic kept quiet. There probably wasn’t anything he could say that wouldn’t invite a whole discussion of the berries.

Sevra said, “That bark is sort of interesting,” and pointed at a tree they passed with very coarse, bumpy bark. She’d seen similar trees in Wisherton and it wasn’t that interesting. She only wanted to change the subject.

“Don’t eat it,” Samtry said.

Lolly glanced back with a tiny smile before they all faced purposefully forward. There were occasional gasps and trembling shoulders as they all tried not to laugh at something that wouldn’t be funny if Lolly did end up with a stomachache.

The tiny gasps of laughter had long been replaced by heavy breathing when Sevra stopped next. They’d been walking along rough terrain. “Careful,” she said. ”There’s a drop-off here.”

The others caught up slowly to investigate. Sevra held out her arm to keep Lolly from stepping too close to the edge. It wasn’t steep enough to meet a strict definition of a cliff, but it would certainly be tricky to navigate. Unless someone wanted to navigate it head over heels.

Even Lolly wasn’t reckless enough to test that method. Probably. It was at least thirty feet to the bottom, which contained a fairly dry stream. It had more rocks than water. Yavic looked up and down the stream. To the right, it headed away from the forest but angled back toward Wisherton. They’d have to follow it into the forest to find a way across or around it.

“We’ll have to go this way,” Sevra said. She motioned deeper into the forest and locked eyes with Yavic for confirmation.

“Yeah,” he said. “Everyone keep away from the edge.”

Samtry looked back and smiled faintly. She seemed to be grateful for the encouragement.

Lolly, on the other hand, turned just enough to show her dark eyes rolling at the idea that she needed the reminder. In the moment she wasn’t looking ahead, her foot came within a few inches of the edge. Yavic fought not to remind her again.

They walked on, following the edge of the low stream as though it was a path set out for them, though they didn’t know where it would lead. Yavic was thinking a lot about food. He knew they should conserve what they had. He wasn’t sure if they should wait until they were really hungry or try to eat a few bites now and then to prevent the desire to binge. His stomach let out a growl. A few bites wouldn’t hurt.

He was about to suggest they go ahead and stop when a large hand came out of nowhere and covered his mouth. An arm came around his waist and lifted him from his feet at the same time.

 

Chapter 6

Still Not Alone

 

 

Sevra sensed that something was wrong before she fully appreciated what made her sense it. She turned quickly to see her sisters also looking behind them. Together, they took in that Yavic was gone. Sevra gathered the girls close to her.

Samtry squeezed tightly to her sister’s arm. Had Yavic fallen? She was afraid to look down. What if he was hurt? At the same time she forced herself to look over the edge, she realized there’d be nothing to see. A fall down that slope would have made a bigger commotion. He’d have called out. Not to mention the fact that he’d be mortified to fall after warning the others to avoid the edge. Yavic would never be so careless.

There was a tug on her arm as Sevra pulled her behind a tree and urged Lolly to follow.

“I heard something,” Sevra whispered. “Voices.” She nodded to point the direction they’d come from. Then she peeled Samtry off her arm and instructed the younger girls with her hands to stay behind the tree.

Samtry grabbed Lolly instead, partly for comfort and partly because Lolly might need some encouragement to stay behind. They watched Sevra creep to the next tree and lean around it.

Sevra held back a gasp at what she saw. Three men had Yavic. Though two of them were barely men. They couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Yavic. Those two were going through his bag, pulling things out and stuffing them into their own bags. The third man held Yavic. He looked old enough to be the father of the younger ones. He looked enough like them to support the conclusion as well. They all had bulbous noses and dark hair that was shaggy, like it hadn’t been trimmed in a year or more. It didn’t appear to have been combed or washed in that much time either.

“Hand me that,” the older man said as a younger one pulled a rope from Yavic’s bag. “I’ll tie him up so he doesn’t give us trouble while we deal with the girls.”

The girls? Sevra swallowed hard, knowing he meant her and her sisters. She jumped as something touched her from behind. It was Lolly and Samtry. She should have been upset that they didn’t stay behind the farther tree. She liked having them close though and her tree was large enough to hide all of them. For now. She tapped her finger to her lips and turned back to see what was happening with Yavic.

The older man mumbled something Sevra couldn’t make out as he removed his hand from Yavic’s mouth. It must have been a threat to keep him quiet. Then he roughly turned Yavic to hold his hands behind his back. “Hold his arms while I tie him,” he instructed one of his sons.

The son took hold of Yavic and said, “Those girls are probably spooked by now. We should hurry before they run too far ahead.”

“Naw. They’re right behind that tree.” The other son gestured carelessly to Sevra’s hiding place as he shoved Yavic’s clothes back into his bag.

“Get their bags then,” the dad growled.

Sevra’s mind whirred with too many thoughts to process all at once. It seemed as though the youngest of the bunch had seen her and her sisters right through the tree. Did he have a gift, too? She’d never heard of anyone else escaping the council’s soldiers, but now she wondered if it happened and people just didn’t talk about it. Were they going to keep bumping into desperate runaways? And how long before they became just like them? These three men at least appeared to want to take their supplies without hurting them. But if they were left with no food…

The younger son had tossed Yavic’s bag to the side. Sevra had only a few seconds to decide what to do. Broader questions would need to wait. She turned to tell Samtry to get out some rope when yet another question presented itself. “Where’s Lolly?” she hissed.

Samtry shrugged helplessly. There was no time to look for her.

“Pull out your rope.”

Samtry didn’t waste time agreeing. She began to wiggle out of her shoulder straps.

Sevra backed up so the man would need to come around the tree far enough to be out of sight of the other two. She huddled close to Samtry and tried to look scared. It was not hard. She was terrified.

The man appeared and Sevra jumped even though she expected him. There was remorse on his face as he leaned forward to take Sevra’s pack from her back. She grabbed his arm and yanked him to the ground. She tried to cover his mouth with her other hand and missed. Her hand closed around his throat instead. She didn’t want to really hurt him. “Please don’t struggle,” she begged in a whisper.

His body went limp. The surprise on his face was replaced with resignation as he muttered, “Strength,” as though he should have expected that his beefy arms would be no match for a 12-year-old girl.

Sevra locked eyes with her sister. “Just wrap it around him as many times as you can. Then I’ll tie it.”

Samtry nodded and used her shaking hands to wrap the rope around their prisoner’s hands. Then she wrapped it around his waist while Sevra tied his hands to the front of his body.

“Do I need to gag you?” Sevra asked. She meant it to sound threatening. Her voice came out meek. She might as well have been asking what kind of pie was his favorite.

He smiled a little as he shook his head. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt either. Make sure this knot is good and tight.” He nodded to his hands. “Then go ahead that way to get your brother. I’ll give you a head start. When I think you’re close, I’ll call out for them to help me. You guys run while they’re getting me untied. They’ll probably chase you. But with a head start and us already having some of your supplies, their hearts won’t be in it.”

Sevra nodded appreciatively as she pulled the ropes tighter around his wrists. It didn’t really seem fair to do that to someone helping them, but it was his plan. She grabbed Samtry and peered around the other side of the tree. First they had to find Lolly.

“He meant the big tree, right?” said a male voice.

“What’s taking so long?”

The other men were talking, but Sevra hadn’t gotten far enough to see who said what. It sounded as though they’d be coming in a few seconds whether the tied up one called for help or not. She moved around to get a look, still keeping Samtry behind her.

They’d finished tying Yavic – he was gagged – and were putting their packs on their shoulders. Something bright yellow above them drew Sevra’s attention and she felt her eyes widen in disbelief. Lolly. She’d climbed a tree behind the men and was scooting along a branch over their heads. How had she gotten up there in her bright yellow tunic without anyone noticing? And what harebrained thing was she going to do next?

Sevra wrestled hard against the urge to call out to her sister. She wanted to tell her to wait, that they already had a plan. But even signaling her would risk alerting the men to the child above them.

Lolly had something in her hand. A rock? As she drew her hand back to take aim, her bag shifted on her back and threw her off balance. She cried out as she fell. It was the only warning the older man got before an 8-year-old girl landed in his arms kicking and yelling, “Let me go! Let me go!”

The man was too stunned to do anything except try not to get kicked in the face. Sevra and Samtry used the distraction to run to the closest tree and duck behind it.

“Hey! I need a hand over here!”

When the voice of the third captor entered the chaos, Yavic began to hope that what looked like Lolly doing something dumb was actually part of a rescue effort.

“Go see what’s happening with your brother,” the oldest man said as he set Lolly on the ground, perhaps more roughly than necessary. Her boots were still landing blows on various parts of his body so it may have been self-defense. He yanked the bag from her back and carried it off as he followed his sons. Lolly sent a furious look after him.

Samtry jumped out and hugged Lolly, mostly because she was glad she was unharmed and a little because she didn’t want her to chase the man.

Sevra was in front of Yavic. She pulled the gag from his mouth and asked, “Can you run with your hands tied?”

He nodded and all four of them moved quickly from the clearing. Sevra grabbed Yavic’s pack and Lolly made enough of a detour to retrieve her own bag. The man had set it on the ground to use both hands to untie his son.

The others didn’t notice her detour until they heard him yell, “Hey! Go after her!”

They were only being chased by one man, the older of the two sons who might have been twentyish. He had longer legs and didn’t have his hands tied behind his back. He’d surely catch one of them if the chase went on very long. Sevra could hold him back, but she didn’t know if he’d be as accommodating as the other one. It seemed a good idea to at least get some distance between them and the two men who’d be on his side.

Sevra was running next to Yavic, prepared to throw him over her shoulder if he fell trying to run with his hands bound. The binding slowed him down. And Lolly… well, Lolly hadn’t been running in a straight line and was now trying to run while putting on a backpack. All the hindrances let Samtry take the lead. That lead let her be the first to notice that they were running towards the same cliff they’d spent two hours trying not to fall off. She tried to adjust her course to run alongside the edge. Then she stopped and dove for the ground as a fireball came flying over the side of the cliff.

A fireball was probably the last thing she would have expected at that moment, though she couldn’t think of a moment when she would have expected a fireball. She looked up to see it hit the ground in front of the man chasing them.

“That way!” Lolly yelled. She seemed to think they should run towards the source of the fireball.

Sevra wasn’t sure if it came from someone helping them or someone with bad aim. She ran with Lolly anyway as the head and shoulders of a teenage boy – he looked maybe sixteen or seventeen – appeared by the cliff. He seemed to be standing on something below the edge. He motioned the Say children towards him. Then he lobbed another fireball over their heads.

They skidded to a stop by the edge. It was steeper here than earlier, nearly vertical. The boy was standing on a platform attached to the sides with ropes and pulleys. “Hop on,” he said. “I’ll lower you down.”

Lolly immediately flipped to her stomach and dropped herself feet first onto the platform next to him.

“What are you doing?” Sevra said. “We can’t just trust someone we don’t know.”

“Sure we can.” Lolly grinned. “He’s cute.”

“That doesn’t mean we can trust him.” Sevra looked at the boy, who was looking at her. He had eyes like Lolly’s, dark and perpetually entertained. She was afraid he was currently entertained by the way her statement might indicate she also thought he was cute. Her face warmed as though there was any room for embarrassment while running from attackers. She climbed onto the platform, not because she was choosing to trust him but because Lolly couldn’t go off with him by herself. She dropped her bag and Yavic’s and turned back to help Samtry down.

Samtry did trust the new friend. He could throw fire, and he wasn’t aiming at them. That felt like proof enough that he meant them no harm. What she did not trust was his platform. It was made of branches tied together. The long drop to the ground was visible through places where they didn’t line up, and the whole thing rocked side to side as Sevra landed on it. Still, she let her sister help her to the platform and just tried really hard not to look down.

Yavic watched his sisters join a complete stranger on what looked like a raft that wouldn’t even float on water precariously floating in midair. They’d all lost their minds. He looked over his shoulder.

The young man who’d been chasing them had stopped. He was watching from a distance, likely waiting for his dad and brother to catch up. Yavic decided he had two choices. He could also trust the newcomer or he could roll down the cliff and hope he landed on something soft. He sat quickly and lowered himself to the platform, hoping that if it broke they would all land on something soft.

Chapter 7

Tames

 

 

Yavic turned his back to Sevra, who took the hint to untie the knots binding his hands. He pulled his hands forward as soon as he felt the ropes loosen and examined his wrists. Several patches of skin had been rubbed raw. He suspected most of that had happened while he was running. He still considered it the fault of the men who tied him up in the first place.

Yavic had not expected to run into any people at all in the Wasteland – unless the Herders counted as people – and so far they’d encountered a desperate woman who tried to scare them and three men who robbed them. Now they were being lowered down the side of a cliff by a boy who could throw fire. Although… the more unpredictable things got the better he felt about not predicting any of it. Who predicts fireballs when running towards a cliff?

Samtry was clinging to Sevra. Lolly was watching the older boy as though she was fascinated by this rickety elevator instead of keeping an eye out for sudden moves. Yavic put a protective hand on her shoulder. It was a bad sign when she was too captivated to shake him off.

“You made this?” she asked the boy.

He nodded and continued to feed the rope hand over hand.

“All by yourself?” Lolly asked.

He nodded again. The platform came to rest on some logs when it was still about three feet off the ground. He tied off the rope and turned to face Lolly. “It took a lot of trial and error,” he said. “See this?” He pushed up the sleeve of his tunic to reveal a nasty scar that covered half his forearm. “This was my worst mistake. Didn’t attach something right and the platform tipped sideways and dropped me to the ground. Cut my arm falling off, but I suppose I’m lucky it wasn’t broken. My arm. The platform was broken.”

“Wow.” Lolly pointed to one of the pulleys guiding the rope. It almost looked metal but couldn’t be. “How’d you make that?”

“From the trees with those fat leaves… the ones that look sort of like hands…” He was pointing at a cluster of nearby trees, and Lolly was nodding as though she knew exactly which ones he meant. She may have, as several of the trees looked as though wild animals had gnawed on their trunks.

“They have really hard wood,” he said. “It takes forever to carve out. But I have time and they feel sturdy. I don’t know how long they’ll last though. I’m working on replacements.” He gestured to some pulleys on the ground next to a partially carved lump of wood.

Lolly took in the rest of his campsite at the same time and began to compile a list of so many questions she couldn’t decide which one to ask first.

The others jumped from the contraption – Samtry the most grateful to do so – and looked around as well. The grass had been worn away and the dirt packed tightly in the flat area between his wooden platform and a shallow stream. A charred patch under a stick propped on stones looked like a cooking space. He’d made a decent-looking shelter against the side of the cliff with ropes and leaves. The ropes were the easiest thing to explain. They’d already noticed several Hackma trees. Its bark peeled off in long strips that could be twisted and tied into good rope. It was one thing they hadn’t known they wouldn’t need to pack.

The one thing that impressed – and frightened – Sevra was how long this boy must have been living here. The camp had a very settled feel to it. The boy was barefoot but otherwise wore what most people in Wisherton wore, a tunic and pants. His pants were clearly too small and showed a lot of ankle. His tunic was too big, hanging lopsided on his shoulders. And it was sky blue.

It was traditional for men to wear dark or muted colors like brown, tan or gray while the women wore more vibrant hues like this blue. Sevra wondered where he got it while she appreciated that it looked good on him. It set off his dark hair and eyes and made his skin look more tanned.

She bit her lip as he seemed to realize she was staring at him, or that all four of them were staring at him.

He jumped off the platform as well and sat on the edge of it as though getting comfortable for a long chat. “I’m Tames,” he said. Then he looked around expectantly.

Lolly introduced herself and her siblings.

“So which of you was banished?” he asked.

His question was met with confused expressions.

Tames tried a different question. “Which of you has a gift?” His eyes flickered between Yavic and Sevra as the most likely candidates, which made sense. It was rare for anyone under ten to be caught with a gift.

Sevra raised her hand timidly as though she was in class and unsure of the answer.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Strength,” she whispered.

His eyes infused with something like respect. “That’d be a useful one.”

Sevra shifted her weight uncomfortably. What was really rare was speaking of gifts openly as though they weren’t marks of the devil. Everyone knew the Herders gave gifts to those most susceptible to temptation. That’s why those people needed to be weeded out of society before they became dangerous. And why Sevra needed to get rid of the gift before it turned her into a terrible person.

“Were you banished?” Lolly asked.

Tames nodded. “At first I thought… maybe it was because I turned myself in that I wasn’t killed. One of the soldiers took me to the top of a tower and lowered a rope ladder. He said I could climb down or be pushed. He also gave me what he called a ‘mercy pack,’ which he tossed over the edge. It had a blanket and a knife and… food, I think. I don’t remember exactly anymore.” His voice trailed off for a moment as his brain tried to remember, then he snapped back to the present. “But none of the others I’ve run into turned themselves in. Groups were banished trying to protect one of their own, like the men up there.” Tames jerked his head towards the top of the cliff. “But you four weren’t banished?”

Yavic took a breath and decided that talking to this person didn’t mean trusting him. “We ran away,” he said.

“Really? I’ve never met anyone who left by choice.”

“But you’ve met a lot who… who were banished?” Sevra asked.

Tames sort of tilted his head and shrugged. “Not sure what you’d call a lot. Those guys up there are the first to stick around. I run into someone passing by maybe every few months. More often when I lived up there.”

Lolly looked thoughtfully at the platform. “How did you get down here the first time?”

He laughed and said, “I fell.”

“What!?” Sevra looked up to the top and the rocks on the way down. Tames did not appear to have been broken into pieces at any point in his life so she guessed he was joking.

“Not here,” he clarified, pointing upstream. “It’s not as steep that way. It still hurt.” He rubbed his head through his thick hair as he spoke. “And I was upset to have left behind my old camp. Thought about climbing back up for a long time. I wanted to explore the bottom first. Then this spot looked ideal for a new home so I… moved in.” He finished with a smile.

“How long have you been out here?” Lolly asked.

“Years… I think. Don’t have a way to keep track. I was thirteen when I was banished. How old do I look now?”

Lolly considered the question. “Well, Yavic is fourteen and you look older than him.”

Tames nodded. “Probably am.”

“Where’d you get this other stuff?” Lolly was walking around now to examine the site. She pointed to a pile near her. There were a few bowls, cloth, and sunlight glinting off what might be a small mirror.

“I barter with people. Or I did. Those men up there have moved in too close. They robbed my last two passengers blind and are seriously disrupting my business. Before they showed up, I thought I wouldn’t mind neighbors. Maybe I wouldn’t mind better neighbors.” His eyes betrayed the offhand way he spoke. It looked as though Tames was lonely. He wanted even thieving neighbors.

“None of the people you met wanted to stay with you?” Lolly sounded disbelieving.

Yavic was mildly jealous of her awestruck tone. She already had a big brother. She did not need to find anyone bigger to look up to. Not even someone bigger. Not even someone who could build a very cool campsite with a row of blackened rope rings he evidently used for target practice. And who could create fireballs with his bare hands. Yavic needed to work on the awestruck tone inside his own head.

“Most people stay at least a night or two.” Tames glanced around hopefully, planting an idea he didn’t suggest outright, at least not yet. “Everyone wants to keep moving though. I don’t know where they’re going. Some might think they might as well join the Herders, if they can. I think most of them just… want a place to belong. It hurts to stay so close to a place you’ve been kicked out of so they look for someplace else. Who knows if it exists? There might be enough of us by now to make our own village. Maybe there is one farther out where people have gotten tired of searching.”

Tames sighed and looked towards the wilderness stretched before them. It was a pretty sight, dotted with trees in different shades of red and yellow, a couple still green and streaks of clouds in the blue sky. Hills ebbed and flowed in the distance. But there was certainly no sign of a village on the horizon.

His mention of Herders brought Yavic’s attention to his mission for Sevra. “Have you seen the Herders? Has anyone else mentioned where they are or had any contact?”

Tames pulled his legs up and crossed them in front of himself. “Is that why you ran away? You want to join them?”

“No!” All four of the siblings spoke at once, even timid Samtry.

Tames smiled faintly and his eyes shifted from accusing to genuine curiosity. “I was afraid of the Herders for a long time,” he said, with the same tone people say, “Once upon a time.” Yavic, Samtry, Sevra, and especially Lolly opened their ears to listen to his story.

“I huddled in my blanket at night,” Tames began, “waiting for them to take me. I knew I deserved it, thought I deserved it. My gift showed up only two days after I fought with my brother. He’s only a year younger than me. We got on most of the time, but even though he’s only a year younger, he’s much smaller. We both knew we shouldn’t hurt each other. He thought he couldn’t really hurt me because he was smaller, and that I couldn’t really fight back because I was bigger. It frustrated me.

“Mom tried to warn us. She was always saying that little fights turn into big fights and if we weren’t careful, we’d cross a line. We’d catch the attention of the Herders. I thought I knew better. They seemed so removed from simple brother spats. We still loved each other even if we threw an occasional punch. I got carried away. He was crowding me on a rope ladder we built to play in our yard. He was crowding me on purpose and I pushed back hard. He fell. He only got a few scrapes, and I tried to say I was sorry. When I saw the fire coming from my hand, I knew the Herders saw malice in my heart. They thought I could be used to spread that hatred. I turned myself in to the council to protect my family. Once I was banished, I waited for my just punishment. A life on the wrong side.

“But I prayed, too. Prayed for the Creator to give me a second chance. The more time went by, the more I wondered – hoped really – that I had that second chance. I believe, or I want to believe, that the mark of the Herders isn’t a reward for those who are corrupted but a test for those who may be corrupted. I cling to the hope that I can still end right if I use the fire for good. I will not hurt anyone.” Tames paused to smile mischievously. “I’ll scare them if needed, but I won’t hurt them. I kill only animals I intend to eat. I can choose not to let this control me.”

“Wow.” Lolly looked at Tames with more adoration than ever. “You should totally end a speech like that with your hand raised and glowing.”

“Like this?” He put his hand up like he was posing for a statue and twirled tongues of fire around his fingers.

“So you have no idea how to find the Herders?” Sevra asked.

“No, I don’t.” Tames put his arm down and smiled teasingly at Sevra. “I have no idea where to find the scary devil minions. If you don’t want to join them, how can you possibly sound disappointed about that?”

“Well, I… or we, uh…” His smile went through her like lightning, jolting her stomach sideways. But it was his eyes that really got in the way of forming a coherent thought. Sevra broke off the eye contact and dropped her gaze to his feet, his dirty calloused feet. They were not cute at all. It was much easier to concentrate. “I want to find the Herders,” Sevra said, “to give the gift back. We ran away to try.”

“You want to get rid of the gift and go back to Wisherton?” Tames unfolded his legs and began to kick at the dirt while he considered either the idea itself or what he should say about it.

“You don’t think it’s possible, do you?” Yavic’s tone was harsh. He remembered Sevra’s conviction that just because something hadn’t been done didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. He didn’t want this person to dash her hopes. Not yet. Maybe it wasn’t possible, but they weren’t going to give up before they even tried.

Tames met Yavic’s stare head-on. He didn’t respond. He still looked as though he didn’t know what words would best express his thoughts. He looked like someone who didn’t want to steal anyone’s hope.

Despite his intention to dislike Tames, Yavic felt a hint of respect creeping up on him. He rephrased the question. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Hard to prove it isn’t,” Tames said.

Lolly stepped up rather suddenly with a finger pointed at Tames, nearly poking his arm with it. “You don’t believe in the Herders.” It wasn’t a question so much as an accusation.

“I never said that.” He gave Lolly a searching look.

“Is that true?” Samtry spoke up. Her curiosity outweighed her shyness for once.

“I definitely believe they exist,” Tames said. “It’s just that I… I wonder if they are different than we’ve always believed. Not corporeal.”

“What does corporeal mean?” Lolly was still right in his face.

“It means… like spirits. More like the Guardians.”

“But the Guardians are from… They’re from the Creator.”

Tames nodded eagerly, as though she was warming up to his idea. “Doesn’t it make sense that the devil’s minions would be similar to the other side?”

“No. It doesn’t make sense.” Lolly crossed her arms. “The Creator and the devil are like opposites. The devil didn’t want to join the Creator after death so he figured out a way to stay car…pa… not like a spirit. And then he got followers who were like him. Still alive. Not spirits. He’s still searching for more… not spirits. You don’t make any sense.”

Yavic was impressed with his little sister. It wasn’t the most eloquent argument, but it went beyond the understanding he would have expected from an 8-year-old.

Sevra came closer and put her arm around Lolly, backing her up but also ready to hold her back.

That wouldn’t be necessary. Tames smiled gently. He wasn’t going to provoke her. “Here’s my point,” he said. “We’ve always believed, always been told, that the wall protects us from the Herders. It keeps them out of Wisherton. That’s why they have to resort to gifts. But I’m outside the wall now. We’re all outside the wall. I’ve been out here, vulnerable, for a long time. Where are the Herders? I have their gift. Why haven’t they forced me to join them?”

“You said you believe they exist,” Sevra said. “But you don’t sound like you believe it.”

“I do believe.” Tames watched his toes tracing a line in the dirt. “I’ve never seen any sign of the creatures in our history books, but sometimes… sometimes I think I almost hear them.”

A whimper escaped from Samtry as she shut her eyes against what Tames might say next. Lolly stepped closer to Sevra, who squeezed her tighter. Even Yavic sat a little straighter, trying to pretend he wasn’t more afraid than when he first climbed under the wall.

“Sometimes I get angry.” Tames didn’t look angry when he made the confession, only sad. “I get angry that I’ll never see my family, that I’m completely alone. It makes me want to destroy things.” He held out his right hand and formed a fireball no bigger than an apple. He began to grow and shrink it absently in his hand. “I know I could use this fire to set ablaze everything in sight. And when I get angry, I want to. That’s when I think I hear the Herders. It’s like whispers in my head telling me to do it. It scares me and comforts me at the same time.”

Lolly put her hands on her hips. “It can’t do both.”

He playfully blew out the fire he held and aimed that teasing smile at the youngest sibling. “You’ve never had mixed emotions about anything?”

Lolly simply smiled back. They weren’t talking about her. He was going to have to explain himself.

“It scares me,” he said, “because that feels like how to join the Herders, to do what they want. But it doesn’t feel like they have the power to force me. That’s what’s comforting. I can choose to ignore them.”

 

Chapter 8

The First Night

 

 

Tames never got around to inviting the four siblings to stay with him. They simply enjoyed his company so much that it didn’t occur to them that it might be time to move on. He asked about Wisherton, if anything had changed since he left and if there was any chance they knew his family. They didn’t. But the village he was from was near theirs. They promised that if they ever managed to accomplish their goal and if they made it back inside, they would seek out his family and share the news that he was alive and thinking of them often. They all spoke of how wonderful that would be without counting the ifs that preceded it.

Yavic told funny stories. He wasn’t normally an entertainer. It may have been a desire to impress Tames or to compete with him. The girls laughed nonetheless. They got Tames to tell some stories as well. He performed with fire. He could make a handful hot enough to turn blue, and he tossed bits against the ground so that it splashed like glowing water.

The sun had dropped low enough to streak the sky with brilliant color before someone pointed out that all five of them had gone most of the day without eating. Tames went into a forest and returned with a wild hog. He roasted it on a spit and Sevra pulled more grapes from her bag. Lolly had packed mostly cookies. No one overstuffed themselves and yet the meal felt like a feast, a celebration of the new friendship.

When the food had been eaten, there were no thoughts of minions or spirits or thieves. The only thought was exhaustion. There was a pile of dried grass where Tames normally slept. He spread it thinner for all three girls to share while he and Yavic slept on the ground next to them.

Yavic opened his eyes slowly, fighting back a desire for more sleep as he remembered where he was. Only yesterday he’d woken in his own bed, but it felt like weeks ago already. No wonder Tames couldn’t tell them exactly how old he was.

Yavic pushed himself to sitting. In the light of a new day, he felt suddenly guilty for the time they’d wasted. He thought of the insufficient note they left for their parents. He’d slept soundly while they probably stayed awake all night, wondering where their children were. Even if they couldn’t do what they were trying to do, they owed their parents their best effort.

He looked around. Samtry and Lolly were still sleeping, sprawled on the grassy bed. Sevra was up though. She and Tames were talking softly as he helped her fold a blanket. She was packing. She knew they needed to move on, too.

Yavic stretched as he stood and looked for anything he could put in his bag. It was very light now that most of the useful items had been stolen. Maybe he could carry some of the younger girls’ things. Samtry stirred as he moved around, putting on his boots. He went ahead and tapped Lolly to wake her as well. “Morning,” he said. “Put on your boots and get your bags.”

Samtry rose from the bed and walked away, likely to take care of some personal business. Lolly simply rolled over and glared at Yavic with defiant eyes. Yavic let it go. He understood all too well the need to wake at one’s own pace. She’d do as he asked when she was ready.

When he turned around, Sevra was nearly on top of him. He jerked back, startled. She swung her eyes to the side and whispered, “Ask him to come with us.”

No fear of being usurped came to Yavic. Sevra asking him to ask was as good as asking his permission. His position as older brother was secure. Yavic said, “I will,” and he approached Tames.

“Your sister’s in a hurry to get moving,” he said.

Yavic nodded. “We left with a purpose. We still—”

“I know. I’d like you to succeed, too.”

“Thank you.” Yavic looked at the ground before he faced him again. “You can come with us if you want to.”

Tames was probably six inches taller and thin but muscular. He suddenly appeared small and helpless as he faced the path they intended to travel with longing in his eyes. He clearly wanted to come. He said, “I can’t.”

Yavic waited to hear the reason.

“I’m the oldest in my family. I have four siblings. Five. The fifth wasn’t born when I left. If any of them…” He looked Yavic in the eye again. “If there’s any chance one of them might end up out here, I have to stay close to watch out for them. You understand?”

“Of course.” Yavic stuck out his hand, the first time he’d offered to shake hands like a man.

Tames took it awkwardly, but firmly.

“Where is it?” Lolly’s shrill voice gave the boys an excuse to move away from the serious moment.

“Where’s what?” Yavic called to her.

“The necklace I brought. I brought the one I made at school with all the blue beads.” She was throwing things out of her bag when they were otherwise ready to go.

“Lolly, you’re making a mess.” Sevra was picking up pants and boxes of food as they hit the dirt.

Yavic opened his own bag. “I took a few things from your bag to make it lighter,” he said. “Maybe it’s in here.” He unrolled a Lolly-sized tunic and found blue beads in its folds. “Is this it?”

“Yea!” Lolly skipped over and took it from her brother. Then she held it out to Tames. “Will you wear it?” she asked him.

“I…” He looked truly flattered.

Before he could take it, Lolly shifted to a stern tone of voice. “I’m not giving it to you,” she said. “You have to understand that I want it back.”

He took the necklace, laughing. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You only get to wear it until we come back. When we give Sevra’s gift back to the Herders and come back to Wisherton, we’re going to stop here for the necklace so you have to be here to give it to me. Okay?”

“Oh.” He smiled as he slipped the necklace over his head. “I promise to keep it safe for you.”

“Good.” Lolly nodded as though she’d just completed a business transaction and not the sweetest thing Sevra had ever seen.

Tames looked around quickly as the others strapped packs to their backs. “Remember what I said about the night lizards?” He had lit a big torch before they went to sleep as he explained that fire kept them at bay. “If you have a branch or something, maybe I can give you fire to carry with you.”

“Don’t worry,” Sevra said. “We have a ton of sweetheart candles. Samtry’s afraid of the dark.”

Samtry elbowed her sister. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. She was afraid of the unknown darkness of the Wasteland. That was a perfectly reasonable fear.

Instead of being reassured, Tames seemed disappointed that they didn’t need his help.

“And we’ll never be able to light them – or any fire – without thinking of your fireballs,” Sevra added.

Tames smiled and waved. “Okay. Good luck to you all.”

Various forms of goodbyes were shared as the siblings moved away from the campsite. Suddenly, Lolly burst from the group, threw her arms around Tames, then rushed to the front of the siblings.

Tames laughed. He turned around quickly though. The Say children kept their backs to him because they suspected he was hiding mixed emotions.

With a forest and now a cliff behind them and between them and Wisherton, they didn’t feel a need to hide. They used the rocks to step across the stream without getting wet and moved into the grassy expanse. Lolly was still in front with Yavic on her heels. She walked quickly to stay ahead of him. Yavic walked as quickly to keep up. He liked having Lolly in front of him where he could keep an eye on her, but not so far ahead he couldn’t grab her if… He’d given up guessing what was coming. He’d be close enough to grab her regardless.

Perhaps the four of them were talked out from the previous day. Perhaps they simply had too much on their minds. Whatever the reason, they walked in near silence for most of the morning. Sevra pointed out a small flock of birds in the sky. No one was interested in guessing what kind they were. Samtry asked if they could try to walk where the grass wasn’t as tall. Yavic didn’t want to walk where it was so rocky. They shifted the general direction at these comments while they kept moving.

Samtry’s feet were hurting though. She was glad when Lolly said, “Can we stop for a while?”

“No.” Yavic pointed ahead of them. “I think we should stop when we get to that open spot.”

“What open spot?” Sevra asked. There was a tree here and there, but they were mostly marching along in nothing but one open spot after another.

Lolly said, “Why?” at the same time.

“It’ll probably be time for a midday food break by the time we get there.” He pointed again. “Right there.”

“But I’m tired,” Lolly said. “I want to stop now.”

“It won’t be long.” Yavic tried to sound encouraging. Even he could tell it sounded more like nagging.

Sevra squinted at the horizon. It was too bright for her eyes. The sun was still behind them over her right shoulder, but there were no clouds covering it. She took in the slopes of hills ahead, then glanced back. There were enough slopes behind them that she could no longer make out Tames’ cliff. They were surrounded by similarly sloped hills. She couldn’t make out Yavic’s goal in all the sameness. “What open spot?” she asked again.

Yavic pointed again.

The landscape hadn’t changed. He could point all he wanted, but the spot that he thought was more open than all the other open spots wasn’t going to suddenly start jumping up and down.

He looked at her as though she was blind for not seeing how one patch of grassy ground was different from all the other patches of grassy ground. Then he sighed and stopped walking. He wasn’t sighing at Sevra.

Lolly had plopped herself down several steps behind them. “I said I need a break,” she said.

“All right.” Yavic glanced around to commit the good open spot to memory for later. “We can work on the map while we rest.”

Four bags hit the ground. Yavic opened his bag to get his notebook and pen before he remembered he no longer had a notebook and pen. The thieves had taken everything but his clothes, which would have been too small for them. He had some school work in that notebook, essays. It disturbed him to think of strangers reading his work. He knew they probably wouldn’t bother. They probably only wanted the paper for kindling. Thinking of hard work burned as scrap didn’t make him feel a whole lot better.

Sevra did have paper. She handed the notebook to Yavic to let him draw the start of their map, and she examined his progress as he worked. Samtry looked over his other shoulder. Lolly lay back in the grass with her eyes closed.

Sevra put her finger on Yavic’s map and said, “We came out here, right?”

“Yeah,” he said. “And ran straight for the trees.”

“There was another group of trees over here.”

“Oh.” Yavic thought back. “You’re right.” He drew in some more trees.

“I wish there were more landmarks,” Sevra said. “It would help with the scale on the map.”

“I’ll mark that it should be about half a day from the cliff to that open spot. We should get to it before long.”

He was still going on about an open spot in a field of open spots. Sevra was afraid the journey was already messing with his head.

“Hey, guys.” Lolly waved her hand to get their attention but didn’t sit up or even open her eyes. “I have good news.”

“What good news?” Sevra asked, thinking it better not have anything to do with an open spot. What did that even mean? Space between trees? All the trees had plenty of space.

“We can eat the berries,” Lolly said.

“What berries?” Samtry looked around her.

Lolly made a disgusted sound. “You were all so worried about me eating that berry yesterday and now you don’t even remember. Well, I didn’t get a stomachache. If we find any berries like those, we can eat them.”

“Something to look forward to,” Yavic muttered.

“Eh.” Lolly sat up. “Don’t look forward to it too much. It wasn’t that good. Let’s have something else.” She began to unzip her bag.

Yavic was going to stop her. He was hungry, too, though. “Just a little,” he said.

Lolly gave each of them a ginger cookie. Then popped a second one in her mouth before she put the bag away.

Samtry ate the cookie in small nibbles. The taste and smell made her think of home, of her mom and dad. It helped to have her siblings with her, but homesickness settled into her stomach with the cookie all the same.

Yavic was satisfied with the map and Lolly looked perkier. “Enough rest,” he said. “Let’s get going.”

Lolly didn’t argue. She stood and put on her pack the same as the rest of them. Once her feet were moving though, she said, “Where are we going?”

Yavic pointed ahead.

“We’re looking for the Herders,” Sevra said, trying to cut Yavic off before he said anything about an open spot. “You know that.”

“I know. But how will we find them? How do we know this is the way to look for them?”

Those were surprisingly difficult questions. When they left, Sevra thought that finding the Herders would be the easy part. She’d expected them to descend almost as soon as they were past the wall. She thought getting them to take back the gift would be hard. She thought getting home again would be hard. Finding someone who was looking for them should have been easy. But they’d met others who had gone a long time without seeing the Herders. Tames had gone years.

Maybe the difference was that the others weren’t looking for Herders. Tames said people passed him on their way to join the Herders and didn’t come back. Maybe those people did find them. “We don’t know this is the right way,” Sevra said at last. “We can only hope.”

“Okay.” Lolly’s hope seemed to come from faith in her siblings.

Sevra’s hope came from faith in herself. She knew she hadn’t done anything to warrant the gift. She had to be able to give it back.

It grew warmer as the sun beat down from overhead. The air was still. Samtry walked without holding anyone’s hand. They were all walking fairly slowly in the warmth, and she didn’t fear being left behind. Occasionally, a large insect flew close and made her jump. She walked on bravely.

Sevra was watching a bright blue butterfly. It landed on a particularly tall stalk of grass ahead of them, nearly waist high to her. She studied the black lines on its wings as they flitted open then closed again. It took off. She watched it dance away on the air.

Then her eyes looked straight ahead, and she nearly did a double take. They were walking straight towards an area of land that looked somehow different. Maybe the grass was shorter there. Maybe rocks were closer together. Something was different, and she could only describe it as being more open.

She squashed a brief unhealthy impulse to flick Yavic in the back of the head for being right all along. As they got closer, she began to hear a rushing sound, like wind through trees. But there was no wind and few trees. “Do you hear that?” she asked the group in general.

“It’s wind,” Lolly said.

“No, it’s not,” Yavic said. “Do you feel any wind?”

“It sounds like wind.” Lolly put her hand in front of her, trying to feel wind.

They all listened more intently until Samtry said, “I think it’s water.”

The open space must be a river. They continued to walk towards it, hoping for a glimpse of water to prove them right. Eventually, the farther bank of a river came into view. What started as joy at finding a landmark quickly dimmed. The closer they got, the wider the river looked. By the time they reached the river, it was clear that it was not just a landmark. It was also an obstacle.

It was at least twenty feet of fast moving water. None of them knew how to swim.

“How deep do you think it is?” Sevra asked Yavic. She had to raise her voice over the rushing water.

He shrugged and tried to see into it.

Lolly picked up a rock. “I’ll find out,” she said. Then she tossed the rock into the center of the river.

“Congratulations,” Yavic said in a condescending tone, “you’ve determined that the river is deeper than that rock.”

“It’s pretty deep,” Lolly said. She was looking at the place her rock had sunk as though it gave her valuable information.

Samtry thrust her bag into Sevra’s arms. “Here.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked.

“You’re strong enough to throw the bag across it. Then our clothes and things will be dry when we get to the other side.”

“But what if we can’t get to the other side?”

Samtry’s face fell. She thought she was helping.

“That is a good idea,” Sevra said. “We just need to figure out how to get across before we send the bags over.”

Yavic had picked up a long stick. He was trying to poke the river with it. The river was trying to rip it from his hands. “I can’t find the bottom,” he said. “I think it’ll be too deep at least for Samtry and Lolly to stand up, especially with the current.”

“I could carry them,” Sevra suggested.

“If you can stand in it.”

Sevra considered that. She could test it. She could jump into the water holding onto Yavic’s hand so she could pull herself out again. The idea of getting soaked sounded about as appealing as being wrung out afterwards. It was part of the reason she’d never learned how to swim. But her siblings had run away from home for her. She could get a little wet for them.

“Get down and make sure you’re stable,” Sevra said to Yavic. “I’m going to test it and want to hang on to you without pulling you in.”

She grabbed his hand when he was ready and lowered herself into the water. Her feet kicked around, feeling for a bottom but moving freely. The water pushed against her and she got chest deep without finding anything solid. She pulled herself out and plopped to the ground feeling like a sopping rag. “Too deep,” she said.

Yavic looked thoughtfully up and down the river. Then he pointed to the right. “That way seems to curve backwards. I think we should walk that way along it,” he pointed left, “and see if we can find a place to cross that’s shallower or narrower.”

“Maybe there will be a bridge,” Lolly said.

“There’s not going to be a bridge,” Yavic said.

“There could be.”

“No, there couldn’t. Who would have built it?”

Lolly shrugged. “I don’t know. But you don’t know everything either. You didn’t expect to meet a boy who could throw fire.”

No one had a response for that. They certainly hadn’t expected Tames. Maybe there really could be a bridge.

Chapter 9

The Second Night

 

 

Sevra walked along listening to a faint squish squish in her soggy boots. The rest of her clothes had dried out in the sun. The river still rushed beside them. Its current seemed to hurry them along. They couldn’t keep up even if they were running though. It probably made enough noise that the others couldn’t hear the squishing of her boots. In fact, Sevra wasn’t sure she could hear it. Maybe she only felt it. Squish, squish, squish. It was a constant, uncomfortable reminder to think things through in the future.

It had made sense for her to be the one to test the river’s depth. She was tallest. If she couldn’t touch the bottom, no one else could. She was best able to withstand the current. They were traipsing through the wilderness because of her. They couldn’t go home because of her. Being the one to get wet was the right thing to do. However, it would have been just as selfless if she’d taken her boots off first. They were never going to dry.

Samtry watched the river as she walked beside it. The water moved so much faster than her tired legs and sore feet could take her. She wished they had a boat. She wished they could simply let the river carry them. The movement would surely rock her to sleep. Her eyelids grew heavy at the mere thought. They’d been walking most of the day. She was too tired to even ask to stop.

The river was exciting when they first reached it. Lolly was now sick of looking at it. She was sick of listening to it, sick of yelling over it, sick of looking for a place to cross it. There was no way of knowing if it was shallower here, but it definitely wasn’t narrower. The opposite bank was as far away as ever, possibly farther. The sun was lower than when they’d stopped for a quick dinner. But it was behind them so Lolly didn’t even have its pretty colors to look at. Only gray sky.

Yavic was determined that they would cross the river before they stopped for the night. That had seemed like a reasonable goal hours ago. The river was not cooperating. It refused to get out of their way. He pushed his fingers up his forehead and into his hair for a good tug. Lolly kept looking over her shoulder. He figured it was only a matter of time before she started complaining about the river again. “What?” he asked finally.

Lolly narrowed her eyes at him. “What what?”

“What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything.”

“Why do you keep looking at me?”

“I’m not looking at you,” Lolly said. “I’m looking at the sunset.”

Yavic glanced over his shoulder then stopped. “Wow.” The sky was marbled with purples and blues and pinks. A hill on the horizon seemed to glow with reflected light. He sensed the girls stopping as well. It was later than Yavic realized. The colorful sky meant darkness would cover them soon. They’d never be able to cross the river first. He was going to have to admit that… Wait a minute. They’d been walking away from the sun in the morning, too. “We turned around,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t hear you over the water,” Sevra said, stepping closer. “What’s wrong?”

He gripped his hair with both hands. “We turned around,” he said louder.

“Of course we turned around.” Lolly had her hands up towards the magnificent sunset. “It’s pretty.”

“No, I mean… We’re going that way.”

Lolly and Samtry as well were looking at him as though he wasn’t making sense, but Sevra began to nod.

“You’re right,” she said. “The sun was behind us this morning so it should be in front of us now if we’re going the same way.” She looked around, trying to puzzle out what happened.

“The river must have curved too subtly for us to notice,” Yavic said. “Or it turned sharply and we just weren’t paying attention.”

Sevra shrugged. She’d only been following the river. With the distraction of her squishy boots, she could easily believe she hadn’t noticed where the sun was.

“We followed the river,” Samtry said. She didn’t understand why anyone thought that was a problem. The darkness that was getting thicker by the moment, however, someone needed to notice that problem.

Lolly traced a path for the sun with her finger, trying to figure out what Sevra and Yavic meant. She thought she understood, but not why they were concerned about it. “Since we don’t even know where we’re going, it doesn’t matter where we’re going.”

“I hate to say it, but she might be right.”

“She’s not right, Sevra.” Yavic’s hair was standing on end even when he wasn’t touching it. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“We haven’t found the Herders yet. They could just as likely be that way as that way or any other way.” Sevra pointed all around as she spoke. She knew she sounded irritated. She just really wanted to stop so she could take off her lousy boots and put on dry socks.

“Can we light some candles yet?” Samtry was aware that she was the only one who wouldn’t be involved in the we, as she was the only one who couldn’t light the candles, but she really wanted some light.

“Yeah. Hand me a pair.” Yavic held out his hand and sighed. “Let’s stay right here for the night and figure out how to cross the river in the morning.” He took the candles Samtry held out to him.

Samtry watched closely as Yavic held the two wicks together and lit the candles as though he didn’t even have to think about it. Samtry took another pair from her bag, one white and one blue, and tried to remember any instructions she’d ever gotten about lighting sweetheart candles. Hold the tops together so that each wick touches the top of the other candle. Slide the wicks quickly apart.

They didn’t light. They never lit for her. Samtry positioned the candles again. Across and up, she thought. But in one motion. She couldn’t do it. She tried again and again, trying not to notice how even her younger sister could do it and had for years. Samtry was probably the oldest person in Wisherton who couldn’t get the hang of sweetheart candles.

She handed them unlit to Sevra and helped Yavic spread a blanket. They put two blankets on the ground for cushion and draped the longest one over all four of them. A semi-circle of candles surrounded them with the river on the other side.

“Do you think the night lizards can swim?” Samtry whispered.

No one answered her because no one knew. Sevra got up and moved one of the candles to the bank of the river, just in case. She came back to her bed for the night. Yavic was at the far side with Samtry and Lolly between them. Sevra tucked her legs and now dry feet under the blanket and remained sitting. She scanned her eyes across the perimeter wishing she’d asked Tames a lot more questions, particularly about the night lizards.

He had mentioned them so casually the previous night. He said they wouldn’t need to worry about the night lizards with his torch lit because they were afraid of even a tiny bit of fire. Tames hadn’t been worried so Sevra hadn’t been worried. But now he wasn’t with them, and she hadn’t asked any of the questions that filled her mind. How big were they? How scary? Were they prowling around just beyond the light, hoping the candles went out or scurrying away? Were their bites deadly or just painful?

“Are you thinking about night lizards?” Samtry asked.

There wasn’t much comfort in knowing she wasn’t the only one thinking about them. “What do you think they’re really called?” Sevra asked.

“Night lizards,” Lolly said.

“Yeah. What do you think they might really be called?”

“Night lizards.” This time Lolly answered with confusion in her tone. Why was Sevra asking something with such an obvious answer? Twice.

“Tames only called them night lizards because he didn’t know the real name,” Sevra said. “I’m just wondering what that is.”

“Their name is night lizards,” Lolly insisted.

Yavic rolled over to join the conversation. “Nothing has a name until someone gives it one. Tames called them night lizards. That’s what they’re called.”

“Exactly,” Lolly said.

Samtry mumbled agreement from under her arms. Whatever they were called, she didn’t want to see one. She wanted to keep her eyes closed and pretend she was at home in her own bed.

Sevra sank down and pulled the blanket up to her chin. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was asking about a name anyway. The lizards wouldn’t have a different name unless there were people out here to give them a name, some sort of civilization. But there couldn’t be. The Herders destroyed everything outside the wall. That’s why it’d always been called the Wasteland.

The Wasteland didn’t look like a wasteland though. The Herders weren’t waiting right outside like they expected. And at least some of those with gifts hadn’t been executed. They’d been banished. Was that a recent change? Only in their territory? Sevra always wondered how the council could carry out executions and not be guilty of the cruelty they tried to thwart. Mercy killing was still killing.

People at school asked why all the council members didn’t end up with gifts. Most of those students were only trying to be difficult, but the ones who really wanted to know were told that the executions prevented a greater evil. They kept citizens safe from the tyranny of being ruled by gifted Herders.

But what if they’d actually been banishing people all along? Two hundred years of banishing could have sent out enough people to build a new village. Would it be a village of scary evil-doers or people like Tames who resisted that temptation? If they’d been banishing people for even fifteen years…

“Hey, guys.” Sevra sat up again. “I just had a thought.”

Yavic groaned sleepily. “Please tell me you’re not still talking about night lizards.”

“No, I… how long do you think the council has been banishing those with gifts instead of sending them to the gas chamber?”

He only sort of mumbled in response. The younger girls appeared to be fully asleep.

Sevra’s thoughts must have kept her awake longer than she thought. “Never mind,” she said. “I’ll ask you in the morning.”

As she lay back down, Yavic suddenly propped his head onto his elbow. He looked more awake. “Uncle Merek?” he asked.

Sevra nodded.

“You think they could really be out here somewhere after all this time?”

“I don’t know.” Sevra tried to consider it realistically. That was difficult when she didn’t know what was real anymore. “Tames survived on his own when he was a kid. Uncle Merek would have been a few years older and Mom’s parents were with him.”

“That’s true,” Yavic said. “But Tames could protect himself with fire. I don’t know if Merek could fight off wild animals even if he could see them coming.”

“They haven’t gotten us yet,” Lolly said. Apparently, she wasn’t sleeping yet after all. Or they woke her up.

“Who hasn’t gotten us?” Sevra asked.

“Animals. Night lizards.”

“Yeah, but we don’t know how far we might have to go.” Yavic put his head back down. “We can’t know if they survived. We need to get some sleep so we’re ready to face tomorrow.”

Sevra tried to get comfortable. Her mind wasn’t comfortable with the thought of facing some unknown wild animal the next day. Yavic seemed to relax as though sleep really would help. As though being well rested would keep sharp teeth or claws from piercing their skin. Disturbing images kept flashing in Sevra’s head and kept her awake for a while. But she had walked a long time that day. Her body eventually took over, pulling her into a deep sleep.

Samtry woke first. She was glad to see none of the candles had gone out even though the sun was making their light no longer necessary. The morning air held a chill so she stayed under the blanket and listened to the cold water rushing by in the river. Thinking about cold water did nothing to help with the chill. She shivered under her blanket.

Yavic sensed some sort of movement as he opened his eyes. He wasn’t sure exactly what had woken him, but Samtry was also awake next to him. That may have had something to do with it. He sat up, stretched, then hugged his arms to his chest. “It’s cold this morning,” he said to Samtry. “We should start moving to warm up.”

She nodded, but stayed where she was. Getting out from under the blanket did not sound like the way to warm up.

Sevra had also begun to stir. She sat up and fished around in her bag for a drink. “We should refill all the water containers before we leave this river.”

“If we leave it,” Samtry said. She was starting to think they’d only find the Herders if they were on this side of the river. They’d never get across it.

“I have an idea,” Yavic said. “I was thinking about it last night. Since no bridge has magically appeared, we should try to make one.”

The sisters who had their eyes open were both staring at him doubtfully. At least he had their attention. He met Sevra’s eyes. “Do you think you’re strong enough to knock over a tree, or at least pull off branches?”

She only shrugged at him. She’d been way too busy trying to hide her strength to bother testing it.

“Will you try?” Yavic asked. “It doesn’t have to be wide or pretty. We just need something long enough to reach the other side and we can crawl across it if we have to.”

“I guess it won’t hurt to try.” Sevra scanned the landscape. Most of the trees scattered about were tall and skinny with stubby branches. They’d need a trunk. They had a few knives. Could they manage to cut down a tree if she couldn’t break one? Which one should she try?

“How about that one?” Yavic pointed to a tree that looked tall enough to span the river. Its higher branches were waving in the wind, almost as though it was volunteering for the job.

Sevra turned slightly to head the direction he pointed.

He addressed Samtry next. “Can you blow out and pack up the candles?”

Samtry tried to oblige without grumbling to herself. She felt as though Yavic had said, “Why don’t you blow out the candles since you’ll never be able to light them?” She put pairs of candles in each bag but wondered if she should even bother putting any in her own. Night after night she was going to pull out a pair of candles, then pass both to someone else when she couldn’t light them. She sighed and stuffed some in her bag anyway. She couldn’t get worse at not lighting them with more practice.

A tremendous crack made Samtry forget all about candles. She looked up to see a tree smashing to the ground. Sevra had her arms raised triumphantly. “I can’t believe I did it,” she yelled.

“Wow.” Yavic could hardly believe it either. He knew Sevra had strength. Stories of what people could do with it were amazing. None of them nearly as amazing as seeing it in action. He’d figured Sevra could rip off branches and they’d spend the day trying to knit them together into a bridge. This was perfect. He ran over to help Sevra drag the tree to the river.

Naturally, someone who could break a tree trunk in two didn’t need help moving it, but Sevra was happy to let Yavic grab on so she could recount how she’d pushed the tree over like it was no sturdier than a pretzel. They got it to the edge of the river and Sevra pushed it across while Yavic guided it to the opposite bank.

Samtry had almost everything packed up. Only the blankets were left because Lolly was still sleeping on them. Of course, they hadn’t gotten out much else.

“Lolly!”

She didn’t move or blink.

“Lolly!” Samtry called again.

The youngest member of the family opened her eyes. She stared at Samtry for a moment, remembering where they were before she sat up slowly. The morning sun highlighted the red tint to her dark hair. Instead of laying straight and neatly brushing her shoulders, it was ruffled and matted and covering part of her face. Samtry figured her own hair looked pretty much the same, since it usually did.

She dug into Sevra’s bag and found a brush. Then she knelt on the blanket and went to work on Lolly’s hair before she was awake enough to put up a fuss. It wasn’t as though they had anyone to impress, but seeing Lolly’s messy hair made Samtry think of what their mom said about messy hair. That made her miss her mom.

“Where’d that come from?” Lolly was finally awake enough to notice that a tree had appeared across the river.

“Sevra made us a bridge,” Samtry said.

Lolly gasped and smiled. “Sevra did that? By herself?”

“Mostly.”

“Wow.” Lolly scrambled away from her sister. “I get to be the first one across.”

Samtry folded up the blankets while the others tried to talk Lolly off the log bridge.

“It’s not a toy,” Sevra said, sounding a lot like their mother.

“Wait until we have a plan so we’re sure we only need to cross it once.” Yavic sounded like himself.

Lolly crossed her arms and stood stock still. She was trying to patiently exhibit the fact that she did not approve of having to be patient.

The others slowly picked up their bags and looked around to be sure they weren’t leaving anything behind. Then Yavic put his bag back in the grass. “I think it will be easier,” he said, “if we aren’t carrying anything.”

“Good.” Lolly made a move for the tree trunk.

“Not yet.”

She stopped and put her hands on her hips.

“I’ll go first,” Yavic said. “Then Sevra will throw all the bags across to me. Then Lolly can cross and then…” He gestured towards the other two.

“I’ll be last,” Sevra said.

Everyone nodded agreement with the plan. Yavic attempted to set a good example for Lolly by hanging tightly to the log as he crawled across it slowly. Once he was suspended over a raging river, his white-knuckled grip had nothing to do with a good example and everything to do with keeping himself from falling. He inched his way across as though sliding down a pole sideways, in slow motion, with none of the fun. Yeah, except for the position of his arms and legs, it was nothing like sliding down a pole.

Lolly made everyone nervous, but she scooted across easily. She was in such a rush to try it that Sevra let her cross before she threw the bags to Yavic.

Then it was Samtry’s turn. She approached the log bridge carefully and crawled onto it. She was trembling before she even got over the water.

“Take your time,” Sevra called gently. “We’ll wait for you as long as it takes.”

Samtry took a deep breath and pulled herself forward. The water seemed faster than ever when she was above it. A mist of water hit her arm as a knot in the rough bark scraped her chest. She tried to block out the danger of the water and focus on the opposite bank. Slowly but steadily it came closer. Yavic’s hands closed on her arm as she reached him. She moved a little faster with the support and pulled herself off the log with a heavy sigh.

It didn’t seem as though Sevra came across particularly quickly, but she still must have made it in half the time of her little sister. Samtry didn’t dwell on being the slowest, most frightened of the bunch. Being scared only meant she’d truly accomplished something. And she was grateful they were all now safely across. She strapped her brown bag to her back to prepare for another day of walking.

“Why don’t we eat first?” Lolly asked, reaching into her bag for a piece of bread.

“We’ll eat and walk like yesterday,” Yavic said.

“But we have this nice bench.” Lolly sat on the end of the log and slid sideways so that her feet dangled just above the water. “If I sit over here, there’s room for all of us.”

“Get back over here,” Yavic commanded. They’d spent half the day yesterday trying to get past this dangerous river and now she wanted to hang out by it. How was Lolly not as sick of the noise as he was?

She took a big bite of her bread as though she didn’t even hear him.

It was possible she wasn’t pretending. Yavic stepped closer and raised his voice to make sure it wasn’t covered by the roar. “Lolly!”

“What?”

“We need to keep moving.” He was already wearing his pack and held hers out.

“All right,” she said. She shifted an inch or two closer then took another bite of bread. It appeared she was coming, but was going to take her time about it.

Sevra put a hand on Yavic’s arm. If they tried to rush Lolly, she’d only dig her heels in more. He wanted her off that log though. Seeing her perched over the rushing water scared him more than he wanted to admit.

Lolly glanced over, saw all three siblings waiting for her, and sighed. She pulled her legs up to crawl off instead of the sideways slide, and she moved a little too fast. The curve of the log threw her off balance.

All the annoyance Yavic felt towards his little sister evaporated in an instant. It was replaced by horror as he watched her topple backwards and disappear into the mighty river.

Chapter 10

A Dark Day

 

 

“Lolly!” Sevra screamed so loudly, it felt as though the name was ripped from her throat. She flew to the edge and searched the water for any sign of Lolly.

After a few impossibly long seconds, Samtry yelled, “She’s over there,” and pointed frantically downriver.

A flash of yellow appeared as Lolly’s head and shoulders broke the surface, only for a moment and well away from where they were. Yavic started running, feeling stupid for not immediately realizing the current would carry her with it.

Sevra ran as fast as she could, trying to keep up with the river. She had no idea how they could get to Lolly, but they had to keep up with her in order to even have a chance.

At first, Lolly was too shocked to be scared. The water was cold and hit every nerve in her body. The air felt even colder as her face broke the surface. She managed to gulp in a mouthful of air before the water closed in again. The force of the river seemed to push against all sides of her body at once. She couldn’t tell which way was up. Panic arrived. She fought against the water and found another breath. Water shot up her nose and stung her eyes.

She tried to see but could only make out a blur of brown and gray. Then fuzzy blue. Sky! She kept fighting the water, catching glimpses of blue followed by gasps of frigid air. Her chest hurt. Her arms and legs ached. She couldn’t fight much longer.

Her foot connected with something more solid than water. Then her arm hit it. She was being pushed against the bank of the river. She tried furiously to dig her hands into the dirt. It was too slippery. Then her hand caught something firmer just as something else slashed painfully across her face. She ignored the pain and focused on what was in her hand.

Something was protruding from the bank. She reached out to grab it with her other hand as well. The current was too strong. It felt stronger by the second. Lolly wanted to cry out for help. The only sounds she could make were coughs.

Her fingers were slipping. She tried to put every ounce of strength into her hand. The grip was the only thing keeping her head above water. It would be the last thing to keep her head above water. Her legs were being bashed against the muddy side. She would lose the fight if she let go.

Yavic and Sevra chased the struggling form of their sister until the river made a sharp curve. The current was splashing against the far bank and Lolly had managed to grab ahold of a root poking into the water near her. Both ends were anchored by the dirt to make a surprisingly convenient handle. If Yavic hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the root tucked itself into the bank right as Lolly made contact. Even with the lifeline, they knew she wouldn’t be able to hold on for long with the current so strong.

Sevra looked at Yavic, who for once did not want to be in charge. He didn’t want to be the one responsible for rescuing Lolly. He didn’t want to be the one responsible if they failed. There was no time to hash out options. He dropped his pack and yanked a rope from Sevra’s. He wrapped one end around his waist and tied it roughly.

“Grab the other end,” he said. “If I jump in here, the current will take me to her. When I have her, you pull us both out.”

“Got it.” Sevra took the rope. She coiled it around her arm to make sure her grip was tight.

Samtry caught up, panting hard, just as Yavic plunged into the water. Sevra felt the rope tighten as he popped up already farther downriver than Lolly. She walked backwards quickly to bring him back to their sister.

Lolly’s fingers didn’t give out on their own. Something came from behind and pulled her off her handle. It dragged her under the water’s surface. Instinct made her kick violently at whatever was holding her. Sudden anger surged through her. She could have held on a few more seconds. As the water gave up her captor, she changed her struggle to cling to it, a person. It was Yavic. She held tighter as both of them were lifted onto firm ground.

He didn’t really mean to drop Lolly, but that’s sort of what happened. Once they were out of the water and he was sure she was safe, he couldn’t hold back the choking cough. It felt as though he’d swallowed half the river in the minute it took to pull Lolly out. And as though he’d inhaled the other half. Yavic pushed her aside so that he could use his arms to support himself as he wrung out his lungs.

Lolly didn’t mind being freed. She was just so glad the water had let her go. She felt hands patting her back as she worked to expel water from her mouth, her stomach, her nose… The burning made her feel as though the river was still attacking her from the inside. Eventually, the coughs subsided and as her breathing evened out, Lolly became aware of the terrible stinging on her cheek. She put her hand to it, and her fingers came away covered in blood.

Samtry handed her a dry tunic. “You’re shivering,” she said. “Put this on. Then we’ll figure out what to do about your face.”

Lolly hadn’t noticed the shivers. They seemed to intensify the moment she did. Her shaking hands were too tired to peel off her wet clothes. Sevra helped her change while Samtry wrung out the wet clothes. Yavic went behind a tree to put on dry clothes in private.

No one said anything while they packed up. Yavic had all the wet clothes hanging from the back of his bag to dry in the sun. Samtry carried her bag and Lolly’s. Sevra carried Lolly in her arms like a baby while Lolly pressed her old wet shirt to her cheek to cool it and soak up the blood. They walked in silence, terrified to speak of what they almost lost and too grateful for words that they hadn’t.

The sun was behind them again. And now so was the river. Yavic made mental notes on how the river should look on their map. He tried to think of exploring so much of it as productive for finding their way home. Home seemed like a distant memory. He still held out hope that what they were trying to do wasn’t impossible.

They walked three across in the open field until Lolly recovered enough that she wanted to walk, too. She had Sevra hang her wet tunic from her pack. It tapped against the back of her wobbly legs with each step as the high grass brushed the fronts. Her legs had also picked up some scrapes and bruises in her tussle with the river.

Lolly was feeling rather sorry for herself as she touched her face and glanced at Sevra. “How bad does it look?” she asked.

“Not that bad,” Sevra assured her sister. It had been scary to see all the blood on Lolly’s face when they first pulled her out. Now that she was cleaned up, there were two thin cuts across her cheek. “I bet it’ll only hurt for a day or two.”

Lolly nodded. It already felt better.

“How’s your arm?” Samtry asked.

“My arms weren’t banged up as badly as my legs.”

“I meant Sevra. The rope burned her arm when she pulled you out.”

“It did?” Lolly turned to Sevra to answer her question.

Yavic spoke at the same time. “Let me see.”

“It’s nothing.” Sevra tried to shrug off the concern. She didn’t want to talk about it until she had time to sort out her thoughts. At first, she believed the injury was exactly what she deserved. She’d freely used her evil gift to make the bridge and even felt pride in it. A punishment when she used it again was right. But without the gift, she would not have been able to pull her brother and sister from the water. She hadn’t used it for a bad purpose.

She also thought of Tames. His fire was beautiful at the same time it was dangerous. He had used it to stop men who wanted to steal from them. It didn’t make sense. She still believed that the Herders gave gifts to earn followers. But she’d seen those gifts used for good.

“Let me see,” Yavic said again. He stopped and took Sevra’s hand.

She relented, carefully folding back her sleeve.

“Ouch.” Yavic winced. “Should we wrap it or something?”

“No.” Sevra shook her head. “We don’t have bandages, and I don’t want anything to stick to it.”

He let go of her hand and allowed her to cover her arm. She was glad, however, that her sleeve was loose.

Lolly swallowed hard. Tears were welling up in her eyes out of nowhere. She’d somehow thought that having great strength made her sister invincible. That was clearly not the case. Her entire forearm was rubbed raw, the skin broken all over like cracks in dried mud. It looked incredibly painful. And it was Lolly’s fault that it looked that way. She would try harder to respect any future danger they encountered. She pushed the tears off her cheeks before the others noticed them.

The hill they’d been walking up became much steeper on the far side. Their pace slowed as they chose their footing carefully. This side was less grassy. It was littered with rocks and bushes and other hard objects that no one wanted to use to break a fall.

Yavic saw familiar berries on a few of the bushes. He pointed one out as the ground began to level. “Those are the same berries we saw earlier, right?”

“Yes,” Lolly said. “We can eat those.”

Sevra nodded her confirmation as well.

“We should rest here and have some berries with cheese,” Yavic suggested.

Samtry immediately sank onto a rock. Rest sounded even better than food to her.

Lolly folded up the bottom of her tunic like a basket and began to pluck berries into it. She liked feeling helpful.

“Lolly, what are you doing?” Sevra asked. She didn’t sound as though Lolly was being helpful.

“I’m picking berries for all of us.”

Sevra smiled and softened her tone. “You don’t remember what color you tried, do you?”

“Green,” Lolly said, but she became uncertain at the looks all three siblings were giving her.

“You ate a yellow one,” Yavic said.

“Oh.” Lolly dumped the green berries from her shirt and began refilling it with yellow ones.

As the others unpacked the rest of the meal, someone handed Lolly a wooden bowl. She transferred the berries to it and brought it to the center of the circle where they ate. Yavic finished first – he always ate so fast – and worked on the map for a while.

“I guess we should move forward through that valley area,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t rain.” He had refolded the map paper and was wrapping it in some waxy paper that used to contain food. No one said anything about how long what they had left might or might not last.

Sevra looked at the sky. Some clouds had gathered but not enough that rain seemed imminent. She was still carrying a tent they hadn’t used. She hoped she remembered how to set it up if rain did fall.

It seemed they were packing up faster after each meal. Being constantly on the move was becoming a habit. It was easier than staying still and thinking about how little they knew about where they were going. The valley Yavic pointed out soon became another hill. On the way down that one, he found something on the ground that didn’t belong there. It wasn’t a rock or a stick or anything part of the landscape. It was a piece of white cloth tied with string. “What’s this?” he thought aloud as he picked it up.

The others gathered around as he opened it.

Yavic could feel something hard inside. When he untied the string, the cloth fell aside to reveal several coins. Coins with recognizable markings.

“Those are Wisherton coins,” Lolly observed.

Sevra nodded and looked around with a strange feeling in her stomach. How had those coins gotten there?

Samtry was thinking the same thing. She was the first to realize at least part of the answer. “I think,” she said, “I think someone must have dropped them.” Her eyes were on the someone, but she was reluctant to point her out.

“Who?” Yavic said. When he looked at Samtry, he saw that she was looking at something in the grass. More cloth. Dirty pink cloth on a person who was lying down. Even from a distance he didn’t think the person was sleeping.

He moved slowly towards the shape on the ground. His sisters moved with him. It was a horrible sight, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. The woman – he thought it was a woman by her clothes – had evidently been dead for some time. Her skin was dark and rotted. Her hair thin. She lay on her side, curled up as though she was cold.

The four siblings stared at the woman and then at each other.

“She must have come from Wisherton,” Yavic said, indicating the coins in his hand.

“Do you think she was also banished?” Sevra asked.

“She should have stayed with Tames,” Lolly said.

“She may not have passed him,” Samtry said. She looked to Yavic for guidance. “What should we do? She looks cold.”

Yavic wanted to keep moving, to pretend they hadn’t seen her. But he knew it was not a sight they could forget. He nodded as Sevra said, “We should bury her.”

“How?” Lolly looked around for a place to dig a hole. It’d have to be a big hole and they didn’t have a shovel.

“I don’t want to move her,” Yavic said. “Let’s just cover her with dirt.” He placed the bag of coins near her hand, careful not to touch her.

“Shouldn’t we… shouldn’t we keep the coins?”

“No, Lolly, they’re hers.”

“But she can’t use them. What if the Herders ask for more than we have?”

Yavic thought hard. Taking the coins didn’t feel right, leaving them where they’d go to waste didn’t feel right either. What if those coins could save Sevra? He picked up the cloth again. He removed all the coins but one, which he tied up neatly and placed near the woman as a token of their gratitude. It didn’t entirely make sense, but they all agreed it was the best thing to do. Then they set to work making a grave.

It took some time. Sevra was reluctant to use her gift again. But she employed a knife to cut away grass and roots so the others could more easily gather loose dirt. The first few handfuls they dropped on the body were the hardest. Once she was partially covered, it was easier not to think about what they were doing as the dirt piled up.

It began to rain when they were almost finished. It wasn’t a storm or a dreary drizzle, just a steady shower that washed some of the dirt from their hands but made it stick to their clothes. They arranged a circle of stones on top of the mound to mark the place. Then they began to move again and seemed to walk out of the rain but not the clouds.

It was evening and darker than evening because of the overcast sky. They all wanted to rest and light some candles. They all also wanted to put more space between their camp and the new cemetery.

Yavic stepped behind Sevra and took one blue and one white candle from her bag. He struck them together and handed one glowing beam to Sevra.

The candles were brighter than normal candles. Samtry wanted even more light. She pulled her bag off one shoulder and fumbled in it while she walked.

Yavic noticed and said, “Two is probably enough until we stop.”

He likely only said that because Samtry was the one reaching for candles. She was going to light them this time though. It wasn’t as though she had anything to do besides practice lighting sweetheart candles. She took out a pair and replaced the pack on her back. Wicks together, she told herself. Pull up and apart. No light. She tried again.

It turned out, however, that Samtry did have something else to do. Watch where she was going. As she concentrated on lining up the wicks, the ground seemed to vanish from under her feet. One moment she was upright, the next she was falling and sliding too fast to control. Her arm hit something hard. The candles flew from her hands. She screamed and continued rolling down a steep hill. When her body stopped, it felt as though her brain kept tumbling. Someone might have been calling her name, but she couldn’t fully make sense of the situation.

Chapter 11

After the Rain

 

 

Yavic looked back as Sevra called out Samtry’s name. She sounded worried, and Samtry was nowhere in sight. He rushed up to the girls. “What happened?”

“Careful.” Sevra held her arms up to slow him down. “It’s slippery. Samtry fell right here.”

“She fell?” He’d heard something but dismissed it as a whimper of frustration. He should have helped her light the candles. Yavic grabbed a bush to steady himself as he held his candle over the edge. He could see the disturbed ground where Samtry’s foot had slid down right next to the bush. It was steep and hard to see farther down in the thickening twilight. Down the slope he could make out only shadowy shapes. None of them were moving. “Samtry!” he called.

Samtry’s head was beginning to clear. She tried to sit up. Her bag was snagged on something. Branches seemed to be holding her on the ground. Her arm hurt when she pushed at them. She wanted to stay curled up. “I’m down here,” she said, meekly. She knew they couldn’t hear her.

“Samtry?” The voice calling her shifted to a more urgent tone. It was Yavic. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She wasn’t all right. While she could hear her brother, he seemed to be talking to her from far away. She did not want to be far from her siblings. Her body ached all over and the dark unknown was trying to suffocate her. Sevra was calling her name now, too, asking if she was hurt.

Samtry summoned her courage. She wiggled free of her bag and out from under the edge of a bush. While she was sore, her body parts were working properly and she was fairly sure the wet spots on her clothes were mud, not blood. “I think I’m okay,” she managed to call out.

“What?”

She repeated herself as loudly as she could, aiming her voice towards her siblings. She was less disoriented and could see the light from their candles above her.

“Where are you?” Yavic called. “Can you… do you have candles?”

She’d dropped them somewhere, but she had another set in her bag. She wrenched it clear and opened the top. Thoughts of how pointless it was to have candles she couldn’t light crowded her head.

“You can do it, Samtry!” Sevra knew what she was thinking. For once, Samtry took the encouragement at face value. She didn’t hear the mocking tone that may or may not have been there in the past. She’d been through a lot with her siblings these last few days, and she knew they were pulling for her to succeed. She lined up the wicks. She took a deep breath. Slide across and apart, she thought. No light. She lined up the wicks again.

“Come on, Samtry!”

“Light ‘em. You can do it!”

She let the voices push aside the ones in her head telling her she’d never do it. But still the candles wouldn’t light for her.

“Slide them apart, Samtry. Up and quick!”

“Come on! We need to see you.”

“You can do it, Samtry!”

Again and again she tried. She would not give up. She was more afraid of the dark than failure. Then… a spark.

“Did you see that?” Yavic yelled. “I think she’s down there.” He must be pointing.

“Come on, Samtry! Light ‘em.”

She pulled them apart again. This time, both candles sprang to life with a blinding flash. Something skittered away before her eyes could adjust. It was about a foot tall with a really long tail. Was that a night lizard?

Samtry didn’t care. She’d scared away whatever it was. She’d scared it away by conquering something that had beaten her for years. Elation flooded her. She felt as though she could do anything. Even climb this slope.

Her siblings were talking to each other now. They weren’t yelling to her, but their voices carried easily down the hill in the stillness. The ground was wet from the rain. It was too slippery to try to climb down to her. They’d have to pull her up. The rope wasn’t long enough. They’d have to tie two together. Yavic would hold it, too, so Sevra shouldn’t wrap it around her injured arm.

“We’re going to throw a rope to you, Samtry,” Yavic called. “Tie it around your waist.”

A rope hit a bush about ten feet to her right. “Hang on,” Samtry called back. She put down her candles and walked over to the rope, then tied it around her waist. She blew out one candle and stuffed it in her bag. She could climb this slope, and she could let her siblings help her, too. With their support, Samtry was able to more or less crawl up the hill and still hold a lit candle. She had to ask them to pull slower on occasion to avoid being dragged, but she made it.

Only a few stars poked through the clouds. It was pitch black beyond their lights by the time she reached the top. They hugged her and congratulated her on lighting those candles. Despite the excitement of being reunited, they were all exhausted. They moved only a small distance from the edge before they made up a bed for the night.

It was raining again when they woke in the morning. They all might have slept in if it wasn’t for the cool drops splashing on their faces. They packed up quickly and moved to a place where the trees were thicker. Their branches seemed to knit together a shelter while the children waited out the rain. Progress was slow as it rained on and off most of the day. They stopped early for the night to give themselves time to set up the tent before the next shower.

They had little food left and made a meal of only yellow berries the next morning. They were hard and fairly tasteless. It was almost like chewing large unpopped corn kernels. But it was better than spending the day with growling stomachs. They picked the bush clean. Their packs were still heavy with collected rainwater as they began to move. Thirst, at least, would not be an issue.

The issue was direction. The sun rose in the east and they continued to move steadily away from it. It felt more productive to stay in one direction than move around, but they still didn’t know if it was the right direction. No one wanted to put that doubt into words. They continued stubbornly. Sevra, in particular, didn’t want to think she might not be able to get rid of the gift. She began to sing to put her mind on something else. It was a song their mother often sang at night.

 

We are grateful, ever grateful

For the laws that guide our feet

On this journey that you gave us

We’ll spread joy to those we meet

 

Sevra had a lovely voice. It sounded so much like their mother that Lolly could picture being at home, listening to her singing while their dad made the bread for the next day. Her heart ached with homesickness. “How will we find the Herders?” she asked. She was still confident that they could do it, but she was getting tired of the wait.

“That woman who died didn’t find them,” Yavic said, “otherwise, she wouldn’t have died.”

They all nodded. They’d gotten farther than she had. But if the Herders weren’t right outside the wall as they always believed, why did getting farther matter?

“Maybe it’s like Tames said,” Samtry suggested timidly.

“What do you mean?” Sevra’s chest tightened. She remembered what he’d said about them whispering to him. It was creepy.

“Maybe you have to use the gift. I mean, use it for something bad to get their attention.” It was clear she didn’t like the idea.

Sevra didn’t either. She didn’t like using the gift even when it had helped them.

But Lolly perked up. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

“Do what?” Yavic looked at her warily.

“Sevra can do something bad and the Herders will come for her. When they do, we’ll be here. We’ll defend her.”

Sevra shook her head. They didn’t know that would work. What if she did something bad for nothing? What if the Herders took her siblings, too? She’d run away to protect them, not to make them Herders.

“I think… I think this might be worth trying.” Yavic seemed to be studying the ground. He didn’t want to see the fear on Sevra’s face. “We can’t just keep walking forever. Maybe this is a chance.”

“What would I even do?” Sevra asked.

Her question stumped the others. What could be wrong enough to call the Herders, but not so bad she couldn’t recover or be forgiven? Not so bad she couldn’t forgive herself? She didn’t try to do the right things because she was afraid of the Herders. She was afraid of them. But she did what made her happy. All of her instincts went against doing something that might cause pain or suffering.

The four of them eventually began to walk again as no ideas surfaced. Sevra hoped they would forget that plan altogether. At the base of the next hill, they found another stream. It wasn’t like the wide raging river that tried to take Lolly. It was more like the gentle trickle near Tames’ camp. The water was perhaps two feet deep at the center.

“Look at this,” Samtry called.

They were trying to find a good place to cross, maybe narrow enough they could jump it, when Samtry pointed to a place nearby. There was a puddle near the stream with a lone fish swimming circles in it.

“How’d he get over here?” she asked.

“The rain must have made the stream swell and when it receded, he got stuck in the puddle,” Yavic explained.

“It’s going to keep drying up.” Samtry looked concerned for the fish.

Sevra was thinking they should scoop him up and put him back in the stream.

Lolly bent over the puddle, apparently with the same thought. She drew her hand back as an entirely different thought occurred to her. She sucked in a careful breath and looked at Sevra. “Kill it,” she whispered.

“What?” Yavic asked. He heard her, just didn’t want to acknowledge he’d had the same idea.

Sevra knew they were back on the plan of misusing her gift. Her stomach kicked some of those berries around. “I don’t…” She didn’t want to kill a fish. She also didn’t want to disappoint the siblings who were helping her and were really tired of wandering aimlessly.

“It’s a fish,” Sevra said. “I don’t think I’d have to be extra strong. I mean, I could probably kill it without using the gift.” She was grateful for the logical argument even if it wasn’t true. She didn’t think she could make her hands squeeze it.

“You’d have to… use something heavy.” Lolly looked around. She pointed to a large rock. “Can you pick that up?” She was talking to Yavic.

He walked over and squatted next to the small boulder with his arms around it. “You need the gift for this,” he said. “Drop this on it, Sevra.”

His voice was very matter-of-fact, but Sevra could tell he was trying not to think too hard about what he was suggesting.

Sevra forced her thoughts past the unpleasant task. Could it work? Would the Herders come? Would they be able to give the gift back and go home? Home. She wanted to go home so badly. If there was any chance…

“If it doesn’t work,” Samtry said, “we can cook the fish and eat it.”

Sevra nodded and walked to the boulder. “If it doesn’t work, none of you will ask me to do anything else that’s… we’ll give up the idea of misusing the gift?”

They all agreed easily. This wasn’t an idea anyone wanted to attempt more than once.

Sevra hefted the big rock into her arms. She couldn’t help wondering if it could work.

Her siblings were also just as afraid it would work. Samtry gathered all the coins they had for an offering. Lolly picked up several rocks as weapons and put a knife by her foot. Yavic simply scanned the area, trying to get the first look at anything that might come at them.

The rock was large enough that Sevra couldn’t see around it. She approached the puddle slowly. She looked down at the fish and apologized to it. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and dropped the rock. Water splashed out against her legs. She kept her eyes closed and waited.

Chapter 12

Mud

 

 

The air was thick with anticipation. Yavic felt certain that something would happen. He drew his eyes up a hill, beside a tree, down the stream. The rippling of the water seemed to be the only movement. Each of his siblings was frozen in place, waiting.

A bird screamed from a nearby tree and set his heart galloping before he realized what it was. He continued to look all around, trying to figure out how to be ready for something when he didn’t know how to be ready.

“Yavic!” Lolly’s voice broke the silence with quiet urgency.

He was sure she was trying to bring his attention to the approaching Herders. He saw nothing. And she was looking at him, at his feet? Were the Herders fierce but tiny?

“Move, Yavic.” Sevra had opened her eyes when Lolly spoke.

He searched the ground. He couldn’t see what had them worried. Then he noticed that his boots had sunk into the mud, almost to his ankles. He tried to lift his foot and couldn’t do it. “I’m stuck,” he said.

Lolly was closest. She stepped even closer and grabbed his hand.

She was so much smaller than him, it did no good. He was more likely to pull her over. And now her front boot was sinking.

“Get back,” Yavic said. He pushed against Lolly’s hand as he let it go. She wobbled because she couldn’t step back. She only barely managed to keep her balance.

Sevra lunged forward. She kept her boots on some leaves as she put her hands around Lolly’s ankle and tugged.

“I can’t do it,” she said. Fear and disbelief swirled with confusion. She could lift giant rocks and pull two children from a determined current. But she couldn’t pull her sister’s boot from less than an inch of mud? Of course she could pull Lolly free. She gripped tighter and tried again.

“That hurts,” Lolly whined.

Sevra let go quickly and sat back. Was this a punishment? Had the Herders taken back the gift and now taunted her with what she could have done? Or was the mud even stronger than she was?

Yavic thought he might be able to see the boundary. Most of the ground around them was wet and shiny, but the patch sucking in his boots – it was just past his ankles now – and Lolly’s was dull. Looking carefully, he could make out the edge of the threatening mud. Mud so strong that Sevra couldn’t fight it.

“Take off your boot,” he said to Lolly. He bent over and undid the buckles on his own. The top buckle on each was out of the mud but he couldn’t reach the lower ones without risking getting his fingers stuck.

Lolly was able to undo both buckles and jump free. Sevra pointed out the edge of safety to her, or what looked like the edge of safety. So far the other ground hadn’t captured them.

Yavic wriggled his right foot frantically to pull it out of the boot and held that foot in the air. Sevra held out her hands to steady him while the younger girls piled up leaves and sticks to put his uncovered sock on. He could feel the dangerous sponginess of that ground and worked to free his other foot. He twisted it and slid it from the boot, then hopped to firm ground.

He’d probably not been trapped for more than a minute or two in total, but he panted as though he’d run a mile. “What’s going on?” he asked.

It felt as though they were under attack. No one answered his question. As he caught his breath, it became apparent that there was nothing going on. Three boots sat abandoned in very innocent-looking mud. Three sisters stood around, almost bored, as they no longer expected approaching enemies.

Lolly pulled a boot out of her bag. Not a pair of boots. She replaced only the one she’d lost and stood wearing one light brown and one dark brown boot.

Yavic had chided Lolly about the unnecessary extra pair of boots. Now Yavic wished he had a spare pair. Who would have guessed powerful sucking mud would prove him wrong?

“We need to get out of here,” Sevra said. She didn’t like the rock that reminded her of what she’d done or the mud that reminded her of what she couldn’t do.

Her siblings nodded at her. The four of them found the wettest, grassiest place to avoid dangerous mud and jumped across the stream and began to trudge up the next hill

“We forgot we were going to try to eat the fish.” Samtry didn’t really want to turn around so she was glad when Yavic shook his head at her.

Then he said, “I doubt it’s in any shape to be food.”

Samtry thought about that, about the size of the rock and the force it would have brought down on the fish. Gross. She wasn’t sure she’d be in the mood to eat fish ever again.

“I killed it for nothing,” Sevra said. She began to walk faster and the others scurried to match her pace. “For nothing,” she said again. “I brought all of you out here, endangered all of you, and for what?” Her voice rose along with an anger like she’d never felt before. “Where are they? They were supposed to be here, just waiting to take us! I’m right here! Where are they!?”

She was practically running now, and it was difficult to keep up. Samtry and Lolly had much shorter legs and Yavic had only socks on his feet. They stopped in their tracks when Sevra reached a small tree and put her hands around the trunk as though she wanted to strangle it. Yavic put his arm out to keep the younger ones from getting closer if the tree was about to come down.

Sevra held on but didn’t try to pull it from the ground. A strange fear held her just as tightly. She couldn’t pull Lolly’s leg from the mud, and she wanted to test her strength to see if it was still there. But what if it wasn’t? As badly as she wanted to get rid of the gift, she didn’t want it to simply disappear with no explanation. She’d always wonder what had happened. And if it might come back.

Without a gift though, they could turn around. They could try to go home. How would they do that? What if getting out really was the easy part? They couldn’t even try if she was still super strong. She had to know. One way or the other, she had to know. She pushed hard on the tree and screamed in frustration as it toppled to the ground. They’d have to keep going.

“Sevra?” Yavic approached cautiously. “Are you okay?”

She wasn’t entirely okay. She was upset that she still had the gift, and she was upset that part of her still wanted to have the gift. It had been useful on their journey. She didn’t say that because her spirits began to lift as soon as she turned to her siblings. They were still with her, still wanting to help her. Their mission felt more hopeless than ever, but they were still on the journey together. That was something.

“Why’d you knock the tree over?” Lolly asked. It didn’t sound like an accusation, and Lolly didn’t mean it that way. She thought perhaps there was a use for the wood that she hadn’t noticed yet.

“I, uh… when I couldn’t get you out of the mud,” Sevra said, “I wondered if maybe I wasn’t strong anymore. I wanted to know, and it looks like…” She shrugged at the tree.

“Still got it,” Lolly said with a nod.

“I guess I am starting to understand why Tames doubted the Herders,” Yavic said. “Everything out here is just… so much… not what we expected.”

“Maybe they all…” Samtry was going to say died. But Herders didn’t die. That was their primary power. “Could they have moved?” she asked. “You know, given up on people coming over the wall?”

“The banishing could be relatively new,” Sevra said thoughtfully. “If Wisherton went a hundred years or more executing those who tried to corrupt, then… I don’t know. It really doesn’t make sense to me. How and why are they still giving gifts if they aren’t waiting for those who…” She shook her head. She was calmer but no less confused. Finding the Herders was not supposed to be difficult. Everyone knew they found you.

“We should keep looking,” Lolly said. “How about that way?”

Yavic was mildly impressed that she pointed the same general direction they’d been heading. He’d tried to explain how they were using the sun. Maybe she’d actually been paying attention. “Yeah,” he said, feeling suddenly flippant, “as long as we don’t know where they are, they could be right over that hill.”

“Definitely,” Sevra said. She had only flirted with despair and didn’t like the taste of it. She chose hope.

The Say siblings marched forward with that hope, teasing each other that they were sure to find what they were looking for over the next hill, or the next one. Or behind that tree. They continued happily until dusk.

When Samtry couldn’t light the candles, she didn’t even let that bring her down. She’d done it once and knew she could do it again. She let Lolly light them for her, then spent the next day practicing while they traveled. She, of course, made sure to practice only when she was certain she was on level ground. By nightfall, she could light them as easily as anyone else and everyone congratulated her on the accomplishment.

Food was becoming a serious problem though. Sevra was carrying a block of cheese that they all knew was the last of their supply from home. They were sick of the hard, unsatisfying berries. Their taste buds and stomachs complained even when their voices didn’t. Even a fresh supply of those, however, would have been a welcome sight as they neared the end of a second day with no food and sore bellies.

They reached a stream, maybe three feet wide and about as deep. Water was still a refuge, but they’d learned to approach it with caution. They tapped the ground with sticks and tried to step in the wettest, shiniest places, exactly like the mud their parents had trained them to avoid.

The bigger kids could jump it, and Sevra could jump it with a younger sibling on her back. Convinced the closer bank had no scary mud, they were in no hurry to get across though. They cupped the cool water with their hands and drank their fill. The current was gentle, the water tasted fresh. They tried to imagine that filling themselves with water would squelch their raging appetites.

Lolly, who normally had an excellent imagination, wasn’t up to the task. She flopped onto a grassy spot. “Can we eat the cheese now?”

“No,” Yavic said.

“Why not?” Sevra and Lolly said the same thing at the same time. Sevra appeared to genuinely want an answer while Lolly only wanted to voice displeasure at being told no.

Yavic addressed the older sister. “If we eat the cheese,” he said, “we’ll have nothing left. We need to save it.”

“We’re hungry now,” Sevra said. “Why does it make more sense to save it for later hunger?”

“Do we have to wait until we don’t even have the energy to eat it?” Samtry had sat down next to Lolly. She dropped backwards onto her bag like a flipped turtle. Her arms fell limp at her sides.

While she was being overly dramatic about it, Yavic wondered if she might have a point. Did it really make sense to save the last of the food or was he just being stubborn? Yavic stared at the water while he thought. A fish about four inches long swam by, flicking its tail only once as he rode the current. It would be easier to know what to do if he had any idea what lay ahead. He wasn’t even sure the map would lead them home, but it was becoming increasingly frustrating to carry a map with only information about what was behind them.

It would also be easier to think smart if he wasn’t so hungry. His stomach was telling him to eat the cheese and worry about tomorrow when it was tomorrow. In fact, his stomach wasn’t even mentioning tomorrow. It was just telling him to eat the cheese. Eat the cheese. Another fish glided by, and Yavic realized what he was seeing. “Fish!” he said. “We can eat the fish.”

“We don’t have a fishing pole,” Samtry said. She didn’t even raise her arms.

Lolly jumped into the stream, fully clothed, and tried to grab a fish. It thrashed and swam away as fast as if its life depended on it. It did, but the fish didn’t know that. The water was above her waist and Sevra was sure she’d be sorry she didn’t take off her boots first. Lolly didn’t even seem sorry she missed the fish. “There’s another one,” she said, pointing.

The fish picked up speed before it reached her and swam past without Lolly coming anywhere near catching it. She put her hands on her hips. “They’re very fast.”

“And you’re scaring them,” Yavic said.

“Well, how are we going to eat them if we can’t catch them?” Lolly’s hands seemed to squeeze tighter against her waist.

Yavic waved her forward. “Come out of there while we think about it.”

“I have an idea,” Sevra said.

Lolly climbed out of the water. “What is it?” She pulled off her boot and poured water out of it.

“I’m not sure if it’ll work.”

“Probably better than not having an idea.” Yavic nodded at Lolly as he said it. She was too busy emptying her other boot to notice he was talking about her.

“It looks like the fish are all going that way,” Sevra said. “If we could block them somehow… like a dam but with holes for the water. They might be easier to catch.”

Samtry had finally sat up. “That would take forever.”

“I don’t know.” Yavic shrugged. “Sevra could break up branches pretty quickly. If the rest of us just keep piling them up…”

“Let’s try it.” Lolly had stripped off her wet socks, too. She tossed them aside and stood up. “Start with that tree.”

Sevra nodded. Lolly’s enthusiasm made her feel a lot better about her idea. She ran to the tree – a sense of purpose made her less tired than a minute ago – and broke off the lowest branch. She snapped off sections roughly as wide as the stream. Samtry and Yavic carried her sticks and tossed them into the water. Lolly tried to help break up the branches.

“If you make them too small,” Yavic said, “they’ll float away.”

“I got it,” Lolly said. She continued to break off the largest sections she could, which were small enough to float away.

Some time later, the four of them stood admiring their fish strainer. “Our first catch,” Yavic said. He pointed to a fish lazily swimming towards them. The fish slowed as it neared for approximately two seconds before it zipped through a crack in the structure.

Sevra sighed, but no one else looked disappointed.

“I guess we need more sticks,” Samtry said.

“That’s right,” Lolly said with a nod. “It’ll work. It’s just not done yet.” She pointed Sevra to a tree that hadn’t yet been relieved of its lower branches.

As Sevra moved away, Yavic added, “The tiny fish won’t have enough meat on them anyway.”

Her confidence restored, Sevra pulled down and broke off branches faster than Yavic and Samtry could carry them off. She didn’t know what Lolly was doing, but she hadn’t heard Yavic ask her to stop so it was probably nothing to worry about. Sevra picked up the last armload and followed the other two. She dropped it where Samtry dropped hers. The barrier was several feet wide and higher than the stream. Rather than simply dumping more sticks in the water, Yavic was poking them in one at a time, filling in holes.

Lolly was on the ground next to him. She was lying on her stomach – nearly up to her armpits in water – grabbing at two fish that had already been stopped by the mound of sticks. Another fish swam up to the barrier and began to swim in circles. Lolly hoped that one would be easier to catch because she was getting a little frustrated.

The fish were fast and slippery. Her frustration was directed at Yavic though. She could catch those fish no problem if she got in the stream. From the edge, she had to wait for them to come near her. Yavic had insisted they’d be more scared of her if she was in the water.

Lolly reached for the newest fish and barely touched its tail. They were never going to get any dinner at this rate. She reached for another fish and threw herself forward enough that it might have looked as though she fell into the stream. She stood up and pushed her wet hair behind her ears. “Oops,” she said, “guess I’ll try from here.”

No one was fooled by her act to get in the stream. Well, Samtry might have been fooled, but only because she wasn’t paying close attention. She was clearing a space for a fire. The cooking fire was going to be her job now that she could light something.

Sevra and Yavic didn’t care that Lolly had jumped in the water. Sevra didn’t care because she hadn’t instructed Lolly to stay on the bank and because she didn’t want to be the one who had to get wet. Yavic didn’t care because a small school of fish had arrived. He figured Lolly was determined enough that she couldn’t possibly miss all of them.

“Oh!” Lolly squealed as her hands closed around the biggest fish. She was as surprised as it was. It thrashed free before she knew what to do with it.

“Just toss it over here on the ground next time,” Yavic said. He had a knife ready and was telling himself he could do it. He’d seen his mom catch and clean fish enough that he knew how. But only in theory. He’d never actually done it himself. His mom kept saying he’d have to try someday. Someday had arrived.

Lolly tossed a fish onto the bank, cheering herself on. It flopped around and was nearly as difficult to catch on land. Yavic had to put the knife down and use two hands. He pinned it to the ground. Telling himself it was faster than letting the fish suffocate, he picked up the knife and did what had to be done.

The next fish landed too close to the edge and flipped itself back into the water. Lolly groaned as though she’d missed a target in a game, then continued grabbing at fish around her. Eventually, they had a nice supply of fish. They skewered the meat and roasted it over the fire Samtry had built.

Even Lolly had been taught some basic cooking skills at home. But those involved a stove and a frying pan. Sticks over an open fire was quite a bit different. As a result, some bites were charred black, some were squishy raw, and some were simply dry.

“It could use some salt,” Sevra observed, mostly to tease herself about her own cooking. That was as much complaining as anyone did. They’d worked hard for that meal, which made it almost as satisfying as if it actually tasted decent. Plus, they were really, really hungry and happy to be eating anything that wasn’t hard, flavorless berries.

The sun had set by the time they finished and long shadows sat behind each of them around the fire. “Do you think the Herders knew?” Samtry asked. “I mean, do you think they knew we didn’t really want to kill the fish?”

Yavic was thinking about his contentedly full stomach and didn’t realize at first that she meant the other fish, the one they’d left behind.

Sevra knew what she meant. She’d been thinking about it a lot since then. She shrugged at Samtry though. Just because she’d been thinking about it didn’t mean she’d thought up any answers.

“I don’t think Tames could be wrong.” Lolly put her arms on the grass behind her and leaned back thoughtfully. “He was cute.”

“The Herders didn’t come,” Samtry said.

Yavic ignored Lolly’s silly reasoning. “He never said he knew they’d come. Remember, it was only an idea he had but hadn’t tried.”

“I hope he still hasn’t,” Sevra said.

“Maybe they did know,” Lolly said, “that you… maybe you had to do something bad and mean it.”

Sevra felt the blood drain from her face. She’d do almost anything for her siblings, but she couldn’t hate. That wasn’t something she could fake. She wanted to point out that they promised not to pursue that idea anymore.

“If that’s the case,” Yavic said, “then we can’t call them. We’ll just have to keep going until we find them.”

The younger girls nodded and Sevra relaxed. She heard a splash from the stream. “Should we open the blockade so the fish can keep going, too?”

“Not yet,” Yavic said. “Let’s leave it until morning. We can catch more fish for breakfast. Then we’ll dismantle the trap before we move on.”

 

Chapter 13

Fewls

 

 

The fish didn’t taste quite as good the next morning. The children’s cooking had actually improved, but they were not so hungry.

Lolly waved goodbye to the remaining fish as they swam free. They purposefully left most of the sticks piled up near the stream as a landmark. Yavic drew that place on his map in case they saw it on the way back. They might even be able to reuse the trap if they happened to be hungry.

The landscape seemed to have leveled somewhat since they left Wisherton. The hills were lower and they could see farther ahead. Though they still saw grass dotted with trees, there was something in the distance. It was a darker spot. They walked towards it all day, pulled by curiosity. It seemed like a lighter spot at night. The next day, after settling yet again for a midday meal of hard yellow berries, Yavic said, “I think… could that be a building of some kind?”

In the foreground of that darker spot was something somewhat square.

“It might be,” Sevra said.

As they walked along, they became more convinced that it was a building, something that looked like a barn and several more buildings spread out behind it. After what might have been miles of staring at those buildings as they took shape, their ears suddenly became more important than their eyes. A strange baying sound filled the air. They shifted their path slightly to the right to approach the noise.

They crested a short hill and found themselves looking down at an entire herd of some strange animal. They looked a little like sheep, but they were smaller and the wool was mottled gray and black and appeared less coarse.

“Do you think they’re friendly?” Lolly asked.

“They look soft,” Samtry said.

That didn’t answer Lolly’s question, but she moved forward as though it had.

“Wait!” Yavic grabbed her arm. “You can’t just go up to a herd of wild animals.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Lolly said. “I was just getting a little closer.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I’m not sure they’re entirely wild,” Sevra observed. “They seem… that building could be a barn or… is this part of a farm?”

“I don’t know. But any unknown animal could be dangerous,” Yavic said. “Let’s stay back and walk far around them.”

“Give me the cheese.” Lolly held her hand out to Sevra. “I bet they’ll be friendly if we feed them.”

“Absolutely not.” Sevra crossed her arms. If anyone was going to eat that cheese, it certainly wasn’t going to be an animal that for all they knew would eat someone’s hand in the process.

“Are you serious?” Yavic asked. “We’ve all wanted to eat that cheese for days and you want to give it to an animal just so you might be able to pet it?”

Lolly pouted and said defensively, “They’re cute.”

“Of course they are,” he muttered. He sat down on the edge of the hill. “Why don’t we just watch them for a while?”

“Okay.” Lolly switched her mood to happy with a flashed smile and sat as well.

The other girls joined them in the grass. They may have been interested in the animals and they may have simply appreciated the excuse to sit down. The grass felt unusually soft. Yavic used the delay to lie back and stare up at the clouds. They were white and wispy overhead but thicker in the distance. More rain might be in the near future. Maybe they could use that tent Sevra had been carrying for almost nothing.

Lolly thought the animals were fascinating. They were calm, milling about and occasionally grazing on the grass. Their eyes were dark and gentle. They looked so soft. She willed them to come closer so she could touch one.

A cluster of the animals had caught Sevra’s attention. They were standing together and licking each other like cats do to themselves. That was unusual grooming. They had long pink tongues for the job. She was more wary of the strange beasts than Lolly but still wished she could observe them a little more closely.

The only one watching the animals and thinking they didn’t need to get any closer was Samtry. They were making quiet moaning sounds. It wasn’t a threatening sound. In fact, they almost sounded bored.

Something about the way the noise traveled through the herd unsettled her though. It made her feel as though they were talking to each other. Talking to each other about those four children watching them. At first, Samtry thought it was her imagination, that her uneasiness was making her think the animals were closing in.

When the children sat down though, all the animals were in front of them. Now, some of the farther ones had drifted to either side. Was that intentional? Samtry watched the one closest to the base of the hill. It was lazily chewing grass. But it stepped forward every few bites. It seemed to be intentionally getting behind the children.

“Sevra?” Samtry whispered.

“Huh?”

Her sister seemed to be focused on a group of far animals. Samtry continued to keep her voice low. “I think… are they surrounding us?”

Sevra seemed to shake off a daydream as she took in the full situation. “Yes?” There was an odd tone to the one word, and her expression matched it. It didn’t sound as though she was worried exactly. It was more like she was worried that maybe they should be worried.

Yavic sat up. He looked around as though he too was trying to decide if being circled by unknown animals was a problem. Or if it was about to be a problem.

Samtry kind of wanted to shake her siblings. How was there anything to think about? The animals were cute. She would not deny that. And their fur might even be soft. But those teeth weren’t soft. They shredded the grass with ease. And they were outnumbered at least ten to one. How was that not something to worry about? “I think we should go,” Samtry said quietly.

Yavic nodded. Samtry didn’t care that he was probably only agreeing because he didn’t want to stop in the first place. “There’s a gap over there,” he said, pointing off to the side towards the biggest opening in the herd. He stood up. “Come on.”

“Aw.” Lolly expressed her disappointment with a high whine, but she did stand to leave.

At the same time, some of the closer animals shifted nervously. It seemed they were preparing to move as well. Preparing to give chase?

“Let’s just walk slowly,” Yavic said. He sounded wary now.

That was not a gloating moment for Samtry. She would have happily admitted she was wrong to fear the herd.

They began to step slowly towards that gap. Samtry still hoped to be able to say there had been nothing to fear. But as the children approached the opening, so did the animals. They walked towards each other, making the gap smaller and smaller. The circle the children were in shrank as well. All the animals seemed to take two steps closer to the children for each step they took.

“Come on,” Lolly said suddenly. She wasn’t urging her siblings to hurry. She held her hand out encouragingly to an animal about ten feet from her.

“What are you doing?” Samtry’s nerves made her voice jump an octave or so on the last word.

Lolly turned to her with an expression that said she was nuts to worry. The animal she’d been trying to coax closer charged as soon as her back was turned.

“Look out!” Sevra yanked Lolly out of the way as the animal ran past. It lowered its head and knocked Samtry to the ground. She wasn’t hurt, but she was frightened. Several other animals began to run towards them. Samtry screamed.

Lolly yelled, “Don’t scare them!”

“Don’t scare them?” Yavic motioned everyone to run as he grabbed for Samtry’s hand.

But there was nowhere to run. They took only a few steps before they hit a fuzzy wall. The fur was as soft as it looked, but Sevra barely registered that thought. She was too concerned about the way the animals shoved their lowered heads against the children, forcing them backwards into each other and more animals pushing from behind.

They were jostled so much it became difficult to stand. Yavic was the first to lose his balance. A rock-hard hoof came down on his fingers as he fell to his hands and knees. Samtry tripped over his legs and screamed again as she fell. Lolly was trying to say something, but it just sounded like more screaming in the commotion. Samtry might have been thinking they were about to be trampled if she’d been able to think of anything other than the hot, stinking breath of the closest beast. It was hitting the side of her neck in quick bursts.

Somewhere beyond the moaning of the herd came a new sound, a deep growling voice. Was that a different animal or the sound these beasts made when they were about to have a meal? Then the deep voice said, “Be quiet!”

Samtry huddled closer to Yavic and clamped a hand over her mouth. She wasn’t sure why she obeyed the voice. She was just so surprised to hear a person. The rumbling growl continued. The animals seemed to back up in response to it, making the surrounding circle looser.

Yavic got to his feet and pulled Samtry up next to him. He looked for the source of the new sound. A boy who didn’t look any older than he was stood just outside the circle of animals. He was petting them as he passed and continued making deep throaty noises as he gently pushed them aside. The animals gradually returned to their innocent grazing.

“What are you trying to do?” the boy asked. He sounded annoyed, which annoyed Yavic because he was pretty sure they hadn’t done anything.

“Nothing,” Yavic said. “They just attacked us.”

“Nothing?” The boy rolled his eyes. “What about all the screaming? Don’t you know fewls are riled by high noises?”

“No.” Sevra threw her own annoyance into the conversation. “We’ve never seen fewls before. Is that what they’re called?”

“Never?” He looked confused but mumbled, “Sorry.”

Everyone seemed to calm down at that point, except Lolly. She said, “So they’re friendly?” as she reached to pet one.

The animal stiffened.

“Yes,” the boy said, “as long as you don’t talk to it all squeaky excited like that.” He seemed to force his own voice deeper when he spoke. The animal relaxed again.

Lolly nodded and pressed her lips together as she ran her fingers through the fluffy fur. She seemed extremely content.

Now that the threat had passed, Sevra turned her attention more closely to the boy. He was about her height with short brown hair, lightened in streaks by the sun. It was his clothes that stood out to her. He wore a long robe cinched with a rope instead of the pants and tunics worn by most people in Wisherton. And though he also wore boots, they were tied to his feet with strings instead of buckles.

His eyes were dark green like Sevra’s and seemed to be studying her and her siblings just as curiously as they studied him. Finally, he said, “Are you… are you from Wisherton?”

Sevra turned to her siblings as she nodded to answer his question. Yavic also nodded uncertainly. Samtry seemed to have softened towards the fewls. She was gingerly patting one’s head.

“Wow.” The boy’s face came alive with interest. “I’m Peppo. I’ve never met anyone from Wisherton before. Were you banished? How long ago did you leave? What happened to her face?” He nodded towards the mark on Lolly’s cheek. It had only partially healed.

Overwhelmed by his questions and not sure if it was a good idea to talk to Peppo, Yavic chose the last question, which seemed simplest. “She fell in a strong river. Got scratched by a branch.”

“Not the Red River. How’d you get her out?”

“A rope,” Sevra said. She was suddenly fearful of giving him details, fearful of talking to him at all. He was asking a lot of questions and already seemed to know more than they did. Though she hadn’t said it out loud, she’d hoped the buildings they approached were a village of those from Wisherton, as Tames suggested. She hoped it could be a place they could rest safely for a few days. But this boy, Peppo, said he’d never met anyone from Wisherton. How could he know of them then? Something wasn’t right. “Thanks for calling off the… the fewls,” she said. “We’ll go now.”

Yavic took Samtry’s hand and urged Lolly to leave the animals alone. He must have been thinking similar thoughts because he seemed eager to leave as well.

“Wait!” Peppo said. “We’ll help you. I mean, not me because I don’t… I can give you food.”

Lolly froze and said, “Do you have cheese?”

He nodded happily and said, “Always. Fewl milk makes the best cheese. My sister helps my dad with that. My brother and I sheer the fewls and spin the yarn. I used to just feed them but…” He noticed that Sevra and Yavic were still trying to lead the younger girls away. “I’ll feed you and not tell anyone if that’s what you want. What’s your name?”

“Lolly. That’s Samtry and that’s—”

“Lolly!” Yavic shot her a warning look. They didn’t know this boy. What if he was trying to trap them? What if these people executed those who escaped Wisherton? What if he wanted to turn them over to the Herders? Yavic wanted to find the Herders, but not in chains.

“Don’t worry, Yavic,” Lolly said. “We can trust him.”

“We don’t know him.” Yavic tried to keep his voice low enough that only Lolly could hear. “What makes you think we can trust him?” He fixed her with a look that said if she dared to suggest that they could trust him because she thought he was cute, he was going to pick her up and carry her away.

Lolly must have had some idea of the doubts he was conveying because she said, “I think we can trust him BECAUSE HE JUST SAVED OUR LIVES!”

Peppo laughed nervously. Sevra wasn’t sure if it was because of Lolly’s shouted statement or that they looked pretty convinced by it. She knew it must show on her face that Lolly had a good point. If he’d wanted to harm them, it would have been easy to let the fewls do it.

Then Yavic’s stomach let out a growl loud enough for all to hear. “All right,” he said, “we won’t turn down food. But you won’t tell anyone else we’re here?”

Though he shook his head vigorously, Peppo’s smile didn’t look capable of containing such a wonderful secret. He waved his arm for them to follow him and walked backwards to make sure they were coming. He made a brisk pace towards the closest building. It seemed he was too excited to talk. The others were either too nervous or too hungry, but Lolly couldn’t stay quiet for long. “How long have you lived in the Wasteland?” she asked.

“Um… we, um, don’t call it that.”

“That makes sense,” Lolly said. “It’s too pretty to be called a wasteland. I mean, when you’re not stuck in a river or afraid of the night lizards or eating nothing but those awful berries. Then it’s pretty. Why is there no fence? Aren’t you afraid the fewls will run away?”

“No. They need room to graze. But every now and then we ride out to herd them closer. We did that last week. That’s why they’re so near the barn.”

“You ride out?” Lolly’s eyebrows shot up. “What do you ride?”

“A demma.”

“Oh! We have those in Wisherton, but I’ve never ridden one.”

“How long ago did you leave?” Peppo asked.

“I don’t know,” Lolly said. “Sometimes it feels as though we just left. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been gone forever. At least a week, I think.”

“I’ve been told it takes five days to get to Wisherton on foot.”

“Oh, it’s been longer than that. But Yavic said we were going backwards when we were following the river and—”

“What do you call your village?” Yavic cut into the conversation. He liked it better when Peppo was the one giving information. Lolly didn’t seem to mind being interrupted. She was curious, too.

“Brelin,” Peppo said. “But it’s not a village. According to my history teacher, it’s about four times the size of Wisherton. We just happen to live near the border. It’s spread since the exodus.”

“What’s the exodus?” Sevra also liked it when Peppo was giving information.

“It’s when… when people left to make Wisherton. They told us in school that people in Wisherton don’t know they used to be part of Brelin. Is that true?”

Sevra didn’t know anything about Brelin. If what he said about their ancestors being from Brelin was true, then it was true she didn’t know it. The thought seemed to tip her brain sideways. The confusion may have been partly from distraction because an entire wall of cheese was revealed as Peppo slid open the barn door. Her mouth watered at the sight.

Peppo pulled down a block and cut off a large chunk for each of them and a small piece for himself.

Once Yavic enjoyed a few savory bites, he wanted to know more. “What else does your teacher say about Wisherton?”

“Well, we’re still learning about it as people arrive,” Peppo said. “That’s sort of new.”

“What’s new?”

“People from, uh… I still can’t believe you’re actually from Wisherton. And you’re at my house.” Peppo bit his lip, looking suddenly shy because of his gushing. He took a bite of cheese then sat on the floor with his legs crossed.

Yavic sat as well and nodded to his sisters to do the same. He knew, or thought he knew, that Wisherton was settled by people who escaped the Herders. They had no history beyond that because records were destroyed or lost when they fled. Yavic always thought three hundred years was enough history to learn. Peppo made him question that. “Tell us about what you called the exodus.”

“A long time ago, there was a lot of fighting in Brelin, mostly about the gifts. Some people thought that certain gifts were better than others. They thought only people with those gifts should be in government. But not everyone agreed which gifts counted as the special ones. I don’t understand a lot of it, but I guess it was something like a fifty-year-long civil war with about ten different sides.

“Eventually, a group of people got sick of the fighting and decided to leave. I think there were only about a dozen families in that first group. They planned to travel to the coast and start a new society where no one with the disputed gifts would be allowed. Apparently, that sounded like a good idea to some. Other groups followed the first one. They say a few hundred left over the next several years. Then one group came back and said the new place was building a wall and no one else would be allowed in.”

Peppo stopped to take a breath and collect his thoughts. “I hope I’m getting all this right,” he said. “The fighting continued here until we passed a law that said all gifts had value. Even then, it took a while to really improve. It’s hard for me to imagine. I mean, I have the animal gift and no one treats me different because of it and I was born into a family of fewl farmers so it’s really useful. But I guess that’s one of the gifts that used to be considered inferior. My sister reads minds. She used to do it by accident when she first got it, and I can see how that might have scared some people. But she has good control now.” Peppo shrugged. “Uh… where was I?”

Sevra exhaled slowly. He had a sister who could read minds and didn’t think it was a problem? She’d have been executed for that in Wisherton. Or banished? Sevra had to ask what was burning inside her. “What do you know about the Herders?” she asked softly.

“Oh, right. You believe… I forgot about the Herders.” Peppo jumped as he said that because another person appeared in the open doorway.

It was a young woman who resembled him but was obviously a few years older. “Peppo?” she said. “You have guests?”

“I made new friends today.” He scrambled off the ground. “They’re from—” He clamped his mouth shut as he remembered his promise. “That’s Yavic, Sevra, Lolly and… I forgot your name.” He looked apologetically at Samtry.

The Say children had gotten to their feet as well, some of them ready to run.

“Samtry,” came the quiet answer to the implied question.

“Welcome, all of you. I’m Peppo’s sister, Polly. You must come to the house though. Our parents will be upset if they find out we had guests eating cheese in the barn rather than inviting them inside for a proper meal.” Polly had a friendly voice. She stepped back and swept an arm firmly from the barn. Her robe was similar to Peppo’s on top. It flared out at the waist though with a full skirt. Her long hair was in a braid over her shoulder that made Sevra run her fingers self-consciously through her own tangled mane.

“Come to the house,” Peppo said. “I told you my family would take care of you.”

“Peppo is right,” Polly added. “There is refuge here if you want it. We won’t force you to stay though.”

Lolly marched through the door.

Yavic’s head told him to stop her, that it could be a trick. But his heart told him that these people were honest. They could be trusted long enough to find out more. He nodded for Samtry and Sevra to come, glad at least two of his sisters were waiting for his approval.

Dusk had settled over the area. Yavic decided there’d be no harm in staying one night, if they were permitted. Then they’d set out again in the morning.

A great hustle and bustle erupted as they filled the house. Peppo announced to his mother that they had guests. Polly added in a significant whisper that she believed they’d arrived from the east. The visiting children were ushered around a table. Plates were set before them with meat and a colorful salad.

Samtry picked at the salad. It contained familiar-looking berries. Except it was the green ones they’d been avoiding. Were they safe to eat after all?

Lolly held up one of those berries to Peppo. “These don’t give you a stomachache?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’ve never heard of anyone being bothered by them. Maybe if you eat them before they’re ripe? I’ve never had one still yellow.”

Lolly’s eyes narrowed at the berry before she popped it into her mouth. She quickly chased it with a few more. They weren’t hard like the yellow ones but firm and bursting with a tart juice.

Samtry didn’t care that the green ones were the ripe ones, that they’d been misled about any stomachaches, or even that they might taste good. She didn’t want to eat anything called a berry for a very long time. Not as long as there were other things to eat.

Peppo had mentioned a brother and a sister. It appeared his family was even larger than that. There was a boy close to Peppo’s age helping their mother serve the food. Sevra couldn’t tell whether he was older or younger than Peppo. Another boy, who appeared younger than both of the others at maybe ten or so, dashed out the door shortly after they started eating. There was also a girl – who couldn’t have been more than five – staring at them from a corner of the room. Her eyes were open nearly as wide as her mouth.

“Don’t stare at the guests, honey,” their mother said.

The girl’s mouth closed. Her eyes stayed fixed on the visitors, for some reason on Yavic most of all.

He offered her a gentle smile.

She did not smile back. She did not, however, look afraid of him, just very curious. Yavic wondered if even the small child knew more than he did at the moment. He was confused about almost everything. The only thing clear in his mind was that he was ravenous and the food was wonderful.

“You all seem so hungry,” the mother observed as she joined them at the table. “Your journey must have been long. We’ll fix up beds for you tonight and baths first.”

Sevra nodded. “Thank you. But I don’t know if we can…” She swallowed hard. She didn’t know how to ask. Peppo had spoken freely of gifts, and these people didn’t seem to fear the Herders. But would she be putting them in danger? “I have a gift,” she blurted softly. Was it possible to blurt softly? She kept her voice quiet, but it felt as though it echoed around the room.

The woman looked at her understandingly. Her eyes were kind as she said, “You’re safe here. Goodness, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Mary Boggs. My husband is Lord Boggs.” She gestured to the man taking the seat next to her. “You’ve met Peppo and Polly. She’s my oldest. That’s Bale,” she pointed to the boy near Peppo. He nodded a greeting. “And I don’t know where Rye ran off to.” Mary looked around her. She seemed to be forgetting the youngest child.

Yavic had questions that went beyond names though. While the woman – all of them – seemed honest and kind, she also seemed uncomfortable about something. “But the Herders?” Yavic said. “Are they gone? Did Brelin fight them off somehow?”

She shook her head and closed her eyes. “There’s so much you don’t know. I’ll try to explain, but it may be difficult for you to believe. The Herders are not immortal as Wisherton teaches. At least not… they’re spirits. They exist in temptation to evil. As long as you resist the temptation, they cannot hurt you.”

“But…” Sevra wanted to believe they weren’t monster-like creatures. And she didn’t want to believe it. “I wanted to give the gift back.”

“Oh. There’s so much to explain.” Mary glanced at her husband for help.

“Perhaps we should start with a history lesson,” Lord said.

“Peppo told us about the exodus,” Lolly said. She seemed to have accepted it as fact. “And that Wisherton built a wall. He made it sound like everyone has a gift though.”

Lord nodded. “We do. The gifts come from the Creator. The Herders only tempt us to misuse them.”

That lined up surprisingly well with what Tames had come to believe on his own. The part about the Herders being invisible anyway. “Why does the Creator give gifts if they aren’t to corrupt us?” Lolly asked.

“For us to help each other,” Mary said. “It took Brelin a lot of death to understand that. The ugliness and jealousy that caused the exodus continued here for some time before our ancestors realized how they were corrupting themselves. Meanwhile, after the wall, there was almost two hundred years with no contact between Brelin and Wisherton. We speculated… we knew they intended to eliminate the fighting by eliminating the gifts most frequently fought over but… The gifts don’t appear until adolescence so we didn’t know how they’d accomplish that. Then it was fifty…” She paused to think. “Fifty-two years ago that the first person returned from Wisherton. Our scholars have pieced the story together from the various refugees since.” She jumped up as she finished talking because she noticed Yavic’s plate was empty.

Lord took over while Mary went to refill the plate. “It seems the truth of the Herders has gotten distorted. No one knows if it was intentional – to rule by fear – or if… We’ve learned that people are executed for having the wrong gifts and that other gifts aren’t even acknowledged. And that at some point at least some of those in charge began banishing rather than executing. The banished are the ones who arrive here. I’ve not heard of a group of children before, usually it’s only one child or a child with a parent or both.” He eyed the Says tentatively, prompting them to tell their story but only if they were willing.

The others looked at Sevra because it was her story. She’d already admitted she had a gift. The rest she wanted to tell. She was about to explain how they went under the wall to run away when the door flew open so fast it smacked against the wall.

The boy who entered said, “Sorry, Mom,” like a reflex. He grabbed the door and closed it carefully before he rushed up to the table. “I’ve been telling everybody that we have guests from Wisherton. They all want to come meet them.” He beamed at his mom.

Sevra’s stomach suddenly wished it wasn’t quite so full. She wasn’t sure she was ready to share her story with “everybody.”

Chapter 14

Sevra

 

 

Mary Boggs smiled affectionately at the young boy before she turned to her guests. “You’ll have to forgive Rye’s enthusiasm. He fancies himself the town crier, and it isn’t often we have news this big. Rye, are we expecting more company tonight?”

“Most said it was too late, that they’d stop by tomorrow or the next day. Except Narlee Jonas. She has a friend from Wisherton and thinks she’ll want to ask for news of her family. Is there someone else from Wisherton here?”

“The Bittles. They live more than a mile out, but we’ve met them on a few festival days.” Mary began to clear the table.

“I don’t remember the Bittles,” Peppo said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me they were from Wisherton?” He looked as though he was certain he’d have remembered them if he’d known.

“They arrived when you were a baby,” Lord said. “They don’t like to be reminded. They were banished with their son and… they lost him on the journey.”

Peppo lowered his head. He could understand why that was not a topic people wanted to bring up.

“All right.” Mary clapped her hands, getting down to business. “It’ll take the Bittles some time to be fetched and brought here. Polly, dear, go run a bath. We’ll let you children get cleaned up before you meet more people. Then you can go to bed as soon as they leave. Do you all have fresh clothes in your bags?”

This sounded like a good plan to everyone and the house buzzed with preparations. There were two tubs. Lolly and Samtry were allowed to go first while the older children helped wash some of their belongings and arrange beds for the night. Yavic was presented with a pair of boots. He was grateful, but didn’t look forward to learning how to string them. By the time Sevra was clean – Yavic pointed out that she always took the longest at home, too – Rye and the youngest child were in bed. She’d whispered her name to Yavic as she was led away. Perhaps he’d have a chance to ask her to repeat it more loudly in the morning.

Lolly was sitting on a padded chair watching Mary and Lord set a fire in the grate. They brought in a pitcher of water and cups, ready for guests. Lolly’s brain was feeling fuzzy and her eyelids heavy. Sleep was trying hard to claim her. It was chased away by a knock at the door. Her head snapped back up. She was interested in finding out if they might actually know some of the people this couple had known. There was something familiar about the name.

Lord opened the door and ushered in two older women. They might have been in their sixties or seventies. They both had gray hair still speckled with some brown. They both wore long robes like the women of Brelin. Lolly wondered which of them was from Wisherton.

Mary greeted the women and offered them chairs. The room quickly filled with people. Sevra came and hoisted Lolly onto her lap to share her chair. Samtry and Yavic sat at their feet. The two older women were on their left, the crackling fire on their right, and Mary and Lord sat opposite with a cluster of their three oldest children.

“Thank you,” said one of the new women. She sat twisting her hands in her lap, her eyes darting among the Say children. “Thank you for letting me come tonight. I’ve long hoped for a chance to ask after my family and…” A tight smile flashed on her face. “Now I’m afraid I’m too nervous to ask.”

Sevra held tight to Lolly. She was nervous, too. She and Yavic knew something of which the younger girls appeared unaware, for they hadn’t said anything, and Lolly always said something. Bittle was their mother’s maiden name. There was a chance this woman was related to them. There was a chance she was the family member they believed was killed along with her husband and son many years earlier. Yavic glanced back at Sevra. His expression plainly said he didn’t want to be the one to ask either.

The silence was rather awkward. Peppo was either anxious to relieve it or simply anxious to hear more from his new friends. “You were going to tell us about your journey when Rye interrupted,” he said. “Can you tell us now? Maybe if you start by telling about yourselves…” His eyes flickered to the visiting woman and back.

She nodded, appeared to be gathering strength. “Yes. Yes, what part of Wisherton are you from?”

“Northwest,” Yavic said. “Dirfact territory.”

She exhaled slowly. They couldn’t tell if she took the answer as good news or bad.

“You said you weren’t banished,” Peppo prompted again. “Did you run away?”

Sevra would take responsibility for that decision. “Yes,” she said. “I found out I had… a gift. I didn’t want my parents to die defending me and we left… it was my idea to run away. I was sure I got the gift by mistake and thought… I wanted to think I could give it back. Now I don’t know what to do.”

“You can stay here.” Lord smiled at the large gathering. “If our house is too crowded for you, there are many in Brelin who would take you in.”

“We’re going home,” Samtry said suddenly.

“We can’t,” Sevra said. “At least I can’t.”

Samtry knew that was true. She just wanted to go home so badly, wanted to see her parents again. She couldn’t give up her sister to do it though. Her heart ached in her chest.

Lolly jerked upright. She’d been nodding off again.

The older woman noticed. “You poor children are so tired. I need to ask my questions so you can get some sleep. I wonder if you know…” She appeared to be concentrating, which seemed strange. Surely she didn’t need to think about the names of her family members. “Petra Goldin,” she said finally.

Yavic felt his shoulders dip in disappointment. If she was related to his mother, she’d have said that name first. “I don’t know her,” he said, “but I believe I go to school… did go to school with her granddaughter. She’s two years ahead of me.”

“Yes. That sounds about right.” She nodded and thought of another name. “Do you know… Dio Rorry? He was good friends with my son and would be around thirty now, probably not old enough to have kids your age.”

“He lives near us. I’ve helped with his kids,” Sevra said. “Two young girls.”

“Oh.” She looked pleased and on the verge of tears at the same time. “What is his wife’s name?”

“Sarah.”

“I wonder if that’s Sarah Realiz.”

“I don’t know her maiden name.”

The woman smiled anyway. “I bet it is. She was a nice girl, a good match for him.” She seemed to be relaxing and threw out a few more names. Some the children knew and some they didn’t.

Eventually, she said, “And what about Nell Bittle. She married a Say. It’d be Nell Say now.”

That was the name they’d expected to hear in the beginning. Now it didn’t mean much. Or it didn’t seem to mean much. Sevra had relaxed enough that she didn’t notice the way the woman tightened her grip on the chair to brace herself as she asked.

“Nell and Bright Say?” Lolly was suddenly wide awake.

“You know them?” The words came out on a breath.

Lolly laughed. “Of course. They’re our parents.”

The woman gasped and fell from the chair. She landed on her hands and knees only inches from Samtry. Several people jumped up as if to help her, then stopped uncertainly. She was crying uncontrollably.

Yavic’s instinct was to protect his sisters from whatever he could. He stayed where he was though. He really didn’t have the slightest idea how to protect Samtry from a sobbing woman.

Samtry reached out and gingerly patted the woman’s head. This seemed to be the wrong thing because it made her cry harder. She took her hand back.

“We, um…” Sevra felt she needed to say something. She cleared the emotion from her throat. “We intend to at least get a message to our parents. Can we tell them something from you?”

The woman breathed deeply, trying to regain her composure. Samtry waited patiently for a message. Between gasps, the woman managed to say, “I… have… grandchildren.” She sat back and Samtry met her eyes. They were green and looked just like her mother’s. “Nell Bittle… Nell Say… She’s my daughter.”

Suddenly, the woman was laughing as hard as she’d been crying. “My husband didn’t want to come. He said it was foolish to hope you’d know our family and here you are our family.”

Lord came forward and helped her back into her chair. She thanked him and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. “Please,” she said, “what are your names? I can’t believe I’ve been talking to you without asking earlier. My nerves it seems drove away all my manners. I’m Sevra Bittle.”

“I’m Lolly.” Her tone showed how excited she was to be introducing herself to her grandmother. “My sisters are Sevra and Samtry. That’s Yavic.”

“Sevra and Yavic.” She clutched her hands to her chest. “I can’t wait to tell my husband that not only do we have grandchildren, but two of them are named after us.” Now she was crying again.

Yavic glanced around the room. He understood this was an emotional reunion. He felt it, too, but hadn’t there been enough crying? He saw that Mary and Polly were also crying. Apparently not.

“When we had to leave, your mother was only a few weeks at most from giving birth to you. Or you?” Her gaze went from Yavic to Sevra. “Forgive me, I can’t tell which of you is older.”

“I’m fourteen,” Yavic said. “Sevra is twelve.”

“Will you come and stay with us?” Sevra Bittle stood. “I know it’s late, but my husband will so want to meet you.”

“It is late,” Mary said. “I will help the children pack if that’s what they want, but we’ve already made up beds here. I wish you would let them stay with us just this one night.”

“Lolly is almost falling asleep in my lap,” Sevra observed. She hated to disappoint her grandmother, but none of them would be good company much longer anyway.

“I’m not tired,” Lolly said. Her eyes were beginning to droop again as she spoke.

“Of course.” Sevra Bittle moved towards the door to take her leave. “The children’s needs must come first, and they need sleep. Yavic and I will prepare our house and come back for them tomorrow.”

Yavic stepped forward, wanting to be honest without appearing ungrateful. “Thank you,” he said. “But I want you to know we can’t stay with you permanently. Now that we know the truth of… we know some of the truth anyway, we can’t leave our parents in the dark. If we can’t go back to Wisherton, we’ll have to try to get them out.”

“And I intend to help you.” His grandmother put a hand on his. “I’ve missed my daughter for too long. I promise we will figure out a way to get your parents. And we will give you a good home until we can.”

 

~~ The End ~~

 

Thanks for reading Beyond Wisherton. Reviews are always welcome. The sequel, Back to Wisherton, will be available April 2017. Find the author at goodreads.com or at amandahammbooks.com to learn about her other titles.

 


Beyond Wisherton

Wisherton is surrounded by a Wasteland filled with terrifying Herders. Sevra Say has lived twelve years grateful for the giant wall that keeps Wisherton safe. But now her life is threatened by something inside Wisherton, something that makes her believe getting past the wall may be the only way to save her family. With the help of her three siblings, Sevra will embark on an impossible quest and come face to face with what lies beyond Wisherton.

  • ISBN: 9781370414246
  • Author: Before Someday Publishing
  • Published: 2017-03-14 18:50:14
  • Words: 41230
Beyond Wisherton Beyond Wisherton