Authors: Lara Lee Hunter
Copyright © 2014
Published by: Rascal Hearts
All Rights Reserved
. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
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In the beginning there was only Chaos. The Final War left most of the world dead and barren. There was no fresh food, only whatever could be salvaged from the bombed out stores and empty homes of the dead. The water was tainted, and the sky sent down poisonous clouds of sleet and hail and the ground would not grow anything edible. The animals died or mutated and people had to learn which were safe to kill and eat all over again.
The centuries went by. People struggled to recover from the Final War but it looked as if they would lose that battle. Then, a miracle. Arutela was discovered by a small band of weary nomads led by the great Barkley, a warrior whose skill had kept his people alive and fed for a decade.
Arutela sat empty and silent, its great walls tumbled and its buildings crumbled into the sand around it but there were two buildings which remained: the Place of Law and the Arena.
Reena’s eyes popped open. Rain splattered down from the winter stripped tree branches above her head and soaked her face. She rolled over, seeking shelter from the bear skin she was wrapped in but the hide was waterlogged and offered little protection.
There was no fire, not on a night like tonight. The soldiers of Arutela were out, Culling the men and women from the Outside. The great city required a workforce, and the people born beyond its walls were mere slaves to be taken as the soldiers saw fit.
The men would be taken to the Pit, a quarry that produced the stone and marble that the city used constantly in its building projects. To go to the Pit was to die. The heat would bake a man inside his own skin, the scaffolds could send a man to his death hundreds of feet below and the rocks could tumble loose and crush bones. There were no old bones in the Pit, but there were bones—yes, and plenty of them. Dozens died daily.
Some women would be taken into service in the large homes of the nobility. Others would serve in the smaller houses. The size of the house guaranteed nothing, one could starve as a servant no matter how grand the table they laid out for their Masters.
Occasionally a young girl would be deemed beautiful enough to be sold at auction. Usually they were sold to a high-ranking man; others were bought to serve in the pleasure halls. The pleasure hall girls sometimes made it out, their freedom bought by a man who adored them and kept them as a mistress until they grew too old or worn out. Some of them were able to save some money and keep their homes, most lived together in the temples—swearing their lives over to the gods or goddesses they held most dear.
The rain trickled below the fur, tracking down the long curve of her neck. She tried to curl up on her side, pressing her back against the unforgiving rock face of the wall they had sheltered against. The trees swayed in the wind and the sound of her father’s light snores rose to her ears. He was sleeping, finally, and she was grateful for that.
They had been on the run for long days now, ever since the Culling had begun. The Outside was huge and not always completely patrolled but there was no way to know where the soldiers would show up. They Culled as they saw fit; there was never any warning.
Part of that was so nobody could flee before the soldiers saw them. Part of that was because the government thought it wise to keep the citizens of the Outside in a state of constant fear and gratitude. When the Culling ended there was weeping and celebrations.
Reena and her father were outlaws. Reena had never known life inside a village or on a farm. She had never seen the city. Her father, Liam, had chosen to flee and live on the land, at least that was the law’s view of things and the law did not allow for anything except itself.
Liam had seen no choice other than to break the law. Love and the law rarely went hand-in-hand but love had caused him to rebel, to become an outlaw. Many years ago Reena’s mother Carinda had been Culled. She had been marked to be sold at auction and Liam had killed the soldiers who held her, and then taken her and run. They had been deemed outlaws, and there had been no going back for either of them. To go back meant instant death. Outlaws had no right to trial, no right to defense. They were killed for their treason, and always would be. It was the law.
Carinda had died giving birth to her and Reena sometimes saw her father staring at her with sorrow carved into his face. She knew she looked just like her mother: long incredibly black hair, blue eyes fringed by thick eyelashes and a small slight body that belied her strength.
The tapping of the rain grew louder. The storm that had been on the horizon all evening was beginning. The lightning flashed out past the rock face, illuminating the landscape with silver and lighting up their hiding place.
Liam was already awake and moving. Reena did not need to be told what to do; the lightning was laying them bare to the sight of anyone who might be passing by. If the soldiers were within any kind of distance they would spot them.
There were no fissures in the rock face, if there had been they would have already taken shelter within them. The trees offered scant shelter either, but not far from where they had camped was a small river. The shores of it were sandy and loose and the water was low. Beyond it was a small farm.
The farm was one they knew well. It was owned by a man named Cleese, whose family was large and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. The lightning flashed again, showing them the stark bones of the barn and the sagging fence posts that kept the family’s cow and sheep hemmed in.
Reena began to creep toward the small house that the Cleese family lived in. The lightning hit again, striking a tree. The tree split down the middle, smoke flaring up from the shattered bark. She froze in place; it was a bad omen, the worst. The smoking tree was bad but the soldiers that the lightning had illuminated were worse. They were coming across the hills and there was no real way out.
Of course he did. “What do we do?”
Liam’s hand came up, a gesture that meant silence. The tapping grew louder, became a drumming. It was not from the rain, it was caused by the sound of hooves meeting the road! Lights began to flare on in the windows of the house.
“Run for the stacks.”
The hay? How could that possibly shelter them? There was no recourse, the soldiers were coming. If they were caught there not only would they be hauled off to the city to face death, the Cleese family would be branded as criminals, and they would be named abettors.
Reena took off, her thin body streaking between the denuded trees. She clung to every clot of shadow that she could wedge herself into and Liam did the same. In that manner they managed to cross the distance between the farmhouse and the small hayfield to one side.
Almost sick with fear, Reena burrowed into a pile of the scratchy sweet smelling stuff. She reached her hands through the stack, picking up most of the scattered straws but leaving some on the ground. The wind would have scattered some and she knew it. The soldiers would be suspicious of a too neat stack in this weather.
At least she hoped they would be. The inside of the stack was warm and fairly dry. She had left a small space, large enough to see out of and breathe through, making sure to keep enough straw in the hole that her face could not be seen, nor the wet vapor from her breath. To see she had to squint through the golden stalks.
The soldiers filed into the small yard that sat in front of the house. Their horses, small sturdy creatures, whinnied at the sight of the hay. Fear exploded into Reena’s veins: what if the horses were allowed to graze? She did not fear being bitten as much as she feared being exposed, but both were bad.
She forced her body into stillness as the Cleese family came outside. Like all farmers they were almost painfully thin from the hard labor they engaged in daily. Arutela needed food for its citizens and little grew within the city proper; there was simply not enough room to grow the food the two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants required. Farmers from the Outside provided most of the food, and in return they were allowed to keep a small portion of what they grew, enough to get them through the winter if they were lucky, and had few children.
The soldiers did not dismount, their faces were covered by the hoods of their cloaks and the ones they had already Culled were chained in a long tether line. The chains jangled almost musically in the rising wind. What would happen if lightning hit that chain? Would the soldiers even care? Reena doubted it.
Everything about the tableau made her stomach clench and her fear crank up a few notches with every other breath. Sweat beaded up on her forehead; the rain began to sluice down harder and she bit her knuckles when she saw Talon being shoved toward the tether.
The voices of the Cleese family and the soldiers were torn away by the wind; snatches of words came to her in her little nest. She heard his mother wail out his name and she wished she could too, Talon was a friend. She did not want to see him Culled. Nobody ever returned from a Culling, they were as good as gone forever.
She did not want him to be gone! He would be taken to the Pit, most likely. That thought terrified and hurt all at the same time. They had played together for years, and his father was a sympathizer who often fed the Outlaws who showed up on his farm. Not directly, but he always chalked the loss off to birds or to weather, and no Outlaw would take so much as to leave the farmer starving. Renegades would, but they were different. Even the soldiers feared renegades.
Talon stood straight and tall. How could he do that? Why was he not running away or fighting back? How could he be so brave or so cowardly? Was he accepting of his fate or was he just stunned into compliance like some of the deer they sometimes hunted with lanterns?
Tears leaked down her face. She tasted salt on her lips. Talon was tethered with the rest and they set off into the rainy night. They would make the city by dawn and the soldiers would go to their beds or to the pleasure houses to drink and play cards and whatever else it was they did there, but their captives would get no sleep or pleasure at all.
They had to save him! She began to reach for the straw, intending to throw it off and rush after Talon but she stopped. Her heartbeat accelerated until her head swam from the blood pounding into her ears. There were at least a dozen soldiers, all mounted and all in full armor. Her father was a great fighter, and he had taught her well but the Cleese family was farmers and what weapons could they have? Why would they want to fight? They had expected to lose at least one child to the Culling, but they had been fortunate in that they had not lost their patriarch or matriarch as many families did. Farmers were often exempted from that, it was a cruel bargain but they struck and held to it.
To try to save Talon now would only result in death, his and hers as well. His family would be killed in front of his very eyes; she would see her father die. It was too risky. She had just been wondering if he was a coward, but she was the coward.
Her tears stung her eyes, raced down her cheeks. The smell of the burning tree was very strong now. How had the soldiers ignored that warning? Perhaps they no longer believed in omens, or the gods for that matter.
The Cleese family stood in the yard; Talon’s mother, Petal, crumpled to the ground, her sobs sounding out above the roar of the storm. Reena cried along with her, silently and desperately. Friends were hard to come by, especially when you were an Outlaw.
The dawn was breaking across the horizon when Liam’s hand shook her awake. She woke silently, as she had been trained to do, with all of her senses already alert. She crept out of the hay slowly, then scooped up the damp hay and rearranged it on the bale.
Liam had a hot loaf sticking up from his leather shirt and the sight and scent of that warm fresh bread made her belly growl. She knew that he had been in to see Petal, and the eggs in his hand had come from their coops. They had given them food, and all they had done was take refuge and watch as their son was taken away from them.
Shame and sorrow filled her. She said, “Father, we should have done something.”
“You already know there was naught that we could do.”
She did know, but it did not ease her pain or her guilt. They set off, following in the churned up tracks of the horses until they came to the river. The horses had gone toward the city; they went the opposite way.
The eggs had been boiled in their brown shells and Petal had even added a tiny pinch of salt! The salt was in a tiny twisted leaf; how she had managed to spare some of the precious stuff was anyone’s guess and the sight of it made Reena ashamed all over again.
Liam broke off a chunk of the loaf and handed it to her. It had the nutty moist flavor that could only come from starflowers and wheat. Butter would have been a luxury that the Cleese’s only used on special occasions so she did not expect it, but the bread had been split and spread thinly with the rich stuff.
Guilt choked her. What was Talon eating? Likely nothing but the dust of the auction block, if he was not being herded off to the Pit. Still she ate, she had to. No food meant death and she was not ready for that, not yet.
“Werebane,” Liam said, pointing to a small plant with large three-point leaves that shone glossy and green.
Reena stripped some of the leaves carefully but expertly, not even slowing her stride. Gathering was a way of life, and death—the werebane was lethal. Boiled and drunk it would cause instant death; if a blade were dipped into it that blade would become poisoned.