“Keep away from the refugees,” Tham said in that quiet, firm tone Father used to use.
Tham said the same thing every time Hele went off to the village. In her sixteenth year, Hele was a woman now and old enough to marry if she chose, but Tham still thought his three years of seniority gave him charge over his sisters. He’d keep them all on the farm if he thought he could, but even the twins, who Tham and Hele had reared together after their parents’ deaths, wouldn’t abide by that.
Still, Hele respected her brother. She tried to listen. Then, she saw some boys scuffling as she was coming over the rise. They didn’t even notice as she charged in, waving her basket of vegetables. With her hands on her hips, she watched for a moment, but those boys kept rolling around the dust, three on one. She dropped the basket to the ground, the sturdy reeds creaking protest, and hauled two of the village boys off by the ear. Oh, how they howled then! The third scrambled to the side, leaving a wiry little refugee runt in the dust.
“What’s your name,” Hele said with a tongue sharp enough to make the village boys wince.
“Danil, lady,” the boy said in that rapid, city clip, “Molyn’s boy.” His nose came up a tad as he glared at the other boys.
“He start—” one of the boys blurted, but Hele just shook him by the ear.
“Do you, Danil son of Molyn, know what the peace is?”
He wrinkled his nose for a moment, and then nodded curtly. “It’s where you villagers think that if you don’t fight for what’s yours you won’t be bothered by no one.”
Hele lifted her eyebrow, staring down at the boy’s big, brown eyes staring right back at her from his dust-brown face. She couldn’t help but respect his courage. She tried not to let it show. Sniffing at his ignorance, she said, “Not quite, but if you know that much then you should know we don’t tolerate scuffling among our youth. That’s called breaking the peace.”
“And calling someone a liar when they’re not ain’t?”
“There’s many ways to break the peace, Danil. Scuffling is one. So is giving false accusation. Did one of these lads call you a liar?”
Danil blinked away tears and nodded stiffly.
“He was bragging about how his mama can sing, saying she’d starred in the winter pageant back in the city! And that ain’t nothin’ but lies!”
Danil took a swing at him, but Hele caught him up, hugging him close as his hot temper flared then died. The three boys scrambled into a circle out of reach, but they didn’t dare make a break for it. Not with Hele glaring at them from over the smaller boy’s dusty head.
Remembering Molyn’s drawn and haunted face, Hele could sympathize with the boys’ skepticism, but that didn’t excuse them for breaking the peace. Besides, she’d watched her father twist and erode in the weeks following her mother’s death. Hele’d been little then, only twelve, but she still remembered how the tragedy snuffed the light from his eyes and stole the laughter from his throat. Molyn probably could sing—before—but the songs and the laughter were gone now, swallowed by the mysterious terrors they’d fled.
She couldn’t explain that to these boys. The oldest of the three was nine at best. They’d endured hardships sure enough, but none of them had lost anything so precious. They didn’t understand why their small grief over a lost pup didn’t compare with the grief that stole everything, even the will to live. They didn’t understand the many forms of grief in between.
For all her haunted spirit, Molyn was Hele’s favorite among the refugees. A privileged lady in the city, Molyn didn’t hold that as her standard. She adapted poorly to the ways of the village, but she did adapt. Molyn worked with her hands without complaining about her torn nails and roughening skin. Though she brought little skill to such tasks, she lifted and hauled and planted and cooked just like the village women did. She abandoned her fine velvet and satin dress in favor of the simple wools and linens worn by the villagers, wearing them with the pride befitting a cherished gift. She was quiet and unassuming: an excellent example to the others despite her efforts to go unnoticed.
Tham didn’t see that, though. Molyn and her boys arrived ahead of the others. Stumbling in through the darkening night, Molyn had used the old words, asking for the gift of peace. Mayor assumed, at first, that she’d fled from an abusive husband and invited her to speak before the village. But Molyn had shaken her head, saying, “I promise to speak of these things only to you, Mayor, and to your Council. After you hear me, you will understand why.” Mayor had led her into the hall—it was an old barn, really, but now the Council used it as their hall—and heard her story. He’d come out pale, with new worry lines along his brow and mouth, and called on all the villagers to prepare for refugees from the city. Mayor didn’t explain and Molyn never told her story again.
That was the only credit Tham could give her, keeping the promise she’d made to Mayor not to speak of the things they’d fled. And these boys were of the same sort as Hele’s brother—suspicious and critical of the refugees who’d abandoned their homes.
“Danil,” Hele said, “these boys broke the peace when they called you a liar, that’s true. But that doesn’t give you the right to break the peace in turn. Those are city ways and they lead to trouble. Here we do things differently.”
With that, Hele hugged Danil to her and sent the village boys on their way with orders to make amends with an offering for Danil or his family. In turn, she would take up Danil’s penance with his mother. Stubborn chins abounded, but they nodded, knowing they’d gotten off light. Hele could have taken the dispute to Mayor and aired it all out publicly. The village lads didn’t realize it would be Molyn that suffered a public airing more than them.
Hele picked up the basket, handing it to Danil, and nudged him along up the fork that led to the little cottage Molyn had been provided. Hele wouldn’t make it to the village after all. Surely Molyn could use her harvest of summer vegetables more than they could use the sale. Hele looked over her shoulder to watch as the boys raced back into the village, raising a cloud of bitter dust as they sped along, and she offered up a silent prayer for the drought to break soon.
And that was how it started. Despite Tham’s orders, Hele made friends of Molyn, Danil, and her small son Luffry. She couldn’t really help herself, when it came right down to it. Of all the people who came over the mountains, Molyn was the only one who tried to make a new life in the village. Sad as she was, Molyn worked hard, but she knew little of how to provide for herself and her sons. Whatever had befallen Molyn in the city had stripped her of family, title and allies, which left Molyn with little but manners and an air of determination. Hele would teach Molyn all she knew, because, whatever happened to the others, Hele knew Molyn would stay in the village.
Though Molyn kept her promise, the others spoke of the terrible things they’d seen with no thought for the panic they could cause. Hele tried not to listen, but their stories were everywhere. The villagers expected stories of dragons and k-roaches. Occasionally the great beasts would break free from their Wasteland habitat and terrorize the city and the surrounding villages. But it wasn’t dragons that plagued the city. The city-folk claimed they’d bested the beasts at last, though none would say how. They also said the invaders from over the sea plagued them now. These warriors killed with as little regard for their victims as the dragons. A man with a glowing sword led the army into the city, torturing and maiming anyone in his path. Women said the invaders laughed as they spitted children with their swords. Yet, none of the villagers could find a single mother or father who was missing a child.
Hele doubted these folk spoke the truth. Like her brother, she believed they hid some dark secret of their own. Besides, it had been too long since the invaders from over the sea had come, and when they had it was to conquer not to murder. It was the little children she believed, though their story was stranger still. They spoke of angry men they could not understand bursting in through the air. They told their simple story with shuddering shoulders and hoarse throats, so Hele couldn’t help but believe them. The strangers had rounded people up, wanting something, demanding something, but Governor refused.
Governor had not come to the village, nor any of his Council. When pressed, most of the city-folk denied any wrong-doing or said nothing at all. Even Molyn wouldn’t explain. She just said, “He made a mistake. I don’t think he could undo it even if he tried.” She shook her head, her shoulders slumped. “He would never admit that, of course.” Days later, when one of the city women began harassing Molyn, Hele learned that he was Governor, Molyn’s father.
The whole thing was troubling and Hele couldn’t get it out of her mind, not even as she walked the great forest searching for dinner for her family. There had to be something that could be done to set things right, but she didn’t even know what was wrong. To Tham it was all about sending the refugees back over the mountain to their homes in the city. The problem had to be bigger than that. Where did these strangers come from? Why did they come? Tham didn’t care and Mayor said it was a problem for the city folk to solve, but the city folk didn’t seem to think much about solving anything.
Hele hiked further into the forest with these dark thoughts heavy on her mind. She headed to the edge of a small clearing, a likely home for some nourishing roots, but as she stepped close she heard the sudden silence of a rabbit freezing in place. She smiled and began her search among the plants. She took out her spade and slid it into the breast of the earth. The hem of her skirts gathered detritus and the lingering dew while she scraped away layers of dirt, uncovering a root hidden in the earth’s heart. With her sharp little knife, she cut the root free. Before she stood, she shook the sling and stone loose from the pocket of her skirt. She’d moved so slowly to find the root and cut it free, so as not to scare, but now, as she stood up, she lurched forward, startling the rabbit, flinging the stone, felling the rabbit, wringing its neck with a mercifully quick twist of her wrists. She placed the rabbit in the bottom of her big basket and then covered it with leaves, placing the pale root on the bed of leaves.
Between the trampling feet of the city folk and the many extra mouths to feed, game had grown scarce. The remnants of last year’s harvest was gone and the summer and spring harvests were poor from drought. Now a single rabbit was considered a hearty meal—even shared amongst her family of four. With the berries and herbs she’d already found, they could eat well indeed. Hele should return with her bounty. Perhaps she would even learn if the Council had decided anything in their monthly meeting as she passed through the village on her way home.
Instead, she climbed further into the forest to find more roots. If she found enough, she could stew them with the rabbit, making a meal that would feed many if Tham let her share their good fortune. If not, the stew would feed them for days, freeing them to do more work around their farm. She thought of Molyn and her two boys as she’d seen them last, with their pockets full of unripe nuts. She hoped Tham would allow her to share.
The sounds of the forest went suddenly still. The sky ripped, like a sheet of heavy canvas pulled into halves, tearing the silence apart. Before her, the air split open. A man stepped through, holding the tip of his glowing sword level with her face. The crystal was sharp and heavy in his hands, glowing angry orange. He clacked at her in a strange tongue as she dropped her baskets. She turned, her feet running before she could think, but his hand encircled her arm and he pulled her to him. Bright, too-blue eyes stared down at her, cold and calculating. He smelled of sweat, well-oiled leather, and charred meat. He smelled like her brother after a good hunt. His face, aside from eyes too blue and too cold, was her brother’s face.
The man’s grip bruised her arm, but Hele didn’t struggle. She didn’t whimper or cry out. She looked into his too-blue eyes and he nodded. He stepped back the way he’d come and pulled Hele after him.
This is only a taste of the story. There’s a lot more. The rest is still a work in progress. But here’s the question: What should I do with it?
When I first started this story, I assumed I would submit it to a magazine. Then, I thought about submitting it to a contest. Now, I’m thinking that I might want to self-publish it as a short story to see what kind of response I get.