Fare, Era and Aunt Dret sat around a fire at their makeshift camp. After hours of walking through the forest they had settled in a clearing just large enough to accommodate the three of them and a fire. Though he was initially wary of the forest, the monotony of seeing trunk after trunk without a hint of danger lulled Fare into some sense of security. Era still occasionally glanced over her shoulder nervously as if she was expecting an attack.
Aunt Dret had surprised Fare and Era with a small pot filled with potatoes and jerky along with a water skin from her satchel. Her preparedness left Fare wondering, but he did not dare to ask her another question. They spent the next half hour lighting a fire and making their meal. They had since finished, and though Fare was desperate to ask the questions that had been bouncing around in his head for hours, he did not know how to begin. So he sat, considering possible openings, and mindlessly rubbed his side where Derek had hit him. He winced as his back flared up from the movement.
And then he remembered. Derek. Derek was probably dead, likely along with the rest of his picking group. They had left them to die when they rode off on Derek’s horse. Era had resisted; she wanted to help. Fare hadn’t hesitated to leave them all behind. The realization sickened him. What happened to me? How could I have abandoned them? The fear and confusion that he had been fending off since they found Aunt Dret threatened to overwhelm him.
“I would bet that you both have a lot of questions.”
Fare looked up at his Aunt Dret, startled by the sudden interruption. Her face was cast in shadows by the fire making it difficult to read her expression.
“Why did we leave Ustelm?” Era asked.
“Well that’s a ridiculous question. You two rode out of a burning field on a Sult’s horse! You’d have to be an idiot not to see that that’s suspicious. If one of the Hatalts had seen you they would have killed you on the spot.”
“Why were the Hatalts there in the first place?” Fare asked. “Those three soldiers I mean. Tin’Aldu is weeks away.”
Aunt Dret stared at the ground thoughtfully for a moment and then looked up at him.
“I think we should begin with your story. Tell me what happened today and then I’ll answer your questions as I see fit.”
Fare and Era glanced at each other. Seeing that’s she wasn’t going to speak, Fare began to recount what had happened to them in the fields. As Fare spoke, Aunt Dret grew grave. Her wrinkles were elongated by the light of the fire, making her expression ominous. Era glanced between her and Fare nervously, as if she was uncertain as to whether or not Fare should continue. He did. He told her everything from the mysterious outburst of fire to their wild horse-back ride. When Fare was finished, Aunt Dret continued to stare at him. He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze until finally she spoke.
“How did you feel, Fare? When you fought Derek, I mean.”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “I can’t really describe it. I was angry, I guess. It was like I was taken over by this blinding fury. I didn’t have any control.”
“It’s called Ono. Strangely peaceful word for the experience, I know.”
Seeing his confusion, Aunt Dret continued.
“I think it is my turn to speak now. There are things I have wanted to tell you for some time, but I refrained because I wanted to protect you for as long as possible. It would seem that I can’t delay anymore.” She turned to Era. “Era, I would rather you didn’t hear this yet, but I expect that you won’t have it any other way. Besides, considering what you went through today I suppose you deserve to know.
“I think I should start with the fire. It did not spontaneously erupt as you described it; it came from you. A was a relatively common power amongst the Rhudels, actually. I see the questions forming on your lips, Fare, but please allow me to finish. Once I am done you may ask your questions.
“The name Rhudel has long been lost so I am not surprised by your lack of recognition. But two hundred years ago it was known by even the most obscure peasant. Though the Hatalts would have you believe it, they have not always ruled Voreld. Before them the Rhudels stood at the helm of this once prosperous empire. They ruled Voreld justly for centuries, the head of the family acting as king or queen of the realm and the rest serving as advisers and representatives in every city. They were admired and loved by the people, for under them all of Voreld existed in harmony. No one was exploited for their labor as they are now. There were people that specialized in harvesting, and mending clothing as well as all of the other menial tasks that have now fallen to our class. But they did so of their own volition and they were respected for their work.
“Yet the rule of the Rhudels was not without its flaws. Ironically what made them the incredible rulers that they were was also their most devastating weakness. They were a family of magical ability, which even then was remarkably rare. Unsurprisingly then, most did not understand their power. That lack of understanding bred fear among some families. One such family was the Hatalts.
“Under the Rhudels the Hatalts were warriors; they protected Voreld from wandering tribes, and they maintained peace within our cities. Over time they grew to resent the Rhudels as their power made them feel vulnerable and weak. Still they did not openly oppose them, not until a man named Ineo rose to their highest position. He was remarkably influential, with a silver tongue and a cunning mind, and he convinced the Hatalts that it was unjust for anyone of magical ability to rule. Ineo claimed that as no one could hope to oppose them, all of Voreld was at the mercy of the Rhudels. They were dangerous, he said, and it was the responsibility of the Hatalts as appointed protectors to rid the empire of any danger.
“The Hatalts planned their attack for years. All the while Ineo ingratiated himself with the Rhudels, earning their trust and friendship. Using the information he gleaned from them he decided that their plan would be executed on the eve of Tin’Aldu when the entire Rhudel family would come together at the capital for feasts and games. Ineo acquired a strange poison, the origins of which are still unknown to this day. He had it put in the Rhudel’s food, and as it had never been used in the empire before the servants failed to detect it. Once the poison was consumed the Rhudels magical abilities were suppressed. Then the Hatalts slaughtered them. Even the youngest children did not escape their blades…” Aunt Dret trailed off with a pained expression.
“They killed every member of the Voreld family that night… except for one. A young woman named Eldret, my namesake, escaped the massacre. She had fallen in love with one of the Hatalts, and he saved her from their bloody scheme. He captured her before the feast began and whisked her away to Ustelm. Hoping to avoid the detection of the Hatalts, the new ruling family, they lived there as peasants. They had children, and their children had children. Over time the family grew weak as the Rhudel blood was diluted by that of the Hatalts and villagers. They lost their power.” Aunt Dret remained silent for a moment, and Fare interjected with the question he had wanted to shout in frustration since the story began.
“What does all of this have to do with me? With us?”
Aunt Dret looked at him and continued, “Following the slaughter it was predicted by the greatest fortune tellers of the time that a descendant of the Rhudels would one day rise up and overthrow the Hatalts. That descendant would have all of the power of old. He would be the Chosen One. The One that will free Voreld from the tyranny of the Hatalts.
“I believe that you are that descendant, Fare.”
The declaration hit Fare like a punch to the gut. He had withheld his incredulity for the entire length of the story but he could no longer.
“How could I be the One?” he shouted. “How could any of this be true?”
“I know this all must seem strange.”
“Strange? It’s absurd! Do you think that if there was a person foretold to destroy the Hatalts they’d allow him to live? There would be mass searches! They would leave no rock unturned! And yet nothing has been done. Do you really expect me to believe that they’d sit idly by while such a threat grows in their empire?”
“The Hatalts are not fools. They know that much of the empire wishes them gone. If they conducted the public searches as you just described word of the prophesy would spread. People would be emboldened by hope and may even revolt. The Hatalts can’t afford to risk that. So though they search, they do it under the guise of celebration. Then the people of Voreld are too distracted by festivities to notice.”
“And what celebration is that, pray tell?”
“Well I thought that much was obvious. The celebration of Tin’Aldu, of course. Each year every child is required to participate and the Hatalts observe. They watch hoping to see a child engage in an act of magic.”
“Well then why wasn't I discovered?” Fare laughed. Between his exhaustion and his aunt’s story he felt like he was about to collapse into hysterics.
“The logic of the Hatalts is sound; they are hoping to find the One before he grows into a man. Then they might have hope of defeating him. Unfortunately for them, they are missing one very important detail. Not through any fault of their own, really, anyone would have made the same mistake. For that detail was the greatest secret of the Rhudels; no one outside of the family knew it.
“Rhudel children were not able to use magic until they reached their full maturity, which was usually around seventeen. Obviously that meant that their children were vulnerable, so fearing that the wrong people might make use of the information they kept it from public knowledge. The point is, when you participated in the games your powers had not surfaced yet; you could not use them any more than any of the other children.”
Aunt Dret stared at him, and said calmly “Fare, I know this is a lot to take in, but deep down you have to know it’s true. Think about how you felt today, the power that came over you. That was magic. You made that fire to protect your sister. It was fueled by you. Remember how large it grew? It was going to consume the entire city when suddenly it disappeared. It disappeared when you calmed down and regained control of yourself.”
An image of the charred field flashed before Fare. Fare could not refute her; he had no other explanation for what had happened.
“How do you know all of this?” he asked, exasperated.
“It has been passed down in our family for two hundred years.”
A frustrated gasp from across the fire startled Fare; Era had been silent for so long that he had forgotten she was there.
“Why did you wait until now to tell us this?” she asked. “We almost got killed! Our picking group probably did get killed! They were our friends and now they’re dead. All because you kept this stupid secret.” Tears ran down her cheeks. Fare stood up, walked over to her and draped his arm over her shoulders.
“No one from your picking group died; I made sure of that. The Sult however, what’s his name… Derek. He did not make it. His burns were too severe when I arrived. Though I tried I could not heal him. Still I understand your point. Though things worked out in this particular instance they very easily could not have. But that was a risk I had to take. The fate of all of Voreld is at stake here and I refused to put that fate in the hands of children. For that I will not apologize; you were not ready. Furthermore there was no way to know with certainty that Fare was the One. Even now that he has practiced magic I don’t know that he is. Only time will reveal the breadth of his power.”
Fare looked at her, studying her in a way that he never had. She was like a stranger to him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your Aunt Dret. Now it is time to sleep. You’ll both feel better in the morning.”
Aunt Dret gathered leaves and created a bed for all of them beside the fire. Fare helped, but he was unable to speak. He was far too distracted by his thoughts. Era seemed similarly distracted, for she didn’t say a word either.
When they were done the three of them lay down, and before long Aunt Dret’s soft snores filled the air. Era rolled over and placed her head on Fare’s arm.
“What are you thinking?” she asked quietly.
“I’m trying not to think, to be honest,” he replied.
“Are you managing it?”
“Neither am I. I can’t stop thinking about Derek.” She began to cry again, and he pulled her close.
“Shhhh,” he cooed. “Do you really want to know what I was thinking? I was remembering how brave you were today. Even after everyone else fled, you kept trying to save Derek. He tried to hurt you and you showed him mercy. You were incredible.”
“He was going to kill us, wasn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” he lied. He thought back to the attack. I couldn’t have started that fire. Yet somehow he knew he had. Derek’s face danced in front of him. I killed someone today.
“You didn’t kill him, you know,” she replied. It was as if she had read his thoughts. “He did it to himself.”
A tear fell down Fare’s cheek.
“Are you sure you’re only twelve?” he teased. And she laughed. It was a fake laugh, but the sound of it still made him feel better.
“Do you think Aunt Dret is telling the truth?” she asked.
“It’s an outlandish story, but I don’t have any other explanation for what happened today. Not right now at least.”
“If it is true, will I be affected? She didn’t say anything about me.”
“I’m not sure.”
“What would it mean for you if it were true?”
“I’m even less sure of that.”
“Do you think she actually saved our picking group?”
Fare considered the question for a moment.
“Yes I do.”
Comforted by their embrace they fell asleep. Fare dreamed of the forest and the burning field again that night. Only this time he found the fire. He stumbled upon Derek as he searched the field; he was burning alive. He pointed at Fare and screamed, “You did this!”
Fare woke with a start. It was early morning, and Aunt Dret was sitting by the fire. He carefully extricated himself from Era and joined her.
“I’m dangerous,” he whispered.
“Yes,” she replied.
He saw Derek’s face again.
“Aunt Dret, I don’t think I can control it.”
“Can you teach me?” desperation bringing his voice to a near shout.
“I can’t,” she replied sadly. “But there are people who can.”
“The Nisaow Tribe. They live here, in this forest. You will go and train among them.”
“When do we leave?” he asked.
“No you misunderstand me. You will go, but Era and I will remain behind.”
Fare glanced back at Era. She slept curled up in a ball on the leaves.
“I can’t leave her.”
“You have to. Your attachment to her is too strong. If something were to happen to her your magic would flare up again and I might not be able to stop it. Until you learn to control it you are a danger to yourself and you are a danger to her.
He saw Derek pointing at him, his face contorted by terrible pain. She’s right.
“It was common amongst the Rhudels to train in near isolation at the first showing of magic, Fare. Your powers are uncontrollable right now and it’s only going to get worse.”
Fare studied his hands.
“Do you know what I am capable of?” he asked.
“No, I don’t. As I said last night only training and time will tell.”
“Can I at least say goodbye.”
“I think it would be easier for both of you if you didn’t.”
Fare’s eyes welled up with tears. He wiped them away before they could fall.
“Will I ever see you again?”
Aunt Dret smiled at him sympathetically.
“Yes, Fare, I think you will.”
“But right now you have to leave.”
“I don’t even know where to go,” he replied weakly,
“Just follow your feet. The Nisaow tribe will find you.”
“Aunt Dret I don’t think I can do this alone.”
Words echoed from deep inside him.
Aunt Dret’s eyes seemed to twinkle. A pair of beautiful green eyes flashed before him.
You are not alone.
Fare took one last look at Era and turned from both her and his aunt. He walked to the edge of the forest and paused. The thought of leaving his sister, his aunt and Ustelm all at once was too much to bear. I can’t do this. Fare looked up at the trees. A calm filled him and a woman’s face, familiar yet foreign, danced before his eyes.
All will be well, Fare.
He stepped into the forest and didn’t look back.
“Fare slow down!” Era screamed from behind him. “I’m going to fall off!”
Fare felt Era’s tiny fists pressed against his abdomen. He turned to see her heart-shaped head bouncing violently as Derek’s horse galloped through the field. Behind them two long rows of corn stretched out in perfectly straight lines. Not fifty feet off bright red fire sprouted among the crops. Fare could hear popping as the flame engulfed each bundle of corn.
We’ll die if we slow down. Fare faced forward and dug his heels into their horse’s flanks. As the horse jolted forward Era cried out and wrapped her arms tighter around Fare’s stomach.
Anger continued to consume all of Fare’s thoughts. All except one: he had to get Era to Ustelm. It was the only place she’d be safe from the fire. Fare strengthened his grip on the leather reigns draped across both of his palms and pulled hard to the right. The horse veered through a gap in the row of corn, bringing them onto a path that ran through the center of the field. It was wider than the others, and Ustelm rose into view at the end of it.
From afar Ustelm looked like a pyramid with a brown foundation and white stone crowning its top. As you got closer, however, the structure broke into thousands of individual buildings. They progressively rose in height until finally culminating in a white castle with a tall tower at its center. The Watch Tower. It stood in stark contrast with the dilapidated wooden shacks that ran along the town’s edge. As they approached Fare saw men garbed in the same loose-fitting orange pants Fare wore running towards the field with wooden buckets filled to the brim with water. One among them carried a long, sheepskin hose. He sprinted in Fare’s direction, stopping only when he was at the edge of the row Fare was running up. Four others followed him with a wooden cart. They came to a halt about five yards behind him and moved to either side. Once they were in place they began pumping two large levers that stood parallel to the cart’s wheels. The men thrust their arms towards the ground and back until, after a few seconds, water spouted from the hose and rained down on the field.
They’re trying to soak the soil, Fare realized. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and if the fire spread as far as Ustelm the outskirts of the town would go up in flames like dry twigs. Fare’s anger flared up again in his chest. As common as fires were in these parts, the Hatalts and other elites had only equipped them with a pitiful hose and a few buckets.
We’re at the mercy of fire and they do nothing. They sit safely in their stone estates at the heart of the city while we’re left to burn. Fare groaned.
The heat of the growing flames behind them pressed against Fare’s back. He could hear Era murmuring into his shoulder, but he couldn’t make out her words; his ears were deafened by the crackling of the rapidly approaching fire. He urged their horse to go faster, ignoring the sting of pebbles that struck his bare arms and face as they ran.
They were only twenty yards from clearing, but their path was blocked by the men operating the wagon and hose. The man with the hose had wandered a fair distance into the field and was now only a few feet away. His dark eyes widened in fear as Fare veered around him, barely missing him, and continued on at an incredible speed.
The attached wagon remained before Fare. The gaps between it and the lines of corn that ran along the sides of the path were too small for Fare to pass through. Fare’s horse began to slow, but he pressed it forward. The four men that stood pumping the wagon’s levers yelled at him to stop. When he didn’t, they leaped into the stalks.
Fare’s stomach sank as his horse jumped up and came crashing down on the cart. It knocked over the tubs of water as it sprang off of it again and landed back onto the ground with a thud. Fare crouched down and hugged the horese’s neck, pulling Era down with him. The horse galloped down the rest of the path and emerged in the clearing before Ustelm.
The town was alive with activity. Men were joined by their wives as they carried water into the fields. Others ran between the buildings towards the center of the city, clutching their belongings to their chest and pulling small children along behind them. Fare looked in their direction and saw the Watch Tower.
Energy surged through Fare’s entire body again. Heedless of the risk, he continued at a gallop and followed the fleeing villagers into Ustelm. He darted between the people, forcing some to jump into alleyways to avoid him. He was determined to reach the Watch Tower. He needed to bring it down in flames.
Without warning, a woman jumped out in front of him. She had gray hair that was streaming out from her red bandana, and her hard eyes were locked on his.
“Stop!” she screamed.
Fare, tried to go around her, but as he passed her she grabbed the horse’s reigns.
“Fare, look at me!”
Fare couldn’t. He could only see the Watch Tower rising above them. He jumped to the side and attempted to flee.
Fare was yanked backwards by his neck. He screamed out and turned to face his attacker. The woman stood calmly in front of him. Her red dress billowed in the wind that whipped through the street.
“Fare, look at me.”
Era poked her head out from behind her. Her face was streaked by tears. Fare felt the energy ebbing from him. His vision began to clear. The woman took a step toward him, and his heart began to race again. With each beat his anger rose.
“Fare, you have to calm down. Think about who we are.”
She glided towards him. Before he could react, she placed her right hand on his chest. A coolness emanated from it. It flooded through him, easing the strain of his muscles and slowing his pulse. Fare looked down at the woman’s familiar, upturned face. Now that she was close he could see concern etched into her wrinkled forehead and lips. Recognition washed over him.
“Fare, who am I?” she asked him quietly.
“Aunt Dret,” he responded.
Her shoulders slumped in obvious relief, but then anger flashed in her eyes. She jerked her hand away from him.
“What were you going to do?” she cried. “Attack all of the overseers? Oh yes the bards will sing songs about you! The idiot that faced the Hatalts and their puppets alone but for his little sister, knocking women and children down on the streets all the way.”
Aunt Dret closed her eyes and sighed.
“There are exercises you have to learn. But for now just breathe deeply, and follow me.”
Fare opened his mouth to respond, but Aunt Dret cut him off.
“Do not ask questions; we have more dire things we must attend to before sating your curiosity.”
Aunt Dret went back and grabbed Era’s hand, leaving Fare dazed in his place. His head swam. He felt like he was about to fall.
“What happened to me?” he asked, his voice wavering. “What’s going on?”
Now that he had calmed, memory of the fire and his anger filled him with confusion and fear. Aunt Dret turned to him with a look that he had known since he was a child; the severity of it used to leave him quivering in his boots.
“You will not ask questions until I say you may,” she hissed. “Am I understood?”
Fare nodded reluctantly,
“Good. Now we will leave this… beast” she said gesturing towards the horse they had taken, “and continue on foot. Follow me.”
Aunt Dret scooped up a large satchel from the street, reached for Era’s hand again and strolled over to a nearby alleyway. She turned and disappeared into it, all the while murmuring to herself, “Riding into Ustelm on a Sult’s horse. Bah!” Fare stumbled after her, nearly falling over his feet with his first step. He cursed, and broke into a jog until he settled in behind his aunt and sister.
The alley was not a usual walkway. It was littered with trash and pieces of long forgotten furniture and tools. As they passed a particularly large pile Aunt Dret reached down and grabbed a rag. No, not a rag. A shirt. She threw it back at him.
“Put this on. If we’re seen I don’t want those welts on your back to call attention to us.”
Until that moment Fare had forgotten about the lashings he had received. At the mention of them his back flared up in pain. He gingerly put the shirt on.
“It’ll do,” she replied and continued walking.
They had only gone a few feet when Aunt Dret pulled Era behind an old, rotting table and gestured for Fare to follow. Fare jumped behind it and leaned back, cursing as pain shot through him again. Aunt Dret looked at him, put a weathered index finger up to her lips and then pointed down the path.
Three men in the same white tunic that the Sult had worn appeared where they had just entered the alley. These men, however, were dressed far more ornately. They each had a gold necklace with a thick chain and a single blue sapphire, and the swords that hung at their hips were encrusted with jewels.
“Hatalts,” Fare whispered.
The Hatalt family ruled the empire; the Sults, along with everyone else, were merely their pawns. The Hatalts were an elite class of warriors that for the most part only appeared in towns as small as Ustelm during Tin’Aldu, a festival that celebrated the creation of the empire. So why are they here now? Surely a field fire isn’t enough to capture their attention. The three glanced down the alley, and then continued along the main road.
“We need to get out of the city,” Aunt Dret said in his ear. “We’ll go through the fields.”
“We can’t,” Fare responded. “Have you not seen? The fields are ablaze.”
A vision of the strange red flames shook him. Aunt Dret studied him for a second, and then replied “I don’t think they are anymore.”
She turned, and pulled Era away. Era glanced back at Fare, her expression unreadable. He tried to smile at her, but he feared that it looked more like a grimace. Fare fought to hide the emotional turmoil he was experiencing from her. He was scared, exhausted, and in tremendous physical pain, but he needed her to stay calm. So he shrugged, put one foot in front of the other, and kept moving.
They turned down several more paths, and then finally arrived back at the fields. When they first appeared Fare swept his eyes across them, searching for the red glow. Nearly a quarter of the main field was black and charred, but there was no fire. Era gasped.
“They put it out so quickly. How did you know they would?” Fare asked.
“No questions,” his aunt responded.
Still holding Era’s hand, Aunt Dret entered the field and Fare followed. They ran the length of it towards the Wandering Forest. With every step Fare’s back ached, and he struggled to keep up. After a half hour of running, they stood at the field’s southern edge and looked up at the tall trees that formed the rim of the forest. Fare turned, expecting to skirt along the edge of the field to one of the roads that ran out of the city. There would be some travelers to avoid, but night was approaching and they could easily travel unnoticed in the darkness.
His Aunt grabbed his arm.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Towards the roads. Are we not leaving Ustelm?”
“We are,” she responded. “But not along the roads. We will travel through the forest.”
“Are you mad?” he asked. “No one travels through the Wandering Forest! We’ll be safer on the roads.”
His aunt looked at him, scowling. “Don’t be a fool.”
With that she ran between two large trunks and into the forest, Era still in tow.
“As laborers you must always listen to Sults,” Derek said behind him. “We are your overseers. Without us you would be lost. There would be no one to police you or guide you in your work. Stability and peace would be lost. We live in a delicate balance; Fare here tried to destroy that balance a week ago when he prevented punishment from being doled out as I saw fit. In thwarting my efforts, he not only betrayed me and the Sult class; he betrayed all of you. I cannot in good conscience stand for that kind of behavior. These lashes are for you.”
A silence fell over the group.
“Is that how you thank your protector? With ungrateful silence?” Derek asked.
“Thank you, Sult,” the group murmured. Fare watched Clementine. She remained silent but for the prayers she continued to mouth.
“Good. Now let’s begin.”
Fare braced himself. It had been ten years since he received the three lashings for trying to protect his aunt, but he could still remember the pain. Each lashing had felt like a burning rod pressed against his back, searing his skin. He winced at the memory.
Fare heard the whip before he felt it. It whizzed through the air, and then a second later pain exploded on his back. The strike was followed by two more in quick succession. Fare gritted his teeth so as to keep from crying out.
“Look how he bears it so nobly!” Derek yelled mockingly. “Do you think you are a king, Fare? Let this be a lesson for all who wish to rise above their station.”
Two more lashes followed. Fare felt like his back was on fire, and red blots appeared in his periphery. He waited for Derek to strike again; the anticipation was almost worse than the physical pain. It didn’t come. He heard Derek walking around him slowly, and felt his eyes bearing into him as he went.
“You’re tough; I’ll give you that, Fare.” Derek stopped a few feet in front of him. “Surprising, knowing your family’s history,” he added with a smile. Fare felt his anger returning. He clenched every muscle in his body, and his fingers twitched in anticipation. Breathe, he told himself. Keep breathing. Derek laughed, and glanced over at Era.
“I’ll be excited to see how your lovely sister handles her punishment. Judging by her pained expression right now I can’t imagine that she’ll fare well.”
Energy pulsed through Fare with renewed force. He struggled to remain still.
“You look surprised, Fare. You didn’t think I’d let her off, did you? Everyone must contribute to the community; that is our most basic law, and your sister violated it. At her tender age I doubt they’ll sentence her to death, but she will not escape a few lashings. By me in fact! As I was the one who caught her in the heinous act, it will be my honor to punish her.”
Fare stifled a shout and ground his teeth. His vision began to flicker; he was losing control. Breath. He’s trying to provoke you. The words sounded foreign and feint like they were coming from someone else far away. Reason was swept to the side of his consciousness as he was enveloped by rage in a way that he had never been before. Burning energy burst through him, bringing with it words that echoed in his head.
The words came from somewhere deep within. Somewhere he didn’t know existed until that moment. Breathe, he wanted to scream. But the command fell on deaf ears.
“If only she had had better guidance,” Derek continued. “Maybe then she wouldn’t be in this mess. This next one is for her. As it strikes really revel in the pain, Fare, and know that soon thanks to you your sister will be experiencing it too.”
Derek brought the whip high over his head. It formed a perfect arch, and then cut through the air as it was propelled towards Fare. Fare felt like his body was taken over by someone else. He grabbed the whip from its flight and pulled it from Derek’s hand with one quick motion. Blood trickled from his grip.
Derek stood dazed for a moment, and stared at him with wide, baffled eyes. Then his whole body tensed, and he lunged at Fare. His stance had betrayed his intentions, however, and Fare rolled to the side and onto his feet, avoiding him easily. Derek regained his footing before Fare could take advantage of his vulnerability after the failed attack, and the two began circling each other.
Fare studied Derek, the energy that had enveloped him still driving him and heightening his senses. Both were similar in age, but Derek was far larger. With each heavy step Derek’s bulk shook. His arms were flexed and his stance was wide like that of a practiced fighter. There was a slowness to his movements, however, a slowness that was made more acute by Fare’s obvious agility. Yet Fare knew not to underestimate him. Derek like all Sults had been trained in combat since he was a young boy; Fare would have to keep his distance and strike with the whip he still held in his hand. As that thought occurred to him, Derek produced a small blade from the sleeve of his robe. Before Fare had the chance to respond Derek sprang from his low stance.
He wrapped his arms around Fare’s waist and the two went tumbling down to the ground. Fare tried to roll out from underneath him, but Derek easily held him in place. With the dagger in his right hand, Derek punched Fare hard in the face and chest with his left. Fare gasped and blood ran from his nose and mouth. Derek held the dagger right above Fare’s right eye, smiling once again.
Seeing his mocking smile strengthened the fiery energy that coursed through Fare, and with each burst memories of Derek’s atrocities hit him. Fare saw the face of the little girl that Derek had tried to throw a stone at. He felt the sweat of the old man he had protected from Derek’s blows, and saw the same sneer Derek wore now as he beat Fare with his club. He saw Era’s scared expression as Derek threatened her right in front of him.
Fare stared at the knife, rage welling up inside of him. He tried to push Derek off of him again, but he wouldn’t budge. Fare knew he was about to die, but he felt no fear. Only fury that he would not be able to kill this atrocity. This murderer.
Derek lowered the knife until it was only centimeters away from his eye.
“So this is how you die,” Derek whispered. “Before a crowd where none are willing to save you. Believe me, they will not mourn you either. For you are a traitor to society and your people. You let your sister down, you let your family down. Just like your father before you.”
And then Derek went silent. His eyes glazed over, and his sneer tensed into a scowl. Taking advantage of the unexpected opportunity, Fare swiped the dagger away from him and punched Derek in the ear. Derek went limp and collapsed on top of him. Fare pushed him off, watching him all the while. Derek’s chest rose and fell; he was alive. So what happened to him? Fare glanced around, and his eyes fell on yet another green stone.
Just like the one he found earlier the stone was perfectly smooth and rounded. Where did it come from? The whip still in his hand, Fare rolled over to face The Wandering Forest. Memory of his dream pulled at his thoughts. It calmed his still racing heart, and cooled the heat that had taken over his body. His mind began to clear like a fog had been lifted, and he regained control of himself. Still, he could feel the power that had hijacked him lurking, ready to encase his mind again at a moment’s notice. What is happening to me? He gripped his hands together and felt his pulse beginning to speed up again. Relax, he told himself. Just breathe. Fare continued to stare at the forest and let the calm he felt facing it flow through him.
The sound of gasps made Fare roll back over. He saw the other laborers surrounding him. When had they approached? Their mouths were gaping and they were all staring in the same direction. Fare followed their stare, and there was Era with wide eyes and a knife pressed against her throat. Derek stood behind her, blood rushing from the ear Fare had hit. Derek glanced towards the workers.
“Try and save her and I’ll slit her throat,” he shouted. “Now move back!”
He turned towards Fare, a manic gleam in his eyes. His face was colored red by anger.
“You attacked a Sult,” he said through gritted teeth. “You will be sentenced to death. If that wasn’t certain before it is now.” Derek laughed and a line of blood appeared where he held his blade to Era’s neck. “As I already mentioned, however, this one will in all likelihood merely be whipped. I don’t think that’s enough.”
Not knowing what other action to take, Fare dropped to his knees and let the whip fall from his hand. “Please,” he pleaded. “Please don’t. I was the one that attacked you. Don’t punish her for my mistake.”
“Oh I’m not punishing her, not really. I’m punishing you. You deserve to suffer for all you’ve done. You humiliated me, you attacked me, and so now you’ll watch your sister die.”
In a moment the anger overcame him again with such force he could not resist it, nor did he want to. He leaned into the power and let it take over his body. He reached down and grabbed the whip from the ground, crying out as he flung it through the air. His arm pulsed with energy, and he put all of his force into one blow. The whip crashed down on Derek’s arm, and from it sprouted an unnaturally red flame. Derek screamed and dropped the dagger he held to Era’s throat. He tried pat the flame down, but it continued to spread. Soon much of his robe was ablaze. He dropped to the floor and rolled. The dry field beneath him lit up instantly, consumed by the red flame.
The workers cried out. Several of them ran towards the fire and doused it with what water they carried. When it still spread they ran for the town, carrying and pulling those who struggled to keep up. Fare ignored them as they stumbled about. All he could see was Era.
While all the workers had abandoned their task, Era had remained sprinkling water down on Derek. Fare ran up to her and pulled her into his arms. She cried out, but Fare ignored her protest. Though she struggled against him as he ran, Fare easily kept his grip. He sprinted towards Derek’s horse, which had trotted away to escape the flames. He grabbed its reins, pulled himself and Era up on the saddle, and forced the horse forward.
Branches crashed down from the tall trees of the forest before him, throwing up clouds of dirt and pollen as they fell. Fare buried his mouth and nose in the crook of his elbow and spun around to face a field lined with corn. It was the field he worked in every day. From it black smoked swirled high up in the sky and danced between the stalks.
“Fire!” Fare screamed.
He sprinted towards the field hoping to find the flame before it spread. Fare crashed through the stalks, looking down each row for the tell-tale glow. Minutes passed, and the smoke grew thicker. It circled around him, disorienting him. His muscles burned from exertion and ash coated his lungs. He put his hands on his knees as his body shook from a violent coughing fit. His legs gave out, and he fell forward. The row of corn in front of him parted like a curtain, and he landed on a patch of grass.
Fare lifted his head. The crumbling forest stood before him again. He pushed himself to his knees and faced the wooden giants.
“Help me!” he bellowed at them. “I can’t find the fire! The whole field is going to go up in flames!”
He stared at the trees expectantly. When nothing happened he cast his eyes down and hit the ground with a clenched fist. Tears ran down his cheeks as desperation gripped his gut and turned it into a knot. He whispered so low that the noise of the forest nearly drowned out his words.
“Please. I can’t do this alone.”
A soft rustle of grass made him to look up. A young woman in a green shirt and brown, leather leggings with a slingshot hanging at the waist walked towards him. Branches and leaves fell around her, yet she continued along unhurriedly. She stopped in front of him, cupped his face with one of her hands and helped him to his feet.
Fare looked into her eyes. They were green, like the moss of a tree, and had gold flecks that sparkled like fire. His breath caught as an intense yearning washed over him.
“All will be well, Fare.”
The smoke that surrounded him rose into the sky and the dust settled onto the ground. Fare glanced at the forest and the trees were silent and whole as if they had never been disturbed. The woman leaned forward and kissed his forehead.
“You are not alone.”
“Fare, wake up!”
Fare felt two tiny fists gripping his shoulders and shaking him. He opened his eyes and was blinded by the noonday sun. He squinted and a young girl with brown eyes and puckered lips came into focus. Ringlets of her sun bleached hair fell down around her face and tickled his nose and chin. He flicked them away and sat up.
“Era, most little sisters respect their older brother,” Fare commented playfully.
“Well most older brothers don’t sleep through the work call!” she shouted back.
Fare looked around. Four lines of corn stalks surrounded them forming a perfectly square clearing. They were in what the laborers called “The Hot Box”, so named because of its total lack of shade; within it there was no reprieve from the scorching summer sun. Dozens of laborers had suffered head stroke within its confines, yet they continued to be forced here for every break from their picking shifts. The Sults, the laborers’ overseers, claimed that it was to keep them out of the way. Fare couldn’t help but think that the discomfort it caused them played a role in the decision to send them there.
The Sults were responsible for patrolling the fields and keeping the laborers in line. They were known for their cruelty, however thankfully they only rarely went out to the fields; for the most part the threat of their arrival was enough to keep the laborers working.
“Did everyone already leave?” Fare asked Era.
“Yes,” she replied. “Now come on!”
Era tugged Fare by the wrist and led him down one of the rows of corn. He followed her willingly, shortening his naturally long strides to match her much shorter ones.
“You were talking in your sleep again,” she said as they walked.
“Oh yeah? What was I saying?”
“You kept shouting about some fire. And then you’d whimper like a baby.” With that she released his arm, and ran away giggling.
“Now you’re in for it!”
Fare chased her, and scooped her up into his arms. She cried out and laughed as he spun her in a circle. When he stopped Era looked up at him, suddenly serious.
“You’re turning seventeen tonight, you know,” she said softly.
Fare nodded and she continued, her voice quivering slightly.
“Does that mean you’re going to stop spending time with me?”
“Of course not! You’re my little sister; the fact that I’m turning seventeen doesn’t change that. Besides, you’re a very mature twelve year old. Too mature really… In fact, I might just drop you on your head right now so you regress a few years. Maybe then you’ll stop challenging me all the time. ”
“No!” she yelled, a big smile on her face.
Fare tilted Era’s head towards the ground and she squealed. He let her slip from his grasp, only to grab her again before she fell more than a few inches. As he grabbed her a sharp pain erupted in his shoulder. He cried out in surprise and placed Era on the ground.
“What is it?” Era looked up at him, concern coloring her face.
“I don’t know.”
Fare felt his shoulder. It was tender as if he had been struck.
“Was it a bee?” she asked.
Fare looked around him, and his eyes fell on a strange stone about a foot away. He leaned down and picked it up. It was light green and perfectly rounded. Small crystals shone out on its surface in the sunlight. He tossed it in the air and caught it again; it was surprisingly light. He slipped it into the pocket of his trousers.
“I don’t think so,” Fare replied.
Fare looked around him. The forest loomed over the field about forty feet away. The memory of his dream made him stare. Could there be someone in there? He shook his head. No. No one could survive in the Wandering Forest. Fare like everyone else in his town had heard the stories; people went into the Wandering Forest but they never returned. Still he couldn’t help but watch for movement for another few moments. When he saw none, he continued searching for the person who threw the stone, for he was sure that the stone was what had hit him.
He turned on the balls of his feet, barely able to see over the stalks of corn. Though he was tall for his age, it was nearing the end of the season and the corn had grown above the height of most men. He rotated slowly about 160 degrees, stopping when something white rising above the corn caught his eye. It stood out glaringly against the bright blue sky about 200 yards away. His stomach sank. A Sult.
“Do you know where our picking group went?” he asked quickly.
“Yes. Why? What do you see?” Era stood up on her tiptoes glancing in the direction that Fare was staring.
“A Sult is coming.”
Fare turned to her. Her eyes were wide and her mouth formed the shape of an “o” in a silent gasp. Then she turned and started running. Fare followed close behind her.
As the Sults only occasionally ventured into the fields, preferring instead to remain in the comfort of town, so when they did come out they made their visit count. That inevitably meant punishment for the workers, usually through the use of their ever-present whip. It was the Sults’ way of reminding the laborers of their power of them. The laborers were among the lowest in society in their city of Ustelm, and the Sults had complete control over them. They were not the highest power in Ustelm, but in the fields they might as well have been; they operated with almost complete immunity.
Era and Fare had been running for about a minute when Fare heard the songs of harvest. The tune rose and fell languidly, mingling with the wind and spreading into all of the surrounding crop. The air vibrated seemingly with magic, as it always did when the laborers sang the old songs. Despite his fear Fare’s heart began to slow just listening to it. He caught himself humming along as they ran the last few yards and finally rejoined their group.
Their working group consisted of twenty-two men, women and children. Some of the men and women were seasoned pickers with hunched backs and wrinkly skin, while others burst with the energy of youth. All were dressed in the same loose-fitting, orange pants and shirts that Fare and Era wore. The color stood out vibrantly against their skin, which was tanned dark brown after a long season of working in the fields. Their group was responsible for harvesting the northeastern corner of the main field. They were progressing fairly quickly, having already finished several lines of corn, and so most of them were picking slowly now, some were even sitting.
As Fare and Era arrived several of them looked up and smiled at them. But their smiles fell when they saw Fare’s face.
“A Sult is coming,” Fare announced loudly.
Their song stopped. Fare pointed in the direction of the Sult, who had turned down their row and was quickly approaching. Seeing him the laborers turned to the crop and began working with renewed haste. Fare and Era joined them at the center, hoping to be lost in the crowd.
The Sult arrived soon after atop a large, black horse. All of the workers stood at attention and faced him. He was tall and well-built with a whip strewn across his right shoulder. Unlike the workers, whose clothing was stained with sweat and often ripped at the knees and elbows from use, his robe looked clean and well-kept. As was fitting for his station, he was dressed completely in white and he had a hood that protected him from the sun. It obscured his face in a dark shadow.
From atop the horse the Sult walked down the line of laborers, forcing all to look up at him as a he passed. As he passed Fare was able to see his face. Derek. The Sult and laboring class did not mix socially, and so it was not common for them to be a on a first name basis. But Fare and Derek had had their share of run-ins.
Though Fare was not known to cause problems, he had managed to provoke the Sults three times in his life. The first time he was only a child; he yelled at a Sult for forcing his Aunt Dret into the fields. She was old and Fare worried that she would not be able to withstand the physical stress of harvesting. Their mother had died giving birth to Era, and their father died shortly after; Fare couldn’t bear to risk their only living relative. He had received three lashings from the Sult on that occasion as well as a slap in the face from his aunt for doubting her ability. He still had marks on his back from the Sult’s lashing as well as a small knick in the corner of his eye where his aunt’s ring had caught his skin.
More recently Fare had jumped in front of an old man that was about to be beat by a club. The Sult wielding the club was Derek; that was their first run-in. Derek landed five blows before the other Sults intervened. Then just last week Derek had thrown a stone at a young girl for being “disorderly”. Fare caught the stone before it hit her, looked Derek squarely in the eye and asked “Is this how you keep order? Throwing stones at little girls?” Everyone around laughed, including several Sults. Derek was humiliated. He demanded that Fare be lashed, but the other Sults remained where they stood, snickering.
“Should we hold the little girl down for you as well?” One shouted.
Fare was saved from retribution. It was a rare moment where the Sult’s had banded with the laborers, for their pride in valor and strength prevented them from condoning such blatant abuse of a helpless child. Fare expected, however, that he was going to receive payback now. Derek continued down the line.
“Unless I am mistaken, I saw several of you seated just a moment ago.”
Derek stopped in front of a woman who averted her gaze. She brushed her pants as he stared down at her, trying to free them of the dirt that remained from having been sprawled out across the ground.
“Am I mistaken?” Derek asked her.
“No sir,” she responded quietly.
“So several of you were seated, then?”
“Well that’s not good. Not good at all. You weren’t one of those seated, were you?”
“I…” she began.
“Look up when you address me, sweet. It’s not proper to stare at your feet while speaking to a superior.”
The woman slowly craned her neck and met his gaze. His lips parted in a menacing smile.
“Yes sir, I was.”
Derek sighed in mock disappointment and addressed the rest of the group.
“Need I remind all of you of your place in Ustelm?” he asked. “You are the laborers. Specifically, you lot are the agricultural laborers. Now unless you’ve found a way to harvest while sitting I’d say that your very title precludes you from lying about on the ground, wouldn’t you agree? Or are you all so simple that even basic logic evades you? Here. Let me make it easier for you to understand. You pick so we can eat. If you do not harvest the crops the people of Ustelm will starve. You will starve. Is that what you want?”
Each person shook their head.
“I thought not. For those of you that were sitting, the law dictates that you receive two lashings for neglecting your duty.” With that he glanced back at the young woman. “However, seeing as you have made adequate progress today I will leave you with a warning. I am nothing if not understanding.” He winked, and the young woman smiled back at him feebly.
“However,” he continued, “there are two among you that do not deserve the same… mercy.”
Fare’s heart started pounding. Here it is. Fare tried to shove Era away from him, but she didn’t budge. She glanced at him with a confused expression as Derek walked towards them. He stopped only a few people away from where Fare stood and looked down at the youngest member of their picking group.
“You there,” he said, “did a bell ring after lunch?”
“Y-y-yes sir,” the boy stuttered. Fare glanced down at him; he was shaking.
“I see. And what does that bell mean?”
“It s-s-signals the beginning of the afternoon shift.” The boy rushed through the end of the sentence so quickly it was barely intelligible.
“It signals the beginning of the afternoon shift,” Derek repeated. “Exactly. Now if a boy of, oh I don’t know, eight? If a boy of eight understands the meaning of the bell after lunch, then I think it can safely be assumed that everyone else here does as well.” Derek dismounted his horse. Fare could feel Era’s body tense as his foot hit the ground and he continued speaking.
“It is one thing to meander about your job. It is quite another to ignore it entirely. That could be considered mutiny, which by law is a direct attack against the Empire of Voreld and the Hatalt family that governs it. Mutiny, as I am sure all of you know, is punishable by death.” Derek looked over at Fare, a smile creeping over his face again.
Fare clenched his fists into balls in an effort to remain still. He felt a now familiar anger wash over him in a wave. Over the past few months he had developed a bit of a temper. He did his best to manage it, but recently it had become unbearable. It forced him to action as it had with the old man and the young girl. His aunt’s warning echoed in his head. When you attack you only make things worse. Keep your head down, and breathe. Fare took a deep breath to slow his racing heart.
Derek’s leather sandals padded softly against the ground as he made his way over to Fare. Fare gazed down at his feet.
“We meet again,” Derek said calmly. “Fare, right? Tell me. Did I see you rushing up to your picking group as I approached?”
“Yes,” Fare responded, still looking at the ground.
“Must I repeat this lesson again? Look at me while you speak!” Derek shouted.
Fare looked up, and when their eyes locked a fresh burst of hot energy radiated through him. Fare wriggled his fingers.
“Thank you,” Derek continued. “So I can assume that up until that point you were not with your group?”
“So you were neglecting your task and duty.” Derek stared hard at Fare, daring him to challenge him. When Fare remained silent, Derek reached out and stroked Era’s shoulder. “And unless my eyes deceived me,” he said, “this little one did as well.”
“Don’t touch her,” Fare hissed through clenched teeth. His heart was beating hard against his chest, and his vision darkened around the edges with each pulse.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Derek asked, turning to face him again. “Did you just give me an order? Me? A Sult?” Derek stepped towards him. Fare could feel his hot breath against his cheeks. He took another deep breath. When you attack you only make things worse.
“No, sir,” Fare answered.
“You know I read up on you. A sad story, really. Mom died during childbirth, and rumor has it shortly after your father killed himself. He jumped off a roof, from what I hear. I suppose once your mother died he didn’t have anything worth staying alive for. Or anyone I should say.”
Fare bit back a retort. He knew the story of his father all too well. Nearly all of the laboring class did. Suicide was a rare thing among their class; to leave your family alone and uncared for was considered a great sin. His father’s death was a blight on their family name, one that Fare had worked to erase for almost his entire life. The mention of his father filled him with anguish; it knocked the wind out of him, and forced his anger to recede somewhat, leaving behind a feeling of emptiness. Like a predator seeing weakness in its prey, Derek went in for the kill.
“Your father decided that he’d rather die than spend the rest of his life with you. What a terrible son you must have been to drive him to such an extreme!” Fare grimaced as if he had been struck. “I must say, my experience with you has explained his behavior somewhat. For you have been arrogant enough to tell me, a member of the Sult class, how to punish a lawbreaker not once, but twice. Arrogant really isn’t the right word, stupid is more fitting. I may be wrong, but I don’t think your people admire either trait. Yes your father’s actions do make some sense.”
Derek drifted off as if in deep thought. Then he playfully shook himself from his reverie, his false smile plastered against his face.
“Oh Fare I almost forgot!” he exclaimed. “I owe you a few lashings from our last encounter, don’t I? I cannot punish you for mutiny; such a crime will need to be brought before the Hatalts. But disrespecting a Sult? That falls well within my realm. Such a crime warrants three lashings. And I think it’s only fair that we add three more for every day that the punishment has been put off, wouldn’t you agree? If I remember correctly it has been exactly seven days. So twenty-four lashings altogether.”
An older woman down the line gasped and shouted, “That could kill him!” Fare recognized the voice of Clementine, his Aunt Dret’s close friend. Derek turned towards her.
“Unless you wish to join him I suggest you remain silent,” Derek replied coolly. “Now Fare, are you going to accept your punishment or act the part of a coward in front of your people?”
Fare stepped forward in response and pulled his shirt off revealing lean muscle developed over years of hard labor.
“As you wish.”
Fare walked before the line of laborers, turned away from Derek and knelt so his back was facing him. He glanced at Era as he turned. Her face was scrunched up like she trying not to cry. As he knelt he made eye contact with Clementine and smiled. She clasped her hands together in response and mouthed the words of a prayer.
Catie Carberry is an English major at the University of Pennsylvania. She was first drawn to literature by action-packed books complete with magic and adventure. Now that she has begun writing her own stories for children she tries to capture that same energy that made her fall in love with reading in the first place. When Catie is not writing or reading she enjoys running, skiing and staying active, which is probably yet another reason why her characters are always in motion.