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.