Dirt clung to the side of the girl’s pretty face. Baron Rhaudius thought she looked sixteen or seventeen and he had been told her name, but he’d forgotten it. It wasn’t important. It was her younger sister, Violet, that was the focus now.
The Baron glanced at Violet on the raised platform where she stood, hands tied behind her small frame, a throng of soldiers surrounding her. She was twisting away from them, and the dead bodies of three Erdu men on the platform beside her.
The eyes of the farmers were on this girl. The large gathering of the Baron’s laborers filled the streets of the market all the way back to the blacksmith shop. A grim silence marred their faces as they waited to see what would happen to the younger sister.
The dead girl at his feet had been old enough to know better, not that her age mattered. The fear that her death put into the farmers’ hearts—that was what he was after. Her youth and beauty, and the image of her head as it rolled from the wood block would leave a long lasting warning in the minds of every man and women who dared to watch her last breath.
Baron Rhaudius stooped and picked up the girl’s head by her long black hair and hefted it up. He was always surprised by the weight of a severed head. He smelled fear as he surveyed the crowd before him. Fear, and a palpable anger.
“This tragedy did not have to happen today,” shouted the Baron. “Do not think you can send your children off to escape into the woods with the Erdu. The contract between you and I does not mitigate the penalties by age.
“Do not try to leave this valley! You or your children. I plead with you—do not make me take such young and beautiful lives from you. Loam is a world of law and order, and I will hold you to that law.”
He lowered the head back onto the platform. “Let us finish this and be done.”
Rhaudius waived to his guards and they pushed the younger sister over to the wood block where his axeman stood. His soldiers had been fortunate to have caught the sisters before the Erdu had taken them deep into the woods. The three forest dwellers who had aided the girls had fought his men fiercely. Four of his soldiers were felled before the three Erdu lay dead and the girls were back in his hands again. The Baron knew that if anyone escaped deep into the heart of Erdu country, retrieval would be impossible.
As long as the farmers didn’t know this, and all they saw was the dead bodies of the mountain people and not his soldiers, it might just quell their hope in the Erdu.
The girl began to whimper as she was pushed nearer to the block. A soldier forced her to her knees and pressed her head down. Another soldier put his knee on her back and gripped her hair, pulling her face up for the crowd.
The silence was thick. He could feel the fear back in the air as the farmers’ hearts caught in their throats. Rhaudius took in a long breath. The energy of the moment filled his lungs. A sense of anticipation almost brought a smile to his face, but he had to stay in character.
Slowly, the executioner’s thick metal axe lifted into the air—up and back, over the man’s broad shoulders, his muscles like a squeezed spring.
“HOLD!” yelled Rhaudius, moving over to the girl.
The executioner stared at him, arms still raised, just as they had rehearsed.
“Stop!” he yelled again. “Stand her up!”
A sound unlike any other rose from the farmers. A raucous hum of voices overflowing with sudden hope. There was weeping. Pleading shouts—even praises.
It was everything he’d hoped for and more.
Rhaudius walked up to the executioner and feigned a whisper in his ear. The girl had been helped to her feet and was standing beside him, gasping in great quantities of air. Gently, the Baron placed a hand on her back as he surveyed the gathering.
“I find myself today given to a little mercy,” shouted the Baron. “Violet here is beautiful, like her sister. Burying two headless girls robs you of the ritual of observing the dead. I will not steal Violet’s loveliness. You may have her back whole.”
The Baron turned to the executioner.
“Break her neck.”
AVEN - Two months later
Why did she insist her visions remain a secret?
Aven glared at his twin sister, Winter, who was seated beside him at the table opposite their parents. She was hunched over a bowl of dark amber broth, eating contentedly, as if the evening were any other.
Usually her revelations were insignificant, random—birds making a nest above a neighbor's hovel, the promise of coming rain, Father grabbing Mother’s backside behind the sape vines—but Winter’s visions had turned dark again. She told him of little yellow ants coming up from the baseboards of a white plaster wall. The ants, she said, were hungry and had caught the scent of blood. That was strange. The farm hovels in their valley were underground with only rock and dirt for walls and floor. The ominous image was the second one that week but not the worst of the two. Darker was the vision of dead bodies she’d had five days earlier.
Winter put the bowl down and hummed a short, satisfied melody. Her gaze lifted to meet Aven’s. Her lips held straight while she tried to reassure him with her eyes.
Winter’s hand found his under the table and her fingers tapped out a silent language, one they had created as children to keep secrets. “Stop. You may bring it to pass.”
Aven stared at his soup. It was the dreaded phrase she used to paralyze him.
In four days, their family would be running for their lives, and she wanted him to keep her gruesome vision silent? What if her vision was a warning, but they did nothing? Their escape and the images Winter saw in the eye of her mind had to be connected. The one thing that held his mouth shut was her logic. As twisted as it seemed to him, it felt possible.
For good or for bad, to tell is to change the future. By telling, we may bring it to pass.
Those words were a noose around his neck.
Aven’s father pushed away from the table, and the grinding of the chair legs chased away Aven’s dark thoughts. “We have nothing to fear but fear,” said Father. “A few more days of this and then we’ll be gone. The Baron’s watchers haven’t caught wind of anything. Pike still hasn’t the slightest suspicion. Like I said, nothing to fear. We’ll all get our appetites back again.”
“Winter never lost hers,” said Aven.
His sister smirked. “You’re only nervous because you’re seeing Harvest tonight.”
He bent a withering eyebrow at his sister and harshly tapped out, “Mouth shut. You’ll feel the same one day.”
“Until then I get to hound you. Practice kissing your hand today?”
Thinking of Harvest added one anxiety atop another. When it came to Harvest, it wasn’t fear that pressed upon him, but the weight of knowing she was a more worthy girl than he deserved. What did he have to offer other than his devotion? She seemed happy to be matched with him, as if his faithfulness was enough, but he wanted to give her more. He felt like a brook beside a powerful river. She was mature, and that only served to make her beauty all the more radiant to him.
And tonight—tonight was special. It was the third day of nuptials, and he’d clumsily transgressed them the day before!
“Twelve more days until you’re wedded,” said Mother rising from her chair. She stood beside Father. All the stress lines were gone from her face. “That means tonight is First Kiss.”
Aven nodded with a stiff smile.
“She was my first choice,” continued his mother, and Aven knew by her tone she was about to say what she always said.
A nostalgic smile grew on his mother’s face. “She is a hard worker. Runs double shifts when her mother is sick, and is just as productive in the field as the best pickers in our plot. I never hear her complain. Just like her parents. And she’s god-touched in beauty. Her father wanted you or no one. That’s what her mother told me.”
Winter smirked at Aven and scooped up his soup bowl. “It sounds like Father’s going to have a hard time finding me a mate to match Aven’s.”
Father winked at her, then took Mother’s hand. “We can talk of weddings and matchings tomorrow.”
Aven’s parents ascended the ladder to ground level. The large hatch that led outside was embedded at the foot of an old bulge oak. The massive root structure covered the ceiling of the main room. Ornate, meandering patterns curled and stretched down along the walls and spread throughout the small sleeping spaces in the hovel. The roots of the bulge oaks drank in the rain and kept their home dry, and underground, the heat of the summer was kept at bay and the cold of winter lost its sting. The farmhovels were not large, but they were cozy, comfortable.
His mother looked back down through the opening. “You sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“I want to walk alone,” said Aven
The moment the hatch closed, Winter slipped into her room.
Aven followed after her with his thoughts churning. Harvest’s parents were hosting the meeting tonight. A member of the Erdu had passed information to Sky, Harvest’s mother. The Erdu were the key to surviving. They knew the forest. They knew how to elude the hired trackers that were sure to pursue them. The Baron maintained his power only if he held a grip of fear over the farmers.
But two months back, the Baron’s Watchers had caught the two sisters from Plot 5. He’d been there, at the gathering, and saw Coriander and Violet breathe their last breath. Had seen the bodies of the Erdu who’d helped them piled upon the platform as if they were animals.
The images he’d seen that day haunted him.
There were a handful of others over the years who had tried to leave in various ways and failed. All who tried to run or find asylum from their contract were killed one way or another.
Harvest’s family and his were going to break the Baron’s contracts and attempt to escape into the wilderness. The Baron’s brutality had earned him a long time of quiet. No one had attempted anything in years until Coriander and Violet had dared to try. Fear was always in the air, but for Aven, until his father broke the plans to him and Winter two weeks ago, the fear had been intangible. Now he could taste it as bile in his throat and feel the burn in the shortness of breath that came upon him out of the dark.
Winter’s room was the smallest in the house. He had to stoop beneath a root to pass inside. She mostly disliked being inside at all. Even at night. Winter preferred the aboveground, whether in sunlight or moon’s glow. Even in the rain, she had her places to hide away or sleep. Everyone said she was a girl of the wilds. Her black hair was usually braided with green reeds, twigs, and an array of feathers from an aven, the large sleek bird he was named after. He understood why she wore the feathers. It was the same reason he never took off the bracelets she made him. They were outward reminders that the other mattered so dearly, a symbol of them always be worn.
Seated upon his sister’s shoulder was the butterfly—the seer spirit she’d named Whisper—given to her by a maker. The insect opened and closed its tiny blue wings that were only a little larger than his thumbnail. The creature was a reminder of his sister’s uniqueness, her choseness, and that she had loyalties to what Aven felt were strange and even dangerous beings. At present, he wished the insect would flutter back to its rookery in the roots above.
Winter looked up from her work. Her fingers were busy constructing a new bracelet for him, this one out of Laussifer roots. She had their father’s crooked nose and their mother’s soft mouth and delicate chin. Her blood-orange eyes seemed to smile at him. “Thinking about it won’t help them or us,” she sighed. “I don’t like seeing you worry. It doesn’t help.”
“Don’t you hate not knowing who it is you saw?” Aven asked. “The smoke and the dead bodies—you had to see what they were wearing.”
“I couldn’t. The smoke was too thick.”
“How do you know the people were dead?”
“They were. I felt it.” Winter paused her work and looked up at him, concern etching her face. “And tonight, I do feel a sense of danger surrounding it. Perhaps you should stay home.”
Aven’s jaw tightened. Her visions could be so vague. “You feel the danger? I should have told them at dinner. You would have understood. I never break promises, but this time—”
“If you had told them,” said Winter, “their reaction might have done more harm than good. We’ve discussed this already, unless you have reasons, we must trust our decision.”
“First it was the bodies and the smoke. Then the ants and the scent of blood. You’ve never had these kinds before. Not this dark.”
“They’re possibilities,” said Winter. “They’re not real. Our freedom to choose, that’s what’s real. You remember the spider and the hopper?”
Yes, he did. Over a year ago he and Winter had been in the fields harvesting sape when she had had a vision of a juvenile grasshopper resting on top of the stump of their hovel. She saw on the side of the stump a web where a white and blue spider waited. She’d sensed that the little grasshopper would jump into the web and the spider would pounce and fill it with poison. Aven quietly left work and ran to the stump. There was the little hopper, just as she’d said. He readied his hand to lunge and grab it, but the hopper felt his presence and jumped. Just as Winter had sensed, it landed in the web and was instantly bitten.
But there were other times when what she saw didn’t happen. Sometimes her visions did not come to pass because she intervened, and sometimes because they did nothing. But doing and saying nothing felt wrong now. Their parents would not hop into the Baron’s web like mindless insects. They would take precautions. Even if they hadn’t taken her seriously at nine when she was first given the gift, they would now, when she was almost seventeen. It was time they found out their daughter was a seer.
Aven watched his sister’s fingers work gracefully at twisting and weaving the root. “Why do you have this gift?” he asked. “If it's truly from a maker, then what’s the point if we can’t use it?”
“Stop calling it my gift!” said Winter. Her eyes lifted from her work to probe his face. “I need it to be our gift. We’re twins, made in the same womb, the same sacred space. You have to help me make the decision. And we decided, together, not to tell anyone.”
Aven slumped against the earthen wall. “I wish there were no dark ones,” he said. “Animals and coming rain and Father or Mother grabbing each other, I’ll take those kind.”
The touch of a smile lit Winter's face, though something restrained it. “One way or another,” she said, “my actions will cause the vision to occur or prevent it from happening. We don’t know which way it’s going to go. I don’t know whose bodies I saw. I don’t know whose blood the ants were coming for. Maybe they're from another valley or another world for all I know.” She sighed. “I know the Maker gave us the gift for a reason. I just have to figure out our role.”
She stopped to read his face. Was she hoping to have eased his mind somehow?
Aven stood. “If you want me to sit and do nothing, next time don’t tell me. Keep it to yourself. I can’t stay here when everyone’s in danger, not if I have the power to stop something bad from happening. Even if it’s only a potential bad.”
He left her in her room, took his cloak, and climbed the ladder. He swung open the hatch to a sea of stars and the silhouettes of sag trees and oaks.
Winter’s voice called to him from the bottom of the ladder. “You understand, don’t you?” Her tone was pleading. “I need to tell someone about them, especially the dark ones. Who else do I have? We have the bond of the womb.”
Aven poked his head down to look at her. “I know,” he said.
Of the few people he was close with, Winter was the only one who held his soul. She knew him like no other, just as he knew her.
“Are you truly worried my going out will change something?” he asked.
“I’m not too worried,” said Winter. A little smile pulled at the corners of her lips. “Besides, it’s First Kiss, I can’t expect you to miss that. Just don’t do anything out of the ordinary, and what will happen will happen.”
“Great. That’s very comforting.”
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