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Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

 

 

 

 

trish mercer

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Patricia Strebel Mercer

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental but I’m still holding out hope they exist.

 

Cover art and design by the mother of Teagan Mercer, who agreed to be on this cover to prove he could pose better than his father. Now he sees the problem is that his mother doesn’t give very good direction, but he figured out how to give a cynical-why-are-we-doing-this look all on his own.

The stunning photo of the Polish Tatra mountains in the background is from dreamstimes.com.

 

Contact author via website: http://forestedgebooks.com

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This book is also available in print.

Please remember to leave a review for my book at your favorite retailer.

 

[+ For updates about the series, sign up here: When’s the next book being released?+]

 

Other titles in the series:

The Forest at the Edge of the World, Book 1: Captain Perrin Shin’s out to uncover the secrets of the Guarders. But first he has to get a nosy school teacher out of the way. Click here to purchase.

 

Soldier at the Door, Book 2: Just when the Shins least need it, they’re sent some “help.” Click here to purchase.

The Mansions of Idumea, Book 3: When a major disaster strikes Edge, naturally Idumea pulls them away from their village and insists they return to the city. Click here to purchase.

 

The Falcon in the Barn, Book 4: His enemies have Perrin trapped, but his friends are gathering. [+ Click here to purchase.+]

 

You know you’re on the right path

when the world tries to shove you off of it.

 

 

MAPS: visit http://forestedgebooks.com/maps/

 

A pronunciation guide to some of the more unusual names . . .

Nicko Mal— NEE-koh MAL

Querul—KWER-el

Idumea— i-doo-ME-uh

Hierum— HIE-rum

Tuma Hifadhi— TOO-muh hi-FOD-hee

Sonoforen— sun-uv-OR-en

Terryp— TARE-up

Jaytsy— JAYT-see

Gizzada— gi-ZAH-duh

Hegek—HEG-ik

Fadh—FOD

Jothan—JOH-thun

Asrar—AZ-rar

Bustani—BOO-STAH-nee

Caraka—Kuh-RAH-kuh

 

For background information on all character names and derivations, visit http://forestedgebooks.com/characters

 

Contents

Chapter 1—“Last night, your mother and I had some visitors . . .”

Chapter 2—“Oh, I’m trying to be helpful.”

Chapter 3—“Shem told me you were conveniently gullible.”

Chapter 4—“We have no chance, do we?”

Chapter 5—“How will we know when we’re safe?”

Chapter 6—“Remarkable return the Guarders have made, isn’t it?”

Chapter 7—“Do you still trust me?”

Chapter 8—“Of knowing the world will never find you again.”

Chapter 9—“Amazing!”

Chapter 10—“So what do you think, Colonel? Can we take them?”

Chapter 11—“A few people might wave as we drive by.”

Chapter 12—“So does everyone know us?”

Chapter 13—“Everything has been given to us freely.”

Chapter 14—“Then it all balances.”

Chapter 15—“What I don’t have is someone like you, Perrin.”

Chapter 16—“Sometimes it takes years to understand how something’s supposed to happen.”

Chapter 17—“Not even one trumpet.”

Chapter 18—“You have a family?”

Chapter 19—“I’m going to have to keep a close eye on the two of you, aren’t I?”

Chapter 20—“Seems . . . there was a lot more going on than any of us realized.”

Chapter 21—“There is now an official story.”

Chapter 22—“I shocked him, didn’t I?”

Chapter 23—“Nothing worked out the way it should.”

Chapter 24—“Just leave me alone for a while?”

Chapter 25—“No, Grandpy.”

Chapter 26—“I think he’s found his calling.”

Chapter 27—“Parchment. Quill. I see it.”

Chapter 28—“Just our luck that Shem is the most famous man in Salem.”

Chapter 29—“Any new predictions for the next year?”

Chapter 30—“Just when I thought Salem couldn’t surprise me with anything else.”

Chapter 31—“I think Peto even enjoyed the cook.”

Chapter 32—“This isn’t Idumea coming, is it?”

Chapter 33—“You see what you want to see, Perrin.”

Chapter 34—“The Creator will provide us with a solution.”

[+ Chapter 35-- “Stay far, far away from those trees.” +]

Chapter 36—“I can’t believe we’re here.”

Chapter 37—“. . . and we all lived happily ever after.”

Sneak Peek—Book 6

About Salem . . .

Acknowledgements

About the author . . .

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1—“Last night, your mother and I had some visitors . . .”

 

Early in the morning of the 34th Day of Planting Season, 338, Mahrree stepped out on to her front porch to witness her last sunrise in Edge.

There are a handful of days in a person’s life that start out seemingly benign, then dislodge and uproot and toss aside everything you thought your life was. Usually such days involve a birth, or an unexpected death, or a sharp twist in one’s future, and the color of everything suddenly shifts.

Yesterday was one of those days.

At the beginning of it, she’d been nearly vibrating with the idea that she and Perrin and Peto would be sneaking away in Weeding Season to find Terryp’s land themselves, because Perrin had secretly possessed, during all of these years, the very map of the very historian she’d admired more than anyone.

Then, her daughter started feeling birthing pains, and the day was spent timing and watching and, ultimately, comforting Jaytsy when her baby decided the 33rd day wasn’t when he or she wanted to be born after all.

As if that hadn’t been enough, when she came home after dark, she discovered that she and her family weren’t alone in their house.

And that the world wasn’t alone, either.

There was another civilization, called Salem.

The husband-and-wife scouting team, dressed in mottled green clothing, had explained that the Shins were in trouble because Mahrree had spouted off that the Administrators were liars about Terryp’s land, and because Perrin had resigned from the army instead of becoming the new High General. They promised they could whisk them all away—even Jaytsy, still heavy with child—from the world.

Tonight.

In a very real way, there were births and unexpected deaths and twists that kinked Mahrree’s thoughts. The birth of a new life for all of them, and the death of who they were—

It’s a good thing, Mahrree decided as she massaged her head which felt packed with cotton from too little sleep last night, that days like yesterday happen only a few times in one’s life, because they were thoroughly draining.

But, surprisingly, she didn’t feel empty this morning. She felt full to overflowing.

They were leaving it all, tonight.

She could hardly make that unusual idea take hold in her brain, as if she’d been told that if she flapped her arms fast enough she could suddenly take flight. Yet deep down she knew it was true.

Leaving Edge, that is, not flying.

But then again, who knew? No one in the world knew that there were thousands of other people living elsewhere, yet that had been true since King Querul drove Guide Pax away from the world one-hundred-thirty-eight years ago, so maybe she could fly out of there, she just didn’t know it yet!

She chuckled as she breathed in the morning air and, not being able to stop herself, flapped her arms experimentally. The two soldiers on permanent patrol at the end of the road must have thought she was waving a bizarre good morning to them. She quit after an unsuccessful five seconds. She felt so light and happy, which completely confused her. Shouldn’t she feel some sense of dread or loss about leaving everything she knew behind tonight?

Nope. Nothing but tingling, from head to toe.

Embarrassed, Mahrree had to admit she’d known thirteen-year-old girls less giddy and erratic than herself.

But there was just so much to look forward to! The scouts last night had even promised her a trip to Terryp’s ruins. They had scholars and tours and campsites and everything!

But first, she had to get to Salem, and where in the world—or rather, out of the world—could that be? Maybe north, she decided as she sat down on the steps and sighed in sublime anticipation. Through the mountains, or maybe west first to Terryp’s land, and then north?

If only Perrin would wake up, so she could speculate with him. But he didn’t get home until just a few hours ago, after what Mahrree assumed was his most intense interrogation of Shem, the man who had been someone entirely different for the past seventeen years.

A spy from Salem. That’s what he’d been, worming his way into their family, becoming their confidante, their best friend . . . and likely telling Salem all about their secrets.

It was thoughts like those which kept her from sleeping. Random realizations that all which she knew was only a small part of the whole. She felt like a small child again, noticing for the first time that the smudges on the mountains were actually trees, thousands of them, and that she’d never before noticed what was now so obvious.

She remembered how years ago, after two soldiers tried to assassinate Relf and Joriana Shin at the fort but were killed before they could do so, they had briefly suspected Shem of being something other than just another soldier. They’d even wondered if he hadn’t been a Guarder who had defected to their side, if he hadn’t taken out the lieutenants himself.

But he’d endured all of Relf’s questioning, and Perrin’s and Mahrree’s suspicions, and they let the matter go because, well, he was their little brother.

They had no idea how close to the truth they’d come.

She had her own list of questions about Salem’s number one spy and the world’s biggest liar, but when Perrin finally crawled into bed next to her, all he said was, “Be ready to go tomorrow night,” before he collapsed.

Perrin still trusted Shem.

That was all she needed to know, for now. As Perrin had left the house last night and snuck past the sleeping guard, Mahrree had been startled to feel gentle peace come over their home, filling her with unexpected joy.

The scouts had told them that Salem was organized the way Guide Hierum, the first Guide of the Creator, had led the world before those who organized Idumea as a way to manipulate their civilization destroyed it all. Guide Pax, who was arguing with King Querul in 200, hadn’t been killed at Mt. Deceit as everyone believed. He’d escaped, with the help of Querul’s guard who were loyal to Pax, and they found a new land.

A new land.

The thought was too wonderful, yet one she’d hoped for, for many years. Guarders were, indeed, alive and well and thriving, elsewhere. The other “Guarders,” who frequently raided the world, hadn’t left it at all, but were just opportunistic local thieves.

But there was another land, another group of people, another possibility, another kind of life

How can anyone sleep with such thoughts running around in one’s head?

As she lay in bed last night, she wondered if there were any way that Salem might be surrounded by mountains, that perhaps there’d be a house with weathered gray wood and window boxes filled with herbs.

Eventually the exhaustion of the day and evening overwhelmed her, and as she drifted off to sleep she hoped she might have her old and perplexing dream again, but her mind never settled down enough.

Even now, as she sat on the front steps, she couldn’t focus.

All she could think was, Tonight we leave it all, forever.

She’d be waking Perrin soon, because she just couldn’t stand it anymore.

Peto had already gone to the Briters for milking. He didn’t say a word when Mahrree told him his father had a “bad night,” but nodded wearily and trudged over to his sister’s place. It was all Mahrree could do to keep from bursting out with, “This will be your last early morning milking!”

But there was one kink her in joy—her daughter and son-in-law.

Jaytsy and Deckett had a successful farm, a dozen cows expecting calves, and a baby of their own due any day now. While there was nothing left for Perrin and Mahrree in Edge, and not so much for Peto since Edge had been told to shun him as well, the Briters had to leave their entire world.

“Please let them understand,” Mahrree murmured her prayer as the neighborhood slowly brightened with the coming sun. “Please help them feel the same joy that makes me want to fly off this porch!”

The first rays of dawn came over the distant marsh fields, catching Mahrree’s eye and blinding her momentarily. She shielded her face, focusing instead on the front garden which she had planted some weeks ago.

Peto had speculated that the dirt, which had never deliberately had seeds put into it for all the twenty-five years Mahrree had lived there, wouldn’t know what to do about her careful raking and her first attempts at gardening.

But when her eyes adjusted to the light, and she could see clearly again, she barked out a loud “Ha!” that startled a chirping bird.

Mahrree slapped her hand over her mouth to hide her grin.

The sun revealed the first leaves of hundreds—no, thousands—of seedlings which had sprouted during the night.

The color of her world had turned green.

 

—-

 

When Perrin woke up, it was to stare at the oak beams above his bed and sigh in exasperation, mingled with exhilaration.

Tonight. It was all coming to an end tonight.

He’d left the Briters’ barn a few hours ago feeling as if he could nearly trust Shem again. If it weren’t for the hot glow of reassurance that nearly burst out of his chest as he snuck home, he wouldn’t have told Mahrree to be ready to go today.

That, and the thought of Administrator Genev readying coaches and horses to head up to Edge intent on arresting his family for sedition against Idumea—yes, that was enough incentive.

And a detail that he would not be sharing with Mahrree yet. He needed her to be acting natural today, which, when she was excited or agitated, wasn’t something she did very well.

Fatigued, he forced himself to sit up. Somewhere in Idumea, new High General Qayin Thorne was gloating in the mansion where Perrin’s parents used to live. And undoubtedly Chairman Nicko Mal was also awake and drafting his notes for their trials which would begin the moment the Shins, in chains, arrived at the Administrative Headquarters.

And there sat Perrin, uselessly clenching his fists in dreadful anticipation for what would transpire in the next twenty-four hours.

That’s when the door flew open and there stood Mahrree with both fury and joy on her face.

“Yes?” he ventured cautiously.

“I have a garden!” she beamed, then immediately furrowed her brows. “Everything’s come up!”

“Well . . . good for you?”

“I’m mad at you!” she announced, although her mouth wriggled otherwise. “Because you’re dragging me away from it.”

He stopped rubbing his eyes. “Wait. Mahrree, are you trying to say you’re changing your mind?”

“Yes! I mean, no! Don’t you get it?” she said, a bit flustered. “I’m trying to start an argument. You realize this is our last day here,” and she raised her eyebrows.

He stared at her. “You’re not serious about arguing, are you? Do you have any idea how tired I am? This is a terrible idea.”

Her shoulders sagged. “But, but it’s our last day, and—”

“I’ve never told you this before, but Mahrree? You’ve never been good at arguing.”

Wholly affronted, but seeing the spark in his eyes, she put her hands on her waist. “Oh really? Well, we’ll just see!”

 

—-

 

Peto shoveled the muck and reviewed a decision he’d made two weeks ago, when he realized Edge was serious about shunning them: he could shovel manure out of the goodness of his heart for his sister and brother-in-law, or he could shovel for slips of silver.

Or, rather, he could begin reclaiming his family’s name and fixing all of this mess.

Once the Briters no longer needed his help, he’d head south and plead his case to Colonel Brillen Karna. Who could say no to a brawny young man willing to work the massive stables of the fort at Rivers? Peto would even do it voluntarily at first, maybe just live at the fort as payment, and begin proving that Shins were still worth their weight in potatoes.

He needed to get away from Edge. A week ago, as he was hoeing a row in Deck’s field, he was surprised to see half a dozen boys from his old kickball team sauntering through the dirt. He nearly broke out into a smile, until he realized they were sniggering at him.

“Yep,” one boy called out loudly, “practice is starting again, and with a certain someone’s records scribbled out of all the books, it looks like we have some new most valuable players.”

Peto leaned on his hoe. “What are you talking about?”

What followed was the worst acting Peto had ever witnessed. His former friends put their hands to their ears like old men, looked dramatically up and down, and exchanged overly practiced looks.

“Did you hear that?”

“I don’t know. It was something odd, but—”

“It was nothing, boys. Absolutely nothing.”

Peto gritted his teeth, seeing the way this was going. He turned back to his hoeing.

“Yep, everything’s different now, as if a certain someone had never been there, and never will be again.”

Peto firmed his grip on the hoe to prevent himself from thrusting it into someone’s foot.

“Yep, the world’s a better place now—”

To be honest, he firmed his grip in order to idly swing the tool around, the handle smacking the nearest boy on the side of the head with a satisfying thunk, and knocking him to the ground.

Over the protests and exclamations, he said serenely, as he went back to hoeing, “It was nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Only because the boy he leveled was bleeding—and probably out of worry they’d be next—did his former team rush away to get their friend help.

Peto hoed that row so deeply that he had to go back and fill it in again so that the carrot seeds wouldn’t be drowned by a foot of dirt.

He also needed some distance from his parents. They rained down upon him so much guilty sympathy that he was drowning in it.

Seeing them so subdued—well, it was getting to him. Yesterday, former General Perrin Shin hopelessly chased a wayward chicken around the yard. Peto laughed, but it really was quite pitiful. His eyes burned with frustration to later see his father meekly taking advice from Deck about what constitutes a weed.

Peto didn’t necessarily want him to be an officer again, but Perrin Shin needed to be something much more than just a farmhand.

He could still be something great in the world.

Something like the greatest general the world had ever seen.

And the only one who could start to make that impossibility a reality was his son Peto, the only person in the world who knew who his father was supposed to become. Peto realized that was why Relf had told him of his dream, had made Peto write it down and keep it safe. Only Peto had the power to restore the Shins to greatness.

And it couldn’t happen while they played farmer.

 

—-

 

After breakfast, Perrin and Mahrree walked to the Briters. Just to annoy the soldiers keeping an eye on their route, the Shins cut through neighbors’ yards on a new path to the farm.

“We’ll never do that again,” Perrin murmured to Mahrree, and felt another flood of mixed emotions. “Cut through that garden.”

“I know,” Mahrree said. “I don’t know whether to sob or laugh. I may do both.”

“Quietly, please. The soldiers seem a bit sharper this morning. They may suspect something’s up.”

“Why would they think that?”

Perrin hesitated. He wasn’t used to lying to his wife. But it wasn’t as if he couldn’t come right out and say, Because they know that tomorrow the world is literally coming to get you.

“Shem told me that Thorne was getting pressure from Idumea. Word must have reached the garrison that soldiers were requesting transfers and even deserting. As of yesterday, he was down to one-hundred-sixty.”

“Good,” said Mahrree smugly.

“Now remember,” he told her as they strode through the corn field, the shoots just breaking through the soil, “we’re to go about our day as usual so as to not arouse any suspicion. When we ‘disappear,’ it has to seem to have taken us by surprise.”

“How’s it going to happen? Making us ‘disappear’?” Mahrree wondered. “Won’t anyone come looking for us?”

“I’ve wondered that, too,” he admitted. “But Shem wouldn’t give me any other details, so that I’m safe.”

“And what does that mean?”

Perrin rubbed his forehead. He really didn’t want to tell her that not everyone escaped successfully. One group had even been caught and detained by Qayin Thorne years ago, and was never heard from again. “I’m not sure what he meant by that.” He’d never told so many lies to his wife in such rapid succession.

They walked in silence the rest of the way. At the barn they found Deck, Peto, and Jaytsy already at work.

Perrin gave a sidelong glance to Mahrree.

She nodded back once.

As they walked through the doors, Perrin said loudly, “Looks like that calf might wander, Deck. Let me get the doors.” He didn’t even glance in the direction of the soldier trying to crouch behind an inadequate shrub just thirty paces away. But now the sergeant wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop.

Deck, bucket in hand that he was bringing to Jaytsy seated at the churn, looked around in confusion. “What calf, Perrin?”

Jaytsy cocked her head at her father. “Something’s up, isn’t it? I’ve seen that look too many times before.”

Peto came from a stall, wielding a pitchfork. “Nice for the two of you to finally show up for work.”

“Sit down. All of you,” Perrin said.

The gravity of his tone forced his sons to squat on bales of hay.

“Last night, your mother and I had some visitors . . .”

Fifteen minutes later Perrin finished with, “So Salem feels it’s imperative that we leave tonight.”

Peto was the first to finally break the stunned silence that hung in the barn. “So . . . run away?”

Perrin bristled at the insinuation, but said, “Well . . . yes.”

Peto’s shoulders twitched. “Tonight?”

“Yes.”

Mahrree watched her son who grew more agitated.

“All right,” Peto said slowly. “But I have another suggestion. I haven’t told you this yet, but I’ve got a plan to go down to Karna—”

“NO!” Perrin thundered.

“Why not?!” Peto hollered back. “I’m sure Karna will—”

Turn you over to Genev immediately, because he’ll have no choice! was what Perrin wanted to roar back at him, but he couldn’t let them know any of that yet, especially with Mahrree still beaming next to him, hoping her enthusiasm would radiate out far enough to engulf her son.

Perrin rubbed his forehead. “You have to come with us, Peto,” he mumbled. “Arrangements have been made, and—”

“I need to stay here,” Peto said simply. “I’ll sob and throw hysterics that you’re ‘missing,’ then there will be sympathetic commanders willing to take in Perrin’s orphaned son. Karna, or Fadh, or—”

Perrin had been clenching every muscle in his body. He knew that once the new laws Idumea had passed went into effect, no man, anywhere, would dare shelter his son.

“No, Peto. That’s not possible—”

“Why not?!”

“Because we all stay together!” Perrin hissed, remembering there was a soldier outside who may have heard the earlier shouting.

“You mean, us too?” Jaytsy said, squirming.

Perrin exhaled. “Yes, all of us.”

Jaytsy looked at Deck. “But . . . we’ve got expecting cattle, and our baby’s coming anytime—”

“We know that,” Mahrree said. “And so do those who are coming to take us. They specialize in moving expecting women!”

But Jaytsy watched her father earnestly as she said, “I think Deck and I should stay, at least until the baby’s here. We’ll be as hysterical as Peto, and my tears would be genuine—”

NO!” said Perrin with such brittle fury that no one dared talk back to him. “Jayts, after we leave,” he whispered, “there’d be no one here to protect you.”

“Protect me from what?” Jaytsy whispered.

Perrin’s gaze flicked in the direction of the fort. “Thorne.”

Deck squared his shoulders. “What about me?”

“You’re coming too,” Perrin said. “You—”

“No, I mean, I can protect Jaytsy—”

“Sorry, but no, you can’t,” Perrin interrupted. “You’d be useless against Thorne, and we all know it. Even with your pitchfork. I’m afraid there’s no choice.” Because Thorne’s out to get you, too. He wants your wife, which means he has to eliminate you first.

Deck tried to hide his insulted expression, but Peto didn’t.

“I just can’t go, Father,” he said. “It’d ruin everything.”

“Everything’s already ruined, Peto,” Perrin told him. “Has been for longer than three weeks. This really is our only option, and it has to happen tonight. Everyone. You included.”

Peto sighed. “But you don’t understand—”

“And neither do you!”

“Ah-ha-HA-HA!”

Mahrree’s rigid laugh made everyone turn to her.

“You know how they say the tension’s so thick you could cut it with a knife? This would require a . . . hooked, cutting thing. You know, with the long, curved blade thingy?” She gestured madly.

“A scythe?” Deck suggested.

“I think so?”

Perrin smiled dimly. “Thank you, Mahrree, for . . . whatever that was.”

Even Peto managed half a smile.

Perrin tried again. “We realize we’re asking a great deal of each of you, that this is the last thing you would have expected to hear from us today. But Salem feels we are in danger, and I have to admit that I feel it as well. The only hope for our family is to run away tonight, and trust that we’re running to a much better place.”

“And your source of most of this information is Shem?” Peto raised a critical eyebrow.

“Yes, we spoke at length last night, right over there in that stall.”

Deck spun to look. “So it wasn’t a dog that bedded down there?”

“No, Shem and me.” Perrin didn’t add, And we buried a file about Mahrree, started by Administrator Gadiman fifteen years ago. Right there, under that appropriately steaming pile of cow dung.

Every muscle in him clenched again, especially when Peto’s gaze hardened. “So you’re trusting the man who for seventeen years lied to us about everything? You’re putting our futures in the hands of a liar?”

For the first time that morning, Mahrree’s enthusiasm flagged. “Peto, I realize this is a lot to take—”

“No, Mother. It’s impossible to take! And two people who sneak around in the dark shared everything about Salem with you? Is there any evidence such a place even exists?”

Perrin blinked at his son’s cynicism. “Peto, I didn’t want to believe them at first either, but—”

“But still you are! You’re trusting your future and ours to an admitted liar and his two contacts who wouldn’t even give you their names?! They could be Guarders, and this could be a trap!”

Perrin and Mahrree exchanged looks, each one hoping the other had an idea.

Neither of them did.

Eventually Mahrree came up with, “All I can tell you is this, Peto: when they spoke, I felt it, in here.” She patted her chest. “I felt the Creator, I felt peace, and I even felt my parents. I knew that leaving was the right choice, and I still do. Is it absurd to leave behind all that we know and possess, and follow strangers—and a liar—to somewhere we don’t know? Yes, it is! But do I want to do it anyway? Oh, Peto—yes! Yes, because I feel it!”

Jaytsy sniffed. “Drat. Now I feel it, too!” she chuckled.

Deck nodded and dabbed at his eyes.

Perrin, his own eyes swelling with affirmation, turned to Peto.

He scowled back.

So Perrin turned to Deck instead. “Your uncle, aunt, and cousin won’t know what happened to you. We don’t have any family left who will miss us, but you, Deck? You have the fewest reasons to leave, but the most to lose simply because you married into this family. I need to know—honestly—how do you feel about all of this?”

Deck met Jaytsy’s eyes. “She and our baby are my family now, Perrin. I go with her.”

“It’ll be worth it, Deck,” Mahrree said. “I’m sure they have cattle in Salem.” She turned to Perrin. “Don’t they?”

Perrin shrugged. “If not, we can come back and steal some, as good Guarders should.” He was sure that’d elicit a smile from Peto.

He was wrong.

“Peto, Please, trust me—this is the only option,” his father said.

“According to Shem, the liar?”

“Yes, yes, yes—he’s a liar. Point made! Shem was quite forthcoming last night, confessing a lot and explaining a great deal of his behavior. I choose to trust him. He was never dishonest in his feelings toward us.”

“So why isn’t he here now?” Peto’s gray eyes hard with animosity. “Why isn’t he convincing me of his plan?”

“Because he’s on duty, trying to spy for us. The garrison is making life uncomfortable for Thorne, disappointed in his poor leadership. Chances are he’ll try to do something noteworthy and stupid, and it might involve us. We need to get out of the way so that we’re not a target.” It was close enough to the truth that only half of Perrin’s muscles stiffened.

Peto shrugged at that and let his gaze wander back to the ground.

“Peto?”

Reluctantly he looked at his father.

“You have to go. I realize you’re legally an adult now, but as your father I’m order—I’m asking you: please, come with us.”

“Peto,” Mahrree said, “you know it’s the right thing, don’t you?”

“No,” he said flatly. “But you’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”

“Nope,” Mahrree said.

Peto sighed heavily and shook his head.

“I’ll take that as an agreement to leave with us,” Perrin decided.

“It’s for the best,” Mahrree assured him, once again overflowing with enthusiasm. “It’ll be an adventure!”

Perrin tilted his head in warning at her. At any moment she might burble something about Terryp’s land, and now just wasn’t quite the right time.

Mahrree clapped her hands cheerfully. “We need to get back to work! Can’t do anything suspicious or out of the ordinary!”

“Mother,” Peto said, “That sing-song voice is not only suspicious and out of the ordinary, it’s also annoying.”

“Ah-ha-ha-ha!”

Acting natural was easier said than done, Perrin realized later. At midday meal, when he and the boys came in to eat, Jaytsy was sobbing at the stack of changing cloths she was folding, while Mahrree stroked her hair.

“I just told her she can’t take any of it with us.”

After they ate, Perrin spied Deck patting a cow ready to deliver soon, and Perrin offered a prayer that someone would notice the cattle needed a concerned rancher.

Peto said nothing while he slowly raked out the stalls, often stopping in his work and sighing in frustration.

And when Perrin came into the Briters’ house to wash up, he found Mahrree weeping in their pantry.

“What are we doing?” she wailed. “We’re really leaving?”

“Didn’t you want to play Terryp?” he reminded her.

“I can’t remember what I want sometimes,” she sniffled. “No, we’re going. We’re going. Oh, but I haven’t visited the burial grounds to tell my parents!”

“Don’t you think they already know, Mahrree?”

But he felt it too, the wildly swinging moods like an axe on a rope during a land tremor. Yet there was no way they were staying. Edge had turned its back on them, and the world would be here in the morning to take them to Idumea and try them for sedition. He hadn’t heard anything from Karna, Yordin, or Fadh since he resigned. Shem had said they were ordered not to correspond with him. But surely one of them would have been clever enough to circumvent the Administrators and send him something.

Never mind, he told himself as he repaired the fencing on the west side of a pasture. If only he could see Clark, his massive black horse, one last time. Maybe Offra would still take care of him.

Perrin scratched the ears of wide-eyed Clover who had warily wandered over to see what he was up to. She was the first and likely last cow that he’d ever successfully milked. Perrin wished that somehow Clark could hear his muttered, “Thanks for everything. You’re a marvelous animal. I’m sure going to miss you.”

The other thought that nagged him all afternoon was, Where is Salem? Through the mountains? How were they supposed to get past the massive boulder field at the base of the mountains? And the forest before it, always patrolled by soldiers?

In frustration he yanked too hard on the rope he was tightening and gave himself a mild burn. He sucked on his palm until the heat went down.

Where’s Salem? Where’s Salem?

For dinner the five of them walked to the Shins’ home as naturally as possible to have their last meal together in the house they would never see again. Jaytsy and Deckett didn’t even look back at the Briter farm for a final goodbye.

Two soldiers recently posted on either side of their drive were watching too intently.

—-

 

“And where do you think you’re going? Hew Gleace, turn around!”

Gleace stopped, frozen in position with his hand on the door. Reluctantly he released the knob and turned to face his wife.

“Dearest, it’s tonight—”

“I know it’s tonight. Everyone knows it’s tonight. So where in the world do you think you’re going?” She eyed his clothing—all black—and folded her arms.

“But we haven’t ‘killed’ a taking in such a long time.”

“Oh, I wish you’d stop saying it like that!”

Hew smiled apologetically. “Everything we’ve been working for, for years, ends tonight. Every available man is needed—”

“You are not available!” Mrs. Gleace insisted.

He held up his hands. “Who’s in charge of all of this?”

She tightened her folded arms. “You’re too old. You haven’t done this kind of work in years. It’s too dangerous.” Her voice quivered. “You’re needed here more!”

“Dearest, there are others here who can—”

“No they can’t!” she insisted. “Please don’t go. The Shins will be taken care of. This is younger men’s work.”

A frantic pounding came at the front door. Hew yanked it open to see a middle-aged man holding a hat in his hands.

“We need you—now!”

Gleace sighed and sent his wife an accusatory glare. To the man he said, “The new stock from Sands?”

“She’s one of the best we’ve had in years, Gleace! If we lose her and the calf—”

“I know, I know.” Gleace grudgingly took up his straw hat and pulled on an old jacket over his black clothes. “Can’t afford to lose the new bloodlines after all we did to get them here.” With a glance back at his wife, he murmured, “It’s calving season, after all.”

As the man hurried away, Mrs. Gleace brought her husband his work gloves.

“You did this, didn’t you?” he said, only slightly put out as he slid on a glove.

“What, you think I put that cow into distress?”

“No, but you’d pray for something like that.”

The slender, wrinkled woman’s eyes gentled. “I may have asked the Creator to remind you that your duty lies here first . . .”

He kissed her quickly on the cheek. “Don’t wait up.”

When he’d shut the door behind him, his wife looked up at the ceiling. “Thank you!”

 

 

 

Chapter 2—“Oh, I’m trying to be

helpful.”

 

Peto entered his room, knowing it would be one of the last times he ever would. He wished that the moment was somehow more momentous, but his room didn’t seem to understand he was about to leave it. The kickball given to him by Relf in Idumea didn’t even do anything but sit sedately on the shelf.

“Peto?” Perrin called him from the eating room table. “Come out here when you can. I’ve got something to show you before dinner.”

“In a minute,” Peto said. He closed his door, walked over to the wardrobe, and saw the corner of the parchment envelope under a folded jacket belonging to a suit hopelessly too small for him. He patted the jacket with brass buttons one last time, slid out the envelope, and peered inside at Relf Shin’s recorded dream about his son becoming the greatest general that Idumea—that the world—would ever see. Along the top were still scrawled the names of Lek and Lorixania Shin: the first Shin general, and his wife, whose family were Guarder traitors.

He sat down heavily on his bed and sighed. “Grandfather?” he whispered, hoping that somehow he could pull him from Paradise, wherever that was.

Feeling a bit more mature, he tried, “Relf?”

He held up the envelope.

“We’ve got a problem, sir. I’ve been mulling it over all day, and I think I’ve figured out what’s going on. I hate to say this, but . . . your son is scared. He’s scared to stay, he knows he doesn’t have a future here, and I think that man Jothan he told us about has him shaking in his boots, but he won’t admit it. He’s holding back stuff, I can tell. Maybe he’s been threatened? And as for my mother—well, she’s a bit batty today, I’ll be honest. I think she’s so desperate for something to happen that she’s jumping into this without thinking.

“But I’ve been thinking, Relf, and now I think I understand why you gave this to me.” He waved the envelope. “I’m the only one in this house still in his right mind, the only one who could be trusted with this information. My parents are walking into a trap, into a mess bigger than we’re leaving, and it’s up to me to save them from that.”

He leaned back on his bed, feeling confident.

“I’ll go with them until I can find proof that this is all a big mistake. Then . . . well, we’ll need a way to escape all of this. Will you be able to help?”

The cosmos didn’t answer, but Peto would’ve been surprised if it had.

“I’ll just have to trust that the correct solution will present itself, and that I can knock some sense into my parents at the right time. Until then, I’ll gather evidence. And if I can’t convince Father, I’m sure I can enlist Karna, Fadh, and Yordin to get through to him.”

He carefully stuffed the envelope into his shirt pocket. “Yes, it’s going with me, just like you said it should. And when the time’s right, I may pull it out and show him what you said he should be doing instead of running away like a . . .”

He couldn’t bring himself to say the “c” word.

The silence in the room said it for him.

“Guess I better see what Father wanted to show me,” Peto whispered as he got off his bed.

Halfway to his door a thought banged so abruptly into his mind that he stumbled. If he actually heard the words, or if he just imagined them, he wasn’t sure. But he couldn’t deny the question: So where did Lorixania’s family run away to?

Peto staggered.

His great-great-great grandfather didn’t retrieve them, as King Querul had ordered. That’s why Lek Shin’s name was lost to history. So that meant his in-laws got away.

That could mean they were—

“In Salem?!” Peto gasped. “If Salem really exists,” he added, still wrestling with that possibility. “Relf worried that his ancestors were Guarders, but the first Guarders actually ran away to Salem, which means . . . which means that if all of this is true, then we may have family there already.”

He sat clumsily on his bed, never before feeling so disoriented. It was as if someone had stood him on his head and said, “Ah, there. Now you see the world as it really is. Funny how you lasted seventeen years seeing everything upside down and didn’t know it.”

“Suddenly I’m not so sure about anything anymore.”

He was surprised to hear those words come from his mouth, and to feel his previous plans, revised many times today, growing fuzzy in his mind.

“Grandfather? What do I do next?”

The last time he felt Relf Shin was on the kickball field when he impressed Peto with the notion of Wait. The word once again filled Peto’s mind, and he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining that.

“So . . . wait for more evidence to help convince my parents all of this is a horrible idea? Or wait to—”

“Peto?” Perrin called again from the eating room. “I’d really like you to come see this.”

Peto sighed. “Wait,” he said to himself. “As usual. All right.” In a louder voice he said, “Coming, Father.” He patted the envelope, concealed by his pocket, and opened his bedroom door.

In the gathering room, Jaytsy was sobbing, again, as she kneeled next to the completed cradle made by their father that her baby would never sleep in.

“Can’t we just take this? As the only thing?” she begged.

Deck bit his lip, and Peto knew why. Deck had eyed the small-scale incarceration unit over the past few weeks. While Perrin wanted it strong enough to withstand a major land tremor, Peto thought it would also make a suitable cage for rabid bobcats.

It probably didn’t help that Peto had once said to Deck, “Good thing it’s so sturdy. Mother told me some of the stories about Jaytsy and me when we were little, and that cradle might have contained us. But don’t worry; your baby will probably not be nearly as much trouble as your wife was.”

Besides, the thing was so bulky it would have taken all three men to drag it up to the Briters.

Mahrree, patting farewell to each book that had belonged to her father, smiled miserably. “No, Jayts. Nothing goes with us.”

Deck, standing next to the table, sighed quietly in relief.

“We have to maintain the appearance of being kidnapped,” Mahrree reminded them. “The only things we can take are some personal papers that no strangers would notice missing. Your father can make a new cradle in Salem.”

Perrin nodded as he looked at the table, not yet set for dinner.

When Peto saw what was laid out on top of it, he gasped. “Terryp’s map! You really have it!”

“I thought you’d like to see it at least once before you never see it again,” Perrin smiled.

Deck chuckled and bent over for a closer look. “It’s amazing. I can’t believe you really stole this and kept it all these years.”

Peto couldn’t help himself. “And in our house,” he laughed. “Terryp. Unbelievable!”

Jaytsy wiped away her tears as she joined them. “I don’t know what’s more shocking,” she said. “That our father took this from the garrison storage room when he was younger, or that our mother abandoned us when we were small to find a Guarder in the forest.”

Mahrree spun around. “I’ve told you, I would never have abandoned you!” she defended herself for the ninth time. “I just, just—”

Their parents had been confessing a lot of things today.

“Yes, yes, yes, we know,” Jaytsy said. “Wanted to know the truth. You know, Peto, some people worry about rebellious teenagers, but you and me?”

Peto shook his head with feigned sadness. “Rebellious parents. They are out of control,” he added with emphasis that no one noticed.

“We need to leave this place that has influenced them in the very worst of ways,” Jaytsy rolled her eyes dramatically.

“All right, all right,” Perrin nodded at his laughing family. “Yet another reason why we need to leave. And unfortunately, we also have to leave Terryp. You know, Shem said he knew I was the one who made the copy.”

Mahrree turned from her book patting. “How?”

“By the arrows. He said whenever I made arrows on our plans, ten percent of them wouldn’t be fully closed. When he saw the copy of the map the Expedition brought to my office, he had a suspicion and counted the arrows. Of the eighteen arrows, two weren’t completely closed.”

“He concluded by two arrows that you made the map?” Peto squinted. “Why did you tell him you had the original?”

“I told you, Peto—he already figured it out. Last night we shared a lot of secrets,” Perrin said, noticeably uncomfortable.

“And what kind of secrets did he reveal to you?”

Perrin’s gaze flicked over to him. “Now’s not the time, son.”

“Why not? We should get to know some of Shem’s dark little secrets, shouldn’t we? He knew all of ours!” Immediately Peto knew he’d pushed it too far; his father’s glare had gone steely.

Not tonight, Peto!”

Peto had seen that behavior before, in an injured wolf limping along the edge of Edge. The closer anyone got to it, the more it snarled and sheltered its hurt leg. A noble and naive doctor was trying to help it, until it bit off one of his fingers.

Peto didn’t feel like losing any appendages tonight, so he sat down at the table to be closer to the map. It was full of possibilities, calling to him—nearly screaming—and no one else heard it?

“Father,” he said quietly, tracing the drawings of stacked pyramids Terryp had labeled temples, “I would have gone with you on The Great Shin Expedition of 338 to Terryp’s land.”

Perrin softened and smiled. “Thank you. Perhaps we still can.”

You know,” Peto said, looking up at him, but Perrin was staring longingly at the map, as if putting off burying a loved one at a funeral. “We still can. You have to leave Edge? Then let’s leave, but go to Terryp’s land instead of going with these Salem people.”

His father sighed, and it seemed to Peto that he wasn’t really hearing him. “They said, uh . . . they said they’ll take us themselves. Tours and campsites and lectures.” He waved aimlessly. “We’ll still get there, son. Later.”

“But let’s take the map, Father. You and me and—”

“The map stays,” said Perrin dully. “Shem’s suggestion. People will be searching the house, looking for clues. When they find this, they’ll be speculating for a long time as to why I had it.”

“That was Shem’s idea?” Peto clarified. “To leave this map?”

“Yeah.”

Peto rested his chin on his fist. Shem’s idea. He didn’t like this, not one bit. Why leave behind such a valuable document, just as a clue? Leave behind the copies his father made—that’s enough!

But by the look in his wistful and—dare he think it?—sad eyes, Perrin Shin wasn’t going to do anything today that someone else didn’t order him to. He was so meek, so trusting, so . . .

Peto couldn’t look at him anymore.

“I can’t believe we’re leaving without saying goodbye to Shem,” Jaytsy sniffed.

Peto scoffed quietly to himself.

“He has to lead the patrols away from where we’re going,” Perrin told her. “And since the maneuvers he scheduled were usually in the west, I’m assuming the route starts somewhere in the east.”

Under his breath, Peto said, “Yet another one of Shem’s ideas.”

Deck winced. “East? All that’s east are the marshes.”

“And nobody ever goes into the marshes,” Peto pointed out. “Well, except for teenagers hiding from their parents.”

“And how often did you hide there from me?” Perrin dropped casually.

“I hate mosquitoes, you know that. I hid at Rector Yung’s most of the time.”

“Mahrree, our children are right. Edge had been a terrible influence. It made our son hide out at a rector’s home, of all places.”

Peto had to smile at that. “And Yung’s really from Salem? He’s gone back there?”

“Apparently,” Perrin shrugged again.

“And what kind of evidence do we have of that?”

His father, still staring forlornly at the map, waved that away. “Guess we’ll have that evidence when we see him there. And now Terryp, my dear friend who I never met, I bid you a fond farewell.” He ran his hand over the map one last time. “You have inspired so many. Never feel you didn’t accomplish anything. You don’t know how many lives you touched.”

Peto’s eyes burned to hear his father’s voice tremble.

Perrin slid the mugs off the corners of the map, rolled it up, and nestled it with the copies he made but never sent. They watched in silence as he somberly walked the rolls to his study, and Peto realized the funeral was over. Hearing his mother sniffing, he watched her wipe her eyes and hurry off to the kitchen to check on dinner.

At the table, Peto massaged his hands and brooded quietly.

Jaytsy set the table for dinner around him.

When their father came out of the study, his eyes were noticeably redder, and he was folding a stack of pages.

“What’s that?” Jaytsy asked, balancing a plate on Peto’s hands.

“My parents’ letters to me over the years, and a few lists from my mother,” he told her.

“I have some of their letters, too,” Jaytsy said, nudging over her brother’s arm to put down a fork. “And a few recipes from Grandmother Peto. Could you be any more unhelpful?” she snapped at Peto.

“Oh, I’m trying to be helpful,” he grumbled. “You have no idea.”

Perrin turned to Deck, who had come from the washroom. “You brought your parents’ letters with you, right?”

He nodded as he patted his shirt and unbuttoned a few buttons. “And my father’s journal.” He extracted a thick book that reduced the size of his chest and stomach by several inches. “I hope it’s not too large for Jothan’s pack.”

“I thought Deck looked a bit beefier tonight,” Peto said. But in his mind he was shouting, You too, Deck? You’re really buying into all of this as well? It’s madness!

Perrin nodded to Deck. “We’ll make sure Cambozola’s journal goes with us, along with Hycymum’s recipe collection. She’d be furious if we left that behind for just anyone to find.” He turned to Peto. “Do you have anything to bring?”

“Nothing for the pack. I think you have all the family records.”

“Your mother has a few things she said she’s carrying in her pockets,” Perrin nodded. “I suppose that’s everything then.”

It was all Peto could do to not massage his head in aggravation. Like trusting little lambs, all of them. Willing to follow the guard dog Shem, who was most likely a wolf. And not an injured one, either. A cunning, healthy wolf lying in wait.

None of this was going to end well, none of it. But so far, Peto didn’t know yet how to stop it.

—-

 

Never before had dinner been over so quickly, Mahrree thought, as they cleaned up the dishes. Everything she did, she realized, was for the last time. Wiping the work table. Sweeping the floor. Putting away the mugs. Never before had tidying up felt so important.

That’s why she continued into the gathering room, straightening books and folding blankets.

“Why?” Perrin asked. “Whoever searches the house tomorrow won’t be taking notes on how well you kept it up.”

She smacked him with a pillow she was fluffing before she set it down next to him on the sofa. “Because . . . well, this sounds silly, but I bought this house twenty-five years ago, and it’s been very good to me, and . . . I want to say goodbye to it properly.”

Peto rolled his eyes.

“And is that why Jaytsy,” Deck spoke up, “is in the washing room wiping down the sink?”

Mahrree shrugged. “That, or the nesting instinct is really taking over. She was using the scrub brush. I didn’t think it was that dirty.”

Through the kitchen door came Jaytsy, brush in hand and surprise on her face, because she wasn’t alone. Slipping in silently behind her was a small, dark woman, dressed like the night.

“I didn’t even hear her come in!” Jaytsy exclaimed. “Suddenly, there she was in the kitchen!”

Perrin was already on his feet, nodding to the woman. “Everyone, this is Asrar. She was here last night. Wait a minute—there are two soldiers posted in the back garden. How’d you get past them?”

Asrar beamed with delight, her black eyes nearly glowing. “The Creator gives us gifts and talents,” she said. “Mine, it seems, is becoming invisible when I need to be.”

“Asrar,” Mahrree said, “that must have been a wonderful trick when you were the mother of six young children.”

“Six!” Peto whispered.

“So Shem told me. Sorry,” Perrin said to Asrar, “but I demanded some details and shared them with my family.”

She smiled broadly. “And tonight I’ll answer nearly any question you ask me, in the limited time we have.”

“I’ve got one,” Peto said. “Where’s this place Salem?”

Asrar patted him on the arm. “I said nearly any question. Shem warned me about you.”

“Oh, he did? Not surprising.”

Mahrree cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, Asrar. I’m not sure why my son is so unpleasant tonight.” She jabbed him in the ribs.

“Trust me, Mother,” Jaytsy said. “It’s not just tonight.”

But Asrar was busy fumbling with something under the large black cloak she wore. She produced a bundle wrapped in cloth.

“What’s this?” Mahrree asked.

“Your disguises. You’ll be easy to see,” she aimed her nod at Jaytsy, “should anyone be looking for you, especially in that orange.”

Jaytsy shrugged in agreement as she glanced down at her billowy top and ample skirt.

“These clothes are far better for traveling,” Asrar explained as she handed out a tight bundle to each of them. “If you could put them on now, I can make any modifications if needed. I also happen to be gifted with a needle,” she added modestly.

Peto was the slowest to accept his, but Deck was already undoing the string holding his bundle together, smiling curiously at it.

“Jaytsy and I will change upstairs,” Mahrree said. “You boys can change in Peto’s bedroom.”

“And I’ll need what you’re changing out of,” Asrar told them.

Mahrree, who was already on the stairs, stopped and turned, and noticed that Perrin had paused on his way to Peto’s bedroom.

“Why?” he asked, full of suspicion.

Asrar’s gaze darted between both of them. “I was told not to tell you, but I can see already that you won’t agree unless I do. We’re dressing decoys for you.”

Perrin tilted his head. “For all of us?”

“As a precaution. In case anyone notices you’re missing, we’ll have some of our scouts dressed as your family in the same clothing that you were seen in earlier. If complications arise—” and something in her tone made the hair on Mahrree’s neck prickle, “—the decoys can lead the soldiers on false trails.”

Jaytsy paled. “You won’t have a pregnant woman for my decoy, will you?”

“No, a middle-aged man with a bit of a pot belly, I’m afraid,” Asrar smiled. “If it makes you feel better,” she added when she saw Jaytsy’s face screw up into dismay, “he’s not entirely thrilled about it either. Especially when his wife made him a black ponytail wig from a real pony’s tail.”

It was only the second time that day that Mahrree had heard Peto laugh. She asked Asrar, “Is there another middle-aged man for me?”

“Actually, a short, slender scout in his mid-twenties,” Asrar said. “His wife is most anxious to see him in a dress, so he just may have to try to bring some of it back for her.”

Now Deck was trying not to snicker, and even Perrin cracked a smile, but Mahrree wondered why only some of it.

“And what about a decoy for me?” Perrin asked.

“You were a bit harder,” Asrar admitted. “But we found someone who could pass for you, in the dark, and from a distance. We’re most blessed that we’re moving you on a moons-less night. The darkness works in our favor. Usually,” she added.

Perrin heard her hesitancy. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just that we haven’t used decoys in a very long time. There’s a bit of concern, that’s all.”

“What,” Peto said, still sniggering, “that someone will realize Guarders like to dress up as women in their spare time?”

“No,” Asrar said. “That one of them may not return to Salem. Soldiers tend to panic in situations like this and act rashly when they realize they’ve been deceived.”

Peto’s expression had never before sobered so quickly. “You’re for real, aren’t you? All of this?”

Mahrree frowned at her son’s strange questions.

Asrar fixed on a radiant smile, although she blinked at Peto. “Yes? Every man out here tonight is a willing and eager volunteer. It will be, no doubt, the most memorable move since the first guards smuggled away Guide Pax. So please don’t worry! Now go and get dressed. We have less than an hour.”

Up in her bedroom Mahrree opened the bundle and held up the first item: a simple brown tunic which gave her a twinge of guilt. While her dresses were never as elaborate as Joriana’s Idumean creations, or even Hycymum’s imports from Scrub, Mahrree’s clothes were far more fancy than this. But the stitching was strong, the design practical, and the brown, rough weave reminded her of soil.

“I like it,” Jaytsy decided. She opened her bundle and pulled out her top. It was a similar style, but looser and in dark mottled green. “Plenty of room for my belly, but it doesn’t look fat. I already like these people.”

Mahrree chuckled and pulled out the skirt. But it wasn’t a skirt. She exchanged alarmed looks with Jaytsy before opening the door. “Asrar?” she called.

Asrar came quietly up the stairs.

“Is this right?” Mahrree asked. “Trousers?”

Chuckling, Asrar said, “Only men wear trousers, Mahrree. Women wear ‘breeches’ when traveling. Does that make you feel better?” She gestured to her own which, until that moment, Mahrree had assumed was a skirt.

“Yes, thank you!” Mahrree laughed.

Jaytsy was already evaluating her ‘breeches.’ “Look how much more room I have to grow in these,” she giggled as she demonstrated the adjustable waistband.

Mahrree slipped off her dress, the light blue linen that Joriana had purchased for her in Idumea, soon to be worn by some poor young man. She pulled on the tunic and the breeches, and immediately she was gripped with an unexpected sense of lightness, of—there it was again—joy. She glanced at herself in the mirror and saw a completely different Mahrree. She grinned.

Jaytsy twirled in her flowing green. “This feels really nice. I wonder what Deck will say to my ‘breeches’.” She looked at her outfit on the bed. “That orange really is rather garish.” She bundled it under her arm, as Mahrree was doing with the blue linen.

But they both found themselves staring at the red and blue plaid bedding, chosen by Hycymum and put on their bed after the room was rebuilt after the land tremor.

“Goodbye, Mother,” Mahrree murmured, running her hand along it. “You and Father and the Shins will watch over us tonight, won’t you?”

“And the Briters, too,” Jaytsy sniffled as she fingered the ruffle on the matching curtains. “We take all of them with us.”

A moment later Mahrree and Jaytsy came out of the upstairs bedroom, wiping their noses, and handed their clothing to Asrar. They followed her down the stairs to find the men dressed and waiting.

They each seemed a bit embarrassed yet lighter-hearted in their new apparel. Deck’s light blue work shirt was replaced by a dark green tunic and trousers which matched his wife’s. Peto fidgeted with his loose brown shirt that matched his trousers, and Perrin was dressed in nearly pure black. His eyebrows lifted in surprise at his wife’s breeches.

Mahrree posed. “Do you think they’ll ever become popular around here?”

“I’ve seen women in some ridiculous outfits,” Perrin said tonelessly, “with skirts up past their knees and necklines down to where no honest man should be looking, but women in trousers?

“Breeches!” the three women said together and chuckled at Perrin’s vigorous head shaking.

But Deck was eyeing his wife. “Oh, I don’t know, Perrin. Tell me, Asrar, do all women dress this way in Salem?”

Jaytsy put her hands on her hips. “Why do you want to know? You already have a wife.”

“No,” Asrar told him, “most women wear dresses most of the time. This is just for practical purposes.”

Deck nodded. “I have always appreciated practical women.”

Jaytsy stared at him, bemused.

Asrar gathered the men’s bundles and slipped all of the clothing under her roomy cloak, exchanging them for yet another bundle.

Mahrree wondered just how much woman there was under there. She was likely the diameter of a stick, filled out only by all she carried.

Asrar unwrapped the new bundle to reveal dull black cloth. She unfurled one and it turned out to be a heavy cloak with sleeves.

“The more you can look like the night, the easier it is to move you.” She pulled out three more cloaks and handed them to everyone but Perrin. “You’ll find these are quite warm.”

Perrin held out his hand.

She smiled. “Former Colonel Shin, please go get your uniform jacket. You still have it, I assume?”

“What?”

“Your uniform jacket. Please go get it.”

“But the medals and ribbons will show up almost as much as Jaytsy’s large orange belly would have,” he deadpanned.

“Father! I’m still in the room, can’t you see?”

“Of course we can see,” Peto said. “In fact, we can barely see around you.”

But Perrin was already up the stairs and returned a moment later with his jacket in hand.

“Now please turn it inside out,” Asrar said.

“Inside out?” As he pulled the first sleeve wrong side out he began to smile. Quickly he reversed the entire jacket to reveal a dull black coat, matching his new tunic and trousers perfectly.

“Shem’s been doing that for years, whenever he came to the forest,” Asrar explained. “We thought you’d like to take the jacket with you. Many people in Salem owe their lives to you wearing it.”

“Rather symbolic and ironic,” he said, his voice growing gruff. “I just need to reverse all I ever did, become what I chased—”

Mahrree smiled. “Perrin, you never looked better in that jacket.”

Asrar turned to her. “Oh dear. Mahrree, please come upstairs with me. I see a loose seam already, but we have time to fix that.”

Mahrree twisted to see her shoulders, but Asrar was already leading her up the stairs.

“I don’t see anything,” Mahrree said, as they went into the bedroom.

“I’m sorry, but I needed an excuse to get you up here alone. Mahrree, Shem’s told me that in your bottom drawer you have something,” Asrar raised her eyebrows meaningfully, “that will help us get your family past the guards posted around your home.”

Mahrree’s mouth dropped open but she snapped it shut. “I was wondering how we would get past them. Not all of us have your invisible talent. But yes, I do.” She pulled out the bottom drawer, and from beneath her underclothing she withdrew the dark bottle. “I don’t know how potent it is anymore. It’s a couple of years old.”

“We need it to work for only a short while,” Asrar said, gingerly taking the half-full bottle of sedation. “From what we’ve been able to gather, sedation grows more unstable the older it gets.” In a murmur she added, “Rather surprising that this bottle is still intact—”

“What was that? Unstable? What happens?”

“Oh, nothing to worry about, nothing to worry about! However, the sooner I get it away, the better.”

If there was nothing to worry about, Mahrree privately wondered, then why was she cautiously wrapping the bottle in raw cotton before sliding it into a pocket?

“My husband was prepared to do something more drastic to eliminate the guards,” Asrar said as she fastened a hidden button on the pocket, “but I hope this will keep him from having to do so.”

Mahrree stared at the bulge that virtually disappeared on the woman’s thigh. “This day is full of irony. I tried many times to throw that bottle away, but each time I thought, ‘No, we’ll need it again.’ Now sedation from Idumea just may be our means of escape from it.”

“The Creator works in mysterious ways, Mahrree,” Asrar agreed. “He thinks of everything, and plans well in advance.”

Asrar left the house a few minutes later, slipping past the guards in the dark who didn’t even notice her.

And then the Shins waited.

They told stories and reminisced—carefully, so as to not cause Mahrree or Jaytsy to break into weeping again—about annoyances and people they’d never have to deal with again. By midnight they were convinced nowhere was worse than Edge. Good riddance.

Before Jothan arrived, Mahrree made one last sweep of the house, patting everything in the dark. The candles had been blown out, hopefully sending a signal to the soldiers that the Shins had gone to bed, and that the Briters were staying there for the night.

Mahrree sighed as she wandered the house that she had so loved, that had sheltered her for so long—

She expected to be more emotional about leaving it, but instead was surprised that she was so composed. It was just a house, but it deserved a proper goodbye.

It was in the study, while patting part of her father’s book collection, that her hand stopped on one book. She’d begun reading it a couple of years ago during one of Perrin’s bad nights. It was a tale from the Great War about a woman whose parents and sisters were discovered to be Guarders. The woman’s husband was an officer tasked to find and bring back his wife’s family. Mahrree had been mildly intrigued by the angry daughter who wanted her family to be captured and tried for their crimes; her husband who began to question the intentions of the Guarders—perhaps suspecting they were innocent people merely trying to run away, Mahrree mused now; his sergeant, eager for the king’s reward gold, who pushed the officer as hard as his wife had.

But she never finished the story, and now she realized she never would. She began to pull the book from the shelf, hoping in her final minutes to find out what happened—

“My darling wife, there’s no time.” Perrin’s large hand came over hers. “It’s simply too late.”

Reluctantly she nodded to the book whose ending she’d never know. “Sometimes it just hits me how much I’m leaving behind.”

“Remember, it’s only things. What you’re really attached to are the people who lived here, and they’re going with you.”

“True.” Another thought struck Mahrree. “Perrin, what about The Cat?”

He sighed. “Shem will try to get him to live at the fort. I haven’t even seen The Cat since midday meal. He was taking care of a mouse over at the Briters’. In any case, he’ll eat fine.”

“Are you going to miss him?”

“I think I will. When we get to Salem I guess we’ll have to find another kitten.”

 

—-

 

But The Cat was the least of Perrin’s worries right now. He was feeling more antsy and eager as each minute slipped by. Genev and his guards and carriages were on their way, arriving in Edge by dawn. If Mahrree had known that, she wouldn’t have been so sentimental right now. She’d be clawing at the door to get it out of her way.

Peto’s voice came from the dark doorway. He had been spending his last few moments bouncing Relf’s kickball against his bedroom walls which, until yesterday, was against the rules. “Someone’s here. I guess it’s Jothan.”

Together, Perrin and Mahrree took deep breaths.

“This is it,” Perrin said, squeezing her arm. “The ending of everything, the beginning of everything—”

“Well then,” Mahrree said as brightly as possible, “let’s go.”

In the kitchen, where a small candle was burning, they found Jothan already greeting Jaytsy and Deck.

Peto stopped abruptly. “Father, he’s huge!” he whispered.

“I know. Good thing he’s on our side, isn’t it?” Perrin whispered back. “I’m not sure I could take him.”

Jothan heard him. “I wondered that myself last night,” he grinned. “And you must be Peto,” he said extending his hand. Peto took it warily. “Don’t worry, I am on your side.”

“Uh-huh,” said Peto, with great reservation.

Perrin caught Jothan’s eye. “I spoke with Shem last night, about a great many things.” He hesitated. Jothan had saved his body on one occasion, and saved his mind on another. Perrin owed him his life already twice, and now he was handing it over a third time.

Not knowing what else to say, Perrin extended his hand, hoping Jothan would understand that his handshake was more than just a show of faith. It was a sign of immense gratitude.

Almost sheepishly, Jothan shook his hand.

But Perrin was also curious. Still gripping it, he turned Jothan’s hand to see a thin white scar on his dark brown skin.

It was Perrin’s blade that had made that scar, seventeen years ago, when he blindly thrust his long knife behind him in a vain attempt to stab in the face the Guarder who was attacking him in the snowy forest. Perrin had been sent an anonymous note warning him there were twelve Guarders sent to kill his wife and daughter, but there’d been fourteen, instead. Salem knew that, and sent Perrin help in the form of dozens of men.

While Perrin didn’t know that, he’d suspected someone was helping him when he couldn’t eliminate the threat by himself. Someone had taken out that massive Guarder who had been choking Perrin at the end. There had been a shallow slice on the man’s face, but now it was obvious that Jothan had taken the brunt of Perrin’s slash in his hand. And then, without a groan of pain, Jothan stabbed Perrin’s Guarder in the throat and ran off.

Mahrree peered over to see in the faint light the scar Perrin had told her about earlier. “Dear Creator, it really was him!”

Peto glanced over as well. “Interesting,” was all he whispered.

Looking up into Jothan’s eyes, Perrin hoping he could convey enough admiration and appreciation.

Jothan just nodded once. “Now that that’s out of the way,” he said to the others, prying his hand from Perrin’s grip before he could say anything more about it, “let me tell you what’s next.”

Perrin grinned at the quick change of topic.

“I’ve taken care of the soldiers guarding the house,” Jothan said. “There were eight tonight—”

Perrin’s grin vanished. “What did you do?” It wasn’t as if they were still his soldiers, but he did know most of them.

“Sedation,” Jothan assured him. “Shem stole some from the surgeon. They each dropped quietly, but we’re not sure for how long.”

Perrin nodded in approval and wondered why Mahrree suddenly grew so fidgety.

“We’ll first go east to the canals at the far side of Edge. It’s important that we move very quietly,” Jothan explained. “Jaytsy, you best take care of your needs now. You won’t have the opportunity to do so again for some time.”

Jaytsy giggled. “I already did, ten minutes ago.”

Jothan tilted his head patiently. “Jaytsy, my wife was expecting six times. I’ve been moving women in your condition for five years. I know that ten minutes ago would be like eight hours to your husband. One more time. Please.”

Jaytsy nodded and rushed to the washing room.

“Sir,” Deckett said to Jothan, “my confidence in you just went up significantly. You know what you’re doing, don’t you?”

Jothan patted Deck on the back. “I do.”

But Peto folded his arms. “So . . . what exactly is it that you do?”

“Uh, Peto?” said Deck. “He just told us.”

“Yes, but is that all he does? Move people?”

“Just what are you getting at?”

Perrin cleared his throat. “That’s what I’m wondering, too, son.”

“I’m gathering information. Isn’t that what you should do before you start on some big change in life? Gather information about it?”

“Jothan,” Mahrree said, “may I apologize for my son? He’s been a bit . . .” She bobbed her head.

I’ve been a bit . . .!” and Peto snapped his head back and forth.

But Jothan only smiled. “It’s been an unusual day for everyone, I’m sure.”

Jaytsy reappeared in the kitchen, and Jothan said to her, “Your journey on foot will be of a bit of a distance, but then you’ll have a comfortable ride the rest of the way,” he promised. “Let me know if you start having any kind of pains. But first, we pray.”

The Shins and Briters stared at each other as Jothan, without hesitation, dropped to his knees as if it were an everyday occurrence to announce a prayer and immediately begin one.

Quickly everyone else joined him, and Jothan said to Perrin, “This is your home, but do you mind if I offer it?”

Perrin shrugged his agreement.

“Dear Creator,” Jothan began before anyone could close their eyes, “we’re here, and we’re ready. We’ve done all we could to prepare, and now we turn it all over to Your hands. The culmination of many years’ work is coming together tonight, and dear Creator? It’s going to be messy, isn’t it!”

Mahrree was tempted to peek to see if the Creator were actually there, because Jothan’s tone was so convivial, as if he were good friends with the Creator.

Then again, Mahrree thought, shouldn’t we all be?

“—So if You could please help all of us keep our minds clear, our hearts open, and our stamina going, we’d be ever so grateful. And dear Creator,” Jothan continued, “if possible, would you please tell my grandfather that . . .”

Mahrree’s eyes popped open to see why Jothan had hesitated.

He was looking up at the ceiling and grinning broadly. “Tell my grandfather, ‘We’ve got them!’”

Perrin’s eyes flew open at that.

Peto murmured, “I knew it!”

Jothan chuckled—actually chuckled!—as he ended the prayer with, “Please help us to not mess any of this up. Thank you, sir, for this marvelous opportunity. Amen.”

“Amen,” was the quiet yet confused chorus from the Shins and Briters, who had never heard a prayer quite like that before.

“And now,” Jothan said, getting to his feet, “no more noise as we leave. No sound until we reach the safety of the forest.”

Peto gave his father a penetrating stare that he didn’t know what to do with, but there was no time to think but to follow Jothan, who noiselessly slipped out of the door to the back garden where four soldiers lay sprawled in the weeds.

Perrin quietly shut the door behind him and ran his hand along it. As soon as he let go of it, that would be the end—

He felt Mahrree squeeze his other hand, and she reached back and touched the door as well. “I’m sure they have oak doors in Salem,” she whispered.

Their children were already following Jothan out of the garden, stepping cautiously over two more soldiers. Mahrree let her hand slide down the door.

And Perrin removed his, clasping it into a fist. He gripped her hand tightly as he whispered in her ear, “Come Mrs. Terryp. Let’s find our new world.”

And neither of them looked back.

 

 

 

Chapter 3—“Shem told me you were

conveniently gullible.”

 

They headed east out of the alley, passed two more snoring soldiers, crossed the main road that led to the fort, then ducked down another alley using the shadows to dart across dark roads.

Jothan lead the way with Peto behind him, Jaytsy and Deckett following, and Mahrree and Perrin bringing up the rear.

At one point Mahrree breathed to her husband, “I feel I should be saying goodbye to all of our neighbo—”

A dog barking in the distance hushed her before Perrin could. Jothan automatically crouched to the ground, and everyone followed suit. After a moment he slowly stood up, beckoned, and the Shins and Briters continued to practice their Guarder sneak to the east of Edge.

 

—-

 

Mahrree tried not to notice in what part of Edge she was in. To keep her mind occupied, she instead imagined her new home. Asrar had told her it was completed, but Mahrree didn’t dare ask about which way it faced, or what else it might look like, just in case the description didn’t match the image from her dreams. But that didn’t matter; the thought of a new home was overwhelming. Asrar explained that every family coming to Salem had a house built for them, and the Briters’ would be finished next week.

Even Perrin was speechless when he heard that hundreds of people, formerly of the world, had come to put up a board or donate furnishings for Colonel Shin’s new home.

Those thoughts made leaving their village, which ignored them for the past few weeks, easier. But Mahrree was still disappointed that Perrin hadn’t heard anything from the other forts. Not even Karna had sent them a message. Shem had told Perrin last night that he’d stopped in Mountseen to talk to Yordin, but Gari wasn’t at the fort, and his wife told him he was out. At least, that’s what she claimed.

When she ran through her mind the names and faces of all they knew, Mahrree concluded that they really weren’t leaving anyone who would miss them. Maybe The Cat. And they’d see Shem again.

She clutched her husband’s hand. He didn’t need it now for drawing a sword. His old one was left behind. All weapons were.

 

—-

 

Perrin squeezed her hand back as he scanned the neighborhoods. He had done it hundreds of times before, but always looking for people in black, never being one of them. He felt the odd mixture of relief and displeasure that none of the soldiers he trained so thoroughly noticed six people sneaking out of Edge.

Then again, Shem had told him they’d had some close calls in the past. When the soldiers should have seen something, it was if the Creator had turned their heads at the right moment, or distracted them long enough to slip a frightened child or a slow-moving mother into a pocket of trees.

Maybe, just maybe, Perrin had done a good enough job.

It’s just that the Creator was sneakier.

He looked ahead at his daughter and wondered how well he could run if he carried her. Perhaps the Strongest Soldier race should have included hefting expecting women. He and Deck should be able to get her to safety if someone spotted them.

The thought made him nervous, and he picked up the rate of his perimeter scanning.

 

—-

 

Jaytsy did her best to keep up behind Jothan, who timed his pace by her waddle. Only a few weeks earlier she could have hustled more quickly, but two days ago it was as if her belly fell forward, straining every muscle it was attached to. While grateful for the strong arm of her husband around her, her awkward gait kept throwing him off of his. After the fifth time of him whispering to ask if she was all right, she whispered back, “Assume that I am, unless you hear otherwise!”

More than once she contemplated heading back to take the journey another time. She wasn’t the one in danger—it was her parents. They needed to leave now. She and Deck could sneak away with their baby at the end of the season, when she could run again. But her father had been adamant: no one stays behind.

Naturally they felt obligated to drag her along, even though she slowed them down. She didn’t even look up as they passed her old school building. She just wanted out of Edge, and to not be the reason her family didn’t escape.

But she knew she would be.

 

—-

 

Deck wished he knew what was going on in his wife’s mind. He wondered if he could carry her, but last week he tried to romantically whisk her up the stairs to their bedroom. It wasn’t that she was too heavy, but that she was laughing so hard at his attempts to cradle her. Once he finally got her upstairs she rushed back down them to relieve herself in the washing room.

But by the severely determined look on her face tonight, there’d be no giggling. Twice she asked him if he really thought they were doing the right thing. And twice he told her he didn’t want her birthing anywhere but Salem.

Deck tried not to think about his uncle Holling, aunt Lilla, and cousin Atlee. He’d been torn up all day imagining what losing another family member would do to them, and when Perrin asked him about that earlier this morning, Deck didn’t dare admit that his family’s response worried him. But he meant what he said: Jaytsy and their baby were his family now. Perhaps the Mountseen Briters would take comfort that Deck was “lost” with his wife.

Over a year ago, when he told his uncle about Jaytsy and asked what his father would think if he asked Jaytsy to marry him, Uncle Holling said, “Do whatever you need to have a family again. Follow her and her parents to Idumea if you must. Cambo and Suzie would be thrilled. I’m certainly relieved to see that spark back in your eyes.”

Deck hoped Uncle Holling would remember those words. Leaving his father’s family and a herd of expecting cattle wasn’t as difficult as the thought of disappointing his new family. If worse came to worst, he was sure he and Perrin could carry Jaytsy to safety. As long as she didn’t giggle.

 

—-

 

Peto watched the long strides taken by Jothan in front of him, and planned.

He’d already memorized a description of Asrar and Jothan, and paid close attention to the route they took, slotting away in his mind every detail he could for when he’d need to pull it out again to reveal whatever he needed to, to whomever would listen.

Grandfather Relf, he thought, keeping an open line of communication with him, please let me know what and when and how. We’ll get your son out of whatever trap he’s about to walk into. Any kind of sign will do. A bat swooping, an odd noise somewhere—I don’t know, just make it obvious, all right?

Peto searched the dark around him, genuinely confused as to whether he wanted a soldier to spot them or not. It’s kind of hard to know who the bad guys are tonight, Relf. And should Shem suddenly appear? Peto exhaled under his breath.

I really don’t know what to think of him. Just . . . help me save this family.

 

—-

 

Six people in black reached the end of the alleys of Edge. From there they took a dirt road past quiet farms to the canals which ran along the furthermost eastern farms. Beyond the canals the land sloped significantly downward to the east for several hundred paces, where it flattened out to swampy marshes which extended a few more miles to the sea.

Everyone halted when they saw Jothan head down that slope.

Sensing his party wasn’t following, he turned around. “I assure you, it’s not through the marshes. Come down here and you’ll see how we can travel without being spotted by soldiers or farmers.”

Perrin gestured for Peto to continue on, and Peto grumbled under his breath, “There’s a reason no one goes down here. The buzzing, the blood sucking, the smacking . . .”

Mahrree was ready to smack him herself, but Peto stopped his complaining before she got within hitting distance.

Cautiously they made their way down the dark slope, holding on to each other for support. A quiet “oof!” signaled that Peto had crashed into Jothan, who likely could have held back all of them from going too far.

“There’s a path here,” Jothan told them barely above a whisper. “If you look back up the slope, you’ll see that our heads are much lower than the farmland. The way it drops here, a soldier on horseback riding near the edge won’t notice us. Soldiers always looked further into the marshes. They rarely looked straight down.”

Even in the dark Mahrree could tell Perrin had his mouth pursed. “Never saw a reason for it,” he murmured.

“But teenagers hide out here,” Jaytsy said, sounding winded. “There’s that rise, where the mosquitoes weren’t as prevalent in the middle of Weeding Seaso—” Her breath ran out.

“I know,” Perrin sighed. “We could spot them from here. But I never noticed this path.”

“Neither did those teenagers,” Jothan said. “They were too busy whining to notice pregnant women and families creeping along just a few hundred paces away from them. Then again, the reeds do grow quite tall.”

“Jothan,” Jaytsy panted, “could we rest for a moment?”

“Of course.”

Jaytsy slumped to the ground, and her worried husband crouched nearby.

Perrin slid over to Jothan. “I haven’t seen any patrols.”

“That’s because Shem detected movement near Moorland,” Jothan explained. “Seems to be villagers sneaking over there hoping to find a shortcut to Terryp’s ruins. There have already been a few cases of people trying to leave the world.”

“Really?” Perrin said.

Jothan’s mouth turned up into the smallest of smiles. “Shem told me you were conveniently gullible.”

Perrin groaned. “I have no idea when to believe him anymore!”

Jothan patted his shoulder. “Actually, there have been a few cases of people in Sands trying to head west, and patrols have increased at the border. But there is a rumor of another path that may lead to the western passage, starting in the forests near Moorland.”

“Let me guess,” Perrin folded his arms, “Shem started that?”

“Gives him a reason to send soldiers to the west. Shem’s a master rumor starter, so our way should be clear tonight. Jaytsy, I’m sorry, but it’s a little less than a mile until we reach the forest. We need to be moving. While we’re relatively concealed, we’re not yet safe.”

“I understand,” she said, getting up with Deck’s help. “Let’s go.”

Mahrree cringed with worry for Jaytsy. She did seem to be waddling more. Even Peto looked back to check on her.

Perrin put his hand against Mahrree’s back to gently push her on. “The sooner we reach the forest, the better I’ll feel about all of this,” he whispered. “It’s almost too quiet. There should have been at least two soldiers on the last road.”

“Perrin, it’s a blessing.”

“I hope so.”

—-

 

“Well, hello gorgeous!”

Everyone in the trees chuckled quietly, except for the middle-aged man in the orange tunic, skirt, and black pony tail made from a real pony’s tail. The severity of his glare, however, was lost in the darkness.

“I’m still the professor of advanced mathematics,” he warned the young scout. “And I’ll be grading your test next week. Don’t think I won’t remember this.”

“Yes, Mr. Archedes,” the scout tried not to snigger. “I’ll definitely remember this.”

Another young man, dressed as Mr. Briter, smiled amiably and held out his arm. “Shall we, my dear?”

Archedes stiffened. “No one said anything about play acting!”

“The Briters were seen leaving to the Shins,” said another scout, materializing suddenly from the trees. “We need to ‘walk them back’ so the fort thinks they’re home. The more we can misdirect, the better chances the real Shins and Briters have tonight.” The man in his late thirties folded his arms sternly. “We’ve never had a riskier moving, and we don’t have time for nonsense or stage fright!”

“Sorry, Dormin,” several of the dozen men mumbled.

Archedes obediently took the arm of the younger man. “Let’s go,” he said darkly. “Once around that farm there, beyond the clearing, then into the back door. Shall we, dearest?” he said as he pulled the younger man along. “This horse hair’s getting itchy.”

 

—-

 

In another section of the woods, the youngest scout ever allowed on a moving was hurriedly getting dressed. “Hey, they fit perfectly!”

“Good, Peto,” said the scout helping ‘Mrs. Shin’ with the buttons on the blue linen.

The man wearing the dress dropped his hands helplessly. “Just how many buttons does one dress need?”

“Apparently,” said the man helping him to unbutton the previous eight, once he realized they’d skipped yet another one, “at least forty.”

“Oh dear,” said a fourth man, attempting to put on Perrin Shin’s trousers. “I’m not as tall as him. Good around the middle, but the length?”

‘Peto’ for the night skipped over to him. “Just roll up the bottoms,” he said cheerfully. “See? No problem! Come on, come on—we should be getting out there by now.”

The man chuckled. “Woodson, I think you’re just a bit too excited about all of this. And no, we don’t go until we get the signal that we’re needed. So far everything’s quiet. If it stays that way, we won’t even be called for—”

“What?” Woodson wailed in a whisper. “After all I had to do to convince my parents to let me come?”

Deciding that a couple of skipped buttons wouldn’t be noticed in the dark, the man helping to dress ‘Mrs. Shin’ gave up and turned to Woodson. “Keep it down! You really don’t want to be caught now. Should Thorne discover you—or worse, Genev—do you realize what Guarders are supposed to do to themselves when they’re caught?”

Woodson gulped. “Wait . . . we’re not going to, to . . .”

“Ease up on the boy,” ‘Perrin’ said, buttoning the real Perrin’s shirt over his chest that didn’t fill it out quite as fully. “No, Woodson. No suicides tonight. But you’ll have to run as if a mountain lion is on your tail should you become separated from us. Head straight—”

“I know, I know,” Woodson intoned. “Head straight for the trees and run, run, run.”

“One question,” ‘Mrs. Shin’ asked, looking down at ‘her’ skirt. “How am I supposed to run in this?”

The scout helping them pulled out his long knife—he was one of the few authorized to carry one—and slashed the side seam from the thigh to the ground.

Aghast, ‘Mrs. Shin’ stared at the rip. “Do you have any idea how much this dress is probably worth? And now my leg’s showing!”

The scout blinked at him. “And it’s not even worth looking at. Get a grip, man! We’re tearing these clothes to shreds later anyway. This will add believability. Now, wait behind that boulder until you hear the signal. And remember, all you need to do is—”

“I know, I know,” Woodson said, eyeing the long knife with the ardor only a fifteen-year-old could possess. “Run.”

 

—-

 

“Are you sleeping on the job?” Lieutenant Radan exclaimed as he kicked the soldier he’d just tripped over. “What, a bad bottle of mead? Drinking on duty as well? I’m writing that up, don’t you think I’m not,” he said, officiously pulling out a little notebook. He’d purchased it shortly after Thorne became commander, and in the past three weeks he’d been invaluable as Thorne’s Second in Command, dutifully finding as many things wrong with the soldiers as possible. That was his job, after all: making everyone else know who to fear. No wonder so many were trying to leave the fort for somewhere easier and lazier.

“So dark out here I can hardly find my slagging charcoal.”

That was another change: Thorne didn’t care if men cussed, so Radan took advantage of that and liberally sprinkled his sentences with manly cursings, like pickled relish flavoring every conversational meal. Sometimes it didn’t always fit, but that wasn’t the point.

“Ah, here it is. Now, what son of a sow do we have here?” Radan squatted next to the body. “A new transfer, I see. Sergeant Clot. Well, my dear Sergeant Clot, when you come out of your drunken stupor, Thorne will have a few choice words for you, and so will I.” He stood up, took another step, and fell flat on his face. Again.

“What the slag is going on here?” he demanded, wiping himself off as he fumbled around the ground for his notebook. He found it, under a bush, and on top of—

“Another body? What, drinking with your buddy, here? Disgraceful!” Radan whipped out his charcoal again. “Another Sergeant, is it? Fergio?” He got to his feet, tsk-tsking the entire time. “The most important night to keep an eye on our prisoners, with Administrator Genev coming, and you men . . .”

It had been growing for the past few seconds, the notion that maybe something wasn’t quite right.

Radan began to realize that what he was dealing with was more serious than mead mixed with boredom.

Three seconds later full panic hit him like a thrown cat, and he rushed from the fort road over to the Shins’ house two doors down. He tripped on two more bodies in the alley, lost his notebook for good that time, and stared at the unconscious face just inches from his.

“Slagging son of a sow . . . Shin’s killed them!” he gasped.

The man beneath him snored.

“Or maybe not,” Radan said, scrambling off the body. On his knees, he looked around at the bodies littering the yard. His gaze rose to the back door and instinctively knew that the house was empty.

“Oh slag. We’re going to be in so much trouble.”

 

—-

 

Halfway to the forest Jaytsy slowed considerably. Jothan, who had been turning to check on her frequently, stopped.

“Do you need to rest?”

Jaytsy only nodded, held her belly, and slid to the ground again. Jothan climbed up the slope on his hands and knees, and peered over the edge to the flat farmland. Perrin followed and watched the quiet terrain with him.

Mahrree crouched next to Jaytsy, with Deck on the other side, while Peto stared out into the blank darkness.

“How are you?” Mahrree asked Jaytsy.

“My legs ache. I just need a few minutes, I promise,” Jaytsy said with as much determination as she could muster.

Deck kissed her on her head and wrapped an arm around her.

 

—-

 

Shem Zenos mounted up and waved to his ten soldiers to follow him. He was surprised that his hand trembled as he did so, but in the dark none of the young men noticed.

He’d done this dozens of times, taking soldiers out on diversions while behind him far more activity than anyone suspected was taking place. But tonight was different.

Tonight, it was the Shins.

After all these years and effort, it was finally ending, and his feelings about that were as mixed as . . . well, as two smashed pies.

Shem had considered that the two lives he led was like holding a different pie in each hand. Usually he could keep them separate and balanced, but on nights like this, they came dangerously close to colliding with each other as he tried to juggle his identities.

At the fresh water spring where he paused to let his ten men water their horses, he glanced up at the cloudy sky, and was startled to see a familiar face in the branches just a few feet above him, waggling his eyebrows.

Suddenly Shem knew the two pies he held were about to smash together, and everyone would see just what he’d been doing all these years, and would stare in astonishment at the mess he’d created.

Shem also realized that he shouldn’t try to come up with metaphors when he was hungry.

 

—-

 

The fort was in complete pandemonium as every soldier was frantically forced into duty, saddling horses, grabbing supplies, and forming groups of ten.

Captain Lemuel Thorne had been shouting orders, but now he let Radan complete that task.

Lieutenant Offra sauntered leisurely from his quarters and sent Thorne the same look of disdain he had been for the past three weeks.

Thorne didn’t have time to deal with Offra’s silent disobedience. He’d be leading his own group of ten as soon as Lemuel forced him. No, right now he needed more authority on the field of treachery. And he knew exactly where to find it.

He stomped up the stairs of the command tower, feeling the power he was in search of reaching down to him. It wanted to be used.

Ignoring the glances of two nervous privates placed on duty to keep their eyes on the desks to make sure no more files went missing, Lemuel headed into the command office and went to the corner.

There it was, wrapped in worsted wool, and waiting to be returned to Idumea: the sword of Relf Shin.

It was a general’s sword, after all. And Perrin Shin had relinquished it, realizing that he didn’t have ability to wield it properly.

But Lemuel, who was now unwrapping it on his desk, knew how to wield power. He gripped the ornate hilt and gave the sword an experimental swipe. Without any thought, Lemuel removed his own sword, given to him by his father, and dropped it on the floor with a clank. Still admiring the gleaming steel of a High General’s weapon, Lemuel sheathed it, reveling in its muffled singing as it found its new home at his side.

Properly armed for battle with traitors, Captain Lemuel Thorne trotted down the stairs, shouting for his horse Streak to be brought to him at once.

 

 

Chapter 4—“We have no chance, do we?”

 

Jothan and Perrin slid back down the bank to the Shins waiting on the trail.

“Some movement,” Perrin whispered. “On the road, still far away, but the soldiers were running. The towers aren’t lit yet—”

“Soldiers don’t normally run unless there’s a reason,” Jothan said, watching Jaytsy for her response to their update.

But Deck answered with, “Do you force all expecting women to walk until they collapse?” It was the most rancor Mahrree had ever heard from her son-in-law.

“No,” Jothan said apologetically. “We usually give them a comfortable ride in the back of a hay wagon to about this point, where we disgorge our secret load out of sight. Most women need to walk only a few hundred paces to the forest from here. We can’t exactly drive the hay wagon all of the way to the forest’s edge. Nor could we run a hay wagon in the middle of the night from your house.”

“Hay’s not as comfortable as it may seem,” Jaytsy murmured. “Pokes your skin. Deck and I once went into the hay loft to try—”

Deck’s frantic throat clearing stopped her.

Mahrree looked away to smirk at her husband, whose eyebrows had gone up.

“It’s comfortable the way we make it,” Jothan told Jaytsy, generously ignoring Jaytsy’s earlier suggestion. “While on the outside it looks like an overstuffed wagon of hay, it’s mostly an enclosed crate with pillows and blankets and even a trap door so women can relieve themselves along the way.”

Peto smiled at that.

“There’s access to the crate below the driver’s seat so children can go back and nap with their mothers, and messages and food can be passed. On the driver’s seat is one of our scouts, and posing as a sister or mother, depending upon her age, is a midwife. The wagon’s quite roomy and comfortable.”

“I’ve seen that wagon,” Perrin said. “Never knew where it was going, or why it turned around here. I just thought it was lost.”

“So it worked as we planned,” said Jothan.

“Well, there’s no wagon for me right now,” Jaytsy looked up at them. “We need to get to the trees then, don’t we?”

“I can guarantee your safety there.”

“Then let’s go,” she grunted, struggling to her feet. “My legs will catch up later. And no, Deck—I don’t need to be carried!”

Mahrree patted her arm and let Deck follow her, behind Peto and Jothan. Jaytsy soon began to waddle slower, but when Jothan offered to let her stop again, she shook her head.

The tree line loomed closer, the slope shifting as it rose up to meet the edge of the forest. Mahrree realize the path was putting them in view of the farmlands and even the patrols who normally rode along the edge.

Jothan stopped before the disappearing path came level with the farmlands, and crouched to huddle the family around him.

“This is the only tricky part. We have to run about thirty paces to reach the trees. Deckett, you and I will be on either side of Jaytsy, and when I whisper ‘now,’ we’ll rush her into the forest. Jaytsy, don’t worry about keeping up—we can drag you at a good pace. Perrin, help Mahrree. Peto, stay near them. Should something happen, you catch up to me and let me know.”

Mahrree squeezed Perrin’s hand, and he squeezed it back, a bit too tightly.

“Jaytsy, are you ready?” Jothan whispered.

“I’m not getting any skinnier.”

Jothan took her left side, while Deckett took her right, then everyone watched the west and held their collective breath.

There was nothing to see or hear.

Finally Jothan whispered, “Now.” He and Deck stood up and sprinted awkwardly to the forest, dragging Jaytsy between them like an overstuffed scarecrow. Mahrree almost forgot to run herself until Perrin yanked her along, Peto running by his side.

Soon they dove into the woods, and for a moment Mahrree marveled how upside down her life had become. Fifteen years ago she ran into here, terrified; now she ran into there, relieved.

They found Deck and Jothan helping Jaytsy sit down behind a massive boulder about forty paces in.

“Put your feet up,” Jothan was instructing her. “On the rock. You need to get your feet above the height of your heart.”

“What’s wrong?” Mahrree asked, coming over.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Jaytsy whispered.

Mahrree touched her ankle that was no longer there. “Yes, you’re swelling up.”

“What does that mean?” Peto sounded genuinely concerned.

“It’s usually not too serious,” Mahrree told him, hoping that was true, “but the best thing to do is rest with her feet up.”

Jaytsy pulled her leg away. “Well, that’s not possible, is it?” She slid off the boulder and struggled to stand back up like an ant heaving an unwilling watermelon. “We’re going to make it over that mountain and whatever else we need to do! Jothan, what’s next? Jothan?”

There was no answer.

There was no Jothan.

Perrin shot Mahrree a look which chilled her. She put her finger to her lips and gently pushed Jaytsy behind the rock and crouched next to it. Deck shielded Jaytsy on the other side, but from what, they didn’t know.

“I knew it!” Peto whispered furiously as he stepped behind a tree.

Before Mahrree could panic, or wonder what Peto thought he knew, she heard faintly in the distance the snort of a horse.

Perrin slipped behind a shrub, and Mahrree’s heart thumped madly.

“Mother!” Jaytsy whispered urgently. “Deck!”

“What’s wrong?” Deck whisper back, panicked.

Jaytsy gasped, squirmed, and gasped again. “When I crouched behind this boulder, I felt . . . oh, ow!”

Mahrree’s mind sent up a frantic prayer. “What’s happening?”

“I need to relieve myself again!” Jaytsy whimpered. “This is unbearable! What should I do? I’m going to wet myself!”

Deck’s head quietly thudded the boulder in relief, and Mahrree sent a follow-up, Never mind prayer. “I honestly don’t know, Jaytsy. Of all things . . . you sound like a six year-old!”

“I can’t help it! Oh, this was a bad idea. I know I should have waited to go to Salem later—”

“Shhh!” whispered Deck. “No more of that talk! Just do your thing right here.”

“What?! I’m in breeches, and that’s disgusting!”

“No it’s not. I do it all the time in the field.”

“Out in the open?”

“No one cares! You think you’re going to find a forest washing room nearby?”

“Hush, you two!” Mahrree hissed. “Jaytsy, just hold it for a minute.”

“A minute? I’ll be drenched in a minute!”

Perrin, who had been frantically waving at them to be quiet, stood up cautiously and started to creep toward the forest’s edge.

Mahrree wished Peto was closer. He kept moving behind the tree at different angles, and, because he probably no longer knew which spot actually constituted ‘behind,’ he was backing around the tree in a slow, perpetual circle.

A few moments later Perrin bounded back to them, with Jothan. Perrin ran past Peto and pulled his dizzy son behind the rock where the others hid.

“Horses,” Perrin whispered. “At least two, moving parallel to us. There’s a lot of activity in the distance. Jothan thinks we may have been found out.”

“So what’s the plan?” Deck asked.

“Jothan’s going to try to—”

But muffled hoof beats coming from the opposite direction stopped him, and Mahrree froze in terror.

Jothan appeared by Perrin. “Up now. Move!” he whispered.

Mahrree and Deck hoisted Jaytsy up by her arms, but found themselves face to face with a large black draft horse. As the beast snuffed into Mahrree’s hair, she decided she needed a forest washroom as well. She wondered if Jaytsy still had a problem.

A second black horse appeared just as suddenly, trapping Peto against the boulder next to them.

“I knew it!” he whispered.

Jaytsy whimpered as two figures quickly slid off their mounts and rushed toward her with a large, thick fishing net.

“No!” Mahrree exclaimed. “You can’t—”

Jothan’s hand quickly covered her mouth. “Stay quiet,” he whispered. “This is our help.”

Mahrree couldn’t have spoken if she wanted to, because there were suddenly bodies—dozens of them—pouring out of the forest above them like a rock fall. Wild-eyed, she glanced over to Perrin who had taken a defensive stance and looked vulnerable without sharpened steel in his hands.

Peto cowered behind him, mumbling, “This is it, this is it—”

That was because the men who surrounded them weren’t dressed in mottled clothing like Jothan; they were dressed in all black.

They were dressed as Guarders.

“Jothan?” said Perrin, his voice tinged with panic.

“This is our help,” Jothan repeated, patting Mahrree comfortingly on the back.

“That’s right!” a young man near Perrin said, oddly cheerful. “We’re here to kill you!”

“What?” Peto gasped. “I knew it! Father, you have to listen to me now—”

But he stopped, because even in the dark everyone could see that Perrin was breaking into a grin.

Jaytsy, however, squirmed in a painful dance against her bladder while Deckett kept a firm hold on her.

Jothan sighed at their ‘killer.’

“Woodson, we appreciate your enthusiasm, but if you forget your training on your first mission, it’s not going to look good on my report.”

Woodson shrugged apologetically.

“Wait a minute,” Peto said, peering closer at Woodson in the darkness. “You’re wearing my clothes!”

“Yep! I’m playing you tonight.”

Mahrree noticed he was roughly the same age as her son, and her belly twisted in worry. He was young, far too young.

Perrin grinned wider. “I believe I know what’s about to happen. The Guarders are making a return. Am I right, Jothan?”

“Spoken like a man of the forest, as we’ve always known you were.”

Then Mahrree understood. “Just like Guide Pax! Everyone thought he was dead, so no one bothered to look for him. The men with him killed a deer, put the blood on their hands, and told King Querul they had killed Pax.”

“Very good, Mrs. Shin,” said a tall man next to her. “We took down an old doe not too long ago. When we’re finished with your clothes—” and Mahrree realized that he was wearing Perrin’s shirt and trousers, “—we’ll splash the doe’s blood on them and tear them up. The story will be that Colonel Shin didn’t kill all the Guarders in Moorland—although rest assured, we’re quite sure he did—but that a few dozen remained. We are those ‘Guarders’ tonight. Once you’re safely to the boulders, we’ll make a bit of commotion at the edge of the forest and throw out your bloodied clothing. This is the Guarders’ revenge, you see: the death of the Shins and Briters.”

“Normally we just slip people away,” Jothan explained, “but the entire world would be looking for Perrin Shin and his family if they went missing. But if it’s obvious that the Shins and Briters were killed, then that’s the end and the forests are secure once again. I’m sorry,” he said in a gentler tone. “While it will come as quite a shock to the world, we couldn’t think of any other alternative besides ‘killing’ you all.”

Jaytsy whimpered, but not because of the news.

“And why are two dozen men keeping this poor thing trapped here?” The voice came from next to Jaytsy, and was surprisingly female. “Come here, Mrs. Briter. Out of sight of these men who should know better about expecting women’s needs.”

“Sorry, Barb,” several men whispered. “And Mrs. Briter,” a few more added.

“Barb’s our midwife for the evening,” Jothan explained to Mahrree, staring after her daughter who had disappeared behind a more secluded boulder. “And a woman with a small bladder herself. Jaytsy’s in the best possible hands, now.”

Deckett sighed in relief. “Now maybe I can find a tree to water.”

Another man in green mottled clothing appeared next to Jothan. Mahrree blinked, wondering where he came from.

“What are all of you doing here, chatting up a storm?” he chided. “You all get to meet the Shins later. Right now we’ve got a problem.”

Perrin stared hard at the man.

He turned to Perrin. “Sir, the entire fort is on alert. You three,” the man pointed at Woodson, the man dressed in Perrin’s clothes, and—Mahrree caught only a passing glimpse of him—the unfortunate soul traipsing around in her blue linen dress, “Plan D. Move it!”

The three of them took off without another word, with half a dozen men in black in pursuit.

The Guarders were chasing the Shins.

Mahrree didn’t know whether to laugh at them or pray for them.

The man in mottled green had already turned back to Perrin. “And sir, some of your former soldiers look as if they’re about to enter the forests. Obviously they know you’re gone, and they’re desperate. Thorne’s hovering near the trees with ten men. ”

Perrin gaped. “He’s going in?”

Someone let out a low whistle.

“Contingency two, already,” Jothan announced to the remaining men in black, now anxious to get moving. “Find the other groups and tell them if they haven’t figured it out yet. Don’t worry, Perrin,” Jothan told him as the men around them dispersed as quickly as fog on a hot day.

But Perrin caught hold of the man in mottled green.

“We knew this might happen,” Jothan assured him. “We didn’t think it would happen so early in the night, though.”

Perrin was still studying the man in green whose bicep he gripped. “Do I know you?”

“In a way,” the man said softly.

“Your voice,” Perrin pointed at him, “I know I’ve heard that voice before. But it feels like it was long time ago.”

“It wasn’t my voice, but my father’s,” the man said. “I’ve been told I sound just like him, and look like him, too—”

“Oh no,” Perrin released his arm and took a step back.

Mahrree turned to the man who didn’t seem familiar at all.

“Look,” the man said, “it’ll take a lot longer than we have to explain everything. We have to get you moved and ‘killed.’ We’ll talk later. But I’m glad you’re finally in the forest with us where you’ve always belonged. And know this: all is forgiven.” He slapped Perrin on the back, and then he was gone.

Perrin rubbed his forehead.

All is forgiven?” Mahrree frowned.

“Who was that?” Deck asked, returning from his tree watering.

“I . . . can’t believe it,” Perrin said. “I—”

Jaytsy and the midwife’s return halted Perrin’s stammering.

“Are you all right?” Deck asked his wife.

“Yes, much better!” Jaytsy whispered, her tone now as light as her bladder.

But before the mystery of the green man could be explained, Jothan nudged Perrin. “Two riders, by the tree line.”

Perrin squinted into the darkness. “How can you see that far?”

“Years of practice. I’ll show you how we distract soldiers.”

“Be right back. I want to see this,” Perrin whispered to his family, and headed after Jothan.

“Well, how do you like that?” Barb said as Perrin trotted after Jothan. “Left us already. Going to be one of those nights. Everything’s going to happen quickly, and so should we.” She slapped Deck on the back. “Time to work. Husband and Grandmother—”

Mahrree, stunned that every minute brought a new turn of events, looked around before she realized she was “grandmother.”

“—right over here,” Barb commanded in a whisper. It wasn’t until then that Mahrree realized another large man in black was by one of the horses, turning the massive beast around.

Barb took Deck’s arm and led him to a pack on the front horse. She handed him several long wooden staffs which were strapped to the saddle, and showed him how to connect them into a long pole.

“You,” the midwife pointed at Peto. “The uncle I assume? Hold the lead horse in place until we finish.”

Peto, surprised by the label of “uncle,” obediently went to hold the bridle of the horse in front.

The man in black ruffled Peto’s hair as if he were seven years old before he jogged over to the second horse.

The midwife took the net of ropes and unfolded it to reveal that it was large enough to hold a person. She looped one narrowed end on to the pole, and Deck fastened the pole to a ring on the lead horse’s saddle.

“Grandmother, run the other half of the net litter through the end of the pole,” Barb held it up for Mahrree. “Our mother will sit in it.”

Jaytsy giggled quietly. “She called you ‘Grandmother’!”

“And you ‘Our mother’!”

Mahrree was shaking as she tried to work, but because of what she wasn’t sure: that the soldiers were looking for them, the sudden arrival of the men and horses, or the word ‘grandmother.’

“Call me Mahrree, please,” she said, but that didn’t make her feel calmer yet.

The midwife took up the other end of the pole and attached it to a ring on the rear horse, suspending the net litter between them while Mahrree fumbled to open it.

The bulky man in black stepped over to Jaytsy and whispered, “Really, the litter’s quite comfortable. Unless you want my mount? I’m sure you’d enjoy some jostling right now.”

“Shem!” Jaytsy cried in a whisper. She caught his arm and kissed his cheek as he and Deck helped her into the net.

Peto and Mahrree spun to see the man they didn’t recognize before.

He was wearing a dull black jacket.

Peto rested his head against the horse and sighed.

Deck patted Shem on the back. “We’ve missed you!”

“Likewise!” Shem adjusted the netting on the long pole.

“Shem, am I happy to see you!” Mahrree said, giving him a big hug from behind so as to not impede his adjustments.

Shem chuckled softly at the awkward embrace. “Mahrree, I have something to say to you,” he said as he tightened a few straps. “Years ago in the forest, not too far from this very spot, a woman said to you, ‘Someday will come for you. There will be a day when you will be ready to leave it all behind and embrace the truth . . .’”

Shem turned around to face her, and she could just make out that his expression was a mixture of amusement and sorrow.

“I planned for years to be the one to repeat to you Mrs. Yung’s speech. I’m so sorry I missed it. So often I wanted to—”

She put a finger on his lips. “It’s all right, Shem. The point is that we’re here now.”

“At least I can now tell you that I’m the one who set Barker on you that night. I wanted you to have a guard on your way home.”

Peto scowled at Shem talking to his mother.

And Shem noticed. “But we’ll talk about all of this later.”

“This really is quite comfortable!” Jaytsy whispered from the net as she gently swayed, cradled between the two black horses.

Perrin emerged from the darkness. “Never realized how a carefully thrown rock at the canal can unnerve soldiers. Shem, is that really you? Something’s gone wrong?”

“I left with ten soldiers to check on movements to the west, but Thorne was very paranoid today. He hasn’t been able to find something,” Shem emphasized. “While I was out, Kiren, Barb’s usual riding companion, signaled me from the fresh spring. I sent the soldiers ahead and stayed behind. Kiren told me Thorne had just sent out soldiers everywhere. He’s probably emptied the fort. The sedation must have worn off early, or someone went by the house and noticed the guards unconscious. Perrin, they know you’re missing.”

Mahrree saw the bleak expressions on Deck and Peto’s faces, and that Jaytsy was nervously biting her lip.

“If no one else will say what we’re all thinking,” she said, “then I will: we have no chance, do we?”

“Mahrree, we have every chance!” Shem declared, trying too hard to sound confident. “No one’s ever followed us through this forest successfully, and tonight will be no different. Kiren has already diverted my soldiers into a marsh. The horses will sink up to their withers this time of year.”

“Which still leaves well over a hundred soldiers,” Perrin mumbled.

“And we have nearly two hundred, Perrin, scattered throughout the forest and running into Edge. Tonight’s going to be messy. Killing someone always is,” Shem smiled wryly. “But we can handle messy.”

Jothan joined them. “The decoys are heading into Edge. That’ll send the majority of the soldiers searching the village. Our ‘Guarders’ will lead them on wild turkey chases, and our men in the forests will confuse any who try to sneak in. Don’t worry. We’ll divert them all.”

Still Perrin rubbed his forehead. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m not entirely sure that your so-called Guarders can handle the soldiers. Except for,” he added, as if he just remembered, “that man in green. Why did I recognize his voice?”

Shem smiled slightly. “Who did he sound like?”

“Oh, but it doesn’t make any sense,” Perrin said. “Why, he’s been gone for—”

He may be gone,” Shem said enigmatically, “but not his son.”

Perrin exhaled. “He sounded like King Oren!”

Mahrree rounded on him. “Oren’s dead!”

“I know,” said Perrin dully. “It was my father who ordered his execution, remember?”

“I do,” Peto mumbled.

“Oh,” Deck said. “If that was Oren’s son, and your father killed his father . . . that’s a little awkward.”

“And there it is,” Peto added darkly.

Shem put his hands on his hips and stared at Peto, who glared back. Shem opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, then turned to Perrin instead.

“Yes, that was Dormin, son of Oren. The Yungs brought him to Salem years ago. Dormin’s become one of our best scouts, and quite a convincing face and voice for those who still struggle to accept our truths. Everyone knows King Oren’s sons died years ago.”

“Amazing!” Perrin twisted to see where the king’s last son had disappeared.

“Perrin, if we can get Dormin out—and that was another very messy night—we can get all of you out as well.”

“But my grandfather killed his father!” Peto exclaimed. “Father, listen to me!” he grabbed Perrin’s arm. “Think about this clearly—how can we be sure Dormin’s not waiting to take his revenge on us?”

Mahrree’s mouth dropped open at the suggestion, but seeing the earnestness of her son, she had to consider that maybe he had a point.

But Barb simply scoffed at that. “Dormin was convinced of the uselessness of the kings long before he met the Yungs,” she said as she adjusted her riding gloves. “And if he wanted to kill you, he would’ve done it years ago. Besides, didn’t you hear what his last words were?”

All is forgiven,” Mahrree sighed. “How remarkable.”

“That he is,” Barb said, mounting her horse. “And as he also said, we need to get moving! Shem, we’re all ready.”

Perrin gently pried Peto’s hand loose. “It’ll be all right, son.”

Peto whispered back, “Because these strangers say so? How do you know this isn’t a trap?”

Mahrree overheard, and her eyes met Perrin’s.

“I don’t,” Perrin whispered, “but this is one of those times I guess I just have to have faith.”

“In who?!” Peto hissed.

“Not necessarily in these people, Peto,” Perrin whispered, “but in the Creator who told me to follow them.”

Pleadingly, Peto turned to Mahrree.

She nodded her agreement, and Peto threw up his hands in aggravation.

Something was up with their son, that was clear. But what that was, she had no idea. Looking for suggestions, she turned to Shem, but he was with Deck and Jaytsy.

“These horses have brought up many women over the years, with no losses,” he told them as Deck eyed the netting and Jaytsy squeezed his hand. “They know how precious their load is.”

Deck nodded, but he rubbed his eyes as he crouched by his wife to share a few last words.

Shem turned to Jothan. “You’ll need to take Kiren’s place with Barb. We’ll all meet you at the First Resting Station.”

“Shem, what do you mean?”

“I think I’ve just given my resignation, too. I was hoping that by abandoning my horse it would look like I had been taken or got lost.” He turned to Perrin. “I’m fairly confident Thorne may be soon looking for me as well. On my bunk after dinner were transfer notice papers. I never bothered to open them.”

Perrin gripped Shem’s shoulder. “Transfer to Salem? Excellent idea!” He pulled Shem into a quick hug.

Mahrree grinned.

Peto glared.

Jothan patted Shem’s back. “Your father’s going to be one happy man. Now don’t disappoint him and fail to show up,” he warned as he mounted the other draft horse.

Deck saw his time was up and he kissed Jaytsy. “I’ll be right behind you, I promise,” he said, squeezing her hand.

“I know you will be,” Jaytsy said.

Deck released her as the horses were kicked into a walk. Her body lurched, then rocked gently as her waving form was carried away into the dark woods.

Perrin clapped a comforting hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder, and Mahrree tearfully returned her daughter’s wave. “How do they know where to go?” she whispered. “Don’t the trees get in the way?”

“The rings on the saddles pivot,” Shem explained, “and we cut irregular paths for cover. And notice that their bridles make no noise? We pad everything with black lambs’ wool.”

“She’ll be all right, Mother,” Peto said worriedly, and glanced over at Shem. “Safer than us, I think.”

Shem folded his arms. “Peto, you all right?”

“Oh, I’m just fine,” Peto said sardonically. “No problems.”

“You are safe, now,” Shem told him. “If I wasn’t confident all of you will reach Salem, I wouldn’t be doing this tonight.”

“Oh, really?” Peto said with so much animosity that his parents stared at him.

Shem took a deep breath. “I get it. You don’t trust me y—”

“You haven’t given me much reason to!”

Perrin raised his eyebrows, and Mahrree exclaimed, “Peto!”

Shem held up his hand but kept his eyes on Peto. “No Mahrree, it’s all right. Dormin felt the same way the night we moved him. I had killed his brother Sonoforen, after all. But Dormin and I reached an understanding, and we’ve been good friends ever since. And Mahrree,” he turned to her. “That boy, Woodson, who’s playing Peto and was so eager to ‘kill’ your family? He was born in this forest, part of that same group as Dormin. All of that happened on the same night you decided to march into here and find out what was going on.”

“Oh dear!” she chuckled apologetically. “That was a messy night, wasn’t it?”

“At first Mrs. Yung thought you were Dormin,” Shem explained. “But everyone got sorted in the end, and the group of thirteen that entered the forest was fourteen with newborn Woodson.

“I can’t make any guarantees about tonight,” Shem continued, catching Peto’s skeptical gaze. “And I don’t have time to win your trust right now. We’ve tried to prepare for every possible outcome, which means we’re going to miss something. But all of us want your family to reach Salem safely, because you’re so important to us.”

“And why is that?” Perrin asked.

Peto raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Because every person is important, Perrin.”

Mahrree was about to point out that line sounded a little too pat, but Shem suddenly held up his hand.

Perrin nodded. There were more horses, their bridles jangling as they trotted along the edge of the forest. The soldiers usually only walked their horses, but tonight they were in a hurry.

Shem twitched a complicated signal to Perrin who immediately pushed Mahrree to him. Mahrree barely caught the unfamiliar signal Perrin winked back to Shem, and Shem grasped her hand tightly while Perrin took her other hand. Perrin then reached back and took Peto’s hand, nodding to Deck to hold on to Peto.

“You’re just going to have to trust me. Whatever you do,” Shem whispered to them, “don’t let go of anyone!

“But—” Peto protested before being dragged into the forest.

Shem darted off to the northwest, pulling everyone behind him.

Mahrree struggled to keep up with his pace, stumbling over fallen tree branches and tripping over the occasional rock. Shem kept a firm hold on her as he led them through the forest, and she clung on to Perrin’s hand behind her. Occasionally she glanced back to see her son and son-in-law holding tight to their chain of people.

They weaved in and out of trees, behind bushes, around rocks, and between more trees until Mahrree was sure even the foliage was confused. They rushed behind a loud steam vent, then dashed around a foul smelling spring. Shem moved so quickly that before Mahrree could realize they should be alarmed by what they had just passed, they encountered another bizarre and violent manifestation of nature.

It must have been the fastest tour of the forest in history.

In any other circumstance she would have been exhausted by the pace and the late hour, but every inch of her was filled with so much anxiety it propelled her onward.

 

—-

 

“Over there! Someone . . . over there!”

Radan gripped the reins of his horse and shouted to the ten following him. “Movement behind the gristmill! After them!”

His soldiers raced ahead of Radan as his mount impatiently stomped the ground of the marketplace.

Second-in-commands don’t put themselves in danger. That’s what enlisted men are for.

Behind Radan five more soldiers went shouting, and there—

Oh slag, there they were—

Guarders! All in black, shouting and whooping like irate owls. Radan wasn’t sure who was chasing who. More soldiers, more men in black, all yelling and running—

“We found her!” one of his ten called, rushing back. “Mrs. Briter!”

Radan kicked his horse and rounded the mill. At the commotion of soldiers, he slid off his mount and strode over to them. With so many soldiers, surely those clusters of Guarders wouldn’t stop here.

Radan spied the orange dress right off in the sea of blue uniforms, the wearer of it hiding her face and trembling.

Well, Radan thought, at least Thorne will have Jaytsy Shin. Obviously he wanted the baby as his son, but how long did he expect to keep Jaytsy?

“Mr. Briter,” Radan said to her nervous husband, held by two soldiers, “why have you brought your wife into such a dangerous situation? One might argue you don’t deserve such a woman.”

He gingerly took Jaytsy’s arm and—

“Well hello, handsome,” Jaytsy Briter said in the most grotesque and gravelly voice Radan had ever heard.

He yelped and released the creature’s arm, and the face—that craggy face with a bulbous nose and a scruffy beard . . . a beard?—laughed at Radan’s expression.

“So I guess that is an appropriate opening line. Little message here, from the Guarders,” said the man—yes, it was a man, and he was hideous. “We’re back and out for revenge. And by my calculations,” he sized up the crowd of uniforms, “this won’t take much effort at all. Boys?”

And just that quickly Radan and his men were surrounded by two dozen more in black, or maybe a hundred, and what happened next Radan wasn’t quite sure, except that he ended up flat on his back, someone’s fist having placed itself well on his nose, and there was shouting and laughter, and by the time he was able to shake the fog from his brain and struggle to his knees, all of his soldiers were also slowly getting up from the ground, dazed and bloodied from the fastest, most lopsided fist fight Edge had ever seen.

The fact that none of them were killed seemed little consolation, and Radan, as he warily climbed back on to his horse, wondered what happened to Mrs. Briter that such a repulsive man now had her clothes and was running away with Mr. Briter.

About ten minutes later Radan and his men stumbled to the southwest gates of the fort. Radan wanted nothing more than to collapse on a cot in the surgery to let his nose stop bleeding.

But when he saw Offra, mounted with his ten and blocking the gate, he knew that wasn’t about to happen.

“Thorne wants you at the forest’s edge, five minutes ago.”

“But we’ve been punched by Guarders!” Radan exclaimed, ignoring how lame that sounded. “My soldiers need attending to—”

“Thorne thinks he’s found Shin, that they went into the forest.”

Radan’s shoulders dropped. “So he’s gone, then?”

Offra shook his head. “Thorne wants to pursue him. If we’re not there in the next few minutes, he’ll demote us.”

“To what?” Radan cried, prodding his horse back to the road. “This is madness!”

Offra sighed in agreement, and Radan realized it was the first thing they had agreed on in weeks.

“Apparently Shin headed into the forests on a couple of occasions,” Offra told him, “and Thorne’s eager to prove he’s as capable. Or as stupid.”

“So,” Radan said with a hint of triumph as their twenty men reluctantly followed them, “your little hero worship of Perrin Shin is finally coming to an end?”

“Of course not,” Offra said, scanning the darkness before him. “I hope he escapes. But where will he escape to?”

Radan scoffed at that. “There is no escape. He’ll come running out of that forest, terrified. Where’s Zenos, anyway?”

“In the forest.”

“So it’s confirmed?” Radan released a low whistle. “What the slag does he think he’s doing?”

“I don’t know,” Offra said. “I wish I did. But Thorne said something odd when he got the news. He said, ‘Slagging Zenos really was one of them’.”

Radan scowled. “One of them? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I was hoping you’d know,” Offra grumbled. “Realize this, Radan: Thorne’s been keeping things from us. From you. When all of this shakes down, and when Genev arrives, we’ll have to explain what happened. Some of this will shake down on us unless we can prove Thorne didn’t tell us all he knew. Our only hope to retaining our commissions is to drop it all on Thorne, whose leadership—or lack thereof—has led to six more soldiers deserting just this evening, and contributed directly to the loss of the Shins and Briters.”

“Oh, no, no. I know where the Briters are! At least, Mr. Briter. He was running away with the ugliest cross-dresser I’ve ever met. Who knew, right? Proves you just can’t always tell with some men.”

Offra stared at him. “Had you ever met Mr. Briter?”

“I recognized his clothes from the descriptions—”

“Decoys, Radan! They were decoys!”

Radan considered the possibility. “Oh.”

“Which leaves the more disturbing question of, where are the real Briters? But don’t tell Thorne about that just yet. Look,” Offra whispered, seeing that Thorne and his ten were less than a hundred paces away, “I don’t like you, and you don’t like me. But I hate Thorne even more. He’ll drag us down with him unless we claw our way out of this together. Thorne’s not going to be in any position to do you any favors after tonight. Understand?”

“I think so.”

“But if both of us come out of this looking better than him, either one or both of us may get promoted and get out of here.”

Radan blinked. “When did you become so scheming?”

“The last three weeks have been the longest of my life,” said Offra. “Considering some of the weeks I’ve had, that’s saying a lot.”

They were now at the edge of the forest where Thorne was glowering at Radan. “What happened to you?”

Radan rubbed at his nose again, inadvertently spreading some of the still-leaking blood around. “Ambushed, sir. By Guarders. Said they’re back and wanting revenge.”

Thorne’s shoulder twitched. “Any sign of the Briters?”

“Some?” Radan said, inventing wildly. “They were running back in the direction of their house,” which was somewhat true.

“Good,” said Thorne. “The Shins are in there,” he cocked his head to the trees behind them. “I’m sure of it, although I have sixty men conducting a house-to-house search as we speak. Men, tonight we’re going to conquer that forest, retrieve the Shins, and become legends in our own time!”

Offra’s fake cough sounded like, “Right.

Thorne sent him a warning glare before turning to Radan. “Because I have the most confidence in you, Radan—”

Offra let his gaze wander up to the stars peeking through patches of clouds.

“—you’ll take the pack horse carrying the incarceration chains with your group.” Thorne gestured to a horse that jangled noisily. “My group will flush the Shins over to you, and we’ll box them in. Chain up each Shin until Genev can retrieve them. Offra,” Thorne turned to him, and Offra was purposely slow about meeting his eyes. “Don’t think you’re getting out of any of this! You’re reluctance is being documented in your permanent file every day!”

“Thank you,” Offra said. “I’ll need that kind of evidence.”

“You’re so useless, Offra. Another note I’ll add to your file! Take your ten and enter the forest two hundred paces to the west. Your group will make sure the Shins don’t escape. We don’t want these Guarders snatching them away from us. Remarkable coincidence that they chose tonight to stage their return—”

“Because of Zenos?” interrupted Offra, and every man of the thirty stared at him. “Tell them what you said earlier, Thorne,” Offra challenged. “You said, ‘Zenos really is one of them.’ Why didn’t you let any of us know there was a traitor among us?”

Now thirty eyes swiveled in alarm back to their commander.

Thorne sat taller. “You misheard, Offra. Had I known Zenos was a spy, you really think I wouldn’t have done something about it?”

“I really don’t know what to think tonight, Thorne. Let’s just get this latest bad plan of yours over with.”

 

—-

 

Shem led them over a hill that felt alarmingly hot under their boots, and down a ridge into a gulley where caves on either side groaned and coughed out hot water. Mahrree felt splashes on her face as they weaved between them, and she used her shoulder to brush the water of her cheeks. In some areas the ground sounded inexplicably hollow, and often she smelled sulfur yet couldn’t discern its source.

She was grateful she held the hands of two strong men. They diminished her terror and filled her with borrowed bravery.

After many more frenetic minutes of winding through brush and trees, Mahrree heard soft snorting again. She stopped, but Shem continued to pull her along, with Perrin pushing from behind.

“But Shem, I heard—”

“—the horses we’ve hidden for you.”

They emerged in a small clearing where five horses stood tethered to trees. Mahrree would have sighed in relief if she wasn’t panting so hard to catch her breath. Perrin did sigh, however, but Peto’s and Deck’s eyes were wide and terrified.

Shem noticed their expressions. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear this is the end of your walking on this journey.”

“If you want to call what we just did walking,” Peto said. “I’d call it dragging, running, yanking, pulling, stumbling—”

Perrin elbowed him before putting an arm around Mahrree. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, but a little shaky,” she confessed. “I imagine it’s not as scary in the daytime, right Shem?”

“Actually, it’s worse when you can see the bottomless caverns you run between. Many people freeze up and can’t take another step.”

Mahrree was sure her heart stopped beating for a moment. “We ran between bottomless caverns?

The traumatized, and now slightly amused, looks on her son and son-in-law told her they had.

“On that steaming hillside,” Shem said. “We’ve tossed rocks in them and never heard them land.” To Perrin he murmured theatrically, “I see now how she walked right past Jothan last night without seeing him. But Mahrree, the worst of the forest is now behind you.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Perrin said. He gently pivoted Mahrree to face a horse.

She stared at it for a moment, glanced at her husband, then back at the animal which grew taller each moment.

“Breeches,” Perrin reminded her, taking a pinch of the cloth covering her hip. “Not just the latest Salemite fashion.”

Before she knew what was happening, Perrin picked her up and hefted her on to the horse.

“Oh, I don’t know about this . . .” She fumbled for the reins.

“Now, Shem, where do we go from here?” Perrin asked.

Shem tilted his head. “Don’t you want to see your mount first?”

“What do you mean?” Perrin peered into the darkness at the other large forms.

“Right over there.”

Perrin squinted, then gasped. “Clark!?”

Shem chuckled. “He’s your horse, Perrin. Not the fort’s. I was there when Gari Yordin gave him to you. Jon Offra had been taking care of him, but he’s been pining for you.”

Clark was already pulling at his reins secured to a tree. Perrin jogged over and loosed him. “I thought I’d never see you again!” He pressed his forehead against Clark’s and rubbed his neck vigorously.

As disturbed as she was to be sitting on a horse, Mahrree was even more dismayed at the affection between man and horse. No wonder Perrin often came home smelling like horse sweat.

“Your disappearance may have been what set the fort looking for us,” Perrin said to Clark who snuffed happily, or so Mahrree assumed. She wrinkled her nose and worried about horse snot on her husband’s face. The face she frequently kissed, or used to.

“Nope,” Shem told him. “I took him out this morning, telling the stable hands that I was sending him back to Yordin. Instead, I snuck him over to Dormin waiting at the tree line, who tethered him up here. We can always use new breeding stock in Salem. Clark will be one happy stud there.”

Perrin chuckled as his large black horse nuzzled him. “Shem, thank you!”

“Well, at least someone’s happy with his mode of travel,” Mahrree murmured.

Shem climbed atop his horse and saluted Mahrree with a grin.

She returned a grimace.

“Straight north,” Shem said. “If I should lose you, you keep north.”

Peto, eyeing the horse closest to him, whispered to Deck. “Straight north. How can we tell which way’s north?”

“Just go uphill,” Shem told him. “Now get on your horse, Peto, before your father decides to help you.”

Peto shrugged and took two tries to get himself up, after surreptitiously watching to see how Deck mounted.

For some reason Perrin picked up a stick before mounting Clark.

Mahrree eyed her horse. “Shem, this is a nice animal, right? Doesn’t move strangely?”

“Mahrree, just hold on tight.”

She was just about to ask for suggestions how when a distinct horse whinny in the distance caught their attention.

“That’s not one of ours!” Shem whispered.

In a low voice, Perrin ordered, “Deck, head straight up the slope. Mahrree and Peto, stay close behind. Shem and I will bring up the rear.”

Deck nodded and kicked his horse. Peto shot a doubtful glance at his father before he reluctantly kicked his horse to follow Deck.

Mahrree couldn’t look more pitifully at her husband, she was sure. But he just raised the stick and jabbed the horse’s rump. Mahrree’s horse took off in a fast gallop into the trees.

West.

“North!” Shem whispered frantically as her horse disappeared. “I said north!

“Ease up on the reigns!” Perrin whispered loudly, although he knew it was hopeless. Deck’s horse cut hard to the west to catch Mahrree’s, and Peto followed, vanishing into the night.

“No, no, no!” Perrin whispered. He glared at Shem. “Yes, I said it three times!”

Shem gripped his arm. “She’ll be all right. That horse always knows how to find a meal, and I left one up at the next clearing about a quarter of a mile up. Now, it might take him a while to get there, seeing as how they’re taking a circuitous route—”

The sound of approaching horses shut them up.

They shared a series of complex facial tics, then crept down the hillside onto a rock outcropping for a better look, leaving Clark and Shem’s horse above them.

Eleven soldiers were slowing picking their way through the trees, their bodies twitching nervously in the unfamiliar terrain. In the lead was a tense soldier in a captain’s jacket.

Perrin and Shem stared at each other in amazement.

Lemuel Thorne was in the forest.

 

 

 

Chapter 5—“How will we know

when we’re safe?”

 

Mahrree’s world became a jostling blur of black shadows as her mount cantered in a direction she hoped was somewhat north. She did her best to not cry out as the horse leaped over something and darted around another thing in its maddened run. Mahrree clung to the animal with her legs, knees, and hands, and would have used her teeth had she known where to bite.

Perrin! she cried in her mind. It was both a plea for his help and a curse at his stick. I could have started it myself! Maybe!

Soon quiet calls behind her told her she was not alone, and she hoped it was her boys. Another bob and weave left Mahrree breathless. She glanced around trying to see anyone else, but the wind swept past her eyes, and the tears it pulled from them left her unable to focus on anything. Thoughts filled her mind of some random king’s daughter, riding terrified in the forest, being chased by Guarders.

She listened as carefully as she could above the sound of snapping twigs and shifting ground, hoping to hear another horse, another voice, any sign she was doing the right thing. All she could do was pray in her fast-beating heart. “Dear Creator, I’m not in the best position for praying, but please, bless this family to reach safety!”

 

—-

 

Perrin, still gripping his stick as if it were a sword, nodded to Shem with a squint, a twitch, and a head tip before leaving his side. He crept along the rock line to the east where another approaching sound had caught his attention.

Shem picked up a small rock and started a crouching walk to the west, toward a group of soldiers crashing loudly through the trees.

“Thorne!” Lieutenant Offra called.

Shem’s heart sank. Oh Jon, why are you here? And with . . . eight soldiers?

“Shhh!” Thorne shushed angrily.

“But we shouldn’t be here!” Offra said more quietly, but still panicked. “We just lost two men and horses to thin ground near a mud volcano! I couldn’t save them!”

Shem moved noiselessly along the rock line above them, only thirty feet beyond the jittery men. He could smell their sweat.

“They’re here!” Thorne whispered loudly. “Zenos’s men saw him head in this direction. He’s going to betray the Shins to the Guarders, and it’s up to us to rescue them!” he announced heroically.

Yes, of course Thorne would cast it in that light, Shem winced. He shook off his carelessness at allowing someone to see him leave, and counted the heads below him. Then he counted the stones available around him.

Offra’s voice was trembling when he said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about, Thorne! And we need to get out of here before we lose more men!”

Shem tried to make out the expressions of the soldiers. Offra’s men weren’t used to seeing death, and their horror was evident, even in the gloom. Two of their companions had already been swallowed by the ground. Further in could only mean further losses.

Shem would make sure Jon got out again. He picked up another rock.

“We keep going!” Thorne insisted.

Shem’s arm arced and silently released his first large stone.

“We move slowly and methodically—”

Something crashing in a bush below the soldiers made them jump simultaneously in their saddles. Shem grinned at their coordinated hops, and weighed the next rock in his hand.

Because the soldiers were distracted by whatever was rolling noisily away from them to the south, they didn’t notice the next rock come flying at them from the north. But Offra’s horse noticed because it hit the already-spooked animal squarely on the rump. The gelding reared with a startled whinny, and eight men and horses turned in sheer terror, riding hard to the fort. Lieutenant Offra didn’t fight his horse’s desire to follow the others out of the forest.

“Go, Jon!” Shem whispered.

“OFFRA!” Thorne yelled at his retreating officer and soldiers. He spun in his saddle to face his trembling ten. “Don’t move! Stay where you are!” His voice cracked in terror.

Shem rolled away and bit his hand to stifle his sniggers. He loved playing Guarder. That he got to spend his last night in the world with Lemuel as his victim? That was a gift from above.

 

—-

 

Perrin heard Thorne’s yelling and looked behind. While he saw nothing, he heard horses crashing through the brush. He smiled at Shem’s success and continued in his silent creep to spy on ten soldiers coming from the east, with an edgy Lieutenant Radan in the lead.

The soldiers looked ahead, to the left, to the right, behind, and all around them.

But I always told you to look up as well, Perrin thought. And where is the grand return of the Guarders? There’s supposed to be a slew of Salemite ‘Guarders’ coming to help.

The soldiers neared the rock ridge where he crouched, his dull black jacket and trousers blending into the stones around him. They turned to ride directly below him, barely fifteen paces away. Had any of them chanced to look up, they would have caught his glare.

Instinctively Perrin patted his hip where he used to keep his blades, but stopped. Instead, he firmed his grip on the stick that he wished was a sword, and picked his target: a pack horse with three sets of jangling confinement chains. He waited until it passed before he took his aim and threw.

The sharp stick sailed true to send its second horse of the evening into a panic. It reared and yanked its reins away from the private who was holding them.

The anxious soldiers twisted in their saddles to see what spooked the pack horse, and watched it take off in a desperate run, the clanging chains announcing its arrival to everyone within a mile radius.

As if the forest sensed a way to further heighten the drama, a vent spewed a shot of steam into the middle of the stunned soldiers.

That was all they needed.

“The forest’s evil!” someone cried, and kicked his horse to follow the pack horse barreling through the trees.

Perrin grinned as his formerly well-trained soldiers moved as one to follow the pack horse out of the forest, Radan kicking his horse more urgently than anyone else.

Perrin saluted them a sloppy farewell. Maybe he didn’t need any men in black to help him. Maybe he had Salemite-Guarder blood in him after all.

He scampered back to the rock where he and Shem had first spotted Thorne. The captain was now standing in his stirrups looking to the east where the latest group of soldiers was heard retreating, and he swore after them.

Perrin found Shem behind the large rock. They exchanged grins, and started up the hill for the horses.

“The noise will have alerted Dormin and the others,” Shem whispered as they mounted the horses. “I suspect most of our men ran into the village as diversions. We had a contingency for maybe a soldier or two coming into the trees, but we never imagined thirty-three! Thorne must be beyond desperate.”

“Agreed,” Perrin whispered. “What I think we should do until help arrives is—”

The distant thwap of bowstring cut through the night. Perrin and Shem stared at each other, and Shem’s horse stumbled.

“Captain, I’m sure I just hit something over there!” cried an excited voice behind a thick stand of trees, parallel to Perrin and Shem about forty paces away.

Shem’s horse slumped to the ground with a soft grunt. Perrin gasped when he saw the arrow protruding from the mare’s chest.

“Private, we’re not here to go bear hunting!” Thorne hollered. “Get back down here immediately!”

“But Captain, you said to take out threats,” the voice complained as it made its way to the main body of soldiers.

“Perrin, go!” Shem whispered as he freed himself from the dying horse. “Find Mahrree! Head straight up the hill from here.”

Perrin opened his mouth to protest but Shem stood up. “I’ll take care of Thorne. I just spotted Dormin in the trees. Now go!” Shem jabbed Clark, and he took off in a fast gallop. Perrin wanted to return to Shem, but he heard the command in his head.

Don’t follow the wrong path, my boy.

“Dear Creator,” he whispered as he tried to ignore the awful reality that he just abandoned Shem and Dormin to deal with Thorne alone, “please help me find Mahrree!”

—-

 

Mahrree’s horse raced through the trees, causing the branches to whip her face with vexing frequency. Not able to figure out how to shield her face and keep a hold of the horse at the same time, she elected to duck. But as they rode into a grassy section, she noticed something keeping pace with her on the right. A hand extended, belonging to a large man on a massive horse. With no small amount of relief she gave him the reins.

He jerked on them to bring both of their horses to a stop.

“Perrin, I—” she tried to speak as he tossed her back the reins, but her horse lurched suddenly and continued on again.

“Pull the reins!” Perrin called quietly after her.

Mahrree was pulling the reins, but to no avail. The horse was determined to reach another small clearing, and stopped on its own to sniff the ground. Behind her, Deck and Peto were shaking their heads as Perrin and Clark joined her.

“Where’s Shem?” she asked him.

Peto and Deck looked anxiously around.

“His horse was hit by an arrow,” Perrin said. “He’ll catch up to us. Dormin was coming to help him. Mahrree, we saw Thorne.”

“How did he dare enter the trees?” Deck asked, astounded.

“I don’t know. He must be so desperate that he’ll do anything. And he wasn’t alone. We scared off Offra and Radan, and their tens, but Thorne wasn’t giving up so quickly.”

“But we’re so far into the forest!” Mahrree whimpered.

“I’m afraid not,” Perrin sighed. “These horses were tethered north of the fort, only three hundred paces in.”

Peto slapped his forehead. “We walked probably four miles, and we’re only half a mile from home?” he wailed. “Who planned this stupid route?”

Perrin gave him a glare that told him to be quiet, yet also agreed with his frustration. “It’s not like we could march past the fort now, is it?”

“And we had to get Jaytsy to the midwife and horses,” Deck pointed out. “Doing a large circle around the fort, then backtracking into the woods would lose anyone trying to follow. We’re miles away from Jaytsy now, and she’s safe.”

“That’s true, Deck,” Perrin said. “You could have been a planning officer. Not like Thorne, that is,” he added.

“I’m just good at playing Track the Stray Bull. Or rather, cow.”

“Better than the soldiers, then,” Perrin said. “We scared them off easily. They’re all terrified.”

Mahrree decided now wasn’t the best time to tell him she was terrified, too.

“How did you catch up to us so fast?” Peto asked his father.

“You didn’t exactly go in a straight line,” Perrin said. “Mahrree’s horse took a circular route, and the two of you followed. I don’t think those were my orders, but it worked well enough.”

“You’re not the colonel anymore,” Peto reminded him.

“But I’m still your father,” said Perrin sternly.

“So you’re issuing orders again?”

“Yes!”

Oddly, Peto smiled at that. “That’s more like it. What now, sir?”

Perrin exhaled. “Just . . . make the best of the present situation, all right?”

Peto fired off a snappy salute.

“Perrin,” Mahrree said, “how will Shem ever find us?”

Her horse had been rooting around the ground, and jerked as it found something. The other horses joined hers and nuzzled the dirt.

Perrin slid off of Clark, who wasn’t about to be left out, and squatted to investigate.

“Shem will know exactly where to find us, because these horses knew where to go. Now, I’m no farmer, but I’m sure oats don’t grow in leather bags half buried in the ground in the forest. So we just sit quietly and wait.”

Perrin mounted Clark again and shifted him to stand next to Mahrree’s horse while the animals snacked. Just in case, Perrin leaned over and took Mahrree’s horse’s reins again.

And there they sat in the darkened trees, waiting.

 

—-

 

“Get back to the Shins,” Dormin whispered to Shem as they huddled under a brush watching Thorne and his men move slower than snails. “I’ve got this.”

“Dormin, I don’t want to leave you—”

“I appreciate the thought, Shem, but I can take care of a few men. I’ve done it before, you know. Backup’s on the way. Seems some messages got crossed and everyone headed into the village, but twenty should be here momentarily.”

“By the way, Perrin figured out who you are. Gave him quite the jolt.”

“I knew he’d piece it together,” Dormin said, stretching to get a better view. “That’s why I told him all was forgiven, so he could breathe easier. Now go find him so he’ll survive this night!”

Shem patted Dormin on the back and took off in a low jog.

“And now, Captain Thorne,” Dormin whispered as he watched the soldiers shift direction, “how has your family enjoyed living in my mansion? My brother Sonoforen wanted that eyesore back, but he never again saw the inside. Neither did I. What about you?”

He stood up cautiously and trotted along a ridge to be above where Thorne would soon arrive.

“We used to play hide and seek in that mansion, Lemuel,” Dormin murmured. “Sonoforen always cheated. He’d arm himself with a bow and arrow. Was a terrible shot, fortunately. How about you?”

He threw a large rock behind Thorne, and it spooked the horses behind him.

“Just too easy.”

 

—-

 

Mahrree hated waiting.

Sitting in the stillness, not knowing what turn her life might take in the next few minutes, was far worse than jostling from a horse. A knot twisted in her gut, and she looked to her husband for comfort.

But he only stared out into the forest, scanning the dark shadows.

Mahrree turned to Peto and Deck, who were also watching Perrin and waiting for some kind of reassurance. Peto met Mahrree’s eyes and she forced herself to smile. Peto returned an equally strained one.

The gloom was unbearable, smothering Mahrree’s mind like a hot blanket and forcing her to think of only how to shake it off. She squirmed uncomfortably on her saddle.

She had wished she could think about something else besides impending doom, but the meaning of ‘saddle sore’ wasn’t it.

“My . . . eye . . . can . . . spy . . . something . . . black.”

Mahrree nearly laughed out loud. Instead she snorted at Peto, whose expression was ridiculously earnest.

Perrin twisted to glare at his son.

“I’m just following your orders, Father. Make the best of the situation?”

Deck muffled a quiet laugh. “Hmm. Tough one, Peto. Something black . . . something black . . . Is it that speck of dirt under the bush?”

“Amazing!” Peto whispered in nearly genuine awe. “You’re really good at this. Now it’s your turn.”

Perrin’s eyebrows furrowed in disapproval of whispering in the ranks, but Mahrree shook her head at him.

“This is serious!” he snarled at her. “Not a time for games!”

“Peto, this is hard,” Deck whispered in childlike sincerity. “So many things to choose from. My eye can spy something . . . black.”

“You really don’t think they know this is serious?” Mahrree said to Perrin. “One just left his entire life behind him, and the other just watched his future be carried away. They’re not soldiers, Perrin. They’re your sons!

“Something black,” Peto murmured. “Tough one. Is it the dark smudge on the cloud we passed a few minutes ago?”

Amazing! You’re really good at this game, too, Peto!”

“All right, Deck. My eye can spy something . . . black.”

Perrin’s face lost some of his tension. He looked briefly at his wife, then went back to scanning. “All of this would be easier if they were soldiers, trained to deal with monotonous suspense.”

“Something black, something black . . . Is it the angry look your father’s been giving us?” Deck guessed.

Mahrree fought another snort.

Amazing! You are really good at this, Deck. Your turn.”

Mahrree leaned over to Perrin. “And how much training have these boys received? Last I checked you were still working on Stop Smirking When Your Father Calls You Soldiers.

Perrin sat stock still, only his eyes surveying the darkness.

Mahrree realized that the colonel was back. Even with his jacket inside out, instinct had taken over. His hand patted where his sword used to be, and he groaned softly in frustration that it wasn’t there.

“Perrin, you don’t have to be the colonel anymore,” Mahrree assured him. “Just be my husband and their father. That’s all we want.”

“ . . . Something black . . . is it the tree?”

“Close, try again.”

“That tree?”

“Almost.”

“That tree.”

That tree?”

“Yes, that tree.”

“Amazing! You’re really good!”

Mahrree smiled, but her husband still showed nothing other than growing irritation.

“You know,” she whispered to him, “when I heard three weeks ago that a general would be living in my house, I had a flash of my future. It was full of protocol and inspections. You can’t imagine the relief I felt when he vanished as quickly as he arrived.”

Perrin shifted slightly. “I didn’t think you were going to let him live there.”

“I wasn’t. I was planning to throw his things out into the alley. But not his pillows.”

Perrin’s shoulders twitched. It used to mean that he was about to laugh.

He glanced at his wife. “What kind of inspections?”

“That’s not a question the captain would have asked,” said Mahrree coyly. “From what I remember, Captain Shin’s idea of ‘personal inspections’ was far more personal than the Army of Idumea ever had in mind.” She gave him a sidelong glance.

A corner of his mouth twitched upwards.

“Something black . . . the rock?”

“The big rock or the little rock?”

“The rock in between the two rocks.”

“The one in the shadow?”

“Yes, that one.”

Amazing! You are so good at this.”

“Thank you. I know. I’ve been practicing all night.”

Perrin’s shoulders started to shake.

Worried, Mahrree whispered, “Perrin?”

Struggling to hide the laugh that was fighting to escape, he whispered, “It’s just so stupid . . . ‘something black!’”

Mahrree grinned.

After he composed himself, he said, “I’ve been thinking about ‘the colonel’ for the past few weeks. And the general, the lieutenant colonel, the major, and the captain.” He paused to scan the perimeter while Mahrree waited for him to continue.

“There were days when I had to really fight them, to not let them into the house with me. Not always successfully, I know. But the further we travel, the more the officers fade.” He sighed. “Except for right now. Mahrree, it’s like cutting off my arm! I was a soldier before I was a husband and a father. I grew up in the army. I don’t know any other kind of life. I don’t think I can ever get rid of it.”

“You were born Perrin, not a soldier,” Mahrree told him. “You’re not the uniform. Perrin is much more than any general could be. Perrin is all we need. All I need. The army is your arm? Then cut it off. I’d be happy with a one-armed husband.”

Perrin sighed. “I’m doing my best to lose all the officers in the forest.”

Mahrree reached over and squeezed his hand.

“All right, Peto, get ready for a hard one: my eye can spy—”

A quiet noise in the brush startled them all, and Shem appeared in the clearing. “Something black? We played that all the time,” he stole a look at Perrin, “but never in front of the colonel, so you’re brave young men. I see the horses got you here safely.” He patted Peto’s mount on the rump, then patted Peto’s rump. “You’re going to be sore, boy.”

Peto’s glare was fixed and immediate.

“Shem, once again am I glad to see you!” Mahrree breathed. “I was getting worried.”

“You’re playing in my garden now, Mahrree. Thorne and his men are currently running into a blind corner, and Dormin will keep them there until help arrives. Now that the horses are finished with their snack, I recommend we continue on. Perrin, I think Mahrree should double up with you. I don’t feel like walking all the way, and that horse doesn’t consider her his master.”

Mahrree knew why her husband burst into a grin as he eagerly got off of Clark, helped Mahrree off her mount, and hefted her on to the big black horse.

“So it seems you finally have to ride with me, Mrs. Shin,” he chuckled softly as he mounted up behind her.

She hadn’t realized how terrified she was until she felt his solid chest behind her and his strong arms around her.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I know I once said those stories of army captains rescuing the king’s daughters from the Guarders were ridiculous, but right now . . . yes, I think I want to be rescued.”

He kissed her cheek. “And I know I told you once that if I were an army captain assigned to rescue you, I would have just let you babble at the Guarders until they gave up. But I would have rescued you no matter how irritating you became.”

She laughed, quietly and nervously.

Until something in the air . . . changed.

It was as if something cold suddenly surrounded them, not to be easily shaken off. It came with angry heaviness and stilled even the random cricket to silent apprehension.

Shem looked around briefly and nodded to Perrin. He felt it, too.

Perrin firmed his grip around Mahrree, for which she was grateful, even if it left her breathless. She hadn’t felt such foreboding since Perrin had his sleepless nights.

Shem took the lead, with Deck behind him. Perrin gently clucked Clark to follow Peto.

“Perrin, how do you stand this? Not knowing what’s behind the next shadow?” she asked. “How will we know when we’re safe?”

“You’re safe now, Mahrree,” he said in her ear. “I’m never letting you go off alone again.”

She almost believed him.

He released his grip on her only momentarily to adjust something on his right hip, and Mahrree realized that was where he usually hid his long knife.

Except that he was supposed to leave all his weapons back in Edge.

 

—-

 

The problem with blind corners is that everyone is blind in them.

Even Dormin.

“Captain? Captain! I got something here!”

I’m so stupid, Dormin thought to himself. Look behind, look behind. How many times had that been drilled into his head?

And now he felt the steel against his back, and stared into the faces of four eager and terrified soldiers, with blades drawn.

Thorne’s horse arrived seconds later. “You Radan’s men? Excellent! I’ll have you each put in for a medal! How did you find him?”

“Well, we lost our horses, so we were hiding—”

One of his companions poked him.

“—waiting, sir, waiting for what to do next, when we saw this man here sneaking back and well, here we are!”

Dormin hung his head. How did he get so careless? In all his years . . . But he knew this night would come. There was a reason for this. There were reasons for everything.

He was ready for it.

“Follow me!” Thorne said. “I know what to do with him!”

 

—-

 

Shem was leading them up a slope when a noise caused them to pause. The second time, it was clearly a shout, the cloud cover carrying it unnaturally far. They froze when they recognized the voice.

“SHIN!”

Shem turned to look at Perrin.

Perrin nodded.

Shem led Deck and Peto back down the trail to huddle the horses.

The voice, filled with rage, came again. “SHIN! You are trapped! This is useless! Give yourself up!”

Mahrree whimpered.

It was Captain Thorne.

Peto began to plot and fret in his mind. Grandfather, who’s the enemy right now? If I get to Thorne, I could get to Karna—

“We know you are there, my former Colonel,” sang the sneering voice. “I and my one hundred men have come all this way to bring you home!”

Panicked, Mahrree stared at Shem.

“He has only ten here,” Shem assured them. “I thought I had sent them successfully toward Dormin, but Thorne probably got confused and lucky at the same time and ended up following us instead.”

Grandfather, tell me now—who do I follow? Who do I follow?

“But Thorne doesn’t know where we are,” Shem told them. “Keep silent. I’ve seen him playing Dices. He’s never been good at bluffing.”

Mahrree felt as if the world were lifting off her shoulders—

“But that’s still eleven armed men, and twice as many as us,” Perrin reminded him.

—and the world fell back down on her again.

But Shem was never one to be easily discouraged. “I know these forests. He barely knows the back of his horse Streak—”

“PERRIN SHIN!” the shout drifted up to them. “I have an old friend of yours. We found his horse at the spring and we just captured him. Zenos is here waiting for you, my dear colonel!”

Deck critically eyed Shem up and down.

Shem grinned at Mahrree. “What’d I tell you about his bluffing?”

Grandfather, now I’m faced with choosing between two liars—

Mahrree smiled as Perrin leaned over to Shem. “I hope they’re treating you well, my old friend.”

“They’re not. Food’s terrible. Has been for seventeen years.”

“You have one minute, SHIN!” Thorne’s insistent call rose up. “If you do not surrender, Zenos will suffer for it!”

“That’s all right,” Shem whispered stoically. “I’m ready for it.”

Despite himself, Peto couldn’t help but join with his family’s nervous sniggers.

“PERRIN!”

Perrin’s eyebrows lifted at Thorne’s casual use of his first name.

“Why let your wife and son suffer needlessly in this forest? What will Jaytsy and her husband think when they learn you’re missing?”

Deck looked at his in-laws in feigned alarm. “I didn’t realize you were missing. Did you know you’re missing?”

Relf, what do I do? Is this it?

They stifled nervous snorts like misbehaving children in the back of a classroom, hoping the teacher wouldn’t hear them.

In the distant west, thunder rumbled.

Mahrree twisted in the saddle to look at Perrin. “Rain?”

“It would be the best thing right now,” Perrin whispered. “Remember, we are leaving tracks. As soon as dawn comes, even Lemuel could follow us.”

Or is that a sign? Relf, help me!

“PERRIN!” Thorne shouted again. “Your time is nearly up! Zenos does not want to die.”

“Ah,” Shem said, “he’s finally got something right tonight.”

“But he will if you won’t reveal yourself!” Thorne’s threat bounced around the black trees. “I will count to ten. One! Two—”

“If he skips a number, does Shem live?” Mahrree whispered.

More muffled snorts.

As if to add weight to Thorne’s counting, thunder rumbled over his shouted, “Three!”

So do I decide for myself? Based upon what?

When Thorne cried, “Four,” he sounded closer, so much so that Shem and Perrin exchanged glances that Mahrree couldn’t interpret. Maybe it was just that the air was growing heavier around them, trapping his voice in the swelling humidity—

“Five! . . . Six! . . . Seven! . . .”

The four horses began to shift, as if they could count as well.

“Eight! . . . Nine! . . .”

Thorne wasn’t any closer, yet still it felt as if he hovered right over them.

“Ten!”

Grandfather, I’ve noticed that I haven’t shouted out to give away our position. I can’t explain why—

“Nothing, Shin?! . . . Well, then.”

The distinct sound of metal slicing reverberated around the forest, followed by astonished silence.

Mahrree stiffened in worry, until Deck whispered, “My guess is a sapling, and it didn’t look anything like Shem.”

“SHIN!” Thorne’s voice came to them again, and Mahrree thought she heard a tremble in his tone as he proclaimed, “Satisfied? Zenos is dead!

Mahrree leaned over to him. “I hope it wasn’t too painful.”

“Quiet, please,” Shem whispered back. “I’m still trying to die here. I’ll let you know when it’s over.”

Deck nearly fell off his horse, convulsing, and Peto had to smile.

But Perrin wasn’t amused. He cleared his throat at Shem, and Shem’s expression suddenly sobered.

Mahrree twisted to look at her husband, and noticed his dreadful expression. That’s when she remembered that metal makes unique sounds as it hits different objects. Those attuned to it can recognize when a blade hits an object or slices through it. Thorne didn’t slash asunder a tree. He hit something with a softer exterior.

And the owner of a sword knows the ring of his own blade. Perrin had heard that sound several times during the offensive at Moorland.

It could only mean that Thorne was using High General Shin’s sword, and with it, he just ended someone’s life—

“PERRIN!” Thorne’s voice came closer now, and it wasn’t just a trick of the clouds. “Dawn is upon us. Look to the east. Soon we will see you!”

Undaunted, Shem clung to his optimism. “Dawn’s still at least an hour away.”

“But we can’t sit here any longer,” Perrin whispered. “I think Thorne’s actually closing in.”

“But if we leave,” said Mahrree, “won’t he be able to follow the sound of our horses?”

All right, Relf. Suddenly that sounds like a bad thing—

Shem sighed as a distant whinny reached them. “Yes, he’s close enough now that he can. It’s time to ask the Creator for a solution.”

“What kind of solution?” Peto asked, full of doubt.

“Isn’t it obvious? Noise to cover our escape! Rain to erase our tracks! Let’s pray for that storm to visit us. Ask for a miracle, Peto!”

“You think I haven’t been?”

“We prayed before we left tonight,” Mahrree told Shem.

“And one prayer’s enough?”

“I haven’t quit praying, actually.”

“So what part of the horse do I kick to get him to kneel?” Peto asked cynically.

“The Creator knows our plight, Peto. He’s used to the sitting-on-horse position,” and immediately Shem bowed his head.

Mahrree, Deck, Perrin, and Peto glanced at each other to see who would be the first to follow Shem’s lead. Simultaneously, and a bit guiltily, they bowed their heads.

Despite everything, Mahrree almost felt like chuckling. Shem and his confidence astonished her as she thought the words, Dear Creator, there’s already a storm. Could you nudge it our—

“PERRIN!” boomed the voice, sounding as if it were now just

beyond the clearing.

All their heads snapped.

From the west, a faint breeze began.

Shem grinned and nodded at Peto. He pointed to the sky, then to the west, and waggled his eyebrows.

Peto’s scowl relayed he was unconvinced.

More thunder rumbled, louder and nearer.

Perrin nodded at Shem and gave him a signal. Mahrree saw Shem return a look. Perrin was working on a plan—

“SHIN! If you come out now, I can assure you no one will visit your daughter and son-in-law today.”

Mahrree was appalled. He would dare terrorize an expecting mother? Or maybe he wasn’t planning to frighten her . . .

Furious, Deck twisted the reins around his hand.

A twig snapped behind them, followed by the sounds of horses snorting and bridles jangling, maybe only fifty paces away.

We have to go now, Mahrree thought urgently. “Perrin,” she said, “Whatever you’re planning, we need to know now—”

Her hair flipping into her face stopped her words, and she realized that the breeze had become a full-blown wind.

Before she could point that out, thunder boomed, echoing between the low cloud cover and the wooded slope.

Behind her, Perrin whispered softly, “Yes, of course!” He leaned over to the others. “Soon there’ll be a lightning bolt behind us and a loud thunderclap. That’ll be our signal to go. Thorne and his men will have trouble controlling their horses when the lightning strikes. Turn your mounts to face up the hill, now!”

It didn’t occur to Mahrree to question him, and Peto, Deck, and Shem quickly lined up their horse to match Clark, who was already headed in the right direction and shifting eagerly.

Somehow, miraculously, Mahrree thought, the horses missed every twig that could have snapped to give away their position.

“SHIN? It’s enough!” Captain Thorne’s voice came from just behind them.

“Captain! Possible sighting!” That voice came from the left of them, nearest to Peto whose head snapped to the voice.

Then everything was illuminated, but only for a moment as lighting raced through the clouds. Peto could make out the soldier a few dozen paces away who had turned to call downhill, but the distracted soldier didn’t notice him during the brief flash. The following thunder wasn’t very ambitious, but enough that the four horses shifted and stepped nervously.

More lightning flashed above them, slicing the sky with white. Perrin twisted in time to see Captain Thorne in the distance behind him, merely a stone’s throw away.

And Lemuel saw Perrin.

Their eyes locked.

Thorne’s mouth worked frantically, surprised to have actually found his prey. “THERE!” he cried as everything fell dark again.

Everyone heard the clang as Thorne hastily drew General Shin’s sword, the steel singing louder than the thunder above them—

Then the world became a blinding blaze of white.

None of the riders had a chance to kick their horses. The lightning striking between them and Thorne sent the four terrified horses into a frantic gallop straight up the slope. The thunder blasted Mahrree’s ears and overwhelmed her mind. She probably screamed but wasn’t sure because she couldn’t hear anything except the deafening sound of suffocating blackness. As Clark lurched, she gripped the horn of the saddle and prayed Perrin could hang on to her. She glimpsed Peto’s horse darting erratically, then continue on in a frenzied run. Deck was behind Peto, and Shem was to their right.

Mahrree realized she could hear again when, far behind them, rose up the scream of someone in agonizing pain. She couldn’t give it any thought, because another lightning bolt seared the air. Perrin’s grip around her waist was so tight that she couldn’t catch her breath.

Rain began to fall, first in drops, then in a sudden downpour causing the horses to lose traction. For a full ten minutes, although it felt like ten hours, the horses galloped madly, slipping and sliding through the woods up the incline.

Mahrree whispered prayer after prayer. They must be getting past danger! How could anyone follow? They were heading in the right direction, they had to be!

The angle of Clark shifted severely as the slope steepened. Despite Clark’s strength, he struggled under his burden as he fought up the muddy hill. Perrin’s heavy breathing in Mahrree’s ear slid away, along with the rest of him, and she was sure there’d be bruises later around her ribs where he clung to her. She gripped the saddle horn tighter and closed her eyes in a prayer that consisted only of, Please, please, please, please!

Clark pitched unexpectedly and Mahrree nearly flew forward, with Perrin right behind her again as the horse leveled out.

Perrin exhaled loudly and whispered, “Thank you!”

She knew that ‘thank you’ wasn’t for her, and she changed her prayer to Thank you, thank you, thank you! Perrin pressed his face against her back, and she was sure that he kissed her.

The galloping horse broke past the tree line in the full downpour, and Mahrree and Perrin heard Shem’s whistle. Ahead of them was a muddy field, and three horses at the end of it, waiting at the base of enormous boulders. Peto’s shoulders sank in relief and Deck broke into a grin.

Perrin urged Clark on to meet them, while Mahrree hoped that everything was somehow over.

“I thought we were going to lose you down there!” Shem called as they neared. “Bit of a weight for that poor animal.”

“But it should have been enough rain to wash away the tracks, right?” Deck asked. “And wash away Thorne?”

“Nearly washed me away,” Peto grumbled, trying to wipe off the mud on his black cloak which the rain was diluting for him.

Shem scanned the wet forest for any signs as Clark snuffed to a panting halt next to the other three horses. Perrin and Mahrree also looked behind them into the thick and dripping brush.

Slowly a smile spread across Shem’s face. “No tracks. No followers. We’re clear! I think we did it!”

With tears sliding down her face, Mahrree slumped against Perrin behind her. He kissed her on the neck, wrapping his arms around her even tighter. “Whew!” was all he could say.

Peto and Deck patted each other on the back, harder and harder to see who would wince first.

“I can’t believe it!” Mahrree murmured. “I just can’t believe it!”

“Mahrree, where’s your faith?” Shem said. “All right, I have to be honest—I was worried for a few seconds there, too. But that was the most exciting moving we’ve ever had. I’m so glad I resigned.”

 

 

 

Chapter 6—“Remarkable return the Guarders have made, isn’t it?”

 

Administrator Genev sat by the large window of the forward command office sipping his morning drink: tea spiced with ale. But there was so much ale in it that any bits of tea felt out of place in the mug.

From his vantage point, the stocky and squat Administrator of Loyalty could see up into the forest. The sudden rainstorm was already dissipating, and the coming dawn dimly illuminated the muddy horses and ragged men emerging from the trees. His lips twitched as he silently counted.

“Four more, private,” he said flatly, and the nervous soldier seated in the corner scribbled quickly.

“Horses or men, sir?”

“Both,” he answered. “What’s the total so far?”

The private cleared his throat. “Did you want the number of the men that went out last night, or the number of the rescue party we sent this morning?”

“Do have separate numbers for each?”

“Uh no, sir?”

“Then why the inane question?!”

The private swallowed and quickly read off, “Sixteen. We initially sent in thirty-three after the Shins in the forest, then you assigned fifty for the rescue party—”

“Yes, I know, Private.” He’d arrived several hours earlier than the fort had expected, to see them at their worst instead of their prepared best. And the worst, he discovered in the middle of the night when his three coaches rumbled in and he found soldiers and men in black racing through the village, was worse than he’d anticipated.

He set down his mug and continued to scan the forest’s edge, waiting for the captain. The tension of the soldiers was thick, even before Genev drove through the gates. He was skilled at picking up anxiety, and the levels were as high as the command tower. When the first soldiers came back yelling about marshy traps set by hundreds of Guarders, Genev knew Thorne had lost control. Ever since Shin had abruptly resigned, the soldiers had been fretting like lost children who couldn’t find their father. Thorne was nowhere near to filling that position.

Genev wondered if the one hundred reinforcements he ordered from Idumea would be enough. The fort needed an influx of new men who had not been influenced by either Shin or Thorne.

But more concerning was the changing situation. Genev was still in control of it, although the players were shifting slightly in their positions. It was still observable. His efforts would still impress Nicko Mal, he was sure.

The Administrator stood up and straightened his suit. The white ruffles of his collar and sleeves felt ridiculous among the soldiers’ simple jackets, but he had his own uniform to wear. Already he had conveniently lost the new vest with stripes. And, since the day looked like it may warm up, he’d have to remove the red jacket and find a way for the long coat tails to be accidently trampled by a horse.

Genev spied five more men, without horses, running from the forest further east. They dropped onto the grassy field in what he interpreted to be exhaustion mingled with terror. Genev sighed as two rider-less horses bounded out from the trees and continued in a fast gallop to the village.

“Five more men, two more horses,” he said in disgust, and scritching noises told him the tally was updated.

Genev turned to the large cabinet. He knew what he wanted wasn’t there, but the urge to search again for the Shin file, started by his predecessor Gadiman, nearly overwhelmed him.

That file had been guarded for years and then, on the eve of the Shins’ extradition to Idumea, it vanished. How Thorne could allow such an important document to be lost was beyond comprehension.

But Genev had his suspicions. During his interrogations that night, several soldiers admitted to seeing Sergeant Major Zenos leaving the office late the evening before.

The Quiet Man should have been under closer scrutiny since he’d been identified; no one was sure exactly where his loyalties were. Zenos himself probably didn’t know whose side he was on today.

And to have allowed a duplicitous Guarder spy to remain in the fort for so long wasn’t completely Captain Thorne’s fault. It was his father’s. Genev would deal with High General Thorne later.

At least Genev still had the duplicate records of the captain’s messages. He congratulated himself again for his prescience in making those copies and keeping them in two different locations. There was still enough evidence to convict the Shin woman ten times over.

And now making a case against the former colonel was greatly simplified since the Administrators adopted the Ideas and Association Laws.

Genev glanced at the murky sky. He’d hoped to be on his way to Idumea by now, but at least the trials couldn’t start without them.

Shouts below him from the fort’s compound signaled a new development. He glanced down at the men, then up to the forest.

A cluster of blue uniforms on horseback were riding hard for the fort. He couldn’t make out the individuals, but it was apparent by the way he rode that one of the riders was injured and not wearing a uniform.

If it was only one of the Shins, who would I want? Genev mused. The boy would be most disappointing. The woman had irritated his predecessor and himself with her sedition for years, but the rejection of the army by its new High General also burned on his mind.

Genev took another sip of his tea-less ale, straightened his hated ruffle, and decided that either one of the older Shins would be a pleasure to meet right now, especially writhing in pain.

“Private!” he barked.

The young man jumped in his seat.

“Sit here and keep track of the numbers as they come in. Add nine more horses and as many riders.”

Genev strode to the stairs. He smoothed what hair was left on the sides of his head, and made sure his boots pounded menacingly as he stomped down to the reception area. The soldiers milling there stopped their whispers as Genev bellowed, “See to the horses coming in! Some look lamed. Get to work!”

The soldiers fled out the doors as Genev marched into the compound as quickly as his short, thick legs would allow while still looking dignified. He reached the gates just as the party of horses and wounded came through them.

Shouts for the surgeon brought him from the hospital wing, still wiping his hands on a towel. “What are they bringing in now?” Dr. Frenulum intoned. “More nervous soldiers with bloodied noses?”

Genev focused on the group, trying to recognize faces. His lips pressed into a tight line when he saw the injured man. “Slag!”

“It’s the captain!” cried one of his accompanying soldiers.

“Slagging idiot!”

The horses came to a halt in the compound, and two men helped Captain Thorne, whose right arm was wrapped in his jacket. His white undershirt was muddied, ripped, and—oddly—scorched.

Genev was perplexed, and disappointed, to see no evidence of blood.

As the men carefully laid Captain Thorne on a waiting litter, his face twisted in pain.

Frenulum, staring in horror at Thorne’s wrapped arm, cried, “Bring him in immediately!” and he raced for the hospital wing. As the soldiers whisked Thorne away, Genev strode over to Thorne’s horse and took the reins.

“Lieutenant!” Genev shouted. “What happened here?”

A tall lieutenant with a name badge reading OFFRA stood at attention. “We were ambushed, sir. My men fled the forest, but I returned to retrieve the captain. We encountered unknown amounts—”

“What happened to Thorne, Lieutenant! His horse looks singed around the ears.”

“Lightning, sir. They were about to apprehend the colonel—”

Genev shot him a look.

“—I mean, Mr. Shin. I arrived as the captain drew his sword and was struck by lightning, sir.”

Genev stared at him. “He drew his sword in a lightning storm in the forest,” he reiterated slowly to make sure the lieutenant understood the stupidity of the act.

“Yes, sir,” Offra answered unsteadily. “Shin and the others remain, at this moment, unaccounted for.”

Something in Offra’s tone suggested he may have been happy about that, but Genev was sure it was only anxiety for having to deal with such an important administrator. He tossed the reins to Offra and strode to the hospital wing, pushing past filthy soldiers who were peering through the treatment door to see the captain’s injuries.

“You have jobs to do and Guarders to chase!” Genev shouted. “Make sure no more are out there!”

He spun around to face Thorne and was unprepared for the sight. What first struck him was the stench of burnt flesh and hair. Thorne was biting down on a wooden dowel trying not to thrash as the surgeon poured together several colored liquids in a bottle.

The surgeon’s assistant rushed in with dripping wet towels and gently placed them on Thorne’s right hand and arm. The limb was nearly unrecognizable, covered in charred flesh.

Remembering something, Genev fished around in one of his pockets, the only reason he still wore the red coat, and pulled out a small bottle which he handed to the surgeon.

“Add it to your mixture. It’s a new formula which increases the state of relaxation. The Administrator over Health and Wellness gave me several samples. Give Thorne all of this one.”

Dr. Frenulum nodded his thanks, added it to his mixture, shook it up quickly, and dashed it over to the captain. He helped Thorne to sit up so he could guzzle down the liquid.

“In just a few moments you’ll feel nearly nothing,” Frenulum assured him. “And in less than half an hour you will be in a deep sleep. This is supposed to be more effective than sedation. We’ll work on your injury when you’re unconscious.”

Thorne began breathe more steadily as he lay back down.

Frenulum’s face was grave as he gingerly replaced a wet towel on the blackened arm. “Administrator,” he said, “whatever you have to say should be said now before the captain loses consciousness.”

Thorne hadn’t noticed Genev’s presence until then, and he flicked him only a glance. “My written report will have to wait.”

Genev had little sympathy for incompetence. “Where are Shin and that woman?”

“Up on the mountain, if they survived, which I doubt. The forest’s full of lethal traps. You’re welcome to go find out for yourself.”

“So you’ve lost them, then.”

“I can get them back. I’ve already sent soldiers to bring their daughter here. She’s ready to birth at any moment, and I have no doubt she’ll be willing to help us find her parents.”

“What about Sergeant Major Zenos?”

“Dead,” Thorne said. “Killed him myself. He was a traitor, just as I suspected.” He cringed in pain. “All of this was his doing, I’m sure of it. His and that woman’s! The colonel was just so blind!”

Genev felt his first sense of satisfaction for the day. This wasn’t exactly to plan, but still within his control. “Where’s Zenos’s body?”

“Up in the forest,” Thorne said, grimacing in pain. “Again, you’re welcome to go retrieve it. His head rolled some distance, but you might find it near a poisoned pond.”

Not entirely confident that the captain was capable of decapitation, Genev said, “Show me his blood on your sword.”

“You’ll see nothing on that useless piece of steel.”

Genev noticed a sword, or what had been one, on the floor. He picked up the bent and charred metal. The hilt remained mostly intact, but a blown section above it suggested an exit route for the lightning bolt. He tossed it on the floor where it clanged dully.

“It’s a miracle you survived the strike,” the surgeon said. “I’m surprised the charge didn’t continue through your body.”

“Miracle?” Genev scoffed. “I assure you, there were no miracles last night. There may be chance, there may be luck, but everything can be attributed to planning, execution, and timing. Or lack thereof,” he added bitterly.

Thorne didn’t respond.

Two soldiers came to the door. “Captain Thorne, sir?”

Thorne’s eyes popped open and he attempted to sit up. “Well?”

The soldiers hesitated. “We regret to inform you that Shin’s daughter and her husband are nowhere to be found.”

Thorne’s mouth dropped open in dismay. “But Radan saw them running back . . . she may be birthing! Send someone to the village’s Office of Family—”

“Already did,” one of the soldiers said. “No one’s seen the Briters since last night. But the searches are continuing throughout the village, sir.” He paused before he let drop what he’d been holding back. “Guarders were seen wearing their clothes. Likely decoys, and probably who Lieutenant Radan thought he saw. A few Guarders were discovered leaving their house during the night . . .” He trailed off when he saw the devastation in the captain’s face.

“No!” he whimpered, and a drop of water slipped from his eye.

Genev noticed. He pivoted to hover over the captain, whose blond hair was blackened in patches, and disintegrating.

“You had over one hundred men who could not find an expecting girl shuffling through the village?”

Thorne was not to be humiliated. “There were Guarders everywhere in the village, and even more in the forest. And her house?” He shook his head, the effects of the surgeon’s mixture beginning to confuse his thoughts. “After I killed Zenos. After the lightning . . . there were dozens, everywhere. They trapped us. Marshes. Steam vents. Mud volcanoes. This . . . this hole, this cavern . . . said they’d push us in. We got away. They let us get away—”

“What did they look like?” Genev interrupted.

“Black! All black,” Thorne’s words slurred slightly.

The surgeon, his assistants, and the two soldiers who delivered the bad news about the Briters listened in.

“They knew the forest. We were . . . so lost,” Thorne struggled with the words. “But I’ll learn more. I’ll train the soldiers. Idumea will be impressed. With their new major.”

“We’ll see about that,” Genev said, his upper lip curling. “Remarkable return the Guarders have made, isn’t it? And they came to take the Shins, naturally. For revenge about Moorland, I’ve heard?” He walked around the captain slowly. “I’ve discovered you had a relationship with . . . Jaytsy, was it?”

Thorne’s eyes widened at that.

“Administrator,” Dr. Frenulum said steadily, “the captain’s compromised right now. You can see how his eyes are glassy. Perhaps this isn’t the best time—”

Genev shifted his flinty glare to the surgeon. “I do my best work when my guests are compromised. Otherwise, they’d never confess. The bottle of relaxation I had you include helps people loosen their tongues and remember their thoughts. Would you like to try some? Every doctor should be familiar with what he administers, after all.”

Dr. Frenulum took a step back and cast an almost sympathetic look at Captain Thorne.

Genev continued his slow pace around Thorne’s cot. “You keep very thorough personal records, Captain. You are to be commended. You also should be more careful with what you record. Tell me, why did Jaytsy Shin marry a farmer while you were away at The Dinner last year?”

Thorne lay in brooding silence until the words burbled up all on their own. “Zenos said she loved him.”

“I’ve not yet been able to figure out that turn of events,” Genev continued. “It would’ve been such an advantage to be wedded to the colonel’s daughter. But you already knew that, from what I read. You see,” he circled the cot like a patient vulture, “I wonder if your affection for this girl, and maybe even the baby she’s carrying,” Genev paused to give Thorne a thin smile, “affected your judgment last night? Did the Shin family escape because of your past attachment?”

Thorne’s chin trembled, as if to hold back the words that dribbled out. “I tried. I tried. The soldiers surrounding the Shins’ house . . . sedated. Radan discovered them. Everything fell apart. Must have been the work of the Guarders. But I wanted to deliver the Shins. The Administrators . . .” He tried to regain himself. “The Shins got away . . . because the Administrators took too long.”

Genev was unmoved. “The Administrators do nothing but with great care. Many provisions had to be just right in order to pass the laws that could destroy them. Our timing was impeccable. Yours, however, was not. So, the girl. Was she ever yours?”

Thorne paused before he shook his head in humiliation.

Genev nodded, satisfied. He’d have to tell the Administrator of Health and Wellness that he’d perfected the dosage. “And so you can’t claim the baby then?”

“No,” Thorne whispered wretchedly. “But. But . . . was going. Going to take him as my own.”

“Pass off another man’s son as your own? That is desperate.”

“Perrin’s . . . grandson.”

“Ah. Perhaps something to that, but still—not of your blood. Tsk, tsk, Captain Thorne. So many missed opportunities.” He took a deep breath. “One of the Administrative provisions, to assign commandants to forts where the Administrators feel extra attention is needed, appears quite prescient. Since I have no reason to return to Idumea this morning, I’ll be staying on to provide that extra attention, to bring this fort back into order, and to inform High General Thorne and Chairman Mal when I feel you’re ready to become Major Thorne. But I have a feeling that will take a very, very long time.”

The devastation on Thorne’s face was worthy of a portrait. But enough, Genev decided. He took a step back and said in a tone he assumed expressed kindness, “Because your sword is destroyed we will replace it with former Colonel Shin’s.”

Thorne scoffed a slurred laugh. “That was Shin’s sword! High General Relf. Took it to finish the job. On Mrs. Shin. Because he wouldn’t . . .” His lips kept moving as his eyes slowly shut, and the surgeon’s mixture took its full effect.

Genev looked down at the mangled steel. Come to think of it, he’d seen that ornate hilt years ago, strapped to the side of General Relf Shin. He kicked it away as he left the hospital wing. Out in the compound he observed another group of soldiers come running in, this time from Edge.

“No sign of them in the south western quadrant, sir.”

But before Genev could respond, another group of soldiers came hurrying in on horseback, shrieking and shouting, and waving cloth.

“What’s going on?” Genev demanded.

“It’s the Shins!” one of the soldiers cried out. He waved a torn piece of dark cloth. “They said this was his! He’s dead!”

“Who said what?” Genev snatched the cloth from the man’s hand and held it up for inspection. It was a piece of a work shirt, torn and bloodied. He looked up to the other soldiers who also held cloth in similar condition.

A lieutenant rushed over and wrenched the cloth out of Genev’s hands. Ignoring Genev’s affronted, “Hey!” Offra whimpered, “It is his! Dear Creator, I saw him yesterday, wearing a shirt just like this.”

The lieutenant began to sway as if he’d fall over, but a nearby sergeant steadied him as Genev grabbed the cloth back.

“Where is he? Where’s Shin?”

“They said his body is lost,” another soldier told him shakily. “In a crevice. Bottomless. All of them are gone.”

“According to whom?!”

“Guarders, sir,” the soldier trembled. “Their revenge for Moorland.” The two soldiers with him shook as if they were about to burst into childish tears.

“With me! Now!” Genev shouted, and the three men dismounted and followed Genev into the reception area of the command tower, while the rest of the soldiers stood stunned in the compound.

“What more did the so-called Guarders say?”

The men looked nervously at each other. “That all of them died. All of them are gone,” one of them volunteered. “They had some other clothes, torn and bloodied. Something blue linen, something orange, some other work clothes. A few of them were laughing,” and he focused on the floor under his boots.

Genev pondered this turn of events. It was out of his control. Things should never be out of his control. Nicko Mal’s experiments were all about the Shins.

Genev began to feel edgy. The village was aptly named. He was supposed to be calling the shots, not some trumped up Guarders—

And where the slag did they come from anyway?! All of the Guarders were destroyed in the forests above Moorland. Genev had looked for survivors himself. So where did these dozens—maybe even hundreds—of men in black suddenly come from?

Maddening, that’s what it was. And worst of all, it wasn’t fair. Shin wasn’t supposed to be destroyed by Guarders with a strange sense of entrepreneurialism. That was Genev’s job!

No, Genev thought as the soldiers in front of him began to quake from silent tears. This was still his project. Guarders or no Guarders, Genev was still in charge.

A new story was forming, because he’d spent much of the night reading a curious letter that Shin had left for Zenos upon his death, from something the private in the office called “the death drawer.”

“The three of you—follow me back outside.”

Obediently the soldiers trailed after Genev who found a ready and silent audience, waiting.

“It’s confirmed,” Genev announced loudly, standing to his full height, for what it was worth. “Details will be forthcoming, once Captain Thorne can continue his briefing after he’s recovered, but I can inform you that Sergeant Major Zenos was a Guarder spy, killed in the very act by Captain Thorne!”

Several soldiers sat hard on the ground in a shocked stupor.

Genev held back a smile as the new truth unfolded in his mind. “Zenos was also working closely with Mrs. Shin,” he declared. “It seems there was a relationship there.”

Genev knew he was on the correct path when he heard gasps and even a mumbled, “No wonder Sarge was always at their house!”

“Poor Colonel Shin. He deserved so much better,” another soldier whispered behind Genev.

Genev waited until all eyes were back on him again, and he knew the tragic end of The Hero of Edge.

“Mrs. Shin, in her despair that her companion was executed by Captain Thorne, held a soldier hostage at knife point. It is still unclear, but it seems she was felled by several arrows. Her body tumbled into a crevice, and our dear former Colonel Shin, still devoted to his unfaithful wife, attempted to rescue her. He, too, was lost. Here you can see the remains of his shirt, stained with her blood, and caught and torn on a bush as he fell after her.”

“No!”

“That can’t be!”

“It’s not true!”

“Colonel!”

Genev nodded gravely. “Their bodies are, sadly, irretrievable.”

Some of the soldiers began to openly weep. Others hid their faces in their hands. One soldier punched the timbers behind him. Still others shook their heads in disbelief.

Especially Lieutenant Offra, who stood openmouthed.

Genev caught his eye. “We also have evidence that the Guarders took the Shins’ son and the Briters as some sort of retribution. We have torn bits of their clothing, stained with blood, and the Guarders’ claims that they have killed them all.”

A few soldiers who had remained stoic began to sag and crumble.

“Today you’ll hear many versions of what happened last night,” Genev continued, focusing on Offra. “It’ll take time to sort all the details and clarify what exactly happened. Lieutenant!”

Offra’s mouth clapped shut and he stood at attention.

“As of this moment,” Genev announced, “I am now in charge of Fort Shin. I will remain as commandant until Thorne recovers. Offra, recall the soldiers sent out to search Edge. Once that other lieutenant has returned, I want him brought to me for briefing. Radan, wasn’t it? And make sure the message is received by soldier and citizen alike: The Shin family is officially gone.”

 

—-

 

Jon Offra could only nod dumbly, return some sort of semblance of a salute—was he supposed to salute a commandant?—then head out of the fort in a half stupor to retrieve Radan and whatever soldiers were still searching houses.

But Jon found himself staring at the sky. He couldn’t get out his mind the man the soldiers had captured, the one in the mottled green clothing. He had told them to look at the sky, that it wasn’t blue.

The man had been right, Jon realized as he stopped in the middle of the road. He had glanced up when the man had first said that, seeing between the trees that the sky was black, and yet still he automatically thought of it as blue.

And now, now there were far too many colors, with the rising sun bouncing off the drifting clouds to generate nearly every other hue possible, and then . . .

Oh, of course. Now a rainbow.

Jon couldn’t decide if the sky was taunting him or trying to prove a point. He was too overcome with exhaustion and confusion to decide. It was, however, definitely not just blue.

It would take days to sort out all he saw, but he knew one thing for certain that horrible morning: the sky would never look the same again.

 

 

Chapter 7—“Do you still trust me?”

 

“Amazing!” Perrin said once the sun broke through the clouds, a little after sunrise.

“Listen, Deck,” Peto said to his brother-in-law with childlike innocence, “Father’s trying to play ‘My eye can spy.’ I bet he can see something big and rocky.”

Perrin chuckled as Clark negotiated a large stone. “No, what I mean is, even if we had dared to venture this far up the mountain, I can’t imagine how we would’ve navigated the rock.”

The boulders on either side of the narrow trail stood as high as the horses, and lay on top of each other in piles, as if the mountain range had once been more majestic but allowed some of its height to tumble down to where the weather was milder. Shem had led them into the maze which rose several hundred paces up the mountain side. In the trail between the boulders they were concealed nearly completely. Perrin stood up once in the stirrups, his head just higher than the rock, and reported that he could barely see Edge.

“Shem, how do we get around this?” he called up to the lead horse.

Narrower trails branched off into the rock, but Shem didn’t follow any of them. He turned around in his saddle and grinned. “We don’t go around the boulders—we go through!”

“How?” asked an astonished Deck.

“You’ll see. In the meantime, enjoy the views.”

“Of what?” Peto groused. “First views of black, now views of house-sized boulders. Scenic, Shem, very scenic.”

But Mahrree shook her head in amazement. Or mazement, perhaps. From her home she had seen this swath of rock which ran above the tree line along the base of the mountain range, but rarely thought much of it. Yet today she understood what an ant must experience trying to pick its way through a rocky river bed.

As if to compensate for their suspenseful forest travel, the ride was mercifully dull. The horses had been hidden far to the west, so they plodded east again into a bright sun which dried both cloaks and beasts. While grateful for the light and warmth, Mahrree learned that the odor of wet horses was worse than the sulfur pits. It didn’t help that drifts of steam rose from Clark and headed straight up her nose.

Despite it all, Mahrree felt herself falling in and out of sleep as Perrin guided Clark. But it was impossible to rest. Each time her eyelids drooped, she thought she heard a newborn crying in the distance.

Her head snapped up for good when she heard Shem call out, “Here’s the path. We’re still west of where we left Jaytsy, so they’ll catch up to us in a while. It took our ancestors a full season of exploration to find a route horses could travel. But when we found it, we didn’t need to move any rock or excavate any dirt. Miraculously, the Creator had already made a way to escape. We just had to find it.”

Peto, behind Shem, muttered, “Yes, this is very convenient.

Shem twisted to consider Peto, then, without a word, turned back in his saddle, prodded his horse up into the boulders, and disappeared.

Peto looked back at his parents in alarm as his horse automatically followed Shem’s. Deck went next, and finally Mahrree and Perrin made the left turn into another narrow route.

It was if the boulders, each several hands higher than the horses’ heads, had been deliberately placed to allow passage for the width of a horse and rider. The path rose steeply through the rock, turning and twisting at intervals with alternate routes branching off to ends they couldn’t see. Only a crack of sky was visible above the narrows.

“Even if we had ever chased someone up here,” Perrin whispered in Mahrree’s ear—it seemed inappropriate to speak any louder—“we would have lost them after the first few paces. We could wander in here for days and never find the route up and out.”

After several more turns, the constricted path opened into a surprisingly large cavern, big enough to hold forty horses, and the temperature was cool and comfortable. Off the main cavern were several smaller chambers, all dimly lit by sunlight which slipped through the cracks. One chamber held wrapped bundles of supplies. Another looked like a makeshift stable. Still another had hanging from the rock several net litters like Jaytsy’s.

Shem slid off his horse and spread open his arms. “Welcome to the First Resting Station!”

His four followers just sat on their horses, stunned at the view that had suddenly opened up to them.

“Where exactly are we?” Perrin asked.

“About halfway up the rock line,” Shem told them proudly. “It’s impossible to see any of this from Edge. I’ve tried, many times, even with your scope. Now, by my estimation we have a few minutes before Jaytsy arrives. Then we’ll eat, nap, and continue on our journey after the sun’s dried everything up. Any objections?”

Peto perked up. “Did you say eat?

“Yes he did!” Asrar said from an unnoticed corner. “Potatoes, the first berries of the season, ham, and biscuits made fresh last night. If you would like to join me in the eating room?” She smiled as she gestured to a large flat rock set for a meal.

Mahrree felt like crying for joy. She slid off of Clark and then just felt like crying, stuck in a permanently hunched position.

“Oh Asrar, could you bring some of that, ow, ow, over here? My legs can’t remember how to move without a horse under them.”

Peto chuckled at his mother, until he slid off his horse. “Ow, ow, ow, ow!” and he slumped to the floor. “Now I’m conveniently disabled. Couldn’t run away if I tried,” he murmured.

Perrin shook his head. “Boy, I tried to get you to ride at the fort, but you always said, ‘No, I’m not going to be a soldier’.” He dismounted, stretched easily and with great emphasis, then scooped his son under his arms and dragged him to the rock table. “Never laugh at your mother,” he said, dropping Peto on the dirt floor.

Peto looked up at him and fluttered his eyes. “Whatever you order, sir.” He whimpered at the platters, full and waiting.

Perrin sauntered over to Mahrree who wore her best pathetic expression. “But you, my poor darling wife . . .” Perrin scooped her up tenderly and carried her to the rock table. He sat her on a makeshift stone chair, and immediately she realized that was a mistake.

“We have something to rub on your backside to help,” Asrar said as she saw Mahrree’s discomfort. “And I am sure there’s enough for Peto, too.”

Deck remained on his horse, focused on the entrance to the cavern. “Shem? Maybe I could just go out and look . . .”

“You’ll never find your way out or back,” Shem told him, “But I promise you, she’s safe. I feel it.”

“I know,” Deck said quietly. “I feel it too. I just hate her not knowing that we’re safe. Why isn’t she here yet?”

“The horses take it slow and easy with the expecting mothers,” Shem said. Seeing that wasn’t enough for Deck, he offered, “Come eat, and then the two of us can do a little scouting for her.”

“She’s all right, Deck,” Mahrree told him. “I’m sure of it.”

Deck sent another fleeting look down the shadowy paths before reluctantly dismounting.

Throughout breakfast, which they agreed tasted better than anything anywhere, Deck kept his eye on the narrows. He was the first to hear a faint sound of a horse snorting and leaped to his feet, breaking into a run across the cavern. At the entrance he waited to see which path would produce his wife.

Finally a large black draft horse emerged, with Jothan in the lead. He smiled at Deck and said, “She is well.”

The swinging litter came through next, with Jaytsy. The midwife’s horse soon appeared and they stopped in the cavern.

Mahrree did her best to stand up, and waddled even more ridiculously than her daughter. “Jaytsy!” she called, but Deck spun around to shush her. “She’s asleep?” Mahrree whispered loudly. Not that an expecting mother didn’t deserve a good sleep, but it didn’t seem fair.

“She dozed off soon after we left you,” Barb said, dismounting. “The poor thing was so exhausted.”

She was exhausted!?” Peto said from the ground near the table. He wasn’t about to leap for his feet for anything except more biscuits.

Jothan dismounted, made a quick assessment of his sleeping charge, then strode over to Asrar who handed him a plate of breakfast. But he set it down and hugged her instead.

Mahrree felt a stab of guilt that she’d forgotten there was another husband and wife deeply worried about each other all night.

Jaytsy stretched in her litter and sighed, her eyes still shut. “That was the most pleasant night I’ve had in a season.” She opened her eyes. “What a cozy little place here. Hi, Deck!” she said breezily.

Deck’s mouth fell open. He glanced back at an equally surprised Mahrree, then to his wife again, not knowing how to react.

“Is there anything to eat?” she asked. “I’m a bit hungry. I guess traveling all that way works up an appetite. Mother, you look terrible! Have you even seen your hair?”

Mahrree stared at her, astonished.

Jaytsy attempted to untangle herself from the net, and Deck helped her out so that he could catch her in a hug. “That’s all you have to say? ‘I’m hungry’? ‘Do you need a brush?’”

Barb chuckled. “Yes, Jaytsy, there’s breakfast.”

Deck gently shook Jaytsy’s shoulders. “I was so worried about you! With the storm and Thorne’s men and—”

“Wait,” Jaytsy said, stepping out of his embrace. “Storm? And what men?”

“You didn’t know about the storm? How could you not know about the storm?” Deck nearly shouted, but he shook that off. “Thorne didn’t even know we were up here.” His eyes became steely as he added, “He was planning to visit us today, but for what reason . . . well, I’ve chosen not to think about it.”

“Wait a minute. You spoke to Lemuel?” Jaytsy paled.

“No,” Deck said. “That was what he was yelling at us.”

“What?” Jaytsy was more befuddled than her husband. “He was yelling at you, but you didn’t speak to him?”

Deck squinted. “We didn’t see him until the end.”

“So why would he be yelling at you? This makes no sense!”

Peto sighed in exasperation from the stone where he was inhaling another plate of potatoes. “You two are ridiculous. Jayts, he was yelling at us when he was killing Shem.”

Jaytsy’s eyes widened. “NO! Uncle Shem!

“Is right here, right here!” Shem rushed to her side. “Honestly, you two,” he said as Jaytsy embraced him, “your marriage will be better if you learn to communicate more clearly.”

“Said the man who never married,” announced Perrin. “Jaytsy, come sit and eat, and we can explain everything. Or at least try.”

Barb grinned at the plate Asrar handed her. “You always manage to create the most amazing meals in the middle of the rocks. I didn’t inherit that trait, unfortunately.”

Asrar, who first had made sure that Jaytsy had more food than three expecting women could eat, blushed a deeper brown at the compliment before she took her own breakfast.

Peto frowned. “You’re related?”

“Everyone is, Peto.” Barb sat down at a nearby rock table. “The first line of The Writings is, ‘We are all family.’ But I know what you mean, and yes—we share the same great-grandmother, on our mothers’ sides.”

Peto squinted at her, then at Asrar.

“Don’t let the colors fool you,” Barb told him. “Our great-grandmother was apparently a brown right in the middle of us, and a marvelous cook. But because I can’t even flip a pancake, I became a midwife instead. Babies don’t need frequent flipping.”

Asrar chuckled and sat by her cousin and husband. “Thank you for bringing back Jothan today, Barb. I didn’t expect to see him until this evening. What happened to Kiren?”

“Long story. But he’ll be back up by midday meal with the others, I assume. My sister will be quite put out if he gets into trouble.”

Peto, listening in, said, “So is Kiren related as well?”

“My nephew,” Barb said. “My usual medical assistant, but a wanna-be scout. He sneaks off whenever he can.”

Peto turned back to his own table to mull that over, but soon he groaned quietly about his view.

Deck was sitting by his wife who was gobbling biscuits as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. But he didn’t notice the crumbs on her chin or the honey on her fingers. He just kept a hand on her belly and sighed.

“It really is a miracle, isn’t it?” he said. “This night, what we experienced, what you didn’t experience?”

Peto was growing nauseated, not from Asrar’s cooking, but from Deck fawning over his sister. How could a solid, logical man be so soppy? Sure, Peto was glad his sister was safe. But now Deck was wrapping her long braid around his hand and kissing it?

It was getting to him. Everything was getting to him. His eyes burned with fatigue and frustration.

“Oh please.” He slumped on the dirt floor near Shem’s rock chair. “I’ll tell you what a real miracle would have been: being plucked up by two giant fingers from our house and set down wherever we’re going. I would call that a miracle.”

“Peto, that’s it!” Shem exclaimed. He pivoted on his rock and planted his hands on his knees. “What’s up? You’ve had this . . . this attitude ever since I found you all in the forest. Something’s up with you, Peto. Come on. Let’s get it all out.”

Peto steeled himself. Something was up with him? That’s was the year’s understatement! Dragged all over the forest and then through the rock . . . he was still trying to categorize every detail his foggy brain could still suck in, just in case . . . just in case . . .

His spirits dropped to the bottom of his sore bottom. There was no way he could find his way back to Edge now. It was obvious their entire journey was designed to confuse and disorient them. Yes, well done Shem and Salem-Guarder people. I’m imprisoned here with everyone else, and headed to who knows where. And my parents sit there thinking that all is great and wonderful, along with my dopey brother-in-law and my clueless sister. This is a better trap than any incarceration cell, and Shem has the nerve to wonder what’s up?

Peto was sure some of his acrimony was revealed in his eyes, and Shem recoiled under his stare.

“All right,” he said slowly. “I think I see what’s going on here. Tell me, Peto: do you trust me?”

Oh, he could answer that. Most definitely he could answer that!

“Of course not! Why should I? I mean, I’ve known you my whole life—” Peto was fully aware that his startled parents were trying to slip in a word, but he ignored them, “—and yesterday I learned that you’ve always led a double life. Since then I’ve found myself questioning everything you ever did, everything you ever said. Something’s up? Something’s been up with you, for seventeen years!”

“Peto!” Mahrree exclaimed, and Perrin cleared his throat in warning, while Deck and Jaytsy reeled at Peto’s forwardness.

Shem just held Peto’s gaze.

Barb let out a low whistle and glanced over at the Hifadhis.

Asrar coughed politely. “I think we can afford young Mr. Shin his skepticism. After all, the many weeks we usually spend teaching about our ways was condensed into a couple of hours, and Peto heard it only second-hand from his parents.”

As reluctant as Peto was to trust these people, he nodded once at Asrar for her recognition that all of this had been a bit much to take.

“For all we know,” Peto railed onward, “this is the whole of Salem, right in front of us!”

“But there were hundreds in the forest—” Mahrree began.

“We saw only a dozen, Mother! They’ve been telling you all kinds of things, but without any evidence!”

Perrin jumped in with, “The slash on Jothan’s hand, Peto. I caused that years ago when I was attacked—”

“Or so you think. He could have got that scar from anything, and conveniently let you believe whatever you needed to in order to follow them into this . . . this trap!”

There! He’d said it!

Now what would they do to him for revealing their secrets? It didn’t matter. He’d stay brave and strong, in the face of their denial.

Everyone stared at him, stunned into silence.

“You’re right, Asrar,” Shem eventually said. “In his eyes, we haven’t done anything to earn his trust.”

“That’s right, you haven’t!” Peto said. “Still won’t even tell us where we’re going? Or how far?”

“Peto,” Perrin cut in, “they have their reasons—”

“Oh, I’m sure they do!” he wailed. “I’ve heard that a few times already. ‘We have our reasons. And they’re good!’ Do we even know why they want us in Salem?”

“Why—How—Peto,” Mahrree spluttered, “after all they’ve done for us, how can you—”

“Demand answers?” All of his frustration from the long day and even longer night gushed out. “Why shouldn’t I? I mean, why do they want us? Maybe they need more laborers. Ever think of that? Or maybe they’re using us like Clark!”

Perrin scowled. “Like Clark?”

“I heard Shem in the forest!” Peto was unstoppable, ideas and fears flowing out of him like one of the rancid pools they passed in the night. “He said to take Clark to Salem because they needed fresh blood in the herds. All of these people are related,” he gestured madly to the Hifadhis and Barb, who looked more amused than alarmed. “Maybe they need new human breeding stock!”

Barb burst out laughing at that, and the Hifadhis gently chuckled.

Peto twitched in annoyance as Shem tried not to snort. “Oh, Peto. You have no idea, just no idea at all. Actually, you have lots of ideas, and all of them insane. You’re overly tired, I understand—”

“Oh, no you don’t!” Peto insisted, trying to stifle a yawn. “It’s you who don’t understand—”

Barb, who was still laughing, wiped a tear from her eyes. “You’re right, Shem. He’s hilarious! Except right now he doesn’t mean to be, I’m sure. Sorry that I’m laughing but . . . really, Peto? We’re taking your family as breeding stock? Your mother can’t have more children, your sister is already expecting, your father and brother-in-law have been spoken for, so the only one who we would be taking to Salem for breeding stock would be you. Trust me, Peto,” she looked him up and down critically, “we’re not that desperate!”

Peto fumed as everyone in the cavern howled in laughter, even his parents. He sank further on to the floor and rubbed his head, fatigued, irritated, and now slightly humiliated.

“All right, all right,” Shem said, gesturing to quiet everyone down. “Peto, I’m sorry. And you’re absolutely right. Not about wanting you for labor, or as a stud for Salemite women—”

Someone snorted, likely Deck.

“—but you’re right in that you have no reason to trust me. I’ve deceived you,” Shem admitted. “And you have every right to wonder about everything I’ve ever said and done. So tell me this: do you trust your father?”

Peto sighed. “Is this a trick question? A Salem deception?”

“No tricks, no deceptions. Do you trust your father?”

“Yes, when he’s thinking clear-headedly.”

Perrin tilted his head. “And you think I’m not.”

“Not recently, no,” Peto admitted.

Barb definitely whistled at that, and Mahrree stared, stunned.

Peto sent his mother a look that said, as kindly as possible, that she hadn’t been very clear-headed lately, either.

Shem turned to Perrin. “My friend and brother—and I call you that, because not even a real brother could be closer to me—I have deceived you for seventeen years. That’s true.”

Shem’s earnestness was unnerving, and Peto shifted uncomfortably. Stupid saddle sores.

“But I never did anything that I didn’t think you wouldn’t approve of,” Shem said. “I deceived you to save lives, and to keep you from taking any innocent life. Do you still trust me?”

Perrin didn’t hesitate. “Completely. I always knew that I could trust you with anything. My brother has never failed me.”

“Thank you,” he whispered. “So,” he turned again to Peto. “If you trust your father, and he trusts me, it can be concluded that you can trust me.”

“Oh no,” Peto moaned. “This is going to be a debate, isn’t it? Now that we’ve left the reach of Idumea, the debating begins—”

“Peto.”

Shem’s seriousness caused Peto to meet his eyes, and once again he was startled by a Shem Zenos he didn’t quite know.

“You’re too old to be cynical anymore. Your sarcasm is chipping away at what you claim to believe. Soon you’ll have nothing left. Peto, people in Idumea believe the purpose of life is to indulge yourself until you die. But I promise you that the purpose of life is to pass the Test the Creator has set. You must believe me.”

“I know all that. I’ve been taught about the Test,” he bobbed his head to his parents who watched him intently, “and I’ve even read The Writings on my own.”

“But you don’t believe it,” said Shem flatly.

“Yes, I do.”

“No, Peto. You don’t really believe it. In here.” Shem placed his hand on Peto’s chest. The immense weight of it pressed him into the rock behind him.

“If you really believed it, Peto, you would humbly accept what you experienced last night, and you wouldn’t be fighting the need to roll your eyes at me. I see that twitching, right there. Everything that’s come out of your mouth since I found you has been bitter and caustic, and you have no faith in me, nor maybe in anything. But I’m telling you, if you choose not to believe what you know deep down to be true, you’ll be as callous as everyone we left behind.”

“I believe,” Peto defended quietly. “But I just didn’t see any miracles last night.”

Shem removed his hand. “So what did you see?”

“You and your friends there manipulating situations,” he said. “Saying the right things, making my family believe this was their only choice, and still you won’t tell us why. And we got lucky, you’ve got to admit it. Thorne got washed away by a stray storm.”

Perrin cleared his throat again, but Shem held up a finger. “If I may, Perrin?”

Turning back to Peto, Shem said, “Quite a list you’ve been working on there. Manipulation? Saying the right things? And luck? That’s not what I saw last night.”

“What a surprise,” Peto said dully. “So what did you see?”

“Miracles, Peto. More than you realize, obviously. And I’ll tell you why we took you last night, and why we’ve said all the right things. But are you willing to hear me out?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Are you willing to listen? Are you willing to suspend your cynicism for ten minutes and really listen to my side of the story?”

Peto scoffed. “Oh, I’ve been waiting to hear your side of the story!”

Shem rubbed his hands on his trousers. “I’ve never seen you quite like this before.”

“Nor I you,” Peto said coldly. “I guess we’re both seeing things we’ve never seen before.”

“Peto, please!” Mahrree exclaimed, but Shem held up his hand.

“No, Mahrree. It’s all right. I’ve got this.”

I’m sure you do,” Peto said, making sure his every word dripped all the contempt he could wring out.

But Shem wasn’t about to be deterred. “I get it, Peto. You think I’ve done something horribly wrong here, and I also suspect you’re trying to find a way out of all of this. I’m guessing,” he continued, “that you’ve . . . been looking for a way to rescue your family from my rescue of your family. That you think I’ve twisted situations and words to get them all the way up here, where anything could happen to them and no one in Edge or Idumea would ever know.”

Peto’s cheeks twitched from the effort to not make them move.

“What?” exclaimed Mahrree.

But Shem nodded once to Peto, who knew that something on his face gave him away anyway. “Glad we got that out of the way. Maybe once you finish listening to me, you’ll see things differently.

“I told you that I saw miracles,” Shem continued in a tone that made Peto’s skin want to break out in goose bumps. “The Creator’s hand was in every incident last night, but some people will always refuse to see it. Two giant fingers could have flicked Thorne off his horse like a fly off of pie, and Lemuel would still find a way to explain it away as some ‘coincidence.’ Do you know why we came to take you last night, and not some other night?”

“No,” Peto said shortly. “Astonish me.”

“Challenge accepted. Peto, we planned this escape the very night your mother made Mr. Kori realize he was mistaken that public speaking would be a good career move. When she tried three weeks ago to debate the Administrators’ assistant about Terryp’s land being poisoned, and then she declared to all of Edge that the findings were a lie, we knew she was going to be in trouble. Then when your father resigned from the army that night, instead of becoming High General Shin, we realized it was time to get all of you out. We chose yesterday’s date only because I would have returned from my leave in time to make sure the eastern route was clear. But I went to Idumea instead of home, in order to spy for you. Your father didn’t tell you what I learned there, because he wanted all of you to be calm.”

“Why?” Mahrree asked, her voice no longer calm.

“Because by now,” Shem said to her, “Administrator Genev is in Edge with three coaches.”

Mahrree’s eyes grew big and Perrin squeezed her hand. “And why three?” she asked.

“One for Perrin, one for you, and one for Peto.”

Mahrree turned gray.

Deck wrapped a supportive arm around Jaytsy, who had gone pale as she nibbled a berry.

Peto felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Forgetting to doubt Shem’s account, he asked, “Why were they sending coaches for us?”

“Because after two and a half weeks of arguing, the Administrators finally passed the Ideas and Association Law, wherein a person could be tried for sedition based not on any act or crime, but based solely upon their vocal and obvious disagreement with the Administrators. Peto, the law was designed specifically to punish her.” Shem pointed at Mahrree but kept his gaze on Peto.

Mahrree withered. “Dear Creator!”

“And him.” Shem pointed at Perrin who closed his eyes.

“And you,” he pointed finally at Peto, who felt as if his finger were a long knife aimed at him. “Because you lived in their house during the past year, and were subject to the influence of their ideas: guilty of their ideas by association.”

Something deep inside told Peto it was true, all of it. He had no other evidence besides the swelling in his gut, the heat in his chest, and the impression in his mind, but he felt it: he and his parents were in grave danger.

Shem put a heavy hand on his shoulder. “The law went into effect last night at midnight. This morning at dawn, you and your parents would have been taken, each in your own coach, and each in chains, to Idumea for trial.” He ignored the quiet weeping of Mahrree. “You would have been found guilty, Peto, and most likely incarcerated at the garrison for the rest of your life, a place much nastier than this cozy cavern. Perrin may have been given the same punishment, we’re not sure. But your mother? Gadiman started a file on her years ago when you were just a baby, simply because she wrote a letter. It escalated from there. Genev and General Thorne want her dead.”

Shem turned when he heard the gasp.

“I’m sorry, Mahrree. I didn’t put that too delicately, did I?”

Mahrree had buried her face in her husband’s chest, and Perrin wrapped his arms around her.

If Peto weren’t already on the ground, he would have been. Stupid fourth plate of potatoes, making him feel sick.

“There is something to say about upholding the law and all that,” Shem seemed to think he should mention. “And I pledged as a soldier to uphold the decrees of the Administrators, but only to the benefit of the world as a whole. I didn’t think executing your mother would be good for everyone involved, so . . . we essentially took the law into our own hands.”

Jaytsy sniffed, and Shem said to her, “You would have been spared. Thorne was trying to work something out. I’m not sure of his intentions for you, but I suspect Deck wasn’t part of it.”

Jaytsy nodded sadly.

Shem continued, “Jaytsy, when I heard you were feeling pains a couple of days ago, I began a fast asking that the Creator would stop the pains and allow you to come with us.”

Peto heard that strange word and, despite everything, he had to ask, “What’s a fast?”

Shem glanced back at him. “Going without food and water for a day and night to show the Creator one’s sincerity about a request.”

“Oh,” was all he could say, feeling guilty about the fifth biscuit.

“I knew we couldn’t leave you behind,” Shem said to Jaytsy, “not when Thorne could have access to you.”

“And I prayed so hard to let the baby come!” Jaytsy said softly. “I couldn’t imagine why He wouldn’t give me what I wanted.”

“And yet I knew it was not the right thing,” Deck said. “I guess I prayed against you, Jayts. Sorry.”

Shem turned back to Peto, who was startled to find he was again the center of Shem’s lecture. “And so, for the first time in any official action since Captain Shin forced a terrified Lieutenant Karna to follow him, the army entered the forest in pursuit of a new organization of traitors.”

Perrin kissed the top of Mahrree’s head. “And I suppose the chairman of that new organization is you!”

Even Peto could tell his father’s timing was rotten.

“Oh Perrin,” Mahrree wailed. “I had no idea! I know my mouth has got me into trouble before, but nothing like this! I am so sorry. Gadiman really had a file about me?”

Perrin increased his wife-rocking. “Mahrree, Mahrree! Don’t fret and don’t worry about that file. Shem stole it and we buried it in Deck’s barn two nights ago.”

Deck smiled slyly. “I knew you must have done more than just sit in the straw and talk. You misplaced my shovels.”

Perrin shrugged his apology and said to his wife, “You did nothing wrong. You spoke the truth. Your mouth didn’t get us into trouble, Idumea did. In fact, it’s because of your mouth we’re finally going in the right direction, away from the world. You’ve done us a favor,” he decided.

Mahrree nodded, but was clearly unconvinced.

“Peto, there have been many miracles,” Shem said, because obviously there was still more to the lecture. “Had Jaytsy’s baby been born two days ago, she wouldn’t have been able to walk the many miles she did. And a newborn’s cries would have given away our position. Consider the cloud cover last night. Under two full moons you can sometimes see nearly half a mile into that forest. Last night you could see barely ten paces. We chose a night with just slivers of moons, but the Creator sent cloud cover to hide all light.”

Peto was looking down at his hands, unable to face Shem, or the quality in his voice that made his chest burn.

“Consider the marshes. Usually they’re low because the canals drain them. But because we had such a heavy snowpack this year, the marshes are deeper than usual. Twenty soldiers were caught when, in a normal year, their horses could have easily waded through.

Jaytsy had pulled away from Deck’s shoulder and listened in fascination. “How many men did the captain send out?”

“Nearly everyone, and even though he was down to about one-hundred-sixty, that still a lot,” Shem told her, and Jaytsy silently mouthed the number. He turned back to Peto. “Consider the fear of the men. Your father has trained them to ignore their fear. But on unfamiliar territory, with an angry commander they didn’t trust, they fell apart. I have no doubt that if your father were at the head of those men, they would have stood firm, found their courage, and found their victims.”

Perrin winced at the word.

“Lastly, Peto, consider the storm—”

Peto couldn’t meet Shem’s eyes for the pressure building in his own.

“—Storms don’t move from west to east here. They go north to south in a westerly way. We prayed for its assistance, and it came with enough violence so that your father and I had to use none.”

“That’s what I prayed for when you asked us to,” Perrin said quietly. “To escape without my family witnessing violence by my hand, or suffering violence by the hand of others.”

“Think of the horses,” Shem continued. “What do horses do in a storm? Do they calmly stand in a line?”

Peto shook his head, not trusting his voice.

“And when lightning strikes?” Shem asked. “Do horses patiently wait, or do they whinny and buck and rear? You don’t have to answer that, because you may not know,” he added. “But I have never seen those horses so well-behaved. The Creator can cause all things, and He can calm all things. And lastly, consider that Jaytsy experienced none of the storm.”

“It was behind us the entire way,” Jothan spoke up.

Barb nodded. “Almost overtaking us, but it never did. Instead, it washed away our tracks. Just what we prayed for.”

Shem turned to the Shins and Briters. “Deck, you prayed for that storm, right?”

Deck look embarrassed. “I prayed to see Jaytsy again.”

“Shem, didn’t you pray for the storm?” asked Perrin.

Shem threw up his arms. “I was praying to know what was up with Peto! I could tell he was furious, but I didn’t know why.”

Mahrree raised her hand. “Well, I prayed for the storm.”

“Ah, there we go!” Shem said. “Thank your mother for that one.”

Peto almost smiled. Almost. He hadn’t prayed at all.

“There’s one thing more,” Perrin said, so quietly that Peto almost missed it. “About that storm, son. As we listened to Thorne bellow in the dark, I heard another voice.” He paused, and Peto looked up to see him genuinely unsure.

But Shem nodded. “Go ahead. I think we all need to hear this.”

Perrin cleared his throat. “It was a quiet and calm voice, but with enormous power, and it seemed to come from inside of me. It said that the storm was moving in and that there’d be a strike of lightning behind us to separate us from danger. I was told to line up the horses so they’d run in the correct direction. It was a simple solution, but it wasn’t mine. I was planning a scenario far more complex.”

Peto noticed a level of emotion not normally associated with the former colonel.

“That was the Creator I heard, wasn’t it, Shem?” Perrin asked.

Shem smiled, a tear trickling down his cheek. “Not for the first time do I find myself envying you, Perrin.”

Peto knew Shem was addressing him again, but he couldn’t focus on anything else except a crack in a rock, and that had gone runny.

“Peto, in Salem no one will force you to believe anything. You can doubt all you want. But it’ll be very hard for you to deny or imagine away what you’re feeling right now. That tightness in your chest, those tears in your eyes—yes, I see them, no sense pretending they’re not there—are the Creator’s ways of smacking you upside the head. You can still choose to be cynical and see only coincidences. But I choose to see miracles. And I’d much rather live in a world full of miracles than in one filled with random chances.”

Shem crouched next to him and placed his hand on Peto’s chest again, flooding him with heat. “Right there, you feel it. Don’t ever forget what the Creator has done for you—for you—today.”

“I won’t,” was all Peto could whisper.

“This wasn’t your plan, was it?” Shem said.

Startled, Peto looked up at him.

“You had another plan, and that’s what made you so frustrated. You couldn’t see it through. Knowing you, it was noble, intent on saving your parents and restoring everything as it was.”

Peto’s chin wobbled.

“You may have even been a hero,” Shem suggested, “which is the end goal of every teenage boy, I think. But Peto, it wasn’t the Creator’s plan. He wants something even more for you. And when you find out what it is, you’ll look back on this day with relief and gratitude. Do you believe me? Do you trust me?”

The air was so thick with . . . well, Peto wasn’t entirely sure, but it was nearly palpable.

And it was also Relf Shin, sitting again beside him.

Later a remnant of cynicism in his brain would say, Oh, of course Grandfather waited until the last moment to show up.

But Relf’s message was undeniable: You’re in the right place, son, going to the right place. And you’re traveling with all of us.

The best Peto could manage was a whispered, “I’m trying to trust you.”

“Trying is enough,” Shem whispered back.

Eventually a quiet voice broke the reverent silence, and Jaytsy sounded apologetic as she asked, “Shem, exactly when did Thorne kill you? I think I missed that part.”

 

 

 

Chapter 8—“Of knowing the world

will never find you again.”

 

When they finished eating, Asrar brought to Mahrree a grubby piece of parchment. She glanced first at Shem, who nodded.

“Absolutely. It’s for her, after all.”

Mahrree took it gingerly, recognizing that it was old.

“She wrote it the night she came here,” Asrar told her softly. “She wouldn’t speak to anyone until she had it all written down. She told me later that she didn’t want to risk forgetting anything, and had hoped she might be the one to deliver it. But since she passed away almost five years ago now . . .”

Mahrree read the words scrawled hastily on the parchment.

 

Someday will come for you. There will be a day when you will be ready to leave it all behind and embrace the truth. But not for many years still, I suspect. Until then, think of this night never again. Should your mind ever find itself surprised by this memory, tell yourself it was just a vivid dream, for that’s all it really is. You can practice looking at the world in different ways, preparing your mind to realize you know really nothing at all, looking at the sky and realizing it changes minute by second, but until that someday comes, nothing will ever quite make sense. That’s all right. But when that day does come, everything will hit you with such finality and power you will never again be able to forget it or deny it. You will find the truth and run to it.

[_ ~For you, Mrs. Shin. Until we meet again. So that we will remember together. ~G. Yung _]

 

“She frightened me so much that night,” Mahrree smiled sadly. “I realize she did it on purpose. I wasn’t ready and she knew that. She saw right through me.”

Asrar put a hand gently on Mahrree’s shoulder. “But she knew you would run here someday.”

“What was her first name?”

“Galena,” Asrar said. “Galena Yung.”

“Wish I’d known her as well as I know her husband.”

“Someday in Paradise you will,” Asrar said as surely as she knew the sun would rise. “That parchment’s never left this resting station. Shem, a couple others, and I have memorized it in order to tell it to you. Now, it’s yours to keep. Galena always intended for you to take it with you.”

“I’ll take it to Salem, where we all belong.” Mahrree said as she put it in her pocket next to the family lines no one knew she had.

After breakfast Asrar showed them to the chamber with the net slings like Jaytsy had ridden in, suspended on overhangs of the boulders. The area was darkened and cooled by the surrounding rock, spacious enough for up to fifty people to sleep.

“You’ll find these provide the best napping options on the rock,” she told them.

As Perrin helped Mahrree into a higher net he said to Shem, “I’ll take the first watch, then will you take the second?”

Shem shook his head. “You haven’t slept more than a handful of hours in the past two nights. Neither have I,” he reminded him. “We both sleep. We’re perfectly safe here.”

Perrin looked at him dubiously. “Are you absolutely . . .” his voice trailed off as Shem gave him a meaningful look. “I will trust you. This place is safe.”

Shem smiled, climbed expertly into his litter and stretched out.

 

—-

 

But Peto struggled to get into his. First he tried a higher one, then decided to climb into a lower one. Moving his stiffening leg upward didn’t seem to be something he could do yet, even with the herb rub for his saddle soreness.

Shem slipped out of his litter. “Like this,” he said as he stretched open the litter to let him crawl in.

“Thanks,” Peto whispered, rolling away from him.

“Hey,” Shem tipped the sling to force Peto back to him. “I realize you’re still trying to figure out how to think of me, and that’s all right. Since yesterday morning your whole world has been spinning, and it still hasn’t stopped, has it? I’m sorry I was rough on you earlier, but I promise Salem will be worth it.”

Peto nodded wearily and warily.

“You were looking for a sign or message last night, weren’t you?” Shem said, as if reading Peto’s soul. “It never works the way you expect it to,” Shem told him. “But the Creator sends us signs every day, wanting us to see things as He sees them, not as we want to see them. It’s up to us to recognize His messages to us for what they are.”

Peto knew he was seeing one right now.

Shem put his hand on Peto’s chest, on top of the envelope. “You brought them, didn’t you? Your grandparents? I felt Relf come by to check on you. He and the others were never far from us.”

Before Peto could ask what Shem meant by ‘the others’ and how ‘far’ they were, Shem said, “Now rest, boy. Your new life is just around the corner. And over the mountain. And through some fields, and . . . well, your backside really doesn’t want to know right now.” Shem patted him and went back to his net.

Peto put a hand on his chest and tried to slow his thumping heart.

 

—-

 

Perrin climbed into his net under Mahrree with a weary grunt. “I’ll just rest my eyes,” he murmured. “Because I don’t see how I can sleep until we’re out of view of Edge.”

Mahrree smiled down at him and nodded. She lay back in the sling and stretched out to feel it support her completely. Before she could sigh in relaxation, she heard a familiar snore under her.

“Ah, just great!” Peto mumbled from his net. “With Father snoring no one will . . .” and suddenly he was silent.

Shem chuckled quietly. “Good boy, Peto. He was always easy to get night-night.”

“Asrar didn’t put anything in those biscuits to put them to sleep, did she?” Mahrree asked.

Asrar, retrieving supplies from the nearby cavern to prepare midday meal, uttered a quiet but affronted, “Oh! Of course not!”

“Just kidding, Asrar,” Mahrree said, waving her hand. “Take it as a compliment that my family hasn’t been this exhausted or this contented in a very long time.”

“If she did have something to put people to sleep,” Jothan rumbled quietly from his net sling, his eyes already closed, “I would have insisted she put it in our four sons’ dinners each night.”

“It’s the sleep of peace,” Barb said drowsily, on the other side of Mahrree. “Of knowing the world will never find you again.”

Mahrree grinned and glanced at Jaytsy lying in her litter above Deck. She looked like she could never sleep again, but preferred to just watch her already dozing husband as she held his limp hand in hers.

“I’ll keep watch,” Jaytsy assured her mother. “I’m quite rested. Although I don’t know what I’m watching for!”

 

—-

 

The students of Upper School #3, sitting outside on the benches, watched yet another group of soldiers run by. Two paused in front of a cluster of teenage boys, and Chommy said, “No, we haven’t seen the Shins or the Briters. That’s what we told the last seven groups of soldiers who asked.”

The soldiers darted off in another direction as Chommy casually saluted them away. His friends sitting with him chuckled.

“Why did we even come to school today?” one of them asked.

“Because old Hegek would come by each of our houses again begging us to come if we didn’t,” said Chommy. “He has to fill the seats, you know. Really, this is pathetic, them racing after nothing.”

“Not nothing,” Lannard said defensively. “There was noise during the night, and shouting and running and—”

Chommy waved that off. “Hours ago. I heard they weren’t even real Guarders. My father said that when they attacked years ago they actually killed people. But these Guarders? They just let loose a few chickens and shouted ‘Can’t catch me!’ like it was a game. But the soldiers are panicked as if half of them were massacred last night.”

“Well,” Lannard began, his shoulders twitching in loyalty to the army he hoped join, “they didn’t know that. Maybe there are dead soldiers somewhere.”

Chommy rolled his eyes. “The sooner all of this nonsense is over with, the better. Hegek’s lectures are so dull I’m bored to tears. It’ll be interesting to hear Mrs. Shin’s take on all of this.”

Lannard was stunned. “What, you want Mrs. Shin back?”

“Of course!” said another boy next to him. “She’s the only teacher who doesn’t read the scripts. Chommy,” he said knowingly to his friend, “I don’t think Lannard’s ever caught on.”

“Caught on?” Lannard asked, looking at the six boys around him. “Caught on to what?”

Chommy patted him on the shoulder. “How well did you do on the End of Year exam?”

Lannard smiled proudly. “Good enough to get out of Mrs. Shin’s class next—” He stopped when he saw Chommy shaking his head.

“You’re doomed. Now you’ll have to take the regular classes, full of Administrative drudgery and Departmental dullness. You passed yourself out of a real education.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Lannard,” another boy patted him on the head like a dog, “we’ve all thrown the tests. You know, failed them on purpose? So that we could be in Mrs. Shin’s class.”

“I worked out the math a few years ago,” another boy told him.

Lannard was shocked. “You know math?!”

“Of course. You see, if we fail fifty-four percent of the test, which, according to the matrices established by the Department of Instruction, which matrices I steal from Hegek’s office each year so that I can run the numbers—”

You know math!

“How else can I tell the others how many questions to get wrong to statistically keep us in her class—”

“You know math on purpose? And do badly on purpose?”

“You, Lannard,” said Chommy slowly as if talking to a stupid goat, “are one of the few who really belongs there. At least half of us are there on purpose, because she’s the only teacher who actually teaches. She’s also the only one who listens. Next year we’ll all take our final exams and pass them astonishingly well with the highest marks possible. It’s not that hard, really. Students have been failing on purpose for years to get into Mrs. Shin’s class, then passing with nearly perfect grades at the very end to go on to a university. You’re one of the rare dumb ones to get in naturally. You didn’t even have to steal anything like I did and allow yourself to get caught in order to be considered a ‘special case’. Congratulations!”

Lannard’s shoulders sagged as the boys around him laughed. “You really liked her as a teacher?”

“You didn’t?”

“Well, I . . . I don’t know. It’s not like she was mean or anything, just kind of . . .”

“Oh, Lannard, Lannard, Lannard. When you have to sit in the ‘regular’ classes next year, you’ll realize what you gave up.”

“But she . . . she . . . didn’t teach to the test,” Lannard said, suddenly feeling confused and stupid.

“Yeah, we know,” Chommy said. “Thank the Creator, right?”

Lannard’s head snapped up. “You believe in the Creator, too? He was made up! The Administrators said that—”

Chommy sighed loudly. “Lannard, you really believe everything the Administrators claim? Someday you’ll make a great addition to the Army of Idumea. Maybe even an Administrator’s aide.”

Just as Lannard was about to round on them for their unsupportive attitudes, he noticed Mr. Hegek coming through the gate of the school grounds. Clusters of students stopped their gossiping and stared at Edge’s director of schools, who was shaking and pale. His gaze drifted from one group to another until they finally rested on Lannard, Chommy, and the rest of Mrs. Shin’s “Special Cases.”

“Everyone,” he said in a trembling voice. “Please step inside—”

“We’re supposed to stay outside,” one girl informed him. “In case Guarders are still hiding in there.”

“The Guarders are gone. It seems that they had one goal, and they accomplished it early this morning.” His trembling increased. “Please, get inside and I’ll tell you about it.”

Chommy was already on his feet. “Is it about the Shins? Mr. Hegek, what about Mrs. Shin?”

“Just please get inside, Chommy. I’ll tell you everything if you just get inside!

Chommy glanced back to his peers whose bleak expressions reflected his own.

The news was bad. In another minute, Lannard would come to that conclusion as well, but maybe after Hegek told them what it was.

“Come on, boys,” said Chommy somberly. “I have a feeling we won’t be hearing Mrs. Shin’s side of this. Ever.”

 

—-

 

When Asrar woke everyone up about four hours later, Jaytsy was smiling at her mother from her sling.

“Now I know what I needed to watch for.” She pointed to her father. Asrar hadn’t woken him yet, but at Jaytsy’s request had waited for everyone else to be up to see his reaction.

“I don’t believe it!” Mahrree whispered.

Peto grinned. “Now that’s a miracle!”

“I have to agree, Peto.” Shem smiled.

“He’ll never get rid of it, will he?” Deck chuckled.

“Perrin?” Mahrree said softly, reaching down to touch his arm. “Perrin, it’s time to put out The Cat.”

“Hmm?” With eyes still closed, he automatically petted The Cat.

The Cat purred.

Perrin’s his eyes flew open and he looked at his chest. “The Cat!”

The Cat meowed wearily at him.

“How did . . . What are . . . What?!”

His family laughed.

“He wandered in about an hour ago,” Jaytsy told them. “His feet are pretty roughed up.”

Perrin struggled to sit up in his sling and lifted the limp animal to inspect him.

“Oh, you’ve had a hard night, haven’t you, boy?” Perrin said when he saw his bloody paws. “How in the world did you find us?”

“It’s not the first pet to follow us to Salem,” Jothan said. “He can come all the way. Jaytsy, he could ride with you.”

“Of course!” Jaytsy squealed.

Half an hour later, as they prepared to start on the trail again, well rested and well fed—including The Cat who took care of the leftover ham—a jovial young man in mottled green clothing emerged from one of the gaps in the rock.

“It’s about time!” his aunt Barb sighed in relief.

“Kiren,” Shem called. “How’s everything in the world?”

Kiren beamed. “I’m pleased to report that the fort’s falling apart and soldiers are weeping in terror at the edge of the forest! Or, uh,” he looked over at Perrin. “I’m sorry, sir, it’s just that—”

Perrin nodded to the scout. “Understood. Actually, I’m rather glad to hear that news myself.”

Kiren relaxed. “I can’t believe it—the Shin family is here! So good to meet all of you!” He eagerly pumped Perrin’s hand. “Oh, Asrar, I almost forgot. Half of the scouts should be here soon, and they’ll be starving.” To Perrin he said, “That was the message they sent me up here to deliver. Wow. I just said that to Perrin Shin! And that’s Mahrree Shin!” he pointed at her.

She snorted in response, and her children chuckled.

“So it was messy?” Asrar asked, trying to keep Kiren focused.

“Still haven’t accounted for all of our men yet,” Kiren said, snatching a biscuit remaining from breakfast. “But we’re pretty sure everyone got out of Edge, and we’re making sure all of the soldiers are out of the forest. They lost at least six men in there, and a few horses. And that’s Peto, isn’t it!”

But Perrin ignored his son’s sniggering and massaged his forehead. “Kiren, do you know if Offra got out?”

“Yes sir, he did. And may I make the first of many apologies? We didn’t expect any of the soldiers to actually enter the forest. Hi, Briters! Wow, they’re all here! Sorry, sorry—I know. Report. Dormin sent most of our ‘Guarders’ into the village to startle chickens, hoping to attract the soldiers, but then Thorne ordered those groups into the trees. Well, that was unexpectedly brave and stupid.”

“That about sums up Thorne,” Perrin sighed.

“Good one!” Kiren pointed at him. “Hey, he’s funny! Who would’ve thought—” When he caught Shem’s glare, he cleared his throat and said, “We’ve been playing catch up ever since, trying to make the chaos work for us. Something we learned from you, Mr. Shin, during Moorland.”

Perrin frowned. “Chaos?”

“The explosions in Moorland, sir? No one anticipated that. But together we made the best of the chaos, taking out every last Guarder. Dormin alone flushed out about a dozen that were hiding further west and took care of,” he raised his eyebrows meaningfully, “most of them until we got him assistance. He may be even more fearsome than you, sir!”

Perrin smiled wanly. “So Dormin’s in charge of all of this?”

“Part of it,” Shem said. “We each had our responsibilities. Jothan’s was to get you out and escort you up here, Barb and Kiren’s was to deliver Jaytsy, and I was supposed to keep the soldiers out of the way. Come to think of it,” he scratched his head, “Dormin was the only one doing his original task—directing the ‘Guarders’.”

Perrin chuckled. “Since I’m a man who frequently was the only one doing what he was supposed to—”

He ignored Shem’s loud scoff.

“—I look forward to chatting with Dormin about what should have happened last night.”

“May have to wait,” Kiren said. “He hasn’t reported in yet, but he’s probably making a last sweep of the area. He’s very thorough.”

“Cousin Dormin knows the forest better than anyone,” Asrar said.

Cousin Dormin?” Peto said, raising an eyebrow.

“We share the same ancestor,” Asrar smiled. “The second King Querul. And besides, we are all family.”

“About half of Salem has claimed Dormin as a cousin,” Jothan explained. “He never married or had children.”

“How sad,” Jaytsy said.

“No,” Jothan corrected her, “how deliberate. He was worried that if he had children, one of them might discover his ancestry and want to come to the world and become king. Dormin wanted to make sure the reign of kings died with him.”

“I’ve heard him call himself the gatekeeper,” Barb said.

“The gatekeeper between what his ancestors created, and the people who freed him from it. He rarely comes to Salem,” Asrar explained. “While he knows none of us hold him accountable for what his ancestors have done, still he feels a sense of guilt. Salem loves him—many of us have tried to give him our last names—but he’d rather stay in the forests to keep us secure.”

“Now I really do want to talk with the man,” Perrin said. “He’s done more good than all of the kings put together.”

Jothan nodded. “That’s what Rector Yung has told him, many times. When Dormin comes to Salem, he either stays with us or with Yung. I know they had plans for dinner tomorrow night.”

“Uh,” Peto began hesitantly, “did Woodson get out all right?”

Kiren beamed. “Yes, and quite unhappily too.”

“Something go wrong?”

“No,” Kiren chuckled. “That’s the problem. We didn’t need to use him. He ran around and got some soldiers to chase him, but we never needed him to play Peto Shin.”

“Well, I’m glad he’s all right,” Peto said.

“Kiren,” Perrin said, “you and the other Salemites have risked so much to get us out. If we were any other family—”

“We’d still do it!” Kiren exclaimed. “That was the most exciting move we’ve ever had. We’ll be talking about it for years. And it’s great to finally meet you, sir!” He pumped Perrin’s hand again.

“Well then,” Perrin said, smiling at the man’s infectious grin, “I’m glad we could provide you some entertainment.”

Turning to Jothan, Kiren said, “I can finish taking the Shins up to Salem so you can stay here with your wife.”

But Jothan shook his head. “You haven’t slept since yesterday, have you? I just had a good nap. I know you’re eager to spend some time with the former colonel, but falling asleep on the horse carrying his daughter won’t impress him much.”

Kiren blushed and Shem laughed.

Jothan put a large hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Remember, he’s coming to Salem to stay. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to overwhelm him with your questions.”

“I’m intrigued to hear about your system,” Perrin assured Kiren. “I’ll have questions for you as well.”

Kiren nodded eagerly. “Great! I hope by the time I get there everyone else hasn’t already talked your ear off.”

Perrin squinted. “Everyone else?

Shem cleared his throat at Kiren. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting something to eat and then a nap?”

“Of course, of course.” Kiren grabbed Perrin’s hand one more time. “Again, so great to meet you! All of you!”

Barb came over and took her nephew by the arm.

“Really, you’re going to love Salem!” Kiren called as his aunt dragged him away. He waved vigorously at the Shins and Briters, who couldn’t help but grin back at him.

Asrar pushed him firmly onto a rock, set a plate of food on his lap, and Barb shoved a sandwich into his mouth.

“You’ll have to forgive Kiren,” Shem said. “He gets a bit excited. That’s why he isn’t part of the scouting corps. His enthusiasm is perfect for dealing with the wounded or encouraging a mother, though.”

Perrin folded his arms. “What was he talking about, ‘everyone else’ waiting to meet me?”

Shem smiled easily. “Perrin, a few stories have gotten around. Remember, we’ve moved thousands people to Salem over the years. A few people knew of you and your father and grandfather. Now,” he said, eager to shift the topic, “we need to get you there!”

Perrin looked dubiously at his wife. “A few people?”

Mahrree patted his arm. “After the first days,” she whispered to him, “the excitement will wear off and I’m sure no one else will remember us. We’ll be able to live that quiet, anonymous life you’ve never experienced.”

“I hope you’re right,” he grumbled back. “Shem and his stories,” he murmured as he went to retrieve Peto’s horse and Clark.

Mahrree and Peto stared at the approaching animals, then exchanged miserable glances.

“Mother, how far do you think it is to Salem?”

“As far as my behind is concerned, it’s already too far.”

Perrin returned and smirked. “It’s time, my darling wife. I am very sorry.” But the quiver around his lips suggested otherwise. “You could try side saddle for a while.”

“Or she could use this,” said Barb, bringing her an overly thick sheepskin.

“Bless you, Barb!” Mahrree cried.

“Can I bless you, too?” Peto asked.

“I suppose I can spare another for the future stud of Salem.”

Deck secured Jaytsy in her sling between the pack horses, The Cat lounging around her belly, while Jothan and Barb checked all the connections.

“So Shem,” Deck tried to say coolly, “just how far is it?”

“I don’t think I should tell you yet,” Shem said, adjusting a stirrup on his horse. “It would spoil the surprise.”

Mahrree glared at him from atop Clark, still uncomfortable even with her new padding.

“Come on, Shem, you can tell us now,” Perrin said.

Shem put on a thoughtful expression as he mounted his horse. “It’s not too far. How’s that?”

“Not good enough,” Perrin growled.

“It’ll have to be,” Shem said, and he nudged his mount out of the chamber. He led them through twisting rock passageways for several minutes until the tunnel emerged at the top of the wide boulder field. Between the boulder field and the slope of the mountain was a narrow channel, wide enough for a couple of horses to ride side by side. The height of the rock was just above the heads of the horses, allowing riders to see over the edge if they stood in the stirrups.

They continued east until they reached a canyon which Mahrree never gave more than a passing thought. Shem paused at the mouth of it, turned around his horse, and gestured to the distance.

“Your last clear view of Edge. No one can see us up here, even if the spyglass in the office is trained precisely. The angle of this channel between the rocks and mountain slope obscures the horses.”

Jaytsy, lounging in the sling, shook her head. “It’s not home anymore, Shem.”

Deck nodded.

Peto looked toward the south. “Is that the fort at Mountseen?”

“Good eyes, Peto,” Shem said. “After a storm blows through the views are quite clear. The smudge beyond that is Rivers. And when the angle of the sun is just right, you can see distant flashes of light. It’s sunlight bouncing off of a large bank of windows in Vines.”

Perrin twisted in surprise. “Vines?!”

“When the conditions are perfect,” Shem said, “you can just make out the tallest buildings in Idumea. Eighty miles really isn’t that far, Perrin. In the next few weeks you’ll realize just how short a distance it is.”

Mahrree winced. A few weeks? She’d be part of the horse in a few weeks!

“No one in the world understands how small the world, as you called it, really is,” Shem told them.

Perrin looked down at Edge, his eyes hopping from one tower to another. “No banners flying,” he murmured to Mahrree. “Edge looks quiet. They must have given up trying to find us.”

From that distance it didn’t even look like Edge, but some sleepy little village they’d never met and didn’t care to know.

“I’ve seen enough, Shem,” Mahrree said.

She felt Perrin nod behind her.

But seeing that Peto was still staring at the plain below him, Shem said, “Peto? Everything all right?”

“Just strange to think that from here you can see Rivers. There’s the fort, to the side. And somewhere in there are soldiers and horses and even Colonel Karna.”

Perrin sighed. “Brillen won’t know yet. About us, I mean. But he will soon.”

“He will.” His son exhaled. “He’ll hear from others that . . .”

“That we’re gone,” Perrin said dully. “I’m sorry, Brillen. And Gari and Graeson. It’ll come as a shock, but—”

“But so would hearing that Genev is arresting you and trying you for sedition,” Shem reminded them. “Are we . . . are we good to go now?” He said that to Peto, who gave him a reluctant nod.

Shem grinned. “Then let’s go exploring!” He nudged his horse to head into the mouth of the canyon which was narrower than Mahrree expected, barely wide enough for the rushing river on one side, and a narrow, faint trail on the other.

“Here’s the Edge River,” Shem announced. “Ever wonder where it came from?”

Perrin shrugged. “Not really, although I should have. I just never questioned it.”

“Me neither,” Mahrree admitted. “Never occurred to me that it actually started somewhere.”

“But the river comes out of the forest west of Edge, and we’re east,” Perrin pointed out.

“That’s because the river,” Shem called loudly to be heard over the slopping of the water, “goes under the boulder field. Look downstream and you’ll see where it vanishes into a cavern. Our scientists speculate that the river probably pours into a underground lake—that’s a very large pond, by the way—below the boulders, then overflows to make the river again on the western side.”

Mahrree didn’t know how to process any of that. “I never even considered . . . an underground lake?”

“I didn’t understand all of that,” Perrin confessed in her ear. “Suddenly I feel very stupid, and just a few days ago I told you I knew everything.”

The faint trail went up to the left, switching back and forth and climbing rapidly. Mahrree now understood why the horses needed time to rest, even more than their riders. As they rode up the mountainside at a surprisingly rapid rate, Mahrree took in the scenery. It was all that she had imagined—

No, she never imagined this. Her mind was simply too . . . simple.

So instead she decided that the world beyond Edge was everything that she had hoped—

No, that wasn’t true either. How could she have hoped that trees—pines taller and straighter than anything in Idumea—grew all the way to meet the rocky cliffs at the top? What did they call the top of a mountain, anyway? And those trees, what were those, with white bark and twists and turns in the trunks? And there were grasses, thick and bright green, forcing their way through the melting snows. And jagged rocks, jutting out here and there, and the only way Mahrree could figure why they didn’t roll down the slope was because they were part of the mountain itself, some skeleton of rocks connected with extended fingers, then covered with dirt and growing things.

“It feels like it’s alive!” she breathed.

She didn’t know she said that so loudly until Shem, two horses ahead, turned in his saddle. He gave her a quizzical smile, and said, “The mountain? Oh, most definitely. Everything’s alive, Mahrree.”

She didn’t know whether to be comforted by that or disturbed. But because there was a smile on her face, she chose the former.

“It’s beautiful,” she decided as they came around a bend. “I’ve always thought so, down in Edge. But seeing the mountains at these angles it’s . . .” She didn’t have the words to describe the tightness of excitement in her chest that made her hands grip the saddle horn to keep them from shaking. She needed names and descriptions, but all she could come up with was the hopelessly vague, “Beautiful!”

Some fanciful part of her hoped the mountain heard her, accepted the compliment, and allowed them to pass in peace. While beautiful, it was all a bit strange and threatening, especially when they had to duck under an overhanging rock.

It didn’t help that Perrin reached up, snapped off a bit of the edge, and showed it to Mahrree as they passed underneath.

“Could crumble away at any moment,” he whispered. “Or maybe not. What do I know? I’m still not entirely sure what a ‘lake’ is.”

Mahrree examined the splinter of rock, worried that the mountain had felt her husband snap off one of its cuticles. “I don’t think you should do that. You might wake it up.”

“I might what?”

She chuckled at herself. “Never mind. Stop breaking the scenery. We’re new here.”

“I always thought of the mountains as a hostile place,” Deck admitted behind them as he evaluated the emerging grasses. “Maybe because I could never figure out how you could plant potatoes up here. But you could let cattle wander and graze.”

“That’s my husband—it’s beautiful as long as it is practical.” Jaytsy laughed.

Peto spun around in his saddle, his eyes ready.

“Peto, don’t say it,” Jaytsy warned.

“I was just going to say that . . . it’s so wonderful that the two of you managed to get together. Now what was wrong with that?

Shem laughed. “Very tactful, Peto. And Deck? At the end of Planting, we do bring up the cattle to graze here until Harvest.”

“Amazing!” Deck said. “Oh, sorry. That’s Perrin’s word. How about, how practical!”

The Shins chuckled, until a strange cry far above them caused Mahrree to look up into the clear sky.

Behind her, Perrin’s head also snapped up. “I see it,” he breathed.

“What is it?” Jaytsy asked, shielding her eyes to spot what had captured her parents’ attention.

“Ah,” Jothan said, pointing nearly straight up for Jaytsy’s benefit. “It’s enjoying the thermals rising from the canyon. Many birds of prey will coast along in tight circles, riding the columns of warm air that rise as the canyon heats up. My father, a biologist who specializes in ornithology, speculates that they’re simply having fun.”

Mahrree leaned to see Jothan behind her, who had become unexpectedly talkative. “Your father’s a what who specializes in what?”

Barb chuckled. “A scientist, Mahrree. We’ll teach you all of our extra words when we get to Salem. There’s a book.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” Jothan said, suddenly animated. “Forgot that you don’t know our terminology.”

Before Mahrree could work out the meaning of that word, Jothan continued. “My father’s always been fascinated by birds and flight. He spent many Weeding Seasons in this canyon gauging temperatures and recording behavior. I helped carry his equipment when I was a boy, and became a bit of a birder myself.”

“So what is it?” Jaytsy asked again, as she spotted the bird drifting higher without any effort except to tip its wings.

It cried again, its long screech echoing in the canyon.

No, cheered is more like it, Mahrree decided.

Behind her, Perrin sighed happily. “It’s a falcon, Jayts. Soaring free and far away!” His voice grew gruff. “No barns in sight to keep him trapped.”

Mahrree leaned back and rested her head against his chest. “Absolutely! That’s a falcon which is—”

Actually,” Jothan’s voice carried up to them, “that’s a larger bird, likely a hawk. It’s a common mistake,” he launched into a lecture worthy of his father. “But you can tell by the wing span and the configuration of the tips. Falcons are smaller birds, although people tend to think otherwise, but the fact is—”

“Hey, Jothan?” Shem interrupted him from the front of the line. He’d noticed that Perrin was still watching the whatever-bird with a combination of longing and joy. “For today, let’s just call it a falcon.”

“Uh, all right. It’s a falcon,” Jothan said with much less zeal.

But Perrin didn’t notice. He didn’t notice anything but the bird soaring higher, effortlessly, and cheering every once in a while for no particular reason except that it could.

 

 

 

Chapter 9—“Amazing!”

 

Something on the other side of the canyon caught Peto’s eye. In a vertical crevice of stone, white water rushed between the trees, bouncing and falling in the narrow channel down to the river, now half a mile below them.

“Shem,” he called. “What’s that where the water is falling?”

Shem turned in his saddle. “Get ready for this: it’s called a waterfall.”

“A waterfall? No, seriously. What’s it called?”

Barb laughed behind him. “It’s true, Peto. It’s called a waterfall. It’s also in that book I mentioned, called a dictionary. It even has pictures, and one will be waiting at your new home.”

Dictionary. The bizarre words these people come up with,” Peto muttered. “Waterfall. What else new are we going to see?”

“Well,” Shem called back, “we follow these switchbacks until we’re three and a half miles into the canyon, then we reach a high meadow in the saddle between those two peaks.” He pointed north in the direction of two craggy, snow-covered peaks.

“Meh-doe?”

“You’ll see, Peto,” Shem promised.

“Meadow!” Perrin exclaimed. “I remember Beneff saying that word during our planning meeting about the attack on Moorland.”

“That’s right,” Shem said. “There’s your proof that he was from Salem. No one in the world has a word like that, because there are no meadows in the world.”

“Amazing!” Perrin breathed.

“We don’t go over the peaks, do we?” asked Deck nervously.

“No, just between them.”

“Mahrree,” Barb called up to her, “you should come back here in Weeding Season. Wildflowers cover the grasses all the way to the trees. Your daughter told me you recently took up gardening.”

“You know, wildflowers sound interesting,” Mahrree said. “They don’t require any straight rows or weeding, right?”

A little ways down the trail Shem slowed his horse and turned in the saddle. An odd smile was on his face.

“Uh-oh,” Perrin said as their horses neared. “He’s going to confess another lie he’s told, and the next words out of his mouth will be, ‘Remember that one time . . .’”

Everyone chuckled as Shem bobbed his head sheepishly. “Well, at least you noticed the warning. Perrin, remember that one time—”

Now everyone laughed, even though Shem put a finger to his lips to shush them. He craned his neck to peer into an area behind the trees they couldn’t yet see, then waved at them to quiet down.

“Anyway,” Shem said, “Perrin, the night that Edge turned on itself and burned and looted until the middle of the night, you and I sat talking in your office for a while.”

“Yes . . .” Perrin said slowly.

“At one point you started musing on the possibility of some of Terryp’s mythical animals being real.”

“Go on . . .”

“You mentioned wapiti, zebras, and I think elephants that night. I suggested that they were very far away. Well, I lied about one of them being very far away.” He beckoned to them to follow.

Perrin couldn’t kick Clark fast enough, and when he reached a clearing, he reined his horse to a sharp halt.

Mahrree gasped. “A . . . a . . .” was all she could stammer.

At least Perrin was able to get out, “Shem! Is that a . . . a . . .”

Shem grinned as Peto, Deck, and Jaytsy, between Barb and Jothan, reached the view.

“It’s called an elk,” Shem said in low tones so as to not alarm the animal that fed less than twenty paces away. “That one’s a bull. Too bad you’re not seeing him with his full antlers. He recently shed them. It took the first Salemites a few moons to realize that the large deer that they named elk were actually Terryp’s—”

“Wapiti!” Perrin cried, and the elk lifted his head to look at him. “Shh, shh, I know!” he shushed himself, but not very quietly.

“They’re real!” Mahrree would have squealed if she wasn’t breathless.

Peto cocked his head. “It’s pretty big,” he said as the animal took another mouthful of grasses and chewed casually, already bored with his audience. “But not as big as Terryp suggested. How many people can ride it?”

Shem chuckled. “None! Terryp took a few creative measures in his stories.”

“He’s beautiful, though,” Jaytsy said, keeping a heavy hand on The Cat whose ears pricked with interest.

“And delicious,” Shem said.

Deck’s mouth fell open. “You eat them? Aren’t they rare?”

“Hardly. I’m sorry you missed the herd. There’s a meadow past that canyon where about a thousand of them come to feed on the grasses in Raining Season. Warm springs in the area keep the snow melted.”

“Wapiti!” Perrin whispered again, and Mahrree felt like crying.

Jothan had dismounted and was looking around on the ground. “Saw them when I came down a few weeks ago . . . ah, here we are.” He pulled up a large branch. Except it wasn’t a branch.

Perrin emitted a tiny, excited whimper.

Jothan held up the branch, as tall as him. “Now, that’s what I call a rack.” He bent down and picked up its match.

Deck squinted. “What exactly is that?”

“The antlers,” Jothan announced. His massive arms twisted the antlers into proper position and held them suspended behind his head to show how they would have been on the bull.

“Whoa,” Peto whispered. “Changed my mind. That is big. And you couldn’t ride it without being gored.”

Mahrree and Jaytsy could only nod.

Perrin shook his head in appreciation. “I grew up loving the stories of the wapiti, like giant deer. And they’re real! Amazing! I think that’s going to be my most used word today. But I don’t think you could use the antlers to steer,” he added in a faraway tone.

Surprised by that strange theory, Mahrree twisted around to look at him, but Perrin just smiled in contentment at the elk chewing lazily.

Jothan set the antlers back on the ground. “Some people like to use these in their houses to hang coats on.”

“Hang coats on!” Perrin breathed.

Shem clucked his horse. “Still quite a ways to go, and more animals to see, I’m sure.”

The Shins reluctantly followed Shem, and the bull elk merely glanced their way as he pulled up more grasses.

“Shem,” Perrin called up to him. “If wapiti are real . . .”

Mahrree knew what he was wondering. Often Perrin had reflected with longing about certain of Terryp’s mythological animals. Which, obviously, weren’t all mythological—

“If wapiti are real,” she repeated, “then . . .”

Shem turned in his saddle. “I know where you’re going with this. That night I mentioned, Perrin also speculated about zebras. And so you’ll want to know—does Salem have zebras?”

Perrin nodded with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old.

“No, I’m sorry. No zebras.”

“Shem!” Jothan called curtly. “Tell him what you do know.”

“No, we won’t see zebras, but Perrin,” he raised his eyebrows, “they do exist.”

“And elephants?” Mahrree cried.

Shem laughed. “And elephants, and monkeys, and gazelles, and lions, and apes, and a few other animals you don’t even know about and Terryp couldn’t imagine either!”

“In Salem?” Peto asked eagerly.

“No, much further away,” Shem said. “But in Salem we have drawings and paintings of them—full color.”

Jothan, the scientist’s son, spoke up. “Some years ago we sent an expedition to the far west and south, well beyond Terryp’s ruins. It took them two full seasons to travel, but they found enormous lands filled with all those animals. Our artists made detailed paintings, and our scientists recorded their behavior. Those who created Terryp’s ruins must have sent their own scouts to the far southwest as well. Then our scouts continued on and came to another sea.”

“That’s incredible!” Deck gasped.

Mahrree was speechless.

“So, this land . . . another sea . . . is there, is there . . .” Perrin faltered, too stunned to know how to continue.

“Yes?” Shem encouraged cheerfully. “Spit it out.”

Perrin could only shake his stunned head.

“So Jothan, your scouts weren’t like ours, sitting on the edges of the unknown, making up stories, then coming back terrified?” Jaytsy asked.

“Not at all,” Jothan said, “We don’t fear the unknown. We go out and shake its hand and ask it all the questions we can think of.”

“A map!” Perrin finally got it out. “Is there a map?”

“We’ll get you one,” Jothan promised. “Several, even. The world is far, far larger than anyone in Idumea ever imagined.”

“What color were they?” Perrin burst out. “Shem, the zebras?”

“Black and white!” Shem told him.

“I knew it!” Perrin squeezed his wife happily. “Brown and beige, was what you thought. Ha!”

Mahrree giggled. “Well how was I supposed to know?”

Shem released a huge sigh. “Oh, I’ve been waiting to tell you that one for a while. That night I wanted so much to tell you—” He stopped, and Mahrree, feeling Perrin tense up, suspected that they’d had a quiet discussion which shouldn’t be shouted about right now.

“I wanted to tell you that all of those animals were real,” Shem tried again. “And you were right about zebras being black and white. Perrin, you’ve been right about so many things but you just didn’t know it.”

“I know now,” he smiled. “Did any of your scouts try riding the zebras?”

“Not successfully,” Shem said. “They’re smaller than our horses, behaved more like donkeys, and were quite alarmed that these strange, two-legged creatures tried to climb on their backs. You’d have an easier time on a wapiti. The elephants, on the other hand, may have been possible to ride, but they didn’t dare try to climb any.”

Mahrree twisted to look behind Perrin. “Jothan, that other sea you mentioned—is it the same as the one we have to the east? Did your scouts go all around the world?”

“Is that possible?” Peto asked.

Jothan shrugged. “We don’t know—yet. We’re planning another expedition to find out. They’re looking for men and women to go all the way to the western shore, build boats, then sail on to who knows what end.”

Mahrree could feel Perrin’s breathing become faster in her ear.

She twisted in the saddle again. “No! Don’t even think it.”

But Perrin was looking past her to Peto.

Mahrree turned to him. “And not you either, Peto Shin!”

“Another sea . . . I never even saw our sea,” Peto said.

“Perrin,” said Jothan gently, “you wouldn’t be allowed to go.”

“Why not? I’m in as good shape as—”

“No married men are allowed to go,” Jothan said. “Only single men and women whose families don’t require their support. Our leaders expect the expedition to be gone as long as three years.”

“Peto, please get that look off your face,” Mahrree insisted.

“I don’t think I’m brave enough to go, Mother, so don’t worry,” Peto said. “Still, it’s incredible to think about, isn’t it?”

Deck nodded.

Jaytsy looked up at him. “Would you have wanted to go?”

“No way. I think becoming a father will be adventure enough.”

“Shem,” Perrin called up to him. “What about you?”

“I’ve had enough excitement away from Salem for a lifetime. I’m hoping for another kind of adventure.” He glanced at Deck.

They rode again in silence, lost in thought—

Well, Mahrree knew what Perrin’s thoughts were, because every now and then he’d murmur, “Wapiti!” and “Black and white!” and “Amazing!

At one point he whispered into her ear, “Mahrree, I have no idea what’s ahead of us, or how long this journey may be, or what may be at the end of it, but this I do know: today, I have seen a real wapiti! Today, I don’t care if the Salemites have stolen us away to be slaves in their fields, or that they really are so desperate for their daughters that they want to use our son as a stud—”

Mahrree snickered so loudly that Peto turned around in his saddle and frowned at them in worry.

“—because Mahrree,” Perrin chuckled in her ear, “today I’ve seen wapiti, and I know that others have seen zebras and elephants!”

After a while the path rose again and leveled out at a large field.

Peto asked, “What happened to all the trees?”

“This is the meadow I mentioned,” Shem explained. “Very few trees. Just grasses. And a glacial lake. And wildflowers in Weeding Season. Ah, Peto—so much to show you!”

Again Mahrree was at a loss for descriptive enough words. They’d entered a new little world, dropped on top of the mountains.

“A glacier carved this, a very long time ago,” Jothan explained, which was the worst explanation the Shins had ever heard, because it didn’t explain anything whatsoever.

“A glay-shur?” Perrin wondered.

“It’ll be in that word book, right?” Mahrree guessed.

Barb laughed. “It will be. Jothan, you didn’t give them four weeks of lessons, so quit confusing these poor people.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he chuckled apologetically.

The gently curved little valley sat nestled in between several peaks, a swath of bright green poking up through the melting snows in between the gray and brown rock. Scattered within the meadow were clumps of trees and boulders. The entire area was barely a quarter of a mile in width and maybe half a mile long, but it felt like an enormous haven.

“Do you think a glay-shur is a giant animal?” Mahrree whispered to Perrin, trying to imagine what cut this out of the mountain.

“Don’t ask me,” he whispered back. “I’ve lost the ability to think properly. Must be the air. Feels thinner up here. I think we’re running out of it.”

“Probably the glay-shur ate it,” Mahrree murmured, and the two of them giggled like children.

“Along with the trail,” Perrin whispered. “I’ve lost it. How does Shem know where to go?”

“What are you two whispering about up there?” Jaytsy called up.

“We have no idea,” Mahrree called back, “about anything!”

Suddenly two men appeared ahead of Shem.

Perrin gripped Mahrree’s waist tighter, until he realized that they were dressed like Jothan.

“Shem Zenos!” called one of the men. “What are you doing here? I know some people who are going to be very surprised to see you on the trail.”

“Change of plans, Winter. I’m coming home,” he announced.

The two men—and Mahrree was surprised to realize that they were middle-aged—broke into smiles.

Perrin’s grip on Mahrree relaxed, but behind her he still tensed.

“Have they finally found you out?” asked the other man.

“Actually, Varteeya, they have,” Shem said soberly, and the men’s smiles vanished. “It was as messy as we feared,” Shem reined his horse to a halt, “but so far everyone seems to be safe.”

“Gleace has been worried,” Winter said. “We heard from the forward scout about your night. But,” he paused and quickly counted the riders behind him, “it looks like we were successful. Welcome to our fort, Colonel Shin and family! I mean, Mr. Shin.”

“Fort?” Perrin asked, glancing around at nothing but trees, boulders, and stretches of snow.

Varteeya beamed. “I was hoping I would be on duty when you arrived. I wanted to get your opinion on what we’ve created here. In case any Idumeans are ever successful in making it this far, we wanted to be sure to see them first and send word ahead.”

Winter beckoned, his grin just as eager. “We’ll get you fresh horses. It’s a good thing we have an extra horse on hand.” He winced at Clark, who was beginning to show his exhaustion.

“Where are we going?” Mahrree whispered to Perrin. With a sudden pang of regret she realized that they were getting her a horse, and she’d no longer be able to whisper silly nothings with her husband. It took her nineteen years of marriage to realize that yes, she actually did like riding with him.

He held her tighter and whispered, “Maybe they’re leading us into the glay-shur?”

The men stepped to the right and led them to . . . a stand of trees?

It wasn’t until they neared that Mahrree realized the trees were part of the oddest shaped building she had ever seen. The small fort was constructed of vertical logs, and throughout the walls were growing real trees and bushes to hide it almost completely.

“Now that is amazing!” Peto declared. “What do you call it?”

“Camouflage,” said the Varteeya.

“Camouflage?” Peto repeated. “Strange name. Camo Flage?”

Varteeya blinked at him, then understood the confusion. “No, camouflage is what we did to the fort.”

“Yes, Peto,” Barb called, “it’ll be in the dictionary.”

“We looked at animals in nature,” Varteeya explained, “and saw how they hide themselves. We decided we could do the same with our fort and our clothing. Blend into the forest.”

Perrin grinned in appreciation. “Amazing!”

“His favorite word,” Shem said to the men.

Mahrree felt a little better that Perrin, normally a man of many words, was also having a hard time finding specific enough ones to sum up his day.

It was a beautifully amazing day, she thought to herself.

Peto was impressed by the fort as well. “Shem, why didn’t you ever tell my father about this?”

It took only a moment for him to comprehend the looks of Shem and his father.

“Oh. Right.” Peto rolled his eyes. “Why tell the enemy how to hide better. It’s kind of hard to remember what side I’m on now. There seem to be so many.”

Winter patted him on the back as he slid off the horse. “You’ll get it all straight soon enough, young Mr. Shin. Come see the inside.”

Perrin nearly forgot to help Mahrree off of Clark, so eager was he to inspect the oddest fort ever built. The Cat stretched outside and scratched the bark off of a tree while the family took the tour.

Instead of making the fort’s walls conform to a some random rectangle, it instead matched the natural flow of the small woods it stood in, causing the narrow building to angle and twist like a crooked branch, one room following another.

The first room was a combination reception and lookout, with a tall ladder extending up and out of the roof, climbing unnoticed to nearly the top of a large pine tree. When Mahrree peered up the ladder into the massive tree, she was startled to see a distant hand waving down to her.

“The views must be remarkable up there!” Perrin said as he waved to the invisible man.

“They are,” Varteeya said. “We spied you twenty minutes ago.”

Shem stayed in the reception and lookout area to update Winter, while the Shins and Briters moved on to the next room which contained supplies stacked neatly on shelves for people and horses. Mahrree was impressed to see not only clothing and shoes for all sizes of people, but also a wide variety of toys for weary and frightened children.

But she stopped when she noticed an unusual chair in the corner.

She raised her eyebrows at Jaytsy, who frowned in confusion and elbowed Deck to look at it. His eyes grew wide.

Before they could ask about the chair, Varteeya led them into the next section—another extended, narrow room.

“That’s one long table,” Peto noticed.

“It is,” Varteeya said. “Either for eating or surgery, whichever is in need at the moment.”

Peto laughed, until he realized Varteeya wasn’t.

“You’ve done . . . you’ve done surgery in here?! On that?”

“No, of course not,” Varteeya said, and Peto’s shoulders sagged in relief. “I’m a builder. Winter—he’s the surgeon. Need something stitched up?” Varteeya grinned as Peto paled.

Barb and Jothan chuckled as they sat down to the table, set for a snack of nuts and dried fruits, with no surgery implements in sight.

The next room, longer than the others, was obviously for sleeping as it held net litters hanging from above, with cots underneath. Stacks of blankets and pillows were stowed neatly under the cots, enough for twenty people. A door behind that room led to a large washing station, and beyond that, at the end of a narrow path between thick foliage, was another building which hid stabled horses.

“You’re prepared for every contingency here, aren’t you?” Perrin asked as they wandered back to the main building.

“And we’ve faced nearly every contingency, too,” said Varteeya, “since we completed this nearly four years ago.”

“Even the birthing chair?” Mahrree asked incredulously. By now they’d reached the eating/surgery table, and Jaytsy and Deck ducked back up to the supply room to gawk at it.

“I’d read about those being used by our ancestors,” Mahrree told them as she followed the Briters who were slightly stunned and disturbed, with Barb in tow. “I hadn’t realized you still use them.”

“We use everything possible,” Barb said. “There are many positions for birthing babies, and several women prefer the chairs. It seems reasonable to let nature do some of the work. We’ve had seven babies born here since the fort was completed. By the look on Jaytsy’s face, we won’t be having number eight.”

“I feel nothing!” Jaytsy said quickly. “Truly!”

“That’s good,” Barb said. “We still have a long trek in front of us. The paths widens considerably so you, your mother, Deck, and I can ride next to each other and talk about the Salem way of birthing. I’m sure our discussion will pass the time.”

Deck’s eyebrows furrowed. “There are plenty of midwives now. Do I really need to be involved?”

Peto and Perrin had come to the door, almost in a manner of daring the other to look at the birthing chair. They now watched Barb, worried about what her answer would mean for Deck.

“Of course,” Barb told him. “In Salem, fathers are an important part of the birthing process. You were there at the beginning—”

Deck blushed violently.

“—and you should be there at the end. Don’t worry,” Barb assured him. “You’ll do just fine.”

Wretchedly, Deck said “So I am to reach in and—”

“She’s not a cow, Deck! There’ll be no ‘reaching’.”

“Whew,” said Peto.

“Because if Jaytsy chooses to use a chair, you’ll be standing behind your wife and supporting her as she pushes,” Barb gestured to the chair with a noticeably large hole where the seat should be. “But there are many other positions Jaytsy can try. There’s the squat without the chair, there’s on her knees—”

Deck’s color faded rapidly from a bright red to a sickening gray, and he began to slump.

“Sweety?” Jaytsy said, and Perrin dove to catch Deck’s head before it banged on the ground.

“Oh, poor Deckett!” Mahrree cried as Perrin gingerly laid the rest of him down, but Barb only tilted her head.

“Ah,” she said casually, regarding his unconscious body splayed on the floor. “A fainter.”

“Need any help, Barb?” Jothan called from the table.

“I’ve got it, thanks. Don’t worry, Jaytsy; we have a few weeks still to get him ready.” Barb reached into a deep pocket on her breeches, pulled out a small bottle, and knelt by Deck. She uncorked the bottle, waved it under Deck’s nose, and his glazed eyes opened.

“Let’s get you something to eat before we discuss this further.” She hoisted him up expertly and Mahrree rushed to help lead him back to the eating table, casting a Give me a hand! glance at Perrin.

But he and Peto, standing uselessly in the doorway with their mouths hanging open, didn’t see it. Nor could they seem to remember how to help as a stumbling Deck was led past them, and Jothan stood up to get Deck into a chair.

Barb propped him up by his arms and elbows, and Deck held his woozy head in his hands as Jothan slid plates of food in his direction.

Perrin still couldn’t do much but gesture and say, “Mahrree, put a damp cloth on his neck. That seems to help him when he faints.”

Jaytsy sat down across from her shaking husband. “You all right? Deck? Sweety?”

Varteeya, who had brought a wet cloth to Mahrree, placed his hands on Perrin and Peto’s shoulders.

“Right now he looks like the bravest man in the world, doesn’t he?” he chuckled. “Won’t be as brave as his wife will be in a few weeks, but don’t worry. He’ll get used to it and find his legs when he needs to. So will you, young man,” he squeezed Peto’s shoulder.

“Oh, no, no, no!” Peto exclaimed. “I’m not getting married, and I’m not fathering children!”

Barb chuckled from her spot by Deck where she held his wrist to check his pulse. “Varteeya, ask him about his feelings on studding.”

“Please don’t,” Peto said.

Varteeya squeezed Peto’s shoulder again. “I predict no more than five years. You’ll be holding your own baby by then. Maybe even your second.”

Peto twisted to stare at him.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Varteeya went on. “The first birth was a bit rough and shocking, I’ll admit. I don’t know how she endured it. The noise, the fluids, the . . .” He held out his hands and did some kind of strange motions that Peto and Perrin couldn’t help but stare at in horror. “But by the sixth baby we didn’t call the midwife. My wife and I handled it just fine with our oldest daughter’s help.”

Mahrree watched with amusement as the looks on her husband’s and son’s faces progressed into dismay. Too many things Varteeya had said in the last minute bounced around in their minds smashing everything they knew about women and childbirth.

Granted, Mahrree thought as she handed her son-in-law a glass of water, there wasn’t much to smash.

“How, how, how,” Perrin stammered before shook himself, “how many children do you have?”

“Only ten,” Varteeya said nonchalantly, but watched for the Shins’ response. “One of my sisters has fifteen, but that’s with three sets of twins. She cheats. Our two oldest daughters enjoyed playing midwife with me.”

Perrin tried to shake the image from his head.

Peto hadn’t moved, except to cringe.

Varteeya thoroughly enjoyed it. “Our oldest is now a midwife herself. But come, we have other things to discuss. You have yet to tell me what you think of our fort, sir!”

Relieved for a change in topic, Perrin snapped his mind back. “Impressive!” he declared. “Even the irregular pitch of the roof mimics a tree line. Amazing! Who came up with this idea?”

Varteeya beamed. “Several of us in the scouting corps felt we needed an emergency station. Many in Salem contributed, but the best ideas came from Shem.”

Perrin looked down the fort through two open doors at Shem who overheard and shrugged apologetically.

“You haven’t been giving me your all over the years,” Perrin called. “If I could still promote you, I wouldn’t.”

“Thank you!”

After Deck was no longer changing colors and the horses were changed—the scouts promising to bring Clark to Salem after he had rested—the party headed out to their new mounts. The Cat noticed Jaytsy being helped into the litter and jumped in to join her.

Before Perrin helped Mahrree on to her new horse, one that Winter promised was the gentlest and dullest animal they had, they saw a lone rider at the end of the meadow heading up to the saddle between the two peaks.

“Who’s that?” Mahrree asked Varteeya and Winter who were holding the reins of their horses.

“One of our messengers,” Winter told her. “We’ve sent him ahead to let Salem know of your progress.”

Perrin eyed him suspiciously. “Just how many more men do you have hiding in the trees?”

“As many as we need, sir,” Winter grinned. “We had many more last night to help with your moving. Today we still have ten here.”

They turned and looked around, but saw only mountains, rocks, and clusters of trees. But it was from those that they heard, scattered around the fort, “Nice to meet you!”

“Have a good trip!”

“Wish you could see your faces right now.”

“We’re watching out for you,” Varteeya assured. “You still have a few more hours’ before the next resting station, so you best go.”

The one good thing about Deck’s unstable condition was that he had Mahrree so concerned as she rode next to him that she didn’t have time to lament that she was no longer with Perrin. He, Deck, and Peto rode ahead so as to not hear any of Barb’s detailed explanations about Salem birthing traditions.

And Mahrree was just fine with Perrin’s distance.

You would think, she thought disappointedly, that a man so accustomed to violence, blood, and yelling wouldn’t be so cowardly about child birthing.

 

—-

 

It was an easy ride to the end of the valley where the bases of the two peaks met. Shem, Perrin, and Peto rode side by side in the lead discussing the terrain and foliage.

Perrin wanted to make sure none of them heard anything they really didn’t need to. He’d caught Mahrree’s slightly nasty glances, but come on, he thought defensively: he’d fought in many battles, killed dozens of men, faced countless threats—did he really have to be involved in childbirth as well? Didn’t women get to deal with some of the sickening and terrifying aspects of life and death themselves? He was man enough already! He’d changed his babies’ cloths, many of them brown and leaking!

Never mind that Jothan was now explaining to Deck some finer points, and that Perrin expended every bit of energy to not to accidentally eavesdrop.

When he’d learned that Jothan—the strongest scout in their corps and the man in charge when he was on duty—was also a fully trained and experienced midwife assistant, the only thought that rushed through his mind was, That’s so wrong! That’s so, so wrong!

But Perrin would freely admit it: Jothan Hifadhi was even more manly than Perrin. Was that what Mahrree wanted hear? Fine! He admitted it! Why would he want to witness the cries and pain and suffering of those he loved? He’d seen that hundreds of times in his nightmares, heard the shouts of agony of his family, seen their bodies unconscious and worse, sprawled on the floor—

That was what sent Perrin into his current brooding.

It was all behind him, literally miles, the world and its misery. Yet still he remembered the nightmares, and in brief, horrifying moments, lived them.

While he’d ‘saved’ Deck from concussing on the floor, he still had to lay down his heavy, unconscious body. Never mind that Deck was up a few moments later, dazed and pale; Perrin still felt that he’d somehow disappointed Cambozola and Suzie Briter.

In spite of himself, he felt immense comfort, as if the Briters were on either side of him chuckling and saying, Just a fainting spell! He did that the first time he helped a cow birth!

Perrin struggled to cast away his dread that he couldn’t protect them all of the time. There’d always be pain, and always suffering—

—And also always relief, and also always joy. That’s the trial of life, son, and it all works for our good. But it will always end in joy, Perrin. Every story has a happy ending, if you wait long enough.

He was only vaguely aware that Shem and Peto were bickering next to him about what constituted a shrub, because the words that filled his mind so completely also completely baffled him.

He’d heard that line before, about happy endings.

Who was it—?

Mahrree. She’d said those were her father’s last words to her.

Perrin had never met Cephas Peto before, until that day. His eyes grew wet, and his chest swelled with heat. Only after he’d regained control again did he look behind, hoping to catch Mahrree’s eye.

She was focused on her son-in-law, who valiantly did his best to stay upright in his saddle, pushed gently back by Mahrree when he drifted in her direction. She glanced over at Perrin, then, seeing the intent expression in his face, tilted her head in question.

All he could do was smile at her, while his chin trembled, because he felt in every fiber of his soul that they were on the path to that happy ending.

“Shem, you called that last one a fir tree. How can that be?”

Peto’s complaint pulled Perrin out of his thoughts, but still he had the impression that the Briters and Cephas Peto, and likely Hycymum and his own parents, and even Hogal and Tabbit Densal were enjoying the scenery as well.

“This tree ahead is clearly a different kind, Shem. Look how far up the trunk goes before it begins branching. The other ‘fir tree’ had branches all the way to the ground.”

Perrin smiled to realize that Peto was much his old self again with his “uncle.”

Shem gave him a sidelong glance. “Look, it’s a tree that stays green all Snowing Season, smells nice, and has cones. Fir trees. All of them.”

“But they can’t all be the same. You said these trees are marked for when the snows are high and the trail’s covered, so how do riders know which tree to look for? Surely there’s a name for each kind—”

“Douglas.”

“Douglas?”

“Yes. That tree’s named Douglas . . . Fir,” Shem decided. “That one over there is . . . Myrtle. The scrubby little one behind it is . . . Scrubby Oak. The whole forest likes to be called . . . Sheerwoods.”

Peto’s face contorted in doubt. “A tree named Myrtle?

“She’s very sensitive about it. Don’t make her feel bad.”

“What kinds of names are those?! Sherwood—”

Sheerwoods!” Shem grinned. “I’m glad to see you’ve found something to interest you, Peto. When we reach Salem I’ll have to introduce you to someone who knows all about trees. Maybe female, seventeen years old, and who wants at least ten children.”

Even Perrin chuckled at that, although his heart sank to think of some poor girl suffering ten times . . .

Well, if she married Peto, she’d be suffering a lot more frequently than that.

Perrin found himself grinning. Despite his worries and dread, the joy just wasn’t going to be held down. Today—today, was glorious.

He’d seen wapiti, he was riding in terrain that was indescribably intriguing, their entire family—here and in Paradise—were riding with them, and they were off to Salem, wherever it may be.

It was enough to make him laugh.

 

—-

 

But there was no laughing in the party behind them. On the outside horse sat Jothan wearing an sympathetic smile. Next to him was Barb, with Jaytsy suspended between them, the horses side by side. Deck rode next to Barb, with Mahrree on the other side.

At least she had a mellow horse, Mahrree thought to herself, so that she could focus on Deck. Barb was giving him the explanations Mrs. Braxhicks would have, had she not been forced to Idumea for retraining where she was hoping to instead retrain them.

Deck swooned as Barb described in explicit detail what Jaytsy would be experiencing, and how Deck could help.

Jaytsy was as pale as her husband. Mrs. Braxhicks had already told her all of this, but now that her time was closer, every aspect was unnervingly real.

At first Mahrree worried that the discussion might be uncomfortable for Jothan, who frequently chimed in with further explanations. But he just said dismissively, “Four sons, two daughters, and assisted many births along this trail. It’s just a part of life.”

By the time they reached the end of the valley, Deck was gray again, and Mahrree was sure her color wasn’t much better. There was some forgetfulness in child birthing which sweetens the memory, until someone reminds you vividly of the bitter details.

But Barb’s easy smile and laid-back manner made Mahrree confident that later Jaytsy, too, would recall the event as a happy one, especially when that scrunched up, screaming infant with a misshapen head splattered with blood would be placed in her arms, and she’d think it the most beautiful creature in the world.

Mahrree just wasn’t sure how Deck would remember the day.

Shem stopped the horses at the mouth of the narrow canyon and looked back at Deck with pity.

Perrin exhaled. “I’m glad my days for that are over.”

Peto only gulped.

Shem gave Perrin half a smile. “One Salem birthing tradition is that the first arms to hold the baby are the father’s, for him to realize the magnitude of his responsibility. The child and the mother will rely on him for safety and love, and fathers need to understand that from the very beginning. The baby is eventually held by all the male members of the family so that they recognize their roles in caring for the newest family member and to feel an early connection to the baby.

But,” Shem continued, and Perrin shifted his gaze to Shem, suspicious of his tone, “when the father’s not available, a grandfather is expected to step in. Because really, it’s also a practical tradition, as everything in Salem is. You see, someone has to hold the newborn while they take care of the mother. So Perrin, in case Deck’s elsewhere, you should start practicing catching wet, slippery things.”

Perrin paled whiter than the patches of snow. “Uh, wait—”

Shem laughed at his horrified expression. “Don’t worry, the midwife does the catching and wraps up the baby before handing it to the father or grandfather.” Shem called to the approaching midwife party. “Barb, no more! Deck’s had enough. The canyon gets rugged, and we don’t need him falling off his horse and down a ravine.”

Barb waved off his concern. “We just finished tying off the cord anyway. He’s ready.”

Deck blinked at the men. “Cows are . . . different.”

 

—-

 

Jaytsy’s ride shifted again as the draft horses were adjusted to follow one after the other to enter the canyon, and Perrin squinted nervously at the steep sides. After living his entire life in open plains, this was a bit claustrophobic. The dim trail they followed hugged another rapid river, and was so narrow there was barely enough room for the riders without being knocked off by overhanging tree branches. Every few hundred paces another twisting canyon split off, each with its own faint trail.

“Shem,” Perrin called, feeling better that there was some alternative to the confining canyon, “where do these other trails lead to?”

“Nowhere interesting,” Shem answered, to Perrin’s disappointment. “Cattle follow those trails to grazing pastures, but the trails are also useful to confuse anyone who may find their way unguided into Salem. If we can lose unexpected visitors in the canyons, we have more time to prepare for them. Can get very disorienting, especially for the wrong kind of people.”

“Meaning people from the world?” Perrin asked.

Shem’s glance back confirmed his suspicion.

Perrin looked around, and a moment later he chuckled.

“What is it?” Mahrree called from her horse behind him.

“I was just thinking about people from the world coming here.”

Peto twisted to look at his father. “And that’s funny?”

“It would be if they ran into a block wall!”

Shem turned around now. “What?”

“Most of these canyons are narrow. I think it would be funny if some soldiers came running through here and found themselves face to face with a block wall to keep them out.”

Shem shook his head. “Sometimes you have the strangest ideas.”

“Do they even build with block in Salem?” Jaytsy asked.

“No,” Shem said. “Stone, logs, planking, but no block.”

Now Peto began to chuckle. “If they ran into a block wall, Father, they’d think they’re back in school, would look around for a cramped desk to sit in, then wait for a teacher to help them recite their oaths of loyalty to the Administrators and starve to death while waiting.”

Perrin and Peto laughed, but Mahrree shook her head. “You two are odd. Why would there be a block wall in the middle of nowhere?”

“That’s the point!”

Over the course of the next two hours the canyon widened, narrowed, twisted, widened again into a large meadow, then turned again and narrowed so often that Perrin couldn’t imagine any strangers could find their way easily. Deer along the river that rushed below them occasionally looked up from feeding on newly sprouted leaves to see who was passing. A large bull moose watched them lazily from a marsh, giving the Shins another animal to stare at in astonishment. The scenery was almost serene.

But Perrin was growing anxious.

Judging by the shadows cast by the mountain peaks, they had maybe only an hour of sunlight in the canyon. He scanned the impossible slopes looking for a suitable place to camp, knowing full well they didn’t have any supplies. The air was already beginning to chill, and there would most likely be frost that night.

Perrin turned and sent Mahrree a look.

Whatever happy thought she had been entertaining vanished, replaced by shared worry.

Facing forward again, Perrin was about to ask about the next resting station when Shem glanced back.

Perrin recognized the look. “Oh, Shem. What are you plan—”

But Shem again sent him the eye twitch, dug his heels into the horse’s sides, and it took off cantering down the trail.

Peto looked back at his parents in questioning.

“What’s he doing?” Jaytsy called from behind.

“Being Shem,” Perrin said. “That’s his, ‘Can’t catch me, Colonel!’ face. He perfected it during one of the Strongest Soldier races. I’m not in the mood, Sergeant!” he yelled after him.

Shem stopped at the mouth of the canyon which had narrowed to the width of just two horses. Before it was a severe gulley, into which the horses and riders were now entering, the animals skidding and sliding before having to climb up the facing bank.

Perrin, who had overtaken Peto, was now glaring at Shem as his horse struggled up the slope.

But Shem had his back turned, surveying the scene above and beyond the party.

“The Second Resting Station can be seen from here,” he called down cheerfully. Smirking at Perrin’s struggling horse, not used to its rider’s weight, Shem said, “Sorry. You can see now why I spurred mine into a run. Horses appreciate a running start up that bank.”

“Thanks for the belated advice,” Perrin growled.

Mahrree’s horse hopped down in three jerky jumps.

“You need to climb back up here,” Shem said. “Or Jaytsy’s horses will have no chance of getting over.”

Deck’s mount lead the way, loping down the slope and taking the opposite bank in a few well-placed jumps. He reined his horse on the other side, still down the slope from Shem, who stood as if on guard.

While Perrin’s, Peto’s, and Mahrree’s horse scrambled awkwardly up the other side, Jothan and Barb simply let their well-trained horses skirt around the gully on the side, gently swinging Jaytsy between the steep slope and the drop off.

“Or,” Shem said, not nearly as apologetic as he pretended to be, “you could have led your horses around the entire problem—”

“Shem,” Perrin said, growing impatient, “Let’s just get to that resting station already.”

“Eager to see it?”

“If you’d step your horse aside, yes!”

“I’m starving,” Peto announced.

“I’m starting to lose all feeling to my legs,” Mahrree murmured.

“Well then,” Shem winked at Jothan as he backed up his horse. “Welcome to the Second Resting Station.”

Perrin’s horse started automatically up the slope, but when he caught a view of what Shem had been concealing, he slid off. Astonished, he fell to his knees, the only appropriate thing to do.

A moment later Mahrree fell next to him, grabbing his arm for support, and nearly pulling him down.

Behind him, someone else also fell off a horse in surprise—maybe Peto, maybe Deck . . . maybe it was a herd of zebras, but Perrin couldn’t pry his eyes away from what opened up before them.

“Or maybe,” Shem said, with a mischievous smile when he realized none of the Shins would be able to utter a word, “I should have said, Welcome to Salem.

 

 

 

Chapter 10—“So what do you think,

Colonel? Can we take them?”

 

Barb and Jothan laughed gently at the Shins. There should have been indentations in the ground for as often as newcomers fell to their knees right there in flabbergasted surprise.

Shem slid off his horse, his grin permanent, and said to Barb and Jothan, “I’ve been waiting for years to do this to him.” He crept over to Perrin who still kneeled in an attitude of worshipful amazement. Shem crouched next to him, after propping up a sagging Mahrree.

“So what do you think, Colonel? Can we take them?”

Perrin shook his head. “So close,” he mumbled. “All this time. So . . . so close. Just a day’s ride?”

“Less than that, actually. I can make it in three hours if the conditions are ideal and the horse feels like racing,” Shem said, reveling in his friend’s pale and stony face. “And an easy day’s hike.”

“And . . . and so huge,” Mahrree finally found her voice, but it was dull and toneless. She waved aimlessly, as if giving a swarm of gnats directions. “I never . . . I never would have imagined . . .”

“I just don’t believe it,” Perrin whispered.

Peto and Deck behind them just gaped, as did Jaytsy who now had a clear view from the net litter.

Shem poked Peto, who nearly fell over. “Do you see more than a dozen now?”

Peto had no answer.

“It’s . . . it’s . . .” Perrin gestured to the scene below them.

There was a trail, and it sloped gradually from the canyon down to a meadow, leveling out after a quarter of a mile. In the meadow was a flock of sheep, and next to it was a large parcel of land with bright green new growth.

Next to that was a large house and a barn. Then a farm, an orchard, another house, cattle, some horses, more farms, herds of sheep, pastures of horses, goats, chickens, vineyards, more orchards, more houses . . . all ringed by immense mountains on the east, south, and west.

And it went on and on and on.

There was no end of the farms and houses to the north; further than any of them could see was life teeming and growing. Toward the center of the valley, about ten miles away, was a city with large buildings that could be discerned even from the canyon.

“How . . . how . . . how big is it, Shem?” Perrin finally whispered.

“We’ve settled almost forty miles from south to north,” Shem said, “and the valley averages about ten miles east to west. This is the narrowest point. Some sections are up to eighteen miles wide. And this is only the main valley of Salem. There’s more, beyond the mountains to the northwest. Several additional settlements.”

“Northwest!” Perrin muttered, his hand over his mouth as if he were uttering secrets. “I pictured maybe a few farms—”

“How many people, Shem?” Mahrree whispered, desperately trying to remember the calculations she made years ago. There had been twenty-one-hundred people who had vanished after the Great War, and here they had started a new civilization. Families as large as they wanted to be, with new people escaping from the world every year. There had to be tens of thousands of them by now.

“Last count two years ago,” Shem told her, “put us at just over one-hundred-twenty-thousand.”

Perrin twisted to face Shem. “Did I hear you right? One-hundred-twenty-thousand?”

“More than a dozen,” Peto managed to mumble.

Shem smiled broadly. “Our army is outnumbered, my friend. Now, if all of Idumea and the world with its one million—”

“But still, no one knows how many are here,” Perrin cut Shem off before he could say anything more of the place they left. Clumsily, Perrin sat down to a more comfortable position to gawk.

Mahrree leaned against him and stared. The entire valley had been laid out in a grid of farms and homes, with two rivers draining out of the canyons and meanderingly from one end to the other. The glint of the lowering sun showed canals dug to channel the water to farms, like strings of silver crisscrossing Salem.

“How many came, Shem?” Mahrree asked, still running numbers in her head. “At the beginning? Running away from King Querul?”

“We started with two-thousand, eight-hundred-twelve men, women, and children, Mahrree,” Shem said. “Each of them recorded their names in The Writings. Our version is a bit larger than yours. We never stopped writing down the miracles the Creator has done for us.”

“But,” Mahrree frowned, “how could you continue writing? Only the guide is supposed to write—”

She stopped.

Guide Pax hadn’t been killed, as the world had thought.

That meant there would have been more assistants, and . . .

You have a guide,” she whispered.

Shem smiled. “We have a guide. Always have.”

“Oh Shem!” Mahrree breathed. Just when she thought the day couldn’t have been any more remarkable—“Can I meet him? Or is that not allowed, or, or . . .”

She really didn’t know what a guide did, apart from telling everyone what the Creator wanted them to know. Beyond that, for some reason she thought guide-ing involved wearing a thin tunic on top of the mountain in a snowfield. Without meaning to, she glanced around at the mountain peaks.

“Well, he’s really quite busy you know,” Shem said, with a hint of his usual teasing. “It’s calving season after all.”

Mahrree frowned. “Calving season?”

“Yes, that’s when the cows have calves—”

“I know what calving season is, Shem Zenos!” Mahrree was nearly bursting. “What does that have to do with the guide?”

Deck stumbled over to them. “Shem, the guide isn’t a . . . a farmer, is he?”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous, Deckett. Of course not.” Shem paused before adding, “He was a rancher, like you.”

Deck’s eyebrows shot upwards and his head fell forward.

“Wait,” said Perrin. “The Guide of the Creator is a rancher?”

“Retired now, so he can work full time as the guide,” Shem explained nonchalantly, his eyes twinkling. “Some of his sons have taken over his herds, but when it’s calving season and your cow’s in distress, who better to call than the guide?”

Seeing that they really couldn’t understand, Shem said, “Our guide was a rancher. The one before him was a teacher,” he smiled at Mahrree. “The one before him managed a granary. The one before him was a stone cutter. The one before him was a farmer. They’re just ordinary men who live as best they can. Then the Creator chooses them to be His spokesmen, and they become extraordinary men. You’ll meet the guide. He’s usually here waiting to greet our newcomers, so I’ve been stalling for him, but as I said, calving seas—” The sound of approaching horses turned Shem.

Coming up the hillside were two riders and horses, galloping.

“Then again . . . ” and Shem gestured to the distance.

Although Mahrree saw another cloud of dust approaching from about half a mile away, her attention was drawn to the two riders coming up the rise.

Perrin was already getting to his feet, and Mahrree grabbed his arm for a free ride. Perrin nearly yanked Peto up, and Deck helped Jaytsy disentangle herself from the net sling just as the two horses reined to a stop.

Immediately an older man slid off his horse, a wide smile on his face as he fairly ran to the Shins and Briters, his arms outstretched.

“Oh, I am so grateful you made it! Welcome to Salem!”

As he eagerly grabbed Perrin’s hand, Mahrree blinked in surprise. The white hair, she expected. But the floppy straw hat, which he removed and tucked under his arm as if he just remembered he still had it—no, definitely not typical guide attire. Then again, what did she know? Maybe the hat was some kind of designation, like his simple gray jacket over his black work trousers and work shirt which looked suspiciously like the Guarder clothes the other scouts wore. Still, at over seventy years old he was clearly too old for such work, even though he was slender and apparently in good health.

And then there was his smile. For some reason, whenever Mahrree read The Writings and the warnings of Guide Pax or Guide Hierum, she never pictured them as happy. Or tanned. Wrinkled, yes—she’d imagined wrinkles, but eyes like those? Never had she seen a person’s eyes so open, so active, so warm.

“I’m Hew Gleace, and I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier.” He shook Perrin’s hand and gripped Perrin’s shoulder with his other. He beamed at all of them and Mahrree couldn’t help but smile back.

Guide Gleace glanced behind Perrin to see Jaytsy. “Are you well, young lady? We’ve been so worried about you.”

Jaytsy was as tongue-tied as Mahrree, and could only nod.

“She’s well, Guide,” Barb answered for her. “But we reached them with no time to spare. The army came looking for them sooner than we’d expected. You were right in sending us out when you did.”

The guide nodded briefly and Mahrree marveled that somehow his face became clearer. “Well done in acting so quickly, all of you.” He turned to Jothan. “I’ve received a few reports so far about your night, and it sounds like there were some close calls.”

He must have felt Mahrree staring at him, although she tried not to. He smiled at her. “Mahrree Shin, I presume? After all these years, what an honor!” As she wondered what that meant, he took her hand and became lighthearted again. “I apologize for my appearance. Usually I don’t wear my worst jacket and old clothes to greet our newest refugees, but—”

“It’s calving season,” Perrin finally found some words to utter, even if they weren’t very profound, and rather obvious.

The guide turned back to him, once again his face becoming clearer, and something changed, or brightened, in his countenance.

“Colonel Perrin Shin,” he said steadily, “that’s the last time you’ll hear that title in Salem, because you are now, and always have been, our brother Perrin. You’ve been very conflicted these past few years,” the guide said, not as a question, but as a statement. “And you’ve overcome a great deal. I promise that here you’ll find peace.”

Mahrree believed him, entirely. The power with which he softly said those words wouldn’t allow for any other alternative.

Perrin felt it too, judging by his chin’s quivering.

“You’re needed here, Perrin. I want to meet with you, as soon as possible. My assistant,” he motioned to a man who had been standing quietly behind him, “will check my schedule and find a time for us to talk.” He turned to the man who was already pulling out some paper from a leather folder. “Tomorrow, dinner?”

“Your wife has already written in, ‘Dinner with Shin and Briter families.’”

Guide Gleace smiled. “She’s always one step ahead.” He nodded to Mahrree to confirm dinner, and she wondered where the Gleaces might live, and if it weren’t on the top of some mountain they’d have to find tomorrow.

The guide turned to Peto, who seemed startled to find himself next. “We’ll find a place for you as well, young man. You’ll find your calling here.”

Mahrree wasn’t sure why that struck with Peto with such force, but something caught in Peto’s throat as he glanced at Shem.

Lastly, Gleace turned to Deck, and his face became lighter again. “You look like someone who knows a thing or two about cattle. Maybe when things get settled, we could find you some of your own?”

Deck grinned. “Yes, sir!”

Only later did Mahrree realize that the least verbose of their family was the first to give an appropriate response.

The guide grinned back, and Mahrree decided cattle men just knew how to relate to each other. “But we’ll make sure you’re available when your wife’s time comes.” When Deck paled, the guide slapped him on the back. “The first one’s always the toughest, son.”

Mahrree would have thought him just an ordinary grandfather, except that there was such depth to his expressions, such clarity in his eyes, and such joy in his countenance. She’d never before seen someone exude so much gentle power and love. It was a strange and wonderful combination.

A rumbling behind them caused Mahrree to pause her study of the guide. The dust cloud she’d seen earlier was nearly on top of them, generated by horses and riders.

Guide Gleace elbowed Shem—actually elbowed him! Mahrree marveled, nudging Shem like a school boy.

“I believe,” Gleace said to Shem, “this is for you.”

Shem merely nodded and, to Mahrree’s further astonishment, for once was at a loss for words.

The horses came to an abrupt stop, and as the cloud settled it revealed a plump, balding older man surrounded by six women in their forties, along with what appeared to be some of their children, on over two dozen horses.

“Shem Zenos!” called the older man. “Where have you been? Left me alone with all these women! Waited ten years for my boy, and then you leave me? What do you have to say for yourself?” His tone was angry but his eyes were anything but.

“Sorry, Papa,” Shem said with great contrition, “but their talking drove me away. Rather live in the world than with all those sisters.”

“All of our talking?” cried one of the women who looked to be the oldest. She slid off her horse with an angry harrumph, put her hands on her hips, and strode over to Shem. “You’ve had us worried for three weeks! Now, come here,” and she caught him in a rib-crushing hug. That was the signal for the rest of the family to dismount and rush, like bees attacking a bear, but with much less stinging.

Mahrree chuckled as she slid out of the way of the crowd and over to Jaytsy, while Peto gamely tried to count the heads.

Deck leaned over to Perrin, who had made his way around the crowd as well. “Did you know he had such a big family?”

“Until two nights ago all I knew was that he had one sister, two nieces, and a father,” Perrin told them.

Still the older man sat upon his horse, watching in delight as his daughters and grandchildren smothered Shem. Eventually he slid off with a grunt and slowly walked to the swarm, peeling off women and children until he reached his son. Mahrree’s eyes were so blurry that she could barely make out Shem embracing his father, the older man’s head not quite reaching Shem’s shoulders.

The guide laughed quietly next to Mahrree as he watched the scene. She hadn’t even realized he was standing next to her.

“Guide,” she said, stumbling on the title which astonished her that it still existed, “how long has it been since Shem’s been home?”

“Oh, he’s back a few times each year,” Guide Gleace assured her. “That routine is their standard ‘Zenos Greeting’. But when he didn’t show up for his scheduled leave, all of us became nervous.”

Perrin said, “He spent his leave in Idumea, spying for us.”

Guide Gleace’s eyebrows rose. “Really? In the city itself? Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, eyeing Shem’s father. “Someone’s not going to be too happy about that. Now,” he said, replacing his hat which was entirely deformed from being squished under his arm, “if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing business nearby. I don’t normally rush off like this, but we have some beautiful animals that I hate to see suffer. Deckett Briter understands, I’m sure. But I’ll check on you later, and we’ll talk more tomorrow.”

“Are you,” Jaytsy began haltingly, “going to . . . heal the cattle?”

Gleace smiled warmly. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get to work. A great deal of healing is accomplished by getting involved. But yes, I’ll be praying too. I always pray when my arm’s in up to the shoulder. Now, tonight you’ll all stay at the Second Resting Station, then in the morning we’ll take you to your new home. Again, so happy to have you here!” He waved a quick goodbye, mounted his horse with his assistant behind him, and hurried down the trail before Mahrree could even say, “Good to meet you . . .”

But that was all right, because she felt a pair of beefy arms wrapping around her, belonging to a tall woman around her age. Mahrree knew by her light brown hair and blue eyes that she must have been one of Shem’s sisters.

“So here’s the famous Shin family!”

Perrin’s arched an eyebrow at famous.

“And you must be Mahrree!” The woman’s hug squeezed nearly all of the air out of her lungs. “I’m Yudit, Shem’s oldest sister and the one who can tell you everything you may have ever wanted to know. And I’m sure I can enlist your help in keeping my brother here. I believe you tried for a time to find him a wife in Edge?”

Mahrree laughed. “He told you that?”

“He tells us everything. Your family is our family.”

At that, Perrin folded his arms, and Mahrree knew he was feeling a bit too exposed.

“But I’m afraid I know nothing of you,” said Mahrree.

“Well, of course you don’t. But that’ll change,” Yudit said. “Your home’s not far from ours. My husband and brothers-in-law are putting the finishing touches on it right now, and the Briters’ house will be ready before that baby comes. And you,” she said to Perrin, just as easily as if she’d known him for years, “must be Perrin. You and my brother have gotten yourselves into a few tight squeezes, and I look forward to hearing your side of the stories.”

“As I look forward to hearing what he’s told your family,” Perrin said, cracking into a smile as Yudit flashed him a Shem-like grin. “Tells you everything, does he?”

“All of it good, I promise.”

“Yes.” Perrin folded his arms tighter. “I’m sure it is.” His attention, however, was drawn to the older Mr. Zenos who had pushed his way through grandchildren now mauling their uncle.

The man hesitantly approached Perrin, as if drawing nearer to a large dog he wasn’t quite sure was as harmless as everyone claimed.

Perrin put on his most engaging smile that Mahrree used to make him practice, and held out his hand.

“Colonel Shin,” Mr. Zenos began, not yet daring to take his hand. “Oh dear, that’s not right anymore. So sorry. What I mean is—”

“Just call me Perrin, sir,” he said as he gripped and shook Mr. Zenos’s hand.

Flattered, the older man relaxed, but only a little. “And please call me Boskos. In many ways I’ve worried about you as if you were my own son, but more especially because you were over my son. I never would have agreed to let him stay if he’d been assigned to anyone other than you. Thank you,” Boskos Zenos’s chin waggled and his voice broke, “for bringing him home to me.”

“It’s I who should thank you for him. I once called him my guide, before I even knew there were still guides. He’s saved our family, on more than one occasion. You can be very proud of him.”

Mahrree noticed where Shem got his crybaby tendencies, because tears rolled down Mr. Zenos’s face. “I am proud of him! Who could ask for a better son?”

Shem, seeing their conversation, broke through the crush of nieces and nephews. “Here I was supposed to introduce Boskos Zenos and Perrin Shin, and you’re already doing it? Nothing I’ve planned for is happening as I expected it!”

“Yes, there a few things none of us expected,” his father said, suddenly stern. “What did I tell you about Idumea? The messenger who came by the house said you’ve been in Idumea! Again?!”

“Yes, I was, Papa,” Shem said soberly. “I know I promised you I’d never go back, but I had to know what was happening after the Administrators declared Terryp’s land poisoned, and Mahrree publically disagreed,” he put it tactfully.

The entire Zenos clan hushed, as if Shem’s stories were an event.

“While I was there I learned that the Shins were to be taken to Idumea and tried for sedition.”

All of the Zenoses gasped in unison, and Yudit grabbed Mahrree’s arm as if she was in a tug-of-war with the world over Mahrree.

Yudit would have won, Mahrree decided, and she wondered how big the bruise would be.

Shem continued, “Mahrree likely would have been executed.”

Yudit’s mouth dropped open as she gripped Mahrree even tighter. Mahrree appreciated the sentiment, but she was going to need that arm in working order later.

“Perrin may have met the same fate, or have been incarcerated for life so that General Thorne could enjoy visiting him,” Shem said.

“Never liked those Thornes, the general or the captain,” said one of the teenage nephews.

Peto blinked at him. “You know about the Thornes?”

“Of course. Lemuel, Qayin, his wife—what was her name?”

Several voices chimed in with, “Versula.”

“Oh, yeah,” the nephew said. “All of them rotten.”

Perrin glared at Shem, who had the decency to blush.

“They want to know what I’m doing away from home, so I tell them the news. That’s all,” Shem defended. “Really, that’s all.”

Mr. Zenos tugged on his son’s inside-out jacket. “So are you back to stay now?”

“I’ve been discovered, Papa. Captain Thorne was going to transfer me, and they know I was with the Shins in the forest.”

Several of his sisters grabbed his arm in the blood-flow-stopping manner of Yudit.

“Then you’re not going back!” one of them insisted.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Peto said. “He’s already dead. Captain Thorne killed him.”

Shem’s nephew stared at him. “Thorne did what?

“It’s a great story,” Shem grinned, “and I’d love to tell it to you all at the Second Resting Station! I’m sure there’s a big dinner waiting for us, so mount up, and I’ll give you the latest installment of the Tales from the World after dinner.”

Deck helped Jaytsy into her litter, and Perrin and Mahrree waited along the side of the trail while the Zenos clan put themselves in order to follow Shem.

“Unbelievable,” Mahrree leaned over to Perrin. “Could you ever have imagined Shem had such a family? And he stayed away from them just to be with us? We must have been kind of a let-down. And we haven’t even met his brothers-in-law yet.”

Perrin chuckled. “Good thing we brought him home, then, isn’t it. Amazing. Yes, I know I said it again.”

Two more women with Shem hair, eye, and skin coloring nodded to Perrin and Mahrree as they rode by.

“You best get in line,” one of the women said. “You’re part of this family too, you know.”

That was all Mahrree could take. She knew tears were trickling down her cheeks as she said, “We could use a family right now.”

The other sister smiled. “We are all family, Mahrree! Always have been.”

Peto was already talking with one of Shem’s nephews who, by the expression on Peto’s face, seemed to be revealing a few unknown details about Uncle Shem. Another sister rode next to Jaytsy and Deck telling them about her daughter who was expecting soon, too.

Mahrree sighed. She felt so full of . . . She didn’t know how to describe it, but she was about to overflow. Already it was coming out her eyes in a steady stream, her chest constricted with heat and tension, and her mind was positively dancing to come out her ears.

But in a good way, if losing one’s brain out of one’s ears could be considered good. And tension could be happy. And tears merry.

She knew that didn’t make a lot of sense, and that she’d probably keel over in dead joy in another minute.

Instead, she leaned over to her husband and said, “So this is what it feels like to come home.”

 

—-

 

They didn’t officially ‘come home’ until the next morning. But the night couldn’t have been better. The Second Resting Station, it turned out, was only a few hundred paces away from the entrance to the canyon: a large building that looked like a typical barn from the outside, and was the Shins’ home for the night.

The Station was half the size of the mansion in Idumea. A massive gathering area held several simple but comfortable sofas and chairs, and two large fireplaces to warm weary travelers and many visitors. Attached was a large eating room with an long table, and next to that was a large kitchen stocked with supplies to take care of dozens of people for seasons. Mahrree was told the cellar underneath was filled with even more, should she be in want of anything.

Off the gathering room, stairs led to a second level that held a dozen private rooms with cozy beds and supplies such as clothing and boots and shoes in various sizes.

The Cat thoroughly inspected the Station before discovering which bed Perrin and Mahrree would be sharing, and curled up to go to sleep on it before the Shins, Briters, and Zenoses finished dinner.

Each Zenos was a variation on a Shem theme, Mahrree realized, and at one point the laughter around the table was so loud that her ears rang. The evening lasted well into the night as the rest of the Zenos family joined them after sundown to hear the story of the escape, complete with Shem acting out scenes using his brothers-in-law and nephews as stand-ins for soldiers. Perrin finally got up to correct Shem’s details, and when the two of them started arguing about exactly how Shem had dragged them through the forest, everyone was laughing. Mahrree decided that life in Salem was going to be near to perfect.

When the Shins and Briters finally retired for the night, Peto was still chuckling about stories Shem’s nephews had shared about him.

Perrin stopped him the hall. “So you’re glad you came?”

“Been a while since I’ve had friends,” Peto said. “Nice to have a few already.”

Shem, who was staying at the Resting Station for the night in case the Shins needed anything, overheard. “You have no idea how many friends you have in Salem.”

Perrin eyed him worriedly as Shem laughed and shut his bedroom door behind him.

 

—-

 

The next morning Mahrree woke up, a bit confused as to where she was, but soon found herself grinning.

Today she was going to her new home!

Cheerfully she dressed, wondered where Perrin was, and fairly skipped down the stairs.

She stopped before she reached the bottom, recognizing that the solemn murmuring between Shem, Perrin, Jothan, and Asrar wasn’t a good sign.

The four of them looked up at her, and she slowly made her way down the rest of the steps. “What’s gone wrong?”

Asrar’s chin trembled. “Dormin.”

 

—-

 

Jon Offra hadn’t slept at all that night. The rumors of the Shins “death” had been spread throughout Edge and would be traveling on its way to the other villages and Idumea.

The problem was that Jon didn’t know how to think. He knew the official story, which Genev required him to memorize and repeat, along with Radan, and they realized that no promotions would be coming. But Jon knew what he had witnessed, and he couldn’t ignore the truth, because it gave him so much comfort: the Shins were alive!

Still, he had to forward Genev’s story because revealing the truth would not only end his career, but likely his life.

This morning he found himself staring at the color of the sky, which he’d been taught was blue.

But all night long it had been black, with more cloud cover.

He had lain on his bed all night, staring out the window. A man’s face formed itself in the night, a face that goaded Thorne into killing him.

They’d brought him to Thorne in the forest, just before the captain found the Shins. The man, in his late thirties or early forties, was dressed in unusual green and brown mottled clothing. It wasn’t black, as the Guarders were wont to wear. It was far more subtle.

The man was also in excellent physical condition; it took three soldiers to keep him under control, even with the ropes they used to tie his hands behind his back. They prodded him to the captain and forced him to his knees, but the man didn’t beg for mercy or weep in despair. He instead looked up confidently and smiled.

“Been a long time since I faced a man in a blue uniform,” he said casually as if meeting someone on a stroll.

Captain Thorne had slid off his horse and drew a sword—General Shin’s sword.

“Been a long time since I’ve seen that, too,” the man nodded at the weapon. “Doesn’t belong to you, Captain.”

Thorne’s lips parted in surprise, but he pointed the blade at the man. “Who are you? What are you doing in the forest?”

The man said nothing.

“Answer me! Or I’ll kill you!” Thorne snarled.

“You’ll kill me anyway,” said the man simply. “But I have no problem with that. Death holds no fear for me. But judging by the sweat trickling down your face on this rather cold night, you, Captain, are terrified of it.”

Jon, along with the other soldiers—fourteen at that time—immediately looked at Thorne.

He was sweating. But then he bellowed, “SHIN!”

“Oh, he won’t come help you,” the man chuckled coldly.

Thorne seethed in fury. “SHIN! You are trapped! This is useless! Give yourself up!”

“Ah,” the man nodded, “now I see the direction this is going—”

“Shut up!” Thorne hissed.

“Or what? You’ll kill me? You’ll kill me anyway, remember? What a tragedy. So much that I know, that I could share with you, but that’s not your style, is it, Captain? So narrow-minded . . .”

The man’s demeanor astounded Jon. He was kneeling in the freezing mud, with his hands tied behind his back, and a sword at his chest, yet he spoke as if he was merely stuck at a dull dinner. Jon wished he had a fragment of the man’s composure.

“You know nothing!” Thorne whispered furiously. “You’re full of lies, like everyone else in the world.”

“But I’m no longer in the world,” the man said enigmatically.

Thorne shook off that odd statement. “We know you are there, my former Colonel,” he sang out. “I and my one hundred men have come all this way to bring you home!”

The man in green snorted. “One hundred men. As if Shin will believe that—”

“Shut up!”

“Or you’ll kill me, I know,” the man sounded bored. “Just do it already, Captain. I’m ready to face my Creator. I’ve learned of His test, and I’ve done all I can to live according to His will. I’m rather eager to see what my final score is. Go on—send me along.”

“I will!” Thorne promised.

Jon noticed Thorne was growing more unsure of himself. He was the man with the weapon who was supposed to be calling the shots, not this prisoner kneeling before him.

“PERRIN SHIN!” he shouted, desperate to sound in control of the situation. “I have an old friend of yours. We found his horse at the spring and we just captured him. Zenos is waiting for you, my dear colonel!”

The man in green smiled. “Well, I’ve been promoted to Shem then, have I? Or is that demoted?”

Jon wondered if any of the other soldiers standing around nervously were curious as to how the man knew Shem’s first name. For that matter, how did he know the officer in blue standing before him was a captain? The night was so dark that the patches and insignias were barely readable. And where had he seen the general’s sword before that he recognized it?

“Oh, the things I could show you,” the man sighed. “All of you boys. You have no idea what the world really is, do you? But here, before you, is one who could reveal to you truths that would astonish, but you prefer to kill him instead. The truth is frightening, isn’t it Captain? So much easier to twist and distort and even ignore it. That’s what you’re doing right now, telling a lie. You’ll tell so many in your future you won’t even remember your own name. Tell me, Thorne: what color is the sky?” The man could tell he was enraging the captain, and he seemed to be enjoying it.

“Why don’t you just shut up already?”

“Because I have yet to receive a good reason for shutting up,” the man replied, almost sweetly. “And you think the sky’s blue, don’t you? Good old Idumean indoctrination—”

Thorne faced the hillside again. “You have one minute, SHIN! If you do not surrender yourself, Zenos will suffer for it!” He turned to the man. “One minute, you slagging piece of filth!”

“Ah, swearing. I forgot men like you think cursing gives you power. But it’s only a cover up, showing how weak you truly are—”

“Shut up!”

“—and unimaginative,” he added, suddenly looking over at Jon. He winked at him before glaring again at Thorne. “But I’m warning you right now: if you take an innocent man’s life, it’ll be the beginning of a very long end for you. Once you turn down this path, there’s no going back. Murder isn’t something you can easily forget. Everything will change for you tonight, in the worst of all possible ways.”

“Shut up!” Thorne hissed. “PERRIN!” he bellowed, his patience spent. “Why let your wife and son suffer needlessly in this forest? What will Jaytsy and her husband think when they discover you’re missing?”

“Daring,” the man observed. “Assuming that Jaytsy and Deckett don’t already know.”

Jon’s mouth had dropped open at that, realizing that surely the Briters must have been in the forest as well, and that the man somehow knew that. And knew their names!

Again the man in green clothing winked in Jon’s direction.

Thorne didn’t pick up on any of that, though. “I’ve had it with you!” he pointed the sword at him. “PERRIN!” he shouted again, “Your time is nearly up! Zenos does not want to die!”

“I already told you,” said the man wearily, “I am ready to die. Are you ready to commit murder, Captain Thorne?”

“But he will if you will not reveal yourself!” Thorne announced. “I will count to ten. One! Two! . . .”

“He’s not going to reveal himself,” the man told him. “He knows you’re bluffing. Shem knows I’m willing to give my life. You’re just wasting your breath and your bravado. You’ll regret this day, I’m warning you. Look at the sky, Thorne!”

“Three!”

“Listen to that distant thunder!”

“Four! . . . Five!”

“Tell me, Thorne, do you think taking power will make you powerful? It won’t. I know that for a fact.”

“Six! . . . Seven!”

“How does your family sleep in that mansion, Thorne?”

“Eight!”

“Do they sleep on the main floor, or up the grand staircase on the second level, where the gold bedroom is?”

Jon’s eyes couldn’t have been wider. How did the man know about the High General’s mansion? Or that a bedroom had recently been redecorated in all gold?

“Nine!”

Jon thought he saw more sweat trickling down Thorne’s face.

“You’ll never sleep easily in my mansion, Lemuel,” the man said cryptically. “You don’t deserve to sleep easily, ever.”

Jon stared at Thorne whose outstretched arm was now trembling. There was nowhere on his uniform that revealed his first name was Lemuel. And who in the world would dare suggest the mansion used to be his?

“Ten!”

“You want to know, don’t you?” the man prodded. “It’s tormenting you that I know so much, but your pride will never allow you to ask me why that is. You’d rather kill me. But listen to me first, Lemuel: the sky’s not blue. As desperately as you hope it is, no matter how much you convince yourself of a lie, it’s still a lie. Blue is just an illusion. It’s really black.”

If Jon hadn’t been stunned speechless, he would have cried out to save the man’s life.

Thorne trembled more violently. Worry and rage fought to take control. Something his stance suggested he wanted to look up to the sky to see the color, but rage finally won.

“Nothing, Shin?!” he shouted to the quiet forest, refusing to check the sky. He raised his sword arm as Jon cringed. “Well, then.”

“Black,” the man in green calmly reminded him.

It was his last word.

Thorne brought down his arm with greater power and fury than Jon had ever witnessed. The man’s head was sliced cleanly from his body, and Jon gaped in horror to see it roll past him. He was vomiting into the bushes even before the man’s kneeling body fell. Over his sounds of being sick, and the retching of other shocked soldiers around him, he heard Thorne shout again.

“SHIN!” The word quavered with Thorne’s own surprise of what he just did. “Satisfied? Zenos is dead!

And that’s how the story was born, just that difficultly. An unknown man was killed, but suddenly it was Shem Zenos. And the entire fort believed it, even the dozen soldiers who witnessed it had convinced themselves they saw something different. Genev’s intense drilling helped that along.

And suddenly Jon Offra hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to do with the truth. A brave man had faced his death alone, surrounded by the enemy, yet completely calm. He said he was ready to meet the Creator. He also said something about a test. But it was what he said about the sky that most troubled Offra.

It wasn’t blue, it was black.

And it was, all night long, as Jon tried to keep Genev’s story from mixing inappropriately with what he witnessed. He saw the bolt of lightning. He saw Perrin and Mahrree together on Clark, and Peto and Deckett and Shem, but no Jaytsy.

And then they were gone. With tears in his eyes he watched their horses break into a run, and all he could do, despite Lemuel screaming in pain next to him, was to whisper, “Ride! Ride! Go! Ride!

He clung to that memory. The world could believe whatever it wanted to, but Jon knew the sky was completely black that night, broken only by lightning as jagged as a dagger.

It was how to live with that knowledge that kept Jon up all night.

 

 

 

Chapter 11—“A few people might wave

as we drive by.”

 

Mahrree sank on the sofa, as if all the wind had been let out of her. “Oh, poor Dormin—”

Perrin slowly shook his head. “It was Thorne, with my father’s sword. I heard it ring, and I just knew.” He paled as he covered his mouth, and Mahrree thought he might actually become ill.

“Don’t think about taking any of this upon yourselves,” Jothan said, kneeling in front of them. “Dormin was the most dedicated man we ever had. And I think it’s fitting that he died saving you.”

“How?” asked Perrin wretchedly. “It was my father who ordered the execution squad to kill his father, then Relf’s sword took Dormin’s life? I’m struggling to see how this is fitting! And I was going to apologize to Dormin, for everything . . .”

Asrar wiped away her copious tears. “Dormin felt no anger toward you or your father, Perrin. He only regretted that he was the only member of his family to do anything useful for the world. The Creator reserved him for this day, I’m sure. Feel no regret for him. He passed The Test, most admirably. And you will have your time to chat with him about everything, just later on the other side.”

“I still feel so awful,” Perrin murmured.

Shem sat down next to him. “Dormin wasn’t afraid to die. He told me on more than one occasion that he fully expected to go earlier rather than later. I can’t help but think this closed some sort of circle. I imagine he went out with bold words and kingly confidence.”

Asrar smiled at that. “But in a good way. He really did have a presence about him. He tried to hide it, but some things you just can’t deny.”

Jothan sniffed, surprising them all. “I’ll go and let Rector Yung know. The scouts who found Dormin buried him in the woods, where he loved to be. Yung will find that appropriate. I’m sure Guide Gleace will want to conduct a memorial service.” Jothan clapped a hand on Perrin’s knee. “I can’t help but feel a sense of peace about it all. While I won’t know until the next life how he went, I do know he went astonishingly well. And I also know he’s still with us.”

Mahrree stared as Jothan’s eyes bubbled over, but he darted out the front door before she could offer him a handkerchief.

“I’ve never seen him so shaken up,” Asrar said. “Well!” she turned to Perrin and Mahrree, clapping her hands and ignoring her tears. “So sorry to bring such dreary news this morning, when today—ah, today will be so wonderful for you.”

“Maybe we should wait a day or two, out of respect—” Perrin began, but the rapid head shaking of Asrar stopped him.

“Oh, there’s no way. Today’s the day! Get your children up, breakfast’s already been made by a neighbor, and your ride will be here soon to take you home.”

As somber as they felt during breakfast, Mahrree couldn’t help but feel unwanted giddiness. It seemed wrong to feel such sublime anticipation when a man had died to deliver her to it.

But then again, wouldn’t he have been disappointed if the Shins and Briters didn’t feel joy today?

After they said a prayer thanking the Creator for Dormin’s sacrifice, they heard a wagon pull up. As Shem went out to greet it, Perrin said to his family, “Some people expect us to be happy today. We’d best oblige them.”

Through the front door came Yudit with her husband Noch. He grinned broadly and said, “That magnificent beast tethered to the fence—is that Clark? Can I someday take him for a ride?”

“Show me where my new home is,” Perrin said, “and you can play with my pony all you like.”

Mahrree’s smile was genuine as Perrin helped her climb on the bench in Noch’s wagon behind him and Yudit. Both Noch and Deck assisted Jaytsy on to the third row, while Peto made himself comfortable in the wagon bed where he could keep an eye on Clark, tethered to the wagon. The Cat made himself comfortable on Peto’s lap.

As Shem on horseback led them out, he called, “Prepare to meet a few more friends, Peto!”

“What does he mean by that?” Mahrree asked as Perrin growled.

Yudit, sitting in front of them, turned around. “You might as well know, you’re rather well-known in Salem. Shem’s reports got around. A few people might wave as we drive by.”

Noch chuckled as he slapped the horses.

Perrin and Mahrree exchanged nervous glances.

Since the Second Resting Station was less than a hundred paces off the main cobblestone road, they were soon on it and heading north. Quite quickly Yudit’s prediction of a ‘few people’ came true. As the Shins rode by, people waved from their fields and barns, came to their porches to shout hello, and soon they realized that a child running alongside the wagon for a time wasn’t to be an anomaly.

As they reached the more populated areas of Salem, where the farms and orchards ended and the houses were closer together, it was a parade. Mahrree was so embarrassed by the amount of people who lined the road to cheer, she was sure that her face was red.

Perrin nudged her as the crowds thickened. “Don’t worry—they’ve all turned out for Shem. I think he knows everyone here.”

Shem was pointing at people and calling their names as he passed, waving happily and promising to “Come by later.”

“We’ll never see him again,” Perrin commented. “He has about sixty invitations to make good on so far, and it’s still another five miles to our new house, according to Noch.”

Yudit turned to Perrin. “Everyone’s out to see Shem? You keep telling yourself that, if it makes you feel better. But they’re not watching Shem as much as you think. Everyone wants to see the Hero of Edge and his family. Word went out that you left the world, chased by soldiers, to come to us instead.”

Mahrree had already noticed that people’s eyes greeted Shem, then went immediately to her husband and lingered there. She nudged him gently. “Yudit’s right.”

Perrin groaned. “I thought we could just melt into the background here and have a nice quiet life.”

Noch laughed. “Give it a few weeks and the excitement will die down. In the meantime, enjoy the tradition. We welcome all lost families to Salem this way. Although I don’t ever recall such a crowd.”

“I feel like we should be throwing them sweets or something,” Jaytsy murmured as she waved.

Deck checked on Peto behind him. There were plenty of young women, all meeting Perrin’s modesty standards, waving to Peto in the back of the wagon. He smiled slyly back and practiced a nonchalant wave that ended in a pointing gesture. He’d be adding a wink next.

Deck chuckled. “Looking for a practical girl, Peto?”

“I think they’re prettier here, Deck,” Peto said airily. “Sorry you had to settle for what they had to offer in Edge.”

“Peto!” Mahrree said.

Deck put his arm around his insulted wife. “I got the last perfect woman in Edge.”

Peto rolled his eyes and turned back to enjoy the view.

 

—-

 

Perrin scanned the crowd nervously. There were thousands, tens of thousands, of adults and children lining the road for the next few miles. In some places they stood four and five deep, and seemed to regard him with too much respect and awe.

He glanced up at Shem who also seemed embarrassed about the attention, even though he kept up the pointing and greeting. What everyone in Salem knew about Perrin came from Shem. It wasn’t that Shem wasn’t honest—he was, to a fault, when he wasn’t hiding information. And last night he relayed everything to his family accurately; it was just that Perrin wanted to adjust the color Shem used. Perrin came out too vivid and bright. He couldn’t imagine what kinds of pictures Shem had been painting for Salem all these years.

Perrin was dragged out of thoughts by an older man saluting him as they passed, and Perrin automatically saluted back. The movement felt odd after several weeks of neglect.

Yudit noticed. “That was Mr. Kamaz. He was one of our scouts serving under your father as a young man, stationed at a fort in Pools, I think, for two years while your grandfather was High General. He told me he once gave you a ride on his horse when you were seven.”

Perrin spun back around to look at the slightly stooped man who was still watching, even though the crowd behind was dispersing to go home. Mr. Kamaz nodded and smiled.

Perrin nodded back and turned around.

“I don’t remember him,” he said to Mahrree. “But I do remember riding with soldiers occasionally.”

“Maybe he can tell you about your father and grandfather,” Mahrree suggested. “It’d be fascinating to hear what he remembers.”

Perrin peered at Yudit. “How many more people here know me that I don’t know about?”

Yudit shrugged. “I’m not sure. We’ve had several dozen scouts over the years join the army. None stayed as long as Shem, but all of them knew about your family. I suspect over the next little while they’ll seek you out to tell you what they remember.”

“I’d like that,” Perrin said. “Still, this is a bit uncomfortable.”

Noch leaned back to talk to Perrin. “I understand that in the world there’s a tradition for burying a fallen soldier. As many men as possible take turns carrying the coffin to the gravesite. Well, at least that’s what usually happens,” he added.

Perrin sighed, remembering his parents’ burial. “Shem told you about that?”

Noch raised his eyebrows in a What doesn’t he tell us? manner. “The sentiment, from what I understand, is for everyone to escort the deceased home.”

“Yes, that’s the idea.”

“This also is an ‘escort home.’ We line the road as a welcome to everyone who’s made it to Salem, because this is where you’ve always belonged. A guide many years ago suggested something similar happens in Paradise. When we finally make it to our true home again, we’ll be greeted and escorted by thousands, if not millions, who have been eagerly waiting and cheering for us, and we never knew it.”

Perrin and Mahrree couldn’t respond, nor did Noch expect them to as he said, just above the din of the calling crowd, “We’ve all been cheering you, for years. Finally you can see how many on this side have been eagerly waiting for you to come home.”

“This is so different,” Mahrree eventually whispered, “from the world who no longer wanted us.”

“Rejected by the world?” Noch smiled. “That’s precisely why we want you.”

 

—-

 

It was another minute before Mahrree could compose herself. She’d need another handkerchief soon, and was glad she didn’t have the opportunity to offer Jothan hers.

She returned the waves of countless Salemites, smiling and blubbering at the same time. “And here I thought we’d be strangers.”

“Not at all,” Yudit told them. “Mahrree, there are a lot of teachers who want to meet you. Our history of the world is in pieces. But you can give them the whole picture. Maybe even write it down?”

Mahrree’s eyebrows went up. “Write a book?”

Jaytsy poked her from behind. “Of course! How often did you complain about the dullness of the Administrators’ texts? Here’s your chance to do better.”

“Not a bad idea, Mother,” Peto added from the wagon bed. “And I can be your critic.”

“Oh, that’s far too much help,” Mahrree said. “But it’s an intriguing thought . . .”

“Well, it seems you’ve found your purpose in Salem,” said Perrin with a hint of friendly jealousy.

Their short parade traveled near the center of Salem before turning west. Yudit promised the Shins they’d have a full tour next week, but in the meantime she pointed out some of the bigger buildings. The most striking was an enclosed arena that held thirty thousand people.

When Perrin heard that Shem had given frequent updates about the world there, and to packed audiences, he groaned.

“He probably even put on a one-man version of ‘The Midnight Ride of Perrin Shin,’” he murmured to Mahrree.

The arena, Yudit told them, also hosted combined congregation meetings, concerts, plays, and even debates. Mahrree smiled at that.

Another large building, three levels high, was one of the several surplus storage buildings in Salem. Yudit explained that whatever crops, goods, or supplies people in Salem had in excess was brought for those who needed them.

“Just how much can people here do without?” Perrin wondered. “All that the citizens of Edge would donate wouldn’t even fill my old bedroom wardrobe.”

There was also Salem’s university, with several sprawling buildings, and a huge library: a stone structure which held copies of every book Salem produced, as well as many from the world which Shem and others had brought home over the years. The most fantastic part was that anyone could borrow a book and return it later.

When Mahrree heard that, she thought she’d died and gone to Paradise. The library would be the first place she’d race to next week.

The seat of Salem’s government, however, was a surprisingly small building, not much larger than a house.

When Perrin asked why it was so small, Noch told him, “Because it’s needed only once a week, for a few hours. When people govern themselves, there’s little need for mediation. But when people won’t, someone bigger and meaner steps in to do it. Folks in the world are selfish and childish, so they need laws to dictate every little aspect of their lives. The more government there is, the less freedom people have. We treasure our freedom.”

When Shem turned west to their new house, waving people still lined the road. He called back to the Shins, “Less than a mile down here, and you’ll be home!”

Mahrree didn’t realize she was holding her breath in anticipation, until Perrin whispered into her ear. “You’ll pass out before we even get there. Remember, it was just built. The wood won’t weather to a gray for several years yet.”

Startled, she whispered, “You remember?”

“The dreams of the most dangerous woman in the world are hard to forget,” he whispered back. “My original plan was to build your dream house near Terryp’s ruins. I wasn’t sure how to supply the garden you dreamed you were weeding, but I think Salem can do that for us. And I promise you, if this house doesn’t have window boxes, I’ll add some. Oh, now don’t start crying! You won’t be able to see it clearly.”

“I didn’t think you remembered!” she sobbed softly.

Her children, surprised at her tears, glanced at each other.

“After all this time, you still remember?” Mahrree murmured.

Perrin put his arm around her. “I’ll have to figure out how to fill it with children,” he said softly. “But even without The Drink, at forty-seven we’re not exactly young anymore, Mahrree.”

Peto poked his sister. “What are they talking about?”

Jaytsy shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t hear them.”

“Shush!” said Deck, straining to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Mahrree grabbed her husband’s arm in sudden understanding. “Perrin,” she whispered. “Maybe the house wasn’t filled with our children. It was our—”

“Grandchildren?”

The word heated her completely, yet sent a chill down her arms. “Yes, that must be it! Perrin, that’s it!

“So who’s going to tell the three behind us that they’ll produce a dozen children?” he whispered.

Perrin and Mahrree turned to look at the confused faces which were trying to figure out what their parents’ conversation was about.

Perrin and Mahrree exchanged a look.

Jaytsy sighed in frustration and Peto groaned.

Their parents burst out laughing.

“That can’t be a good sign,” said Peto.

“I have got to start learning that stupid face game of theirs!” Jaytsy said, folding her arms.

But Deck shook his head. “I have a feeling this is one look we don’t want to know the meaning of.”

Perrin pointed at Deck. “It can wait a few years.”

He put his arm around Mahrree and they wiped their tears just in time to hear Shem announce, “There it is! Home!”

A row of tall trees along the road obscured their view for a moment, then as the wagon continued onward, there it was.

Mahrree gasped.

And flapped her arms as if being attacked by kissing bees.

She would have screamed if she remembered how to breathe.

She did jump up and down, though, on the bench until Perrin caught her before she tumbled out of the wagon.

It only needed window boxes.

The sun was hitting it at the correct angle, too, as they pulled up. The pine planking was yellow and pristine, but in a few years it would weather to a light gray. And there were mountains—such mountains!—exactly as in her dreams. The house sat at the end of the road on the edge of Salem, hills rising up behind it and growing into fantastic peaks. Mahrree already knew their curves from the glimpses she’d had over the years.

She was scarcely aware that Perrin helped her out of the wagon, but if he hadn’t, her awkward leaping from it probably would have landed her face-first into the dirt. Sobbing and laughing she rushed to the front yard and dropped to her knees, overwhelmed and overjoyed.

Behind her followed Perrin, chuckling and wiping his eyes.

But back in the wagon, everyone else watched, openmouthed.

Yudit and Shem exchanged questioning looks.

Jaytsy whispered, “She’s . . . gone . . . loopy!”

Yudit frowned in concern. “Usually people are little excited to get a new house, but . . . Shem? Is she all right?”

Shem only shook his head in astonishment as Mahrree clawed at her husband for his help to stand up so she could burst through the front door—yes, it was made out of oak!—to enter the house of her dreams.

It was simple in construction, well laid out, much larger than their home in Edge, and lacking for nothing.

Everyone else soon joined Mahrree in the large gathering room where she giggled and gasped and squealed and sighed. Together they tested the two long sofas—plain, sturdy, yet beautiful—and marveled at the separate eating room with a well-crafted table and chairs that could seat a dozen people, then stared at the spacious kitchen with a large work table and numerous cabinets already stocked with dishes and food.

They wandered up the stairs to find three large furnished bedrooms—one for Peto, one temporarily for the Briters that would later be a study, and one for Mahrree and Perrin.

In their room Mahrree guffawed when she saw their bed: evidently Shem had sent the measurements of Perrin’s massive timber bed in Edge so that Salemites could make a similar one, complete with a down and straw mattress, and topped with blankets of carefully cut and pieced cloth, resulting in remarkable designs.

Mahrree marveled how ordinary cloth could become a work of art. Indeed, everything in the house, from their new clothes to the pattern engraved on their clay dishes, was artful in its simplicity.

The morning was spent in staring in wonder, touching furniture and books in gratitude, and marveling at the workmanship and generosity. They gazed out at their enormous piece of property, the ends of which The Cat was inspecting for mice, and were speechless.

Deckett was in tears when he realized the house next door, nearly identical in design and size to the Shins’, came with eighty acres leading up to the hillside and mountains beyond: Deck’s new ranch. When Guide Gleace had told him they would get him a ‘some cattle,’ he meant one hundred head, and Deck would travel next week to various ranches selecting his herd.

Jaytsy bounced, as much as she could without hurting herself, in delight to see the team of men working to complete her home. A large barn sat behind and between the two houses, and was ample enough for birthing cows and housing the two horses and wagon provided for both families’ use, with plenty of room for Clark.

As Mahrree gazed out onto her own back garden, Yudit explained. “Every family has garden space big enough to grow what they may need for the coming year. The farms and orchards surrounding the city grow grains, fruit and grapes, but most families like to raise their own produce, or have a few fruit trees, berries, and their own chickens. My sister Nan has a clutch of chicks she’s raising for your families to share. They’ll be here and ready to lay in a few weeks, right after you’ve finished planting.”

Jaytsy squeezed her arm. “Don’t worry, Mother. I know what to plant. Look—our gardens meet at that big boulder.”

“We initially thought we should try to drag that out of here,” Yudit gestured to the gray-white boulder taller than Perrin. “But when my husband climbed on top of it, he realized it was good for looking for missing children or wandering cattle. So we decided to leave it. Unless you’d like it moved?” A quality in her tone suggested that she hoped the answer would be ‘no,’ because it was an enormous rock.

Mahrree shook her head. “Not at all! I rather like it. It reminds me of the boulders we passed through to get here. So the boulder designates the boundaries between our properties?”

“Not exactly. You see, you don’t own this property.”

“Figures,” whispered a still slightly cynical Peto.

Yudit, whose large posterity had trained her to develop keen hearing to always be on top of whatever mischief they were concocting, heard him. “No one owns property here, Peto. Instead, recognize that this is the land to which you have been given stewardship. It is yours to maintain, to use, to care for, but never to own. None of us have a greater right than another to land. It’s the Creator’s. He shared it freely with us, so we share it freely with others.”

Peto nodded in meek agreement.

Yudit winked forgivingly. “Stewardships change, too. This used to be our father’s, but he quit cattle some years ago. Since then others have cared for this area by grazing animals here to make sure it wasn’t overrun by weeds. If you don’t want to be responsible for so much land, we’ll assign portions to someone else. Occasionally you may be asked to help care for someone else’s stewardship for a time. For example, we have a family in our congregation who just added triplets to their family. Only a year ago, they had twins.”

Mahrree gasped, and Jaytsy clutched her belly.

“Yep,” Yudit chuckled at their expressions. “Five babies, all under age two. Their farm is now the entire rectory’s stewardship, and the young parents have three assistants in their house at all times helping to care for the babies, milk the goats, and wash the changing cloths. Even families can become everyone’s stewardship, if needed.”

“That’s a lot of free help,” snapped Peto, and immediately looked like he regretted it.

“You think they won’t be ‘paid back,’ is it?” Yudit squinted.

Peto bobbled his head.

“Think about this, Peto: in fifteen years that family will have five teenagers who may be tasked to take care of an elderly couple’s farm while the husband tends to his dying wife. He won’t need to worry about anything but making her comfortable. They’ll contribute back, in time. Just as you will.” She raised an eyebrow at him.

He squished his lips into another apology.

“Freely given, freely shared,” Mahrree marveled. “Just like it was at the beginning. What Guide Hierum died trying to preserve.”

“It’s amazing,” said Perrin again. “All of it. The concept, the barn, the boulder, the house . . .” he gestured indiscriminately as he slowly turned to take it all in. “I’m nearly speechless.”

“I knew you’d like it,” Shem grinned. “That house down there,” he pointed to a weathered house a few hundred paces down a wagon-tracked lane, “is my father’s and, starting today, mine again as well. We’re neighbors! A few years ago I suggested to Gleace that we set this land aside for you, and it’s been waiting ever since. I thought you’d appreciate how the roads end here, for a bit of privacy. The unoccupied hillsides behind the Briters is perfect for grazing cattle.”

Deck nodded. “I’ll be able to see the cattle from the kitchen.”

“That’s why your house was built at an angle,” Shem said.

“That was my idea,” Yudit elbowed him. “When you sit on your front porches, both families will have views of the roads and of each other’s front doors. That will come in handy when you’re trying to see whose house the grandchildren are running to.”

Jaytsy smiled. “You’ve thought of everything.”

“We’ve been doing this for a while,” Yudit said. “There’s something else,” she said, a little uncomfortably. She glanced at her brother who nodded for her to continue. “You see, Perrin and Mahrree, this isn’t intended to be only your house. It’s customary in Salem that when the parents see the last of their children marry and have a family, they step down into a smaller home, or have a smaller section built for them on the house. The large house is then passed on to . . .” She looked at Peto to see if he understood.

“On to who?” Peto asked.

Mahrree caught on. “It’s a lovely idea! Why would the two of us need such a large home when it’s only us? It makes sense to give the bigger space to the growing family.” She beamed at Peto.

Peto looked at her in complete and worried confusion.

Perrin nodded. “I’ll even make the addition when it’s time.”

“When it’s time for what?!” Peto demanded.

Deck put an arm around him and squeezed his cheeks. “When it’s time for you to be a papa.”

“Whoa! Whoa!” Peto said pulling out of Deck’s grip. “Who said anything about that?”

“Peto, we’re happy to keep this house for many more years,” Mahrree assured him. “No one’s in a rush.”

“That’s right!” He shook out his shoulders. “I need time to evaluate all the practical women around here.” A half smile came across his face. “Now that I look at this house properly as my future home, when it’s time, Mother, you and Father can have the barn.”

Jaytsy put her hands on her hips. “Peto, just how long have you been interested in practical women?

“Uh . . . I don’t know. It just kind of snuck up on me.”

Shem pointed at him. “Remember, you promised once that you wouldn’t get married before me.”

“Well then,” Yudit said taking Mahrree by the arm, “we best get working on him.”

“I don’t need your help!” Shem said, now pointing at the giggling women. “Nor yours,” his finger was now directed dangerously at Perrin. “Nor any of yours,” he gestured at the others.

“Stay back, everyone,” Perrin said. “He’s an agitated man, and I’m unarmed.”

Shem held up his hands as the family laughed. “I just don’t need everyone jumping me, all right? I’ve been home less than one full day, and already two of my sisters have been trying to get me to meet some of their friends.”

“The most adventurous bachelor in Salem has finally returned for good. Shem, you better get used to meeting all kinds of new female friends,” his sister warned.

“And I want to meet them,” he promised her. “But at my own rate and in my own way, all right? All right?”

“Once you’re settled,” Yudit nudged Mahrree, “we’ll get to work on him.”

 

 

 

Chapter 12—“So does everyone know us?”

 

They weren’t going to get settled that first day, because, as Yudit had predicted, a few people stopped by. After Shem had gone home, and Yudit and Noch went next door to help with Jaytsy and Deck’s house, Mahrree had hoped for a few quiet minutes to lock herself in her new pantry to tell the Creator that she finally understood what He’d been trying to show her for so many years, and that she was overwhelmed by the enormity of His gift. That she ever entertained the thought of being mistress of the mansion in Idumea seemed preposterous compared to the beautiful valley, tall wood home, and enormous gardens they had today.

But the Creator wasn’t finished yet. Soon after the Zenoses left, Salemites streamed to the house by the dozens. Mahrree met teachers, Jaytsy met new mothers, Deck met ranchers, and Peto met new foods in the eating room where everyone dropped off something for the family to ‘get by on.’ They had enough that half of Edge could ‘get by’ for several days. Peto sat happily at the broad table sampling Salem’s cooking. His newest favorite was a kind of cake made out of a soft cheese.

“Shem was right,” he said after another helping loaded with preserved berries, “this place is Paradise.”

Perrin spent the day meeting people who had passed through Edge on their way to Salem. He even became acquainted with the family from Quake, the couple with two little boys that Fadh’s wife had mourned over just before the attack on Moorland.

“She was the only person who greeted us when we moved in at Quake,” the mother said. “The only one who showed any interest in us. I feel awful that she mourned our loss. We even named our daughter after her. I hope someday she might know we’re fine.”

Perrin only nodded, knowing Mrs. Fadh would likely never know that a little girl in Salem was named Shaleea.

The visitors poured in all day with welcomes and thanks and stories about how they left the world. An older man who was friends with Yordin’s grandparents verified Jothan’s story. King Querul the Third had been threatening Gari Yordin’s grandfather, and was just days away from stealing young Gari to hold him hostage until his grandfather figured out what metals would blend into gold. The elder Yordins vanished to Salem just in time.

Over the years they had received updates from scouts about their family. When Gari went to Command School, his grandfather was furious to realize his grandson would be pledging allegiance to the son of the king he escaped. But he was also proud of his grandson’s accomplishments, and just before Grandfather Yordin passed away, he learned about Gari being appointed as commander of the fort at Mountseen.

Perrin also met men who had served under Pere and Relf Shin. He asked them to write down their memories so he could compile them for the generals’ descendants. When Perrin and Mahrree stood on their wide front porch waving goodbye to a great-grandfather who worked for the garrison’s surgeon when Perrin was eleven—and helped set Perrin’s finger that he dislocated after he jumped off the garrison wall trying to make a point to a young Versula Cush—Perrin whispered, “I feel like I’m at a reunion for a family we didn’t know we had. Amazing!”

Even Rector Yung dropped by with a very apologetic Rector Chame who, once more, told Perrin how sorry he was for causing that wagon jam in Edge before the offensive at Moorland.

But Yung, his eyes twinkling merrily, hugged Perrin and said, “I told you we would meet again sometime. See why I was traveling light when I stopped by to say farewell? Everything I need is here!”

Mahrree teared up as he approached her. “Mrs. Shin, I have something to say to you. ‘There will be a day when you will be ready to leave it all behind and embrace the truth. Until then, think of this night never again. Should your mind ever find itself surprised by this memory . . .’”

Mahrree laughed through her tears as she hugged their rector. “To think, I met your wife all those years ago.”

Rector Yung chuckled as he pulled out of her embrace. “I memorized her speech for you. She gave me a copy the morning after she met you. I think she knew—” he stopped to clear his throat. In a softer voice he said, “I think she knew she’d be watching this development from the other side. But she knows you’re here,” he said with tears in his eyes. “And she’s thrilled you made it to Salem! The reunion that she and Dormin must be having . . . I like to think they’re over there at that boulder, chatting and laughing and watching us—”

Neither Mahrree nor Rector Yung could speak anymore. They just put their arms around each other and wept in joyful misery.

“So does everyone know us?” Peto asked later that day, breaking away from the table to watch his family wave goodbye to yet another man whose grandfather served under General Pere Shin. Peto chewed on a chicken leg, not noticing the young mother who was talking with his sister.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, we do,” she said. She was in her late twenties and had two quiet children holding on to her cotton skirt. “You are Peto, and you love to eat.”

“Well, that was easy to guess,” Peto said, unimpressed as he tore off another piece of meat from the bone.

“My name’s Anne, and it’s also right here.” She pulled a piece of thin folded paper from her skirt pocket. “Yesterday’s news update. All of you are in it.”

Perrin groaned. “Let me see that, please. I had a suspicion.” He took the paper from Anne, unfolded it, and his family huddled around to read. It was an unusual document, with yesterday’s date on the top, and several columns of information below. In prominence was, “Shin Family Escapes to Salem—Arrival in the Morning.”

“What exactly is this?” Mahrree asked.

“Newspaper,” Anne said. “My husband is working on tomorrow’s edition, or he’d be here to meet you. He was hoping he could schedule some time to do a proper interview?”

The Shins shrugged in reluctant agreement, unsure of what that meant but not feeling they should disappoint anyone today.

“He’ll come by to ask you questions,” Anne explained. “This is how we get news to everyone in Salem. Don’t worry—every refugee from the world is interviewed.”

Perrin was shaking his head. “This makes us sound like some kind of . . . heroes or something.”

“You are,” said Anne. “Everyone who escapes from the world is. But Mr. Shin, your family means everything to Salem.” Her voice quieted, and Perrin looked up from the paper to see why. “We’ve known your trials over the years, and what you’ve done for us, too, albeit unintentionally. And we know what you will become for us.”

Perrin squinted suspiciously.

Anne continued. “We’ve even prayed for your family, and when you resigned from the army, all of Salem fasted for you to ask the Creator to keep you and your family safe from the Administrators.”

Perrin swallowed and looked down at the newspaper. There was an update about improving sheep health that seemed interesting.

“Fasted?” Peto said. “Shem mentioned he did that, too.”

Anne nodded. “We all went without food while we prayed for all of you, for a full day and night.”

Peto guiltily analyzed the chicken leg in his hands.

“But don’t worry, we’re not fasting today,” Anne assured him.

“Glad to hear it,” Deck said, as uncomfortable as Perrin, and equally as grateful. “Thank you.”

“Yes,” Mahrree whispered. “Maybe your husband can write that for the paper? That we’re overwhelmed with all you’ve done for us?”

Perrin cleared his throat in agreement.

“I’ll make sure it gets in,” she promised. “While he writes the column, I’m the local editor. Nothing gets printed from our section of Salem until I approve it. Then it goes to be typeset.”

Perrin looked closer at the paper. “This isn’t woodcut? Of course not,” he answered his own question.

“We have thousands of letters and even short words already set in lead, which holds up much longer than the woodcuts used in the world,” Anne explained. “We have typesetters who can lay out a sheet of news quite quickly. Then we ink the letters, press down the paper, and distribute to Salem three times a week. You may keep that copy, if you wish. We have all the back copies bound in the library. You can read what we printed about you in the past.”

Jaytsy giggled at the pained expressions on her parents. “You mean there’s more about us?”

Anne nodded, almost apologetically. “You’ve become our best story. If you don’t want that copy, turn it back to the news deliverer when she drops off the next one. We shred the old copies into new pulp and into newspapers again.”

Perrin turned over the paper in his hands. “So this has been around before?”

“Segments of that paper may have been around for years,” Anne told him. “Since when we first began to write about the Shin family.”

Perrin just rubbed his forehead.

Once the press of visitors died down, Mahrree finally paid attention to a man she’d noticed hanging around for the past several hours, usually sitting under a tree, and with a stack of papers and a box of charcoal. Frequently visitors stopped to talk to him, stood in front of him for a few minutes, then went on their way.

Perrin had been eyeing him too, and before he could march over to find out what the man was up to, he had gathered his supplies and came up to their porch.

“It seems it’s now my turn to introduce myself. My name’s Davinch, and I’m a portrait artist.”

Perrin folded his arms. “A what?”

But Davinch was already making his way to their sofas, since the table was full of food, and he laid out the pages.

“Oh . . . my,” was all Mahrree could say to the striking images that fairly leaped at them.

“That’s me!” Peto exclaimed as he examined a sketch of him sitting at the table and happily gorging himself. “So that was you peering through the windows?”

Davinch chuckled. “I try to draw people in action. We want to help you commemorate your first day in Salem, so one of us in our artists’ group spends the day drawing those who come visit you, as well as your reactions.”

Perrin gingerly picked up a larger, detailed picture of him and Mahrree standing on the porch. She was cheerfully waving to someone, and he had his arm around her.

And he was smiling, Mahrree noted. His real smile, not The Dinner smile or any other practiced turn of his mouth. His real, devastating smile which, even on the page, made her knees go weak.

“That’s my favorite,” Davinch said. “I’ll be taking that back with me for a few weeks so I can reference it for a painting.”

Perrin looked up, surprised. “A painting?”

“I know in the world paintings are for only the wealthiest or highest ranked, but here in Salem everyone has a painting of themselves, often at different ages, for the walls.” Davinch gestured to theirs. “Look a bit bare, don’t they? All of these are yours,” he nodded to a drawing Jaytsy was holding which showed her and Deck surveying their new lands. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll bring them to my brother who’s a framer, first. We don’t want the charcoal to smear.”

“A framer?” Deck asked, looking at a sketch of him talking with Boskos Zenos, who had dropped by to show Deck around the ranch.

“You’ll see,” Davinch assured them. “You’ll have them all back in a few days.”

“Remarkable,” Mahrree breathed, admiring a hasty yet lifelike sketch of Perrin chatting with a couple while Mahrree was shaking hands with their new rector. “How do you do this?”

“It’s a gift,” he said humbly. “One which I spend hours each day improving. I’ll do a painting of each of you—”

“This one,” Perrin said, picking up another of Peto. “But without him ready to shove that pie into his face? Can you do that?”

Davinch nodded at the detailed drawing of Peto sitting on the front porch railing. “Not a problem.”

“Good,” Perrin said, grinning. “These are excellent. Did you know there was a portrait of my grandfather down in Idumea? But the proportions were a bit off.”

“Was he more slender?” Mahrree asked.

“Oh, no. Not one bit. The only thing that artist got right were his eyes. But these? I feel like I’m looking into a mirror that reflects only blacks and whites.”

Davinch blushed with modest pride. “Then you’ll love the full color paintings even more. Mr. and Mrs. Briter? Which one do you want as a painting of you two? And Mrs. Briter, it’s up to you if you want your full belly in it or not.”

Jaytsy decided on a portrait from the shoulders up, and Davinch agreed to come back in several moons to do a drawing of their baby. He labeled the dozens of drawings he’d made with the names of those who had visited, then carefully gathered them back to bring them to his brother’s for framing, whatever that meant.

There was another visitor waiting on their front porch, with a broad grin focused on Mahrree. “You’re the woman I’ve been eager to meet for many years!” he exclaimed as he walked into the house.

Mahrree was taken aback. So far most everyone had wanted to meet her husband.

Perrin watched the man, about his age, who gazed fondly upon his wife. Tucked under his arm was a large bound book.

Mahrree eyed it as he held it out to her.

“Is this what I think it is?” Mahrree asked, hoping it was a new edition of The Writings.

“Probably not,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Professor Kopersee, and I’m the director of World History at the university. And this,” he waved the book, “is a pathetic and incomplete piece of writing, authored by yours truly. I do my best to cobble together what we know of the world into some kind of text for our students. But you, my dear Mrs. Shin—”

It was only because his ardor was so wholly academic that Perrin silently sniggered instead of becoming worried that this balding, portly man was after his wife.

“—you, YOU lived it all! Shem told me of your library loaded with history books, and that there was no one who knew the world like you do. And so I’m here to ask you—no, to plead with you: will you write our next history text?”

The man swayed, as if he were about to fall to his knees right there in front of her, and Mahrree chuckled nervously at his earnestness, until he added, “My wife won’t let me back into the house until you agree. She doesn’t want me trying to write another book. Ever.”

Mahrree laughed. “Well, of course! I mean, I’ll try my best, but I doubt my version of history will be too objective. At the end, we created the history.”

“The most compelling versions of history must come from the victims of it,” Professor Kopersee declared. “Don’t you think?”

Mahrree shrugged and held her hands out for the text. “May I see what you’ve already put together?”

“Of course. Everything from Chapters 10 to 23 is my rubbish. Before that is history that we believe is fairly accurate, from when our ancestors were still in the world.”

Mahrree thumbed through the pages. “Salem! The beginning of it! Now there’s something I know nothing about.”

“You don’t?” Kopersee said. “That’s right, you were given the brief, ‘You’re coming to Salem tomorrow’ lecture. You probably don’t even know what Salem means.”

Perrin frowned. “What Salem means? I thought it was just a name Guide Pax came up with.”

Kopersee grinned. “Not at all. Salem is an acronym.”

“A what?”

“You know, taking a string of words and reducing it to a representative word? Originally it was a code. ‘Salem’ was one of several words we devised, back when King Querul was on the hunt for the followers of The Writings—”

“Wait a minute,” Perrin said. “Querul actively hunted followers of The Writings?”

“Of course,” Kopersee said. “Why do you think our ancestors ran away? That’ll be your first reading assignment, Mr. Shin. I’ll write you up a study plan.” Ignoring Perrin’s astonished expression that he’d just been given homework, Kopersee went on. “I’ll give you the abbreviated version. Querul and Pax had been arguing. Pax tried to convince Querul that the Great War was primarily Querul’s fault, and Pax wanted nothing more to do with him. Querul knew Pax wanted to leave the world, and take his followers with him, but Querul couldn’t allow so many people to leave. Who’d be his laborers if part of the population up and left?

“So Pax started sending out scouts in secret, looking for ways to leave the world to somewhere Querul would never find them. Pax and his twelve assistants had a few theories where they could go, and created codes for those places. The code for Salem was, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti.”

Perrin scowled. “East? But we went north! And who was Medicetti? And your ancestors came up with the first codes? We thought it was Querul, and then the Guarders!”

Kopersee grinned. “You’ll love Chapter 9, Mr. Shin. Write up a summary for me, and I can check it next week to make sure you didn’t miss anything good. Anyway,” he turned back to Mahrree who tried to keep a straight face. “There were four routes suggested. To Terryp’s land in the west, to the far southwest, to the east on the sea, and to the north,” he nodded to Perrin. “In case there were any spies among Pax’s followers, Pax mixed up the codes even more. He shifted direction headings, so that north became east. Anyone reading ‘east’ would know that he really meant ‘north,’ and ‘north’ became ‘west’ and so forth—”

Mahrree knew the first person who would read the chapter would be her, because Kopersee was obviously skipping details.

“—Pax also scrambled up the names of the areas he suggested fleeing to. He suspected that behind Mt. Deceit would be a good area, so he scrambled up its letters to become Medicetti.”

“No, no, no,” Perrin said. “I know a bit about history as well, and Mt. Deceit didn’t get its name until after Querul ‘lost’ Pax in there. It was called Deceit because Pax was betrayed and deceived there by his men who killed him . . .”

Perrin’s voice trailed off as he realized that the history he knew had been heavily influenced by Querul.

“Just never mind,” he added. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should read Chapter 8 as well?”

“You should. That’s where you’ll learn that Deceit was given that name a few decades before the Great War, when it rumbled and spewed out smoke and ash for a few days. Everyone started saying that for a mountain, it was deceitful. Begin with Chapter 7, though, Mr. Shin.”

Perrin dutifully nodded.

“So,” Kopersee turned back to Mahrree, “word went out among our people, along with portions of the reward gold Querul had given his guards who had ‘killed’ Pax, not realizing that those same guards were followers who had saved Pax, not eliminated him for Querul as he had insisted—”

Mahrree wondered if Kopersee’s book was as clipped and rapid as the man who authored it.

“—now it was those guards, remember, who slipped out among the world in secret, passing along the code to those ready to follow Pax. And all they said, as they handed over slips of gold to allow them to buy supplies, was Salem.”

“Did Querul never catch on to the code word?” Perrin wondered, and immediately regretted opening his mouth.

Kopersee tapped the book again. “In Chapter 9, sir. Quiz next week. But yes, he did, near the end. He sent soldiers to every eastern village looking for someone named Medicetti. Even had soldiers poking around Edge for a while which, for some families, was a trailhead to Salem. But most everyone slipped out by Moorland or above Sands in the west. Soldiers made lists of everyone’s names, looking for Medicetti. That’s when people started changing their names, especially those whose families had already fled to Salem. Lopped off a few letters at the beginning or the end—”

“Wait, people changed their names?” Perrin asked, then nodded. “I know—read Chapter 9, summary and quiz to follow.”

“—quiz to follow, yes. Of course they did,” Kopersee said. “Many in the world have last names that are shorter than they originally were. And I doubt any of them know that. Querul took all of the family lines, you know, claiming to want to combine and distribute them, but he was really just trying to destroy their history. Then he could create his own. His-story, if you will. He who controls the world controls its perception of it.” He grinned. “That was my preface to the latest edition.” The grin faded. “A little trite, though, now that I hear it out loud. Mrs. Shin? Please help?”

“Will I be quizzed on all of this?” she tried not to smile.

“Of course not. I trust you completely.”

Perrin cleared his throat, offended, but bursting with a question. “But the letters in Mt. Deceit—they don’t add up to create ‘Medicetti.’ There’s an extra ‘i’.”

Kopersee regarded him with renewed interest. “So you’re more than just a blustering officer? You’ve got some brains, too, do you?”

Behind his father, Peto was covering his mouth in an attempt to muffle his laughter.

“You’re correct, sir,” Kopersee said. “Does that happen often for you? Pax added the extra ‘i’ just in case Querul figured out it was a code and tried to decipher it. Throw in extra letters for extra confusion.”

He turned to Mahrree. “Here’s my office number at the university,” he handed her a slip of paper, “and please let me know how I can help. We should begin planning your writing schedule, and—”

As much as Mahrree wanted to write the history, planning it on the first day in Salem was more than she was ready for.

She was thrilled to spy a teenage boy at the open door, knocking on the frame and saying, “Excuse me, but I’ve been sent to fetch the Shin and Briter families. My great-grandma Gleace is almost finished making dinner.”

Professor Kopersee enthusiastically shook all of their hands. “My cue to head home. Mrs. Shin, I’ll be in contact. Mr. Shin, Chapter 9,” he reminded Perrin.

“What about the rest of my family,” he said, only half in jest. “Don’t they get a homework assignment?”

The professor shrugged. “Sure, if they want it, but it’s you, sir, who most needs these chapters.”

Ignoring the chuckling of his family, Perrin asked, “Why me?”

“Because of who you are, sir!” Kopersee declared. He nodded a farewell to Mahrree, and as he headed out the door he called, “And welcome to Salem, where your safety is assured! With an extra ‘I’!”

“Well, how do you like that!” Perrin exclaimed as the man trotted to the road. “Because of who I am? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Gleace’s great-grandson said, “Did he assign you an essay?”

“No, but a summary and a quiz.”

“You got off pretty easy then, Mr. Shin. But I’ve heard from my aunt that his quizzes are tough, so take notes.”

Ignoring Perrin’s scoff, Mahrree turned to the Gleace’s great-grandson. “How should we dress for dinner?”

He frowned at the question as if it were the strangest thing he’d heard in years. “Probably in clothes?”

Mahrree chuckled. “Sorry, but in the world having dinner with someone important requires a change of clothing.”

The boy’s frown deepened. “Why?”

“Good question!” Peto said.

“Maybe we should change out of our breeches?” Jaytsy said.

“Do you have cow muck on you?” the boy wondered. “Granny Gleace doesn’t like people smelling like cow muck at the table.”

“Neither do I,” Jaytsy chuckled. “No muck, but I’ll feel better in a clean skirt.”

She and Mahrree headed upstairs, and Mahrree remembered The Dinner, and how none of her new plain clothing would have been worthy of even the stables—

That’s when she realized she hadn’t even noticed what their visitors wore that day, because she noticed the people, not their clothes.

As the Briters and Shins walked with the Gleace’s great-grandson to a property a mile and a half to the southwest, Mahrree surveyed the neighborhoods, expecting to come closer to an area of splendor, akin to the mansion district of Idumea. The Creator’s Guide surely would live in the grandest home, in keeping with his position: the Creator’s Chairman, so to speak, with his own set of twelve administrators, called Assistants.

After a mile she realized that every neighborhood was the same: large gardens with ample space around homes, all kept in good repair. No house was impoverished, or even a bit disheveled like their place in Edge. Perhaps those were in a different section of Salem—

Or perhaps, the thought struck her, they didn’t exist at all.

Mahrree didn’t have time to ponder that because their guide for the guide announced their arrival.

But . . . no. Surely, not that

Between two ranches with sprawling houses sat a tiny cottage.

The young man bid them farewell and headed to one of the houses, and the Shins and Briters hesitantly continued on to the tidy little house.

The plain door flew open, and warmth poured out.

“Welcome, welcome!” cried Mrs. Gleace. Her white hair was pulled into a loose bun and she wore a pale yellow dress, looking like sunshine personified. “You have no idea how long we’ve waited for you! I mean, not tonight of course, but for these past many years.” Her eyes were as kind as her husband’s, and she caught Mahrree in a hug. “I can’t believe I’m able to finally greet Mrs. Shin herself.”

“It’s Mahrree, please.”

Mrs. Gleace turned to Perrin with the playful expression of one who was going to get her way, even if she had to sweetly guilt someone into it. “I suspect you’re not one for being hugged by strangers, but may I anyway? I feel like you’re my long lost son.”

Perrin was too smart to say anything else but, “How can I possibly say no to that?”

She was hugging Peto, after Jaytsy and Deck, when Guide Gleace came to the door, wiping his hands on a cloth as if he had just changed and washed up. Considering his occupation, Mahrree was sure he’d been smelling like cow muck quite recently.

“Dearest, these poor people will starve before you finish telling them how happy you are they arrived.”

“No chance of that, sir,” Peto said, “this place has kept us well stocked.”

“True. One thing you won’t do in Salem is starve,” the guide smiled as he led them into the gathering room.

If it were big enough to be called a room. Mahrree was struck by how the cheery house was just the right size for two people.

Hycymum Peto would have had a difficult time living here, Mahrree thought with a brief and sad smile.

“I understand many houses in the world are far larger,” Mrs. Gleace explained as she saw Mahrree take in her surroundings: four rooms and little else. “But we don’t need things that just sit and do nothing. If we keep our home small, we keep our desires small as well. If I have a dozen people to dinner, I use my daughter’s eating room instead,” she gestured in the direction of one of the houses they passed. “It may take a little getting used to, our simpler way of life,” she continued. “But in time you’ll find it easier. I imagine this house seems quite dull compared to, well, you see, we’ve heard about the High General’s mansion—”

“Which I gladly turned down,” Perrin said to her. “No man should live like a king. And that’s what it was: a house for a king.”

Actually,” Peto began with a smirk, “it was originally a house for the king’s mistress—”

“Not now, Peto!” Mahrree cut him off.

Mrs. Gleace wasn’t as shocked as Mahrree feared she would be. “I know about that as well,” she nodded. “His mistress was a dreadful woman,” she said to Peto in a loud whisper. “One of our scouts worked in the stables before she left Oren. He said she was mean-spirited and looked something like this,” and Mrs. Gleace pulled a face that made Peto laugh.

Mahrree was impressed. Very few older women in the world would care about making a teenage boy feel comfortable.

“And Dormin agreed,” Mrs. Gleace said, her voice twinged with remorse. “He said his mother wasn’t the most pleasant creature. I’m sure he’s making peace with her now. I’m sure he’s doing all kinds of wonderful things in Paradise.”

“He is,” Guide Gleace said in the silence that followed, and it seemed to Mahrree that he knew that for a fact.

“We’ve had people in Idumea for a long time,” Guide Gleace explained, gently shifting the topic to lift the mood. “Working in the stables, in the kitchens, as servants, and midwives, and recorders—‘invisible’ people hear many things. A few had been in the mansion, before and after the king’s acquaintances.”

“Any that I might have met?” Perrin asked.

“Perhaps. We had two working at the mansion when your parents first moved in. But then the excitement shifted to the new Administrative Headquarters, and we pulled them out to work there instead.”

“Amazing,” Perrin whispered for maybe the fifty-seventh time that day.

“While the mansion was beautiful and grand, I don’t know that I ever would have been comfortable in it,” Mahrree said. “We were accustomed to our little house. We had the opportunity to buy something bigger, but it never felt right. Maybe because we always felt the need to rebel against whatever anyone told us we should do.”

Her husband winked at her in agreement.

“But Mrs. Gleace,” Mahrree said, “I must admit that two nights ago I shed a few tears about all that I was leaving behind. But now that it is behind, I’m already forgetting what I was sure I could never live without.”

“See?” the guide said, “You do belong here. Leaving behind the world was no sacrifice at all. You’ll wish you could have done it sooner. Now, speaking of doing things sooner, let’s eat. You may be filled, Mr. Peto, but I’ve been delivering calves since this morning, and calves don’t care what time a man gets hungry.”

“He’s just a regular man, isn’t he?” Jaytsy whispered to her mother as they followed them to their small eating room. “Hew Gleace? Except when I look in his eyes. There’s definitely something more going on in there.”

The guide gestured for them to take their seats, but he caught Peto by the shoulder. “I just want you to know, young Mr. Shin,” he said quietly, “that I’m ready for you.”

Startled, Peto said, “I’m sorry, what?”

“You have a lot of questions, and you’re the kind of person who wants to push something as far as he can. Well, I hereby give you permission to do so. Throw at me all you’ve got. I’m ready.” Gleace smiled and waggled his eyebrows.

Peto glanced worriedly at his parents, who were sitting down and wondering why he wasn’t. “Did Shem or Jothan warn you about me?” he whispered.

“I haven’t spoken to either of them since last night.”

“So . . . who—”

“I just know your type,” Gleace said, giving his arm a friendly squeeze before releasing him. “I’ve been doing this for many years.”

Peto chanced a smile.

“So don’t disappoint me, Peto.”

“Well, then, I won’t, sir!”

Gleace took his seat. “Because it was the Creator who warned me about you,” he said casually.

Peto nearly fell off his chair.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13—“Everything has been given to us freely.”

 

The only thing “fancy” in the Gleaces’ eating room was a massive painting of their family. Mahrree gasped when she noticed it, taking up nearly an entire wall.

“So we’re always eating with the family,” Mrs. Gleace explained as the Shins and Briters stared at the shockingly lifelike portrait.

“That was done by Raffie,” Guide Gleace told them. “I understand one from her portrait group was at your place today? Davinch?”

“Yes,” murmured Perrin, his eyes bouncing from one smiling face to another. “How many in your family?”

Guide Gleace looked at his wife, apologetically, for the number.

“Sixty-two total. But only fifty-four are there. That’s why we have additional portraits on the sides—the latest babies.”

“Amazing!”

Mahrree noticed Peto looking at the younger women in the painting. “She seems practical . . .” he whispered.

The dinner was simple—chicken, vegetables, and rolls—and most satisfying, just like everything else in Salem, Mahrree decided. But as they ate, Mahrree felt as if dozens of painted people behind her were watching.

While the Gleaces may have seemed to be ‘regular people,’ there was a gentle power that came from them which was anything but regular. Mahrree often felt as if she were looking into the eyes of the Creator Himself as the guide listened earnestly to Peto’s description of kickball, offered advice to Deck on selecting cattle to start his herd, chuckled at Jaytsy’s explanation of her mother’s first attempt to garden, and laughed at hearing how Perrin became a cat owner. He paid full attention to each of them, as if no one else existed, and what they had to say was the most important thing ever.

Mahrree knew there were some people who envisioned the Creator as a great and terrible Being, full of impatient vengeance for the fallibility of His creations.

But Mahrree had always pictured someone else: a perfect Father who wanted to make sure His children knew they were loved and cared about. Only a man close to the Creator could reflect the Creator’s love. Gleace was as near a perfect mirror as any mortal man could be.

And his wife, as she heaped upon them more food and more questions, was as perfect a match. The Shins asked them all kinds of questions about Salem, and the Gleaces were happy to explain.

“We feel badly you’ve had so little time to prepare for our way of life,” Guide Gleace said. “Usually we work with newcomers for several weeks first. That was to have been Shem’s duty, but he was shoveling stalls in Idumea instead. When I knew you were in danger, we had no other choice but to take you immediately.”

Gleace continued, “You see, our idea of why we’re here is different than the world’s. We take care of the necessities such as food, clothing, and housing with as little attention as necessary so that we can get on with the real purpose of life—learning, thinking, and developing our talents. We’re supposed to be enjoying this glorious sphere, not exploiting it. And we’re to prepare ourselves to return to the Creator.

“But in the world everyone is absorbed with the basics. They want more food, more clothing, more housing, and more things to fill their lives with nothing important. Rarely do they discover the real purpose of their lives.”

His dinner guests stared blankly at him.

Guide Gleace smiled in understanding. “Forgive me. I tend to dump too much hay on the calves. Let’s start with how everything began for us. You may not realize this, but the word Salem is what we call an acronym—”

“Oh, we just learned that,” Mahrree chuckled as Perrin’s ears turned red. “Professor Kopersee dropped by.”

“Already?” Gleace exclaimed. “I told him to give you at least a week! I’m sorry. As you likely could tell, he’s a very impatient person without a good sense of timing.”

“And he already gave Father a homework assignment,” Peto chuckled.

The Gleaces exchanged knowing looks.

“Again, my apologies,” Gleace said. “Well, so you know that part, but did he tell you about what happened when the first families came to Salem? Good. I get to tell you. As you know, Pax came to this valley first, with one of his assistants and a guard who used to work for Querul. Pax realized this valley would be perfect for a new home, and sent his guard back to get the word out about Salem.

“Within a week the first four families arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a couple days of food in their packs. One man had a hatchet, and one woman had a butcher knife. And that was all this group of now twenty-one had for survival. Fortunately, it was Planting Season, so the weather was moderate, but it was clear that food and shelter were the priorities. Using the one hatchet, the men took turns chopping down trees to make a covered shelter for everyone to share, and using the one knife, the women butchered pheasants and dug up roots for meals. Within the next few weeks, more and more refugees poured into the valley, some more prepared than others. Someone brought a shovel, another a pick axe, someone else a sewing kit, and so on. But since nearly everyone was literally running away, no one could take with them more than they could carry.

“By early Weeding Season, there were over two thousand refugees here, all needing shelter, food, and clothing. By sharing those few tools and implements, crude long houses were built with several families sharing sections of them, and every meal prepared was for the entire community to eat. Everyone contributed as they could.

“As the last of the refugees made their way to Salem, a few families with great forethought arrived, carrying bags of wheat, corn, and oats, and pockets full of seeds for vegetable gardens, cotton, and flax. They arrived just in time to plant it all, and the Creator was generous in holding back the first snows so that the crops could be gathered in before their first long Snowing Season together.”

“It hadn’t occurred to me before,” said Mahrree, “that they had to do everything from scratch.”

“Nor had it occurred to many of them, either,” Gleace agreed. “It was a struggle, those first few moons. But by the time Snowing Season came, there were nearly three thousand people here, and they had developed a system.

“This is the part of the story that tends to disappoint newcomers. They expect to hear about a terrible season, about raging snows and near-to-starving conditions, and grief and sorrow, but . . .” Gleace held up his hands. “They actually had a wonderful Snowing Season, I’m happy to report.

“You see, they discovered they had a marvelous diversity of talent, skill, labor, and creativity. There was no problem all of them together couldn’t solve. There was no need that went unfulfilled.

“For example, two men were trappers. They taught a dozen more how to set traps, and together they were able to collect enough animals for meat that season. There were a handful of refugees who knew how to turn pelts into coats. They taught a dozen others, and by mid-Snowing Season, everyone had enough furs to keep them warm.

“Every skill was shared freely, and everyone pitched in to save their friends and families from freezing and starving. There were even several musicians who fashioned simple instruments and put on shows for everyone each night before bed. When you read their journals, those early refugees write about the easiness of the days, the joys of working together, the entertainment of the evenings, and the satisfaction they felt with simple yet full lives.

“When Planting Season came around again, and it was time to start building individual houses and gardens, Pax made a recommendation that they would not resort to the ways of the world, each person or family struggling on their own. He asked them to remember how easy and delightful their lives had been by sharing in each other’s labors and burdens, and that they continue.

“Everyone agreed. Houses were built by large groups of highly organized laborers, and were completed often in just a week’s time. Orchards and fields of grain were planted, directed by experienced farmers sharing their talents with everyone else.

“Every last Salemite helped build the granary, the saw mills, and when it was time to establish the forge, everyone went into the mountains looking for sources of ore. They also found gold and silver, but they used those metals for only one purpose. A few refugees snuck back to the world and, under assumed names, they purchased sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, and a few horses. They brought them back to Salem where everyone shared in taking care of them.

“That’s the only way we use the gold and silver we find when we mine the ore: to purchase animals from the world. No, we don’t steal them like the Guarders used to, but we had to smuggle them into the forests like they did. And Perrin, I have to say we didn’t appreciate you building that cattle fence at the edge of the forest many years ago. Gave us as many problems as it did thieving Guarders.”

Everyone laughed as Perrin said, “I’m genuinely sorry about that. So you don’t use gold or silver here in Salem?”

“We have some, in an unlocked box in the scouts’ office, because occasionally they need it in the world, but here? No, we don’t buy or sell anything.”

“Nothing? At all?”

“Nothing,” Gleace grinned. “At all! You see, no one wanted to. Everyone could see, as clearly as Pax, that sharing was better. No one starved, no one was without shelter, and no one was without clothing. Everyone was taken care of. Everyone was also expected to work, according to their ability and health, and no one was considered better or worse than someone else. Everyone acted as a family, exactly the way the Creator had established for us at the very beginning.

“Naturally questions needed to be settled as to how much each family or person needed, and there was some discussion as to what was considered fair. Eventually they concluded that each person should have a week’s worth of clothing, every family should have a house big enough that no more than two children needed to share a bedroom, and everyone should try to produce extra of what they could: food, blankets, clothing, plows, hammers, whatever. And those items would then be placed in a large storehouse for whomever needed it. Rectors over each congregation would help decide amounts required in each family, according to the guidelines, and then whoever needed a new pair of trousers, or pillows, or a pot, could just go to the storehouse and take it.”

“Just take it?” Peto exclaimed. “Like, say I wanted a new pocketknife—”

“You have a new pocketknife,” Gleace said knowingly. “It’s part of your requisition order for new families, as a teenage boy.” He glanced over at Mahrree. “Sorry. Just easier that way, boys being boys. If he were female, he would have been given two hats. Or a knife. Girls like pocketknives, too—”

“But Guide,” Peto persisted, in a tone of friendly argument, “if I wanted a new knife—”

Gleace sat back with a smile on his face. “I told you earlier that I’m ready for you, so show me your damaged one first.”

“Let’s say that I lost it.”

“Can your parents verify that you lost it?”

“I don’t want them to know.”

“Honesty is of first and foremost importance in Salem, Peto. Be honest with others, and primarily with yourself. Where’s your knife?”

“So what you’re saying is,” Peto evaded his question, “I can’t just saunter in and take off the shelf whatever I want.”

“No, you can’t. If, however, you have a need—an honest need that your rector or parents can verify—then yes, you can go to one of the many storehouses in Salem, tell the attendant on duty, and they will help you acquire a new pocketknife.”

Peto tilted his head. “And it really works like that?”

“It really works like that. Just to make me happy, Peto, show me your new knife.”

Peto grinned and pulled it out.

“I want a knife,” Perrin murmured to Mahrree. “Where’d he find that?”

“In my drawer,” Peto said, sliding it back into his trousers’ pocket. “Did you check your drawers?”

Gleace chuckled. “Perrin, you have a knife. Not as impressive as the long knife you left in Edge, but serviceable.”

“Thank you. I’ll be sure to look when we get home. But I have to confess,” Perrin said, “all of this seems a bit too good to be true. Everyone agrees to this?”

“No,” Gleace said simply. “There’s a period of adjustment for those who join us. It takes tremendous faith in the Creator to believe you’ll be taken care of if you share all that you have. Our natural tendency is to jealousy and fear. There are some who leave us because they can’t overcome that fear by faith, or they can’t satiate their appetites to realize how much is enough. We have to educate our appetites. But this lifestyle isn’t forced; it’s by choice.”

“There are some born and raised in Salem who choose to leave,” his wife added.

Gleace nodded. “We have three smaller dissenter colonies of those who have left. Two are northeast and the other is northwest. There are great disparities in their communities because they’ve adopted the ways of the world, with a monetary system and the status that follows it. There’s quite a bit of fluctuation in their populations, and often the very poor among them come back to us. Then the wealthier find it difficult to succeed without their cheap labor, and come recruiting new members with the lure of riches which they, too, will likely never see. They’re in constant turmoil.”

“That must be difficult for their families, to see them leave,” Mahrree said.

“It’s not as if they are shunned,” Gleace assured her. “We trade with them, they come to visit their families, we visit them; we respect their wishes, so they respect our way of life. To be honest, Perrin and Mahrree, folks like you, with the worldly background and knowledge you have . . .” Gleace’s words slowed, as if he really didn’t want to utter them. “You’d do very well in the dissenter colonies. I have no doubt that by Weeding Season, you’d be the head of all of it.”

Mahrree smiled halfway. “Trying to kick us out of Salem already?”

“Absolutely not!” Gleace exclaimed. “I’d much rather have you here. Although with the Shins in charge of the colonies . . .” He bobbed his head thoughtfully. “They just might stabilize. For a time.”

But Perrin scowled. “Being in charge of unstable colonies? There’s nothing that sounds appealing about any of that.”

Gleace grinned. “Oh, good. I have to be forthcoming with all that we can offer, you see, so that you can make a choice as to where you really want to be. You could leave and move up there,” he added, his enthusiasm flagging. “Even visit for a time, just to see . . .?” His tone indicated that was the last thing he wanted to have happen.

Mahrree smiled at him reassuringly. “I can’t imagine anywhere better than here. We were hoping to leave the world, Guide. Not find it again in another form.”

Again Gleace grinned, as if a burden had just been lifted. “I was hoping you’d say that. You know, there are some in the colonies who refuse to even interact with us. They call us backward. Some even wish to return to the world. That’s the only thing I cannot allow,” he said gravely. “It’s too great a risk to our entire civilization if one of them returns. If they say the wrong things to the wrong people, that could be the end of us.”

“Has anyone tried to leave?” asked Perrin.

“Only occasionally. Almost always extended families convince them to remain. We’ve had only four people vanish over the past one hundred years. If they made it to the world, or perished along the way, I don’t know.”

Curious, Perrin asked, “When did the last person vanish?”

For the first time, Guide Gleace seemed hesitant to answer. “Four years ago, a man named Lickiah. Actually, Perrin, you knew him as Walickiah. A lieutenant?”

Perrin squinted as he ran the name over in his mind. “Walickiah . . . wait a minute. Yes! He came to the fort years ago, shortly after the first Guarder attack in Edge. He was there for the first Strongest Soldier race, then resigned abruptly. Wait another minute . . . why did he resign?”

Guide Gleace sighed. “He was persuaded by Corporal Zenos.”

“What? How?”

Now the guide looked a little embarrassed. “With the help of six of our men. Walickiah was one of them, Perrin. A true Guarder sent to spy on you. We had a lot of men in the trees at that time, and they picked up the message that someone new was coming to the fort to help the ‘Quiet Man.’”

Perrin nodded. “I heard all about the ‘Quiet Man.’”

Gleace noticed the looks of bemusement on the faces of the rest of Shins and Briters. “Shem was known as the ‘Quiet Man’ to the Guarders,” he explained. “When Shem first signed up with Perrin, he dropped a message in the trees for the Guarders telling them that he was keeping a close eye on Captain Shin, and that he wouldn’t communicate with them unless it was an emergency. Shem claimed he would be their insider. It was mostly true—he just wasn’t an insider for their side.

“Well, it seems someone in the Guarders must have thought Shem was too quiet. We could never find a way to let him communicate with the real Guarders without compromising him or Perrin. So our spies watched for clues that someone else was being sent to watch. Shem would bring that new spy out to the forest, and then we took them.”

“I had a few recruits over the years suddenly vanish,” Perrin reminded his family.

“Only one agreed to come to Salem,” Gleace said. “Walickiah. The others took their oaths very seriously and preferred to take their own lives over abandoning their duty,” he told them. “I’m sorry,” he added when he noticed Perrin flinch.

“Shem didn’t tell me that. What happened with Walickiah?”

Gleace shrugged. “I’m really not sure. Everything was fine for over ten years. Shem visited him frequently, and they laughed over Shem’s abduction of him. He was doing well, moved up to the north, and was enjoying himself as far as we could tell. His rector said he was interested in a young woman there, but nothing came of it. Then about five years ago in 333 he became agitated and wanted to return to the world. His rector and one of my assistants over that area couldn’t help him see reason. I went a few times to speak with him, but he refused to see me. Eventually one of his neighbors noticed he was gone. No sign, not trace—nothing. We searched for him for weeks, but . . .” Gleace shrugged again.

“I can’t think of anything that has changed in the world or may have been compromised in that time,” Perrin said.

Gleace nodded. “Shem has a way of hearing just about everything. He searched all over for Lickiah and notified the other scouts to watch for him returning to the world. No one saw or heard from him in the past four years. We assume he died somewhere. Probably for the best,” he acknowledged reluctantly. “He was the first murderer we ever tried to integrate into Salem.”

Mahrree was as astonished as Perrin, who exclaimed, “He was a what?”

Gleace sighed sadly. “You probably even know what he did. His first ‘success’ was around the time you arrived in Edge. He was part of that first group of Guarders attacking Grasses—”

“The captain’s parents!” Perrin cried out. “And his sister! He killed them?”

“Yes,” Gleace said heavily. “He bludgeoned the young woman only nearly to death so that her dying would be prolonged and agonizing to all around her. Those were his orders.”

Mahrree nearly choked on her shock. “She was supposed to marry the lieutenant, but they had her burial the same day Perrin and I married.”

“I remember,” said Perrin, his tone thick with anger. “You let that . . . that monster live in Salem?!”

At any other moment she would have kicked her husband under the table for shouting at the Creator’s Guide, but she was just as livid as he was.

“Not the first time I’ve been yelled at about him,” said Gleace wretchedly.

“He should have been incarcerated,” Perrin declared, “at the very least!”

“But we don’t have incarceration in Salem,” said Gleace. “I wasn’t about to start just for him. Salem is a place of second chances. Always has been.”

Mahrree blinked. “No incarceration?”

“Never been needed. Our people enforce our laws themselves. But if you want to see prisons, they’ve got some elaborate ones in the dissenter colonies.” Gleace tried to smile, but gave up.

Perrin was fuming. “Walickiah should have been executed for those three deaths!”

“Closer to a dozen,” said Gleace quietly. “That’s what he confessed to me.”

“A dozen!”

That’s when Gleace’s gaze shifted abruptly, from contrite to sharp. “We’ve allowed men into Salem who have killed even more than that, Perrin. Most of them were just following orders. And all of them believed they were doing the right thing at the time. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Mahrree cringed in dread for her husband, who sat back as if he’d been slapped. He could do nothing but swallow guiltily and stare at his plate.

His tally was much higher than a dozen.

With unexpected warmth, Gleace leaned toward Perrin. “Walickiah thought he was doing the right things for the world. He’d been deceived by the Guarders who had conditioned him for over a year. I’d never met a man whose thinking had been so warped. But we were straightening it out. I never believed that locking away a criminal was the way to help him. Maybe that makes the community feel safer, but it does nothing for the offender. But reclaiming his mind and mending his heart? Not only does that change his life, it makes the entire community stronger. Walickiah was changing, Perrin. My best men and women worked with him every week. Until one day . . . well, none of us know what happened. Likely never will.”

Perrin continued to stare at the table. “I made that same argument about Qualipoe Hili. He made much more progress with Shem rebuilding our bedroom in a few days than he ever did during the many moons he spent locked up.”

Gleace nodded once. “So you understand. Already your thinking is improving. You won’t find living in Salem difficult, Perrin Shin. As long as you think before reacting.”

Perrin cracked a smile and dared to look up at the guide. “And here I thought you knew a lot about soldiers.”

Gleace grinned at him.

“People struggle with this kind of life?” Deck spoke up. “Why is it so hard to accept? It’s wonderful!”

“Of course it looks wonderful to you now, Deckett,” Gleace said. “Today you just learned that you’ll visit twenty ranches and choose five cattle from each for your new herd. But when the word reaches you next year that a newlywed young man will be visiting your ranch to select his five head from you, will you still feel this is a wonderful way of life?”

Deckett thought about that. “I hope so. I hope I never forget how I felt today when I heard the news. I wondered how I could ever repay that generosity.”

“You’ll repay it by helping the next one in line. You may repay it many times over in your life. When you reach my age you may realize you’ve given away five hundred cattle. The test is, will you still see that as wonderful?”

Deckett thought again. “Who gave us the cattle in the first place?”

The guide sat back in his chair. “The Creator.”

“So they’re not really mine, or yours, or anyone’s, right? They multiply according to His will, not mine. So how can I be bitter about sharing what never was mine to begin with?”

The Guide grinned. “You married an excellent young man, Jaytsy Briter. Well said, Deckett!”

“All shared for free,” Peto mumbled. “Unbelievable.”

Gleace turned to study him.

Mahrree cleared her throat. “Guide? Peto’s had a difficult few days, accepting all of this. A bit cynical, perhaps . . .”

But the guide nodded once to Peto. “I see him as . . . a hopeful duck.”

“A what?” Peto said, the corners of his mouth tugging.

“Yes, a hopeful duck, who’s been bobbing up and down in a sea of cynicism.”

Jaytsy giggled. “A sea of cynicism—yes, that’s Peto!”

“No,” Gleace said slowly, his gaze still intently on Peto, who was beginning to squirm. “He’s the duck. He’s been in that cynical sea for a long time, and even though it’s splashed him quite a bit, he’s a duck. The water’s not part of him, and deep down he’s still warm and dry.”

Mrs. Gleace, noticing her guests’ mouths wriggling in amusement, said, “My husband’s strength is in animals, not metaphors.”

But her husband smiled. “Not my metaphor, but Tuma’s,” he said to his wife.

“Ah,” and she smiled.

“Tuma?” Mahrree asked.

“I’ll explain who he was later. Tuma was a dear friend and an insightful man. And this young man Peto here—Tuma would have appreciated him. He would have seen his optimism, hidden like his down feathers. He would have noticed his hope, slicking every feather and keeping off the cynical waters that tried to drown him. He may look wet, but he’s anything but. All Peto needs is some time to dry off, so to speak. So, my Hopeful Duck—I can tell you have questions. Ask them.”

“Anything?” Peto asked.

“Anything.”

“All right . . . how many more times are you going to call me a Hopeful Duck?”

Gleace grinned. “About three more, but I’ll try to pace myself.”

Peto smiled at that, but then concern came over him. “If everything’s shared, then . . .”

Gleace noticed that Peto was fingering his new knife in his pocket. “You’re worried that maybe someone will walk into your house, take your new knife, and decide it’s his? That won’t happen. The cattle given to your brother-in-law will be his. His stewardship, his responsibility. In that way, he ‘owns’ them. But if his herd grows to two hundred next year, he simply doesn’t have enough grazing land. He’ll give many away. Maybe another rancher lost several calves to wolves. Maybe another family has growing teenage boys and will need an extra side of beef this season. Deckett then transfers his stewardship to those with the greater need.”

Peto still had worry etched all over his face.

“Go ahead, son,” Gleace encouraged.

“Just seems lopsided,” he confessed. “Just give that family another side of beef?”

“Yes. And you know what? That family just may be cobblers. And a few weeks later, the wife will be by to fit you for new boots. And you’ll be walking around in the finest leather and you won’t have given up any slips of silver either. Everything balances, Peto. Everything balances, when you want to make sure your neighbor is taken care of. That’s the Creator’s way.”

Peto slowly nodded. “It just seems too good to be true. I’m waiting to hear the other side. I’m sorry, but—”

“Here’s one of those other sides,” Mrs. Gleace said. Her openness was so easy that Mahrree was dumbfounded. “Peto, you told my husband all about kickball. It may surprise you to know that here in Salem, we have no competition.”

Peto squinted. “So . . . no kickball?”

“Not in the way you played it, Peto,” the guide said. “We play, laugh, and enjoy each other, but we don’t taunt or degrade anyone.”

“So,” Peto leaned forward on the table, “do you keep score?”

“Very sloppily.”

Peto was appalled.

“It’s true. A score may be kept for a time, until one team reaches a set point, then the score is forgotten and the play continues until the sun goes down or someone is injured.”

“We understand,” said Mrs. Gleace, “that in the world some men devote so much of their lives to kickball that after five years their bodies are nearly worn out.”

Peto looked down at the table.

“Seems shortsighted,” said the guide, “crippling your body before you’re even middle aged, just for a game? I can’t imagine what kind of condition those poor men may be in when they’re my age. I can still climb a mountain. They might not even be able to climb the stairs. All for a game that will be forgotten when the next champion is named? And Shem told us the fans even erupt into violence when their teams don’t win, as if they actually own the teams. And then it’s starts all over the next year? It’s just so strange.”

Peto smiled dismally. “Guide Gleace, you have a way of describing things that makes them seem positively . . . stupid.”

“Please understand, I’m not disparaging games,” Gleace explained. “We play all kinds of games, often and loudly! But our community can’t function if there’s resentment of any kind. So, Perrin,” the guide shifted his focus to him, “I’m afraid we won’t be having any Strongest Soldier races. Especially after I saw Shem’s struggle each year when he lost. I thought about pulling him home for a season in some years, just to work it out of him.”

Perrin fussed with a biscuit. “It did get a little ugly at times.”

“Ha!” Peto barked at that understatement. “The first time Shem beat Father, he didn’t talk to Shem for a week!”

“But the races were a great motivational tool,” Perrin defended, and already Mahrree could hear the defeat in his tone. “It gave the men something to look forward to, the entire village of Edge got involved—it became an event no one wanted to miss.”

The guide nodded slowly. “I’m sure there were many good things attributed to it. Even if illegal gambling at the fort cost several soldiers enormous amounts of pay—”

Perrin’s eye grew big at the guide’s knowledge.

“—and even if you lost the companionship of your closest friend for a time each year.”

Perrin pursed his lips at that.

Mahrree patted his leg under the table.

But Peto laughed. “And the day after the first time Shem beat him, he came to the house and Father wouldn’t even let him in.”

Jaytsy sniggered into her napkin.

“Peto—” Perrin tried to stop him.

“And it was raining outside. Pouring!”

“Peto!”

“Then it turned to hail!” Peto was foolishly unstoppable when there was a great story to tell. “Shem had to walk all the way back to the fort! He couldn’t run because he was so sore—”

“PETO!”

The only sound in the room after Perrin’s bellow was the guide politely coughing.

Perrin was already red with embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have raised my voice—”

“You left your best friend, confidante, and brother out in the hail?” the guide asked.

Perrin’s shoulder twitched. “You didn’t see the dance he did in front of everyone after he won the race.”

“He sang a little song, too,” Jaytsy mumbled.

Who’s the strongest soldier now?” Peto whispered the melody. “I’m the strongest soldier now!”

Perrin began to puff until he realized that Gleace was intently studying him.

Still you feel it, don’t you Perrin?”

He fidgeted. “Yes. Point well made.”

“In times of crisis and emergencies we can easily put aside our differences and come together to help,” Gleace said, with too much generosity. “But those things happen only a few times in each person’s life. It’s the everyday relationships that need to be protected. It’s when everything’s going easy that we become annoyed by the little irritations. And then we start to think, ‘I’m better than him, he’s worse than me, she doesn’t deserve this, I deserve more. I’m better than everyone else, and I must prove it.’ But that’s just being human. However, that’s what we need to fight every day. Battling that competitive nature is the war of our lives.”

“True,” Mahrree said. “At least women aren’t like that.”

Everyone stared at her.

Peto turned to his sister. “Did she really just say that?”

Jaytsy guffawed behind her hand.

Insulted, Mahrree said, “What?” The steady gaze of the guide caught her. More submissively she said again, “What?”

With great warmth, but a distinct glint in his eye, Guide Gleace hit her with, “Comparison is a form of competition. What you said suggested that women are better than men, didn’t it?”

Now Mahrree practiced her lip pursing.

Guide Gleace smiled in understanding. “The force behind all competition and comparison is pride. Pointing out faults, failing to be compassionate, defending our mistakes instead of trying to fix them. Pride causes it all. And that’s the great enemy that we’re trying to conquer in Salem. But in the world, pride’s the heart and soul. It defines, controls, and motivates everyone and everything.

“As large as Salem is, we have no room for it. Pride is also a form of fear. Not trusting in the Creator to care for us in this Test, but trusting ourselves instead. That always leads to failure.”

Mahrree sighed. “Salem’s going to take a bit of getting used to, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and you get to spend the rest of your life doing so. It’s a delicate balance we try to maintain. We debate, but we don’t argue. We tease, but we don’t harm. We laugh, but not at someone else’s pain. We judge, but assume the best about a situation, not the worst. We strive for excellence, but for everyone, not for individual glory. We don’t always succeed, but we never give up trying to. We only fail when we quit trying. So I’m sure none of you will fail living a Salem-like life.”

“Your confidence is overwhelming, Guide Gleace,” Mahrree said with a sad chuckle. “You obviously don’t know much about our family.”

“You agreed to come to Salem,” the guide reminded her. “That’s all I need to know. There’s something else you may struggle with, especially Perrin.”

Perrin sighed. “You best let me have it.”

“Humbly said. Excellent beginning. We have no rankings in Salem. For a man whose life was defined by status, this may take some getting used to. You’ll have no one following your orders and no one saluting you.”

Perrin shrugged. “I haven’t had that in Edge for the past few weeks. I don’t see why I should have it here. I don’t even have a purpose here.”

“You do. You’ll learn of it, very soon. What I’m trying to explain is that everyone in Salem is treated equally. I may be the guide over all of Salem, but I’m also accountable to my local rector. If I need something, I request it of him, and twice a year, he evaluates our needs with us. Not even I can saunter into the storehouses and take whatever I want,” he said to Peto.

“You passed our governing house,” Gleace continued. “I doubt it’s anything as large or elaborate as the Administrators’ Headquarters. But we have need of nothing larger. My twelve assistants and I meet twice a week to discuss the community’s needs. We rarely have any legal issues to resolve. The first line for dealing with conflicts are the rectors. They almost always can fix the problems. If they can’t, the issue is brought to our council. Those who can’t accept our decisions are those who leave for the dissenter communities. Usually they’ve been struggling with our way of life for some time already. They’re looking for a reason—maybe they think someone’s offended them, or they realize that no one here is perfect yet, so they use that to justify leaving us.

“But none of us in Salem is perfect. We’re just people, trying our best, making mistakes, and trying to fix those. That’s the very essence of the Creator’s Test. Try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed. The Creator has ways of making up for where we fall short, ways that we don’t fully understand yet, but we must always try.

“What He’s testing is the nature and progress of our hearts,” Gleace continued. “The world has different measures. It’s all about getting more, building higher, and looking better. The world believes ‘enough’ is defined by what they have, plus a little more. So they’re never satisfied. Their hearts are small and weak.”

Gleace sat back and looked at his guests sadly. “And that’s why the world is dying.”

Perrin sighed. “I once told Shem I thought the most dangerous sentences began with the words, ‘I deserve . . .’”

“Precisely right. The world will always believe it deserves more. Here’s a question for you: How many hours a day do people in the world work?”

Mahrree shrugged. “All depends. Up to fourteen hours a day, but at least nine to ten.”

“Not here. Most people get all of their necessary labors finished by midday meal.”

“What, everything?” Deck said, duly amazed.

“Yes. Everything.”

“Ask yourself this,” Mrs. Gleace said. “What do the people in the world work for? A larger house? Then to fill those larger houses with trinkets and furniture that need to be changed again after a few seasons because some trend says so? They work for new clothing in the latest styles. Better saddles for better horses and better carriages to look better. They’re working for more, and more is never enough. But we labor enough to provide for everyone’s needs. That takes only a few hours each day.”

“After our ancestors’ first year here, they established some rules,” Gleace explained. “The first was, no person is to be idle here, unless they are ill, crippled, or recovering from birthing a baby. Most of those who left the world had suffered from working for the wealthy. They spent hours each day milling, weaving, building, and digging for just one slip of silver a year, when their overseer received fifty for idly watching them. One of my ancestors wrote in his journal about digging in dark holes for golden nuggets near Trades, then handing everything he found to a man who did nothing all day but sit on a horse, shouting. It was his gold mine, only because he happened to find it first.”

Gleace shook his head in genuine disbelief. “I still don’t get it. But that’s the state of mind in the world. ‘I found this first, I created this first, I combined this first.’ As if they did it all on their own, as if the Creator didn’t inspire them, or give them the talents to do what they did. People really think they’re that brilliant, all on their own? You know, that’s what led to the Great War. Laborers were upset with being treated so unfairly. The wealthy were capitalizing upon the poor. So much anger churns and boils and eventually spills over. So when Pax and the others came here, everyone readily agreed that the first rule of Salem would be, ‘No idlers will eat the bread nor wear the clothing of the laborers. All must labor for their own.’”

“But even then,” Mrs. Gleace smiled, “or probably because of that, everyone still finishes their work by midday meal.”

“Remarkable!” Mahrree breathed. “But don’t you ever need a supervisor over larger projects?”

“Of course,” Guide Gleace said. “But the supervisors don’t sit around shouting. They’re working right alongside everyone else, and just as hard. No one here has servants. No one here is considered higher or better because they did something first, or have more of something than everyone else. You know what completely baffles me?”

Mahrree shook her head along with everyone else. She was too baffled herself—pleasantly—to have the slightest idea what could confuse the guide.

“The concept you have in the world of earning enough slips to allow for a life of ease and luxury.” Gleace sat back and gestured helplessly. “How could that be fulfilling, sitting around and doing . . . what? A few times I’ve been too ill to work and had to lie around the house. Oh, I couldn’t wait to get back to being useful again!”

“And I couldn’t wait for him to get out of the house again, either!” Mrs. Gleace winked lovingly at her husband.

“How can one enjoy sitting around doing nothing?” Guide Gleace asked earnestly. “After half an hour, I’m ready to accomplish something. Anything!

Perrin chuckled. “You know, Guide Gleace, with your attitude you would inadvertently find yourself one of the wealthiest men in the world, because you’d always be doing something.”

“But you said you have a great deal of free time,” Mahrree said. “So, what do you do with all of it?”

“Everything!” Guide Gleace smiled broadly. “Anything! We don’t sit around picking at our nails, if that’s what you’re wondering. What have you always wanted to do or learn, Mahrree?”

Mahrree didn’t need any time to think about that. “Ruins! I’d love to learn about the ruins.”

“And so you will,” the guide said. “We have ruins all around us. Many people have studied, written, and hypothesized about them, and explored them. You can join them. Tell me, how long do you think it will take you to become an expert in the ruins?”

Mahrree was nearly bursting with the potential. “Years?”

“Then you may take as many years as you wish. And when you’re ready for a new challenge, what do you want to learn next?”

“I have no idea. I never thought that far.”

“Well,” Mrs. Gleace smiled, “you have years to do so. That’s how we measure progress in Salem,” she explained. “Not by possessions, but by learning, exploring, and understanding. And what one person discovers, everyone discovers. A talent that one person develops, everyone benefits from.”

“The world, however,” Guide Gleace said with great disappointment, “is dull by comparison. Oh, they think they’ve got excitement and progress, but really it’s all the same old entertainments, the same old chase for nothing more invigorating than fleeting stature. How utterly tedious. It’s rare that anyone there comes up with new ideas, or pokes at old notions to discover if what everyone believes is actually true.

“But you,” he smiled slyly at the Perrin and Mahrree, “you poked all the time. And that’s how you got here. And that’s why you’ll love Salem.”

“Our poking caused trouble,” Mahrree pointed out.

“Ah, but the very best kind!” Gleace declared. “The kind that makes people question everything they know. People need to be poked every now and then, Mahrree.”

Hesitantly, she smiled, sincerely hoping that was true.

But Peto’s expression was thoughtful. “So, you mentioned the same old entertainments. What do you have that’s different?”

“Oh, where to start?” Mrs. Gleace said. “I think you’ll just have to experience what we have to offer, and you’ll begin to see what we’re talking about. For example, we have a granddaughter who plays the cello. That’s an instrument you don’t have in the world, because they don’t take the time to create them. The Creator gave her a great talent, and she spends several hours every day practicing. But she also has three little children, so each afternoon they enjoy time at their grandmothers’ houses, or here with me, so that their mother can develop her talent.

“Now, I know what you may be thinking,” she eyed Peto, the duck who was growing cynically wet again, “that’s unfair, forcing someone else to watch her children. But caring for my great-grandchildren is a blessing, not a burden. Through their eyes I see the world anew again, and what greater thing could I be doing than caring for the youngest of the Creator’s family?

“Every Holy Day afternoon we go to our granddaughter’s house and she performs her latest works for us. I could never play like her, but I get to appreciate her talent because she shares it freely. Every season she gives a performance at the arena, along with many other musicians. People from the world tell me the music is more intricate and moving than anything they’ve heard before. Now, tell me, how much does it cost to attend concerts in the world?”

Perrin tipped his head. “Depending on the performer, up to a weeks’ worth of pay.”

“Let me guess,” Peto said, “no one here pays for a concert.”

“That’s right,” Mrs. Gleace said. “Anything you want to attend, you just attend. Sometimes people have to be turned away because too many come. In that case, another concert is scheduled so no one is disappointed.”

Peto scratched his head. “I understand that your granddaughter lets her baby tenders in for free, but everyone else too?”

Guide Gleace leaned over to him. “Peto, who gave our granddaughter her talent?”

Peto shrugged. “I suppose she works really hard—”

Guide Gleace’s head shaking stopped him. “She does work very hard, but the raw talent was nothing she created herself. It was a gift from the Creator. Tell me, in kickball were there ever any boys who tried and tried but were just never good enough for the teams?”

“Oh yeah!” Peto snorted. “There was one boy who tried out every year. No matter how long he practiced, every ball he kicked curved to the left.”

“And you could kick straight?”

“Perfectly!”

“Why?”

“Because I practiced!”

Gleace held up a finger. “Are you sure? Or did the Creator give you a gift, one that He chose not to give the other boy? When you practiced, you improved because of that gift, not because of any special ability you made for yourself.”

Peto hesitated. “I never considered that before.”

“The Creator’s gifts are varied and myriad,” Gleace told them. “Some think of the obvious gifts, like music or art. But there are others, such as leadership, organizing homes, communities, orchards. Patience with children, animals, plants,” he nodded to the Briters. “Inquisitiveness is a gift. How fast is sound? Light? Thinking about difficult things is a gift. What’s under a mountain, and how can I find out?”

“Another gift is being able to tolerate being married to a person who sits around thinking about such things!” Mrs. Gleace said to Peto, who grinned.

Her husband chuckled. “Some have the gift of making people feel comfortable,” he gestured to his wife. “Some the gift of teaching,” he nodded to Mahrree. “Others, the gift of defending,” he said to Perrin. “And I’m sure Peto has more gifts than just kicking straight. There are hundreds of gifts, given to us by the Creator so we can improve everyone’s lives.”

Gleace sat back, his face nearly radiating.

“Here in Salem we get to learn and grow and help each other, with no pressure of status, or gold, or worry about what others think of us. Here, you will find true freedom.

“So Mahrree—don’t mourn the books you left behind. You’ll find books in our libraries about things you never imagined. You can spend the rest of your life reading and learning and never get to the end of what we have to offer.

“Peto, you think you’re done with schooling? I’m happy to tell you that the schools in the world know only about one-tenth of what we do. You have plenty more to learn, and I’m sure you’ll be fascinated by it all, so don’t roll your eyes at me.

“Perrin, I’ve heard you wondered about zebras. I can introduce you to the men who tried to ride them.

“Jaytsy, we’ve developed methods for improving garden yields that will excite you, especially if you love green beans.

“And Deckett, wait till you see the cows we purchased in Sands and brought over last Harvest. Such beautiful animals!”

Guide Gleace leaned back in his chair. “Oh, Shin and Briter families, you have no idea what great things await you! Sometimes I envy those who come here. I’d love to experience the awestruck surprise I see on your faces right now. This massive sphere was given to us to explore and learn about, not to take from and hoard. What a tragic existence you’ve been forced to endure all these years, but the Creator will make it up to you, I promise. Soon you’ll discover what life was meant to be. It’s a gift—all of it, from fantastically generous Parents who sent us here for an incredible learning experience. Everything has been given to us freely. That’s the Creator’s way!”

But then Gleace’s countenance clouded. “Ah, but the Refuser has other plans. He’s far too clever.”

“How so?” Peto asked.

“The world’s forgotten him, my Hopeful Duck. Yes, only two more. No one there speaks much of him, and that’s the way he wants it. If they forget he exists, his hold on them is secure. He’s the one who told the Creator he didn’t believe this test was fair. He refused the gifts and the test. And now he’s angry about what he denied himself, because he sees that it actually was a great idea, so he’s using the world and everyone in it for his own revenge. He and his followers are trying to get everyone else to refuse the greatness of the Creator’s Plan. Oh, and he hates Salem, because our people’s hearts are so pure he can never get a firm hold here, but still he tries. We have to always be watchful, because he always tries.”

Deck asked, “But what could he do in Salem?”

“Make us forget,” Gleace said, “all that we’ve learned and felt here. Remembering is the key, my dear Deckett. Remembering how the Creator wants us to live. You see, while the Creator gave us everything freely, the Refuser has stolen it all. The land, the animals, the seeds, the metals, the richness of this sphere—everything. And now he demands payment for all he holds hostage. He wants us to exploit each other the way he exploits us. Riches for goods. In the world they refer to it benignly as ‘good business’.”

Perrin let out a low whistle. “Guide Gleace, if were you to say something like that in the world, the Administrators would instantly label you as a traitor.”

Guide Gleace smile sadly. “I certainly hope so. A traitor to the Refuser is a defender of the Creator. The Administrators are the Refuser’s most gullible players. He’s using them masterfully like pieces in a big game, one he intends to win at all costs. The Administrators believe that they act according to their own ingenuity, but none of them is capable of original thought. Perhaps none of us are. We’re either inspired by the Creator or the Refuser, as if they give us the raw materials of an idea, then let us develop them into something wonderful or something terrible. All that the Administrators come up with is first devised by the Refuser. He will cheat and lie and manipulate in any way he can to win this game and destroy our existence. He cares nothing for any of us, and he disposes of his players as indifferently as we burn a filthy cloth. And he’s doing an excellent job. No one in the world realizes just how tightly his chains are around them.

“But here you’ll find no chains,” Guide Gleace looked at each one of them, his gaze resting the longest on Perrin. “Another refugee once told me that the world believes the greatest freedom is gold in the cellar, but I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t you then always be obsessed with what’s happening in the cellar? How can you then spend any time enjoying the world above it?”

Perrin smiled wanly. “That’s where our savings were, in the cellar. Probably all been looted by now.”

Mahrree hadn’t thought of their old home all day, and now she felt a pang of sorrow for it, being ravaged by strangers.

Gleace must have seen that on her face, because he said, “Everything you need, plus more, is here. Home, security, professions—as many as you wish to sample—”

“Wait a minute,” Peto said. “Sample? How? Don’t you train for a profession, then . . . that’s it?”

“Peto, why be limited to one thing?” Gleace asked him. “Here in Salem we allow everyone to try something new, just to learn about it. One year our neighbor who was a professor of geography—that means ‘terrain’—became fascinated by the metals he found in the mountains. So he quit teaching and became a blacksmith.”

“He what?” Peto scoffed. “But professors earn much more than blacksmiths—”

Gleace’s head shaking stopped him again. “Not here. Work is work, and all is necessary. No one’s work is valued above someone else’s. One day the most important person to you may be a doctor who can set your broken leg. The next day the most important person may the carpenter who fashions you a set of crutches. The next day it’ll be the neighbors who come over to take care of your chores. Everyone works, and everyone is valued equally.

“Back to our neighbor: after a year of blacksmithing he decided to do something more intricate. He became an artist for a time, creating elaborate designs with thin bits of metal.”

Perrin frowned good-naturedly. “From professor to blacksmith to artist?”

“That’s not all,” Gleace smiled. “After that he became curious with the geometric designs he made with the metals, and began to wonder about the mathematical properties. So he went back to the university and took courses in advanced calculations.”

“So what is he doing now?” Peto asked, mystified that a grown man would want to go back to school again.

“Now he’s back at the university teaching again, this time mathematics. But last season I heard he was thinking about studying the stars. His goal is to figure out exactly how far away it is to the nearest one. He’s making a sculpture of the universe in metal to help him think about distances.”

Peto rolled his eyes. “How can he ever figure the distance to a star?”

Guide Gleace shrugged. “I don’t know, but when he figures it out, he’ll let us all know.”

“No one in the world could jump from career to career like that!” Mahrree exclaimed, “People would think he’s unstable.”

“And not just curious about life and its possibilities? Doesn’t that sound tragic?” Gleace nodded to his wife. “Tell them about Broony.”

“My friend’s mother was named Broony,” Mrs. Gleace said, “and when she was a girl she loved to weave cloth. After she married she wanted to weave new colors, so she spent the entire Weeding Season gathering all kinds of leaves, berries, barks, and roots. Then she boiled them down to discover new dyes, and as she did so she found herself wondering if they might taste beautiful as well.”

Jaytsy cringed and laughed. “Oh no! Did she drink any?”

Mrs. Gleace grinned. “She did. And you know what she discovered? Birch root juice tasted pretty good, mixed with enough sugar. That started her thinking. She wondered if any of the objects she had gathered might not have other properties as well. At that time she had a little girl, my friend’s oldest sister, who suffered from frequent colds. So, her mother purposely got herself ill as well.”

“She what?” Peto exclaimed. “Why?”

“To find a remedy. She would purposely get another cold, then sample leaves and herbs and bark and wait to see if any of them made her feel better.”

“That’s crazy,” Peto decided.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Gleace chuckled. “She was very methodical. Her husband helped her keep track of what she ingested, how much, and how she reacted to it. There were a few times she considered trying some substance, but felt strongly that she shouldn’t, so she disposed of those items without another thought. A few of them we now know were poisonous. But after three years of experimenting, Broony found a remedy. Now everyone in Salem, when they get a cold, knows exactly which leaves and bark to combine, and for how long to boil them. Within a day and night, all their symptoms are gone.”

Mahrree’s eyebrows shot up. “She discovered a remedy for the cold?

“Along with many other remedies. And it all started because she loved to weave cloth.”

“That’s incredible!” Deck said. “I’m always getting colds. Now I can hardly wait to get another one.”

“And would you like to guess how much her remedy costs people?” Guide Gleace asked Peto.

“Nothing, right?”

“That’s right.”

Peto sighed. “But she spent so much time at it. She got herself sick on purpose! She should be . . . I don’t know, rewarded for that somehow.”

“She was,” said Mrs. Gleace. “She was rewarded with the knowledge that thousands of people each year felt better because of her efforts. Oh, I can tell you think that’s trite, but it’s the truth. Her oldest daughter’s health improved dramatically, and for over sixty years we’ve all benefitted from her sacrifice and work. She realized that the Creator provides solutions to every problem He sends us. But it’s up to us to think, experiment, and work until we discover the solution. Broony inspired many other doctors, so we continue to find new solutions to old problems. What could be more rewarding than that? She never felt she needed anything more.

“You see, my mother helped take care of her when she was ill. As bright and inquisitive as Broony was, there were some things she couldn’t do. Keeping yeast alive was one of them. The woman loved sweet rolls, but she always killed the yeast and made sweet rocks instead. My mother baked for her while Broony ‘cooked’ up everything else. To Broony, my mother was a worker of miracles because she knew how to make bread. My mother thought the same thing about her. It all worked out. In Salem, everything balances.”

“Wait a minute,” Peto said. “So Broony was . . . a doctor?

Mrs. Gleace blinked as if that was obvious. “Yes, why? Oh, I keep forgetting. The world thinks only men can do some jobs, and only women can do others.”

“That’s not the way it is here?”

“People work in what interests them. We have women doctors, professors—”

“Ranchers,” Guide Gleace interjected.

Mrs. Gleace nodded at him. “Shepherds, wood workers—anything and everything.”

Deck leaned closer. “What about the men?”

“They can do whatever they want to as well,” Mrs. Gleace said.

“Sew clothing? Blankets?” Peto asked, scowling.

“Of course. The strongest weaves are made by the strongest arms.”

“Cook?” Deck asked.

“Naturally. Men can create fantastic dishes.”

“Tend children?” Peto said, and before Mrs. Gleace could answer, his face paled as he said, “Help deliver babies?”

Guide Gleace leaned over to him. “Yes. You met Jothan, right? But usually we just call them ‘fathers’.”

They all laughed at Peto’s horrified expression.

“Men don’t ‘tend children,’ Peto,” Mrs. Gleace explained. “They ‘father’ them. But we do have a few trained male midwives, as knowledgeable and compassionate as the women. In fact all of our doctors—male and female—are trained extensively by midwives in case a midwife can’t be located quickly enough. And fathers are always right by their wives’ sides.”

Peto nearly choked. “I . . . am . . . never . . . getting . . . married . . . here.”

Everyone at the table burst into laughter, except for Peto, who looked positively wretched.

Eventually the laughter died down.

“What is it, Peto?” the guide asked kindly. “Don’t worry—you can call for as many midwives as you want when your wife is ready to birth. They can hold you up, even.”

Peto waved that off. “That’s not it,” he said miserably. “Some people here have a variety of professions? I can’t even think of one.”

“It will come to you, My Hopeful Duck. Yes, that’s twice.” He looked over to Perrin who wore the same worried expression as Peto. “It’s coming to you as well, Perrin. All of you will realize that Salem was always meant to be your home.”

“It’s an amazing existence you’ve created here,” Perrin said. “I just hope our family can find some way to contribute.”

“Oh, you will,” Gleace said. “Already you’ve been living a Salem-like life.”

“How?”

“Perrin, we don’t make it a habit to steal away people, as we did with you and your family. We invite those from the world to come, after we’ve explained our ways. But you were ready to come. I don’t know of another family—there or perhaps even here—that would give up as much as you have for those you see in need. Shem told me: you and Mahrree had amassed a fortune in your cellar. You were by far the wealthiest family in all of Edge.”

“Wait,” Peto frowned, “we were? Even richer than Trum?”

Mahrree waved him off, but shrugged. “Well, I suppose . . .”

“And when you saw people in need after the land tremor,” Gleace continued, ignoring Peto’s slack-jaw and Jaytsy’s rapid blinking, “you gave every last slip of gold and silver, along with the jewelry you inherited, to pay off everyone’s losses in Edge. Shem knows because he helped moved it all to Karna in Rivers.

“You also took that caravan of supplies from Idumea, even though you could’ve lost your commission. You and Mahrree don’t care for possessions or status, but for people. Already you understand. It’s not how much you give away, but how much you keep for yourself. You kept nothing. You already lived as Salemites.

“Which leads me to the real reason you’re here tonight,” he announced to the family who thought they’d already heard all they possibly could. “Mrs. Gleace and I invite all newcomers to join us for dinner in order to formally extend the invitation.”

He said those last two words with such weight that Mahrree realized it was supposed to be meaningful. She regretted that all she could offer back was bewilderment.

He glanced around at their faces and, seeing their blank expressions, said, “I’m guessing the Hifadhis didn’t have time to tell you about the invitation either, right?”

“Jothan and I were too busy sizing each other up that first night to cover anything else but the essentials,” Perrin admitted.

Gleace chuckled before saying, “Well, we invite you to commit to this Salem way of life, officially and publically. If and when you want to do so is completely up to you. We have people who live here for years before completely committing, but we extend the invitation to you now to think about it.”

“And what if we say ‘no’?” Peto’s sharpness surprised his family. “What happens to us then?”

But the guide wasn’t surprised. “You still get to live, learn, and work here. You still get to be part of our community, but it’s easier to make that transition in your mind and heart after you wholly commit to us.”

“There’s only one thing that would be off-limits to you,” Mrs. Gleace chimed in. “If you choose not to accept the invitation, you’ll not be able to enter our temple.”

The guide nodded, and Mahrree sat up eagerly. “What exactly happens in there?” she wondered, remembering Terryp had labeled ‘temples’ on his map. “What’s in there?”

Guide Gleace smiled. “Beautiful furnishings and Salemites who are looking for silence so they can communicate with the Creator. There’s no other place in Salem like it. No children are allowed, because even parents need a place to hide away from the cares of life for a few hours. It’s the House of the Creator, and not all Salemites enter the temple, either. Only those who desire a place of refuge to talk with the Creator, to receive guidance from Him, and to feel of His peace—”

“I want that.”

Peto eyed his father, whose earnest whisper had interrupted the guide. “Yes, Father—you said that out loud.”

But Perrin didn’t appear embarrassed by his quiet outburst, even though everyone was smiling gently at him. “I want that. I want that peace.”

“Then you shall have it, but there’s some preparation time,” Gleace explained. “After you formally commit to Salem, you need to wait a year before entering the temple. You need that time to ready yourself, and for us to make sure you’re fully committed. Your rector will recommend you when you’re ready. The temple is sacred, meaning that it’s dedicated entirely to the Creator. We’re very protective of keeping it pure. Not that I doubt your resolve in any way, but we want to make sure it’s never in danger of being desecrated.”

Peto frowned. “What does that mean?”

“I think I understand,” Mahrree said. “Peto, how do you feel knowing that Thorne has, by now, ordered our house to be searched by soldiers, and that everything we cared for has been thrown aside as meaningless?”

“They’ve kicked around Grandfather’s ball, haven’t they?” Peto said. “Probably even stabbed it. Without knowing, or caring . . . I get it.” To the guide he said, a bit defensively, “We wouldn’t do that, you know. Desecrate it?”

“I know,” the guide said, and Mahrree wondered if the man could ever be offended. “Certainly not deliberately, but perhaps accidentally only because you don’t know our ways. That’s why we give you time to get ready.”

“So what’s the first step?” Perrin asked.

“Something we call baptism,” Gleace told him. Catching Peto’s glance, he said, “It’s a symbolic act to demonstrate a very real commitment. It’s a way to signify washing away the ways of the world and becoming a new person.”

Peto sneered. “Sounds like a bath. A public bath?”

The Gleaces chuckled, but Mahrree shot a warning glare at him.

“Well, Peto,” the guide said, “you’re on the right track—”

Now Mahrree’s eyebrows were high as she blinked at the guide.

“—but you’re fully dressed, in white. And then we take you down to the river where we’ve dammed some areas to create ponds with hardly a current,” he nodded to Jaytsy who looked worried she’d be carried off downstream, belly first. “You can invite as many or as few people as you want to be part of it. Your rector or someone with the authority of a rector takes you into the river and dips you in, fully submersing—”

“For how long?” Peto demanded, and Mahrree wished she were in kicking distance of him. The symbolism sounded interesting, but not to her son.

“Guide,” Mahrree quietly seethed, “hold Peto down as long as you like. It’ll take at least two, maybe three minutes to wash the world completely from him.”

“Hear, hear!” Perrin slapped the table as everyone else laughed.

“Usually,” the guide said, “we try not to commit murder as we baptize someone. Peto, just down and up. It’s very quick.”

Peto nodded and seemed to realize he’s pushed it about as far he should dare.

“So, a quick bathing,” Mahrree said. “To wash away the world.”

“That’s part of it,” Gleace said. “The other is to signify burial, as if burying the old worldly part of you, then being reborn from the water as a new Salemite.”

“There’s a lot of water in birthing,” Jaytsy said. “Or so I’ve been told.”

Mrs. Gleace patted her hand. “And also a lot of bleeding and yelling, but,” and she winked at Peto, “none of that is part of baptism. Well, unless something goes horribly wrong.”

Peto grinned at her.

“Nothing does!” Guide Gleace insisted, but laughed with everyone else. After he sobered again, he said, “Once you’re baptized, you’re a committed member of Salem. It’s a covenant, like an oath. Perrin, you took oaths in the army, right? Similar to that, but the Creator is on the other side of it, not any High General or Administrator. You commit to share in all Salemites’ burdens, to assist them as you would hope someone would assist you, and you also covenant to stand against the world as you stand with the Creator. He in turn promises to bless us with His influence, with daily guidance and reassurance, and to save us at the Last Day.”

Suddenly Mahrree wanted nothing as much as she wanted to be washed clean of the world.

Perrin must have been feeling the same thing because he said, “How soon can this happen? This baptism?”

Gleace sat back, surprised. “Well, it’s up to you, but usually—”

“Tomorrow?”

Now Gleace blinked rapidly. “Uh, well, tomorrow being Holy Day, that’s quite a busy time for us—”

“The next day, then.”

“Of course,” Gleace said. “I was going to say that usually people wait at least a moon or two, but Perrin, if you want it day after tomorrow, then we can certainly arrange it. But only if you’re sure—”

“Before Dormin’s remembrance service,” Perrin said, his voice growing gruff. “Dormin was baptized, right?”

“Oh yes. He chose that quite quickly as well.”

“I want him to know,” Perrin said. “I want him to feel it, that we embraced all that he wanted to give us.”

Mahrree had been nodding vigorously. “Me too, Guide. Same time as Perrin?”

“Me too,” Jaytsy said. “If that’s allowed?” She rubbed her belly.

“Oh, we can manage that,” Gleace said warmly. “We’re very careful. By the smile on Deckett’s face, I’m guessing you as well?”

“Yes, sir!”

Gleace purposely didn’t look at Peto, but everyone else was.

Peto squirmed. “So what if I want to think about it for a while?”

“You may think about it as long as you wish, Peto.” Gleace slowly turned to meet his eyes. “Don’t let your family sway your decision. I don’t want you to make this commitment until you feel it in your soul that you truly belong here, that you want to belong to us and with us.”

“He’s too young anyway, isn’t he?” Jaytsy said with a friendly glower.

“Oh, not at all,” Gleace said. “We let children much younger than him be baptized. But not until they’re at least eight, when they know their own minds better. Choices, always choices in Salem. This isn’t the world, you know. We’ll never tell you what to do, or what to think, or what to believe. We offer what we have and show you what we feel is true, but then we let you make your choice.

“So whenever you choose, Young Mr. Shin. Whenever you choose.”

 

 

 

Chapter 14—“Then it all balances.”

 

After dinner the guide took Perrin to his office to talk while the rest of the family helped Mrs. Gleace clean up after the meal.

“Mahrree, can I interest you in taking home the rest of this chicken?” Mrs. Gleace said as she scraped the remaining meat and bones into a dish.

“I don’t want to take your leftovers, Mrs. Gleace—” Mahrree began, not wanting to deprive the Gleaces of an easy meal later.

“She won’t mind,” Jaytsy said, eyeing the guide’s wife. “She and Guide Gleace never ate any of it.”

Peto, who had been bringing dishes to the sink, spun around with accusation in his eyes.

“No, we didn’t,” Mrs. Gleace admitted. “And young Mr. Peto, once again you’re looking for that ‘catch’ because you think this may be part of some conspiracy. Oh, my poor boy. The world really has turned you inside out, hasn’t it? Our Hopeful Duck is still a bit wet.”

“So why didn’t you eat the chicken?” he asked as if interrogating the world’s sneakiest thief.

But Mrs. Gleace only chuckled sweetly. “Because, Peto, Hew and I don’t eat meat. Of any kind.”

Deck blinked at her. “Wait—your husband’s a rancher, and you don’t eat meat?”

“We haven’t for many decades now.”

“But he’s a rancher!”

“Yes, he loves cattle. He loves their shape, their innocence, their stubbornness, their plodding ways, even their eyes. Hew was a rancher because he wanted to make sure cattle are born well, live well, and die well.”

“I don’t get it,” Deck said, with the blankest expression Mahrree had ever seen. She had to agree. She didn’t get it.

“We love animals,” Mrs. Gleace explained. “We feel they are part of the Creator’s creations, and they are living their lives here just as we are. If we can avoid killing them just to feed us, we do. Not everyone in Salem refuses to eat meat,” she said when she saw the worry growing in their faces. “Only about a third of us live this way. But it’s a decision we’re happy with. You may eat meat as long as you wish. But if ever you choose not to, we can give you all kinds of alternative recipes.”

That wasn’t what was alarming Mahrree, though. “Did we offend you? By causing you to cook chicken and serve it to us?”

“Of course not,” Mrs. Gleace assured her. “That’s your way, and we wanted you to feel comfortable. I understand those two roosters weren’t happy with the direction of their lives anyway, and willingly met our neighbor’s chop block.”

When this didn’t garner the laughter she thought it would, she added, “Perhaps that was a bit too dark. Are you offended that we didn’t eat it?”

“No . . .” Mahrree said, not entirely sure.

“Then it all balances,” Mrs. Gleace said kindly. “Everything in Salem balances!”

Deck still was trying to catch up. “But there’s an old bull sleeping in the field attached to your house.”

“Ernst,” Mrs. Gleace said. “Hew’s favorite bull.”

“Named Ernst?”

“Yes, well, to each his own. Ernst doesn’t particularly like anyone but Hew. He’s going to have a hard time when Ernst finally goes. He’s on his fifteenth year, now—”

“But . . . but Guide Gleace has been delivering calves!”

“Yes, he wants to make sure they and the cows do well. He loves them. He raises them, helps other ranchers, and makes sure that the oldest ones that die naturally become the best leathers.”

Deck sat down hard on a chair. “And that’s all right? That he prefers they aren’t butchered? But that . . . they live happily?”

Peto winced at his brother-in-law who was the absolute picture of disbelief and astonishment.

But Mrs. Gleace saw something else.

She knelt in front of Deck and said, “You love them too, don’t you? You’ve worried over your expecting cows, and have cradled your new calves, and I’m guessing you even shed a tear or two over butchering a young bull.”

Deck’s face was wretched when he whispered. “I was told that meant I was soft.”

“And you think being soft is a bad thing?” Mrs. Gleace whispered back. “Oh, no. Softness is vital. Softness is life. The Creator Himself is soft, Deckett Briter. No greater compliment could be given to you.”

His chin trembled as he said, “But I also love steak!”

“As long as you didn’t know its name, though?”

“Yes!”

She chuckled as his complete misery. “My poor Deckett. I know, oh, how I know! You remind me so much of Hew when he was younger. I’ll tell him the two of you need to chat some time, to help you figure out where your mind really wants to be. It’s true that Hew had many head of cattle for years, but in the past forty years he never butchered any of them. He can teach you to be a rancher like he was. I think you’re going to love being a Salemite, Mr. Briter!”

Jaytsy watched her husband, her head cocked in surprise. “You want all the cattle to live?”

Deck shrugged glumly. “My cattle,” he murmured.

Jaytsy sighed. “You are the sweetest man I’ve ever known!”

“Oh, brother,” Peto grumbled. “End of weekly steaks, I can tell that already. Father will be thrilled when he hears this.”

Already pursing her lips, Mahrree said, “Ooh, I don’t think Perrin’s ready to be a non-meat eater. Maybe we’ll tell him about this another time. That’s not what Guide Gleace wanted to talk to Perrin alone about, is it?”

Mrs. Gleace’s merry expression turned solemn. “No, it’s not,” she said with more weight than Mahrree expected. “No.”

The finality of her word startled everyone into silence, and before Mahrree could wonder what was going on in Guide Gleace’s little office, Mrs. Gleace had already shifted and said, “So, how about I explain a bit more about our life here as we do the dishes?”

Peto, who was sure he knew all about Mrs. Gleace by now, said, “Smooth transition to a new topic.”

“Yes, I thought so. Now, every week people bring what they have available to the storehouse nearest them,” she plowed on in her new direction, dragging everyone with her. “Perhaps it’s something they make, like baskets, or something they grow, like produce. Maybe it’s their time and a skill, such as roof repair. Physical items are kept in the storehouse. Obviously some things can’t be kept there, though. If someone has a colt to give, he keeps it in his field until someone retrieves it. Or people create vouchers to offer a trade. Hew’s received many vouchers for calving, but I have no need of a baby tender. So he brings most of the vouchers to the storehouse and whoever needs the service can claim it.”

Mahrree could read the confusion in Peto’s eyes. “In Edge Guide Gleace would be receiving pay, but then he would turn around and hand it over to Rector Yung for him to distribute as he saw fit.”

Peto scoffed. “No one in Edge would willingly do that.”

“How do you know if someone needs something?” Jaytsy asked. “Or if someone’s trying to steal?”

“Our rectors have many duties here,” Mrs. Gleace told her. “Twice a year the rectors evaluate each family in their congregation, more often if situations change, and help decide what the family needs. Amounts of food, clothing, tools, and so on. No one wants to take more than they need. But I imagine some of the wealthy in the world would find our standards more meager than they’re used to.”

“Not me,” Mahrree assured her. “My pantry was packed!”

“Good. Rectors can always be asked to reevaluate a need. A baby born, a child getting married, an elderly parent moving in—of course you’re going to need something more, or less.”

“Sounds time-consuming,” Peto said.

“Not really. The rectors know their families well. They feel promptings from the Creator for them too. Quite often a rector will arrive at a family’s home before they even call for him, because he just knew. In ten minutes the need is evaluated, and within an hour the item has been retrieved and is in the home.”

Peto bobbed his head.

Mrs. Gleace was on to him, too. “Think about this, Peto: last year we had a family lose their house to a fire. But within one week the members of their congregation came together to build them a new house and furnish it completely. Some of their neighbors who had been away for two weeks visiting grandparents in the north returned home to discover a new house in place of their friends’ old one. They didn’t even notice the difference until the next day! Now, would the villagers in Edge be able to do something like that?”

“We did a bit during the land tremor,” Mahrree said. “But in light of the way people behaved not too long ago to the refugees from Moorland? No, not anymore. Maybe they help only when they’ve experienced the tragedy themselves.”

“Or they think no one will help them unless they help others,” Deck suggested.

“In Salem no one suffers alone,” Mrs. Gleace said. “No one finds themselves in need for more than a day. We lift each other’s burdens, and it’s really quite easy work when we do it together. I can’t imagine the loneliness of the world you lived in. I heard there are people in Idumea who live in the streets? What a horrible existence. That would never happen in Salem.”

Mahrree knew that Guide Gleace received a great deal of insight about their family from the Creator, but now she was convinced that the Creator was nudging Mrs. Gleace just as much. She had looked straight at Peto when she said those words, as if she knew what had bothered him about Idumea several years ago.

“I remember seeing some of those people,” Peto said. “Remember that one man outside of the garrison?” he said to his mother and sister. “Wearing that ragged clothing going through the trash heaps looking for food?”

Jaytsy and Mahrree both nodded.

“We were the only ones who noticed him,” he told Mrs. Gleace. “No one else cared. And even then, we didn’t do anything for him,” he added quietly. “But people here do, I guess.”

“Making sure that no one lives like that—wouldn’t you agree that’s worth sacrificing a little competition for?” Mrs. Gleace asked.

Peto nodded as he stared at his hands.

Mahrree marveled. Mrs. Gleace knew her son almost better than she did.

“So,” Peto began, “the guide enforces this law of Salem?”

Mrs. Gleace looked up to the ceiling, almost in despair. “No, Peto. You poor child! No one at the top forces his way on those of us at the bottom. It’s the people who have chosen to live this way. This kind of generosity and equality can’t be mandated. All who live in Salem have chosen to live this way, and it is they, not my husband, who impose it. Oh, we’ve occasionally had some who’ve tried to live among us like wolves in sheep’s clothing ready to fleece our flocks, but in Salem the sheep won’t put up with it! They take that wolf to task, and if he won’t reform, they send him on his way to dissenter villages.”

“So if people here try to cheat, or steal—” Peto began.

“—they don’t eat,” Mrs. Gleace said simply. “They can’t claim anything from the storehouses. Occasionally we’ve had some lazy ones try to steal from others, but they’re always caught. Thieves here are rather sloppy and fortunately not well-versed in the ways of the world. They get to fix their errors and try again, and most accept the quiet offer from their rector to avoid being publicly embarrassed. The few who refuse are publicly declared as thieves, and everyone keeps an uncomfortably close eye on them. That shame almost always pushes them to doing the right thing. Occasionally someone will leave us to go thieving in the dissenter colonies, instead.”

Sensing there was more to that, because Mrs. Gleace no longer met Peto’s eyes, he prodded, “And what happens to them there?”

Mrs. Gleace swallowed. “The dissenters are far less forgiving than we are, and much more possessive. Anyone who steals from the dissenters either loses an appendage or is executed.”

Peto winced. “Pretty good deterrents, I suppose.”

“Faced with that overreaction as the only other alternative,” Mrs. Gleace said, “the vast majority of our people see that laboring for four hours a day isn’t such a bad swap for food on the table and a house to live in.”

“That’s a lot better deal than they’d get in the world,” Jaytsy said.

“That’s what we try to remind them, that we left the world for a better—and even easier—life. Our first ancestors ran to Salem with little else but the clothing on their back. They had lost their homes and even family members. They arrived broken and frightened. Only by clinging to each other could they heal each other. Think about it—how did your family come to Salem?”

Mahrree knew. “With only the clothing on our backs.”

“Exactly. Just as our ancestors came here, and running from a pursuing army, too. So how do you feel about this community now that you can see what we can provide for you?”

Mahrree could barely manage saying, “As if I have a family who would do anything to help me.”

“And aren’t we all family? This was the way our ancestors lived for the first six years until Guide Hierum was killed. The men who organized Idumea are the same who destroyed all the Creator established. Even though they had sat at His feet and learned from Him, the lure of possessing it all was too great a temptation for them.” Mrs. Gleace paused and looked at Mahrree. “This has frequently been on your mind, hasn’t it?”

Mahrree only could nod. So often she’d thought about Guide Hierum, wondering about the life of their First Families. But some years ago she’d given up hoping for a similar existence.

She shouldn’t have.

“It’s all right, Mahrree,” Mrs. Gleace said kindly, as if reading her mind.

Her next words convince Mahrree that not only was the Creator nudging Mrs. Gleace, but whispering directly into her ear.

“Finally, Mahrree, you get to live what you’ve wondered about. Your heart is ready for this, I can feel it.

“Now,” she said, rummaging around in a large crate on the floor, “many people have been paying us for Hew’s assistance in calving, but we’ve been passing most of it right on to our rector. However, this,” and she grunted as she pulled something bulky and heavy from the crate, “I held on to because I thought perhaps you’d appreciate them, Mahrree. I’ve got a whole garden out back, so I don’t need them.” She set the rectangular clay pot on the table, with tender but ambitious green stems and leaves jutting up from it. “When a neighbor brought these by yesterday I thought, Who could use a dozen herb starts for her own garden?”

No one fully understood Mahrree’s sudden weepiness, but Perrin did when he made her window boxes for her herbs two days later.

By the time they sat with Mrs. Gleace on her back porch that evening to share stories and listen for the first crickets, Mahrree wondered how it was they ever survived so long in Edge.

 

 

 

Chapter 15—“What I don’t have is

someone like you, Perrin.”

 

Perrin sat down on the chair next to Gleace’s desk, worried about what it was that the guide saw in his eyes to ask him to come to his study. Feeling like a school boy in trouble, he’d even volunteered to help with the dishes, but Mrs. Gleace merely pointed him in the direction of her husband’s study.

He felt many times during dinner that the guide could read any person’s heart as if it were an open book. Not all of the pages detailing Perrin’s life were as distinguished as he wished.

While the Guide rearranged some files on his desk, Perrin peered outside the dark windows, straining to see—

“Are you looking for something?” Gleace asked him.

“They hide themselves very well,” Perrin said, shielding his eyes from the light cast by the candles in the office. “Then again, they are Guarders, in a way.”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

Perrin turned to see puzzlement on the guide’s face. “Your guards,” he told him. “I haven’t been able to spot them.”

“Perrin, I don’t have any guards.”

“None?”

“None.”

“But . . . why not? You’re the most important man in Salem—yes, yes, yes I know. No one’s ‘more important’ than someone else, but you’re the Guide. That must count for something.”

Gleace shrugged. “I suppose. But that’s why the Creator lets me know if there’s anything I should worry about it. Otherwise?” He shrugged again.

“Don’t people come knocking on your door at all hours, wanting your help?”

“Well, I’ve trained them, just as the previous guides have trained them. You know all about chain of command, right? We have something similar. If someone has a problem, they know to go first to their neighbors. If they can’t help, the rector is called in next. If he can’t solve it, then the matter is brought to one of my assistants. Only after that do I deal with the problem, and even then I ask that my time be scheduled in advance. Otherwise, I’d never have a moment to breathe. As it is, I deal with about a dozen issues each week. Occasionally someone has pounded on my door, and I’ve walked him back to his home and let his neighbors take care of the problem. Word gets around that you can’t jump the chain of command.”

Perrin smiled. “I can respect that. Still, it strikes me as a bit foolish to have no security—” He paused. “You really don’t need it here, do you?”

“Never have. Maybe someday, but not this year. Now, if I were in the world, however, I’d probably have twenty men around me! Even though I served as a scout in my younger years, the world worries me, deeply. Please, Perrin—sit down.”

As he pulled up a chair to the desk, Perrin found himself thinking about the large Conference Room table at Administrative Headquarters. While this pine desk in front of him, simple in construction, lacked the enormity and high polish that made the Administrative table so imposing, this desk was solid and clean, and somehow more significant than that glossy monstrosity in Idumea.

Gleace sat down in the chair behind the desk and turned to Perrin. “I see you’re still wearing it.”

Perrin blinked in surprise. He glanced at himself until he realized what Gleace was gesturing to: the woolen knitted cord on his wrist, mostly concealed by his sleeve. Shem had tied it on to his wrist well over a year ago, and it had been the key to helping him discern the difference between his nightmares and reality. While he was no longer traumatized, the woolen chain had become so much a part of him that he’d never considered not wearing it. But—

“I suppose I could take it off now,” Perrin decided.

“There’s no need,” said Gleace kindly.

“I’m guessing Rector Yung told you about this.” Perrin slipped the chain around his wrist repeated as he frequently did. “I’m not sure who the woman is who knitted him several lengths, but I assume she lives in Salem as well.”

“Not exactly,” the guide said. “I mean, yes the chain came originally from Salem. But my brother-in-law didn’t tell you everything about it.”

“Well, of course not!” Perrin said flippantly. “No one has told me everything yet! I’m sorry,” he immediately apologized. “It’s all been—”

Gleace’s upraised hand stopped Perrin. “Don’t apologize. It’s us who should be asking for your forgiveness, for keeping you in the dark about so many things.”

Perrin couldn’t help but smile. “But I prefer being in the light now, even if I do find it quite blinding at times.”

Gleace grinned. “Well said.” His gaze traveled back to the woolen chain again. “If you’d like a replacement, I have a few cleaner ones.”

“Mahrree’s washed this one a few times,” he admitted. But he didn’t confess that at those times he felt like a toddler waiting for his favorite blanket to be returned. “Was it your wife who knitted this?”

“No. It was me.”

You?”

“I could master only that simple chain,” Gleace smiled sheepishly, “but it was enough. You’re not the first man to wear one, but I will admit that one is special.”

Perrin fingered it again. “Why?”

“It’s the first I sent with a blessing,” Gleace said. “Not exactly a practice of ours, but Jothan said Shem was growing panicky as you descended again during Raining Season over a year ago, and we couldn’t imagine losing you. This chain has helped other men with trauma, and each time the man receiving it also was given a blessing by the guide. But how I could come give you a blessing?”

Gleace sat back in his chair and smiled vaguely at the darkened wool.

“So I asked the Creator if He could convey my blessing through the chain to you, that perhaps when you felt it and saw it, you could feel of the Creator’s power as well. The Creator honors the worthy requests of His guides, as I believe He did with that.” Gleace’s gaze rose to meet Perrin’s.

Perrin nodded and blinked back a few tears. “It did work,” he cleared his throat. “At a critical time, I remembered all kinds of things I had struggled to remember. And,” he hesitated to compose himself, “I felt the Creator there, too. I once held a long knife with this hand,” he held up the arm with the chain, “aimed for my chest. And then I felt the wool. I felt all kinds of things,” he said vaguely, not wanting to revisit the moment, but feeling the need to explain some of it, which he really wasn’t doing very well either.

But Gleace said, “I understand. And I’m pleased it helped.” He slid open a drawer on the desk and pulled out three more lengths. “For if ever you feel the need.”

Perrin took the lengths and reverently put them into his shirt pocket, still staring at the desk that impossibly carried so much weight.

Gleace noticed. “Nice desk, isn’t it?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Want to guess how old it is?”

“Twenty years?”

“Try one hundred and thirty years. One of the first desks made in Salem.”

“Really?”

“In Salem we build things to last. I’ve been told this desk would have been ‘in fashion’ over one hundred years ago, then considered ‘old fashioned’ and destroyed to be used for kindling. But about ten years ago it was considered ‘in fashion’ again, according to some refugees. What a waste if I were concerned about such things, to destroy a functional piece of furniture merely because someone somewhere thought the legs should look differently. I would have had to rebuild it exactly as it was over one hundred years later again.”

Perrin nodded. “Sounds so ridiculous when you put it that way. But you’re right—that’s the ‘fashion’ of the world: everything is destroyable. Is that what you wanted to talk to me about? Desk trends in the world?”

Gleace chuckled. “Perrin, I wanted to talk to you about a couple of things.”

Feeling his palms grow sweaty, he rubbed them on his trousers and glanced around the office, feeling very unprotected. “Go ahead.”

“First,” Gleace said, “I want you to know that I worry about you adjusting to Salem.”

“I know, but I—”

Gleace raised his hand again. “I’m not making a judgment, just an observation. And I want you to know that I’m here to help you. I have full confidence that will do superbly in Salem, but we may need to work at it.”

Now understanding the dread some of the teens he dragged to incarceration must have felt when he sat them down in the chair, he asked, “Meaning what, sir?”

Gleace smiled easily in an attempt to relax Perrin.

It didn’t work. Perrin knew when people were trying too hard.

“Meaning only that your entire life has been focused on keeping people safe so they can go about their regular lives. But you, Perrin, have never really gone about a ‘regular life,’ have you?”

“No,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what that would look like.”

“I know. I have no army to give you, although I do have some tasks specifically for you,” Gleace added enigmatically. “But that won’t occupy all your time. So you need to decide: what do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

Perrin exhaled. “That’s not exactly a question one gets asked every day.”

Gleace leaned back. “But it’s one you’ve thought of every day.”

Perrin stared at him before murmuring, “You really do know what’s in a man’s heart, don’t you?”

“Only the glimpses the Creator gives me. So tell me, Perrin: what do you want to do in your spare ti—”

“Be a builder!” he burst out, and Gleace laughed.

“Well, that was easier than I anticipated. I can think of a dozen men who’d love someone with your strength helping them put up a barn.”

Perrin chuckled, embarrassed by his enthusiasm that startled even him, but feeling a bit more at ease . . .

Until he remembered Gleace’s ‘other tasks’. Once again he looked around the room. The window was too big, he thought fleetingly.

“What is it?” Gleace prodded.

Perrin hadn’t said the words out loud, but the thoughts had been floating in his head for two days and were now scrambling to be expressed.

“That measly little canyon—that’s all. That’s all that separates the world from Salem? Shem said that in just a few hours he can make from here to Edge? And the only guards you have are a dozen middle-aged men going gray? That’s your only defense?”

Instead of appearing alarmed or offended, Gleace simply smiled in his easy way. “Well, you’re a middle-aged man, going gray—”

“I’m a lot more skilled than they are!”

“They might surprise you—”

“They could never stop an army!”

“You’re right,” Gleace said calmly. “That’s why we need you. I have enough shepherds, farmers, tanners, smiths, teachers—you name it. What I don’t have is someone like you, Perrin.” He leaned forward. “Salem is in danger, because Idumea will come for us.”

He said the words so plainly, almost casually, and it jolted Perrin as if awakening him from a bad dream only to realize he hadn’t been dreaming.

“No, no, no, we weren’t followed! Your scouts said no one left the forest of Edge! We got verification of that this afternoon—”

Gleace gently took Perrin’s arm. “Today we are not in danger. Nor next year. But some day. Perrin, it’s already been seen. The day will come when Idumea’s army will march into Salem.”

Perrin sank in his chair. Despair crept up on him through some unplugged crevice he forgot to seal before leaving Edge. “They’re going to follow me. No matter what I do, I bring trouble. I’m bringing it to Salem—”

Gleace shook his arm which he still gripped. “No! They would come no matter what. Circumstances will eventually change that will force Idumea to look for something else. That’s when they’ll find us. You were sent by the Creator ahead of that day. You were sent to prepare us! I told you earlier that Salem needs you, and it’s true. What do I know of defense? I don’t even have guards around my house, just an ornery old bull.”

He released Perrin’s arm and pulled a large book from the corner of his desk. The leather binding looked new, but when he opened it, the loose pages inside were old and ragged. “This book is unlike any other. Do you know what it is?”

Perrin reluctantly sat up to see it better. “Looks like The Writings.”

“That’s right. But not a copy of The Writings; it’s The Writings themselves. This is the collection of the original writings of all the guides down to me.” The guide’s voice became quiet as he gingerly handled the myriad of pages in different sizes and conditions. “Usually it’s kept in a dry, dark box, but I brought it out today just for you. I want you to read this one.” He carefully pulled out an old piece of parchment, darkened at the edges with the ink fading, but still legible. “It was by Guide Pax, after he first arrived in Salem, one-hundred-thirty-eight years ago. He walked to a rise on a hill west of here and looked over the valley. His assistants recorded what he saw, and he rewrote the words on this parchment. Read this section, right here.”

Perrin guardedly took the old parchment, feeling the power of all the hands that had touched it. Before he could even focus on the words he began to feel something inside warm, then burn.

The inhabitants of this new city will live in peace until the end comes, when the enemy will threaten to annihilate them. But before that time the Creator will send one to prepare them. From the highest ranks of the enemy—”

Perrin’s voice began to break.

“—will He call one to mark the path of escape for the valiant.” He could hardly utter the next words, “The Deliverer will ensure the safety of the Creator’s people, until the coming Destruction.

Perrin’s voice was barely a whisper when he said, “You think I’m the one ‘from the highest ranks of the enemy’.”

“You are. It was made known to the guide before me. Perrin, does the name Tuma Hifadhi mean anything to you?”

By the reverent way Guide Gleace said his name, he knew Tuma Hifadhi must have been someone important. “You mentioned Tuma earlier. Any relation to Jothan Hifadhi?”

“Tuma was his grandfather. Guide Tuma Hifadhi. He’s also distantly related to someone else you know. A Colonel Fadh?”

Perrin’s eyebrows went up. “Graeson Fadh? But . . . how?”

“Tuma’s grandfather was your colonel’s great-great-grandfather. He was one that left with our so-called Guarders. One of his sons stayed behind and changed his last name, cutting off some of the first and last letters of his last name to disguise who he was.”

Perrin scoffed lightly. “Yes, Kopersee told me about that trend. So Fadh has ancestors here too, just like Yordin? It seems everyone has a connection to Salem.”

“Well Perrin, your name meant a great deal to Tuma Hifadhi. Remarkable man—he lived to be ninety-three and was active until the day before he died. His work meant a great deal to him,” Gleace said quietly. “You see, he spent the last of his years organizing scouts and overseeing their training to keep an eye on you.

Perrin’s eyebrows rose again. He should have just left them up.

“Hifadhi was told by the Creator that the man to fulfill Pax’s prophecy would be an officer who was not afraid of the forest. That first attack on Edge, shortly after you arrived there, you spent three days and four nights braving the wilds you knew nothing about, chasing an enemy you saw as a threat to those you loved. We had scouts above you in the trees, watching you the entire time. I was the assistant assigned to overseeing their training and reviewing all their reports as they came in. I have them in another box if you want to see them. And then, a year later, a large man mysteriously dressed in all white entered the forest, armed with a bow, quiver, and at least three knives, according to what our scouts could tell.”

Perrin nodded. “Shem told me you had sent me help.”

“Perrin, the Creator revealed to Tuma that fourteen Guarders were out to get Mahrree and your children, and that you were intent on tracking all of them down. But you wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. We gathered as many men as we could and sent them immediately into the forest.”

“Shem said over seventy.”

“I hope you won’t be offended to know this, but we helped you. Several of the Guarders slipped past you while you were struggling with one in a ravine, but we chased them back to you. Rather like herding cattle to a gate. That you accomplished so much on your own was incredible, but there was no way you could’ve found and stopped them all.”

“I know,” Perrin said quietly. “I was praying for help. And I could tell with at least two of the Guarders that something was chasing them. I thought it was maybe an animal.”

“Just us, keeping track of them and sending them in your direction.”

“And Jothan saved my life that night. I never thought I would solve that mystery. And now the solution is even more amazing than I could’ve imagined. Jothan’s grandfather—a guide—sent him.”

Gleace smiled. “We couldn’t lose you, Perrin. Never before in the one-hundred-nineteen-year history of watching the forest had we seen someone come in as fearlessly as you, as if it were in your blood to be part of the trees. Hifadhi also knew the right man would have a wife and children. When he learned that Mahrree was expecting your second child, he started training ten men from which one would be chosen to get as close to you as possible, so that we could learn about you. That man turned out to be Shem. And Perrin, you actually met Tuma.”

Perrin squinted. “How? I’ve never been to Salem before.”

“But Tuma went to Edge, right after Peto was born. He had been waiting for years to hear about a brave officer, and he couldn’t stand not meeting you. Despite the protests of his children, his assistants, and mostly me—I was the assistant who had been serving the longest, and if he didn’t return I would’ve been the next guide, and I wasn’t ready for that!—he went with a scouting party down to Edge. He was there for less than a day, but the Creator told him exactly where to be and when so that he could meet you. I believe it was in the center of Edge, near a pond?”

Perrin searched his memory, but it didn’t take long to find it. “Was he probably taller and darker as a young man, but a bit hunched over and gray?”

“Yes, he was.”

Perrin sat back. “I remember him! I’ve thought of him frequently over the years. He was so unusual. He caught Jaytsy as she was chasing after . . . something, and then he patted Peto to sleep. Mahrree and I tried for weeks to imitate how he did that. I always wanted to do that for someone else—give them a reprieve from their crying baby. That’s what I did at The Dinner in Idumea. I saw the Nelts and that fussing baby and knew it was finally my chance to repay the debt.” He shook his head. “Repay my debt to a real guide. Amazing!” He chuckled softly. “I keep saying that word.”

Gleace leaned forward. “Perrin, if I may know, he had wanted to say something to you. I never knew what it was, though. Do you remember?”

Perrin looked up. “Uh, we spoke for only a few minutes . . . he said something about how children move on and away, then something about the importance of grandfathers, how often they were the only ones who could say or do things for grandchildren.” He shrugged. “Not too significant, I suppose. I think he was just making small talk.”

Gleace looked a little disappointed, but covered it with a forced smile.

“There was . . . something else, though,” Perrin said, realizing he could say it in front of Gleace. In fact, he should say it. “Just before he walked off he put a hand on each of us and said something like, ‘May the Creator bless and preserve your family.’” He looked up to the guide to see if that was significant. Those were the words he heard replayed in his mind that horrible night he held the long knife above his heart, hoping something would stop him.

Gleace’s smile became genuine. “Of course he would!” he whispered. “Ah, Tuma. How much you risked just to keep them safe. I should have known.”

“What do you mean?”

“Perrin, Tuma gave you a guide’s blessing. I blessed the chain, but Tuma blessed all of you. The Creator gives guides the ability to ask for blessings—as all of us can—but he also allows guides to give blessings, acting in the Creator’s name. In this case, Guide Hifadhi gave you a blessing of protection, of preservation. No matter what happened, the Refuser wouldn’t be allowed to destroy you or Mahrree or your children. Make your life difficult? Oh, yes. But destroy? Not with the guide’s blessing upon you. After what happened with those fourteen Guarders, Tuma was very concerned about keeping your family alive. Just before he died he told me you would all eventually make it to Salem, and that he made sure of it. I wondered how he could bestow a blessing without revealing himself. Usually blessings are much longer, with a great deal of instruction, but I see now that he spoke only the words that were really necessary. Tuma always found a way.”

Perrin sat back in his chair. “Remarkable. How old was he when he made the journey to Edge?”

“Eighty-seven! He wanted to know if you were really the one we were waiting for. He came back convinced that you were. That’s when he sent the word for Shem to officially sign up with you as a soldier. Later Shem asked Hifadhi if he could stay indefinitely to watch out for you.”

“Shem knows all about this? Well, of course he does. Yet another thing he didn’t bother to tell me,” Perrin murmured.

“Yes, he does. In fact,” Gleace said, a bit apologetically, “everyone in Salem knows about you and this passage,” he gestured to the parchment still in Perrin’s hands. “When I became the guide, the Creator made it known to me that one of my most important duties was to get you and your family safely to Salem. We need your whole family, Perrin. You’ve all been prepared to come here. Will you help us?”

A new understanding came to Perrin, and he couldn’t drop the parchment fast enough. “The people who lined the roads waving to us this morning thought they were . . . they were seeing the fulfiller of a prophecy?”

The parchment floated and settled on the desk, almost apologetically, but certainly hopefully.

Gleace had the decency to look a tad sheepish.

Perrin rubbed his forehead, stood up, and stomped to the back of the chair. Glaring at the corner of the office he said, “They were looking at me today as, what?” He leaned over to see the words again, aimed right at him. “The deliverer?”

Gleace smiled patiently. “No one knows exactly who you are Perrin, except the Creator. Deliverer or not, it really doesn’t matter. All He’s told me is that we need you here, to help us prepare. You are, however, the one from the highest ranks of the enemy. You were to have been High General—”

“This . . . this is too much,” Perrin gestured at the parchment, half expecting it to hide. “I’m not that man! And I put away my sword, Guide. I was never planning to take it up again.”

“Nor will you,” Gleace promised. “Salem doesn’t need an offensive strategy, but we need defense. Who better than you knows the strategies of Idumea? Who better could develop a plan to organize, prepare, and move this people to safety when the time comes?”

Perrin shook his head throughout Gleace’s response, but Gleace was just as persistent.

“All that you’ve experienced has been to prepare you to help us. Your fortifications against the Guarders. Your rescue and rebuilding of Edge. Chasing down the troubled youth of the village. You were learning skills then to help our people now. Salem is where your future lies. It always has been. The Creator brought you home now for a purpose.”

Perrin slowly sat down again, feeling overwhelmed, defeated, yet strangely intrigued. Still ignoring the parchment in front of him, he said, “But I really don’t think I’m your man. If Shem were an officer he’d be the rank of general. He’d do a much better—”

“Shem Zenos already has another calling, to be one of my assistants. One passed away a few weeks ago. I need someone to coordinate between you and me, should you choose to accept this calling. You two have become such a good pairing—”

Perrin scoffed. He meant it to be lighthearted, but it came out as a blast of frustration. “Choose to accept this calling? Your people rescue me and my family, give us a heroes’ welcome, deliver us into our own home and property, then think I feel no obligation to accept this calling? I’ll still be baptized, but this? This?

Gleace’s patient smile suggested this wasn’t the first time he’d faced resistance. “You owe us nothing. We rescue families every season. It’s what we do. There are those who come who don’t accept their callings, who choose never to be baptized. You can still live in the house. This isn’t Idumea, Perrin. You still have the ability to choose for yourself. Choices, always.”

Perrin studied his face, looking for any deceit, any hidden motives.

Gleace’s face was pure and clear as he leaned closer. “I told you yesterday that you would never again hear the title of colonel. And you won’t. But Perrin, Salem needs a general. Ever since you first entered the forests above Edge shortly after your marriage, our scouts have been saluting you. After you dressed as a man in white and sought out those fourteen Guarders to preserve your wife and children, we began to call you General, even though you were just a captain. Jothan Hifadhi and twenty other men saluted you as you stumbled out of the forest, your back slashed and bleeding, but your family safe. For the raid at Moorland, we had over one hundred men capturing escaping Guarders. At one point you, on horseback, made it all the way to the edge of the forest, cutting down Guarders as you went. Again, we had men just a few dozen paces away, hiding in the shadows created by the burning forest. You stopped and looked at one of our men who was less than twenty paces away, and he impulsively saluted you. You stared at him, not completely seeing him through the smoke. But you did see something, didn’t you?”

Perrin swallowed. He always knew the forest was watching him, but he never could explain how. He thought it maybe was something mystical. He never imagined it was literal.

“You were always our general. Will you now accept the calling to officially be our General Shin?”

Perrin could hardly breathe. He had been ignoring the feeling in his chest, but it had grown so large and hot that he could no longer dismiss it. A distinct personality was associated with it, a familiar presence, one that he hadn’t felt so distinctly since the day he buried his parents.

Because it was his parents, his mother on the left side, his father on the right.

And it was from that right side that he felt the words more intensely than if he had heard them.

This—this, Perrin—is the general you were meant to be.

 

 

 

Chapter 16—“Sometimes it takes years to understand how something’s

supposed to happen.”

 

When Perrin and Guide Gleace came out to the back porch, it was to hear laughter.

“So then Shem glares at me, points his fork and says, ‘Perrin, do something, or I will!’” Deck told Mrs. Gleace.

She laughed. “I would’ve loved to have seen his face when you kissed Jaytsy in front of everyone, and in the middle of dinner!”

“He cried when they told him they were getting married,” Peto said. “Father’s been calling him Crybaby ever since.”

“Well, not quite. Not until he found out I was expecting,” Jaytsy clarified. “The first time he put his hand on my belly and felt the baby moving, I thought Deck was going to have to remove him from the room to calm him down.”

Perrin and the guide only smiled at the laughter.

Mrs. Gleace saw the seriousness in her husband’s eyes and asked, her tone heavy with meaning, “Everything go well, dearest?”

“Of course.” He put a hand on Perrin’s shoulder, and Mahrree noticed some kind of parchment was in his other. “Perrin has agreed to go on a little hike with me in a few weeks when calving is finished. We’ll make sure it’s also well after Jaytsy is finished too,” he nodded to her.

“A hike?” Mahrree asked.

“Yes, to see a ruin, Mahrree,” Perrin said with a hint of a smile.

She sat up taller on the steps of the back porch. “Ruins! Oh, may I go as well?”

Guide Gleace chuckled. “Another time, I promise. And to all of them. But this time I will take only Perrin, Shem, and . . .” he turned to Peto. He studied him for a moment before saying, “You. Peto, you are to come as well.”

It wasn’t a request, but a statement of fact.

“Me? All right,” Peto said a little unsure, but not about to argue with the guide. At least not since Mahrree pulled him aside in the kitchen and threatened his very life if he didn’t start acting more respectful toward the Gleaces. “Why?”

“Because it’s been known to us since we first came here, but this will be new to you,” he sighed before he continued. “Salem will remain a peaceful place until the end of the Test. But before the Last Day, we will see upheavals and turmoil that no one here has ever experienced.”

Mahrree shifted worriedly. “But that may not be for many more years, right? Many more lifetimes? I mean, I’ve always pictured the Last Day to happen hundreds of years from now . . .” her voice trailed off as she saw the earnestness in Mrs. Gleace’s face.

She shifted her gaze to her husband.

Mahrree did so as well.

“We always like to believe we have more time than we do,” Gleace said. “All those little things we’ll do later. But later comes far more quickly than we want to admit. Mahrree, I understand you love old things. Here, take a look at this.” He held up the parchment, pulled a lantern off the nail where it hung by the back door, and placed it on the floorboards so the family could see the document.

They were silent as they read the words.

Deck was the first one to look up. “Perrin, you’re the one from the highest ranks, aren’t you?” He leaned back a little as if his father-in-law were contagious.

Jaytsy looked at her father in surprise, too.

Peto’s hand went up to his chest, until he forced it down again.

The only one not looking up was Mahrree. Her finger traced the words again and again, and Perrin watched her intently.

When she finally pulled her eyes away from it, she was smiling. “My dream of nineteen years is beginning to be fulfilled today. Just days ago I knew it never could be. But Salem is a place of miracles. You were always meant to be . . . ?” She looked at Guide Gleace for confirmation.

He smiled at her. “Salem’s General.”

No one noticed that Peto had stopped breathing.

Mahrree grinned. “Salem’s General! You’re to be the general for a side that, until days ago, you never knew existed.”

Peto leaned against the railing and buried his head in his hands.

Mahrree, surprised at his strange reaction, gently touched his shoulder. “Peto?”

He quickly shook his head, glanced up at her with a reassuring smile, then put his head down again. “General Shin!” he whispered.

Jaytsy looked at the parchment again, then at her parents. “Nineteen years? General? All right, I know I missed something here.”

Perrin still watched his wife. “Sometimes it takes years to understand how something’s supposed to happen. Jaytsy, Deck, Peto—it’s not time for you to know everything, but you can know this: your mother knew the night we became engaged that she’d be living in a wooden house surrounded by mountains—”

Her children gaped at Mahrree, but she beamed at her husband.

“—And when I was eighteen and traveling to Edge to spend the season with the Densals, I knew that I would someday become a general. Neither of us could have imagined those dreams would come true here. But obviously the Creator has a far greater imagination than either of us.”

“Ah, well said!” declared the guide. “Sometimes we wish we knew the end from the beginning, but that would take all the joy and mystery out of life, wouldn’t it? I thank the Creator He isn’t limited by our feeble imaginations.”

“I’m guessing,” Jaytsy said, shaking her head in a daze about what she was hearing of her parents, “that we don’t need to worry about any Dinners?”

“No, I won’t be that kind of general, Jayts. I only create plans for securing Salem. General is just the title so everyone I enlist to help knows I’m in charge.”

Mahrree squirmed in anticipation. “Why ruins, Guide? What’s the significance?”

The guide sat down on a stump on the porch.

Mahrree marveled briefly that the Creator’s Chairman of Salem had old stumps for stools on his back porch, just like she had in Edge.

“I’m not entirely sure, Mahrree, to tell you the truth. But I have a good idea. I only know that I am to go there in a few weeks with those that the Creator has sent me.” He gestured to Perrin and Peto. “The ruin was a temple created many civilizations ago. From our best guess, over a thousand years ago, but maybe two or even three thousand—”

Mahrree gasped at the numbers.

Concerned about her breathing, Gleace paused.

Perrin patted her on the shoulder. “She’ll be doing that a lot,” he told the guide. “Just keep going.”

Gleace kept a watchful eye on Mahrree who was fairly panting. “Many, many years ago this great stone temple, now only a foundation with broken walls that are overgrown with vines, was the site of the last gathering of the Creator’s people. The images carved there suggest that they were being chased down by their enemy, and they took refuge at the temple. Then, some kind of deliverance was sent. The last image is of people holding up their hands in what seems to be joy. There are many stones with markings that we guess are other languages and writing systems, but we’ve never been able to understand them. However, it seems that the temple ruins may have been used as a refuge for others’ Last Days a few times since then.”

“This has . . .” Mahrree gasped and Perrin patted her back, “all happened before?”

“Many times, with many civilizations on this sphere,” Gleace told her, his brow furrowed in worry. “The Creator establishes patterns and follows them. Are you going to be all right? Can I get you something?”

She shook her head vigorously, and rolled her hand to tell him to keep going.

“If I were to guess,” he continued, still keeping the gasping Mahrree in his view, “I would assume that is where our descendants would gather as well at the end of their Test. It would make sense He’d send us there as well.”

“How far is that ruin?” Peto asked, since Mahrree wasn’t able to.

“Not too far,” Gleace bobbed his head. “About nine miles from here in the southwest is a canyon. That lasts about a mile, then opens into a vast valley we have never allowed to be settled. The few times people have gone there and dug in the ground they’ve found steel arrow heads and rusting balls of iron. Larger iron balls may have smashed down the remaining walls a few civilizations ago.”

“Iron balls?” Perrin rubbed his chin in thought. “Knocking down walls? They must have been propelled in some way?”

Gleace shifted on his stump, as if uncomfortable. “We have a theory about that,” he said cagily. “We’ll try to find a few for you. Most have been buried, by time and by those who find them. Anyway,” he said, seemingly eager to shift the subject again, “at the end of that valley is a mountain, but the top of it is flat, like an immense table. The front of it is a sheer cliff overlooking the valley, but we’ve cut a trail along the side full of switchbacks that’s much easier to scale. The trail itself is less than a mile up to the site of the ruined temple. Behind that ruin on top of the mountain is a large plain that sinks down into a hidden valley, sheltered by mountain peaks. It’s almost as if the mountain in the middle had the top of it cleanly sliced off to create an enormous flat camping area. The temple ruin is near the front of it, overlooking the cliff and the valley.”

“That’s quite a journey,” Mahrree whispered, her breathing calming down enough to let her speak.

“Ah, it’s not that bad,” Peto smiled. “With horses we could be there and back in just two days. Maybe even do a little fishing.”

“I wasn’t thinking about your trip,” Mahrree told him. “I was thinking about families, children, expecting women, and the elderly trying to reach safety when the army of Idumea is on their heels.”

“Oh,” Peto whispered.

Mrs. Gleace nodded. “Now it sounds a bit harder, doesn’t it?”

Deck put his arm around Jaytsy.

“Our hope is,” Guide Gleace continued, “that with sufficient preparation and warning, the people of Salem won’t be running frantically. They’ll be able to move in a manner carefully planned so that no one’s left behind or in a panic.” He shifted his gaze to Perrin.

So did Mahrree. “Sounds like his kind of work. And it sounds like you’ve found your purpose as well,” she said to her husband.

“Why not just move people there now?” Peto asked. “If you know the end’s coming, go sit at the end and wait for it.”

Gleace chuckled. “I love the optimism of youth. First, my dear boy, there isn’t enough room for one-hundred-twenty-thousand people to sit and wait for something that may not happen for generations. Second, we can’t live our lives in fear of some distant unknown terror. We have to live each day now, enjoy the now, rejoice in the now. Do you really want to sit at a ruin until you’re an old man fretting and wringing your hands, or do you want to go out and find a beautiful young woman, and see what the Creator has in mind for you next?”

“Beautiful young woman, Guide! Show me where they are.”

The entire family gawked at Peto.

He slapped his hand over his mouth.

“What happened to, ‘I’m never getting married here?’” Jaytsy reminded him.

Deck snorted.

Peto shook his head. “I don’t know why I keep saying such things. I really don’t.”

Gleace laughed. “Finding beautiful young women is your job, Peto. I quit doing that kind of work fifty-three years ago. But I promise you, at your new congregation are many lovely girls. I was visiting there just last season. I go to every congregation. Takes me two years to make the rounds, and you can believe me: she’s out there—you’ll find her.”

 

—-

 

At the end of that long, exhausting, incredible day, Peto wearily tromped into his bedroom which he hadn’t fully inspected. Earlier, when he’d found the pocketknife, and heard that food was being delivered, he’d headed downstairs, not too concerned with where he’d sleep that night.

But now he smiled at his room—about the same size as in Edge—and decided he should see what the other drawers in his dresser contained. He experimentally opened a drawer and peered in at the tidy stacks of tunics.

The crinkling in his shirt pocket reminded him of what had been hiding there all day.

He pulled out the thick parchment envelope, gently removed the document, and smoothed it on his new bed. When he read the words about the greatest general that the world would ever see, his chest burned in sublime anticipation.

“This is it, isn’t it, Grandfather? Here in Salem? We got him here!”

Then, feeling the dishonesty of his statement, and realizing that Salem likely wasn’t a place for exaggeration, or for cynicism—

Salem was going to take a lot of getting used to, he sighed to himself.

Anyway, realizing that he needed to be more accurate, or Salem would be running him back to Edge, he said, “This is where he’s supposed to be that greatest general, right Grandfather? That’s what you were trying to tell me, back on the kickball field in Edge?”

His dark bedroom didn’t answer him anything, initially, but in the distance he heard a low rumble, as if the cosmos were sending him an answer via thunder. The rumble swelled ominously, impressively, until Peto was forced to admit it was only one of the Zenos’s wagons leaving their work on the Briters’ house for the night.

Still, it was a good effect, and he took it.

Grinning, Peto slid the document back into the envelope, and was about to put it back into his pocket for safe keeping when he stopped.

Under the tunics was as good as spot as any, Peto decided, and he shut the drawer.

Because he was home.

 

—-

 

In a dark office of an unlit building sat one man.

Around Nicko Mal were strewn nineteen years of notes, questions, findings, conclusions, and drafts of the greatest study never published, “Human Nature.” The room looked as if the author had taken the crates of meticulously written pages and hurled them in an explosive fit of rage.

Which, in fact, he had done.

The old man now sat calmer, primarily because he was exhausted, and stared at years of wasted effort littering his study like an untidy blizzard.

It was no longer an experiment. It was personal, oh so very personal. It had been ever since the Shins deliberately defied him by taking that stolen caravan to Edge—

No, no, Mal considered. No, it started much earlier than that. It began with a nosy little woman who dared to suggest his elevated thinking and high-minded measures were no better than the selfish and despicable kings he deposed. It started with her.

He wondered what else there was to do. How does one take revenge on those who no longer ‘officially’ exist? They abandoned him, his project, and his world without a thought for anyone else but themselves.

He kicked aside some of the papers scattered around the floor until he saw the hastily written note that had arrived by messenger not long ago. He bent over, retrieved it, and tried to smooth the crumpled page he had balled up earlier that day.

There was a beginning. A rather impressive beginning at that, he was loath to admit. He stood up, went to his desk shuffling through several inches of parchment, and pulled out a quill and ink. Then he began to write one idea, then another, and another as quickly as they flowed into this mind.

He would not let them destroy his greatest work. There was one more reaction that still could be observed, and it was going to be the most extraordinary one ever.

It just might even change the world.

 

 

 

Chapter 17—“Not even one trumpet.”

 

The next day was Holy Day, and before they were to go to their congregational meeting, the Shin family had something to do first. The five of them stood that early morning in front of the small stone building.

No one dared knock on the door.

“Are you sure this is it?” Peto squinted at the simple wood door, the plain stone structure, and the unadorned peaked roof.

Perrin shrugged. “It’s where the Guide said to be—”

The door swung open and a man in his forties smiled in greeting. “Thought I heard someone out here. Come in, they’ll be ready for you in just a moment.”

Perrin glanced at his wife and led the way, Mahrree following with Peto, Jaytsy, and Deck behind. They found themselves in a small room where wooden benches had been set along the sides next to the windows, cushioned with simple brown pillows.

“Please sit down,” the man said genially. “I’ll let them know you’re here. Just wrapping up. Holy Days are our busiest, you know. This won’t take but a minute.” He slipped through double doors across from them, and the sounds of a quiet conversation leaked out before the doors shut solidly.

“I’m assuming,” Jaytsy said, looking around her as she sat, “that this is nothing like the Administrative Headquarters.”

“Not at all!” Mahrree chuckled softly. “First, I’m not so nervous in the waiting room that I’m trying to think of ways to pass out. And second, while the sofas were far more elaborate, they actually felt firmer than this bench.”

Everyone sat and stared at the walls, waiting.

“So,” Deck started, attempting to break the uncomfortable silence, “what was involved in installing a High General in Idumea?”

Perrin exhaled and rolled his eyes. “What’s involved is about a thousand bored soldiers from the garrison and surrounding areas forced to put on their dress uniforms, all of the Administrators showing up in their fancy red coats with tails, plus several musicians—trumpeters, drummers, and the like—doing whatever it is they do, then the family of the new High General dressed in suits and silks and walking down a ridiculously long procession to the playing of the aforementioned trumpeters and drummers while the new High General does this odd slow march to some pavilion—” he gestured a grand structure in the air, “while wearing all his pomp and finery and medals and tries to look distinguished without clanking.

“Then he stands in front of Nicko Mal, recites some long, dull speech that they call the oath while all of the unfortunate soldiers stand at attention for what feels like an hour, then Mal does something—I can’t remember what—and the High General glides back down again between all of the soldiers with their swords out and raised high, probably wishing someone would drop one accidentally—since it’s Qayin Thorne, there may be a lot of accidents—and all the while they’re quietly praying, even though they’d never prayed before, that it could just end already. Oh, and there’s a stuffy dinner afterward.”

Seeing the sneers on everyone’s faces, Deck said, “So, this will be better then?”

“I don’t know what’s about to happen, Deck,” Perrin admitted. “I was just told to come this morning, bring the family, and . . . ?”

Mahrree smoothed her skirt. “I’m not sure I’m dressed for the occasion.”

Peto scoffed. “What else would you wear, Mother? No one here has even heard of silk!”

“Of course, of course. How silly of me—”

The doors swung open to reveal the same man, smiling broadly. “We’re ready for you.”

Perrin took a deep breath and stood up with his family. He headed for the doors, absently patting his left side for his sword—

Forgetting again just a moment too late that it wasn’t there, he clenched his fist briefly instead. Anything formal made him tense, especially when he didn’t know the level of formality expected.

But quickly he began to relax, because before him was a room not much larger than his new eating room. A long, plain table ran down the center of it, and on each side of the table were six men, twelve in total, dressed in the same simple tunics and trousers as Perrin. They ranged in ages from middle-aged to quite elderly, and they quickly rose—well, some of the older ones weren’t exactly quick, and used the table and in one case a neighbor to get to his feet—to greet the Shins with enthusiastic smiles.

At the very end stood Guide Gleace, grinning, his empty chair in front of him.

The Creator’s Assistants were a far more friendly sight than the world’s Administrators, Perrin thought to himself. Mahrree wouldn’t be passing out today.

Salem’s new general smiled back, until his eyes fell on the assistant closest to him and positioned at the most junior spot at the table.

He was considerably younger than the rest, and also appeared a bit surprised to be there.

Perrin didn’t mean to, but it had been gnawing at him all night and morning, and it just happened: he glowered at Shem.

Shem’s smile fell and he swallowed nervously.

Just how much did Shem think one man could take? How many more secrets and surprises? What else would Shem spring on him, with his feigned innocence? “Oh, I forgot to tell you, but . . .”

Shem shifted from one foot to the other, knowing full well by Perrin’s squint precisely how frustrated he was.

That was the man Perrin was supposed to report to.

That being of lies, that withholder of information. Never—not once—in his past few days of full disclosure had Shem bothered to disclose that his so-called claimed brother was supposed to be Salem’s general. Not in the barn at Deck’s when he professed to be honest about everything. Not in the cavern of the First Resting Station, not even during their first night in Salem. Shem was an endless supply of surprises.

And that was the man he was supposed to report to?

Perrin pointed at him, wishing his finger could somehow be sharper. “You!

The expressions on the faces of the assistants froze as their new general eyed their newest assistant.

“Perrin—” Mahrree said gently, taking his arm.

Shem firmed his stance, but also cowered ever so slightly. “Something wrong, General Shin?”

Because he possessed nothing more threatening, Perrin pointed again, as aggressively as possible. “I want the truth from you, the entire truth with no more little parts hiding to jump out at me later: how long did you know?”

Shem chuckled nervously and looked around the table. If he was expecting support, he wasn’t getting it, since the older men tensing in worry weren’t sure what to say either.

Guide Gleace folded his arms and watched.

“Uh,” Shem began with a grin that bordered on the inane, “since the very beginning, Perrin. The only reason I was sent to you was because . . . we thought you were the one. Our future general. Guide Hifadhi wanted to be sure.”

Perrin pulled back his finger to make a fist that he still held up.

“We discussed this last night, Perrin,” Gleace said steadily from the other side of the table. “Shem could never have told you anything. He wanted to, but it was my calling to explain it all and to issue you the call to be our general. Shem was merely following orders. First Guide Hifadhi’s, then my orders,” he emphasized. “Which, Perrin, outranked any of yours.”

Gleace’s expression was kind yet admonishing at the same time. A mixture which, Perrin realized, had he been able to perfect would have caused all of the thieving youth of Edge to feel as contrite and humble as he felt right then.

When Mahrree again tugged on his arm, a bit more urgently, he knew he had no other option but to drop his fist and attempt a smile.

“Sorry, Shem . . . everyone. It’s just that . . . so many secrets. So many revelations.” He shrugged helplessly. “My head’s been swirling so much that this morning I wasn’t even sure if I had my boots on the right feet.”

The men at the table laughed too earnestly, relieved that they weren’t about to witness their first fist fight in Salem, and on a Holy Day at that.

Throwing all caution to the wind, Shem caught Perrin in a big hug. “I’m sorry too, General. But we’ve waited so long for this day. Isn’t this amazing? Say it with me: amazing! Come on—your favorite word?”

Perrin’s glare turned pitiful. It was difficult to stay stern when everyone around him was laughing. “All right, Shem. Maybe later, once everything’s out of the way,” he said, not sure what ‘everything’ was about to be.

“Guide,” Mahrree said, “I hope we’re dressed appropriately?”

Gleace smiled. “Just fine, Mrs. Shin. This isn’t Idumea, you know. The Creator has no need for shows and demonstrations. He doesn’t need to establish His power; He just wants to share it.”

“So, what happens now?” Perrin asked.

“Simple,” Gleace said, pulling his chair out from the table. “You sit here, I put my hands on your shoulders, and in front of your family and these witnesses, I—by the authority of the Creator—proclaim and bless you to be Salem’s general. I may ask for the Creator to help inspire you in ways to fulfill your calling, grant you the health and strength you need to defend this land, and probably thank the Creator for sending us such a capable soldier. I might even remind you to be nice to Shem, since he was just doing his duty, after all.”

Everyone chuckled at that, even Perrin.

“But perhaps I can leave that out. Then you stand up, shake my hand, and we all go our separate directions since Holy Day is the busiest day for all of us.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly and gestured to the chair.

Perrin nodded and started to make his way past the assistants to the head of the table. The men sat down and slid their chairs in to make room for him to get by.

“Hmm,” Peto muttered as his father squeezed between the old men and the wall, “not even one trumpet.”

One of the assistants heard him. “I’ve got a small flute in my pocket,” and he fished it out to show him.

Peto waved that off. “I’m sorry,” he smiled, slightly embarrassed. “Just . . . never mind.”

“Would you like flute lessons?”

Mahrree, Jaytsy, and Deck tried not to snort.

“No, no!” Peto exclaimed, blushing. “I was just being—Really, please. Just never mind.”

Perrin shot Peto a warning look.

“Because I’m a very good teacher—”

“I believe, Gull,” Gleace said as Perrin, who finally made it to the other end, sat down, “that young Mr. Shin was referring to some of the more bombastic displays in Idumea. Usually an event such as appointing a new leader would be accompanied by trumpets.”

“Ah,” the assistant said, slipping the flute back into his pocket, much to the relief and embarrassment of Peto.

Another assistant patted the flute-toting assistant on the back. “Young Mr. Shin was displaying a subtle example of sarcasm, Gull. Since you never spent time as a scout, you never learned that affectation from the world. Mr. Shin is well-versed in the techniques, I’m sure.”

“Sorry,” Peto mumbled again.

“And as you can tell,” Shem said, smirking, “several of our assistants are also well-versed in the techniques.”

Perrin glanced around at the assistants. “Just how many of you served as scouts?”

Eight hands went up.

So did Perrin’s eyebrows. Then he rubbed his forehead. The surprises weren’t about to end anytime soon.

“I remember that move,” an elderly assistant pointed at him. “You massaged your forehead even as a teenager.”

Perrin’s hand stopped moving.

“You must have been about sixteen or seventeen,” the assistant went on, clearly enjoying his reminiscing. “I was working under your father Relf at the time. You came in to the stable where he was, asking your father for something. I don’t remember what it was, but when he denied you, you started massaging your forehead.”

Perrin’s hand dropped to his lap as he stared at the old man.

“It’s quite all right,” he continued. “Rather an endearing trait. Helped us to identify you.”

“He hasn’t seen his file yet,” Gleace said.

Perrin sighed. “My file?”

“To make sure we were watching the right people,” Gleace told him, “we not only recorded physical descriptions, but also quirks and mannerisms.”

The elderly man grinned. “I was the first to record you were a head rubber. Whenever the world went contrary to what you expected, that’s when your fingers met your forehead.”

Perrin clenched his fists to keep from rubbing his head.

The elderly man craned his neck to see Perrin’s lap. “Yep. Recorded you did that too. Fists. To keep from massaging your forehead.”

Mahrree was shaking so hard at the other side of the room that she couldn’t contain it anymore. Her snort escaped, and her daughter, who was also giggling, elbowed her.

“It was my son who noticed that,” the man smiled at Mahrree. “Mrs. Shin’s a snorter,” he said. “His descriptions helped your sister Galena to identify her in the forest, didn’t they, Hew?”

“I never snorted in the forest!” Mahrree declared, to the amusement of the room.

“No, but you snorted in the village.”

Even Perrin began to chuckle. “I think I’ll have to take a look at those files. All of them,” he said, looking up at Gleace.

“Once you’re General Shin, those files will belong to you. Now, if we may?”

Four minutes later Perrin became General Shin, with Guide Gleace saying exactly what he predicted he would, without the reminder to be nice the Shem.

General Shin and his family left the small stone structure a few minutes later, after each of the assistants insisted on hugging him, and walked home for breakfast before the congregational meeting, as if extraordinary things happened like that every day.

In Salem, it seemed that they actually did.

 

—-

 

Two hours later, the Shins and Briters realized that the guide wasn’t exaggerating the night before about the congregation meeting. Their neighborhood congregation hall was packed, with more children and young adults than any of them had seen before at a Holy Day service. Even though they were early, they sat near the back because of the crowd.

At the front of the congregation hall stood a couple of men talking to Shem. He had been watching the door and when he saw the Shins come in, he nodded a quick goodbye and made his way through the aisles to them. It took him a few minutes to get there because of the number of people wanting to shake his hand and share a word, but when he finally made it to the back, Perrin was smirking.

“Is everyone here to see you?”

Shem shook his head. “This is how it is every week. Not like Edge, right?”

“It’s a lot noisier than Edge, too,” Mahrree said, watching a family of small boys in front of her try to sit down on top of each other.

“And who went to the services there? Old people, one bachelor, and your family,” Shem reminded her.

“That’s true,” Mahrree agreed, watching the boys rearrange themselves. “I think the noise of children is better than—”

“—the snores of old women,” Peto finished for her. “That old Mrs. Vits drove me crazy every week. Always sat behind us, too.”

“Peto, that’s not nice,” Jaytsy said. But her attention was drawn to a little girl wandering down their row, eyeing Deck. She stopped at his knee, leaned on it, and looked up at him with adoring eyes.

Deck sat back nervously and scanned the area searching for anyone missing a child. No nearby adults seemed to belong to her.

Unable to ignore her puppy dog eyes any longer, Deck looked down. “Hi.”

She smiled.

He squirmed. “Time to find your parents, don’t you think?”

“You have a nose.”

Deck looked around him again, growing desperate. “Yes I do.”

“It’s right there.”

Deck leaned over. “Jaytsy,” he said through clenched teeth, “why is she talking to me?”

“Because apparently you have a nose,” Jaytsy whispered.

Peto shook with silent laughter.

Deck prodded his brother-in-law next to him. “Talk to him. He’s looking for single women. Are you practical?”

The girl shook her head. “I like you. I like your nose.”

Deck’s face went mushy, either from trying to see his nose or trying to figure out what to say next. Suddenly struck with brilliance, he said, “I hear your mother calling you.”

“No you don’t. She’s back there talking. I see her.”

Deck craned his neck to see several rows of happily chatting women, all of whom could have been the right age to be her mother.

“Your father’s calling you, then.”

“No he’s not. He’s talking to those mans over there.”

Down the row Deck saw a man talking to his in-laws and Shem.

“So I can stay here and look at your nose. Are you a papa yet?”

“Almost.”

Jaytsy and Peto giggled next to him.

“You won’t be very good at it,” the girl decided.

“Wha . . .?” Deck exclaimed open as Jaytsy held her belly and laughed. Peto nearly fell off the bench.

The girl’s father was working his way down the row. “I’m sorry, is she insulting you? She tends to do that. Can’t really control the tongue of a three-year-old. I know—we’ve been trying. Come on, Troublemaker. It’s time to say awkward things to your mama.”

The girl smiled sweetly at Deck and batted her eyelashes. “Bye!”

Deck frowned. “Our child will never be like that.”

“Oh, now you’ve done it, Deckett Briter,” Mahrree sighed. “You’ve doomed yourself to have a daughter just like her. That’s how it works, you know. The Creator hears you criticizing, then He sends you the same challenge to see how well you’ll handle it. I know—that’s how we ended up with Peto.”

“Hey!” Peto exclaimed before being shushed by his family as the service started.

At the beginning of the service Rector Bustani, whom they had met the day before, invited the Shins and Briters to stand so he could introduce them. The congregation had become surprisingly quiet and reverent as soon as the rector stood up, which meant everyone there heard clearly who it was that had just moved in.

It was unnerving to face several hundred heads swiveling to gawk at them, especially since Perrin suspected what they were all thinking about him. It didn’t help that Rector Bustani had announced that earlier in the morning, Perrin had accepted the call to be Salem’s general.

He knew he was going pink when one of the little boys in the row in front of them whispered loudly, “He chased bad men with Shem Zenos.”

His mother quickly covered his mouth as several rows of people chuckled. The mother smiled an apology to Perrin and he nodded forgivingly at her.

“Can we see your sword later?” one of the older brothers whispered enthusiastically.

When they sat back down, Perrin leaned over to Mahrree. “So much for living in anonymity.”

“They’ll forget,” she whispered.

But by the time the service ended, no one had forgotten. There was a line to greet the Shins and Briters nearly as long as there was to catch a few minutes with the rector. It was forty-five minutes later before they started to make their way home.

Accompanied, of course.

“I’m really sorry,” the boys’ mother said to Mahrree as they walked together back to the Shins’ home. “We should rescue him.”

But Mahrree laughed. “Don’t you dare. This is the best entertainment I’ve seen in weeks.”

Peto, Jaytsy, and Deck chuckled in agreement.

Ahead of them on the road, Perrin looked back briefly. Mahrree waved to him to continue.

“Really,” the boys’ father said, “he doesn’t deserve—”

“Oh, yes he does,” Peto declared.

The string of five boys that had sat in front of them during the service were knotted around Perrin, asking him so many questions that he never had a chance to answer them.

“So if a Guarder is coming from the left, and another from the right—”

“Well, that really didn’t happen—”

“What if you lost your horse? What if you were running, and then—”

“Actually, that did happen. You see—”

“They really made you leave your sword? That’s so mean!”

“Not really. I turned in my sword because I—”

“How do you hold one? Here, show me with this stick.”

“I don’t think your mother would approve—”

“No, this stick! It’s bigger.”

“Salem’s supposed to be a place of peace, so I don’t think—”

“He’s holding it wrong, isn’t he, Mr. Shin? He’s always doing it wrong!”

Mahrree was giggling so hard she was shaking.

The boys’ mother glanced over at her. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re nothing like I expected. Neither is your husband.”

The boys’ father nodded. “He’s remarkably patient.”

Their youngest son grabbed Perrin’s hand and held it firmly as they walked. Perrin glanced back again at Mahrree, with pleading in his eyes, but she just beamed at him.

“Everyone gets the wrong idea about him,” Mahrree said. “But we know he’s a big softy. Especially when someone puts an infant in his arms.”

Jaytsy ran her hand over her belly and smiled.

“I’ll admit,” the boys’ father said, “that I was a little worried to hear General Shin would be our neighbor, but now I’m more worried for him.”

The Shins, Briters, and the boys’ parents laughed, and Perrin glanced back one more time, seeking deliverance. By now each boy had a large stick in his hand, hoping for a lesson. Knowing there was no way around it, he stopped.

“Men,” he announced formally, and each boy stood immediately at attention. He smiled at their obedience, which was snappier than many of his new recruits. “Well done. Men, hand me those ‘swords’. It’s time to teach you a thing or two.”

“Uh-oh,” Deck mumbled to Peto. “If he takes them to the barn for wrestling practice, they’re just going to giggle.”

“Like we did?”

Perrin stood at command in front of his short troops. “Do you men want to become the strongest soldiers?”

“Yes, sir!”

Their mother cleared her throat, uncertain about what the new general may be intending, but Perrin winked reassuringly at her.

“Back in the world we judged the strongest soldier—” he tossed away the sticks, much to the boys’ dismay, “—by having a race. Yes, I realize you don’t really have races in Salem,” he sent a sidelong glance to his family, “but you don’t have swords either, yet boys being boys you seem to know how to fashion them anyway. So men, we’ll have a race. But not just any race—an obstacle race like we had in Edge. Shem Zenos and I had to run through gardens, orchards, from one house to another, and once, I even had to run carrying a chicken for a mile. And guess what? Chickens don’t enjoy running.”

The boys burst into giggles.

“And in one race, Shem had to kiss a girl!” Perrin pulled a face which the boys all matched.

“Eww, yuck!”

“So, men—who’s ready to start becoming the strongest soldier? Your first task is to run home, when I say.”

The boys jumped up and down, clapping their hands.

Their mother relaxed. “He’s a clever one, isn’t he?”

Mahrree chuckled. “That he is.”

“Line up, men,” Perrin ordered. He waved over to the children’s father to come stand next to them. “Your father will run behind you to make sure none of you cheat. We always had chasers on our races. Now, line up here. When I say ‘go,’ you run as fast as you can for home, right?”

The boys nodded and got into position, waiting for the word.

“Ready . . . go!”

Four boys took off running with their father behind, but the youngest, three years old, burst into tears.

Perrin picked him up. “Want to be my chicken?”

“Yes!”

Perrin tucked him under his arm and started in a sprint after the older brothers, quickly catching up to them.

Their mother’s jaw dropped to see General Shin loping past her sons, her youngest tucked under his arm like a laughing bale of hay.

Mahrree patted the boy’s mother. “He may be jiggled up a bit, but Perrin never dropped a chicken.”

The mother chuckled. “Yes, nothing at all as I imagined. I think you’re going to do just fine in Salem.”

After the race, which the three-year-old won with a little help, the Shins and Briters finished their midday meal consisting of offerings left by Salemites the day before. They were just cleaning up when a knock came at the front door.

“And so it begins,” Peto grumbled as Deck went to answer it.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Mahrree smiled as she carried plates into the kitchen. After several weeks of no contact with people in Edge, she was hungry for friends.

“Just us,” a familiar voice called, and Shem and Yudit came into the large gathering room.

“I’m sure you’ve been visited near to death,” Yudit said, “but we have something for you.” She held a large wrapped package.

Perrin picked up the last of the plates from the table. “You’re always welcome. Come sit down.”

Yudit motioned to the family. “This is for all of you.” She sat the bundle on the table and waited for Mahrree and Perrin to come back into the room. Then she unwrapped a large book. The Writings, Updated Version. “I understand your version was a bit thinner.”

Mahrree started bouncing when she saw it. “Does it have the family lines?”

Yudit opened the thick leather binding and thumbed through the new crisp pages to the back to reveal charts and diagrams full of names and dates. “There it is. The first five hundred families, then their descendants. Takes up a big part of the text, but we’ve developed a rather efficient numbering system. Now Mahrree . . . Mahrree? Where did she go?”

Everyone heard Mahrree running up the stairs. They shrugged to each other and waited, because a moment later she came rushing back down. Pressed to her chest were papers, and she regarded Perrin with edgy excitement.

“I have something I wasn’t supposed to let the commander of Edge know I had. But since he had Terryp’s map all this time—” Mahrree laid down the pages and smoothed them on the table.

“Family lines!” Jaytsy squealed. “How did you get them?”

“This is your handwriting,” Perrin said, picking up one copy.

Peto took the copy underneath. “But I don’t know this writing.”

“That’s because your great-great-great-grandmother Kanthi made that copy, just as the king was asking for the lines,” Mahrree told them. “Her husband Viddrow told her make a copy, and it was handed down our line through the women. My mother had it hidden in her recipe collection. I made a copy of it right after Peto was born.”

Perrin narrowed his eyes at her. “Before or after?” he asked.

Mahrree thought for a moment, trying to understand what he meant before she remembered their argument on their second wedding anniversary. “After. And I was going to give a copy to Jaytsy in a few years to stash in her recipe collection, but now?” She grinned at Yudit. “Can we find my line?”

“Of course,” said Yudit. “Let’s start with the names before the division, and see if your names are the same we have recorded.”

“Mahrree Peto Shin,” Shem said slowly. “You are a traitor.”

“I know!” Mahrree squealed.

Yudit flipped several pages in The Writings, glanced at Mahrree’s notes, then turned another few pages. “No!” she whispered, and Mahrree had never realized before that the word could sound happy. “Shem, look!” She handed him Mahrree’s copy and pointed to a name.

“Hey, that looks like . . .” Shem checked the pages and said a happy, “No!” just like his sister.

“What? What?” Mahrree cried.

“My father’s line!” Shem said. “Mahrree, we share the same great-great-great-grandfather Boskos! My father was named after him. Five generations back, but we’re cousins!”

Yudit clapped her hands. “I love doing family lines. See? You do belong here!”

“Really?” Mahrree said tears welling in her eyes. “Are you sure? But I don’t have a Boskos.”

“Actually, you do. Look,” Yudit said, taking Mahrree’s pages and laying them next to the Zenos family lines. “In our records there were a couple of sons who went missing during the Great War. We don’t know what happened to them. We have birth dates, but no deaths. Either they died in battle or were separated from their families or severed contact. Right here—your great-great-grandfather Barnos was one who was considered lost.”

“But his last name was Eno,” Mahrree said.

“That was common then. When adult children disagreed with their parents, they often cut off part of their last names to designate a break with the family. We have him recorded as having changed his name to Eno as well,” Yudit pointed to his name on the line.

“That’s right. Professor Kopersee told us about that practice,” Mahrree said.

“He must have chopped his name before his father Boskos came to Salem, bringing what family he had left with him,” Yudit decided. “There were a few adult children left behind. Look at your copy, Mahrree. See, even though Barnos’s parents’ names are recorded as Osko and Huld Eno, there were no other Eno families in the world. I have the records to prove it. When Barnos registered his name and his parents’ names, as was required at the time when someone moved into a new village, he probably changed their identities to protect himself from suspicion. Boskos became Osko, and Huldah became Huld. He likely didn’t want anyone to know his family were Guarders who escaped. We think that’s part of the reason why all the records were eventually destroyed. Who knows, maybe even King Querul had Guarder blood he didn’t want anyone to discover.”

“That’s what Graeson Fadh’s ancestors did, too,” Shem said. “Hifadhi was cut down to Fadh.”

Mahrree ran her hand reverently over the names. “I never would have guessed,” she said softly. “I never considered that Zenos might have been the same as Eno,” she said quietly, looking at her family lines next to the Zenos lines. Once they reached Boskos Zenos, the names were identical back to the First Families. “Had I known, Shem, I might have risked asking you about it.”

Shem exhaled. “Good thing you didn’t, Mahrree. I wouldn’t have known what to answer. ‘Yes, you’re my fourth cousin.

That’s why we have the same color hair. Now, want to guess how I know that and where I really come from?’”

The family chuckled, and Mahrree put an arm around her cousin and squeezed him.

“That’s amazing,” Perrin said, shaking his head as the family leaned over to read the names on the Zenos family line page. “I know, Shem, I said ‘amazing’ again. I think I’m entitled. Well Peto, what do you think? He’s almost your real uncle. Peto? Where did he go?”

 

—-

 

Peto was upstairs in his room, pulling the thick parchment envelope out from under his new tunics. With his hands shaking in excitement, he opened the envelope, pulled out the document, and thought he could smell Relf Shin. He unfolded it and smiled at the two names on the top of the page.

Begin with the names I told you. Some day you will want to know them again.”

I’ll remember, Grandfather.”

Not good enough! You must write it down, boy! Then write down what I told you. Neater than that, Peto! I can see the scribbles from here.”

Peto grinned as he pulled out his new pocketknife, laid the parchment on the desk, and using a book as a straightedge, carefully sliced off the top strip.

It contained two names and the signature of his grandfather.

Peto chuckled as he folded the larger piece of parchment, put it back in the envelope, and slid it back into its hiding place.

“Now watch, Grandfather!”

He walked as casually as possible down the stairs, the thin slip of paper hiding in his shirt pocket, to see the inquisitive look of his father.

“Everything all right, Peto?”

“Yes, sure. I was just thinking, Yudit, if you still have that page open . . . Oh good, you do. What can you tell me about a name I saw on your family’s line.” He leaned over the book and pointed. “Lorixania? That looked like an interesting name.”

Yudit rolled her eyes. “Lorixania Eriniki! Well now, she was a character.” She pointed to the name on the opposite page, an ancestor on their mother’s line.

“With a name like Lorixania,” Perrin chuckled, “I imagine she should be.”

“We know only a little bit about her,” Shem said. “Such as that she was the most outspoken woman in our mother’s line.”

“And that’s saying something,” Yudit chuckled. “Our mother’s line was an unbroken string of loud women for six generations until Shem disrupted the pattern.”

Shem grinned. “When our father was courting our mother she warned him that no sons had been born in her family for generations, and if he was serious about her, he better expect daughters. That’s why my father was so proud of himself when I was born.”

“Well, now Lorixania Eriniki—we don’t have her married name recorded,” Yudit explained, “Lorixania was rebellious, loud, and a shockingly large woman with a deep voice. She had her own ideas about everything, questioned everything anyone told her, and never followed expectations. During the Great War she tried a few times to follow her husband, who was an officer in the army, into battle. He kept sending her back, along with her long knives. Apparently she had several stashed around the house.”

Perrin chuckled. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”

“You think so, Father?” Peto asked.

“When the time for the division came,” Yudit continued, “and Lorixania’s parents got the message of ‘Salem,’ her father told her she needed to escape with them. But Lorixania decided he was making a mistake, and she didn’t want to leave her husband, who refused to go.”

“Baba Eriniki, her father, wasn’t too happy about the idea of an army,” Shem told them. “The idea of men organized specifically to fight? He thought that was the most horrific thing he’d ever heard of.”

Perrin scoffed lightly. “Can you imagine his reaction to realize his great-great—” He paused to count the generations, shrugged as he gave up, then said, “his descendant grandson Shem Zenos was one of the highest ranked soldiers in the world?”

“Yes,” Peto said slyly. “Can you imagine?”

Yudit grimaced. “I’m sure he’s seen the need now. But back then there was a huge family argument, and Lorixania’s parents couldn’t convince her to join them. Her mother Mitera was devastated. We have a few pages of her writings describing her grief. Lorixania stayed behind, never to be heard from again. Broke her parents’ hearts. What was her husband’s name?” Yudit looked back at the line.

“Right there,” Shem pointed. “We have only a first name. He was called Lek.”

No one noticed Peto developing wetness around his eyes. No one had ever seen that before so no one even bothered to look.

“Lek?” Jaytsy made a face. “Sounds like something you do when you’re sick.”

“Now be nice,” Mahrree said. “Don’t make fun of people’s names. It’s Shem’s family, and he might be insulted.”

“It’s not just Shem’s family,” said a quiet voice.

Everyone turned to Peto.

He removed a slip of paper from his pocket and laid it down on the chart of family lines.

 

Lek and Lorixania Shin.

Signed, Relf Shin.

 

“Dear Creator!” Mahrree whispered.

That was the only sound for a full minute. Seven pairs of eyes stared at the names scrawled by a younger Peto, accompanied by the verifying signature of Relf Shin, trying to let the weight of the names sink in. It was like trying to absorb mushrooms.

Finally Peto broke the silence. He knew that since he caused it, he best end it.

“Lek Shin was a general in Idumea,” he said softly to the stunned family. “One of the first five generals ever appointed. General Pere Shin wasn’t the first Shin general, nor was Lieutenant Colonel Ricolfus Shin the first in our family to be an officer. Lek Shin was to have been the first High General, but it seems he failed in his most important commission given to him by the king: to retrieve the rebellious Guarder family of his wife. That’s what the last High General Shin of Idumea told me, days after they pulled him from the rubble, and days before he died. That’s why Relf was there when the tremor hit. He’d accidentally found family histories in that old storage room, and went back early in the morning to read them in private. It was probably the box you thought you saw, Father, where you found the maps when you were a lieutenant. Someone moved the cabinet in front of it, but Grandfather moved it away. We’re Guarders, on both sides of our family. Always have been. Baba Eriniki actually had several descendant grandsons who ranked as the highest soldiers in the world. And this morning, one was installed as the general of Salem.”

Peto watched the other six people to see who would break their frozen silence next. It was Shem. Peto thought he could have been a betting man. He picked that one right off.

“We’re family, Perrin!” Shem cried as he gave Perrin a big bear hug that lifted him off the ground.

Perrin still stared, transfixed, at the names.

“That’s why my family needed a son! To come get you! To bring our families together again! This is amazing!” he shook Perrin, his arms still wrapped around him. “Say it with me, Perrin! Amazing!

Deck chuckled at Shem’s enthusiasm and Perrin’s continued shock. “By my count,” he said, “this is the third time in four days we’ve stared at a document in surprise. How many more might we expect?”

Mahrree sniffled. “Why, that’s not fair. The children are related to Shem on both sides.”

Yudit counted the generations. “We’re fourth cousins to them, once removed, twice!”

“Say something, Father,” Jaytsy shook his arm that Shem just released. “Look at this. You really do belong in Salem.”

Perrin slowly sat down.

Peto shoved a chair underneath him just in time.

Picking up the strip of parchment, Perrin ran a finger across his father’s signature. “Why didn’t he tell me?” he whispered.

Peto wet his lips and tried to think of how to put it. “Relf didn’t know himself until just before the land tremor. He said he’d get into trouble for finding the crate and not telling anyone. He probably didn’t want you to get in trouble either, if anyone should find out. He had gone back that Holy Day morning to try to get more information when the tremor hit. The area collapsed on him before he reached it.”

“Is that why you went back inside when we visited the site?” Jaytsy asked. “To try to find the crate?”

Peto nodded. “I wanted to find the file of the family history Grandfather was trying to reach. But it’s all gone now. He said we had all we needed. He remembered those two names and had me write them down. He said someday I would want them again. I guess today is ‘someday.’”

Perrin finally looked up at Peto. “I was the one who moved that cabinet, years ago. To hide the spot from where I stole Terryp’s map. It never occurred to me to go back again to see what was in the crate. But apparently it occurred to my father. He could have told me.”

Peto shrugged. “I guess he thought you weren’t ready. I guess . . . we’re just a family of secrets, aren’t we?”

Mahrree looked down guiltily, Jaytsy squirmed, Shem cleared his throat, and Perrin finally began to smile. “What was it I said to you, Shem, in Deck’s barn? I called you a lying, deceitful brother?”

“Sneaky. You forgot sneaky.”

“Yes, sneaky.”

“Looks like it runs in the family, brother!”

Perrin began to chuckle. “Family. All right, Shem, amazing!” He stared at slip of paper. “I simply can’t believe it. I thought Yordin’s situation was ironic, serving the king to avenge his lost grandparents, but I’ve been doing the same thing. Fadh didn’t know he had relatives here, and neither did I. One’s been serving with me for seventeen years. I guess there was a reason I always considered you my brother.”

“Actually, Shem’s a fourth cousin to you,” Yudit clarified. “And to Mahrree. So for Jaytsy and Peto, since they’re related twice, their connection to us is doubled. I think instead of being fourth cousins once removed, twice, they should to be up to second cousins, like fractions. But no one will believe me it should work that way.”

Perrin blinked at her. “Fractions don’t work that way, either. ‘Brother’ is just easier to remember. Peto, did your grandfather tell you when to show this to me?”

“No, he didn’t. He just wanted me to know.”

Perrin held up his hands in surrender. “Is there anything else anyone else feels I should know about, once and for all, because as Deck said, we’ve been doing this a lot and I really would like to try to get back to a normal life without any more surprises. If that’s possible.”

“As if he would know what a normal life looks like,” Yudit murmured loudly to her brother.

Perrin pointed at her. “Exactly! I want to start having a normal, quiet life. So, anything else? Please? Confession time, right now.” He beckoned at all of his family, including the two Zenos cousins.

Mahrree shrugged. “I can’t think of anything else I should tell you about, I’m quite sure.”

Shem narrowed his eyes at Mahrree, giving her a sedative glare, then turned to Perrin. “I’ve been keeping quiet about things for seventeen years, it’s kind of hard to remember what you don’t know. A few surprises may still pop up here and there, but I can’t think of anything right now.”

“Fair enough,” Perrin said and turned to Jaytsy with a raised eyebrow.

“You know everything, Father. I’m pretty sure you do.”

Perrin nodded, and turned to Deck.

“I just wonder every now and then what I’ve married into,” he said sheepishly. “Does that count?”

Perrin chuckled. “Sure, Deck,” and turned to Peto.

“Peaches.”

“Peaches?” Perrin repeated.

“Yes. Yudit, do they grow peaches around here?”

“Why yes, we do, Peto. My sister has an orchard with four different varieties. But since your father’s now glaring at me, I’m not going to say anything more.”

“Peto?” Perrin said steadily.

“Hmm?”

“Anything else, son?”

“Oh, are we still doing that? I was thinking about dessert and cobblers and thought, how terrible if they don’t have peaches here in the Harvest Season, but four different varieties? I thought there was only one.”

Perrin sighed. “You and your stomach.” He held up the slip of parchment. “May I keep this?”

“Can I plant four different kinds of peach trees?”

Perrin put the piece of paper into his pocket and nodded. “Do whatever you want with that back garden.”

Peto internalized the biggest sigh of relief ever to not be uttered. He’d picked a bad time to decide to become totally honest in everything he said and did.

Father had said, after all, anything the family felt he should know about. Peto didn’t feel Perrin should know anything more right now, especially what the rest of that parchment said. For some reason the time just didn’t feel right to tell him about the greatest general the world would ever see.

Good thing he was sneaky, he decided, and he wondered what other traits ran in his family, his now very large, extensive family.

And now he knew what to do with the peach pits, if only he hadn’t left them in Edge.

 

 

 

Chapter 18—“You have a family?”

 

Later that afternoon, after the shock of the family connections wore down to merely an astonishing reverberation, Peto got directions from Yudit on how to find Rector Yung’s house. He hadn’t had time to talk to him the day before—too overwhelmed with visitors and food—but he had a suspicion that Yung knew where he could find peach pits. Besides, Peto hadn’t visited the lonely widower, and after so many weeks he figured Yung would appreciate a visitor . . .

All right, Peto knew he had to be more honest than that in Salem. His frequent visits before to Yung hadn’t been about checking on the old man, but using him as a grandfather who could help Peto sort his thoughts. Peto needed more sorting, and hoped Yung wouldn’t mind being bothered yet again.

Yung’s place was less than two miles north of the Shins, and Peto wasn’t sure if he had the right place when he saw the large house.

Peto hesitated to approach, until he saw a girl scamper from a nearby chicken coop. “Excuse me, but I’m looking for Rector Yung?”

“You found him. Follow me.”

Disbelieving, Peto followed her up to a side door. His mouth fell open when she called out, “Grandpa Great, visitor!”

“Grandpa Great?” Peto murmured as he saw the swirl of a dozen people, all ages, gathering around a large eating room table. It must have been a different Yung—

“Peto, my boy!” Rector Yung, the familiar one, rushed over and caught him in a hug. “I was hoping for a chance to speak with you.”

Peto gestured, confused, to the crowd that was now watching and smiling at him. “Who are all of these people?”

“My family,” Yung announced. “That’s my son, my daughter-in-law—” Names were given, relationships stated, but Peto just stared at the people who were supposedly Rector Yung’s . . .

“You have a family?”

“Of course.”

“But Shem said you were a lonely old widower.”

“Yes, I’ve been lonely without my wife, and I’m old—”

You have a family!”

The rector’s son chuckled and came over to shake Peto’s hand. “Part of his cover story, no doubt, to make it sound as if he doesn’t have four children, twenty-three grandchildren, and forty-one great-grandchildren.”

Rector Yung smiled. “And the first great-great is due shortly after Jaytsy’s baby.”

“You have a family!”

Yung’s daughter-in-law, setting down a bread basket, said, “Not as if we’ve been able to keep him here, though. He’s always been too adventurous. And when Shem and Guide Gleace came by a few years ago looking for someone to serve as rector in Edge, we’re sure they were asking him for suggestions, not looking for a volunteer.”

“How could I have resisted such a temptation? After I lost my dear wife,” he gestured to a painting on the wall, and something caught in his throat. “I needed something to do.”

Peto took a few steps closer to the startlingly lifelike painting of a younger Rector Yung—black hair, narrow and gentle eyes—and his wife: blond ponytail, fiery blue eyes. Peto glanced behind him at the various family members still watching him, and noticed the resemblances. A few had eyes like Yung, combined with the fire of his wife.

“I just never realized . . . never imagined, that . . .” he started but stopped, knowing his ignorance sounded stupid.

Yung’s son, a larger man with the coloring of his father, chuckled. “Papa always said he was good at covering his tracks, and apparently he’s as good an undercover scout as the corps claimed he was.”

Yung waved that away, a bit embarrassed. “And what can I do for you, Peto?” And, because he still knew how to be a rector, said to his son, “I feel like a little walk. Start supper without me,” and he escorted Peto out of the house.

“Rector, I didn’t mean for you to miss your supper.”

“Not a problem,” Yung said easily as they wandered in the yard. “They’ll try to force me to eat too much, then fawn on me too much, and will continue to be overly merry because afterward . . .” His voice grew quieter. “After, we’ll plan the memorial for Dormin.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Peto mumbled. “Sorry about all of that. He was supposed to come for dinner, right?”

“Supposed to stay the whole weekend,” Yung said, his gait slowing to a crawl. “He was supposed to tell your father all about his adventures—” A few moments passed before he started again. “Dormin kept an open journal which he freely shared. I suppose I could show that to Perrin, although it won’t be the same.”

Peto didn’t know what to say. Yung had always been cheering Peto up, not the other way around. “Sorry,” was all he could come up with.

“It’s all right,” Yung said. “As Asrar is fond of saying, it’s all good. Dormin wouldn’t have wanted to go any other way. He and my wife must be sharing so many stories right now.” Yung was smiling, but Peto, watching him askance, could see a tear trickle down his cheek. “Both of them were so good in the trees. I always got lost. I always needed one or both of them to see me through.”

Peto got the impression he was talking about something more besides the forest.

They walked a few more slow steps and Yung muttered, in a barely audible whisper, “I envy them.”

Peto knew it would be useless to say, once more, “Sorry,” so he just kept up the slow pace to wherever they were going.

Eventually Yung said, with forced cheeriness, “Well now, you came to visit me for a reason. What can I do for you, son?” He stopped and turned to Peto, his ready grin as wide as ever, as if he’d easily shelved his own grief.

Peto felt doubly stupid for what he was about to ask. “I . . . I came for . . . peach pits?”

“You didn’t bring any from Edge?”

“Was I supposed to?”

“No,” Yung smiled. “Besides, we have far better varieties.” He gestured around him. “Do you realize where we are?”

Peto stopped abruptly. They were in an orchard. Was that even a big enough word? The scent of the blossoms hung heavy in the air, tickling his nose. Rows of carefully pruned trees went on from all directions, for acres.

Yung definitely knew his way around trees, if not around randomly planted forests. The old man reached up and caressed a white blossom, smiling in anticipation. “Apricots will be plentiful this year, as long as we don’t have a late frost.”

Peto nodded, as if he knew what apricots were.

Indicating a large shed on the edge of the orchard, Yung said, “I have seeds and pits of all kinds, Peto. In our family we have thirty acres of orchards. Tell me what you want. Cherries, pears, apples, apricots, plums, and certainly peaches. I also have walnuts, cashews, almonds—”

“No wonder you knew so much about trees and, and, and . . . stuff,” Peto managed, staring in awe. “Maybe I want to plant more than just four peach trees.”

“An orchard for yourself? Splendid idea! May I be so bold as to ask to help you?”

Peto shrugged. “I really don’t want to drag you away from your family, especially at a time like this—”

Especially at a time like this,” Yung said, gripping his arm and steering him to the shed, “I need a project. I ran away to Edge after I lost my wife, I freely admit that. But now they say I’m too old to do that again, and besides, they don’t want rectors in the world. Peto, as an old friend—meaning that I’m an old man so you had better listen—I’m begging you. Please let me help you plant your own orchard.”

“But the land’s huge, and we have rocks to clear, and weeds to pull, and holes to dig—”

“Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Don’t make me get on my knees to beg, Peto. It’s getting harder to get back up. What do you say? Tomorrow night’s the memorial, then the next day, after school, we get started?”

Peto could see the pleading in his eyes. Not that he wanted to, but it would have been cruel to give him any other answer than, “Of course.” Then he added, “Do you know where I can get a shovel?”

Yung pointed to his shed, which Peto soon discovered was full of carefully labeled boxes containing every kind of seed and pit found in Salem.

“You may have one of mine for now. I’ll write you a list of supplies you’ll need from the storehouse, and you can pick them up tomorrow when it’s open again. Oh, Peto—we’re going to have so much fun!”

“If that’s what you want to call it. Oh, by the way Rector, tomorrow morning we have something planned. As a family that is, and I know that Father was planning to visit and invite you, but . . .” It was odd how difficult it was to get out the words.

“Wait, are you talking about a baptism? Already?”

“Father wanted it today, but Guide Gleace told him to wait until tomorrow—”

“Why, that’s wonderful!” Yung exclaimed. “Of course, I suspected your family would be one of those quick to take the plunge, figuratively and literally, that is. But I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Before the memorial, I’m assuming?”

“Yes, I think that’s the plan.”

“And who all is being baptized?”

Peto hesitated. Father had told him to be back by the evening when their rector would be over with Shem to discuss the baptism, but until that moment Peto hadn’t thought too much more about joining his family in a public river bath.

Now the thought of not doing struck him as cold and empty, and when he said the words, his chest swelled with happy heat.

“All of us. By the way, I have something interesting to tell you about Shem’s family and ours . . .”

 

—-

 

When Peto returned home, with a list from Rector Yung as to what he would need to request from the storehouse for his new orchard, he found his family and Shem sitting on the sofas, chatting.

“Are you waiting for the rector to discuss tomorrow’s baptism?”

“Not yet,” Perrin said. “Apparently there’s yet another new development, and Yudit and Noch are trying to bring over Boskos to explain it.”

“Explain what?” Peto wondered.

Shem shrugged. “For once, I don’t know anything about this. I went home with Yudit, we told Papa that we’re all family, he looked at the family lines, and started sobbing. He sent me over here and said he’d be over to explain.”

“Not very fun being left out of everything, is it?” Perrin said.

“How many more times do I need to apologize for keeping you in the dark about things?”

“About seventeen more years’ worth, I’m guessing.”

“Boys, boys,” Mahrree exhaled. “Enough. Honestly, you’re acting like teenagers. I don’t need any more of those.”

The men chuckled at Peto’s insulted expression, and the front door opened again.

There stood Boskos Zenos, puffy-eyed, his daughter Yudit on one side, and his son-in-law Noch holding him up on the other.

“Look at you all,” he blubbered. “Our family.”

“Oh, dear,” Yudit sighed, gently leading him into the house. “He’s already started again.” They sat him in a stuffed chair, and Noch handed him a fresh handkerchief.

“Deep breaths, Boskos. Remember, deep breaths,” Noch told him. “Slower . . . very good, I think you can start now.”

“Is he all right?” Mahrree worried.

“This is quite normal for Papa,” Shem said, but his brow was furrowed in worry.

Boskos blew his nose loudly and said, “Shem, what you told me about the Shins took me by surprise, all the way back to when your mother was expecting you. You were our seventh child, and we were thinking of names. For another girl, obviously. One night, Meiki woke me up with the words, ‘Bos, I know what his name should be.’ And I said, ‘His? His who?’ And she said . . .”

His chin began to wobble again.

“ . . . she said, ‘Our son.’”

Noch knelt beside him as his eyes bubbled over again. “You can do it, Boskos. That was good. Just keep the words flowing.”

Yudit was already heading to the kitchen to get him a mug of water.

To the family waiting anxiously on the sofas, Noch said, “We practiced this at home. It’s going quite well,” he assured them.

Boskos gulped down the water Yudit brought him, wiped his face, and said, “She’d had a feeling. Maybe a dream, I don’t recall. But she said this baby was a boy, and he needed a special name. A family name . . .”

Wobble, wobble.

“Breathe, Boskos. Breathe . . . and . . . keep going.”

“And she said . . . she said it should be . . . Shin.”

“What?” Shem exclaimed.

No one else could speak.

“I know! I know!” Boskos cried. “That’s not one of our family names! That’s what I told her. And oh, I did not want that name. You know whose name it was? The High General of Idumea, that’s who!” Wringing his hands in despair, he continued, “I never argued with Meiki, oh never. She was just too perfect a woman, but we argued that night, oh did we. Why name our boy after the generals in the world? What a terrible thing to do! She insisted, and I insisted, and, and . . . well, I won.”

He looked up wretchedly at his son.

“I told her we should change a few letters, so it wouldn’t be such an unusual name. I suggested that the first two letters could be from Shin, but then use the last two letters from Salem. Put together, it’s Shem.”

Jaytsy smiled. “Why, that’s rather clever, using the name of Salem. What a nice pairing!”

But Boskos still looked miserable. “Oh, I wasn’t trying to be meaningful or anything. I just really did not want to have to say the word Shin every day!” To Perrin he said, “You understand, right? Things were different back then—”

“Of course,” said Perrin genially. “I—”

But now that the words were flowing, Boskos couldn’t hold them back. “And then . . . I tried to forget about all of that. And I did, for many years. I really did forget, son, that she wanted your name to be their name, until today. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. Because I now see why. Shin was a family name. I need to sit—”

Yudit was already bringing another mug of water, and Noch patted him on the back. “You are sitting, Boskos. Good job.” To the stunned family on the sofas he said, “I thought this would take a lot longer. At least he’s not hyperventilating anymore. Oh, wait . . . spoke to soon.”

“I should have been named,” Shem paused, “Shin?”

Perrin cleared his throat. “Mr. Zenos? Boskos? May I thank you for not naming him Shin? It was confusing enough at times for his first name to be so close to my last name. Had you not prevailed against your dear wife, life at the fort would have been far more complicated for us all.”

“I should have been named . . . Shin?”

“So I did the right thing?” Boskos said, between gasps.

“Yes, sir,” Perrin grinned. “The absolutely right thing.”

“I should have . . . been named . . . Shin.”

“Shem,” Yudit said, “I think you’re missing the point. Think about this. Over thirty-eight years ago, Mama knew. She knew who were the missing vines in our family, and even knew their family name. She also knew you would be the one to retrieve them.”

“How I wish I could have met your mother,” Mahrree breathed. “She must have been something.”

“She was, as Papa said, a most perfect woman,” Yudit told her.

“I guess it’s a good thing I wrote down those names of Lek and Lorixania legibly, isn’t it?” Peto chuckled.

“Peto, I just came up with a theory!” Yudit squealed. “What if it was my mother who influenced your grandfather to find that file? Then told you to write down those names, so we could have them today! To complete this massive circle of . . . I don’t know what, yet, but to make sure we all knew what we know now!”

“Hey, I like that!”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Shem announced loudly. “But naming me Shin?”

Perrin chuckled quietly.

“Oh honestly, Shem,” Yudit put her hands on her waist. “Can you just get over that and see the bigger story here?”

“But . . . but it’s so weird. Everything I knew . . . my identity. Mama saw me as someone different, in a way. It feels all so sideways somehow, like I don’t quite know myself, and it’s very disconcerting—”

“And there it is!” Perrin announced, and clapped his hands. He stood up and pumped Boskos’ hand vigorously. “Thank you, Mr. Zenos, so very much. And Mama Zenos—” he looked up to the ceiling.

“Her name was Meiki,” Boskos offered uncertainly.

“—Meiki Zenos, thank you very much as well,” Perrin called, “because now you,” and he spun to point at Shem, “know a little bit of what I’ve been going through for the past several days. Disconcerting? Who you think you are, completely shaken up? Do you get it now? Do you?”

Shem blinked up at him. “All right,” he said slowly, “but I don’t think this is the same thing—”

“Oh, I completely agree. This is still only a small bit compared to what you’ve put me through. Seeing things sideways? I’d have to stop spinning first to see things only sideways, Shem. Or should I say, Shin?”

Everyone chuckled as Shem glared at Perrin, but his glare soon softened, and he said, “So does this make us even yet?”

Perrin bobbed his head. “No, but it’s getting there, Shin.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Why not? It’s what your mother wanted.”

Shem fidgeted and hesitated. “Because . . . that’s you. Because I’m not you. I could never hope to be. Because . . . it feels like taking an honor that doesn’t belong to me.”

Perrin sat down slowly. “You just had to spoil my glee, didn’t you?”

Shem smiled weakly. “However, I must say, I was never quite sure of my name before—where it came from, why no one else was named that. But today, suddenly I really appreciate it. In a way, my name has always been my calling.”

“So,” Mahrree said, “Boskos really did get it right by putting Shin in Salem for your name. He was as inspired as your mother, he just didn’t know it.”

Boskos burst out in a new round of sobbing.

He didn’t have the strength to go back home for another hour.

 

 

 

Chapter 19—“I’m going to have to keep a close eye on the two of you, aren’t I?”

 

The sun was peeking over the eastern mountains, the first rays sparkling on the water, when Jaytsy whispered, “Does that river look freezing to anyone else?”

Her family chuckled with her, and shivered. It had been cold last night, and the frost was slowly wicking off the grasses around them. They had come dressed in the white clothing the rector’s wife had delivered last night, but even though it was of a thick weave, they kept their cloaks wrapped around them as they rode in the wagon to the dammed section of the river.

Also wrapped in cloaks and coats were Guide Gleace and his wife, Rector Yung and many of his family, most of their new neighbors, several dozen Zenoses, and Shem, also dressed in white.

Perrin glanced around the reverent and happy crowd, growing steadily, and recalled that he invited maybe a dozen of them. Well, things tended to multiply in Salem, he realized, and if one hundred—oh, here come more wagons—perhaps two hundred wanted to watch his family freeze in the Salem River, so let them. That only meant more people to help fish them out downstream should the dam suddenly collapse.

Besides, he had the feeling that he no longer belonged to himself; General Shin belonged to Salem. They wanted to make sure he was doing things right.

“Sorry about this,” Shem whispered to him. “I promise I didn’t tell that many people, but as you can see folks are kind of excited you’re here, and—”

“Yes, I know. A few people know about us.”

Shem bounced in place. “Bit brisk today. Usually we schedule baptisms in Weeding Season, as you can imagine.”

“So, Mr. New Assistant, how many times have you done this?” Perrin asked. “Baptized people?”

“Quite a few,” Shem assured him. “Baptisms are done by someone with the authority of a rector, and since I was given that position before I went to Edge—”

“Wait, you were a rector?”

“Oh, yeah. Another thing I forgot to tell you. Sorry. I wasn’t an active rector, so to speak. Just a way of giving me extra comfort and assistance, you know.”

“No. I don’t know,” Perrin said under his breath, watching as even more Salemites quietly and eagerly gather at the frigid pool. “It seems I know less every day.”

“Nearly all of my secrets are out now. Anyway, my nieces and nephews all asked me to baptize them when I came back on my leaves, once they turned eight. But, uh, confession time—yes, another one. I’ve never baptized someone bigger than a child. Your family will be the first adults—”

Perrin spun on his heel to stare at him, alarmed.

“—But I’ve got this, don’t worry. See my brothers-in-law? I’ve have them positioned around the pool, just in case I lose my grip. They’re all great swimmers. Hey, that was a joke. Perrin, I’m only joking . . .”

Perrin was striding purposefully over to Guide Gleace, who wore an expression of nervous amusement.

Perrin winked as he neared. “Don’t worry, I’ve not lost my resolve. It’s just that Shem now thinks I’m afraid he’s about to drown all of us. And after all he’s done to me this week, I think he deserves to feel a little agony fretting over what I may be talking to you about right now. I guess we could call this my last worldly trick before the world is washed away from me. So tell me honestly, sir—does Shem look terrified that I’m about to back out of this?”

Gleace was able to choke down his laugh, but his wife had to hide her giggle in her scarf. “Yes, he’s absolutely rigid with dread. Now it looks like he’s trying to convince Mahrree that everything will be just fine. I’m going to have to keep a close eye on the two of you, aren’t I?”

Perrin grinned. “Yes, I think you should. Shem’s going to freeze in there, isn’t he? Since he’ll be baptizing each of us, it’s him who will suffer the longest, right?”

“Well, I suppose that’s true—”

“Good.”

Five minutes later Gleace decided there were quite enough witnesses, and after he said a few words to the crowd, invited Shem to escort Perrin into the water. They made their way in just fine while the water reached only to their thighs, but stepping in deeper to their bellies made both of the men gasp at the cold. The Salemites waiting on the bank chuckled in sympathy.

Jaytsy held her belly in worry.

Mahrree rubbed it, as did Deck.

Peto crossed his legs.

But then something in the air changed, softening it. Everyone and everything grew quiet as the rising sun caressed the air and water.

Perrin lost all feeling in his legs, which was a welcome sensation in the freezing river. But he also felt as if a hot lump of sunshine dripped upon him. It was the same sensation he’d felt the night he chased away the Refuser from his house, and began to fight away his trauma. While he’d felt the promptings of the Creator before, this was the first time he’d felt the Creator embracing him in thick, warm joy.

Perrin never wanted to leave the water.

Shem, his hands trembling either from cold or nerves or both, showed Perrin how to hold on to his arm and, in a clear, loud voice said the blessedly brief prayer of baptism.

But Perrin didn’t hear Shem’s voice. Or rather, Shem’s voice didn’t sound like him. It was fuller, older, and far more powerful than Perrin had ever heard. Maybe it wasn’t Shem he was hearing, he speculated later. But whosever it was, the voice was anciently and sweetly familiar.

Then backward he went into the water, and it flowed over him, cool and cleansing, without the least intention of drowning him, but enveloping him in second chances.

Again, he didn’t want to leave it, but was content to sink further and deeper into that sensation of purity which, for the moment, wholly defined him.

Until Shem dragged him back up, his eyes wide with alarm that Perrin wasn’t rising on his own.

“Are you all right?” Shem whispered, panicked.

And just like that, it was over. Fortunately his tears blended into the water streaming down his face.

“Right now, I’m perfect.”

“Yes, that’s actually true.” Shem slapped him happily on the back. “Now, when you leave the water don’t trip or you’ll go and spoil it all.”

Chuckling, Perrin trudged out of the river to Mahrree who stood with her arms close to her chest.

“Was it all right?” she asked.

He wiped his face with the towel Jaytsy handed him. “It was perfect.”

He didn’t notice until later that the crowd on the banks didn’t applaud or cheer, which would have ruined the moment. Instead they did what Perrin defined as merry murmuring, full of approval.

He also didn’t notice until later that he didn’t feel any cold until after each of his family had been baptized. Next went in Mahrree, who found herself chest deep in the water, which meant it was a quicker down and up for her, then Peto who howled briefly as his nether regions hit the cold water.

Deck walked with Jaytsy into the pool, and stood nearby as Shem baptized her. He walked her back to the bank before allowing Shem to baptize him.

Only once Deck was to the shore and wrapped in a cloak did Perrin begin to shiver. He glanced over at Shem, whose father was wrapping him in a thick blanket. Shem trembled, but beamed.

“You’re now officially Salemites,” he said, teeth chattering. “Thank you for not waiting until Snowing Season.”

 

—-

 

Nicko Mal’s library was still strewn with papers. Yesterday he ordered a maid to start clearing the mess, but when she exclaimed, “My goodness! You must have dumped out every crate you owned. There’s so much paper here, it’s shin-deep,” he fired her on the spot.

He also decided he didn’t need any servants reading his research notes, nor was he ready to surrender the rage which still simmered in his chest making it hot and tight, so he left the clutter as a reminder.

To get to his desk, he waded through the piles, making a path which didn’t last long as the pages sloshed back into place. For the last hour he’d been fine-tuning his wording, and he called to one of his guards to swish over and take the parchment that he’d sealed in an envelope. “For the printers. Tell them every village will need these notices as soon as possible. Don’t delay.”

As the guard slogged through the papers and parchment, Nicko sat back in his overstuffed chair. Only once the door was shut, then shut again because pages were catching in the frame, did he whisper, “And now, everyone who loved and admired you for all the wrong reasons will hate you for all the right ones. They will feel the same loathing I’ve felt for you all these years, Mahrree Peto Shin.”

He clasped his hands on his desk, gripping them as if they’d float away if he let go. “You may be ‘gone,’ but I’m still in control of the game, and I get to make the last play. I win, Mrs. Shin. I always win.”

Nicko Mal spent the rest of the day trying to remind himself of that truth, ignoring the feeling that he’d been cheated by the other players running cowardly away.

 

—-

 

Mahrree had been bouncing with excitement after midday meal. Actually, she’d been nearly uncontainable all morning.

When Yudit arrived at the door, she said, “I was about to ask if you really wanted to go today, seeing as how it’s already been a busy morning for you, but you’re all ready, aren’t you?”

“What else should I do? Peto’s at his first day of afternoon classes—and may I add you people are brilliant for not starting teenage classes until after midday meal? Perrin’s putting up walls in Jaytsy’s house, Jaytsy’s with your sister Nan getting seeds for the garden, and Deck is visiting a ranch selecting cattle. So here I sit officially a Salemite, and I want to be and do everything that is Salemitish, including getting that library card you told me about.”

Yudit grinned. “I thought as much. Let’s go.”

Half an hour later the women walked into the large stone building in the middle of Salem, and all Mahrree could do was gasp. “So many.”

“We make copies, too. Of every worthy book, even ones the scouts purchase in the world and bring back here. Anyone is free to take one home for four weeks. We also have many of our own writings. Not just texts for schooling, but compilations of poems, stories, longer works, and histories.”

“Whose histories?” Mahrree asked, bracing herself in case the answer wasn’t what she hoped.

But it was. “Everyone’s! But first, right over here is the world section.” She gestured to a wing of the repository filled with rows of shelves. “Everything you had to leave behind in Edge is likely in here as a copy. If you’re ever feeling nostalgic for your father’s collection, you can sit among the shelves and pretend you’re back in Edge.”

“You have dozens of copies of everything!” Mahrree marveled. “Look at this one—‘Embellishments Through the Ages.’ That was the only book my mother kept of my father’s collection. After she died, I took it home and hide our family lines in it. I knew Perrin would never be interested in opening it.”

Yudit chuckled. “If ever you have the urge to read it . . .”

“I never did,” Mahrree laughed. “But there was another book I wondered about, but never finished. It’s about an army officer whose wife’s family were Guarder traitors, and he had a sergeant who pushed him to—” Mahrree paused, realizing the story sounded familiar.

The women stared at each other.

“What was the name of that book?” Yudit asked urgently.

“I don’t remember!” Mahrree nearly wailed. “But the character names weren’t Lek or Lorixania or Boskos.”

“No, they wouldn’t be, would they?” Yudit sighed. “Still, remarkable coincidences. We can ask the librarians if they might know it, if it may be in our shelves.”

“Yes, I’d definitely like to track that down one day, but right now I’m a more interested in verifiable histories,” Mahrree hinted.

“Then come this way. I have a feeling you’ll spend the rest of the afternoon over in this wing.”

And Yudit was right. It was as large as a congregation hall with shelves higher than Mahrree’s head and least fifty feet long. The rows, more than a dozen, were packed with leather-bound pages of writings. It was a good thing ladders were attached to each shelf, because Mahrree wanted to explore every one, low and high.

But first she had to make herself move.

Yudit chuckled as Mahrree remained rooted to the ground. “You see, histories aren’t just for the experts to write. Histories are for everyone, a record of their lives. Journals. Most people keep two: a private journal of their fears and worries, and a public one wherein they record the miracles they experienced, their discoveries, their growth, their children—everything. We make copies of those journals, too. We always have.”

“Always?” Mahrree breathed.

“Come to the best part of the repository.” Yudit took her arm and gently lead her to the back wall which had the words “Ancient History” caved elegantly on a board on top of the shelves.

“Ancient?” Mahrree couldn’t say more than one word at a time.

“Indeed. Back in 200 Querul the First destroyed all the family lines given to him. But what he didn’t know was that the guides down to Pax always kept family histories. They were sacred, as sacred as The Writings. The guides made copies and distributed the histories among the assistants. That was one of their callings: to preserve—at all costs—those writings that proved the existence of the Creator and His influence in the world. Guide Hierum knew at some point the personal histories would be sought out and destroyed, so from the beginning all that was written was carefully guarded. When our people fled the world in 200, the histories were one of the few things they took with them. That’s why we encourage new refugees to bring the writings of their families with them.”

“But some people leaving the world were captured and killed,” Mahrree remembered.

“Yes,” Yudit said sadly. “And the histories they carried were also destroyed. That’s why Pax made sure at least three copies of each was distributed to different areas of the world before that. In the end, at least one copy of each history reached Salem. And here, before you, are copies of those writings. Mahrree, I don’t think anyone in the world realizes it, but our first five hundred families began writing about their experiences only a season after they were placed here.”

Mahrree could only shake her head as she gazed at the volumes.

“I think you would enjoy beginning right here.”

Yudit led her to the far left section of the wall, reached to the top of the shelf, and took down a thin history.

“The first five hundred families didn’t write as much as we do. They were still trying to figure out how to spell and compose sentences.”

She turned the first pages to show Mahrree.

“We still have their originals stored in one of the mountains in a large stone—and fireproof—vault. But as you’ll see, the first pages are like reading a seven-year-old’s writing. Short sentences, stumbling ideas, sloppy explanations. After the first year, though, many people began to improve in their writing skills. Still, so much is to be gleaned from these earliest experiences. This Mahrree, is the journal kept by Herna—Guide Hierum’s wife.”

Mahrree sat down weakly on a nearby chair as Yudit handed her the book.

“She was a remarkable woman. We always hear about the greatness of Guide Hierum, but no man can be called as guide unless his wife is his equal in strength, knowledge, and humility. Herna was no exception. Not only was she the first woman to conceive and bear a child, she was also the first mother to raise her three children alone. Hierum was killed the week before their daughter was born. If ever you need a good cry, read later in this book when she describes giving birth without her beloved husband by her side. I’ve only been able to get through it once. It’s not a story easily forgotten.”

Already tears were stinging Mahrree’s eyes. “It never occurred to me . . . I knew Hierum was killed, and that he had a family, but I never realized she had to continue alone.”

“She did, and quite admirably. She never wavered in her commitment to the Creator. She taught her children well, and they all remained strong. They were the last holdouts to avoid going to Idumea. But in the end, they had to; there was no one left around them, and Herna knew she needed the help of others to raise her family. She reluctantly took her children to Idumea after living in the place of the ruins for nearly two years, alone.”

Mahrree sighed. “I can hardly wait to read this.”

“There’s something else I think you should know,” Yudit said in a tone which put Mahrree on the edge of her chair.

“What is it?”

“You saw from the lines that we’re both descended from Guide Hierum and Herna.”

After they’d stared in amazement at the family lines yesterday, realizing that the Shins, Petos, and Zenoses were all related, Yudit showed them that their lines, ones which Mahrree didn’t have access to, also led directly back to Guide Hierum himself.

Mahrree tried once again to keep down her exhilaration about that. She knew that who her ancestors were didn’t mean anything special or dubious about her, but still one can’t help but take secret bragging rights.

“I’m sorry to say I’ve been a bit proud of that fact.”

Yudit chuckled. “Realize a great many people are also descended from them. And through marriages, we’re all related in many ways.”

“So what should I know?”

Yudit took the book from Mahrree, thumbed a few pages, and handed it back. “Herna named her last daughter Rium, in memory of her dead husband. Rium was a beautiful, sweet girl who matured into a delightful young woman. Many young men were taken by her joyful spirit and hard-working nature. It was while she was picking berries in early Harvest that a young man became completely enamored by her. They worked side by side for weeks harvesting berries from stalks with tiny thorns that frequently pricked Rium. Her young man, named Andras, even fashioned a pair of thin leather gloves hoping to help protect her skin. For several weeks they worked together, and after the harvest was in, Andras told Rium he wanted to continue seeing her. ‘You tried to protect me from the thorns,’ she told him. ‘I think you’d try to protect me from all kinds of dangers.’”

Mahrree peered at Yudit. “There’s more to this than a little love story, right?”

“There is. You see, within another season Andras and Rium decided to marry. Some in this generation realized that they needed additional names to help designate which men and women had decided to join together. Having a second name they used in common would help clarify the growing families. Andras and Rium decided on a last name together.”

“Oh, no,” Mahrree whispered, seeing where this was leading.

“Oh, yes. They chose the name that brought them together: Thorn. At this time, spellings were still being experimented with, so when they recorded the name at the village office, they added an ‘e’ at the end, not really sure how to spell it.”

Mahrree closed her eyes in disbelief.

But Yudit wasn’t done. “Andras wanted to rid the world of thorns, so he started cross planting berries with other vines, hoping to reduce the number of thorns that occurred. He had some success with raspberries. He had hoped that many generations from his, no one in the world would even know what a thorn was, and that anyone who came across their chosen family name would question what it meant.”

“But there are thorns everywhere in the world,” Mahrree exhaled, her eyes still closed.

“Yes, there are. The Creator designed it that way. Thorns are part of the test, Mahrree. How do we respond to them?”

“I can’t believe it. I just can’t . . . Lemuel Thorne, and his father Qayin, are direct descendants of the Great Guide Hierum!”

“Just like you and me, Mahrree.”

Her eyes flashed open. “They’re related to us!”

“Ah. Knew you’d catch on eventually. We are all family, Mahrree. Somewhere along the lines, we all connect together. How do we treat our family, Mahrree?”

“Not by running them out of the world!”

Yudit gave her a reproving look.

Mahrree sighed. “This may take me some time to accept.”

“That’s why I wanted to warn you now, before you came to those pages and made the connection. It will still be a struggle for you, though. It has been for Shem.”

“That’s right,” Mahrree exclaimed. “He knew, didn’t he? When he first met the Thornes?”

“The scouts have been watching the Thornes for many years, suspecting that Qayin had some link with the Guarders. Shem was furious to realize Lemuel would be serving with him in Edge. More often than you realize, he and Lemuel had some run-ins. In fact, once a situation escalated to the point that Shem had Lemuel on the ground with his long knife ready to plunge into the captain’s throat.”

Mahrree’s eyebrows flew up.

“He confided to me later that all he wanted to do was push that knife in one more inch to kill him, but he couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Mahrree asked, only slightly ashamed that she wished Shem had done it.

“He wasn’t allowed to. Shem’s taken lives before, Mahrree. Beginning when he was a young soldier in Edge. But he didn’t want to do it. His heart’s been scarred by those deaths, even about the two lieutenants who were intent on murdering your in-laws. One of them was Sonoforen, Dormin’s brother.”

Mahrree nodded. “Perrin told me all about that. To be honest, Shem’s got me just a little wary of him now. I had no idea he was capable of so much.”

“Nor did he. Over the years I’ve been his confidante. Whatever bothered him, he’d reveal to me. But he said holding Lemuel down was different. All he felt was pure rage, yet whenever the Creator influenced him, he never felt rage but a strong sense of purpose. He realized his desire to kill Lemuel was from the Refuser. It wasn’t Lemuel’s time to go yet. There’s more he needs to do—”

“Like what?” Mahrree spat. “Take over the world?”

Yudit tilted her head. “He really gets to you, doesn’t he? Mahrree, as difficult as this may seem to believe, Lemuel is loved by the Creator. Just as much as you and Perrin are. And so is Qayin and everyone else who makes this test miserable. The Creator loves all of His children equally. He’s not as equally pleased with all of them, true, but He still wants them to come home. Lemuel needs the opportunity to try to find that truth. He does have Guide Hierum’s blood in his veins, after all.”

“Greatly diluted!”

“As diluted as your own, Mahrree.”

Mahrree sagged. “That’s probably true,” she mumbled.

“Shem still struggles, if that helps you at all. He told me last night that when he was in Idumea spying last week, he had his opportunity to rid the world of Qayin Thorne.”

“Really?”

“Qayin kept his horse in a corner of the Administrators’ stables where Shem was working, so no other animals would be near his prized stallion. The day the Administrators finally resolved to bring you and your family to trial, Qayin came whistling happily into the stables. Shem followed and pretended to work nearby. He heard Qayin tell his horse, in loving tones, about how the Shins were about to be destroyed, and how the reign of the Thornes was soon to begin. Shem didn’t tell me specifics, but apparently Qayin had some particular feelings about you and Perrin that he shared with his mount. Shem looked at the pitchfork in his hands and realized he could run Qayin through and leave him in that secluded stall to die.”

“So why didn’t he do it?” Mahrree whispered.

“Because the world needs thorns, Mahrree. For every Shem and Perrin, there’s a Qayin and Lemuel. For every Versula, there’s a Mahrree. The Creator allows the thorns as well as the fruit. The test is to see how we react to those thorns. Without them, life is just a long holiday. But to sit back and enjoy ourselves isn’t why we’ve been placed here. Even the Thornes are being tested, to see if they will change their natures.”

Mahrree fingered the book in her hands. “Same amount of Guide Hierum’s blood in both of us.”

“Yes.”

“So our ancestry doesn’t matter; it’s who we are that matters.”

Yudit pulled up a chair next to her and sat down. “Allow me to plant into your mind a little seed that’s going to need a lot of time to germinate. It’s the same idea I gave to my little brother. Consider this: someday, in the distant future, likely not in this life, but in the Paradise to come, you will see Lemuel Thorne and his family with different eyes, with perfected eyes. And when that time comes, you will feel compassion and concern for him in ways you can’t imagine now. And you will someday sit down with him on a proverbial back porch somewhere, and you will chat about this life, about what happened here, and he will ask you for forgiveness, and because of the genuine love you feel for him, you will have already granted it. And you will eventually chat and even laugh as if you were old friends who simply forgot that you already had an ancient history together. And the pain and fury and skepticism that I see in your eyes right now will be a distant, and tiny, memory.”

When Mahrree said nothing, but gripped tighter the armrests on her chair, Yudit added, “As I said, this idea will take a long time to germinate. Centuries, even. Just leave that little seed in the dirt for a while, all right?”

Mahrree exhaled, long and low. “I will try,” she mumbled. “Lemuel murdered Dormin, you know.”

“Yes, I know. So do the Creator and Dormin.”

“I have to admit,” Mahrree drummed her fingers on the armrest, “that I feel like I’m already failing in my first day as a Salemite. I’m filled with all kinds of ugly, worldly thoughts.”

“No one expects you to be perfect today, Mahrree. No baby walks her first time out. She’ll fall again and again, and even adults tend to stumble now and then. That’s not a problem, unless they never get up again.”

“Thanks for your optimism,” Mahrree said drearily. “But what you’re suggesting . . .”

Yudit patted her arm. “What I’ve just suggested is far more difficult than I think any Salemite, besides Shem and your husband, has ever had to consider. I’ve dumped an entire avalanche on you when you expected a sunny day. I’m sorry, but I felt it was necessary to do, and so did Guide Gleace. He asked me to tell you about the Thornes, and he was the one who shared with me the idea of someday feeling love for them. If it makes you feel any better, Shem wasn’t too keen on the idea either. But, he accepted that seed.”

Mahrree shrugged. “That very hard, very small seed that will likely not crack for a few centuries, right?”

“Perhaps,” Yudit acknowledged.

 

 

—-

 

Salem’s amphitheater was packed that night, which meant over thirty-thousand people came to remember Dormin, last in the line of the kings.

Rector Yung spoke, as did Asrar Hifadhi, Guide Gleace, and Shem. Songs were sung. Stories were told. Even gentle laughter filled the air on occasion.

But seated as far back and inconspicuously as possible, Salem’s five newest refugees were miserable. Sure, they smiled at appropriate moments, pretended to know the words when everyone else sang, and bowed their heads during the prayers.

But Perrin could barely move. Although he’d been invited to address Salem, he couldn’t. He’d said that he didn’t want to detract from the focus on Dormin, but the hard truth was that in the pit of his stomach he felt that Dormin’s death was his fault. It was the same churning he felt when he learned his father had ordered the execution of King Oren, a sense that being able to put someone to death was far too much power for any man, and one of the many reasons Perrin never wanted to be High General.

But this was even worse. Dormin wasn’t forced to die. Perrin had a suspicion—perhaps whispered to him by Dormin himself—that he had willingly given himself up.

And that act was far braver than Perrin Shin would ever be. He didn’t belong in Salem. He didn’t deserve this city to regard him as their general. He was wholly inadequate and nowhere near to being the man they hoped he’d be.

But he had to become that man, in honor of the bravest one they’d already lost.

 

 

 

Chapter 20—“Seems . . . there was a lot more going on than any of us realized.”

 

The next morning was overcast and dreary in the village of Rivers as Colonel Brillen Karna slid off his horse. Waiting for him in the stables was his second-in-command, Major Milo Rigoff, anxiously clutching a message. Brillen returned the salute of his major and eyed the parchment.

“If it’s another bit of gossip from Edge about Perrin, or another scrawled notice from Genev, I’ve already told you: I’m not believing anything, and neither is Yordin or Fadh, until I have hard evidence from Idumea.”

Rigoff clenched the message. “Sir, this is from Idumea. Maybe we should take it to your office—”

Brillen frowned as he took off his riding gloves. “Whatever it is, let’s get to it. I still won’t believe it.”

“But . . . there’s evidence.”

Brillen paused. “Real evidence?”

Rigoff nodded, and Brillen noticed his eyes were red.

Colonel Karna snatched the message out of his hands, and fumbled to open it.

Rigoff sent a warning glance over to an officer who had just burst into the stables.

A captain, also tasked to try to find their commander, stopped when he realized Colonel Karna had been located and was already reading the message. Now the two men watched worriedly as their commander’s light brown skin blanched, and they wished they had lured him to his office first—

“No,” Karna whispered. “No . . . you did not, Shem Zenos!” Another long pause.

The major and the captain exchanged dreadful looks, and Rigoff massaged his hands.

“Mahrree?” Karna said, his eyebrows furrowed. “Mahrree?” Another pause.

Rigoff’s cringe was now so severe that his cheeks were hurting. Karna would read the final news in just three, two, one—

Brillen’s eyes closed, the message crumpling in his hands as he gripped his head. “Perrin! No, no, no . . .”

His officers caught him before he collapsed on the ground.

 

—-

 

The knock came at Lieutenant Colonel Fadh’s door. “Message from Idumea, sir.”

“Bring it in,” Fadh called.

“For immediate reading, sir,” the young soldier said apologetically as he handed it across the desk.

“They always are,” Fadh sighed. He opened the message and his eyes bulged. “Perrin!”

Several officers and enlisted men in his outer office came to the door. “More rumors?”

“Does anyone know where he really is?”

Fadh couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move. He just read the message, his eyes growing wetter until the tears trickled down his face.

His soldiers looked at each other in alarm, but none of them dared to ask what was wrong.

In a calm yet quavering voice, Graeson finally said, “Gentlemen. Please close the door.”

The messenger stepped out of the office, and a lieutenant shut the door.

They heard him weeping for half an hour.

 

—-

 

Lieutenant Colonel Yordin stormed into his office. “What is it? Another decree from High General Thorne?” he sneered. “The man just couldn’t wait to get that big, fat chair for his big, fat—.”

“In a way, yes sir,” his captain said, holding out the message. “But, um, it’s . . .”

“Better be important enough to drag me out of a training bout!”

The captain nodded vigorously. For some reason, his eyes looked bloodshot.

“Not sleeping well?” Roarin’ Yordin asked his younger officer.

“Sir, just please—read the message.” He took two large protective steps backward.

Yordin unfolded the parchment and started to read. “About Perrin again. Officially this time?”

The captain took another step back to the doorway.

Roarin’ Yordin’s bald, tanned head turned red as he read. His face contorted into a mixture of agony and fury. Bitter tears leaked from his eyes by the time he reached the end. He grabbed the first thing he could find—a heavy chunk of molten metal he used as a paperweight—and flung out of his observation window.

“SLAGGING ZENOS!” he screamed as glass shattered around him. “I’d KILL you myself!”

Gari drew his sword, and his captain ran out of the building.

 

—-

 

Corporal Hili was getting ready to leave for his duty shift when he saw the door of the barracks open. His heart sank as he saw the commanding colonel walk in, with Grandpy Neeks following. Both of them wore somber expressions. In the colonel’s hand was an official looking parchment, and the two men headed straight for Hili.

Poe swallowed. The colonel must have found out about Poe’s thieving past, although Colonel Shin said no one would. His army career was finished. He glanced around at his bunk mates.

The other nine men who shared his quarters were about to leave, but each paused to watch where the colonel was going.

The colonel stopped and glared at the soldiers. “Shouldn’t you all be reporting for duty?”

They nodded, sent a fleeting look of sympathy to Poe, and exited. Grandpy Neeks shut the door behind them.

Poe gulped when he saw that Neeks locked it. “Sirs? Something wrong?”

“Actually, son—”

That immediately set Poe on edge. The commander never referred to anyone as “son.”

“—something is wrong. Terribly wrong. I don’t even know how to start.”

“Just give him the message you received, sir,” Grandpy suggested gravely.

The colonel nodded and handed it to Poe.

With trembling hands Poe opened the parchment and began to read. A minute later he slumped on to his cot, letting the message fall to the ground.

Grandpy sat down next to him and wrapped his arms around the corporal. “Go ahead, boy. No one’s here to see you cry but the two of us. And we still have a few tears left to shed.”

“No!” Poe whimpered as the tears bubbled up and streaked down his face. “He can’t . . . can’t be gone!” The words came out damp and muffled. “Was the only one . . . the only one. No one else ever . . . He was the only one . . . who cared.”

Grandpy wiped his nose noisily on his sleeve.

“That stupid . . .” Poe gasped between sobs. “Stupid . . . slagging Zenos! How? Why her? Colonel Shin . . .”

“I know,” Grandpy commiserated. “I can’t believe it myself.”

“That stupid Zenos . . . he sent me to Idumea . . . it’s his fault I got transferred from Edge,” Poe was nearly dry-heaving, “and now he’s . . . he’s . . .”

“Paid for his crimes, Corporal,” the colonel told him, and loudly cleared his throat of all emotion.

Poe doubled over in convulsing.

The colonel regarded him sympathetically. “Neeks, take care of him today. When the two of you are ready, go to Idumea. There will be a memorial service at the arena in a couple of days for Perrin. Represent the fort at Grasses for us. I can’t think of two men more capable of doing so.”

“Thank you, sir,” Grandpy said gruffly and wiped his nose again. “Will be our honor.”

 

—-

 

“This school year will never end,” Chommy sighed loudly to the boys around him.

Lannard frowned. “But it’s supposed to, in about a moon and a half—”

“He was speaking figuratively, Lannard,” another boy rolled his eyes. “Not literally. And Lannard’s the one who passed the Final Exam with glowing numbers, everyone!” he announced sarcastically to their friends.

“That’s right,” Chommy said as he dug into his midday meal. “He gets to move on while we get to stay here with . . .” His voice trailed off.

They knew Mrs. Shin wasn’t coming back. The rumors had been rushing all over Edge. She was dead—all of them were—but the official notice hadn’t yet been made, and still the boys harbored a tiny hope that she was merely hiding somewhere and would be sitting at the desk at the end of the season with that mischievous twinkle in her eye and announce they would debate the color of the sky again, but in secret as they always did.

The boys ate in silence, none of them quite sure what direction to take the conversation next.

Until they saw Hegek. He appeared even more peaked and dour than normal, and since he’d been teaching their class he seemed to have lost a few pounds as well. Right now his thinning frame was trembling, and in his hands was a large printed notice, the kind placed on the boards around Edge. His gaze fell upon the Special Cases class sitting in the grass.

“Oh, not again,” a boy murmured. “The last time he had that look on his face . . .”

“I think it’s confirmation,” Chommy whispered, “that she’s not hiding in the marshes.”

“Oh, slag,” Lannard mumbled, but since he had a sandwich in his mouth it sounded more like, “Othlag.”

Hegek swallowed, and swallowed again as he made his way to the boys. “It’s about Mrs. Shin,” he said bluntly, as if he had no more ability to add Idumeaic flourishes to his sentences. “About all of them. This notice isn’t supposed to be posted until tomorrow, but they wanted us to know. Seems . . . there was a lot more going on than any of us realized. Here, just read it. Then I need to post it. Oh, and class is canceled for the rest of the day. Just . . . go home.”

None of the boys noticed him stumbling into the school building, because they were jostling for position to read over each other’s shoulders.

Lannard was the last to get his view, but as the boys peeled off of the group, the faster readers staggering away in shock, Lannard finally got close enough to run his finger to track the words.

When he finished he sat back. Everyone else had left, how long ago he didn’t know. But he couldn’t move, even when the squat man in the red coat and tails came up to the gate of the school grounds.

“That’s him?” he asked the lieutenant next to him.

Lannard noticed Radan nodding, then widening his eyes at Lannard that he should stand at attention, or something.

The man in red marched through the gate and up to Lannard just as he got to his feet and saluted, remembering too late that salutes are done with right hands, not left, but the notice was still in his right hand and now he wasn’t sure what to do with either hand—

“So this is really him?” the man said, disappointment thick in his tone. “Well, I suppose it’s no surprise. Young man, I’m Administrator Genev. Certainly you’ve heard of me?”

Lannard struggled to find his voice and remembered only how Mrs. Shin had said she’d once met all of them—

“Yes, sir?”

Genev exhaled loudly. “Congratulations, boy. Not only have you passed the Final Exam this year, but you’ve also earned yourself a position at Command School in Idumea.”

“I’ve . . . what?!”

“I understand you’re the one who helped provide valuable information to Captain Thorne over the past year, helping us to uncover the deceit of Mrs. Shin—”

“I’ve . . . what?!”

“—and as a result of your loyalty to the Administrators and Chairman, you’ve earned this commendation signed by Chairman Mal himself—”

He didn’t notice the envelope Genev waved in his face, nor realized when Genev wrenched the notice from Lannard’s grip and replaced it with the sealed envelope.

“I’ve . . . what?!”

“And you will be sent to Idumea to begin Command School this Harvest Season, if you so desire. You’ve earned a full scholarship, complements of the Administrators, to become an officer.”

“I’ve . . . what?!”

“Perhaps next year,” Genev growled. “We’ll forego early admission seeing as how your vocabulary is still so limited. Slag, boy—just how did Thorne get so much out of you to expose the Mrs. Shin as the greatest traitor the world has ever seen?”

“I’ve . . . WHAT?!”

 

—-

 

When Versula Thorne heard the front door of the mansion slam, she knew she had to slow her gasping, but she couldn’t. Not even if her life depended upon it. She buried her face in the pale blue blankets to muffle her sobs, but still she could hear the whistling.

Qayin never whistled, and he never did anything cheerfully, but it was definitely him, judging by the pounding of his boots.

His whistling paused.

Versula held her breath and wiped the leaking from her nose. She was ruining the silk sheets she clutched, but she couldn’t hold back—

Again she convulsed, wracked with sobs.

The footsteps came down the Great Hall, pausing to listen at each door to work out where the noises came from.

Eventually Qayin threw open the door to the pale blue guestroom and leered at her cowering figure on the floor by the bed.

She hid her head in the blankets in a futile attempt to conceal her blotchy face.

“You’re sobbing over him, aren’t you?”

She didn’t look up. His fist would come soon enough. She no longer cared. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, in the world she cared for . . .

Except for Lemuel.

Versula braced for the blow she knew would come, but instead she heard chuckling.

“Figures. You in here, sobbing. So this is where he slept when they visited? Surely the bedding has been washed in the years since that Dinner, wouldn’t you think?”

“Qayin,” Versula murmured, feeling not particularly brave but rather self-destructive, otherwise she never would have dared to say the words, “Leave me alone.”

“Leave you alone?” he repeated, and she glanced up to see him smiling. The expression was odd on his face. The lines around his mouth were shallow, as if not sure where to go since they were rarely in that happy shape. “It’s a fantastic day. Best one I’ve ever seen. The clouds are gathering, the birds are silent, and Perrin Shin’s dead. I finally understand what people say when they call a day glorious. But you don’t.”

He nudged her crumpled form with his highly polished boot.

“So how long are you going to mourn him, huh? We’ve got visitors tomorrow. Snyd and his wife, along with his niece, will be coming for dinner, remember? I think the girl is probably Lemuel’s best bet now. She’s young and has enough Snyd blood in her. With her uncle and grandfather both officers, she should produce a decent son or two for Lemuel. Granted, she’s isn’t much to look at, but if what the surgeon says is correct about Lemuel, that he’s crippled—”

Versula’s renewed sobs cut Qayin off, and his lip curled into a sneer. “Who are those tears for, woman? Your disfigured son, or the man he helped kill?”

She only shook in response.

“That’s what I thought,” Qayin spat. “Get over it, Versula. He’s never coming for you. Oh, don’t look so surprised. I know you married me to make Perrin jealous. You were such an impulsive and shortsighted girl. But,” he chuckled, “he never noticed, did he? So all these years you’ve been pining for him. Probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever witnessed. And now he’s never coming back for you—maybe the only woman who actually wanted him—so have your little cry and be done with it.”

“How can you . . . how can you . . .” Her gasping made it difficult to get out any more words than that.

“How can I what, Versula? Oh, I knew. I always knew. I didn’t marry you for your brain, you know. I married you for your bloodlines, although you’ve proved to be a bit skittish at times. But, the best way to the high generalship was to be as close to it as possible. And I got it,” he announced, as if the appointment hadn’t been expected. Otherwise, why would they have moved in to the High General’s mansion two weeks ago? “I’ll be officially installed in three days. Yes, you may go out and purchase some expensive frippery for the day. You need to look presentable as the wife of the most important man in Idumea.”

Versula said nothing but blubbered quietly.

“Kind of funny, isn’t it,” he said as he nudged her again with his boot, a bit more forcefully. “You didn’t get what you wanted. You wanted him, and now he’s gone forever, and you have nothing to remember him by—”

His snickering stopped abruptly, and Versula braced herself again. She kept her head low and squeezed shut her eyes.

Qayin had just jumped to a conclusion, a connection forming in his brain which would manifest itself in his fist. Usually he went for her lower back where the bruises wouldn’t show, but he’d never waited this long before. That meant he was thinking . . .

Every muscle in Versula tensed, waiting.

Something to remember him by . . . Slag. Oh, you slagging sow. You said that the night of The Dinner when they were here, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?!” he bellowed and, gripping her upper arm, dragged her to her feet.

She lifted her head with as much pride as she could muster. “I said this before, and I’ll say it again: Leave me alone, Qayin.”

His grip on her arm became so tight that she was losing feeling in it, but she firmed her chin and stared into his cold blue eyes.

“You slagging sow,” he growled at her. “Tell me honestly, right now: whose son is Lemuel?”

Versula nearly swallowed her tongue in an effort to make it work. Before she could open her mouth he shouted again, “WHOSE SON IS HE—”

“—YOURS!” she shouted back, and hated hearing the word. She sagged in his grip and whimpered. “Lemuel’s your son. Yes, I went to Perrin once after we were married. To his dorm room in Command School, late at night. His roommates were out, I made sure of that. But—” She shook her head.

Qayin didn’t care that she fell to weeping again, and he dropped her unceremoniously on the floor.

“You’re sure? Absolutely sure?”

It was almost as if she could feel his fist in the air, hovering above her. It didn’t matter what she said next, he’d still use it.

She had nothing more of her plotting, her games. She had nothing left. Nothing.

“Lemuel is your son, Qayin. Your son.”

His fist never came.

Instead the boots retreated from the bedroom, and she heard him thumping down the Great Hall to his office, loudly whistling some inane little ditty because everything was right in his world.

Versula sobbed for another hour.

 

—-

Teeria Rigoff looked up from her stitching. “Milo? What are you doing home so early? I haven’t even started supper—”

Major Rigoff took off his cap and set it down on the side table. “Brillen gave me permission to come home to tell you. Well, first we had to revive him, and then he had to recover from the sedation administered to put the stitches in his head—”

“What happened? Did he get thrown from that horse again? Does his wife know—”

“Teeria, I need to tell you something. There’s been an update from Idumea. Officially, from Nicko Mal himself.”

She set down the shirt she was mending, dread in her eyes. “It’s about the Shins, isn’t it? They really are gone, aren’t they?”

Milo nodded, and Teeria slumped, her chin trembling. “I knew it. But I just had to hold on to that little piece of hope—”

Her husband went down on one knee before her. “Teeria, there’s more. The fort received word this morning, and the notices will go out tomorrow, but I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else . . .”

“What is it?”

“I don’t even know how to start. It’s just . . .”

“Say it.”

He looked into her eyes. “First, I want you to know that I knew you used to have feelings for Shem Zenos—”

“Long ago,” she cut him off. “I was only a teenager. But once I met you, I never thought twice about him. I realized I preferred younger men,” she managed a smile.

“I’m only four years younger than you,” he reminded her.

“But still, there’s nothing more thrilling to an older woman than a younger man chasing after her.”

Her husband’s expression went unexpectedly wooden. “Why did you have to say that?”

She swallowed. “I was just . . . just trying to ease the moment. You’re always telling me I’m too serious. Milo?”

He had slumped to the floor, deflated. “True, but this is not the moment to ease. Especially with those words.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his face.

“Sorry, Milo,” Teeria joined him on the floor. “Please just tell me what’s happened.”

“I’m trying to. We always had our little suspicions, you know? Back in Edge? Sometimes Brillen or Grandpy or me would become worried. But we never saw anything inappropriate. They just seemed to be a little too close, you know?”

“Sort of?”

“We watched, always watched, trying to make sure no one got hurt. That no one pushed things too far. And from what we could tell, no one did. But then . . . then Perrin had his trauma, and all of us were gone by then to other forts. There was no one there to keep an eye on things for him. You know what I mean?”

“I’m pretending to.”

Milo sighed. “Shem frequently sent letters to Brillen updating him about Perrin, which Brillen shared with me, and . . . Teeria, Shem was close. Very close.”

“Ye-es?” she said slowly, not quite catching on. Or, if she did, she didn’t want to understand just yet. “I think he was close even at the beginning.”

Milo studied her thoughtfully before saying, “You’ve always respected and loved Miss Mahrree. I just don’t want to ruin that.”

She blinked at him. “What are you trying to get at?”

“Teeria, sit down—”

“I am, Milo. I can’t get any lower than the floor.”

“Believe it or not, Teeria, you’re about to get lower . . .”

 

—-

 

Sheff Gizzada didn’t open the doors of his restaurant in Pools the next day. He sent home his staff and put up a sign that said only “Closed until further notice.”

But at the back of his establishment, the not-so-secret hideout of enlisted men looking for a massive sandwich for a tiny slip of silver, the doors were thrown open all day. Gizzada wasn’t cooking, but his barrels of mead and ale were freely available to whomever wanted to drown his sorrows with the old Sarge.

He didn’t talk much, which was uncharacteristic for him. Soldiers by the hundreds somberly filed in and out all day, sharing stories and saying the same things like, “Just can’t believe it,” and “What a shock,” and “So sorry, Sarge.”

At one point Gizzada took down the big sign behind the counter, and for the longest time fingered the burned words in the wood labeling The General Shin and The Colonel Shin sized sandwiches, and the dessert of the day, named The Peto. He traced an S so often that some of the blackening faded.

When sundown came, and Gizzada was feeling as drained as his empty mead barrels, he prodded the last of the mourners out the door. He was just about to lock up for the night when he noticed two more enlisted men in the alley heading for his door. He stepped out to shoo them away, but then noticed there was something familiar about them.

Not caring that his behavior wasn’t very Sarge-like, he broke into a lumbering run and was caught in an embrace by Grandpy Neeks. Gizzada reached out and pulled in Corporal Poe Hili to be crushed by their hug. After a few moments, the three men, arm in arm, trudged back to the restaurant. Sheff Gizzada closed the door behind them, locked it, and pulled the shades.

The lantern stayed on all night long as the three men reminisced about the only officer worth his weight, and speculated about everything else.

Shortly after midnight, they began to plan . . .

 

 

 

Chapter 21—“There is now an official story.”

 

For the next couple of days Perrin learned what a ‘normal’ life looked like. He watched the sun rise over the eastern mountains. Then while his wife and daughter planted gardens in the morning, he built fences with Deck and Peto for the eighty acres. At midday meal he helped Mahrree compile a list of the world’s high and low points for the past one-hundred-twenty years, to present as a series of lectures Professor Kopersee had already arranged for Mahrree to deliver to all upper school teachers during their break next week

After midday meal he saw off Peto for the last few weeks of school in Salem, where he learned far more than he ever did in Edge, and most efficiently in only three hours each afternoon. Then he spent the afternoons finishing Deck’s house with the men of the community, while Deck traveled to different ranches to select cattle. In the late afternoon Rector Yung came to help Peto prepare the land for an orchard, and Perrin was tasked to move larger rocks out of the way.

Normal life, Perrin decided five days after their arrival in Salem, was bliss.

“I’m still waiting for the stress to begin,” he said as he sat down to a late dinner after nailing in the last shingles on the Briters’ roof. “But I really don’t think it’ll come. By the way, Deck and Jaytsy can move in tomorrow night. Some women from the neighborhood are there now, sweeping it out for the furniture to be delivered tomorrow.”

“Jaytsy will be thrilled,” Mahrree said, sitting down across from him. “She’s out with Deck and Peto bringing in his herd. You better hurry up before they arrive, so we won’t miss the parade of steak.”

Perrin was already chewing. “After we get them moved in,” he garbled and swallowed, “I can claim my office and start securing Salem. We could really use towers here, I’ve decided, and we can try smaller banners for the alphabet to spell out short messages.”

“And here you thought you’d have nothing to do in Salem.”

Perrin chuckled. “I’ve also been thinking a lot about Lorixania,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been listening to the men talking while they worked on the house, discussing somebody’s horse that’s down, or how someone else’s new fence design looks nice, and I realized I could have spent my whole life here instead of Idumea and Edge. I could have known all these people who worry and work and help each other as if they really are all family. I’ve been wondering how my life would have been different had my great-great-grandmother followed her father instead.”

He looked off at the wall for a minute, his eyes searching for a stone to stare at but only seeing wood. He settled for a knothole. “All because of her choices, my family for generations lived a life less than it could have been. Did she really believe she was on the right side? Grandfather Pere remembered her as a boy, and he said she was always sad. I wonder if she ever regretted her decision. It took us four generations to get back to where we should have been.

“I also wondered if Lek’s failure was behind the king’s anger. Yudit said that Lorixania was quite outspoken. What if her family leaving, and her making a fuss about it, caused so much of what our society experienced over the next several years? Just a few people’s choices can affect thousands. Maybe even more.”

“Maybe, but maybe not,” Mahrree said. “People make mistakes, but the Creator seems to know those mistakes are going to be made and prepares a way back. The point is, we made it back. I don’t know what my ancestor Barnos was thinking when he settled in Edge. Why did he leave the Zenos family? Then again, if our lives didn’t play out the way they did, how would we have ever met each other? There must have been some Divine help, don’t you think?”

Perrin stopped staring at the knothole and looked at his wife. “That’s why I married you, isn’t it? You always see the sides I can’t.”

Mahrree reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “And you always see the sides I don’t notice. Works pretty well that way, doesn’t it? But really, Perrin, I doubt an officer named Shin marrying a loud and outspoken woman really could have changed the course of the world, now, do you?” She batted her eyelashes.

“Who knows? It happened just recently! Apparently we Shins are attracted to loud Zenoses.”

Mahrree laughed. “But I didn’t change the course of the world. You kept reminding me that no one in Idumea cared about a little woman in Edge.”

“But they did, Mahrree,” said Perrin, suddenly sober. “They always did. Gadiman’s file was proof. I’m sorry I never realized that.”

“Don’t be. Look where it got us. Now eat your dinner. Cattle are coming and they don’t want to know you had beef.” Perrin wasn’t quite up to going meatless that year.

Soon after, Mahrree and Perrin sat on their front porch watching one hundred bulls, cows, and calves noisily moo their way down their dirt road, kicking up dust and occasionally protesting the snap of Deck’s whip as he and several other men steered the livestock into the pasture behind his new house.

Shem’s father Boskos stood at the gate waiting to funnel in the cattle. He grinned as he saw another herd coming to enjoy the land that he used for so many years.

Deck, sitting proudly atop of Clark who helpfully nickered at a few errant calves, looked as if he’d never stop smiling.

But Peto, with Jaytsy in the wagon next to him, looked as if he’d never stop scowling. From their position at the back of the herd, the scent was considerably stronger.

But Jaytsy didn’t notice as she beamed at her husband silhouetted in the setting sun.

“So,” Mahrree said as she coughed away another dust ball, “these are our new neighbors. A little, um, earthy, aren’t they?”

By the time the cattle were settled in, it was fully dark. Mahrree didn’t recognize the man who came up to her porch until he spoke.

“So what do you think of your son-in-law’s herd?”

“Guide Gleace? How long have you been here?”

“I arrived a little while ago and brought someone along to meet you, but then we saw that stray calf and got caught up in all the excitement of catching it. I’m a little dirtier than I like to be, but—” he brushed the muck off his trousers apologetically.

“But nothing. Come on in and clean up,” Mahrree said, holding open the door.

The guide beckoned to someone in the dark, and two more men came up to the door.

Mahrree recognized Shem who was in deep conversation with the second man who was in his early thirties.

“Mahrree,” Shem said, “is Perrin around?”

“He should be back soon,” she said as she let the men into the house and showed them to the washing room. “He was trying to pick out tomorrow night’s dinner. I’m sure Deck will be shooing him back in at any moment now.”

Perrin did come in the back door a few minutes later, wearing a sheepish grin, with his son and daughter pushing him.

“I told you, not until later in the season! And only one that Deck hasn’t grown fond of! Mother,” Jaytsy put her hands on her hips, “he was out there outlining the rump of the biggest bull with a piece of chalk and labeling it Perrin’s. He’s lucky the cattle of Salem are afraid of him too, or he would’ve been wearing a horn in his gut!”

The guide scratched his head. “Cattle are afraid of Perrin? Interesting. Maybe we could use him when it’s time to corral the lazy ones wandering in the hills.”

Jaytsy shrugged. “Perhaps. Deck spent a whole Raining Season trying to understand why they run from him, but we didn’t come to any conclusions.”

“That’s because you were too busy staring at each other with gooey eyes,” Peto reminded her.

“Oh yeah,” she giggled. “That’s probably true.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Shem said. “This is someone I want you to meet—Caraka Mondell. Actually, Mahrree and Perrin, he’s already met you, but you probably don’t realize it.”

Mahrree analyzed the man. His face was rather plain and not distinguished in any way. Average. Quite overly average, if that were possible. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”

Caraka smiled. “Most people don’t remember or even notice me. That’s why I was so good at my work. But your situation rendered you even less likely to notice me. When we were in the same room you were more nervous than any woman I ever saw. At one point you were so pale I was sure you were about to pass out. I tried several times to make eye contact and assure you all was well, but you rarely looked up.” He waited for her to put it all together.

Mahrree frowned. “Idumea? The office outside the Main Conference Room?”

Caraka nodded. “I was the recorder. Have been for many years.”

Perrin folded his arms. “I don’t remember you.”

“No surprise there. Some people have a face that’s unforgettable. Mine is unmemorable. Then again, the first time you were there you were accompanying your wife, who you marched out quite angrily if I remember correctly.”

Perrin winced at the memory and Mahrree squeezed his arm.

“And the second time you came in, you were wielding a sword ready to kill Chairman Nicko Mal. At least, that was our guess. Or Gadiman. When you left you were a rather changed man.”

Perrin nodded and bit his lip. “Not my best moments, were they.”

“Actually, I thought they were,” Caraka grinned. “I was a bit disappointed you didn’t bloody that ridiculous table—” He stopped when he saw the guide, whose expression changed only in his eyes.

They had darkened.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the guide. “It’s probably a good thing I’ve come home. I’m sounding too much like Idumea.”

“We’ll work it out of you.” Gleace patted him on the back.

“Come sit down. Tell us what else you remember,” Mahrree winked at her husband.

“There is some news,” Guide Gleace said, with exceptional heaviness. “And considering what Caraka knows, I thought he may be able to provide Perrin some information as he secures Salem. Caraka’s out of work now.”

Shem turned to him. “I just thought you were here on leave.”

“No. There have been a great many changes in the world since last week,” Caraka said darkly. “And I’ve left for good.”

“I’m calling everyone home except for two scouts who will stay working the stables for the Administrators,” Gleace announced to the surprised family. “I recently learned that’s a good place for gaining information. I’m sending reinforcements to help Jothan get the last of our people out of the world during the next few weeks, until things quiet down a bit.”

“Why?” Mahrree said, trepidation welling inside her to see the guide so concerned. For the past week she’d forgotten that the rest of the world still swirled to the south of them. “What’s happened?”

Guide Gleace sighed. “As you know, we smuggled you out of Edge on the pretense of ‘killing you’—”

“Which is quite the honor,” Caraka grinned mischievously. “The last person we ‘killed’ was Guide Pax.”

Gleace managed a dim smile. “That’s true. But a problem has arisen. You see, we created your death as a cover for your disappearance. However, it seems that Administrator Genev, who has decided to make Edge his permanent base for the time, has concocted his own story.” With that, the guide looked intently at Caraka.

Caraka’s previous grin was replaced with apprehension.

“They need to know,” Gleace prodded him. “It may help Perrin with his future plans.”

The guide sat down on a chair, an air of gloom accompanying him, and Caraka reluctantly sat in another next to him. Jaytsy and Peto sat on one of the sofas, and Perrin and Shem sat on the other, with an anxious Mahrree between them.

Caraka leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. “I’m not sure where I should start.”

“Start with Idumea’s official story,” Guide Gleace suggested. “Get it out of the way.”

Caraka nodded and exhaled. “There is now an official story as to what happened to the Shin family. Your house was searched and . . . they found Terryp’s map.”

Perrin rubbed his forehead. “What did they do with it?”

“Sent it to Idumea for evaluation. But the story released by the Administrators is that it is the original one.”

“Good,” Perrin’s shoulders sagged. “It just may be preserved still. So now I’m a traitor?” he asked with a pitiful smile.

Caraka shook his head. “No, not the Hero of Edge. You are still a hero, but a tragic one now.”

“Really?” Perrin said. “And how did that happen?”

Jaytsy and Peto leaned forward on the sofa, fascinated.

Caraka squirmed. “The story is, the map wasn’t Colonel Shin’s. It was Sergeant Major Zenos’s.”

“Mine?” Shem exclaimed. “Well, that’s not fair. I didn’t even get to see the original.”

“Poor Shem.” Mahrree chuckled and patted him on the knee.

Caraka saw it and, oddly, winced before looking away.

“Why would it be in my house if it was Shem’s?” Perrin asked, insulted that he didn’t get credit—or blame—for possessing the map.

Caraka shifted in his seat, feeling the pressure of so many stares. He shielded his eyes before he said the next part. “Because Shem gave it to Mrs. Shin.”

“What?” Now it was Mahrree’s turn to exclaim. “Why me?”

Caraka looked pleadingly at the guide.

“Remember, Caraka, you’re only telling them the official story. You’re not behind any of this.”

Caraka groaned and closed his eyes so as to not see the line of victims who sat before him innocent of his news as he blurted, “So that Mrs. Shin could run away with the sergeant major!”

Every mouth in the room fell open, except for the guide’s and Caraka’s.

“Finish it,” said Gleace grimly.

“According to the Administrators, Mrs. Shin and the sergeant major were . . . together for quite some time. The colonel followed them into the forest to stop their togetherness.” Caraka made some vague hand motions and then tried to wipe it all away.

Mahrree and Shem slowly turned to look at each other.

Peto snorted a guffaw.

Jaytsy slapped a hand over her mouth.

Perrin’s breathing began to quicken.

Horrified, Mahrree stared at Shem.

People in Edge now thought that she and him—

Feeling as if she’d just been punched in the gut, Mahrree leaned toward her husband as Shem leaped off the sofa as if stabbed by it.

“Wha—? How—? Why—?” Shem spluttered as he paced the floor. He instinctively walked back to his spot on the sofa, saw Mahrree, and spun around to not face her.

Mahrree covered her eyes with her hand, but watched Shem between her fingers.

Jaytsy patted the seat next to her as Shem stomped aimlessly around the room. He threw his hands up in the air when he saw her. Instead of sitting, he marched to the eating room, took a chair, and slammed it down in the farthest corner of the gathering room.

Plopping himself on it, he bounced his legs nervously. “I never. Not once did I ever . . . I—”

“Shem!” Perrin said sharply. “Enough! No one said you did!”

Shem leaped to his feet again. “The Administrators said I . . . that we—” He pointed at Mahrree who was still so humiliated she wasn’t sure if she’d ever come out of hiding. “I don’t believe this!” He spun to Caraka. “So all the soldiers in Edge now think that I and Mahr—”

The only consolation Mahrree felt at that moment was that Shem was so shocked he couldn’t bring himself to say her name.

Caraka, wincing so fiercely that his face screwed itself into nearly a slit, nodded.

“No!” Shem wailed as he sat down hard on his chair. “Do you know how often I told them about the importance of being honorable and exact in everything? Do you know what I sound like now? The biggest hypocrite in the world!” He hid his face in his hands.

“For how long?” Perrin calmly asked Caraka. “How long were Shem and Mahrree having an affair—”

That terrible word brought Mahrree out of hiding. “Don’t say it like that!

Perrin kissed her forehead and put a comforting arm around her. His composure astounded her. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant to say is, What have the Administrators suggested about the length of the . . . um . . . uh . . .”

Togetherness?” Peto tried to stifle his laughter, but he couldn’t, even with his sister jabbing him. “I’m sorry, but it’s so funny. Come on, Mother and Uncle Shem? Together? Who would believe that? This is hilarious.”

“Maybe in a few weeks, Peto,” said Perrin heavily.

“Seasons.” Mahrree hid behind her hand again, realizing that her children had just heard about her supposed . . .

“Years,” Shem said quietly in the corner, his head hanging low.

Peto scoffed. “I don’t get it. Just laugh it off. Another stupid administrative lie. We’ve dealt with those before.”

His sister glared at him. “And what lies about you have they spread?”

“This feels . . . different,” Mahrree murmured. One part of her wanted to shake it off, chuckle at the inanity, but this was no ordinary cut that would quickly heal. It was a stab in her gut, and that’s where she felt it, aching and twisting.

Caraka cleared his throat. “It’s been suggested that they had been together for quite some time, since before the land tremor. You see, it helps to explain the unusual behavior of the colonel, especially after his parents’ death. The story is, he was suspecting the affai—together—relationship,” he finally decided to call it, “so his erratic behavior was connected to that, not to the death of his parents. The attack on Moorland was an attempt to impress his wife to come back to him, but instead it revealed that Shem Zenos was . . . a Guarder spy. Colonel Shin decided to keep that a secret to preserve his reputation.”

Shem’s head fell even lower.

Perrin only shifted in his seat as Mahrree wilted miserably into him.

Caraka sighed before he continued. “Mrs. Shin’s recent outburst about the findings of the expedition was an attempt to convince her husband to leave Edge, to get him out of the way. When he refused to support her at the platform, he was demonstrating his devotion to the Administrators. When he resigned, it was his last desperate attempt to win back his wife. He was torn between his ‘two loves:’ his wife and the army.”

Peto’s scoffing chuckle didn’t spread to anyone else.

“Since Mrs. Shin and the sergeant major were—” Caraka made some more vague hand movements, “they made plans to abandon the colonel and his children. The map was to tell Mrs. Shin where to meet her lov—uh, Shem.”

“They were to run away to Terryp’s land together?” Perrin shook his head at the absurdity.

Caraka shrugged.

“So everybody in Edge,” Mahrree said from behind her hiding hand, “now believes that I was . . . with Shem—

“Uh, no,” Caraka said quietly. “I’m sorry to say everyone in the world now believes you were with Shem. Messages went out to the forts a couple of days ago, notices to the villages a little after that. There’s already talk of another play.”

That was all Mahrree could take. “No!”

Shem’s head couldn’t hang any lower without scraping the ground.

“I guess you didn’t need to hear that part,” Caraka mumbled apologetically.

“Everything I ever said to the recruits,” Shem murmured, “everything I ever said will now sound like a lie.”

Mahrree gasped. “My students! Oh, what must my students think?! They had such foul mouths and minds as it was, and now?”

Even Peto winced at that. “But hey, why do we care what the world thinks?” he tried again. “Isn’t that the point? Why we left? To not care about the world anymore?”

“I know I shouldn’t,” Mahrree said, “but I just can’t help it. I do. I care.”

Next to her, Perrin sighed heavily in grudging agreement.

“But why are they saying all these things about Mother and Shem?” Jaytsy wondered. “Why not just let them die in the forest?”

The answer hit Mahrree again in the gut, and she didn’t think she’d eat again for days. “I know why. He got it right,” she nodded to Shem, whose name caught in her throat. “Everything we ever said will be considered a lie. What I claimed on the platform? That can all now be dismissed because of what kind of a woman I have been ‘revealed’ to be. It’s really deviously clever. They couldn’t destroy my words, so they destroyed my reputation which rendered my words meaningless. And my husband, the beloved of the world, died in some tragic way in the forest, right?”

Caraka nodded. “Trying to retrieve your body, which was riddled with arrows, which then fell into a cavern. You were both lost.”

“Rather romantic.” Perrin tried to smile.

But Mahrree couldn’t. “So Perrin Shin, who should have been High General of Idumea, falls because he naively followed his treacherous wife, and was deceived by his closest friend. He remains the hero the Administrators couldn’t hope to destroy. I, on the other hand, was a far easier and more expendable target.”

“Very good. Maybe you could have been an officer.” Perrin kissed her again.

“Or worked for Genev,” Peto whispered to his sister.

“So who’s behind all of this new story?” Jaytsy wondered.

“Genev helped, I’m sure, but I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week,” Perrin said, “about the world. If it’s any one person, I think it’s Nicko Mal. I remembered something the other day, from back when I was in Command School. He came to our diplomacy class to deliver a lecture on human nature. It was before he took over the government from King Oren, but he must have already been in the thick of planning it. He said humans have no extra ability or strength to look fear in the eye and say, Come get me. He spent half an hour explaining how humans are just complex animals, that people can be manipulated to respond to stresses just like a horse, and to be led like one as well. He had done experiments with dogs. He’d strike a bell with a stick, then strike the dogs. Soon he only needed to strike the bell and the dogs cowered. Eventually he just appeared, without even a stick, and the dogs hid in terror. He said humans were no different, and could never be anything better.

“So, naturally, I spent the next fifteen minutes arguing with him that because humans were the children of the Creator, their potential and abilities were far greater than mere animals. He just rolled his eyes whenever I said ‘Creator.’ I was furious, and Mal was irritated that I challenged his position. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if we aren’t all just part of one his grand experiments. In this case, we’re the dogs.”

“I know you have a remarkable ability to irritate people, Father,” Peto spoke up, “but you really think all of this was Chairman Mal’s attempt to prove his point to you?

“It’s a little more complex than that,” Mahrree decided. “But for some reason that sounds right. What lengths some people will go for entertainment.”

“And ego,” Perrin said.

“Chairman Mal had access to everything,” Shem reminded them. “All the Administrators, control over the army, all the files—”

“Mrs. Shin’s file,” Caraka added.

Perrin shook his head. “We destroyed it.”

“You destroyed Gadiman and Genev’s file on her,” Caraka told him. “But you didn’t get Captain Thorne’s. Apparently he had a spy working for him, telling him everything that Mrs. Shin taught, and didn’t teach, and taught extra in her classes.”

“Lannard!” Mahrree whispered. “He was working for Thorne, exercising his horse.”

“What happened to us?” Jaytsy asked, nodding to her brother.

Caraka brightened a little to have a different subject. “Guarders. Turns out they incorporated some of our story. We had said that Guarders kidnapped your family from their houses, but Genev twisted that as well. Your father was hoping, according to the Administrators, to use you and your brother to help retrieve your mother who had already run away with Shem. But at least now everyone also believes the Guarders have returned, in full force, so that’s effectively scaring off people from trying to find their own ways to the ruins.”

“So what happened to Shem in this new story?” Peto asked a little too eagerly.

Shem’s head bobbed.

“Still killed by Thorne,” Caraka said. “The scouts took care of Dormin’s body. Since it was dark, no one who witnessed the event seems to question that it wasn’t Shem who was killed. Or they were threatened to state that it was.”

Peto frowned. “I supposed that makes Thorne quite the hero, huh? Killing the traitorous, adulterous Shem—”

Shem’s head came up, a fierce look in his eyes.

“A little,” Caraka admitted. “But not as much as he probably wishes.”

“So he’s not in charge of the fort?” Shem asked.

“No, not at all. He’s still recovering. Apparently he was struck by a lightning bolt. His right arm was so badly burned it’s permanently lamed.”

Shem winced, as did Mahrree, but Perrin’s and Jaytsy’s faces remained immovable.

“Caraka,” Perrin said, “I’m sure it was my father’s sword that he used. Do you know what may have happened to it?”

“Rumor is that it was General Shin’s sword that the lightning struck, when Thorne drew it to come after you. But it’s damaged beyond repair.”

Perrin nodded once, in satisfaction. “I never thought it would tolerate taking an innocent life. Yes, I know that sounds strange, and I know it’s not alive, but somehow I feel it got its revenge for Dormin’s life. Nor would it allow itself to be used against anyone else. Somehow I feel my father may have been behind some of this.”

Caraka nodded. “I think you may be right about that. Well, even when Thorne’s recuperated he still won’t be in charge,” he continued. “That’s part of the reason I came back. Genev has ordered commandants to govern every fort.”

“Commandants?” Mahrree said.

Perrin sighed. “We had provisions for that, but I never imagined they would actually use it. Essentially it means the Administrators have lost faith in the fort commanders, and have appointed new political leaders to rule alongside the commanders. But it won’t stay that way. The commandants will take over, no doubt. The army becomes a puppet for the Administrators.”

Caraka nodded. “Already there is great pressure. Every single worker is being interrogated, moved around, and replaced in the Administrative Headquarters. No fort will look the same. Soldiers are being shuffled around like chips in a game of Dices. Even High General Thorne now has to go through Chairman Mal for approval of anything.”

“Nicko’s angry that the cat let the favorite falcon fly out of the barn,” Perrin said with his first genuine smile of the evening.

“There’s even talk of burning down the entire forest from Edge to Moorland, just to find out what it hides,” Caraka added.

“That’s why I want everyone home now,” Gleace said. “If they destroy the routes, our people will be trapped in the world. The Administrators haven’t made up their mind yet about the forests, but Shem’s route is no longer protected and is far more dangerous. If they do expose the forest, they will also uncover a great many of their own secrets, especially about the so-called Guarders. I doubt they want to do that. But I’m not about to take any chances. I don’t play Dices.”

Caraka gave him a grateful smile before he turned back to Perrin. “Genev is personally overseeing Fort Shin. The name is staying, by the way, as a reminder to respect the Shin name, but to never trust anyone they love. I am sorry,” he said, looking at Mahrree.

Mahrree sighed and slouched on the sofa. “Every person I’ve known for over forty years—my friends, my mother’s friends, the congregation, our neighbors, my students, the teachers, the officers—everyone will believe I’m nothing more than one of the girls who hung out at the northeast entrance. Just a regular sow.”

“Mahrree!” Perrin said sharply. “Stop that!”

Shem slapped his forehead. “I used that entrance to sneak over to your house at night after Perrin and I came back from Idumea.” He groaned. “And I’d stay all night at your place! Look at all the evidence I gave them!”

Perrin stood up between them, and Mahrree realized it was getting to him as well. The idea struck her that maybe worse than being labeled as a betrayer was being cast as the person foolish enough to be betrayed.

“Enough, both of you!” Perrin ordered Shem and Mahrree. “You have to let this go. None of it is true, and all of it belongs to the world. We left that world, right? Peto was right, amazingly: we shouldn’t care. Let them create whatever lies they want to, but it won’t touch us. If you ever wanted another reason why we had to leave, now you have it. Let the world destroy itself! I refuse to let it hurt our family, and we will talk of it no more. Is that understood?”

Mahrree nodded, forcing herself to meet her husband’s eyes. How could anyone not believe that she adored him? All of Edge may think that the man they regarded with fear and veneration was little more than a clueless cast-off, but Mahrree hoped her husband could see the devotion in her eyes.

“Zenos!” Perrin barked.

Shem sat up instinctively and tried to look Perrin in the eyes, but mortification came over him as he noticed Mahrree watching him.

“Shem, will you let this die? Here and now?” Perrin demanded.

Shem sighed. “I want to. I’ve just never been so, so . . . What will Brillen Karna think, Perrin? I used to write him all the time. And Fadh? Yordin? Grandpy and Rigoff and Poe—”

“I don’t care, so neither should you.”

Mahrree knew there was nothing Perrin could say that was further from the truth.

Shem closed his eyes but whispered, “I’ll try.”

“Not good enough, Zenos!”

Shem took a breath and said louder, “Yes sir! I will let it die.”

Perrin walked over to him and pulled him out of his chair. “Come here.” He held Shem’s face in his hands. “Years ago I accused you of being a Guarder spy. I never would have imagined then that I would laugh about it later. Yet the very next day we did. This, too, will become funny. It never happened and this story will never leave this family or this room.”

Jaytsy and Peto nodded, as did Caraka and Gleace.

“I’ll speak to all those coming from the world to make sure none of them spreads the rumor,” Gleace promised. “It will die before it ever reaches Salem.”

Shem blinked away furious tears.

“Now tomorrow,” Perrin said to Shem, “I want you to come over and talk to my wife again like she’s your sister. Because that’s what she’s always been. Well, actually, a cousin on one side several times removed, and a cousin by marriage on another side a few times removed. You’ll have to explain that terminology to me, because I don’t get it. How do you remove someone?”

Shem started to smile as Perrin released his face. “Yes, you’ve got it completely wrong. And yes, I understand and agree. I just have to leave. Now. Tomorrow will be better.”

Mahrree made a motion to get up, but Perrin waved her back down as Shem abruptly headed out the front door without looking at anyone.

Guide Gleace stood up. “I’ll take care of him.” He nodded goodbye to the family and hastily followed Shem.

Perrin turned to Caraka. “I appreciate your coming to tell us all of this. Would be quite the family tale to share if ever we were to share it again.”

Caraka held up his hands. “Again, I’m sorry I had to deliver the news. If it makes you feel any better, your memorial service three mornings ago in Idumea packed the entire kickball stadium. I saw the crowd gathering as I left.”

Perrin smiled slightly. “I could never imagine why fifty thousand people would all want to cram into the same area. I hope the weather was nice.”

“It was. You will be missed, sir. The world will not be the same without the Shin family.” He leaned over to Mahrree. “All of you.”

Mahrree nodded a weak thanks.

As Caraka went out the front door, the side door attached to the eating room burst open.

Deck bounded in, dusty and happy. “So what do you think of my one hundred babies? Beautiful, aren’t they? Oh, no,” he said reading their bleak faces. “Another document?”

Mahrree stood up, The Dinner smile firmly in place. “Not at all, Deck. Your babies are beautiful. But I just learned that I really have changed the world.”

 

—-

 

Down the road two figures walked slowly in the darkness. No words passed between them, but heavy sighs from the taller, younger man filled the air.

“You know, Shem—” the older man started to say after the eighth sigh.

“Why did you choose me to be an assistant?” Shem interrupted. “I haven’t even served as a rector—”

“That’s not entirely true, Shem. Before we sent you to Edge what did Guide Hifadhi do?”

“Put his hands on my shoulders and declared me to be . . . a rector,” he finished in a whisper.

“That’s right. Not a practicing rector such as Yung, but endowed with the same guidance, inspiration, and ability as a rector. The same power the Creator grants to all scouts going to the world. And you behaved as a rector, countless times, for the Shins.”

“Not always,” he said miserably. “And I’m not like the other eleven assistants. They’re married, older, wiser—”

“Shem, I didn’t choose you. The Creator called you. He’s the only one who calls men to His work. He sees your heart. He only gives me glimpses into it. And I still see a man called by the Creator.”

Shem sighed for the ninth time.

The guide put an arm around him. “Remember, the Creator doesn’t judge us on the temptations we encounter, but how we react to those temptations.”

It took Shem a minute to work up enough courage to say, “So you know, then.”

“It’s just as I told you,” Gleace said kindly, “the Creator gives me glimpses into people’s hearts.”

Shem groaned at that revelation, and whatever further insights the guide may have had about him.

With forbearance Shem didn’t feel he deserved, Gleace asked, “Did you ever act on those temptations?”

“No,” he whispered. “Never. I killed the thoughts, over and over again. And Perrin thought I could never kill anything.”

“Then you passed that test. And now you also know how terrible it would’ve been if you’d failed it.”

“I couldn’t even look at her, Guide. She was so upset, seeing herself as a common sow . . . And when he looked at me I thought I was going to vomit.”

With the same calm patience, Gleace asked, “Do you think Perrin ever suspected?”

It was an excruciatingly long moment before Shem managed, “Yes, I’m sure he did. I even sort of confessed it the night I told him everything in Deck’s barn. When Perrin put her hand in mine before I dragged them through the forest, he twitched a signal which, depending upon the situation, means, I place you in charge of what is mine, should I not be able to take care of it. I tried to keep my mind clear, yet there it was again, and I was overwhelmed with . . . Guide, I don’t want to feel that way about her! But so many times when I looked at her . . .” Shem didn’t say anything more, afraid he’d start blubbering.

“Yet still her husband loves you as his best friend and brother,” Gleace said steadily. “So apparently he still trusts you—”

“But Guide, why?” Shem wailed. “Why was I plagued for so many years by . . . He’s my brother! She’s his wife! I never gave in. Perrin’s great uncle Hogal even noticed it, the first time. Told me to keep my eyes on him, on Perrin. And I succeeded, for a time. Then it would come back again . . .” Shem rubbed his eyes as if to wipe away memories. “The worst were the past couple of years,” he confessed.

Gleace just listened, as he always did when the burden had to be voiced.

“She’d ask me to stay. At night. Often. She worried about him when he was sedated and practically dead to the world. She told me she felt so vulnerable, and she’d innocently hug me, then beg me to stay and comfort her.” Shem squeezed his eyes shut. “And so many ideas, so many ways I could take advantage of all of that would pour into my mind, showing me how easy it would have been—”

He stopped walking and covered his eyes with his hands, trying to shove back in the tears, the images, maybe even his confession.

Gleace stood by patiently as his newest assistant agonized.

“But Guide, I promise you I didn’t,” Shem said, his hands dropping to his sides. “I never, ever tried anything. I pushed away those thoughts as quickly as I pushed her away, and I stayed all night on that stupid sofa.”

“And that’s why this lie, which wasn’t entirely a lie, has such an effect on you,” Gleace said carefully. “You’re afraid you’ve been found out.”

Shem turned to Gleace, whose expression was much gentler than he thought he deserved. “Guide, I was doing everything you and Hifadhi wanted me to do, everything the Creator commanded, so why?”

Gleace slid his hand up to Shem’s shoulder to keep a firm hold on him as they slowly continued on their walk. “Because you were doing everything right, everything we wanted you to do, and everything the Creator commanded. That’s why.”

What?

“Consider this—how important was this work?”

“Very important. Nothing was more vital to Salem than bringing the Shin family here.”

“And who wanted you to fail?”

Shem sighed yet again. “The Refuser.”

“Exactly. And what better way to destroy this work than to destroy the Shins’ trust in you? Had you succumbed, in any way, to the temptations you suffered concerning Mahrree Shin, they would have lost all trust in you, and then everything else would have been lost, too. But you were stronger than his temptations, Shem. You refused to give in to the Refuser, and you got them all to Salem safely.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes. Sensing that Shem wasn’t feeling any better, the guide squeezed his shoulder. “It’s just about over, Shem. The Creator is immensely pleased with you, and He also knows the turmoil you’ve been in all these years. Why did you never tell me or Guide Hifadhi about this problem?”

One more sigh. “It’s not like it was constant. It came and went, until recently. I was sure I could beat it for good on my own. I’d succeed for a couple of seasons, and then it would hit me again without warning. I’d be gripped with this . . .” He gestured lamely to the air. “So I’d fight it again . . .” Finally he quit stalling. “Mostly I was afraid you wouldn’t let me go back if you knew how I felt about her.”

“That would have been a possibility,” Gleace admitted. “But maybe we could have helped you fight it instead, Shem. You’re not the first man to suffer from inappropriate feelings for someone who couldn’t be his, you know.”

Shem shrugged guiltily.

Gleace squeezed him again. “Shem, she’s right around the corner. I can feel it. The one who will make you forget all about old-what’s-her-name, and make you grateful you never did anything improper.”

“Then please guide me to that corner!”

The guide smiled. “Now, now. That’s not my job. But when you least expect it, that’s when you’ll find her. And she’ll be well worth the wait.”

 

 

 

Chapter 22—“I shocked him, didn’t I?”

 

The next day, Shem didn’t come over to talk to Mahrree, as Perrin had ordered. Instead he surreptitiously watched her house as he helped move in furniture for the Briters. Whenever he caught a glimpse of her carrying a crate of something from her house to Jaytsy’s, he ducked in the opposite direction.

She didn’t bother to seek him out, either.

On Holy Day, new Assistant Zenos joined Guide Gleace to visit another congregation, so he avoided the Shins easily that day. At the meeting on the east side of Salem, he sat on the stand in front of the congregation with an unimpeded view of everyone while Guide Gleace spoke. Shem practiced his ability to look at people without appearing to look at them, trying to find women who might be single.

He immediately discovered a problem.

Single women weren’t easily identified.

It would have been thoughtful had they all sat together in one section labeled as “Available Women Who are Interested in Slightly Older Men,” because no one in the audience sat alone. Shem considered how kind of the Creator it would have been to give him a hand in finding her. It wasn’t as if he believed in love at first sight, but certainly the Creator could give him a nudge and say, “Take a walk with this one” or “Invite this one to dinner.” Perhaps something could have happened when he gazed at the right woman, such as a beam of light illuminating her, or a chorus of cosmic voices chiming in his head, “It’s her!

But by the end of the meeting Shem would have settled for just a fly landing on some woman’s nose to tell him she was a possibility.

But there was nothing.

Oh, plenty of females were smiling in his direction, but the teenagers who giggled shyly were far too young, and some of the mature women who frequently glanced his way were definitely married.

It didn’t help that Guide Gleace introduced him as Salem’s Most Famous Scout and Eligible Bachelor, now his new Assistant, and now home for good. He paused and then said, “So my dear Salemites—we need to get to work on him.”

And after the meeting, they sure tried. Shem was overwhelmed with people welcoming him home, then telling him about a sister who was single, or an aunt, or a niece, or a young widow, or a neighbor, and her name is this, and she lives here, and I’ll have her send you a note, and when’s a good time for you to come over?

Shem pretended he remembered all of the details that were tossed at him from all directions. Interestingly, none of those available women actually came up and introduced themselves, but he saw several hanging back and watching hopefully, as if Shem would know what to do next.

He didn’t.

There was no light or chorus or flies anywhere.

Maybe she wasn’t in this congregation. That was all right, he consoled himself as Gleace finally pulled him away from the crush to visit another congregation. There were one hundred and three more he would speak to in the next few years, and eventually he would have seen every available female in Salem—

And then he’d have to start sorting through them all—

Guide Gleace was apologetic as they rode to the next meeting. “All right, I now see that I should modify my introduction for you. I told you the other night that I wasn’t very good at matchmaking. I think I should leave your love life to you, and I stick to being the guide.”

The next day when Shem was headed over to the Shins to discuss with Perrin the guide’s concerns about securing Salem, he had forgotten about finding the right woman, and found himself preoccupied with avoiding just a specific one.

Shem approached the Shins’ front door hesitantly in the late afternoon and held up his hand to knock. He was relieved the Shins and Briters were the last two houses on the lane and no one would notice him standing there awkwardly, reluctantly.

At least this wasn’t Edge, where people made it a hobby of gawking and where now everyone believed that he and she actually acted out the dreams that woke him abruptly so many nights . . .

He couldn’t bring himself to knock.

Hearing voices in the house, he trudged to the side eating room door. He glanced over at the barn hoping to maybe see Perrin out with Deck, but there was no one. He sighed and raised his hand again. After a moment his fist finally connected with the wood.

“Come in!” he heard Mahrree call.

He cringed and practiced his own Dinner smile as he opened the door. “Just me.” He was about to add, “Where’s Perrin?” but the words wouldn’t come as he hung halfway in the house.

He knew he was staring, but there was nothing else he could think of doing because he couldn’t think. The sight at the table held him completely captivated. There was no unexplained light or music in his head.

There was, however, the faint buzzing of flies.

He had just turned a corner.

He had never been on this road before, but he knew what to do on unfamiliar terrain: evaluate the situation, assess the threats, then proceed with caution.

Except he couldn’t seem to do any of it.

“Shem!” Mahrree said. “Just the person I was hoping to see. This is Miss Calla Trovato. She accompanied me home today after the first lecture I delivered. Professor Kopersee didn’t mention that he invited over one hundred teachers from all over Salem. Anyway, I think the lecture went well. So well that Miss Calla here wanted more information. She’s a teacher in one of the northern communities. I’m sorry, Calla, I forgot what it was called.”

The woman with pure black hair and sparkling blue eyes smiled at her. “Norden,” she said demurely. As she turned to Shem, her smile changed slightly.

Shem noticed. Her smile sucked away his ability to breathe so he did nothing but stare. He desperately wished for some kind of sign on this road to tell him what to do next.

Mahrree fought the corners of her mouth. “Calla is staying at a house near here for the week, but had so many questions that I invited her to come back with me to chat. Seems she’s quite knowledgeable about army maneuvers and strategies in Idumea.”

“Yes,” Calla said, shyly looking down at the table. “My father served briefly as a scout like you when he was young, Mr. Zenos. And I have to admit, I’ve read all your reports that came in. Kind of odd for a woman to be interested in the army, but, well, what can I say?”

She cautiously looked up at Shem with a fragile smile.

He didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t even blink.

Mahrree rolled her eyes. “She’s being modest. She’s quite the army historian, Shem. I think she would benefit from hearing some of your experiences. Your reports were a little skimpy at times. I got the copies from your sister to see for myself.”

“Uhh,” Shem started, but no other words would come out.

Mahrree sighed and pulled him into the eating room. “Shem, get in here. You’re letting in the flies. Now, sit down. On a chair, Shem.”

He obeyed, still staring at blue eyes across the table from him, a nose with a little bump he immediately labeled as cute, and peach-pink lips he didn’t dare look at more than once.

“Shem!” Perrin boomed as he came into the eating room.

He jumped in his chair, knowing how to react to that voice. “Yes, sir?”

Perrin chuckled. “At ease, man. You look like you’ve seen a Thorne. Oh, hello. I’m sorry I didn’t realize we had company. I’m Perrin,” he said, holding out a hand to Calla.

“I know,” she blushed, sending a pink hue through her cheeks which caused Shem’s heart to swell, then deflate in utter contentment. Later he would remember hearing birds singing a well-harmonized chorus, and maybe he smelled sweet rolls, too. And fireflies. There were definitely fireflies, even though it was hours until dark . . .

“I’m Calla Trovato. It’s wonderful to finally meet you, sir. I’ve read all about you,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Have you, now? I better be on guard, then. And no ‘sir.’ Just call me Perrin.”

“I’ll try to remember that.” She smiled timidly and glanced at Shem before she focused on the pages in front of her.

Shem kept staring.

He didn’t notice that Perrin gave Mahrree a significant look.

Or that Mahrree rolled her eyes and widened them at Shem.

“So Shem,” Perrin said, sitting next to him. “Ready to get to work? Or am I interrupting something here. I can go give Deck a hand for a while . . .”

“Yes,” Shem said in dazed simplicity.

Yes you want me to help Deck, or yes you want to get to work?”

Shem smelled flowers now, most definitely flowers, and he was breathing in their intoxicating scent that hung heavily around this vision before him who was called Calla—wasn’t calla the name of a flower?—when he realized there was a grating noise next to him, demanding he pull his attention away from this vision, and so he slowly turned and saw Perrin’s face, as unwelcomed as a skunk’s.

A smirking skunk.

Shem blinked. “What?”

Perrin struggled to keep from laughing. “Yes you want me to help Deck, or yes you want to get to work?”

Shem stared at him blankly. If Perrin wasn’t going to say anything more useful than blah, blah, blah then Shem wasn’t going to waste any more time on him, so instead he turned back to begin memorizing the exact color of this Calla flower’s eyes—

Perrin stood up, grabbed Shem by the shirt collar, and yanked him out of the chair.

“I’m very sorry, ladies. Try again later. This poor man is lost somewhere in . . .” He caught Calla’s eye. “A deep blue sky.”

He winked at her as she blushed, then Perrin dragged a confused Shem up the stairs to the study.

 

—-

 

Calla looked down at the table and straightened her already tidy stack of notes. “I shocked him, didn’t I?” she murmured.

Mahrree began to chortle. “Yes, you did.”

Calla put her hand to her chest and closed her eyes. “It always happens. Men around here can’t understand why I felt such a concern about the army of Idumea. Ever since I was thirteen I just always needed to know what was going on. No wonder I’m still single at thirty—”

Mahrree took Calla’s arm. “That’s not what shocked him, Calla. I’ve known Shem for years, and I have never seen that look before on his face. I’m not sure he even heard anything anyone said.”

Wretchedly, Calla looked up at Mahrree. “So . . . what was . . . why didn’t he . . .”

Mahrree grinned. “I recently learned that Shem and I are distant cousins, and I’ve been watching for family traits we may share. I think I saw one today. It seems some people in our family have a difficult time forming words when staring into the eyes of someone they find attractive.”

Calla went pink. “Do you really think he found me—?” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word.

Salemites were so humble, Mahrree decided. “Promise me you’ll come back tomorrow so we can put this theory to the test.”

Calla nodded and rubbed her cheeks with her slender hands. “All right.”

“By the way, Calla,” Mahrree said, watching her closely, “what did you think of Shem? After all these years of reading his reports, you finally get to meet the sergeant major?”

“Actually, I saw him once when he was a younger man delivering a report to Norden,” she admitted nervously. “Several congregations were there to listen to him describe the current conditions of the world.” Calla chewed on her bottom lip and smiled faintly at the memory.

Even a blind woman could see what was happening, Mahrree thought to herself. These people knew nothing of deceit or hiding one’s feelings. Mrs. Gleace had told Mahrree that one of the requirements for becoming a scout to the world was the ability to lie. Shem had been Hew Gleace’s quickest study. But for the rest of the population? Salemites, being what they were, were hopelessly honest.

And Mahrree, being what she was, just had to test that.

“So . . . did you get a good look at him then?”

Calla turned a darker shade of pink. “I sat on the front row,” she confessed with a smile of embarrassment. “I was sixteen, and I intended to take notes. For my personal records, you know.”

“Oh, I think I know.”

Calla couldn’t look her in the eyes. “I didn’t write a word of what he said, though,” she confessed as she straightened yet again the pages in front of her. “I just sat there and watched him.”

There was so much longing in that word watched that Mahrree heard Calla’s pang from fourteen long years ago. For a moment Mahrree felt guilty for making Calla go back there.

But then the moment passed, because Mahrree was just too curious. “Personally, I think a man improves with age,” she said as Calla stared at a stray ink mark on her pages. “A bit of wisdom, a bit of depth, a bit of bulk . . . Maturity can be quite appealing, don’t you think?”

Calla’s study of her pages intensified to a near blistering heat.

Mahrree grinned, just out of range of Calla’s view. “I remember Shem at twenty-four. But now that I consider him thirty-eight? Well, Calla, what did you think of him today?”

When Calla looked up at her, it was with such anguished fervor that she couldn’t speak, so her pink flushed to a rose red.

Mahrree grinned in delight.

 

—-

 

Upstairs Perrin dropped Shem in a chair in the study. He squatted in front of him to look him in the eyes. “Want to tell me what happened down there?”

Shem shook himself slightly, no longer smelling flowers or sweet rolls, and wondering what happened to the fireflies. “Is she still there?”

“Maybe. But since you didn’t say two words together to her while I was around, I’m not sure she’ll stay long.”

Suddenly Shem felt as if he had woken up, and knew all too well what had happened during that marvelous dream which . . . was wholly embarrassing, now that he considered it.

Shem gripped his head. “Oh Perrin! She’s going to think I’m an idiot. I really didn’t say anything?

Perrin chuckled. “You don’t know?”

“No, I’m not sure! I mean, I thought of all kinds of things to say, but I guess none of those words came out. I can talk, you know.”

“Don’t tell me, tell her.”

“I can’t. Did you see her, Perrin?”

“Yes, I did. Very pretty—”

Shem leaped to his feet. “Why were you looking at her? You already have a wife!”

“Shem, I look at everyone. I notice everything. But I’m not interested in her.” Perrin choked back a laugh, sensing Shem wasn’t quite himself.

Shem wasn’t entirely sure who he was either, and nothing that came out of his mouth arose from any logical thought.

“Why wouldn’t you be interested in her? Do you think something’s wrong with her?” Shem asked, slightly panicked by, well, everything. “I mean, I think she’s a little older, but so were you and Mahrree . . .”

Perrin took his shoulders. “Shem, breathe. Calm down—”

“Perrin? Shem?” Mahrree called from downstairs. “Calla needs to leave now. Would you like to say goodbye?”

Perrin nodded at Shem.

Shem paled. All words left his mind again, just that quickly.

Perrin turned him to the door and opened it. He pushed Shem down the hall to the stairs, then prodded him down part way.

Shem froze on the stairs when he saw Calla at the bottom of them, biting her lip. Her perfect peachy-pink lip.

Words came to his mind. “I can talk.”

Calla smiled shyly. “Yes, I see you can, Assistant Zenos.”

“And call me Assistant Zenos, not Shem.” He began to feel proud about so many words coming out, until he notice Calla blinking at him a few times, and behind her Mahrree shaking her head sadly.

Perrin coughed a laugh and tried to push Shem the rest of the way down the stairs, but he wouldn’t budge.

“Calla,” Perrin said, “do you need someone to walk you home?” Perrin poked Shem in the back.

“Uh, well, it’s not dark for quite a while, so,” she hesitated, “I suppose not.”

Perrin sighed. Salemites knew nothing of subterfuge. “Well then, make sure you stay for dinner tomorrow night, Calla, so that it is dark when you walk home. I’m sure I could find you an escort.”

Calla smiled. “Thank you. Um, goodbye Perrin and . . .”

“Shem,” Perrin reminded her, jabbing Shem harder.

Shem slowly pivoted to Perrin. “I thought I was coming for dinner tomorrow.”

Mahrree threw her hands in the air and stormed off to the door.

Perrin patted Shem on the shoulder. “We have a big table now, remember? We can seat a dozen people. There’s room.”

“Oh yeah.” He turned again to Calla. “I can eat, too.” Oh, the words just kept flowing! This was easy!

Calla chanced a grin. “I’m glad to hear it. Until tomorrow, then?”

Shem nodded and kept nodding as Calla left.

When Mahrree closed the door she put her hands on her hips and glared at Shem.

He didn’t understand why she seemed so upset. “That went all right, didn’t it?” he said.

 

—-

 

The next night Shem proved he could talk.

He practiced all day while at the Guide and Administrators Office. Not everything about Guiding and Assisting was wholly spiritual. There was paperwork as well. So while Shem learned the intricacies of filing storehouse records, and birth and death notices, he mumbled dinner conversations.

At one point he was startled to hear the elderly man training him, Assistant Doyle, say, “Green, mashed potatoes since I’ve lost a few teeth, and to carve animals out of sticks for my great-grandchildren.”

Shem looked up from a stack of files. The old man with beautiful penmanship was writing out a congratulations to a newly appointed rector. “Assistant Doyle, why did you say that?”

“Because,” Doyle said as he added an elegant swoop, “you just asked me my favorite color, my favorite side dish, and what I like to do in my spare time.”

“Oh.”

“Allow me to guess: meeting someone new tonight? Perhaps a female?”

“I’m having dinner with the Shins and a schoolteacher. I think.”

“Well, sounds a little promising, I think,” Doyle said, returning to his work. “But may I offer a suggestion?”

“Yes, please.”

“Come up with some questions that are a little more compelling. You’re supposed to be the most interesting bachelor in Salem, after all. It won’t do at all to carry on a conversation worthy only of fourteen-year-olds. Ask her stories about her life, and share a few of your own.”

By the time Shem arrived at the Shins for dinner, his head was full of so many topics he couldn’t keep any of them straight. But that didn’t matter, because the moment he saw Miss Calla Trovato, all ideas fell out of his ears. It was because of the birds singing. When did Perrin and Mahrree get birds in the house?

In a way, he was almost sorry they’d sent Peto over to Jaytsy’s house for dinner to keep him out of the way. Peto had words. Lots of them.

 

—-

 

“Why does Shem look so pitiful?” Mahrree murmured to Perrin as they brought out the platters for dinner. “He reminds me of a lost hound dog. If he starts panting, I’m going to have to smack him.”

“Now, now, this is all new to him. At least they’re sitting on the same sofa.”

“And saying nothing!”

“Go easy on the poor man, Mahrree.”

“I’m trying to help him. In fact, I’ve been preparing all day.”

“Oh, no, Mahrree. What are you planning?”

“Nothing, nothing . . . I just have a list of conversation starters in my pocket should Shem come up with absolutely nothing at all. Is he starting to drool?”

“Mahrree, just give the man a chance, all right?” he murmured to her. “DINNER!” he announced, and both Calla and Shem jumped in startled unison.

Shem held out the chair for Calla—only after Perrin gestured urgently that he should—then he sat down across from her and began his mindless staring again.

“Um, I hope you don’t mind,” Calla said as she pulled out a folded page from a pocket, and produced seemingly out of thin air a quill and tiny jar of ink. “May I ask you a few things over dinner?”

Shem blinked, and blinked again as she unfolded the paper to reveal tight and careful words, filling the page.

Perrin whispered to Mahrree, “Don’t think you’ll need your conversation starters.”

Secretly, Mahrree was relieved. Small talk had never been her thing. Her first three questions were, what’s your favorite color, your favorite side dish, and what do you like to do in your spare time. For some reason she felt like a fourteen-year-old coming up with those.

“I know this list seems kind of long,” Calla apologized as Shem’s eyebrows rose. “But I’ve been saving them up for the last seventeen years. Now I certainly don’t expect to get through all of these tonight—”

“No, we need to save something for tomorrow night,” Shem said with the simple tone of an eager yet patient child seeing a giant cake placed in front of him.

Calla smiled as Perrin and Mahrree nodded in agreement.

“And the next night,” Shem said. “And the night after—”

Calla sat a little taller. “So, uh,” her voice grew timorous as nudged behind her ear a lock of sleek black hair which had escaped from her bun.

Shem watched the motion and stared at her ear while she read off her notes.

“So I was wondering, question number one—,” her voice shifted from soft and nervous to an authoritative teacher tone, “—over the years, your training tactics became more aggressive, probably because of the increasingly belligerence of the young men who were recruited. What I was wondering is, do you think that aggression reflected changes in society as a whole, or do you think the army just appealed to men of a more violent nature?”

Shem blinked away from her ear to find her watching him. “What?”

Calla nervously fingered the page she stared at. “Because I’m rather inclined to believe the former instead of the latter, since your recruitment numbers were always so high. High enough to get you promoted more frequently and in a shorter amount of time than any other enlisted man in the history of the army. I have a theory that young men were feeling somewhat lost, and the structure of the army provided some stability, and that the colonel and you may have been seen as the ‘father’ or ‘older brother’ figures that many of the men may have been seeking.” She met his eyes again.

Shem blinked. “I thought you were going to ask me something easy, like how many horses we had.”

“I already know. From your reports. I’ve read them all. Made my own copies of them, too. Um.”

Shem rested his head on his hand and looked into her eyes.

“But . . . I could ask you about the horses.”

“Sure,” Shem sighed airily.

“So how many horses did you have?”

“One.”

Calla pursed her lips.

Now Shem stared at those.

“I meant, the fort. How many horses did the fort have.”

“I have no idea.”

“One-hundred-ten,” Perrin prompted in a whisper from across the table.

Calla pretended not to hear him.

“One-hundred-ten,” Shem repeated dreamily.

“Did that include Thorne’s horse that you mentioned in your reports, or is that just the number of officially attached fort horses?”

“I have no idea.”

“No,” Perrin whispered. “It didn’t include Clark, either.”

“No,” Shem repeated obediently. “It didn’t include Clark, either.”

“Who’s Clark?” Calla asked.

“A horse,” Shem said as if in a trance. “Came with us. He’s in the barn, if you want to see him.”

“A horse named Clark?

Shem shook his head, still in a captivated stupor. “None of us got it either.”

Perrin started to sit up to defend the name when he felt a kick under the table from his wife.

“So one-hundred-twelve horses?” Calla clarified.

“Yes.”

“Not one-hundred-ten, then?”

“No. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I lied to you.”

Mahrree turned a snort into a believable cough.

Perrin kicked her back.

Calla smiled sweetly at Shem. “You’re forgiven. Any other questions you want me to ask you next?”

“No,” Shem said with a vague smile. “Just read me question number one.”

“Again?”

“Sure.” He watched her lips again and his smile grew.

Perhaps the problem, Mahrree and Perrin decided later when they discussed it over at the Briters, was that each of them was giving Shem, who didn’t notice them anymore, conflicting mental signals. While Perrin was trying to get the message of, “Don’t stare at her lips—look into her eyes!” through to his dense mind, Mahrree was sending the words, “Don’t look into her eyes or you’ll never think clearly. Look at her nose or her forehead.”

But Shem obviously didn’t receive any of it.

Calla sucked in her lips self-consciously before clearing her throat. She pushed aside her list of questions.

The expression on Shem’s face was that of utter devastation that the interview was already over.

Instead, Calla clasped her hands in front of her and leaned forward. “Tell me about . . . Qualipoe Hili. Why did you give him your jacket when he rode to Idumea to deliver the message to the Shins about the collapsed school building in Edge? All you wrote in your report was that your jacket was cut up when he returned, and that you had to buy a new one.”

Shem’s face brightened. Not only could he talk and eat, but he could tell stories. “Well, Poe Hili is an interesting boy. Man, now actually, I suppose. I first met him when he was nine and he was wearing this ridiculous silk shirt to Mahrree’s after school care. Do you know what silk is? I’m not sure you really want to know how it’s made, but there are lots of theories . . .”

Calla rested her head on her hand and looked dreamily into Shem’s eyes.

When Perrin and Mahrree slipped away from the table about twenty minutes later, neither Shem nor Calla noticed.

 

 

 

Chapter 23—“Nothing worked out the way it should.”

 

It was a surprisingly hot and bright afternoon in Edge as nearly all of the villagers were gathered at the amphitheater. They were there for the memorial service for the Shins.

Not for all of the Shins, however.

It was obvious to Sareen, as it must have been to everyone else, that Magistrate Wibble never once mentioned Mahrree Peto Shin who had lived in Edge her entire life and taught many of the villagers. Nor did he say a word about Sergeant Major Shem Zenos who had defended them for so many years.

On the platform next to Wibble was displayed Colonel Shin’s dress uniform, the numerous medals catching the sun and occasionally blinding sections of the amphitheater. Next to it was a dress of Jaytsy Briter’s, a set of her husband’s clothing, and then the kickball uniform of Peto Shin. Propped up on wooden posts, they appeared even more empty and eerie.

Sareen stayed for nearly the entire service, sniffling and wiping away tears she didn’t want to feel in her bitterness. When Wibble invited the crowd to file by the clothing remains as if they were bodies, and a few women pulled out pocket knives to slice off bits of the colonel’s uniform to keep for themselves, Sareen knew the gathering had taken on a maudlin tone and she’d had enough. There’d be a fight soon over his medals once people realized they were made of real gold and silver.

Instead of heading back to her bookshop, she went to the Shins’ empty house. The soldiers who had been guarding it since the Shins were lost were letting people into it now. Since there were no surviving members of the Shin family in the world, their goods were up for the taking.

For the looting, Sareen realized. The windows had been smashed, and when she entered the house she discovered the furniture was already gone and rubbish had been strewn over the floor.

This hadn’t happened at the Briters, though. Deckett Briter’s uncle, aunt, and cousin had arrived the evening after all of them had been lost to the forest, not knowing what happened but intent on coming to help with the baby they anticipated being born soon.

Sareen couldn’t imagine the shock they must have experienced to discover all of the Shins and Briters were gone, but she heard rumors about them for the past few days. Word was that Deckett’s uncle was beside himself with fury when he was told the news by soldiers, and marched to the forest himself to find his nephew, only to be held back by patrols. The next day he and Administrator Genev were seen at the forest line, talking and gesturing at the trees. At one point there was some kind of frantic activity, and Deckett’s aunt and cousin, who were cleaning out the house, rushed up there. The stories which trickled back to Sareen were that they thought they heard a baby crying, or found evidence of the Briters’ newborn, or something else, but suddenly the Briters left in their loaded wagon, weeping and shaken, and no one knew anything else.

The Shins had no family left in all the world to mourn them so deeply, Sareen sighed. Maybe she was the closest thing left in Edge.

She was surprised to see Mr. Hegek come down their stairs, a crate in his hands. He nodded curtly to Sareen.

When she’d opened her book shop two years ago, he’d eagerly come in to congratulate her. Then he started thumbing through her selections. Oh, she had the small table with recipe compilations and the obligatory text or two on how to farm, as if anyone didn’t know. But it was her long wall devoted to stories of improving relationships that caught his eye.

It was as he was shaking his head at the fifth book he perused that he asked her, in the withering tones that only a school director can perfect, “Really, Miss Sareen? This? This is what you’re selling to the youth of Edge?”

She had batted her eyelashes and said, “Don’t we want the youth of Edge interested in reading?” And from that point on there had been a frosty wall between them.

But as they regarded each other across the remnants of what used to belong to a family they both had loved, mutual grief caused considerable melting.

“What disrespect,” he said, glancing around the gathering room. “I don’t know if the soldiers did this or the neighbors.” Noticing that Sareen was eyeing his crate, he said, “Her lesson plans and student records. Genev wanted them,” he spat. “As if any of this still matters since she’s gone.”

Not that Sareen cared much for the director of schools, but anyone having to deal with the Administrator of Loyalty deserved sympathy. “Are you in trouble with Idumea?”

Hegek scoffed, his tone shaky, “I’m the one who let her teach whatever she wanted, after all. What do you think?”

Sareen winced. “I’m sorry.”

“As long as I’m cooperative, I should be able to wriggle out of this eventually. In a twisted way, I allowed her to trap herself, so I’m considered ‘useful.’ Lannard was acting as a spy, although I doubt he really knew it. And here I thought that boy would never amount to anything. They want him in Command School to become an officer as his reward. I’ve been ordered to ‘revise’ his academic file.” In a hush he added, “So if you thought the army had problems before . . .” and he looked down his nose at her meaningfully.

Sareen managed a dismal smile.

Hegek set the crate on the floor. “She had everything stored under their bed. Very well organized—” His chin trembled, and Sareen looked down at her feet to avoid seeing his emotion. “Don’t know how anyone will be able to take that bed,” he said in a sad chuckle. “Monstrous thing.”

“I just came for books,” Sareen said, feeling she had to justify her presence there as well. “No one wants those, apparently.” When Hegek raised his eyebrows as if to ask, Why would you want them? she added, “I can swap them with other booksellers.” She turned her attention to the shelves, mostly still full.

“Quite the collection,” Hegek agreed. “May take a few myself, if you don’t mind.”

Sareen shrugged. “You probably don’t want the same ones I do.”

He smiled dimly as if that was obvious, and in silence they began to pull down titles.

Once, as Sareen climbed up a shelf, she spied an odd hole in the ceiling timbers, and before she could ponder on it too long, she suddenly remembered how it got there: Miss Mahrree’s After School Care. The boys had been practicing with bows and arrows in the house since the day was so windy—Shem Zenos’s less-than-brilliant idea—and several arrows had lodged in the timbers. Captain Shin had pulled out that one, she remembered.

In her eyes sprang tears, hot and angry.

None of this had to happen. She’d tried so hard to make Shem Zenos love her. They could have been very happy together, and the Shins wouldn’t now be dead—

She accidentally dropped the books on the floor and climbed down, wiping her face.

Mr. Hegek patted her back comfortingly as she gathered up the books. Sareen heard him sniff. “Going to take some time to get over all of this,” was all he murmured, and Sareen didn’t know if he were referring to her or himself.

During the next half hour they made a few comments, traded books occasionally, and finally packed up the piles they made.

On top of his fourth crate Mr. Hegek gingerly placed some rolled parchment. “What remains of his map collection,” he explained to Sareen when she saw it. “Oh, how I wish I could have seen Terryp’s map. I know it was the Colonel’s,” he whispered to Sareen. “I just know it. When I first came to Edge, he visited me in my small office and we chatted about Terryp. It seemed to me then that he knew Terryp quite intimately, and now I know why. We’re not hearing all of the truth, Miss Sareen,” he said, glancing around nervously for any other ears, but the soldiers were walking lazily around the house, not sure why they were still hanging around. “Nor will we ever. But believe me—the map was Colonel Shin’s, not Zenos’s.”

Sareen squinted. “So what do you think happened?”

“Since it wasn’t Zenos’s map, it wasn’t here to tell Mrs. Shin where to go,” he said in barely a whisper. “Mahrree loved her husband, that I know. I came by the morning after he resigned, and I saw them a few times after, and they seemed very happy, despite the village ignoring them. Or maybe because it was. But Miss Sareen, I think they were all planning to find Terryp’s land together.”

“But what about their daughter?” Sareen whispered back. “Terrible time to run away when she’s about to give birth, don’t you think? And they didn’t take anything with them. No supplies, not even the map they would need.”

Hegek’s shoulders sagged. “Well, I haven’t figured out everything. Something went wrong, and they weren’t intending to leave just yet. But,” he sighed, long and heavy, “I suppose it doesn’t matter now, does it? Nothing worked out the way it should.”

Sareen sighed sadly along with him, and without another word Hegek hauled the crate out of the house. It took him several trips to get all of the crates out to the cart he borrowed.

Sareen was leaving the front yard with the last of her books when she heard the commotion. She shoved her gatherings to the other side of the road just as the crowd of several dozen arrived, storming into the Shins’ small house and grabbing whatever was left.

She folded her arms and sniffled when the torches lit on fire the roof and walls Shem Zenos had constructed, and she stepped away from the jeering crowd as the house reduced itself to a shell of burned-out stone walls.

As much as she now hated Zenos, as shocked as she was by Miss Mahrree’s treachery, she couldn’t help but weep as so many wonderful memories dissolved into ash and smoke and rubble.

Eventually all that was left were wisps of smoke emerging from what Sareen realized was Edge’s own ruin. No one needed to visit Terryp’s land now to see ruins, even if they had been allowed to.

As she finally picked up the last crate to bring back to her shop—no one in the crowd of hundreds that had come to watch the fire and occasionally cheer was interested in mere books—she looked wretchedly one last time at the charred remains of the Shin home. A neighbor, Mrs. Hersh, was using a stick to shove off of her property some smoking embers, but that’s not what caught Sareen’s eye. Stunned, she approached the front yard again to realize that it was green.

In fact, it wasn’t just green, it was blooming, with tiny flowers she’d never seen before, and in colors that startled her. Pinks, purples, yellows, and whites. Despite the trampling mobs, despite the patrolling soldiers, despite the raging fire, something was growing, planted in the Shins’ front garden—when or by whom, she had no idea—and for once the Shins had a proper garden.

Dismayed by so much new life that not even she had noticed, and unsure of what it could mean, Sareen backed away, scooped up the last crate, and skittered off.

—-

 

Calla stayed for the week, but was rarely at her cousin’s house. Every afternoon she walked from Mahrree’s lectures to various locations on the arm of Shem. On her third afternoon he took her to his father’s place to show her the lands. On the fourth afternoon they helped Yudit plant part of her garden, a section she later confided to Mahrree she had no intention of using that year, but she wanted an excuse to watch her little brother and the woman he couldn’t take his eyes off. On Calla’s fifth and last afternoon, Mahrree watched them wander off toward the heart of Salem and hoped Shem remembered that the two of them were to have dinner that night with the entire Zenos clan. Mahrree wondered what Shem would do when Calla left in the morning to return to Norden. If only she could have been there for a little longer.

Later that evening as she cleaned up the kitchen, Mahrree plotted ways to keep Calla there. Maybe Guide Gleace could assign Shem to Norden for a while, even though there was already an assistant up there. She was planning her little talk with the guide when she heard a knock at the door.

It was Shem, and he looked very serious. “Mahrree, can I talk to you?”

She hesitated. This was the first time they were alone since last week’s news of their alleged ‘togetherness.’ The awkwardness Shem displayed around Calla had overwhelmed anything that stood between them for the past few days, but right there on the front porch the uncomfortable feelings of last week flooded back over them, with no Perrin to staunch the flow.

“Of course, Shem,” Mahrree said with forced cheeriness. “Always. I’m afraid Perrin’s out right now—”

“I know. I saw him on his way to Caraka’s. He told me to come by. I really wanted to talk to you alone.”

“All right,” she said guardedly, letting him in.

He sat down on the sofa and, remembering that’s where he was last week, stood up and took a chair instead.

Mahrree sat on the sofa opposite of him.

He leaned forward, wringing his hands. “I need to know what you think about . . . Calla.”

Mahrree relaxed. “I think she’s kind, intelligent, honest, and a wonderful woman. Why do you think I wanted you to meet her?”

“Do you think I should tell her what happened with us?”

Her eyes wide, Mahrree said, “What happened with us?

Shem cringed. “I mean the rumors. What if someone some day comes from the world and, knowing the official story, says something to her—”

“How much does she know of the world?” Mahrree asked.

“An amazing amount, actually.” His face lit up. “It’s almost as if she was there with me. She knows so much and asks such interesting questions. We discovered that she developed her interest in the army around the same time I left for Edge. She used to read everyone’s reports but then focused on only mine after that first Guarder attack. She was merely fourteen, but she started writing analyses herself. Can you believe that? She wrote that my main mistake in that first conflict was my not drawing my sword! She’s practically written her own book. Perrin should read it. Did you know she’s the oldest of six girls? And I have six sisters! All her sisters are married except for her youngest one. Calla’s just never found the right man, one who can appreciate her love of—” Shem stopped, realizing he said far more than he intended to. He looked at his hands.

But Mahrree was beaming. “So Shem, if she really understands the world, she certainly would understand about the Administrators and their deceptions, wouldn’t she?”

“True, she should,” he said, still staring at his hands that started to slap against each other. “I just would hate for her to hear something unexpected.

“But Jothan will be closing the route in the next few days,” she reminded him. “Nearly everyone is out, and the guide doesn’t expect any new refugees for many more moons.”

“What I worry about is later.” He looked up at her. “What if years from now someone comes and she hears the stories? I know we agreed to never discuss this again, but I don’t want her to—”

Mahrree leaned forward with an understanding smile. “You don’t want your wife to hear that you loved someone else before her?”

“Yes, she would be devast—wait.” Shem swallowed hard. “What did you just say?

“Shem, it’s been so obvious, even I could see it.”

“It was?” he cried.

“Yes, and I completely approve. You want to marry Calla!”

Shem held his breath for a moment as the meaning of her words sorted themselves out in his mind. It occurred to Mahrree that she saw only half of what was going on in there.

Shem finally exhaled. “I’ve been thinking about it, yes.” He buried his head in his hands. “I know I just barely met her, but I just feel so comfortable around her. It’s so natural. I’ll admit that first day was anything but natural,” he laughed to the floor, “but now . . . Is this crazy, Mahrree?” He looked up at her, earnest worry in his eyes. “To think such things so soon after meeting her?”

“Do you feel crazy?”

“A little, but I like it.”

“Good,” Mahrree said, sensing that everything sticky between them from the last week was dissolving into the cracks of the floorboards.

He was her little brother again, asking his big sister for advice about women. Even though he had six other sisters, she relished that it was her he came to.

“Shem, if you’re so worried about the rumors, then tell her about them. I’m sure she’ll see them for what they are. Besides,” she fidgeted as she knew she needed to tell him something even more sticky, “Perrin and I realized last night that the rumors are probably our fault.”

“Your fault?” Shem sat back. “Perrin said he wanted you and me to discuss something. This is it?”

“Yes, it is. And actually, it was his fault,” Mahrree clarified. “You see, after you and he returned from Idumea after burying his parents, we discussed the possibility—well, the reality—of his perhaps not coming home someday.”

This was tougher than she expected. Last night she and Perrin concluded it would be better to explain this to Shem without Perrin present. Now she wondered why they came to that conclusion.

Actually, Mahrree realized, it was Perrin who suggested not being around when the issue came up, the coward . . .

“We had always avoided talking about his dying on duty,” she continued, “but when he came back he said he was going to make provisions for us.”

Shem furrowed his brows.

She had to rush out the next words, or she’d die of embarrassment. “Shem, he wrote a letter! I didn’t see it, but he told me the contents. He hid it in the bottom drawer of his desk.”

“I know,” Shem said, too casually for Mahrree. “The ‘Death Drawer.’ That’s what we irreverently called it behind his back. There was an envelope addressed to me.”

Mahrree nodded. “Perrin had thought that if he never returned, you would be the one going through his things. But now we realize Lemuel must have taken it.”

“Thorne was tearing apart that office the night Perrin resigned. I don’t think he ever went to bed. So what was in the letter?”

Mahrree closed her eyes briefly. “I can’t believe he left me to tell you this alone . . . this is so embarrassing—”

“How could anything be worse than last week?” Shem said.

“Then this will be a close second,” she warned. “All right,” she glanced at Shem but was unable to keep his gaze, so she studied the hem of her sleeve instead. “Perrin wrote asking you if, um, if you felt any affection for our family . . . for me, specifically . . . if after his death you would consider—” She shielded her eyes with her hand to create a barrier between her and poor, naive Shem. “If you would—”

“Don’t say it,” Shem stopped her. “I think I know where this is going.”

Mahrree dared to peek at him.

Fortunately he was smiling, albeit in a mortified manner. “If Lemuel found a letter from Perrin giving me permission to you know, he may have assumed much more was already going on between us. That’s just how his mind worked. No doubt Genev read that letter as well. Their official story probably grew directly from it.”

“Oh, Shem,” Mahrree winced, “I’m so sorry! We both are. Perrin had actually forgotten about the letter until just yesterday. I’m not sure how he worded it, but—”

“But it was likely much more direct than either of us is expressing it right now,” Shem decided. “And I’m glad he’s not here, because his bluntness would have done both of us in! It’s all right, Mahrree. Perrin had only the best of intentions. None of us could have seen this coming. Besides,” he paused and examined his own sleeve hem, “I think perhaps over the years I may have been a bit too close at times. I should have been more guarded around all of you. Especially you.” He looked up at her miserably. “Can you forgive me?”

Mahrree shook her head at the pleading in his eyes. “I really can’t imagine there’s anything to forgive. You’ve done nothing but protect us from dangers we never knew about, and saved us in many ways.”

His face remained bleak with concern.

“But Shem, if it makes you feel better, I forgive you of anything and everything.”

He finally seemed hopeful. “Really?”

Mahrree was surprised. “Of course. Shem, you’re one of the best men I’ve ever met, and any woman would be lucky to have you. Especially a school teacher from the north. Isn’t that funny? That’s exactly how Perrin found his wife.”

“It’s not funny,” Shem smiled. “It’s perfect.”

 

—-

 

Early the next morning Shem was on his way to bring Calla home. The guide, without any meddling from Mahrree, had suddenly found business that needed to be done in Norden and thought Shem would be best to handle it for the next two days.

It was in the afternoon of the third day when Shem arrived home at his father’s house to find his sisters Yudit and Nan with Mahrree, going through papers in the eating room. He dropped his pack and glared at the three women whose conversation stopped as he opened the door.

“What are you three up to? None of you live here.”

“It’s my fault, Shem,” Mahrree said, glancing at his sisters. “Now that the teacher lectures are finished, I’ve been asked to give weekly presentations for the community about the recent history of Idumea, and your sisters were showing me your reports home so I could correlate some dates.”

“It was my idea,” Yudit said, looking guiltier than she should. “Mahrree explained her dilemma at not having any of her notes, so I suggested we look through your things.”

“She has a library card, right?” Shem said. “She could check out some books.”

“That’s right,” Nan said cheerfully. “Still, it’s good for her to have your opinion, don’t you think?”

Shem sifted through the pages on the table.

“Well?” said Yudit.

“Well what?” Shem said.

“Norden!” Nan cried. “How was it?”

“North of here.”

Yudit tried again. “Did Calla get there safely?”

“Of course.”

“Did you meet her family?” Mahrree asked.

“Yes.”

“And?” said Nan.

“Her father never left my side. Never knew a man could have so many questions.”

“What kind of questions?” asked Nan.

“Army stuff.

“Is that all?” Yudit pressed.

“Should there be more?”

Shem’s sisters looked at Mahrree.

She was studying his face. “Did you like her family, Shem?”

“They were a bunch of nosy women. Felt just like here.”

Mahrree blushed but Shem’s sisters were obviously used to this.

“When do you think you’ll see her again?” Nan asked.

He only shrugged.

The sisters looked again at Mahrree.

She was nearly squinting at him in her analysis of his completely blank expression. “So it was a good trip, Shem?”

Shem sighed. “Where’s Papa?”

“At my place,” Nan said.

“Then I’ll be at your place talking to Papa. Be sure to clean this up when you’re done.” And he promptly left the house.

The women sat in silence until they were sure he was gone, then Yudit and Nan turned on Mahrree.

“So what was he saying? He barely seemed to move a muscle!” Yudit grabbed Mahrree’s arm in her death grip.

“Anything? Anything at all?” Nan asked.

Mahrree shook her head. “Nothing. Not even an ‘I need to talk to Perrin look.’ But then again, he and Perrin were really good at this.” She folded her arms. “But he didn’t look sad, did he? If something had gone wrong, the wrinkles around his eyes would show it.”

Nan nodded. “If he was angry he’d be huffing, too.”

“Maybe it’s worse,” Yudit said softly. “When he was a little boy and depressed, he’d completely shut down. There were times when he would be so sad—probably missing our mother—that he’d just sit in a corner and stare at the wall.”

“But I don’t remember him doing that since he was seven,” Nan reminded her. To Mahrree she said, “He used to be such an emotional boy. He and father cried more about our marriages and new babies than we did. But after a couple years in Edge he was much more reserved.”

“We thought maybe he might be having the same problems others had,” Yudit added. “Some men would come back from the world dark and angry, incapable of feeling normal emotions. Not even joy at a baby’s birth or sorrow at a loved one’s death.”

“The world was too heavy for them,” Nan said. “People in Salem have soft hearts and souls. The world doesn’t just harden them, it shatters them. More than twenty years ago Guide Hifadhi said that the longest anyone could be gone would be two years, because after that it was hard to bring them all the way back again.”

“Some never even came home,” Yudit whispered.

“So your family must have been worried when Shem wanted to stay with us,” Mahrree said.

“Yes, we were. And we watched him closely,” said Nan.

“But Shem was allowed to stay because of your family, who Guide Hifadhi felt Perrin was,” Yudit said. “Obviously it was the right choice.”

“Except for moments like this,” Nan said, “when you apparently don’t know our little brother as well as we hoped you did. I was expecting more from you, Mahrree.” She glared playfully and Mahrree shrugged an apology. “When they left the other morning, I was sure Shem would come home bursting with good news. My daughter Elza saw them as they passed her house and she said they were laughing.”

“I tried to send two of my boys to follow them for a while, but Shem saw them and sent them home,” Yudit said.

“Probably good for them that Calla is in Norden. Give them a little privacy,” Nan hinted.

“But it doesn’t sound like they got much,” Yudit shook her head.

“And we’re not helping either, are we?” Mahrree said.

The three women sighed and sat in silence.

“Perrin!” Mahrree finally whispered. “Shem tells Perrin everything . . . I think. Something like this, he’d go to his brother, right? Good news or bad?”

“He would!” Yudit agreed and Nan clapped her hands.

“But wait. He didn’t ask for Perrin,” Nan reminded. “He wanted to talk to Papa.”

“Maybe he was already at my house,” Mahrree suggested.

“So what are we waiting for?” Yudit leaped to her feet, grabbed a stack of papers, and said, “Mahrree, we should take these to your house.”

Five minutes later the three women stomped into the Shin home, dropped the papers in untidy piles on the table, and looked at each other expectantly.

Mahrree walked over to the stairs. “Perrin? Are you home?”

“Yes,” called down a voice.

“Have you seen Shem?”

“In the past week?”

“I mean today?

“Maybe.”

Mahrree frowned. “What do you mean, maybe?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean?”

Mahrree threw her hands in the air and started up the stairs.

But Perrin came trotting down. He slowed as he saw Shem’s sisters. “Ah. It’s an inquest, is it? Trying to play Genev in Salem?”

“No,” said Mahrree unconvincingly. “We were just . . .” she waved her hand at Yudit.

“Just wondering how our little brother is, that’s all. He seemed a little . . .” Yudit looked to Nan.

“Uncommunicative,” Nan said.

Perrin gave her half a smile as he came down the rest of the stairs. “Now I wonder why that is. Not having sisters, I wouldn’t know, but I imagine he may have walked into his home after a long trip—”

“It’s less than four hours by wagon,” Yudit told him.

“—found three women lying in wait—”

Mahrree thought she saw a movement outside the gathering room window. It looked like boots at the top of the window.

“—and all the poor man wants is to maybe sit down and rest—”

The boots were followed by a body which fell to the ground in front of the window.

“Shem Zenos! Stop!” Yudit yelled as the body took off in a fast run down the road, laughter fading in the distance.

“—but instead he has to sneak out of houses just to get some peace and quiet. You three are unbelievable,” Perrin finished.

“He said he was going to my house!” Nan said.

“And he thought you would be on your way there right now. Why the change in plans?” Perrin asked.

Mahrree started to laugh. “Because we thought he had come here first to talk to you.”

Perrin shook his head. “We’re getting rusty already. When it takes less than half an hour for three middle-aged grandmothers to track him down . . .”

“I’m not a grandmother yet!” Mahrree protested.

“Who are you calling middle-aged, Grandpy? You’re only one day older than me,” Yudit put her hands on her hips.

Perrin reflected just as much wounded pride as Yudit. “He told you about calling me Grandpy? And I helped him escape!”

“The point is,” Nan held up her hands between Yudit and Perrin who were eyeing each other good-naturedly, “what did Shem say?”

“Nothing,” Perrin said. “You three showed up just as he was sitting down to talk.”

“Did he look happy? Sad? Heart-broken? Excited?” Mahrree prodded. “Did he give you a look?”

“Yes. It said, Three women are chasing me. Hide me.”

“Oh, you’re useless!”

“I would have been of more use if you had not barged in.”

“So where would he go now?” Yudit asked, scratching her chin.

“The children just got out of upper school,” Nan said. “They’ll be coming home soon.”

Yudit nodded. “If we fan them out from this house—”

“Whoa!” shouted Perrin. “Enough! Leave the poor man alone.”

Yudit raised her eyebrows at him. “This is what we do, General Shin. Track down our brother and get him to talk. Certainly you can appreciate that.”

“Yes I can. But why don’t you let him do things in his own time, in his own way, all right?”

Nan nodded reluctantly and Yudit sighed. “Just what Shem needed—a big brother to fight for his cause.” Yudit looked askance at her sister. “Not sure this is going to be a good development.”

“Oh, I think I got here just in time,” Perrin decided.

Yudit pointed at him. “As soon as you hear something, you tell Mahrree, all right?”

“Only if he wants you to know.”

After the sisters left, scanning for their missing brother, Mahrree put her arms around her husband.

“I’m not telling you anything,” he said as she snuggled into him.

Mahrree stiffened. “So you do know?”

Perrin chuckled. “He didn’t have time to say anything, although I could tell he wanted to. All he said was, ‘I’m back and—’ That’s when we heard the door blow open and he headed out the window.”

“I’m sorry. I really didn’t think he was here. So now what?”

“We give him time and we let him do things at his own pace.”

“You make a terrible big brother.”

 

 

 

Chapter 24—“Just leave me alone

for a while?”

 

Mahrree checked her plants early the next morning, looking for signs of new green, and . . . yes, yes there it was! Less than two weeks since they planted the seeds, tiny green shoots were flicking up small clumps of dirt as they greeted their first sunshine. Mahrree, on her knees to inspect the spurts of life, grinned that she was now a gardener, and that she was happy about it.

Until a shadow moved over her. Thinking it was a cloud she needed to shoo away, she looked up.

Shem stood there, as hulking and heavy as his demeanor. “I don’t have much time, Mahrree. I’m due at Guide Gleace’s. I’m letting you know what I’m telling everyone else. Before I left her in Norden I asked her, and . . . she said no.”

“Oh Shem—” Mahrree reached for his hand.

But he shoved it into his trousers’ pocket. “I don’t need your sympathy, I just need some time to myself.” His tone was uncharacteristically cold. “Can you do that? Just leave me alone for a while?”

Mahrree pouted but said, “Well, sure, Shem.”

He nodded once. “Thanks. And thanks for all you tried to do for me. I’ll come by later some time,” and he strode off.

Disappointed, Mahrree got up and went into the house. Well, what were they expecting? That he comes home and finds the woman in one week? Not even Salem is that perfect.

She looked at the breakfast dishes waiting in the sink. “Maybe Calla’s just not ready,” she told them. “If she said she needed more time, certainly anyone could understand that. I should write her a letter, ask her what she thinks about him—”

“About who?” Peto asked as he came into the kitchen.

“Shem. He asked Calla to marry him, and she turned him down.”

“What an awful woman!”

“No, Peto. She’s perfectly lovely. I think Shem may have just scared her. It was very quick to propose marriage. She might not have been ready.”

“She’s thirty,” he reminded her. “She’s probably been ready for half her life. He’s one of the best men Salem’s produced, and she turned him down? What more could she possibly want? Women are so unpredictable. Don’t look at me like that, Mother. You know I’m right. Poor Shem. I think the two of us should build a house together and spend every night eating steak and complaining about women.”

Mahrree scoffed. “And what women do you have to complain about? Who’s broken your heart?”

“No one, yet. And it’s going to stay that way. Shem’s nephews and I watched him mooing after her when they were at Mr. Zenos’s place. It was pitiful. Puppy eyes. Giggling. They were nauseating.”

“But you kept watching? To see who would get sick first?”

“Yeah, something like that. But then they started throwing rocks at us. I guess they didn’t like us following them.”

Mahrree groaned. “How are they supposed to get to know each other when you’re interfering?”

“What about you inviting them both to dinner?”

“We left them alone for three hours!”

“But at the Zenos dinner no one left them alone,” Peto said. “They spent most the evening telling Calla all the stories Shem didn’t record, and apparently there were some good ones.”

Mahrree plopped into a chair. “Perhaps all of us messed it up for him. In our eagerness, we chased away his first chance at marriage.”

When Mahrree trudged up to Perrin’s office to tell him the news, her husband just shook his head at her and went back to his work.

Mahrree saw another one of Shem’s sisters at the storehouse that morning. She rushed up to Mahrree. “Did he tell you? What can we do? Yudit wants to go to Norden to talk to Calla, but I think she just needs some time.”

“I agree,” Mahrree said. “Give them both a few weeks. Perhaps we need to leave them alone.”

But that was easier said than done. When Shem came over the next night for dinner, Mahrree kept giving him weepy eyes, despite Perrin’s glares.

Shem finally said, “It wasn’t the response I expected either, but it’s what it is. Just move on, please!

He left after dinner to prepare for a trip in the morning. Guide Gleace had agreed to Perrin’s tower idea, and was sending Shem all over Salem to scout out locations. At least he’d have something to do, Mahrree thought, to keep him occupied and to forget about Calla.

But that wasn’t what Mahrree wanted him to do. In consultations with the Zenos sisters that they kept private, since the husbands had unanimously told the women to leave Shem’s love life alone, they came to the conclusion that Shem should try to call on Calla again. Nan’s husband Honri would be traveling past Norden for trade in the dissenter colonies in a few weeks, and Nan would go to pay a visit to Calla along the way. Yudit volunteered to accompany them, but Nan feared Yudit would tie Calla up and drag her back to Salem.

Somehow, Perrin heard about it. A few days later he cornered Mahrree in the kitchen and glowered at her. “Honri is not going to take Nan along with him, just so you know.”

“What ever are you talking about?” she said sweetly.

Since she never talked that sweetly, she knew Perrin was on to her. “Because believe it or not, we men talk too. Not as long and ridiculously as you women, but we’re not going to help you meddle.”

“But the Shem Situation is getting worse—”

The Shem Situation? You’ve named this?”

Mahrree fidgeted. “Well, it just kind of happened—”

“What about your dinner plans? That big gathering you and Jaytsy are planning for all of the Zenoses? Focus on that.”

Mahrree’s chin jutted out in a full-fledged pout. “We are. But I can focus on a few things at the same time, you know. And since that baby of Jaytsy’s refuses to budge . . .”

“Hmm,” Perrin said, his face softening. “I don’t know how much larger she can get. She’s quite—” He gesture in a manner that Mahrree hoped her daughter would never see. “At least Peto realized that bouncing pebbles off her belly isn’t a good idea anymore.”

“I really thought she’d bounce that last one up his nose,” Mahrree sighed. “Poor Deck. At least he’s keeping busy with his herd, but even he doesn’t know what to say to her anymore. And Mrs. Braxhicks also agreed that Jaytsy’s enormous,” she whispered that last word, in case Jaytsy was anywhere near the house.

“Their new crib is nice,” Perrin had to admit. “But it doesn’t look sturdy enough to me.”

“It was made by an old grandfather who worked under your father for a year,” Mahrree reminded him. “He knows a little about the world, and how to make a sturdy crib. Jaytsy lays out the blankets on it every day. She really needs a distraction, and while the dinner we’re hosting tomorrow is helping, so is talking about the Shem Situation. Don’t you want both your daughter and your brother to be happy?”

He wasn’t falling for it. “Just let the man work out his own love life, all right?”

“But he’s not! He needs help!”

You need help—”

“Mother?” came Jaytsy’s voice from the front door.

Perrin and Mahrree exchanged hopeful looks and headed to the gathering room.

Seeing their expressions, Jaytsy shook her head. “No, no pains, no sudden gush of waters, absolutely nothing,” she said miserably. “I think the Creator forgot I’m expecting, although I remind Him every hour that I’m ready to be done. I’m just here to tell you that Deck’s happy to donate that bad-tempered bull for Father’s new fire pit in the backyard. It should feed all the Zenoses.”

“Thanks, Jayts,” Perrin said with excessive cheeriness, the only way he knew to deal with her persistent bad mood. “Have you . . . have you tried—” and he bounced several times in place.

Jaytsy blinked at him. “Seriously? Jumping up and down?”

“Maybe to . . . I don’t know, dislodge the baby?”

Jaytsy shifted her gaze to her mother. “Did he make you do that?”

“He wouldn’t have dared.”

Their daughter exhaled and dropped her bulging body on a sofa. “I’ve been trying all kinds of things, trust me. One woman in the congregation suggested eating hot peppers, and another told me to sleep with my head lower than my feet. And yes, Father, I did think about your option. I tried jumping off a fence rail.”

“And?” Perrin said.

“Do you see a baby in my arms?” she snapped. “No, all I have is a burned tongue from the peppers, a bloody nose from sleeping weirdly, and a turned ankle from my jump last night. Mrs. Braxhicks just checked on me again and said that the baby comes when the Creator says the time is right. You’d think by now He’d be tired of hearing me complain.” She slowly rubbed her belly.

“I’m sorry, Jaytsy,” Mahrree said, trying not to cringe. She seemed even larger today than yesterday. “We’ve got lots of cooking tomorrow,” she said merrily. “Won’t that be fun? Maybe that’ll be just what you need.”

She shrugged. “I suppose bending over and putting things in an oven—”

“Oh, no you won’t!” Mahrree exclaimed. “You’re just timing things for me. I’ll do all the moving. You just rest.”

“Right,” she said dully.

But she did more than that the next day as she and Mahrree spent from morning until afternoon working on “The Dinner, Salem Style,” as Perrin called it. Jaytsy not only watched the creations her mother put together and shoved into her oven, but she also pulled them out, otherwise everything would have been burned as Mahrree tried to cook in two separate kitchens.

It was to be a Hycymum Peto meal, with the Zenoses exposed to her unique combinations. By the time evening and the Zenoses came, Jaytsy and Mahrree were exhausted but excited.

Perrin and Peto had brought their table out to the back garden, and filled it with Hycymum’s creations: leengweeny, terry-ocki, crawsants, la-zhan-ya , and stroodall.

Mahrree scanned the joyful crowd gathering for their picnic dinner, looking for Shem, but . . . he wasn’t there.

Yudit caught her eye and shrugged.

Nan, standing nearby, whispered, “No one’s seen him today.”

“But he sent me a message,” Mahrree told her. “He was out on another tower finding trip, but he said he’d be back for The Dinner.”

“Yudit thinks he’s avoiding us, again,” Nan sighed.

Seeing their conversation, Yudit started over to them, but Noch caught her arm. Mahrree could just make out him saying, “Enough with the Shem Situation.”

Mahrree checked with the other four Zenos sisters, but none of them had seen him either, and they’d been watching. Her further investigations would have to wait, because Perrin stood on the back porch and held up his arms to get everyone’s attention.

“Thank you so much for coming this evening. It’s hard to believe that it’s been four weeks since we first arrived in Salem. So much has happened, and I feel as if we’ve been here our whole lives. A great deal of that is because of all of you. On our first evening here, you welcomed us as family, even though none of us knew we were actually distantly related. You built us a house, showed us around Salem, came to our baptisms, and couldn’t have made us feel more welcome. So we wanted to thank you by bringing you a bit of the world. While normally that would sound alarming, it’s all in the form of food, using recipes of Hycymum Peto that Mahrree and Jaytsy brought with them. So thank you all, for making us feel so at home, and I promise that no one will spoil the evening by mentioning anything about a certain situation, correct?” He glared directly at Mahrree, and the Zenos husbands followed suit, nudging their wives.

All of their children and grandchildren laughed.

But that wasn’t the end of it, no not by any means. Because Mahrree saw a look of worry on Jaytsy’s face as she talked to two of Shem’s married nieces about his absence. It was unusual for Shem to miss a family event when he was home, especially when it involved a meal where neither he nor his father had to cook.

When it was starting to grow dark and time for dessert, Mahrree reluctantly brought out one of Hycymum’s favorites: sorbay. It was Shem’s favorite as well, and Mahrree had made it especially for him to bring him out of his distracted disposition. But now he was even missing sorbay.

He would be missing everything, she worried, if they couldn’t pull him back.