Galen and I rushing through the forest. I can feel the wisps of the neverferns caressing my legs, my arms. I giggle as one brushes my face. A feather-soft caress, like a mother's touch. My eyes are on Galen, though, and he is anything but.
The king has decreed the forest and the water within Royal Land. No one is to enter. When the law went into effect years ago, I couldn't accept it. Mother wept whenever I left the house, believing every step away from her I took, the closer I came to the king's swords. She wasn't wrong.
Father was far less doting in his concern. Bars guarded my windows. A thick heavy wooden beam locked my door.
"What if there's a fire?" I asked. I can still hear mother's gasp. The realization of what that would mean forcing the air from her lungs like a heavy blow to the stomach. Even now, I squirm thinking about the joy that sound gave me.
"There will be no fires," father insisted. "So long as you do as your told."
My father was a curious man. Never would you find him on his knees, praying at any of the many altars throughout Flairen. Beads, bracelets, and broches never adorned his clothes. I don't believe he ever even cursed in the spiritual tongue, sparing the saints and spirits of the religion of Flairen from being used in anger. And yet, he had faith that things would work out as he intended. Perhaps he believed himself a God. A sort of working man's god. His hands, his crucible. A testament to his purity. Spirituality through sweat.
That his fellow workers would they themselves be gods never seemed to cross his mind. Countless nights were spent listening to curse half the men who manned the king's assembly lines as they hammered and hauled stone from quarry. "Gareth can't swing a hammer to save a life." "Taran overloaded another carriage today, stalling the line."
For a man who spoke as though his words were gospel and that the very land around our home would listen without question, always I sensed and underpinning of fear.
If Gareth can't break the stones fast enough, they will come up short on the week. If Taran's overturned cart breaks and is in need of fixing, their deliveries will be stalled. What kind of god fears delays?
Still, the bars went on the windows. The board fell across my door. The fire never came. Though, somedays, forgive me, I wish it had.
Galen looks back at me and smiles, his freckles curling around his cheeks. I always think of mother's cooking whenever I saw them. Cinnamon and spice speckling her face as she whipped together pies for the coming Harvest Festival. I'm reminded of father, motes of granite and grim from work, spackling his cheeks after another day at the quarry. I'm reminded of Kayden, playing in the garden by our home, pollen smeared across his giggling face as he runs through the flowers, ignorant of the danger bees pose to little, obstinate boys. Galen looks back at me and smiles, his freckles curling around his cheeks. And I think of home.
The first night the king's men come to my home is not the scariest. The stories have not yet begun to spread about their terrible deeds and the manner in which they carry them out. From my window, I watch as father steps outside, greets them. His back is straight, but his shoulders, so broad and powerful, are sloped. Years of hammering and hauling stones have failed to lower those mighty ballast, and yet one visit from the king's men--from the closet thing to a true god any of us have ever men--and there they are, humbled.
I cannot hear my father's voice, but the king's men are clear in their directive. They want to search the house. Make sure no one has wandered off. Later, I learn that they were looking for something. Evidence of peasants running off to the woods and returning with prizes. Galen and I had been there earlier that afternoon, but fear had kept me from taking anything.
The knights enter our home. Father is pushed aside. He stumbles and something like fear and revulsion grabs my heart. What kind of god allows himself to be cast aside?
Violet rummaging. Empty bottles smash to the floor. Mother will have to find new ones if she hopes to jar fruit for the winter. She screams, but that is quickly muffled. Whether by my father's hand or the knight's I do not know.
Kayden stirs from his bed and I rush to his side, cupping his mouth with my hand so not to draw attention to us. All for not. The bar across our bedroom door does more to rile the men's suspicion than any child's cry.
Feet obscure the light lining the bottom of the bottom. Wood scrapes against wood as the slide the beam away and drop it to the wood. It clatters terribly and I wonder if they've damaged something. The door flies open and a hulking man stands silhouetted in its frame, his armor making a mountain of him. The hilt of his broadsword peeks out over his shoulder. A malevolent fiend, taunting me, whispering violence into his ear.
"As I said." My father's voice emerges from behind the men. It's tired but still strong. How he manages that, to sound penitent yet proud is a mystery. Something only gods can do, I assume. "It's only my children. I barred them in BECAUSE of the king's orders."
There's a sharp slap. My mother cries again. The shadowed mountain in my door does not turn when he addresses my father. "A man who cannot control his children with his words is no man at all."
Metal clicks its teeth with every step the knight takes into my room. His face remains wreathed in shadow. Whether a trick of the light or some dark spell, I never know. More commotion from the hallway. I can't see, but the shadows playing against the wall and my mother's screams tell me something in my father snaps and he resists the power of