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Authors: C. J. Redwine

Outcast

BOOK: Outcast
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Chapter One

“P
ut your arms out to help you keep your balance,” Willow says, lifting her own arms to demonstrate.

“I want a rope tied around my waist.” The bravado in the boy’s voice quivers, though he glares at Willow as if daring her to notice. Several other children call out in agreement, and my sister turns to stare the class of First Learners into silence.

“If you use a rope when you’re learning to tree-leap, you’ll come to rely on it instead of relying on your own sense of balance. It will become a crutch, and then what will you do when you have to leap through the forest?” Her gaze lands on the six-year-old boy who hovers at the edge of the platform I built on one side of the school’s small playground. “You’ll fall. And if you fall, you’ll probably die.”

The boy swallows hard, his eyes flicking between Willow and the worn planks of the playground five feet below him as if trying to decide which he fears most. The school is built into the heart of our Tree Village. The bulk of it wraps around the huge cradle of an enormous oak, while the outlying classrooms are connected to the main hall by the same walkways that arc between the trees throughout our entire village, giving all of us access to every village structure without ever requiring us to touch the ground. The playground—a large square of smooth planks with a tetherball pole, a hopscotch grid carved into the floor, and a newly sanded collection of wooden bars, ladders, and slides—rests on support beams hammered into the trees beside the main classroom.

“I could fall
now
,” the boy says, the bravado in his voice seeping away as he looks away from my sister and down to where I stand.

“I’ll catch you,” I say, and open my arms to show him I’m ready. The grateful trust on his face—a striking contrast to the poorly concealed fear the adult villagers show around me—makes something in my chest expand even as it aches.

If Willow and I were from a different family, no one would have cause to avoid us while treating us with terrified deference. We’d have friends like the cluster of older kids our age we sometimes see sitting together on the northern walkways of the village at night, laughing and throwing twigs into the darkness of the Wasteland like they don’t have a single care.

Maybe they don’t. I wouldn’t know. My entire life is a knot of worry wrapped in a shell of controlled calm.

“Tighten your stomach muscles, Eliah, and use the balls of your feet.” Willow shades her eyes against the glare of the winter sun while a faint breeze plays with the black feather that dangles from her ear cuff.

I earned a black feather for my first kill too. So have most of the villagers over the age of thirteen. The difference is that they earned it for hunting deer. Willow and I earned it for hunting people.

“Come on, Eliah,” I say quietly, while the boy hesitantly stretches his thin, boot-clad foot off the platform and onto the maple branch—skinny, but strong—that extends from one edge of the platform to the top of the playground slide. “Your teacher will want you back inside before long, and the rest of your class needs a chance to try it.”

His eyes, dark like mine but still filled with innocence, widen as he takes a wobbly step onto the branch.

“Keep going!” Willow calls. “One foot after the other. Hands out.
There!
” She grins at me as Eliah moves jerkily toward the middle of the branch, his arms flailing madly while he struggles to keep his balance. Just shy of the halfway mark, his foot slips, and he plummets toward the ground with a sharp cry of fear.

“Got you.” I snatch him out of the air and gently lower him to the playground floor. “Nice job.”

“I only got halfway across.” His lower lip protrudes.

I squat down to his eye level and put my hands on his shoulders. “Last week, you wouldn’t even leave the platform. That’s a lot of progress. You’re very brave.”

A shy smile chases the pout from his face. “Brave like you,” he says before dashing off to recount his adventure for his waiting friends.

His words burn against my heart as I open my arms wide to catch the next student. Brave is for those who stand up for what is right. Who protect their sisters even though it could cost them everything.

Brave isn’t a word for those who obey a monster.

After the last Early Learner, a wisp of a girl whose long braid reminds me of Willow’s, takes two shaky steps before plummeting into my waiting arms, Willow claps her hands once in a bid for silence.

“Quiz time.” Willow glances past the platform to the school door, where Shawna Hawkeye stands laughing with another teacher, ready to call her students away from their weekly tree-leaping lesson and back into the safety of her classroom. Shawna is my age, and there was a time, long ago, when she played with Willow and me, stealing roasted almonds from Bay’s Mercantile at the southeast corner of the village and tree-leaping like it was a game instead of a necessity.

That was before our family vocations caught up to us. Before her mother settled Shawna into a study routine with piles of textbooks salvaged from the ruins of cities long gone and prepared her to become a teacher.

Before Dad put a knife in my hands and a bow in Willow’s and showed us what it meant to be a Runningbrook.

The thought of my father is a poison that eats through me until I’m filled with fury and loathing. I clench my jaw and deliberately empty my mind of all but the task before me, forcing the anger back behind the wall of calm I need as desperately as others need air.

Shawna glances our way and catches me watching her. Her mouth snaps shut, cutting off her laughter. She crosses her arms over her chest and presses against the door frame like she thinks somehow just attracting my attention is a death sentence.

I want to ask her why she thinks the elders would allow us to teach tree-leaping to the Early Learners if we’re such a threat to everyone’s safety, but I don’t. Instead, I look away and tell myself it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. Not when there isn’t a single thing I can do to change the way the villagers look at us.

“Quickly, before your teacher calls you back inside,” Willow says. “Why do we live in the trees?”

“Because of the beast,” a little girl says.

“And because we don’t want to obey a city-state leader,” another girl speaks up.

Willow nods. “That’s right. Because beneath the ground lives a fire-breathing creature who tunnels up and destroys what it finds. And though the city-states have discovered a way to keep the beast at bay, we build homes in the trees where we’re safe, because we want the freedom to live as we choose.”

“I’m not leaving the village, so I shouldn’t have to learn how to tree-leap.” A boy with knobby knees and dirty fingernails raises his chin in defiance.

“What if you have to leave?” I ask, keeping my voice gentle. “What if something happens, and you have to flee the village?”

“What could happen?” Eliah asks, his wide eyes meeting mine.

“Highwaymen could attack us. Soldiers from one of the city-states could decide to force us to fight for them. A fire could—”

“But that’s your job. You protect us from the bad people so that we never have to leave.” A girl with soft pink ribbons in her hair speaks with the uncomplicated confidence of the innocent, and it’s all I can do to hold her gaze while my blood churns and something heavy lodges in my throat.

If only the things Dad required us to do were as simple as protecting the village children from people who might want to harm them.

“Yes, that’s our job.” Willow saves me from having to answer. “But you don’t want to grow up relying on other people to keep you safe. You want to know how to take care of yourself. You want to be strong and independent.”

“Like you?” The girl looks at Willow while behind us Shawna calls for the children to go inside.

Willow flashes a quick grin. “Like me. Time to go back to your classroom.”

The children groan in unison, but obediently walk toward Shawna, who flaps her hands at them to hurry them along and then slams the door without ever once glancing at Willow or me again. I shrug off her reaction and turn away.

For a moment, the morning is perfect. The warm scent of Harvey Eagleclaw’s pumpkin rolls drifts from the bakery to the left of the school. Bright-red cardinals hop along the smooth railings of the village walkways. Beside me, Willow’s smile matches mine, the cold edge that lurks inside her banished beneath the enjoyment of teaching others what comes so naturally to her. My chest still aches from Eliah’s faith that if I’m the village protector, I must be brave.

But then Willow’s smile uncurls into a thin, flat line, and I turn to look behind me.

Dad stands at the edge of the playground, his long, dark hair pulled back with a frayed thong and his leather coat—stained in places with the blood of those he declared his enemy—flapping in the breeze.

Silently, Willow moves to his side, her shoulders drawn back, her chin held high. I wipe my face clean of all expression as I follow her.

“Intruders spotted a half day’s journey to the east.” The creases around Dad’s eyes deepen as he scowls at us. “Time to stop playing with babies and do your real job. My bet is they’ll be here after nightfall. We’ll give them a proper welcome, won’t we?”

His smile twists something inside of me, and I hesitate a beat too long before nodding along with Willow. Dad’s expression goes flat and cold, and his scarred hands become fists.

“Won’t we, boy?” he asks with quiet menace.

My tongue feels too thick for my mouth as I say, “Yes.”

Yes, we’ll give them a proper welcome—the kind Dad has beaten into us since the day we were born.

I don’t know who is foolish enough to approach our village, but I’m sure of one thing: None of them are going to survive the night.

I’m also sure that Eliah was wrong. I’m not brave at all. I’m trapped, Willow is trapped, and every time I give in to my father I come a little bit closer to losing what little I have left of myself.

Chapter Two

D
ad, Willow, and I rest for the afternoon in preparation for the night’s hunt. Just before the sun goes down, Dad receives a final report from the village scouts—the intruders are a band of highwaymen. We move east of the village to establish our position in the trees and wait for them to arrive.

The wind rattles the brittle branches of my tree as I wait. I pull my fur-lined hood closer and flex my hands inside my deerskin gloves to keep the circulation flowing.

Soon they’ll show themselves. I’ve been hearing the soft crunch of snow beneath their boots for a while now.

Fools.

Trying to sneak up on our village is a difficult task even on a clear night. Trying to sneak up on us with a crust of icy snow underfoot is suicide.

In the tree directly across from me, Willow stretches along a branch, her arrow strung, her bow drawn. She flashes a quick glance my way, her smile a shade too bright for my comfort.

Several trees to my left, an owl hoots, slow and mournful. I grip the hilt of my long stone knife as Dad’s signal fades into the silvery night sky.

It’s time.

Seconds later, the highwaymen materialize out of the dark forest, moonlight gliding over their drawn swords like ice. Ten men walking two abreast. Four are shorter than my six-foot frame, though the length of their swords takes away the advantage of my longer reach. I’m faster, though.

I’m always faster.

They pass Dad’s tree, and now I can make out the details of their clothing. Coats cobbled together with sleeves from one jacket, a hood from another. Mismatched shoes. Pants covered in patches and seams until the original design is impossible to distinguish.

Highwaymen are scavengers who pillage the remains of the cities that once were, salvaging anything they can lay their hands on to use or sell at one of the city-states. I don’t care what they do to the ruins of the old cities. But highwaymen are also notorious for attacking travelers or Tree Villages throughout the Wasteland, stealing anything of value and often leaving their victims wounded or dead.

I take a deep, slow breath and close my mind to anything but what lies in front of me. A whisper of sound disturbs the night, followed immediately by another. Two men in the middle of the group drop to the ground, dead. Willow’s arrows still vibrate in the soft flesh between their eyes.

Even as the rest of the men turn, shouting to one another and drawing their swords, two more arrows fly. Two more men fall.

Men scramble for the trees, tripping over roots and branches, shoving one another out of the way.

Willow draws her bow, and a man in the front shouts her location but never gets the chance to attack. Dropping from my tree, I land just behind him and snatch a handful of his hood. Then I yank his head back, whip my knife up, and slit his throat. Releasing him, I flip backward, narrowly avoiding the slash of another man’s sword as it slices through the air in my wake. He rushes toward me, but Willow buries an arrow in his back, and he stumbles to his knees.

Two more men attack me, and I crouch, waiting until they’re almost upon me. Trusting Willow to drop the one to my left, I lunge for the other, spin to the inside of his sword arm, and bury my knife in his chest. He coughs once and sags against me. I lay him on the ground.

Dad drops from his tree, lands behind the two remaining men, and laughs. In each hand he holds a wickedly curved knife. The men whirl around, but Dad is no longer there. Diving between their feet, he slashes each of them behind their kneecaps as he rolls forward and flips around to face them.

The men scream in agony. One falls to the forest floor. The other limps to a stop and tries to hold his sword steady. It isn’t going to help him. An arrow streaks past and the man falls to the ground with a heavy thud.

Dad whips his hand in the air. “Leave the other for me, Willow.”

Bile climbs up the back of my throat as my father advances on the injured man.

“Dad,” I say as the man clutches his leg and moans in pain. “He’s already down. He isn’t a threat now. Just make it quick.”

I’m trying to stop floodwater with a river stone. Once my father begins, he never stops.

I turn away, trying to block out the sound of the man’s screams as Dad draws out his victim’s death with vicious glee. When the screams finally fall silent, I draw in a breath of icy air and force myself to sound calm.

“Let’s get the bodies away from the village before we draw any wild animals to us,” I say, bending to scoop my hands under the arms of the man with the arrow in his back. He moans softly, and I stiffen.

I know what I
should
do. What Dad and Willow would do. I should slit his throat and toss him onto the pile without a second thought. And if he had a weapon out with intent to attack, I would.

But the thought of killing a now defenseless man makes my stomach churn.

Worse, though, is the thought of what Dad will do if he discovers that we have a survivor. It would be an act of mercy to kill the man myself.

I lean forward with my knife ready.

BOOK: Outcast
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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