We hurried into the homestead yard, still laughing together.
Whatever thing I thought I’d seen in the woods was long gone and I was getting excited about seeing our family and enjoying the dinner my sister Raquella had been roasting all day.
Our dogs ran ahead, announcing themselves with excited barks.
From the stables, I heard Retger cursing at their enthusiastic greeting and I couldn’t help the grin spreading across my face.
Hatching was always my favorite celebration of the year because it meant the days would grow longer and summer would swell across the Far Stones and fill our bellies with good things.
Contentment settled over me like a warm blanket as I joined Alect at the well.
I washed my hands and face in the bucket sitting beside the well and took a look at the yard around our homestead. Keeping it tidy was my job and with the last horses being brought into the barn, it was up to me to catch any stray handkerchiefs tumbling across the mowed fields between the barn and the house, or to pick up any abandoned buckets beside the sheep and chicken pens, or tie up the dogs if they got too loud from all the excitement.
Their barks had quieted now that we were home. Likely, I’d find them curled up on the wide veranda the way they usually wiled away a feast night. A dog’s life was a good one but they made my life better, too, just by being alive.
I looked toward the edge of the forest, cautious after that strange glowing spot I’d seen before, but the tree line looked the same as on a normal day. There were no signs of the Forbidding creeping down from the woods. No twisted, magic-ruined creatures slipping through the shadows or tangled trees lying in wait.
“Did you find the mustang?” Retger asked us as he came to the bucket to wash up.
“Already tangled in a Forbidding tree,” I said, tapping the sword at my hip. “We lit the tree and cut him loose but by the time he was free he was too spooked, and we lost him.”
Retger grunted unhappily and Alect gave me a wry look. I snickered silently. Our older brother got more and more like the old man every day.
“Worried about the Hatching tomorrow?” Retger asked, clapping us both on the shoulders. We celebrated Hatching ever year – but this was one of the years when an Imperial Wing would attend the ceremonies. New manifestors could only Hatch under their guidance.
I shook my head, trying to dispel the tension forming in my belly. There was no reason to be worried. I tapped my shrike talisman for luck and turned back to tidying myself.
“Not hardly,” Alect said. “If they want to pay me a boatload of money and teach me magic, I’ll stand where they want and do what they say.”
But I knew he was joking. No one would give up their freedom for money and a touch of power.
“Let’s get inside,” I said, making the sign of the bird unconsciously. One tap to each shoulder and one to the forehead, a plea to the deity to preserve us.
Inside the homestead, the conversation would already be starting as our family settled along the long dining room table or around the wide fireplace in the great room. Long as the table was, there wasn’t room at it for everyone – not with ten children and their children.
I was the second youngest, and seven of my older siblings were already married, with only Raquella – who was almost eighteen – and Alect still at home with the old man and me.
We glanced around the yard from long habit and checked over our swords. I felt the shrike etched into the pommel with my fingertip and my eyes trailed up to the shrike totem set outside the homestead. Our family sign.
It was fitting. Shrikes impaled their prey on long thorns, and so would we if we were attacked.
We’d shown that today when we freed the mustang and that wasn’t even the first time this seven-day.
I nodded sharply. It will be okay, Aella. Weird feelings of dread happen sometimes. They don’t mean anything.
So why were my teeth still on edge?
“Did you settle the horses?” Alect asked Retger as we started to walk to the homestead. I kept my gaze on the treeline, still worrying.
What had happened to those dogs? It wasn’t like them not to be underfoot.
Hadn’t they run right to the house? I had heard them in the barn with Retger, but now they were gone.
“Sure did. I thought that was your job,” Retger grumped as we headed in.
“Yep. I would have done it if I was here,” Alect said. “Did you see that black Oska had last summer? A chest like that? That’s power. That mare can pull a cart full of timber or race down a trail – either one as easily as the other. I’m telling you, no one on the Far Stones raises horses as good as Oska’s. No one.”
I ignored the horse talk. I was scanning the trees for the dogs. No sign of them anywhere. But was that the purplish-white glow again? I shook my head. I must be seeing things. It was the excitement, that was all.
We opened the door to the house and tumbled inside, smiling together as the scent of honeyed carrots and roasted chicken wafted over us. My mouth was watering before I had my boots scraped.
I pushed through a knot of my laughing nieces and nephews as they plowed into Alect’s legs.
“Give us a bear ride, Alect.” one of them called before Anfrea – my oldest sister and the mother of four of the children – hurried over to herd them back to the long table. Weariness etched lines on her face, but her smile was warm as she nodded to me.
“You’ve grown, Aella. You’re taller than I am.”
The children were arranged around the dining room table as their mothers filled plates for them. It was late and they needed their beds. We’d eat when they were finished and tucked away.
As much as I loved the children, it was my older brothers and father in the Great Room who held my attention. I was dying to hear what news had come up the mountains from the coast.
“That’s what they’re saying,” my oldest brother Abghar said, from his place leaning against the mantle. He tamped down his pipe but there was fire in his eyes that made him look younger than his thirty years. “The tax is up on minerals of any kind. Iron. Copper. The nails for the new barn were three times what I’d saved for. Three times. The Empire thinks they can just keep taxing us and there will just be more and more to take, but it’s not true. We are not bottomless wells.”
There was a murmur of support from the rest of us and I was nodding my head with them.
With all the success of my father’s homestead, Alect and I had to go without new boots this year, despite the holes in the ones we had. There was no money for extras – not even boots – after the Frost Season tax. I’d watched my father frowning as he combed through the seed. Last year had been a hard harvest and we hadn’t kept the seed we would have liked to, but with taxes so harsh, we couldn’t afford to buy extra seed from anyone else. We’d have to make do with what we had and that meant tightening belts and going without.
My brother Oska wrapped an arm around me, squeezing me into a side hug.
“You’ve grown again, Shrikling,” he said quietly, under the sober voice of my brother-in-law Royn. “Keeping those Forbidding manifestations at bay?”
“Of course,” I whispered back with a grin.
“You’d best be quiet voicing that, Abghar,” Royn said loudly. “The farm next to mine was run by a man named Heligar.” Royn and my sister Anfrea live two days’ ride east of us. “Heligar said the same at the last village meeting. It was deep into the Frost Season, but I saw no smoke from his farm all the next week, so I went over to see if he’d taken ill. He was gone. So were his animals. Someone fixed a seal of the Winged Empire to his door. No entry. No one in town will talk about it.” He sighed. “We took in his cat. Poor thing was half-starved.”
“Aye, and so it is in Karkatua,” my brother Awet said grimly. He pulled his long brown hair back into a knot as he spoke. We all had the same tangle of brown curls and sharp features dotted with freckles. “I’ve seen both men and women disappear after a complaint like that. My sister-in-law took in a pair of children whose parents had disappeared in the night.”
“If no one says anything,” the old man – my father – said from the chair at the fire, “then they can do as they please. It will be them today and us tomorrow until the only ones left are those willing to kiss dust for the Imperials. I’ll not live like that. And neither should my children.”
There were pained murmurs among us, but I saw my siblings looking worriedly at the children gathered around the dining room table, already noisy as they dug into the tantalizing food.
“So we take a stand?” I asked, but Abghar was already shaking his head, worry creasing his face.
“It’s no easy thing to pit yourself against the Empire when you have small mouths to feed. How can we put our prosperity before their lives?”
“What lives will they have if they keep taking everything from us?” Alect argued.
There was a sound – barely audible – that tickled my ears. It sounded out of place. I frowned, trying to think of what it could be. A tool sliding down from where it had been left? Had Retger failed to bar the barn door? I gripped the shrike talisman on the handle of my knife as I stood up on my toes, concentrating.
The dogs weren’t barking. They would bark if someone was here. So I shouldn’t be worried, right?
“We can’t be silent. No matter the risk,” the old man said, his silver-streaked curls tumbling out of his leather hair-strap as intensity seized him. “We must be strong. We must be relentless.”
I opened my mouth, about to ask if anyone had heard the sound, when the door crashed inward with a bang. The force of the impact rocked the room leaving the door hanging from a single hinge like a drunk stumbling out of Cardinal Tavern.
My sister Raquella screamed.